Erdoğan is only a symptom and here is why

Turkey is at a dead-end where the old is long dead yet unaware of it. Worse, the old is frantically trying to make sure that a new does not emerge. Having reached certain structural limits in its foreign policy, domestic politics, political economy and cultural formation, the country is gradually closing in on itself.

It is tempting to chalk it all up to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the failures of his leadership, but these are structural problems that Erdoğan himself is struggling with and trying to address by further asserting his own vision of corporate sovereignty. Needless to say, his efforts are making it worse not only by further entrenching the impasse, but also by creating new contradictions.

Pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas (C) addresses a demostration following the arrest of the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, on October 27, 2016. AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN
Pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas (C) addresses a demostration following the arrest of the two co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, on October 27, 2016. AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN

Foreign policy is in tatters today fundamentally because it is structured around the necessity of keeping Kurdistan as an “international colony” partitioned by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. This fixation is one of the most important factors that paralyzed Turkey in its relations to the United States. By extension domestic politics is also in a deadlock because the political field is organised around the designation of the Kurd as the excluded other with no mechanism left for the Kurdish people to be recognised (and to recognize themselves) as equal citizens of the republic let alone as a collective entity with local or regional autonomy.

Erdoğan is not the cause of this configuration of the political field but he uses it to the full extent to consolidate his own power. Invoking Kurds as an existential threat, he holds ultra- and secular-nationalists hostage - the former group gathered largely around MHP and İYİ Parti and the latter around CHP. Most recently, he invoked the image of the Kurd as an existential threat when he repeated his call for “Muslim women” to have more children, and motivated this demand by inviting them to be “sensitive on this issue” at least as much as “the supporters of terrorist organisation [who] have at least 10, 15 children”. 

His most recent attempt to appropriate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the CHP and “certain other mentalities” who “hide under the veil of Atatürkism” and use his name as a “tool for ideological purposes” should also be seen as an attempt to further hegemonise the political field that remains under the “Yenikapı” formatting that excludes the left populist bloc organised around HDP. After the July 15, 2016 coup attempt Erdoğan organized one of his signature mass demonstration in the Yenikapı district, at a tumorous land-fill site on the Marmara Sea shores of old Istanbul and shared his stage with both MHP’s Bahçeli and CHP’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Markedly, HDP’s co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were expressly excluded from this mass demonstration of national unity drenched in crimson red. What made this event into an important turning point that marks the post-coup formatting of the entire political landscape is Kılıçdaroğlu’s concession to this symbolically violent exclusion of HDP. And what drives domestic politics towards its limits is the impossibility of governing the country through the Yenikapı spirit and its Kurdish ban. While Erdoğan may be the one benefiting the most from the Yenikapı spirit, the spirit itself permeates all forms of Turkish nationalism, whether it is Islamist or secular, right or left.

A worker checks cable drums at a factory in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri February 12, 2015. President Tayyip Erdogan's tirades against the central bank may be stoking turmoil in Turkish financial markets, but they are winning praise from a class of industrialists who have thrived over the past decade and see him as a pillar of their success. Picture taken February 12, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
A worker checks cable drums at a factory in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri February 12, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Today the macroeconomy is barely holding it together (if it is not about to unravel altogether) because the balancing act between the need to attract foreign capital with competitive interest rates and the need to reduce the interest rates to stimulate domestic demand has reached its limits. Today, not only Turkey’s risk premium appears to be increasing due to its strained relationships with the United States, Germany and NATO but also the Turkish government seems to have downgraded its credibility for strict budget discipline as it averted the recession in 2017 only through a massive deficit spending. In other words, Turkey is heading fast towards a clash with global finance.

It is possible to identify Turkey’s economic model throughout the 2000s as a financialised form of Keynesianism (or “neoliberal populism”) where the government stimulates effective demand not by traditional fiscal instruments (modulating government spending and taxes), but through creating the institutional conditions for facilitating international finance capital inflows. Such institutional conditions include; a thorough going trade liberalisation and financial integration with the global capital markets; the systematic reduction of the government debt through fiscal discipline and primary surplus; the establishment of independent boards to regulate various markets; the flexibilisation of labour markets; and the privatisation of the commons as well as the properties of the state.

