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Despair and the Question of Emotional Sustainability under Authoritarianism: Insights from Turkey

Theory & ResearchThis essay intends to shed light on the emotional life of activists and dissident publics in contemporary Turkey along with producing insights to cultivate a coping perspective against the persistence of authoritarianism and the social polarization that it breeds, which poses a critical challenge to counter-hegemonic projects

Authoritarian governments, in countries like Russia, India, Turkey, and Hungary, have consolidated their power in the last decade, reconfiguring the power relations and normative structures in world politics as well as within their societies. Paralleling this, far-right political discourses and movements, which promote national versions of Kulturkampf around xenophobic, anti-migrant, and anti-gender agendas, are strikingly on the rise all around the world, including in the USA and the liberal democracies of the Global North. Given this dire picture, some scholars identify pessimism and despair developing as a prominent structure of feeling within the left-wing and dissident publics while they experience adverse circumstances including loss of credibility, lack of societal influence, and exhausting internal strife, along with varying degrees of political repression (Givoni 2019; J. L. Hochschild 2017). 

Social movements aim for political and social change, which requires an outward expansion and the alignment of multiple collective subjects for achieving transformation. While the strategy of counter-hegemony is criticized from a standpoint that prioritizes “horizontal, spontaneous and ‘non-representational’ action with vertical, centralized and representative politics”, the notion of a counter-hegemonic bloc remains salient for contemporary social movements to bring socio-political change (Kioupkiolis 2018, 103). Even if social movements cannot realize the goals of expansion and counter-hegemonic articulation, they still need to keep up their energy for retaining and mobilizing their supporters. Otherwise, the failure of the aims and desires for radical utopias leads to incapacitating feelings of pessimism and even nihilism among the fronts of emancipatory and progressive politics (Brown 2023, 29). This essay intends to shed light on the emotional life of activists and dissident publics in contemporary Turkey along with producing insights to cultivate a coping perspective against the persistence of authoritarianism and the social polarization that it breeds, which poses a critical challenge to counter-hegemonic projects. I argue that emotional sustainability is an essential component of this coping perspective.   

Turkish Democracy in Crisis

For more than two decades, Turkey has been ruled by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), whose governance model blends neoliberal populism, patronage politics, and electoral majoritarianism with an increasing modulation of political Islam (Akçay 2021). This model habitually benefits from polarization strategies to consolidate itself and overcome crisis situations through sparking the secular-religious and Kurdish-Turkish divides within society and seeking to circumvent counter-hegemonic alliances. The authoritarian tendencies of the party gradually rose following the nationwide Gezi Protests in 2013 and peaked after the failed coup attempt in 2016 (Bilgiç 2018). During this period, the AKP established an alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) which further increased the tone of nationalism and securitization discourse in ruling practices. 

The severe democratic backsliding of the last decade, coupled with the AKP’s recurring electoral victories and the intense political polarization, generated a peculiar emotional landscape for the dissident publics and activists in Turkey. The Kurdish movement, socialists, and minority groups — along with the civil society associated with them — have in Turkey long been subjected to varying degrees of repression and violence. However, the erosion of the separation of powers, the overt politicization of the judiciary, and the consolidation of the AKP’s rule in the last decade have critically curtailed the room for manoeuvre for these political and social actors. In this context, political change is deeply desired by dissident publics, yet seems difficult to achieve due to a variety of circumstances which fragment the opposition and hinder the establishment of a counter-hegemonic bloc.

Turkish democracy was already flawed before the AKP, and was ridden with structural problems such as the exclusion and repression of Kurdish identity and other minority populations along with the complications regarding the political representation and participation of popular classes and diverse religious identities. However, coalition governments, which had been the characteristic form of governance since the 1960s up until the AKP’s rise to power in 2001, would arguably set some limit on the monopolization of political power. Despite right-wing and liberal political figures and organizations criticizing them for causing political instability, the coalitions of multiple political parties with similar levels of support and different ideologies had given room for a moderate form of pluralism in Turkey while enabling the representation of diverse groups and their interests within the state apparatus (Bölükbaşı 2021).

