A dead crowd: statist communalism, autocracy and resistance

In my last article, I argued that we cannot fully grasp Turkey’s rapid transformation into an autocracy with scant concern for rule of law or basic rights and freedoms without considering the dominant political culture that governs its social contract.

It is in this context that I introduced, and roughly described, the concept of statist communalism, which I believe is key to understanding Turkey’s resilient political culture.

Needless to say, I am not underlining this concept solely to draw attention to the fragmented nature of Turkey’s social fabric. To say that the republic has inherited a veritably heterogeneous population from the Ottoman Empire would be a truism.

Forging a homogenous nation out of this diversity required a massive process of social engineering – hence the various policies of “Turkification”, from population exchange to forced settlement and even ethnic cleansing that were the hallmarks of the first decades of the fledgling republic.

What is less emphasised, and voiced, is how futile all these polices have proven to be. Turkey was not even able to develop into a society united by a modicum of shared values and interests, let alone a homogenous, monolithic nation. What remains of this nation-building campaign which has been going on for more than 90 years now is a patchwork quilt, an archipelago of communities clustered around different leaders, only bridged by short-term strategic alliances based on self-interest.

We thus need to rethink the longstanding fault lines that criss-cross Turkish society – Turkish vs. Kurdish, Sunni vs. Alevi, religious vs. secular, left vs. right – in the light of this statist-communalist logic to make better sense of the continuities and ruptures that mark Turkey’s political life.

As pointed out earlier, this logic regards the state as the highest source of power, the ultimate “object of desire”, to use the psychoanalytic jargon, to which all communities strive, mostly at the expense of others.

It is this logic that enables the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which we can comfortably call the most nationalist-conservative, the “most right-wing” government in republican history, to enter into a strategic partnership with the Kurds and take steps towards the peaceful resolution of the so-called Kurdish issue – steps, we must add, that no other government had dared to take. Then once the “job is done”, this partnership is simply discarded.

It is also this logic that leads the Alevi community to negotiate with a Sunni Islamist government, say, to get support for cemevis (Alevi places of worship) while voting for secular political actors or organising themselves within the state bureaucracy to protect their interests against the very same government.

The religious community, like other communities, is not monolithic either, but consists of numerous smaller communities.

The Gülen community, adopting a tactic that brings Gramsci’s war of position to mind, infiltrated the state with a view to taking it over from within, in the meantime forging alliances with both the military and other conservative movements, including most prominently the AKP when circumstances required.

Since these alliances were not based on shared values or beliefs, these alliances were short-lived and the moment their interests diverged, the two sides sought to eradicate one another. It was in this context, only when they had lost their grip on the state, that the Gülen community, which had once singled out the Kurdish political movement as the greatest threat to Turkey’s integrity, “discovered” the Kurds’ plight, and began to speak out about their unjust treatment, even if half-heartedly.

Once the radical secular community which had long viewed itself as the rightful owner of the state lost power and began to perceive itself as a “victim”, it quickly forgot how for decades it had governed the country with a “bronze fist” (tunç eli), an expression that the Turkish state used to denote its military operations in the eastern province of Dersim.

Let us use this opportunity to commemorate the victims of the Dersim genocide that was carried out 80 years ago. Rather than taking responsibility for this, radical secularists take the easy option of blaming others, incessantly repeating the worn-out cliché, “we told you so”.

What is worse, this community, represented nowadays in large part by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), readily sides with the state and/or the nationalist-Islamist bloc that has controlled it for the last 15 years when it comes to the Kurds, the leftists or “foreign threats”. That explains the deafening silence of radical secularists while Kurdish cities are being obliterated, or when members of parliament and mayors elected overwhelmingly by Kurdish votes rot in jail. After all, the Kurds are not counted as part of the “White Turkish” community.

Despite the fact that there are barely a handful of them, it would not be inaccurate to say that the liberals, leftists, or more broadly democratic circles have suffered the most from communalism. The liberal community (both on the right and left) blames radical secularists, whom they suggest suffer from a “Kemalist Personality Disorder”, for all the ills that have befallen the country. That partly explains why they lent their support to, and even legitimised, the Islamist AKP, even after it became clear that the underlying intention was indeed to transform the nature of the regime. This is also why they turned a blind eye to the most egregious breaches of law during the infamous Ergenekon, Balyoz, and for some reason the less-frequently mentioned KCK trials.

The leftist community, itself a patchwork of dozens of smaller communities, considers “liberal collaborationists”, the “yes, but not enough” crowd of liberals who voted with the AKP in the 2010 constitutional referendum, as “the” enemy. If it were not for the liberals, the leftist agues, Turkey would have been a different country – a Scandinavian-style social democracy, a Leninist/Stalinist/Trotskyist socialist state, or a fully independent oasis that opposes imperialism and the neoliberal dogma, depending on where s/he stands.

It is not surprising that such a political culture, where each constituent part sees the other as a rival or an enemy, breeds autocracy. Of course, Turkey has never been a democratic paradise where rights and freedoms were guaranteed; and the fault lines dividing the country’s social fabric were not invented by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, (though to give “agency” some credit, we need to point out that Erdoğan has indeed deepened existing fault lines and provoked polarisation).

The fault lines in question are not sufficient to explain the dark picture we are faced with today, however. It is important to see that Turkey’s current predicament is not a temporary one – for it will not be a temporary one. And it is precisely in this respect that the concept of statist communalism is valuable.

The transition to full autocracy was so rapid and easy in Turkey because it has no unified society held together by shared values; because each community is ready to form an alliance with the force in control of the state to further its own interests, and while doing so turns a blind eye to the predicament of other communities; because overcoming autocracy requires resistance, and resistance requires unity, but the various communities that happen to share the geographical space we call Turkey despise one another as much as, if not more than, they despise autocrats; because for every community, including that of the oppressed, the only route to salvation is to nurture a leader from among its own ranks and, to replace the autocrat with its own leader, thereby taking control of the state mechanism.

The “centre-right” turns to Meral Akşener for their Erdoğan, the secular “White Turks” to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, (or Selin Sayek Böke, Şafak Pavey, etc.), the Kurds to Abdullah Öcalan, the Gülen community to Fethullah Gülen... The left has still to find a “local Che” or “home-grown Chavez”, and the ultra-nationalist left is already savouring the elixir of power through their arch-leader Doğu Perinçek.

It is only natural that all this fragmentation, polarisation and revanchist rage would lead to moral degeneration. In such an atmosphere, the crowd boos Berkin, the boy shot dead by the police during the 2013 Gezi protests, and his grieving mother, the hundreds killed in a terrorist attack in Ankara. Or a dead body is dragged behind a vehicle amongst cheers and whistles by the riot police as it allegedly belongs to a “terrorist”; yet another dead body is left lying on the pavement for days; another is dug up from its grave.

When dead bodies are tortured, words become meaningless, analysis is pointless, and concepts lose their purchase. At this point, a choice has to be made between humanity and death, without forgetting that those who are truly dead are the crowd who torture the dead. Perhaps what is needed is a new beginning, and this time not one that “picks up from yesterday”... 


* Many thanks to Pınar Dinç for her comments on this and the previous article.

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