Can Mainstream Critical Analyses Explain the State Transformation in Turkey?
Theory & ResearchIn many countries today, including in Turkey, states are intervening in social relations with more authoritarian policies in order to overcome economic, political, and social crises. Liberal criticisms of these interventions see them as a danger to both the international economy and parliamentary democracy. However, due to the fundamental methodological limitations in these shared evaluations in cases where the state, society, and economic relations have transformed, and where even the basic criteria of parliamentary democracy are not fulfilled, neoliberalism and authoritarianism are presented as polar opposites. This, in turn, leads to an explanation that the main reason for authoritarianism is a movement away from neoliberalism. The purpose of this article is to emphasise the limitations of such an interpretation by considering the main arguments of the most prominent mainstream critical analyses of authoritarianism in Turkey
Mainstream critical analyses take a contrary position to the pre-1980 state-centric approach due to their strategic differences regarding the development of capitalist relations in Turkey. Accordingly, they argue that Turkey becomes more authoritarian as it moves away from neoliberal policies. During the process of capitalisation, the “strong state tradition” inherited from the Ottoman era did not allow for the development of modern state–society relations. The fact that these relations were conducted by the state made capital dependent on the state. Since economic power could not be transformed into political power, civil society could not develop, and democratisation could not take root. The state, with its top-down, tutelary, Jacobin, and tyrannical characteristics, oppressed conservative, religious, and pro–economic-liberalisation social groups in every period.
This approach, which has had a considerable impact on the transformation of social relations since the 1980s—the transition to neoliberalism and the institutionalization of neoliberalism—cannot be ignored in terms of its ideological influence on the AKP’s power as a single party. Many social scientists adhering to this approach have interpreted the AKP’s rule as a break with the strong state tradition and tutelary democracy. Unlike the political tradition to which the latter’s cadres belonged, the AKP’s commitments to international and national capital circles and the continuation of IMF and EU structural adjustment programmes were effective in this. Accordingly, by 2011, the AKP government had made important reforms in the context of neoliberalisation, civilianisation and democratisation, and had made a dent in the strong-state tradition by putting an end the state-centred understanding of politics in Turkey and military tutelage.
Critical studies on recent Turkish politics have heavily criticized the strong state tradition thesis. Nevertheless, its younger representatives have simply updated the thesis—referring to a “new-developmentalism” and “competitive authoritarianism”—when explaining the post-2011 period of AKP rule as an “authoritarian turn”. Unfortunately, despite their diverse political stances—detaching themselves from the AKP and positioning themselves within the main-opposition bloc—these approaches have failed to convince broad segments of society. It is an important question why this opposition bloc, even though politically diverse, has been unable to provide a viable alternative to the AKP government amid the economic, political, and social crises of the past decade. However, providing a detailed answer to this question, especially considering the institutionalisation of the AKP government within all the apparatuses of the state and its penetration into the smallest capillaries of society, would go beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is essential to highlight the urgency of moving beyond the politics produced by mainstream critical approaches to articulate an alternative critical stance that can engage the broader population.
The fact that mainstream approaches refer to the post-2011 period of the AKP as an authoritarian turn gives the impression that the two periods of AKP government—democratisation and authoritarianism—are interpreted as standing in absolute opposition. However, the first period witnessed extensive legal and constitutional rearrangements in terms of the institutionalisation of neoliberal authoritarianism. As a combination of neoliberalism and the ideology of the Turkish–Islamic synthesis, neoliberalisation and authoritarianism proceeded as parallel processes in the policies implemented by the AKP governments in their first period.
In other words, the AKP’s neoliberal programme, based on fiscal discipline and labour discipline, was a transition to a strong economy programme which could not be implemented during the periods of coalition government due to social opposition. In terms of fiscal discipline, it included harsh austerity measures such as the privatisation of basic public services, low inflation, high interest rates and budget surpluses. In terms of labour discipline, the aim was to increase absolute and relative surplus value through low wages and long, precarious, and flexible working hours, which was institutionalised in a new labour law (2003). The losses incurred both in certain capital groups and in large segments of society were compensated by the neoliberal social security and welfare programme (aid and incentives through the network of AKP-affiliated municipalities, companies, and communities) and corporate and household indebtedness. Thus, the winners and losers of neoliberalism found a social consensus until the financial crisis of 2008, which put an end to the availability of cheap credit.