Since its third term in power beginning in 2011, the AKP has initiated constitutional changes to increase its control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy along with extending its influence and then control over media outlets. Even before that, the neoliberalizing agenda of the AKP normalized governmental decrees and omnibus bills that eroded parliamentary processes and mechanisms of democratic deliberation. The crystallization of the authoritarian moment in Turkish politics stemmed from the intersection of multiple factors at the domestic, regional, and international levels in the 2010s. These can be summarized as: the 2008 financial crisis which cut the flow of financial capital into developing countries like Turkey; the shifting regional power dynamics with the growing political influence of Russia; the end of the Arab Spring, and the Syrian Civil War; the Gezi Protests which expressed the widespread dissent of the secular middle classes and Alevis, the largest religious minority group in Turkey; the collapse of the peace process with the Kurdish movement; and the internal strife within the hegemonic power bloc of the AKP, culminating in the coup attempt in July 2016. 

The failed coup attempt was organized by the Gülenist movement — formerly allied with the AKP — after which the AKP government declared a state of emergency rule that lasted for two years. More than 130,000 public employees were purged from the army, academy, judiciary, and the rest of bureaucracy and public services; thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs), unions, educational institutions, and media outlets were shut down; and hundreds of politicians, journalists, and activists were imprisoned during this period. The “Turkish style” presidential system was voted on and inaugurated under the state of emergency rule in 2017, which de facto ended the separation of powers and minimized the role of the Parliament as all key decisions would depend on the will of the president, i.e. Erdoğan. In this governance model, society is practically divided down the middle as either supporters or opponents of the AKP, wherein the political alliance which maintains 51 percent of the votes could dominate without proper checks and balances. Along with the politicization of the judiciary, the allegiance of mafia-esque organizations has also been maintained in the last several years, to threaten opposition figures and counter-movements. The most recent general election in May 2023 ended with the victory of the alliance between the AKP and the MHP once again, shattering the shaky alliance between the multiple opposition parties and dashing the hopes that it had generated within the parts of society that desire political change.   

The developments in the last decade have culminated in a political regime wherein the state apparatus has largely been co-opted by the AKP, becoming a political machinery devoted to sustaining Erdoğan’s one-man rule. Correspondingly, they engendered an amalgam of crises in Turkish democracy by accentuating its structural complications and adding new dimensions, eventually leading to the shrinking of civic and political spaces for groups not aligned with the government. Under these circumstances, a complex emotional terrain of fluctuating between hope and hopelessness has emerged within the dissident public. Both of these seemingly contrasting emotions could be adopted as coping mechanisms and defensive strategies for navigating the continuous decline of democracy, the societal normalization of injustice, and the high-risk political environment. 

Data Sources and Methodology

This paper draws from my fieldwork on the production of civil society activism in Turkey and the experiences and perspectives of civil society workers, which I carried out between November 2019 and May 2022. I conducted 28 in-depth interviews with the workers and directors of rights-based and advocacy CSOs, in the fields of human rights, legal justice, freedom of speech, cultural rights and recognition, peace-building, and women’s rights. Many of these CSOs have been subjected to political repression in the form of court cases, extraordinary audits, and the detainment and incarceration of their members. Participant observations from the meetings and workshops of CSOs, and the review of the public narratives by civil society actors and activists were also part of my data sources. To interpret the interviews and the accounts by civil society activists and dissident public figures, I deploy “emotional narrative analysis” (Kleres 2011) to understand how activists reflect on and process their experiences and the state of their energies for mobilization along with unpacking how their reasonings and thoughts are interlaced with emotions, including their feelings about the future.     

Research Questions and Conceptual Framework 

In this essay, I scrutinize the emotional experiences and perspectives of activists, in relation to: 1) authoritarian pressures, the high-risk environment of activism, and polarization; and 2) the organizational issues and working relations in civil society. I intend to contextualize these experiences and perspectives within the public emotions of the opposition who face political repression and polarization in Turkey, through the curtailment of civic rights and freedom of speech, criminalization campaigns, a regime of impunity, and the heavy politicization of the judiciary. These circumstances engender feelings of impotence, a lack of agency, hopelessness, and despondence. In addition, I examine the meanings and conditions of hope and hopelessness, with the purpose of pondering how civic organizations can improve the circumstances and mechanisms to deal with the emotional toll of activism. 

The emotional aspects of activism have received significant attention in the literature around social movements. The sociological concepts of “emotion work” and “feeling rules” (A. R. Hochschild 1979) and “emotional sustainability” (Brown and Pickerill 2009) provide useful perspectives to interpret the ways in which feelings and emotions manifest in and influence the processes of the production of activism. The concept of “emotion work” is influential in guiding the studies examining the emotional experiences of activists in challenging and sometimes risky environments, and not rarely with limited outcomes. It refers to the management and regulation of emotions — both of the self and of others — to sustain activism, and that takes place at the individual and organizational levels (Reger 2004). 

