Turkish Totalitarianism: A Trendsetter rather than a Cultural Curiosity?

by Cihan Tuğal, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Turkey’s sharp authoritarian turn has surprised many observers: not so long ago, the country was celebrated as an exemplar of liberalism that stood out in a region marked by turbulence. Analysts now seek the causes of this transformation in President Erdoğan’s personality or exceptional characteristics of Turkish culture.

But an analysis of liberal success itself gives us more clues (and forebodings for the democratic West). “Liberal democracy” was once held to be the greatest achievement of humankind, but if “liberalism” denotes the apotheosis of individual property and freedom, which in our era goes hand in hand with (neo-)liberalization (privatization of property, restructuring of the welfare state to render individuals self-sufficient, and financialization), the Turkish case shows that liberalization and democratization can proceed together only for a certain time, depending on factors like the repressive and incorporative strength of the state, as well as civic and political capacity.

Turkey’s recent experiences may hold warnings for the rest of the world. Once, intellectuals believed that less-developed countries could see their own future in the experiences of the most vigorously capitalist nations. After the debacle of the 1930s, however, many suggested the reverse could also be true: Europeans ultimately experienced what the natives had lived through during colonization. Mass empowerment and individual property/freedom undermined each other at a critical turning point in history (the interwar years). Could these two broad goals dynamite each other yet again?

A False Liberal Heaven

Turkey used to be the most secular and democratic country in the Middle East. Its deceptive exceptionality was based on the democratization of the “Kemalist” package by conservative parties. Since the 1950s, several center-right parties gradually liberalized the nationalist, corporatist, and secularist regime that Mustafa Kemal had built in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 2000s, a new political organization, the Justice and Development Party, further popularized the center-right agenda, combining the country’s conservative and Islamist traditions, a shift that sparked popular and intellectual enthusiasm for the neoliberal reforms that in the 1970s had induced either apathy or outright opposition across the region.

However, there was a darker side to this luminous success story. The mainstream narrative, which still represents Turkey’s liberalization in the 2000s as a “model,” overlooks the repression of groups who challenged the government’s narrative: Alevis, striking workers, environmentalists, leftists, and occasionally the Kurds. Both the Western world and Turkish liberals chose to downplay the sectarian and cultural agenda of the Justice and Development Party, viewing repression as a small price for what the party achieved: high growth rates and the sidelining of the once-dominant Kemalist military. Environmental destruction, worker deaths, lower wages, depoliticization, de-unionization, increasing Sunni sectarianism, patriarchal violence, and urban displacement caused by these achievements (or at least, which accompanied and reinforced them) received little attention.

During the Justice and Development Party’s first two terms, political and economic liberalization created many grievances and opened up venues to contest them. In the summer of 2013, environmental and urban movements, which had been simmering under the radar, broke their local boundaries. When spontaneous women’s movements, Alevi and secularist mobilization joined them, the most massive urban uprising in Turkish history (the Gezi Rebellion) erupted. However, although millions of citizens participated, they could not create a common political platform. Labor and Kurdish leaders gave only restricted support to the Gezi protests, while the main leftist groups tried halfheartedly, at best, to channel the revolt in a more political direction. All three forces paid heavily in subsequent years for their combination of reluctance, confusion, and incapacity.

In 2013, dismayed by the government’s increasingly sharp Islamic and authoritarian salvos, many liberals sided with the revolt and attempted to push it in a liberal direction, without any success: the revolt proved unable to expand its agenda beyond the protests’ initial goal, that of saving Turkey’s most central urban park, Gezi, from destruction.

Liberalism’s Mutation into Totalitarianism

Despite the revolt’s fractured character, the government stuck to its conspiracy narrative, cracking down violently on the rebellion. Afterwards, the governing party became not only more authoritarian, but also more totalitarian, mobilizing its base against opposition voices.

Why did this transformation happen? Liberalism multiplies points of social tension, rather than containing them – in contrast to the tendencies of corporatism. Structurally stronger polities can contain, absorb, and repress tensions without disrupting liberalism; weaker states, by contrast, are less equipped to deal with explosive tensions within the boundaries of liberalism. Especially when regimes face strong opposition, established institutions and repression may not be enough to control protest movements. In such contexts, elites may resort to counter-mobilization, laying the basis for totalitarianism – a path shaped not only by elite calls for action, but also the presence of political and civic groups ready to respond.

Such networks were abundantly available to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, building on the party’s roots in Islamist mobilization from the 1960s through the 1990s. After 2013, responding to what it perceived as intensifying threats, the Turkish regime shifted from what I call “soft totalitarianism” to “hard totalitarianism,” moving first against Alevis, striking workers, environmentalists, and socialists, and later against liberals.

