Friday, May 12, 2017

Rethinking "the Just" under Emergency Rule

In between the lines of this blog, you can see a dichotomous and hierarchical interpretation of Turkish politics and society. This is a perspective I am borrowing from the works of Şerif Mardin. I have recently re-read a Mardin piece on "the Just" where he is reiterating this interpretation that posits a westernizing and secularizing elite vis-a-vis the bulk of the lay folk who are best summarized by tradition and Islamic values. In Mardin's account, this divide is rooted in the very structure of the Ottoman Empire where a small military and bureaucratic elite governed the rest of the society. However, with the Tanzimat reforms, a cultural divide, once dormant, started to grow. As the Ottoman elite were making their peace with Western values such as progress and secularism, they were losing their cultural connection with the rest of the society - the pious and the just.

In other works, Mardin carries his argument on the divide between the modernizing elite and the traditional society into the Turkish Republic. In this account, it is the Kemalist elite (not only soldiers and judges, but also doctors and teachers) who took it upon themselves to educate the ignorant rural masses. It is possible to read Republican People's Party's political conflicts with the Democrat Party (or the Justice Party that came after) with these lenses that underline a repetitive meta-conflict between the center and the periphery. Mardin does not go that far, but it is also possible to interpret AKP's (Justice and Development Party) cooptation of the Republican regime as the periphery's decisive victory over the center. If we wanted to be fancy, we could identify contemporary Turkish politics as the centralization of the periphery and the peripherilization of the center.

My focus on Mardin's argument and extrapolating it to explain contemporary phenomena should not mean that the center-periphery dichotomy is the only significant fault line in Ottoman and Republican Turkish societies. Economic, religious, and ethnic divisions obviously played (and continue to play) important historical roles. Major issues such as the changing geography of the class structure, the Sunni-Alawi divide and the Kurdish resistance movement notwithstanding, I want to focus on the center-periphery dichotomy as it still signifies how power flows in contemporary Turkish society.

The unwavering belief of different official elites in the necessity of imposing overarching yet unpopular reforms in Turkey throughout the past two centuries was a sharp diversion from the liberal path West European countries followed. As new bureaucracies and institutions emerged in Europe to shape the modern subject, they were accompanied by the continuous development of a legal framework that imposed limits on the power of these institutions. In other words, after long struggles and lots of bloodshed, the individual's rights were protected against arbitrary state control. It is a separate discussion whether these protections were sufficient or whether they made a significant change in social and political hierarchies; however, it is my claim that the Ottoman and Republican Turkish story took a different path.

As I often do so on this blog, I will continue with broad speculations and generalizations (something that does not befit a lowly assistant professor I tell myself -- if only I could remain a grad student...)

State centralization, rule of law and legitimacy went together to a great extent in the European experience. Again, it is a separate discussion whether legitimacy was sustained through sheer coercion, social contract, or institutional discipline. However, it seems a foregone conclusion that almost all European societies accept the dominance of the modern nation-state, and accept the limits brought by the rule of law on individuals and the state. Moreover, this is considered as the blueprint for a just society. Mardin's key insight on how the top-down modernizing Ottoman central elite lost touch with the cultural priorities of the traditional and pious periphery constitutes the starting point for the different path that the Ottoman/ Republican Turkish centralization/ modernization took. The modernizing elites extended the growing tentacles of the centralizing state to the remote corners of the country and codified this expanding official apparatus in law. However, the state always operated in a fog of illegitimacy. The uneducated and uncultivated masses that the elites wanted to educate never completely believed in the process and in the legitimacy of the modern secular elites. Two centuries of institutionalization and indoctrination undoubtedly had many successes, however the central state and its rule of law never completely conquered the minds of Turkish citizens as it did in Europe.

This observation opens up many interesting comparative questions. Is the divergent Ottoman and Turkish experience because of a weak state vis-a-vis the society? In other words, did the supposedly strong Turkish state actually lack the power to penetrate its own society? Or maybe, it was not a weak state but simply a strong and entrenched civil society? These are important and interesting questions but I am more interested in tracking the evolution of the ambiguous relationship between the rule of law and the just when a consensus on either of them were never reached. In other words, when Turkish state centralization and modernization copied the path of legal codification as it took place in Europe, but never completely reached the hearts and minds of the people, what happened? Let me exaggerate the question: What happens when the rule of law fails to achieve legitimacy?