Emotions are not subjective phenomena independent of the objective conditions of existence, rather they are shaped and mediated by social structures and regimes of inequality. For this reason, it is essential to acknowledge the structural forces at play that impact the environment in which activist politics and subjectivities are produced in order to make sense of the emotions pertaining to activism. In this regard, Eleanor Wilkinson (2009, 42) proposes not to treat the interpersonal relation patterns and feeling rules in activist spaces as inherently counter-hegemonic, and calls for attention to be paid to the ways in which “they mirror those found in mainstream society”. 

Gavin Brown and Jenny Pickerill (2009) provide an insightful perspective to analyse emotions in activist organizations as they concentrate on the processes of “emotional sustainability”. This perspective considers four localities to grasp the role of emotions in activism: place, temporality, the self, and interpersonal relations. Specific configurations of and interventions in these localities might promote emotional reflexivity, i.e. the conscious awareness of emotions at the individual and collective levels and the ability for skilful emotional self-management. These may involve the employment of familiar sites to invoke shared meanings and solidarity, and the creation of safe spaces to re-examine and rekindle emotions, promoting mutual learning and exchange across generations, paying attention to the embodied aspects of the self and addressing individual emotional needs and personal fragility, and the cultivation of an ethics of mutual care and collective support. The authors call for “making explicit the link between understanding our emotions and prefiguring social transformation” and practising new emotionally sustainable interpersonal relationships as a vital task for social movements in their quest to imagine egalitarian and just futures (Brown and Pickerill 2009, 10).

Distress and Emotion Work in High-Risk Activism

Many forms of civil society engagement in today’s Turkey associated with the defence of human rights can be considered high-risk activism. In this respect, political risks came up as a central theme in my interviews. A majority of the respondents expressed feelings of stress, anxiety, and despondence in relation to political pressures, which at times result in activist burnout, that is the depletion of the energy to continue activism coupled with the desire to withdraw from the field. The propensity towards burnout is aggravated by the double burden caused by the activists’ work of monitoring rights violations and assisting groups facing coercion, for example with persecuted political activists along with the political risks that they and their organizations face as civil society activists, such as detention and the shutting down of the organizations.

My respondents rarely articulated fear as part of their personal experiences and emotional responses. This situation could be related to the “feeling rules” of the activist habitus, which put the notion of responsibility for others ahead of concern for one’s own well-being, and where the spaces and discursive frames to express and embrace negative emotions are lacking. In this vein, some respondents perceive the risks they personally face as unworthy of fear as they are in close contact with persecuted and marginalized groups as part of their advocacy work, and bear close witness to the injustice and suffering that they endure. However, this does not mean that civil society activists do not suffer from emotional attrition, the effects of secondary trauma, and bodily symptoms of stress such as insomnia and chronic pain, which are all frequently reported by the respondents. 

Another significant emotional characteristic of the activist habitus in the Turkish context is feeling inadequacy and guilt. The activists whom I interviewed tended to minimize their efforts and downplay their emotional distress while emphasizing the sacrifices and precarity of activist groups or individuals whom they support and are in solidarity with. In that regard, they used expressions like “what I/we do is not enough”, “I don’t consider myself at risk when my friends are in prison”, “I feel guilty when I go abroad for a holiday”, and “I attended the demonstration even when I was worried that a bomb would explode in the crowd, and I felt ashamed about this worry”.     

Civil society activists usually engage in personal forms of “emotion work” to deal with the feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and burnout through their own means. In some cases, “partial disengagement”, which entails distancing and also diversion to other venues for a limited period of time, is reported as a coping mechanism for improving the individual capacity for resilience. There are some CSOs which organize workshops and collective therapy sessions to address emotional attrition and the emotional well-being of activists. Nonetheless, the overall situation calls for organized and collective forms of awareness and attention to these issues.

Grievances about Labour and Organizational Issues in Civil Society

The literature on social movements and civil society activism pays much attention to the emotional effects of political repression and the difficulty of attaining social change (Nah 2021). However, organizational and labour-related aspects and problems with paid forms of activism are seldom addressed in relation to the experiences and emotional lives of activists. In one of these rare studies, Kathleen Rodgers (2010) brings attention to the emotional labour among the paid activists at Amnesty International. She contends that overwork and problems in organizational culture, such as the notion of self-sacrifice, aggravate activist burnout and result in resigning from roles. 