Regulations disguised as civilianisation were largely based on the restriction of the political powers of the military. For Turkish politics, which has a long history of military coups, this was certainly a big step. The restriction of the military’s powers in politics and the expansion of police powers (2005), which are visible in all areas of daily life, support this idea.
The will to resolve the Kurdish issue, which has been ongoing since the establishment of the Republic, through parliamentary processes and negotiations, and the approaches to gender and sexuality issues, including LGBTQIA+ rights, and partial arrangements for the publicisation of the Kurdish language and Islam were interpreted as normalisation. On the other hand, in line with a new penal code (2005) and anti-terrorism law (2006), which expand the scope of terrorism, extensive regulations were made to control and monitor social opposition. In this way, many forms of political activity, especially Kurdish dissent—from social media posts to public statements—were easily categorised as terrorism.
One of the most effective mechanisms in this period was economic depoliticisation, which removed decision-making processes related to the economy well beyond the reach of society. This was complemented by political depoliticisation to prevent the integration of labour, Kurdish, LGBTQIA+, and feminist movements into any leftist politics. In this period, which is interpreted as seeing a process of neoliberalisation–democratisation, it can be said that the AKP governments, with the power of single-party rule, spread mechanisms to control and govern the possible economic, political, and social crises.
From 2010, when the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis became visible, easy access to credit provided by the flow of hot money stopped. In these circumstances, where the reproduction of the state, capital, and households together became difficult, the AKP could find no option but to return to the domestic market. This was also an advantageous strategy in terms of policies that would have an impact on capital and the broad masses of labour segments that make up its voting base under these crisis conditions (Bedirhanoglu, 2020).
In mainstream critical analyses, the historical-political turning points of the last decade of Turkish politics, such as the 2010 constitutional referendum, the 2013 Gezi uprising, the split with the Gülen Movement, the 2014 presidential election, the June and November 2015 elections, the attempted military coup in 2016, and the 2018 transition to the presidential system, have been extensively discussed in the context of authoritarianisation. However, the process has largely been explained as a transition from a neoliberal state to an interventionist state, from tutelary democracy to competitive authoritarianism, or from bureaucratic elites to political elites. It is argued that certain problems with the way in which state–society relations have been constructed, inherited from the old authoritarian regimes, persist, and that this has stalled neoliberalisation and democratisation.
According to the interventionist state argument, the reason for the transition to “new-developmentalist” policies is the structural problems that have persisted since the foundation of the Republic and the determining role of the state in social relations. Since 2011, the state has started to take an active role in the market again and to direct capital accumulation processes, weakening its transformative capacity. It has abandoned the institutional structure and market rationality that would have ensured bureaucratic autonomy and minimised political intervention in economic matters, and has missed the chance to be a model in the region (Buğra and Savaşkan, 2015; Öniş, 2019; Kutlay and Karaoğuz, 2018).
According to the distancing from Western institutions argument, the AKP’s move away from the IMF and the EU structural adjustment programme since 2011 represents a change of partners. The post-crisis economic contacts with the leading models of state capitalism and powerful actors of global capitalism, such as Russia, China, and India, are interpreted in this context. Just like these countries, Turkey, under the charismatic leadership of Erdoğan, has challenged these institutions and shifted to an authoritarian model with a new-developmentalist rhetoric. It is thought that Turkey has been influenced by the new-developmentalist growth performance in these countries, which is explained by authoritarianism, and wants to ride the rising tide of global authoritarianism. In order to become one of the leaders and more independent in the global economy, an authoritarian, new-developmentalist strategy has been adopted. Instead of accepting the IMF’s macro-economic stabilisation programme, continuing the EU membership process and adhering to the basic principles of international liberal financial institutions, authoritarianism has been adopted (Öniş, 2019; Kutlay and Karaoğuz, 2018).
According to the elites conflict argument, one of the reasons why Turkey has missed the opportunity for “democratic reforms” is that the old elites on the opposition side have not reconciled with the new elites. The old and new elites, both seeing themselves as the owners of the state, would maintain these relations according to their own interests. As a result of the conflict between the elites, the AKP government, instead of democratising the state, has preferred to seize the state and become a hegemon against the powerful tutelary bureaucratic elites. In the absence of a strong electoral opposition, the neo-elites, instead of becoming more inclusive as a ruling party or opting for democratisation, began the process of liquidating the old elites. While trying to get rid of “custodial” institutions, Turkish democracy has been transformed into an authoritarian regime that is not even formally liberal due to its structural features (Akkoyunlu and Öktem, 2016; Esen and Gümüşçü, 2018; Somer, 2019).
