2017: a year in suspension

Bekir Ağırdır, director of Istanbul-based polling agency KONDA, argues that the world, faced with the contradictions of capitalist globalization, is retreating into the nation-state as a container aimed at protecting the social fabric from disintegration. Speaking with Mezopotamya News Agency, Ağırdır calls this a “global ice age,” a sort of interim period.

Implied in Ağırdır’s framing of this period is that this global retreat to the nation-state is a reaction to the shock of the “postmodern information society” and the technological developments that undergird it. Because it is a reactionary phenomenon, it can only remain an interim period.

Current models of state, he argues, are those that are constructed by “industrial societies”. Since they are unable to address the contradictions of the “information society”, sooner or later there will be the need for the invention of a new model. He underlines the necessity of constructing a new utopia - a new way of living, a new type of politics, and a new way of governance - that is not only in tune with the realities of an information society, but also competent in tackling the gargantuan task of addressing the irreversible consequences of an impending global ecological crisis.

It is true that we are living through an interim period - both in Turkey and in the world. Yet, it would be wrong to think about this period in linear terms, where a return to the nation-state and authoritarianism is a regression in reaction to the progressive unfolding of production and technological developments. Without a doubt, Ağırdır’s point is a subtle one as he keeps the question of the shape of a future society open, acknowledging the inadequacy of both neoliberal globalism and neo-mercantilist nationalism.

The hypothesis that we must entertain today; however, is a darker one. What if the neo-mercantilist turn towards authoritarianism, economic nationalism, fortress mentality, chauvinism, right-wing populism and so on is not so much a reaction to neoliberalism, but rather a transformation of the latter as a consequence of its inadequacy in facing its own contradictions? What if the so-called ‘new’ is not a return to social democratic developmentalism of the yesteryear, but a turn in neoliberalism towards increased authoritarianism?

The signs are all around us. To be able to see them, we must subscribe to a narrower definition of neoliberalism as the governance of the entirety of life (and not just economic interactions) through economic incentives. At a micro-level, or at least at the level of citizens going about their ordinary day-to-day lives, the so-called neo-mercantilist return to the nation-state did not entail a return to an ethos of social rights. Citizens are still treated as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Moreover, there is something deeply authoritarian about the neoliberal injunction to economize all aspects of social life. Neoliberalism requires every citizen to learn, master, and rationally respond to an interface of economic incentives. As such, neoliberalism individualizes failure; life events such as bankruptcy or unemployment are cast as individual failures - even though both, in most cases, are better understood as structurally determined phenomena, shaped by the internationalised dynamics of macroeconomics.

In any case, the nation-states were never really out of the picture, even at the peak of neoliberal globalism. One of the most noteworthy scandals of 2017 was the Paradise Papers. However, the often-neglected fact about these offshore accounts is that most of the money stashed there is done so legally, with the legal framework allowing this being provided by nation-states. Neoliberal policies and institutions are implemented by nation-states.

The turn towards the nation-state takes a corporate form of sovereignty, wherein the political leader acts as a CEOs. If this trend wasn’t clear with Obama,  Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, who were outspoken about positioning themselves as CEOs of their respective governments, there should be no doubt about it today with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Nicolas Maduro, Muhammad bin Salman, and so on.  

The general view is that these populist leaders are aberrations to the linear march of history towards increased democracy,freedom and markets. Yet, what if these leaders are commandeering the carcass of a nation-state turned into a corporate entity, following a four-decades long neoliberal critique and cannibalisation?

More importantly, there are irreversible global dynamics that require increased interventions by nation-states. As the ecological footprint of the world population has reached 1.6 worlds, resource wars have become a permanent fixture of the world geopolitics. In a world with growing middle classes, who demand more and more commodities, and with increasingly limited energy and mineral resources to meet this demand, securing and organizing for strategic resources progressively requires all the nation-states to step in and take charge of the acquisition process. China, for instance, not particularly rich in strategic resources, is a major actor in this scramble for resources as the Chinese state actively leads the process of acquisition in Africa and Latin America.

Perhaps it is better to describe 2017 as an interregnum, rather than an interim period. The  former refers to a transition from one reign or regime to another. The reign of a particular form of neoliberal governmentality is dead; however, the new has yet to take form and hold.

In Turkey, it may be easier to discern how this is a period of interregnum. Under a state of emergency that has long overstayed its welcome and with executive orders acting as a lashing whip on society, Erdoğan is dismantling the constitutional order with the objective of consolidating his vision of corporate sovereignty. While the state of emergency decree no. 696 of Dec. 24, 2017 is itself a major push towards centralization and de-democratization, Erdoğan’s future remains more uncertain than ever.

However, recognising the first year of Trump’s presidency as a period of interregnum is more difficult. For obvious reasons, the liberal establishment cannot recognize him as a legitimate president and chose to treat him as an aberration that requires impeachment as soon as possible. Yet, after the more extreme figures of his starting team were pruned and his administration was taken under control by retired generals that served in U.S. Central Command (whose area of responsibility include the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia), the Trump administration began to settle in. Only now - after the Jerusalem decision and the passing of the regressive tax reform bill - has Trump’s true reign as the first neo-mercantilist sovereign of the U.S.A. may begun.