My research revealed that the grievances of civil society activists frequently centre around the internal troubles of the CSOs and complications of the civil society framework. These issues transpire at the intersection of intra-organizational problems, the projectification of activism, dependency on donor grants, and the organizations’ lack of financial self-sufficiency, amounting to a neoliberal work structure in the production of activism (Sözen 2022). These problems are concerned with labour relations (such as short-term contracts, lack of job security, overworking, and exploitation of voluntary labour) and intra-organizational democracy (such as age- and gender-based hierarchies, exclusionary decision-making practices, and bullying of the junior staff). In this framework, the pressure to find funding for activist projects, which is usually available as short-term project grants and entails competition, leads to authoritarian and neoliberal forms of management in the CSOs and subsequently resentment and disillusionment among their workers.   

In this regard, one of my respondents, who works on the cases of persecuted and imprisoned journalists, reported that “the troubles I experience regarding my job are not so much due to state repression but more about the internal troubles of the civil society”. Another CSO professional, who has for more than a decade worked in CSOs that concentrate on cultural rights and democracy, likened the labour relations at CSOs to those at sweatshops, and complained about exclusionary decision-making practices and age- and seniority-based hierarchies. This situation amounts to a disappointing incongruity whereby the organizations that claim to defend democracy, human rights, and equality do not practise these ideals in their internal workings. Hence, afflictions regarding the working conditions and intra-organizational relations are an important cause of burnout and alienation for the civil society activists.   

Narratives of Hope and Hopelessness 

I must confess that I did not expect that it would come to this. When they first detained Mr. Osman [Kavala], I said “they probably won’t arrest him”. After they arrested him, I said “they probably won’t keep him in for long”. It is hard to believe, but it has been five years. In each trial, in each review of his imprisonment, in each ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) decision, I felt hopeful. I am not able to feel hopeless, for some reason. Maybe it is because I cannot wrap my head around (what is going on). (Erol 2022)[1]

These are the words of Asena Günal, the executive director of Anadolu Kültür, which is a foundation established by Osman Kavala for promoting the recognition of cultural diversity and social dialogue for democracy in Turkey. It is a central cultural institution in the country which has been supporting many CSOs since 2002. Kavala, a philanthropist and the leading patron of civil society in Turkey, was arrested in November 2017 on charges of espionage and contributing to the coup attempt that took place in 2016. After a convoluted period of legal proceedings, Kavala was given an aggravated life sentence in April 2022 at the final ruling of the Gezi Trial in which seven other civil society activists were sentenced to 18 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the government by organizing the Gezi Protests in 2013. The trial, which was primarily based on anonymous witness depositions, is described as “a travesty of justice” and “a politically motivated charade” by Amnesty International (quoted in Safi and Kent 2022).

In the previous quotation, Asena Günal ironically links her inability to feel hopeless to her failure to comprehend such blatant injustice and its perpetuation. A dramatic shift has taken place in the political climate of Turkey during the two-decade rule of the AKP — from a reformist period in which there were high hopes for democratization and the country’s EU accession, into a sharp democratic backsliding and illiberal authoritarianism as I discussed above (Köker 2019). Given this divergence, especially for the generation of activists who entered into civil society in the 2000s, the degree of the arbitrary use of power, erosion of the judiciary, and the uncertainty of political risks can be confounding. 

I encountered different perspectives regarding hope and hopelessness in my fieldwork, wherein hope is expressed mostly in relation to solidarity practices and the ability to provide assistance to persecuted and marginalized groups, and hopelessness considering the endurance of the authoritarian regime and weakness of the opposition. However, hopelessness emerges as a more pronounced emotional mood among the activists, especially with regards to political polarization and the inability to influence and change the established conservative political stances in society, such as the strength of nationalism, sexism, and xenophobia. In that regard, one of my respondents from a volunteer-based feminist initiative, founded after the earthquake that hit Southern Turkey in February 2023, expressed: 

I am tired of hoping. I am hopeless at this stage, about the election [of May 2023] too. The solidarity efforts after the earthquakes might have changed the opinions of only a small number of people. However, many people in this country, both Kemalists and the AKP supporters, are conservative, they don’t want to change. They are holding onto their privileges and consider anyone who demands equality as their enemy ... Depending on the outcome of the election, I might also consider leaving Turkey as many of my friends have done already[2].   