In the end, just as with the structural features inherited from the pre-1980s “developmentalist state”, the AKP has inherited the flawed liberalisation tradition of its predecessor. These structural continuities specific to Turkey were updated and continued in a new form by implementing redistributive policies within the free market on the one hand, and by getting rid of tutelary democracy and shifting to competitive authoritarianism on the other. There has been a break with tutelary democracy and its institutions (old elites), but the structural continuities that were the cause of economic and political crises and authoritarianism have been updated in the new regime.
A Critique of Mainstream Approaches
Explaining the transition to authoritarianism in terms of the structural continuities of Turkish capitalism and the personal preferences of the charismatic political leader leads to the analysis that AKP rule falls into two opposing periods. Since the focus is on the will to power and the preferences of the charismatic leader, the state’s adoption of new strategies in the face of crises and the rise of the apparatus of coercion are explained in terms of the strong state tradition and its updated versions. This leads to an inadequate explanation of how the economy is underpinned by disciplinary, coercive strategies and an incomplete or erroneous conceptualisation of the practices of continuity and rupture. The regime change embodied in the transformation of state power, rather than the comprehensive transformation of the state as an expression of a political form of social relations, is explained as authoritarianisation. It is therefore necessary to reconsider the authoritarianism arguments of mainstream critical analyses.
The interventionist state problem: The contradictions of neoliberalism are pointed out, but the state is conceptualised as a neutral, autonomous apparatus, far removed from conflicts between different social groups. State intervention in society is seen as a source of authoritarianism. Detailed data on the channels of political intervention of the state in capital accumulation processes through official and unofficial means are presented, but the main subject of accumulation, labour power, is not included in the analysis in any way. Capital accumulation processes are rather explained in terms of resource allocation by the interventionist state. They are problematised as the difficulties faced by individual “businessmen” in uncertain market conditions caused by arbitrary and nepotistic resource allocation. The state’s personal relations with certain capital groups are described either as a top-down unidirectional process or as the subordination of these groups to the state (Buğra and Savaşkan, 2015; Kutlay and Karaoğuz, 2018).
In these analyses, ignoring the historical phases when the state intervened as an effective actor in times of crisis or in the name of crisis management leads to the argument that the state has deviated from neoliberalism. However, rather than narrow structural continuities, the transformation should be associated with the internal transformation of Turkish capitalism, the articulation of the relations of production with international capitalism and the tensions emerging in the process of transforming class relations. For example, the prominence of the authoritarian character of the state through interventions in order to open up new areas for capital, maintain popular support, and manage debt should be associated with the necessary changes in economic management strategies after the crisis. The detaching of social relations from the relations of production, and explaining them solely in terms of intra-market statuses and the state’s biased intervention in these relations, which are otherwise assumed to be autonomous, are characterised as authoritarianism.
The disruption of the balance between the legislative, executive, and judicial mechanisms, the violation of the independence of the judiciary and the restructuring of the high courts in favour of the government, along with the reactions of the government against the decisions of the Constitutional Court, certainly provide an ample representation of authoritarianism. However, as political categories of social relations, these phenomena are meaningful when they are understood as forms emerging in the transformation of relations between production and distribution, labour and capital, and between states. As Tansel (2018: 201) emphasises, relations between the economy and the state, such as household indebtedness, are instruments of transformation and are intrinsically related to constitutional reforms, taxation policies, and public debt—in short, monetary and legal interventions. As a field shaped by capitalist relations, the state is itself part of the construction of these relations. From privatisations to the commercialisation of public services and restrictions on labour organisations, a series of economic, political, and social arrangements have been made by the powerful state in the name of the institutionalisation of neoliberalism. With the depoliticisation strategy in the sense that the decision-making processes related to the economy have been freed from political influence, the economy has been pulled out of the reach of the opposition and has been able to acquire its non-social but intra-capitalist character through the powerful state (Bedirhanoglu, 2020).
The intervention of the state to resolve both political conflicts as a space for democratic demands and material or economic disputes such as wages and working hours is one of its raisons d’être. As soon as the reproduction, strategies, and interests of capitalist relations are challenged, this intervention takes the power of the law, media, finance, national and international public opinion, police and military forces with it. Since 2013, the pushing of all the limits of the capitalist state form in an environment of continuous crisis and its institutional restructuring has also been possible through regime change (Oğuz, 2016; Bedirhanoglu, 2020).