In Turkey, the immediate result was instrumentalization of law both by the official authorities and the public. One of my favorite people wrote her MA thesis on how the Constitutional Court, based on the changing dynamics of the Republican elite coalition, used the law for counter-majoritarian purposes (Belge, 2006). In this post's terms, the center interpreted the law in instrumental ways to limit the periphery's (Kurdish movements, leftist revolutionaries, Islamic movements) access to political power. In other words, the law was malleable - fitting to the immediate needs of the elite whether it was closing the political party of a Kurdish or Islamic movement; or granting almost complete immunity to law enforcement which were suppressing the members of these movements. Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite this heavy instrumentalization, the Republican elite never gave up the facade. Everything was done according to the book. There was always prima facie evidence for the existence of a strong regime of rule of law, unless you cared to scratch the surface.

Available studies show that the public also adopted an instrumental relationship with the law. Koğacıoğlu's ethnography on the everyday life of the law at an Istanbul court showed that the urban poor, even when they were not completely sure about the language or the promise of the law, did not hesitate to mobilize their rights when they thought it would benefit them. Neither befuddled with its glorious promises, nor angered with its perpetual failures, Koğacıoğlu argues that the urban poor in Istanbul went to the courts when they saw an advantage.

What changed in the 21st century with AKP's rise was the abandonment of the facade. The Republican elite in its last-minute efforts to block AKP, and AKP after its victory in eliminating the last remnants of that elite, stopped bothering about sustaining even the image of the rule of law. The list of the legal atrocities would take pages, but the bogus decision of the High Election Board at the recent referendum is a perfect example. Even though AKP still pays lip service to the rule of law, it practically and obviously defies it almost daily. The Emergency Rule that was declared after the coup attempt in July 2016 was perhaps the last nail in the coffin.

This leaves us at a dead end for prospects of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. The rigid rejection of the old Republican elite in opening up the political arena for the "uneducated masses" was simply disgusting, yet hope remained as naive social scientists, such as myself, pointed at the facade that was the rule of law and identified it as slow institutionalization. When AKP dismantled the old elite and established its own rule, the premise of the center-periphery dichotomy did not change. Now we are ruled by another center that imposes its own order top-down. The history of counter-majoritarianism in Turkey ended with majority rule that imitates the authority structure of the regime it had conquered. The cultural divide remains. However, this time it seems that the new center has merged the state with the just and the pious, but left the rule of law aside, as it had become redundant. The new center does not need the facade of the rule of law to sustain legitimacy. It inherently represents the just and the pious.

We live at very sad and dangerous times. I am pathetically mourning for the loss of a facade. However, without the facade of the rule of law, we remain 50%-50%  divided with no immediate common ground to bridge the cultural gap. This is where two centuries of top-down modernization that could not instill a sense of legitimacy leaves us.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Trump, The Flying Man

Please watch this minute-long video, from several years ago, of a morning show in a Turkish channel to meet Sabri, the Flying Man.

They were discussing if he could fly or not; so he flew. Funny? Somewhat... Weird? Definitely...

Later, they asked one of my favorite comedians, Cem Yılmaz, what he thought about this incident. His response was pretty good. He basically argued that if you put someone on a show because he claims that he can fly and do not test it beforehand, you should not be surprised when he "flies" during live broadcast.

I remembered this rather weird incident as a somewhat imperfect, but quite revealing, metaphor for Donald Trump's presidency. I see many distressed friends posting on Facebook after the first disastrous ten days of the new administration, and I cannot help but think of Sabri, the Flying Man. But, as I said, this is an imperfect metaphor. We had never heard of Sabri before but the Americans knew Trump as a reality TV star, whose crude and cruel key phrase was "You're fired!" During the elections, the Americans heard about his crude and cruel remarks about women, Muslims, Mexicans, and a Gold Star family. Yet, he was still elected as the President. He was elected to make America Great Again. And, there you got it. Trump, the Flying Man, is "making America Great Again".

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hypocrisy of liberalism and the loss of truth

Recently, I have read a few articles on the similarities between Turkish President Erdoğan, who is about to institutionalize an authoritarian regime change, and US President-Elect Trump, who is about to assume power. Turkey and the US have quite different historical backgrounds, however the rise of Trump and Erdoğan's turn to authoritarianism, together with Brexit and the rise of xenophobia all around the world, share the same historical setting: Collapse of the liberal world order just a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Am I being too pessimistic or too trigger-happy? Maybe, but we should let the cats speculate in their garden nonetheless...

Hardt and Negri had attributed a revolutionary potential to the multitude, in their famous book, Empire (2000). This multitude, a widely differentiated group of people all around the world, is a product of global capitalism, i.e. the empire. With the globalization of production and the prominence of transnational corporations, we would see the emergence of this multitude all around the world. In quite a Marxist dialectic twist, they argued that this multitude which is widely differentiated but is subject to the same global forces everywhere, will bring the destruction of the empire. In a way, they repeated Marx's revolutionary call to the working class to rise against contemporary global capitalism.

