Who will govern Turkish capitalism and how?

While the class coalition that has formed the Erdoğan regime is now disintegrating leading to significant results; in the words of prominent economist Korkut Boratav, the “overdue” government is trying to toughen and win the fight over who will govern Turkish capitalism. On the other hand, the importance of every small resistance, every challenge to workers and young people keeps increasing.

Messages delivered via the speeches of Tuncay Özilhan and Simone Kaslowski at Turkey’s prestigious business association TÜSİAD’s general assembly -two weeks ago- presented economic-political critiques of the government.

Özilhan and Kaslowski are top representatives and spokespeople for Istanbul capital’s bourgeois, which is Turkey’s most developed and best integrated capital with global markets. They made no attempt to hide their message; they criticized the entirety of the government’s agenda, mostly directly: Economic policies, the appointment of governors and bureaucrats to the Central Bank, the Istanbul Convention withdrawal, the controversial rector appointed to Boğaziçi University, education policies, the politicized judiciary, religionization with strong emphasis on “secularism” (highlighted a total of five times in two speeches), censorship and repression of the press, the law suit opened for the closure of the Kurdish-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the removal of parliamentary membership status of deputies, the political tension provoked by the government, unemployment, use of public resources (the relationship of pro-government companies and public enterprises), fiscal discipline, and issues in regional and international relations. The list goes on.

With regard to all these topics, each of which is the subject of ongoing tension, the industrial bourgeoisie stands in a position that openly criticizes the “Palace” [Beştepe Palace in Ankara] policies. The spokesmen for TÜSİAD also criticized the current paradigm regarding the Kurdish issue, which is interrelated with the ideological and cultural survival of the regime. What primarily emerges from these speeches is a clear objection to the hegemony of the ruling bloc.

Özilhan, in his own words, said that “recent centuries” have evolved into what the liberal bourgeoisie sees as “progress.” Solutions to modern problems are only correct when they are in line with this general trend. Other practices remain like “brackets,” according to Özilhan. “Daily and workaround” solutions are defenseless to historical developments, he said, finally reaching his point of warning that Erdoğan, can “remain closed in the bracket.”

He referred to certain periods in Turkey’s history, such as the one-party period (1923-1945); Sept. 12, 1990 coup, and the Feb. 28 “post-modern” coup. Nevertheless, this is a warning from the 50-year-old industry bourgeoise. This attitude, which prioritizes the direction of global capitalism and its needs, stands in opposition to the policies of the Palace. This is a new expression highlights the clear differences of opinion among the dominant components of Turkish capitalism. A significant portion of the capital-owners have announced its position going forward, while maintaining its bargaining option.

Özilhan's remarks should be considered together with analysis by TÜSİAD Chair Simone Kaslowski, which included direct political references: “The drive of the new administration’s 1.9 trillion-dollar social democratic aid package in the United States will have a positive impact on the world economy.”

Last October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its World Economic Outlook report suggested social democrat policies such as prioritizing public investments, increasing the tax share of corporations and the wealthy. Economist Korkut Boratav evaluated this as a discourse against “neoliberal bigotry,” which expanded Keynesian fiscal policies toward a leftist direction. TÜSİAD capital, parallel with the IMF and U.S. policies, goes a step further and uses the term “social-democrat” to emphasize its alignment with the global capitalist strategy.

The speeches at the general assembly, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of TÜSİAD, as well as the general “atmosphere,” indicated the complicated situation of Turkish capitalism. But another point that drew attention when looking at the general framework was that Turkey’s current situation is associated with the 70s.

“There are serious parallels between today and the 1970s. As 50 years ago today, economic and social dynamics have accelerated to make us think that we are on the verge of a transformation,” Özilhan said, quoting the TÜSİAD’s 1972 working report, adding that “the Turkish entrepreneur has an important role in transforming our society into an advanced welfare state. However, Turkish society now expects entrepreneurs to take a more informed and active role in solving social problems, which are growing every day.”

Under Turkey’s circumstances, this quote can be rightly interpreted as a search for motivation, even by the bourgeoisie, in its referring to the “glorious past.” More importantly, the traditional “Turkish entrepreneurs” are reminding us of their historic function within Turkish capitalism. Just as during the 60s, commercial capitalism was defeated in favor of the industrial bourgeoisie and Turkey rapidly evolved into an industrial society, while the 70s were marked by class conflicts in this bourgeois society and open class wars in which the working class emerged as a political actor.

It is no coincidence that the TÜSİAD was founded one month later than the March 12, 1971 coup (April 1971). March 12 was a bloody counter-revolution against the possibility of the working class, the poor peasants, and the youth movements to unite on a revolutionary basis. Just as the May 27, 1960 coup facilitated the transformation of agricultural and commercial capitalism into industrial capitalism, the March 12 coup served to crush the revolutionary potential of this industrial order. The words of Memduh Tağmaç, Chief of General Staff at the time, regarding the conditions of the coup, make it very clear: “Social awakening had exceeded economic development.”