The distancing from Western institutions problem: Explaining military coups and economic-political instabilities through the absence of a civil society similar to that of Western Europe is related to a similar methodological problem. Explaining the history of a society through Western intellectual values does not allow space for material causal relations and gives the impression that proximity to these institutions will automatically bring about democratisation. However, the IMF macro-stabilisation programme adopted after the 2001 crisis and the EU harmonisation criteria envisaged the institutionalisation of neoliberalism in the name of a “functioning market economy” and “stability”. According to these institutions, which have expressed a distinction between the economy and politics in almost every report in the name of stability, the economy is a “technical” sphere that guarantees the physical reproduction of the social whole, while politics is a sphere that should be “autonomous” due to the regulatory function of the state.
From economic-political liberalisation to the development of civil society, it is thought that all of Turkey’s problems will be solved by separating these areas. It is argued that problems such as instability, corruption, populism, and nepotism will disappear with the elimination of interventions that undermine the autonomy of the state (Kutun, 2021). However, the primary aim of the stabilisation measures proposed to countries in order to standardise the rule and law of money is to freeze wages, restrict public spending, privatise public services, ban strikes, and organise the state for the market rather than for society (Burnham, 2017). With depoliticisation in the first period of AKP rule and repoliticisation in the second, the distancing of the economy and the political sphere from the fundamental rights and democratic demands of the masses were among the priority reforms of these institutions. These policies aimed at protecting the market from society and the masses, and economic and political depoliticisation strategies aimed to relieve governments of the responsibilities of financial stability and anti-inflationary monetary policies (Kutun, 2021).
The AKP’s distancing itself from these institutions in the aftermath of the crisis is more about managing these contradictions, opening up new areas for capital and securing the nexus of state, capital, and civil-society relations that it had started to establish during its first term, rather than a “new-developmentalist” change of partners. The non-transparent, oppressive, centralised, personalised, and nepotistic relations are the result of the fact that economic and political conflicts can no longer be suppressed. The management of these contradictions has left the government no choice but to free itself from the limits of parliamentary democracy. Therefore, as one of the radical versions of neoliberal governments, the AKP’s economic and political programme, which is designed to maintain its mass support, should not be explained in terms of a preference for a leader or a move away from Western institutions. The programmes implemented by these institutions to ensure the ideological legitimacy of the accumulation system in the political sphere in a neo-neoliberal manner are related to international as well as national imperatives. The growing contradictions of neoliberal democracy at the international level have, as an indirect consequence of the crisis, increased the mass mobilisation of the far-right and weakened democratic principles.
The elites’ conflict problem: The fact that the main determinant of politics is explained by the conflict between elites rather than social groups shaped around economic and political interests is again due to a similar methodological problem. The reason for this is that the basic dynamic of social transformation, the driving force of history, is reduced to the conflict between bureaucratic and political elites rather than between capital and labour. As Güney (2019: 152) points out, the conceptualisation of politics as an activity carried out solely within the state, leaving aside its social foundations, causes the political struggle to appear as if it takes place in the form of a conflict between the elites in question. This leads to the perception of the conflict as if it has no material basis, as if it is a struggle between the bureaucratic and political elites on each side of the opposition and their (secular or conservative) worldviews. This leads to the state being perceived not as a site of the struggle over social relations, but as a constitutive subject, as an autonomous structure with its own logic and interests. By identifying the state with subjects and elites who are self-determining and conscious of their own specific interests, the state is presented as a self-sustaining reality (Yalman, 2004: 47–48).
The fact that these analyses, which explain authoritarianism through model dichotomies such as the economy and politics and the state and society, largely focus on moments of political rupture is coupled with a failure to sufficiently examine relations between the economy and politics, ignoring the vital question of problematising neoliberalism. By placing neoliberalism and authoritarianism at opposite poles, the common constitutive elements between neoliberal policies and the authoritarian state are left out of the analysis. Therefore, the continuities between the neoliberal policies implemented since 1980, the AKP’s rise to unshared power and the nature of authoritarianism in the present are overlooked. It is thought that neoliberal development and democratisation will be achieved through the withdrawal of the state from the market and society, which is thought to be self-sustaining, and the main sources of authoritarianism are not focused upon.