The rigidity of polarized political identities and societal resistance to change as discussed by the respondent above constitute a major cause for the lack of hope among the activists. Besides, the vacillation from hope to despair and back again results in a fatigue wherein hopes for change have failed multiple times in the past, such as in the aftermath of the Gezi Movement and after the general election in June 2015 when the AKP lost its majority in the Parliament, but managed to re-run the elections in November, and lastly, after the general election in May 2023. Hope and hopelessness are elusive and versatile phenomena reflecting diverse subjective attitudes. They are also influenced by individuals’ social, political, and economic locations, and materialize in the complex interplay of the subjects’ senses of futurity and agency and their social contexts. Under an unpredictable high-risk political environment, retaining hope may serve as a coping mechanism against anxiety which could ease the navigation through uncertainty and facing the pain of possible adverse outcomes (Kleist and Jansen 2016). Conversely, hopelessness may also be adopted as a defensive mechanism against disappointment, a perspective to survive under dire circumstances in which the subject feels a lack of influence (Norem 2003).   

In the field of social studies and critical humanities, hope is conceptualized as an active force that is shaped through a revolutionary consciousness and grounded in a “concrete” utopian perspective (Bloch 1986), a method of re-orientating knowledge to create new dreams and ideals (Miyazaki 2004) or a critical and embodied emotional praxis that “considers our common vulnerability as a resource” (Haran 2010, 407). Whilst hopelessness receives less attention as part of a constructive emotional repertoire for civic engagement, there are studies attesting to its value as a means that could motivate emancipatory collectives, activate emotional energies for social change, and ponder its meanings and possibilities for activism (Duggan and Muñoz 2009; Haas 2016). Yet, collective political awareness and reflection is necessary to work on these feelings and channel them for the purpose of emotional sustainability, along with the critical need for deliberating on, establishing, and practising the mechanisms and means to realize it.

Conclusion: An Emotional Agenda for Sustainable Activism 

Wendy Brown, in Nihilistic Times, offers a re-reading of Max Weber and his arguments on vocation and political leadership in response to the contemporary crisis of the left as it “is perplexed by its own failures and shrinking ground as its enemies today flirt ever more openly with authoritarianism” (Brown 2023, 54). Following Weber, Brown proposes grit as an antidote to despair, in the form of a combination of emotional, spiritual, and practical approaches in political action for justice, equality, and a better future. In this discussion, she makes the case for incorporating grit, as a calm and sober perspective nurtured by reason, self-reflection, and responsibility, with the desires and passionate attachments that political activism mobilizes around utopias. Consequently, as the remedy to counteract the nihilism of our times wherein all values are getting devalued and the truth loses its power to compel societies, Brown recommends the cultivation of novel worldviews and the education of desires for sustainable political projects that aim for just futures, while leaving behind the conceit that our values are inherently true and those of our opponents are false (Brown 2023, 57).  

In this spirit, I tried to display the vitality of an emotional agenda and the mechanisms of emotional sustainability for activism in this essay. The mechanisms to ensure sustainability in activist organizations should be capable of providing safe environments in which activists can express their negative feelings, anxieties, and grievances, and find meaningful solutions to these. These mechanisms should aim to practise and bring to life the “here and now” within the social relationships and institutions that they build, and the political and ethical ideals and future visions that they profess for an egalitarian and participatory social configuration. As such, experiences with new forms of interpersonal relations that consider mutual care, even at a smaller scale, could nourish the much-needed hope, political well-being, and resilience that the field of activism calls for — both under and against authoritarianism. To this end, a serious deliberation on the subjects of labour rights, structural hierarchies, and internal democracy is indispensable to the maintenance of emotional sustainability for activist organizations and civil society. 

A self-reflexive perspective on emotions in civil society activism further implicates the question of political imaginations and strategies for pursuing solidarity and convergence among polarized social groups to build a counter-hegemonic bloc. This task is again concerned with a sober grit to understand and engage with the desires, grievances, and frustrations of the others, most of whom lend support to authoritarian and right-wing movements, in order to mobilize their hopes for political change and equality. Beyond the Turkish case, producing knowledge on these issues is crucial on a global scale, considering the worldwide surge of authoritarianism and right-wing movements, the social fracturing under neoliberalism, and the searches for energizing and popularizing emancipatory politics.   



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  1. 1

     The quote is translated by the author. 

  2. 2

     Private interview, 7 April 2023.

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