Notice that all these institutional reforms and policy measures, while preserved and conducted with due diligence by the neoliberal wing of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) - Gül, Babacan, Şimşek - until 2013, were originally implemented by Kemal Derviş (formerly a senior economist and administrator at World Bank) and deemed laudable by the economic policy teams of both MHP and CHP. Once again, Erdoğan’s perpetual need to grow the economy for securing his political survival may be exacerbating the contradictions of this model, but the problem itself is a structural one that pertains to Turkey’s regime of accumulation.

In response to this crisis, Erdoğan and his advisors seem to be agitating for an economic nationalist, neo-mercantilist re-orientation of the role of the state. Ideally speaking this neo-mercantilist corporate state is to function as the central coordinating actor that articulates the industrial capital with finance capital. The Sovereign Wealth Fund, established hastily after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt was supposed to serve this function bypassing the regulatory control and auditing of the extant bureaucracy as well as the now largely impotent parliament.

As Erdoğan is keen on reminding business world, one of the cherished functions of a generalised state of emergency is the government’s enhanced capability to suppress the labour movement. Given the predominance of labour-intensive sectors such as construction, tourism, textiles in its industrial composition, keeping labour from demanding an increased share from the wealth they created requires fabricating a permanent state of siege - and the mobilisation of society against the threat of Kurdish emancipation does precisely that and more.

Anti-government protesters dance on Taksim square in central Istanbul on June 14, 2013. The protest movement sprang up after police on May 31 brutally cracked down on a small campaign to save Gezi Park, sparking a mass outpouring of anger against Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government, seen as increasingly authoritarian. At the background is seen of portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, hung between two Turkish flags on Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) building. AFP/MARCO LONGARI
Anti-government protesters dance in Istanbul on June 14, 2013. Brutal cracking down on a campaign to save Gezi Park sparked a mass outpouring of anger against Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government, seen as increasingly authoritarian. AFP / MARCO LONGARI

Erdoğan is indeed very talented in provoking culture wars. He is perhaps an early prototype for an emerging typology of media-savvy political leaders that cobble together a popular basis by manipulating and managing deep-running social fault-lines. There are a plenty of such fault-lines in Turkey and Erdoğan’s political career can be traced as a series of shifts and pivots along the axes of these fault-lines: from anti-imperialist Islamism of pre-AKP years to neoliberal Islamism of AKP and then suddenly back to anti-imperialist nationalism, from conducting peace negotiations with Kurds to an extreme securitisation of the problem, from pro-EU liberalism to patriarchal-Islamist re-organisation of bio-political institutions (civil law, education system, etc.), and of course his latest efforts to appropriate the signifier Atatürk. (In this last pivot it is also possible to discern a desire to position himself as a sovereign of an equal stature to that of the founder of the republic.)

Culture wars, to the extent that they put warring camps into a bunker-mentality, imprisoning each demographic sub-group in its own identity, is one of the most sure-fire methods for depoliticising a social formation. To liberally borrow a concept elaborated by Ulus Baker, we are living in a “society of opinion (polls)”. And it is a well-known fact that Erdoğan conducts his business based on polls. With the constitutional change, the necessity to get the 50 percent plus one of the electoral body narrows down politics (at least for Erdoğan) into a struggle over the margins. Hence his unexpected excursions into the enemy territory to appropriate their symbols. The potential contradictions in these shifts and pivots do not ultimately matter as they are always intended to work surgically on the very marginal grey zones that exist on the internal borders that divide politically frozen demographic sub-groups.

Activist Peter Steudtner (2nd R) of Germany and Ali Gharavi (2nd L) of Sweden talk to the media after their release from Silivri prison in Istanbul on October 26, 2017. Eight human rights activists, including Amnesty International's Turkey director Idil Eser, were greeted by celebrating relatives and supporters as they were released from jail near Istanbul early on October 26. / AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL
Activist Peter Steudtner of Germany and Ali Gharavi of Sweden talk to the media after the release of eight human rights activists from prison in Istanbul on October 26, 2017. AFP / YASIN AKGUL

Since former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Erdoğan’s negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the Syrian refuge crisis, commentators note that Turkey is increasingly reverting to hostage-taking as a political means. Today at first blush, we can identify two networks of hostages (one taken against Germany, the other against the United States) that overlapped in a hotel in Princess Islands in the false and half-baked scenarios concocted by heavily subsidised pro-government public relations companies and newspapers. Yet, a closer look would reveal that not only Academics for Peace with their confiscated passports or critical journalist who are either rendered jobless or imprisoned, but also the entire Kurdish body politic (from elected officials at all levels to political activists that keep HDP and DBP running) are taken hostage.