With the end of the Cold War, the last challenger to the liberal world order collapsed. We cannot really deny that global capitalism is able to reach and reshape the remotest parts of the world today, more than ever. I am not sure if the multitude, a rather vague concept at best, is the new revolutionary force. However, the recent developments demonstrate that there is indeed increased disgruntlement across the world, including at home in the US, about the liberal order.

The liberal order is in crisis at a global level - a crisis of credibility. Global capitalism is creating a willing and winning class of consumers. However, the rapid changes inherent in global capitalism (such as the continuing de-industrialization in the US or the changing human geography all around the world because of migrations) unsettle many people. There are various facets and levels of these disturbances. Let me discuss three different unsettling consequences among many. First, global capitalism can mean working for below-subsistence level jobs as a worker. Transnational corporations today are more eager than ever to transfer to new locations where they can get more waivers on environmental regulations and minimum wage requirements. Many workers in the world are trying to just get by on incredibly low-paying jobs.

Second, global capitalism can mean getting in a vicious loop of unemployment, felony, and imprisonment. When the person is released, either through a violation of parole or another crime, going back to prison is very likely. There are countless studies on mass incarceration that provide details to this process. Essentially, what is going on is managing an undesirable group of people through the penal system. Besides those who work for a very low wage, those who could not even get those jobs need to be "warehoused", excluded from the rest of the society, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Western and Beckett (1999), in a very important article titled "How Unregulated is the US Labor Market?", argue that if the historically low US unemployment rates are adjusted to include prisoners, they appear at the same level with west European unemployment levels. Global capitalism has to exclude some people.

Third, globalization triggers migration, and migration brings different people to your neighborhood: Mexicans in an American town, or Syrians in a Turkish town. These people do not look like you; they do not speak like you; they do not live like you. It certainly changes from place to place, but this sort of mobility is inevitably unsettling for the natives and much more so for the immigrants.

I brought these examples to describe the contemporary version of liberalism's crisis of credibility. Liberalism is founded on the promise of freedom and equality. However, what we see and experience after liberalism's historic triumph is freedom and equality only for a select group. I am not here to condemn liberalism. I am basically arguing that the fast pace of global capitalism has created a dissonance across the world. On the one hand, we cannot even begin to think of an alternative way of life. On the other hand, we know deep inside that there is something wrong with what is going on. We want to believe in freedom and equality, but then we daily see, or experience, their failure.

Enter Erdoğan and Trump with their bravado. They speak to the disillusioned masses. They tell us "what it really is like". They point at the inherent fallacies of the current order and how we have been duped. I do not mean to say that people like Erdoğan and Trump have become the voice of the multitude. What I am saying is that the liberal world order, under the banner of transnational companies, lost its moral high ground. The stark differences between its message and the fast-paced daily realities it produces around the world neither match nor can be hidden. The multitude have seen or experienced the vices of global capitalism and some of them are rapidly falling into the fascist arms of charismatic authoritarian leaders.

Another common ground between Erdoğan and Trump are the loss of truth in their messages. In talking about how the current world order is staked against us and challenging our beliefs, they pull us into a bizarre post-modern world. When the very modern claims of liberty and equality are debunked, it feels like all claims to truth lose legitimacy as well. Both Erdoğan and Trump speak blatant fallacies and just move on without feeling the burden at all. During the presidential campaign, Trump openly mocked a disabled reporter. It was simply disgusting, but he recently just denied it. Moreover, just google it and you will see that many articles that support his denial popped up. So are we to believe our own senses or Trump and his supporters? Recently Erdoğan asked this question after a terrorist attack by a Jihadist at a nightclub on the new year's eve: "Is there anyone who can claim that their lifestyles are threatened?" Whenever Erdoğan makes such claims that distort reality, pro-Erdoğan media immediately pick those versions up and push them relentlessly.

In this post-truth era, intellectuals are often targeted as well. Examples from Turkey, where many journalists and novelists are jailed, would be redundant. However, such anti-intellectualism seems to be on the rise in the US as well. If nothing else, the substitution of a cerebral, rational and measured president by a bigot is a testimony to this change. Another example would be the attacks against political correctness. In recent Republican discourse, including Trump's, political correctness became a vice.

The loss of truth and its promotion by the partisan media is undoubtedly related to the dissonance created by the liberal hypocrisy I have discussed here. The promises of the liberal order on freedom and equality have failed so soundly, and we have been grabbed (you know from where) by charismatic authoritarian leaders so strongly, that reality as we know it has completely shattered. We now live in their reality, which changes according to their needs. Transnational corporations will inevitably reach a deal with the Clown-in-Chief and the Sultan-Reincarnate, however I am not so optimistic about the redemption of our liberal values.