From July 15 to Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s road to capitalism

The current Islamic-nationalist coalition is no political Frankenstein that came out of the blue. Rather, it is the organic product of Turkey’s capitalism for the past 40 years. This causal relation from which it benefits and gains most of its support, is at the same time its Achilles’s heel.

This past July 15 marked the fourth anniversary of the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016. That day will be remembered as the inevitable end to the buildup of a neoliberal state and society in Turkey. This building began with the 1980 coup, was bolstered in the 1990s, and was eventually completed, to a large extent, with the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The Turkish bourgeoisie and elite, which held sway over the state apparatus and primarily the military, ushered in a wholesale transformation in 1980 that complied with international capital.  This transformation caused a social and political collapse that was collected, like cotton candy on a stick, on July 15 2016. This day means far more than the chain of events that took place that very day, most of which will remain ambiguous. 

It is one those events that is strongly symbolic, perhaps the first of its kind, and which reflects the past 40 years in Turkey. Those accused of being perpetrators claim they’re victims. Then there are those who portray themselves as victorious in the wake of the event. Both have direct links to the promotion of religion in society - one of the most distinct phenomena in the past 40 years. 

Yet July 15 is not just a day that marked the culmination of tensions between the Milli Görüş-based neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement. The growth of religion in society is undoubtedly one of the most significant mechanisms of the past 40 years. It has caused much destruction and has paved the way for the current and bleak situation. But religion is not just an ideological shell, it a fellow traveler which has strategically accompanied Turkey’s capitalist orientations throughout those past 40 years. 

Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup, held the Quran in his hand during rallies in which he asked for votes to ratify the post-coup constitution. Since 2015, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has held rallies for elections and constitutional referenda whilst holding the Quran. Evren and Erdoğan overlap in the promotion of this economic program. It’s that economic program which anchors a junta leader and an elected neo-Islamist leader inside the same frame. This program now seems to have paved the way to combine elected, nonelected and enforced practices. 

In fact, the 1980 post-coup strategy has been merely been pursuing its journey, thereby incorporating the July 15 stopover. A military insurrection against an elected government was skillfully turned into a full-fledged anti-democratic counter coup. Yet it would be a mistake to reduce the entire aftermath of the event to the aptitudes of neoliberal-era Islamists. 

What happened in Turkey after July 15 2016 was in full harmony with the historic and ideological traits of the political personnel who referred to the failed coup as “God’s blessing.” However, this harmony is no one-sided aptitude. Just as it generated the 1980 post-coup regime, this process is behind the so-called “Turkish-style” presidential system. The individual characteristics of the political actors of those respective historical periods do not suffice to explain these events. 

The ruling classes that have sought this political and economic system since 1980 and the establishment behind domestic and international capitalism seem to get into disputes at times. But this is misleading. From Vehbi Koç’s praising of Kenan Evren to the complicit silence of TÜSIAD’s today, while the structures of the old system are slowly being dismantled, the establishment remains one. 

The post-1980 coup regime produced state terror through a discourse presented as “anti-terror.” A veneer of “anti-coup” discourse accompanies today’s regime. Yet it is able to launch a cleanup of the law and democracy in a scope that would make actual coup-plotters envious. 

Only an authoritarian state apparatus can deal with the contradictions in the essence and the current situation of Turkey’s capitalism. But the state apparatus is not only the quiet perpetrator of today’s changes, it is also acting as an accomplice. Just like it did in the past. 

The main problem today is that the conflicts Turkey’s capitalism has been experiencing have come to a point where our “restricted” bourgeois democracy can’t even manage them. Contrary to other examples in the world, in Turkey, capitalism and bourgeois democracy have become incompatible and antagonistic. Beyond facilitating the Erdoğan-Bahçeli coalition, this is the very mechanism that pushed the two leaders to their current positions. 

The government’s invention of inflation rates and economic data to the extent where even its own support base no longer believes them as well as soaring unemployment and disastrous economic policies would not have been possible under the bourgeois democratic conditions of Turkey’s recent past. 

The liberal bourgeois state left a void that was gradually filled since 1980. The AKP filled the void with “charity”, usually wrapped in a religious and nationalistic aura, and based on the increasingly personalized assurance of a self-evident political subject. This request/supply dynamic, which formed with the poorest segment of the society, is now far from its former plausibility and functionality since AKP members, after so many decades, became the bourgeoisie. 

Amid the economic collapse that seems to be looming and will likely affect a large segment of society, the AKP’s former dynamic of relying on the poor as a backup by using charity will no longer work. It is becoming impossible to manipulate the political consent of wider crowds. The “vote erosion” we have been witnessing should be considered in this light.

In this context, rather than wasting time with lavish and fanciful projects to kick-start a recovery that would benefit its base, the government coalition is cracking down on possible critiques. An example of this came with a bill to decentralize bar associations that was passed in parliament. Another blow to other professional associations is being prepared. A restrictive bill is on the agenda to regulate social media. The appointed trustee regime is unbridled. It is now planning to modify the laws of political parties and elections. 

On the social front, the government has come up with initiatives to secure the most active components of its support base. These active supporters are useful when the need arises to call the help of “street activities.” The Hagia Sophia move can be evaluated within this scope, a move that carries “huge meaning” for rightwing people over a certain age and would wet the eyes of the more militant fringe. And in order to improve the “family” doctrine according to which women are the arbitrary extensions of men, the government intends to abolish the Istanbul Convention. 

The regime will continue to claim it is suspending the rules and conditions because it is necessary in light of the difficult times we are going through. 

To this tend, they behave brazenly at times and use such cards as Hagia Sophia. In other times, they continue to rely on their “caliphate” rhetoric like a bluffing gambler. The historic road to remove the liberal bourgeois state – despite its already trimmed shape – was paved after July 15. Behind all those pompous speeches delivered on July 15 that celebrated “democracy and national will,” this are actually the footsteps of an effort to overcome the management crisis that turned into a deadlock. 

The current Islamic-nationalist coalition is no political Frankenstein that came out of the blue. Rather, it is the organic product of Turkey’s capitalism for the past 40 years. This causal relation from which it benefits and gains most of its support, is at the same time its Achilles’s heel.