For this reason, it is an incomplete framework by which to explain the authoritarianism caused by the inevitable consequences of the AKP’s neoliberal programme and its acceptance by large segments of the population as a political party that would provide answers to the problems of development and democratisation, and then to explain the authoritarianism caused by the inevitable consequences of this programme in terms of structural continuities. While the authoritarian state has become stronger in each of the economic, political, and ideological processes since the 1980s, analysing the present authoritarianism by attributing it to these processes leads to it being explained in isolation from its original dynamics and so renders it unaccountable. On the other hand, in order to understand why authoritarian states are on the rise in different parts of the world, both the specific dynamics of the countries and international economic and social determinations need to be taken into account.
It is essential to have alternative ways of recognising authoritarianism: as a historical episode inherent in capitalist social relations, as a contemporary form of neoliberalism, as a response to the legitimation crisis of states and, at a broader level, to the crisis of capitalism. Instead of the concepts of neo-developmentalism and competitive authoritarianism as updated forms of the thesis of the strong state tradition, it is necessary to go beyond the philosophical, epistemological, and ontological roots and basic assumptions of neoliberalism for an alternative to emerge from Turkey’s own social dynamics. This is because the neoliberal form, as the current form of the capitalist state, basically formulates an authoritarian understanding of the state that assumes limited state intervention in the market, while recognising the right to directly intervene in other areas of society. While the showcase side of the neoliberalist coin is democracy, the obverse side is authoritarianism. Keeping in mind that the AKP has been in power as a single party government for more than 20 years, which is half of the 40-year neoliberalisation process, it is a sufficient historical legacy for us to understand that the “authoritarianism” of the present cannot be explained from a place free of neoliberalism, and that neoliberalism itself cannot be compatible with democracy.
*A longer version of this essay appears in Turkish in Toplum ve Bilim, 155.
Bedirhanoglu, P. (2020), “Social Constitution of the AKP’s Strong State Through Financialization: State in Crisis or Crisis State?”, in Bedirhanoğlu, P., Dölek, Ç., Hülagü, F., and Kaygusuz, Ö. (eds.), Turkey’s New Neoliberal State in the Making? Rethinking the Constitutive Power of Coercion, Consent and Resistance, London: Zed Books, 23–40.
Buğra, A., and Savaşkan, O. (2015), Türkiye’de Yeni kapitalizm: Siyaset, Din ve İş Dünyası. İstanbul: İletişim.
Burnham, P. (2017) “Neo-Liberalism, Crisis and the Contradictions of Depoliticisation”, The Open Journal of Sociopolitical Studies, 10(2): 357–380.
Esen, B., and Gümüşçü, Ş. (2018), “Building a Competitive Authoritarian Regime: State-Business Relations in the AKP’s Turkey”, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 20(4): 349–372.
Güney, A. (2019), Sosyolojinin Marksist bir Reddiyesi, İstanbul: Yordam.
Kutlay, M., and Karaoğuz, H. (2018), “Neo-Developmentalist Turn in the Global Political Economy? The Turkish Case”, Turkish Studies, 19(2): 289–316.
Kutun, M. (2021), “Making the New-Neoliberal State in Turkey: Beyond the Prevailing Master Narrative”, in Babacan, E., Kutun, M., Pınar, E., and Yılmaz, Z. (eds.), Regime Change in Turkey: Neoliberal Authoritarianism, Islamism, and Hegemony. London: Routledge.
Öktem, K., and Akkoyunlu, K. (2016), “Exit from Democracy: Illiberal Governance in Turkey and Beyond”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16(4): 469–480.
Oğuz, Ş. (2016), “Yeni Türkiye’nin siyasal rejimi”, in Tören, T. and Kutun, M. (eds.), Yeni Türkiye: Kapitalizm, Devlet, Sınıflar. İstanbul: SAV.
Öniş, Z. (2019), “Turkey Under the Challenge of State Capitalism: The Political Economy of the Late AKP Era”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 19(2): 201–225.
Somer, M. (2019), “The Slippery Slope from Reformist to Revolutionary Polarization and Democratic Breakdown in Turkey”, ANNALS AAPSS (681): 42–61.
Tansel, C.B. (2018), “Authoritarian Neoliberalism and Democratic Backsliding in Turkey: Beyond the Narratives of Progress”, South European Society and Politics, 23(2): 197–217.
Yalman, G. (2004), “Türkiye’de devlet ve burjuvazi: Alternatif bir okuma denemesi”, in Balkan, N. and Savran, S. (eds.), Sürekli Kriz Politikaları, 44–75. İstanbul: Metis.