Ironically, the strongest post-2013 purge targeted a liberal Islamic group, the Gülen Community – itself a leading actor of soft totalitarianism, which had penetrated institutions one by one, silently emptying them of old regime figures, Alevis, and leftists. The group had managed these purges without any fanfare, in sharp contrast to today’s widely publicized and ceremonialized expulsions. There had been some struggles between the Gülen community and old Islamist cadres regarding how to share the spoils of power, but this did not get out of hand until Erdoğan’s relations with Israel grew tense. Gülen (a cleric with deep ties to American lobbying groups and other Western power centers) was already suspicious of Erdoğan’s anti-Israel tone. The game changer, though, was an attempt by a Turkish charitable association, backed by Erdoğan, to break the Gaza blockade. Gülen gave an interview to the Washington Post, declaring the action un-Islamic on the grounds that it defied authority. After that, the two components of the “first” Justice and Development Party regime gradually split – a development that came at a high cost for the regime, since it did not have high-quality cadres with which to populate institutions. This boosted the regime’s taste for and dependence on mass mobilization and fanaticism.

To this national nudge towards totalitarianism, a more regional, but still contingent, dynamic was added: the Arab uprisings gave rise to new hopes among Turkey’s hitherto dormant Islamist circles. Except small circles of liberals on the right and radicals on the left, Turkish Islamists had always dreamed of reviving the Ottoman Empire. The Justice and Development Party’s leaders had toned down their militancy over the preceding decade out of a combination of political pragmatism and the prospect of new economic and political spoils, but between 2011 and 2013, the party’s barely-contained imperial ambitions were bolstered, and eventually got out of control.

The Justice and Development Party’s liberal and Western supporters had hoped the party’s longstanding imperial inclinations could be institutionalized through a “soft power” approach, an outcome promised by former academic, foreign minister and then prime minister Ahmed Davutoğlu’s two doctrines (“Zero Problems with Neighbors” and “Strategic Depth”). Initially, the Arab uprisings appeared likely to further entrench Davutoğlu’s efforts, but he was purged in 2016. Why? Because of Erdoğan’s personality? Not really. If the regime had been able to capitalize on the Arab Spring as it had hoped, it would not have needed to abandon the soft power approach. Like many other expanding capitalist powers, the business-government nexus in Turkey sought to increase its share in foreign markets. But because of labor unrest, political fragmentation, and ultimately civil wars and military interventions, Egypt, Libya and Syria — the most likely Arab outlets for Turkish capitalists – no longer looked so good for business. These geopolitical-socioeconomic bottlenecks, along with a contracting world market, restricted business expansionism. The regime now had much less cash to redistribute among its base – creating new problems both for Turkey’s previously expanding Islamic business class and its welfare programs, which had bought consent from the urban poor. With less recourse to economic spoils, the regime sharpened its Islamic credentials.

In Syria, Turkey’s initial economically-rational efforts to softly remove Assad and open the way to a more business-friendly Islamic government were overtaken by a sectarian effort to build a Sunni state at any cost. Turkish miscalculations contributed to the birth of ISIS, which first appeared to be a good counterbalance against the Kurds, but then undermined stability, tourism, and business prospects even in western and southern Turkey. Furthermore, perceived cooperation between anti-Assad jihadis and the only Islamic democracy in the Middle East accentuated Western narratives of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy.

The aftermath of these turns have global implications. Turkey’s adventurism has destroyed Syria, led to a historic wave of immigration to Europe, and thereby the strongest wave of right-wing mobilization in the continent ever since the world war. Spurred partially by fears of militant Islamism, the rise of Europe’s right sent a very clear signal to Turkey: full European Union membership is no longer a possibility. This had become clear after 2006, but the realization did not radically reshape the governing party’s agenda until the 2010s, when loss of hope in European accession interacted with the other dynamics undermining liberalization. As the Arabs rose up with cries of freedom (a yearning which Turkish elites hoped they could manipulate for business and imperial ambitions), Turkish Islamists lost their long-standing interest in courting Europe.

How Turkey’s Path could be Repeated Elsewhere

Even though some of these dynamics are peculiar to Turkey, the overall structures that are undermining liberalism throughout the globe could create more Turkey-like cases – especially since many of these dynamics involve interactions between (and within) regions and nations, as well as interactions between national and global processes. Most importantly, the sharp, worldwide right-wing turn among Islamic circles has sent shockwaves throughout the West, inciting not only governmental securitization but also right-wing mobilization. This processual vicious circle, moreover, has more global-structural underpinnings.

Modern history’s two great cycles of liberalization both kicked in at a global level. In both periods, disintegration was/is global as well as local. Following the 1920s, the unravelling of classical liberalism led to embedded liberalism in the US and Western Europe, and extremely repressive states or mass-based totalitarianism in the East. Due to emaciated social capacities and increased securitization throughout the globe, embedded liberalism looks less and less likely after today’s looming collapse.

Unless intellectuals, politicians, and activists succeed in building a strong global alternative, mass mobilization could produce more lasting totalitarian states in the coming years, even in the West. Turkey’s experiences stand as a warning for all of us: failed revolutions usually lead to more monstrous regimes. Especially in the present context, if solid agendas and political organizations do not crystallize after new versions of Gezi, Occupy, and Indignados, the costs could be very high for all of us.

Direct all correspondence to Cihan Tuğal <ctugal@berkeley.edu>

 

Turkey, Volume 6, Issue 3

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