The 70s were designed to be lived as laid out by the fascism of the March 12 coup, but the resistance of the Turkish society, especially the working class and the patriotic youth, overturned this bourgeois dream. The chaos that Özilhan referred to as the one that dominated the 70s is this resistance itself. Vehbi Koç, one of the founding fathers of TÜSİAD, said, “For me, those years between 1973 and 1980 were a nightmare.” The 1970s were a time that Özilhan compared to today as a “bad example” when the capital owners described it with chaos and uncertainty.
However, when viewed from “exactly the opposite side,” these years appear to be a time when Turkish society was organized in resisting the relations of capitalist exploitation and its political attacks of all kinds, from religiosity to nationalism. Sept. 12, 1980 came marching with the support and sincere applause of those same capital owners; it aimed to break this resistance violently and succeeded to a great extent. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) years, with the clear support of the same capital circles, are the materialization of the effort to make Turkey a full market society, on the same path trodden by coups in 1971 and 1980. The interests of the “Turkish entrepreneurs” which are in harmony with global capitalism, may happen to experience problems with today’s Erdoğan-AKP regime, but that does not remove this fact. In fact, the spokesmen of TÜSİAD are reminding Erdoğan, in this context, that he is the political representative of a bourgeois stability regime, and that “this was exactly how he succeeded.”

It is no coincidence that on the same days, MÜSAD Honorary President Erol Yarar wrote an article titled “Revolution is the only way” advocating the interests of another capital segment. Yarar has stolen and adapted the revolutionary slogan of the 70s to his own class interests, while referring to the fight at the top of Turkish capitalism. This Islamist-bourgeois theft is meaningful because this group has existed ever since with what they have stolen from the left. It makes sense that he was greeted with enthusiasm in this media group, which has long existed based on “stealing from the left” and ultimately only found itself at “left of the regime,” in this order of the most right-wing. Otherwise, we know that the positions of TÜSİAD and MÜSİAD are not different in the face of a real revolution.

The capacity of the “Palace” to manage the demands of various capital groups that have different interests has somehow eroded. Considering this as a “survival” issue, they are now turning to their politically loyal core. Tuesday’s remarks by the spokesmen for the Istanbul capital indicate the extent of this deterioration. In both speeches, the repetition of unemployment, the decline in wages, problems of small business owners, Özilhan referring to “the impoverishment of the society,” and the fact that “in sectors where the pandemic has led to job losses, the incomes of workers, self-employed and tradesmen have decreased, their welfare levels have decreased” also makes sense in the “battle at the top level.”

This wing of the bourgeoisie truly feels the uneasiness within the working classes. Of course, they first see it as a risk; but they also calculate the energy accumulated there and the possibility of making it functional in their own struggle for hegemony. They have done this in the past, even in the process leading up to the AKP government.
The most quoted portion from Özilhan’s speech was his describing an atmosphere in which the dust has not settled yet, and the boundaries of authority and responsibility are “indistinct.” It includes a basic fact that every “independent” person looking at today’s Turkey can see. But this “unsettled dust” reality varies depending on where one stands. The vagueness of the boundaries of authority and responsibility, together with the unsettled dust, might mean something else for Özilhan. It could be the situation where Central Bank bureaucrats (and their policies) are arbitrarily determined by the Palace.

One day before, however, the chain supermarket Migros’ warehouse workers, who were members of the trade union DGD-Sen were beaten and detained while protesting outside Özilhan’s house. These workers are inhaling a different kind of dust, for sure.

The tension and friction between the capital-owning classes is an opportunity for the workers and society. The workers, who were “taken” in front of the villas of members of the bourgeois who deliver speeches on democracy and law, showed that real “progress” in the country can only be achieved through negotiations in which the workers are also included as a party.

While the class coalition that has formed the Erdoğan regime is now disintegrating leading to significant results; again, in the words of Korkut Boratav, the “overdue” government is trying to toughen and win the fight over who will govern Turkish capitalism. On the other hand, the importance of every small resistance, every challenge to workers and young people keeps increasing. It is neither the optimism that they will go in the first election nor the pessimism that they will not go anywhere.
In this historic moment, we keep insisting on social struggle and organizational activity. Noting even the darkest possibility, but refusing to surrender to it, seeing the opportunities for our own future in this crisis of capitalism. We are not “little,” we are not “few;” we have huge opportunities in terms of financial history. The fight over how to govern Turkish capitalism is not a battle of the gods, where we fear the thunderbolts. We can see it as the society’s own “clear sky.”