But perhaps we can push this hostage metaphor further. At a political level, who can say that CHP is not a hostage of the Yenikapı spirit and its own Kurdish phobia? Or, Bahçeli a hostage of his ambition to keep control of MHP? One can even ask whether the threat of purge is holding the entire juridical system hostage. Even Erdoğan, if we take electorally marginal ultra-nationalist Vatan Party’s crypto-Maoist capo Doğu Perinçek’s self-aggrandising declarations seriously, is a hostage of a so-called Eurasianist vanguard. (While it is tough to take Perinçek and his ilk seriously, it is true that Zarrab case appears to be more of a concern of Erdoğan and his close associates than it is of Turkish State. In that regard, if Erdoğan is indeed in a coalition of sorts inside the state bureaucracy, his exposure in the Zarrab case weakens his bargaining position in relation to his “silent partners”.)

Or at an economic level, one can argue that not only Turkey as an emerging market is a hostage of global financial markets but also that the vast sections of its population, given their indebtedness hovering around 18% of the GDP, are held hostage to the discourse of “stability”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to the Bloomberg Global Business Forum on September 20, 2017 in New York City. Heads of state and international business leaders met to discuss global issues and challenges to economic growth. The inaugural year of the forum was held concurrently with the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. John Moore/Getty Images/AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to the Bloomberg Global Business Forum to discuss global issues and challenges to economic growth. September 20, 2017, New York City. John Moore/Getty/AFP

Despite all the anti-imperialist, subaltern discourse, Erdoğan is a capitalist at heart. We have already mentioned his transactional, poll-based conduct of politics. We also know that he views himself as a CEO, or better yet a corporate sovereign.

It would not be a mistake to assume that Erdoğan is contemptuous of government bureaucracy and wants to concentrate the entire power at the presidential palace. The establishment of Sovereign Wealth Fund, to the extent that it will take economic policy beyond the reach of regulatory oversight and political control, was one step towards that direction. Yet this corporate sovereign drive towards centralisation and de-politicisation has its own contradictions. Recent leaks regarding eliminating local elections after 2019 and governing each local district through appointees will not only be the next major step toward de-democratisation of Turkey but also will create an even larger bureaucratic machine.

But these tendencies and contradictions are also not unique to Erdoğan. Multinational corporations are gigantic bureaucracies that spend enormous amounts of funds to insulate themselves from regulatory oversight and political control. The real scandal of Paradise Papers is the appalling fact that a significant amount of funds stashed in off-shore accounts are there legally. Similarly, Erdoğan’s neo-mercantilist explorations should also be considered a part of a much more widespread ascent of economic nationalism.

Erdoğan’s vision out of this state of anomie is to revitalize brand Turkey and to resume economic growth. This is a vision shared even by his “Yenikapı” opponents. The only difference is that he believes that this is only possible through further entrenching his corporate sovereignty, whereas his opponents think that this is only possible through the normalisation of Turkey’s relations with the West.

Leaving aside the question of the plausibility of this vision of salvation through economic growth, we must recognise that it is based on a basic misspecification of the problem. Turkey’s crisis is structural and it is not simply an economic crisis. If Erdoğan succeeds to emerge out of this state of anomie as the corporate sovereign he imagines himself to be, that will be the doing of those who fail to understand the deeper structural causes of the problem and reduce it to one of toppling Erdoğan. Breaking the spell requires a constitutive (rather than reactive) politics that confronts these structural problems head on and proposes nothing less than rebuilding together the republic ground up around the principles of equality, justice and freedom for all. Otherwise, to the extent that Erdoğan can continue to cast the problem as one of him against the rest, he will be able to navigate through the culture wars and the economy of hostages—even if his victory will ultimately be a Pyrrhic one given the structural nature of the crisis.