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Turkey: the coup inside out

The Realness of the Coup

“İçimiz dışımız darbe oldu.”[1] From toes to head the coup absorbed us. The coup has produced many pedestrian-experts, trying to gauge the coup’s hidden internal and external dynamics. This hermeneutics of the secret owes much of its power to a monumental failure… The failure of what could have turned out to be a horrible coup has exposed what it takes to engage in such a level of coordinated military and civic action leading to a coup. There are so many speculative theories and analyses, often bordering on conspiracy theories: rumors, unfinished scenarios, newly revealed facts and personal accounts of some soldiers dispersed here and there in the media. Anyone familiar with Turkish politics would know about the peculiar efficacy and popularity of conspiracy theories in explaining the mechanisms of state power and violence. These theories condense at once the popular aspirations for transparency and full national sovereignty in the face of globalized neoliberal capitalism, and the desire for self-empowerment when one feels excluded from the possibility of engaging in collective political action. It is also where social and class antagonisms are often displaced onto some hidden or not-so hidden ‘enemies’ that can be both intimate and foreign.

As for the realness of the coup, the initial impression of many people seems to have vacillated between two poles: On one hand, the coup attempt was organized in such a clumsy and incompetent way that it hardly seemed ‘real’ – in light of the Cold War military coups undertaken in Turkey in 1960, 1971 and 1980, the last two targeting especially the socialist movement. On the other, the air raids and shootings of civilians and violent clashes between the sections of army and police forces suggest that the stakes were really high and those leading the coup really meant to take over the government and ‘seize’ the entirety of the state. If the coup achieved its goal, the result would be disastrous for any democratic politics worthy of the name. But democracy does not end with the defeat of the coup. The aftermath is, indeed, a decisive moment for emancipatory democratic struggles against different forms of coup and political repression that may be currently unfolding.

The State in Turmoil

Both the coup attempt and the following purges have centered on the state. In that, they have both revealed something about the forces, relations of political domination, and popular struggles that constitute and traverse the Turkish state. The recent events highlighted once again that the state was not just an abstract, unitary subject, hovering above society and transcending social and political conflicts, if you will, class struggle (the state typically conceived in liberal-idealistic accounts). Likewise, the state was not simply an instrument like any other, devoid of any content in the hands of the ruling classes. The Soviet socialist experience – including Lenin’s own reflections – indeed underscored the grave problems such an instrumentalist approach caused in reorganizing the relations of production and fashioning a ‘socialist’ mode of production through the state. Nicos Poulantzas offered an important insight when he conceived the state as a material condensation of a relationship of forces between classes and class fractions. The state was not outside of social and class antagonisms, but was a part of them.

What the coup attempt revealed was the fragility of the seemingly monolithic hold of the AKP government over state apparatuses. Some kind of turmoil or ‘crisis’ has been expected; the bankrupt policies of Turkey in the Middle East, especially with regards to Syria and the military operations in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, to name just the most obvious ones, seemed to intensify further the already existing antagonisms within the apparatuses of the state. In aspiring to build what it calls a ‘new Turkey,’ AKP over the last decade sought to transform a number of state apparatuses (e.g., the army, police, education, media) in accordance with its conservative, neo-Ottomanist, Turkish nationalism, which on the one hand relied on neoliberal strategies of accumulation based on financial capital, enclosures of the commons, privatization of key sectors, and ‘flexibilization’ of labor market, and, on the other, the paternalist redistribution of welfare (e.g., basic food and coal) and “services” to the popular classes, especially the urban poor.

The AKP government sought to create its own bourgeoisie, no less than any other Turkish government embracing the premises of capitalism did. Together with the neoliberalization of economy, the transformation of the state has been central to its class project. In the 2000s, the old Kemalist establishment’s state personnel was replaced by people close to the AKP. The AKP relied heavily on the educated cadres of Fethullah Gülen movement or “cemaat”(community), which has been particularly well organized in the education system, providing a sizeable army of intellectual labor for the AKP. As is well known, the Gülen movement centered on a variety of state apparatuses, including the army, police, and judiciary. They were part of the newly rising Turkish bourgeoisie with Islamic orientation, which competed against the dominant Westernized, secular Turkish bourgeoisie.

For the last few years, especially with the Gezi Park uprising in 2013 and the Kurdish movement’s increasingly effective political opposition, the power bloc has begun visibly crumbling; relations between Gülen and AKP deteriorated and a “bitter war over the spoils of power” set in.[2] In this sense, it came as no big surprise when the Gülen movement was named as the author of the recent coup attempt and its members were associated with ‘terrorism.’

Purges and De-Gülenization

If the coup was partly a product of the increasing tension within the factions of state apparatuses and AKP’s hegemony, the massive purges following the failed coup also gained another meaning. It was not just a question of finding the individual culprits, but diminishing the network of people traversing the entire state institutions and also the private sector. What we see now is a warlike battle within and across state apparatuses, which does not, to be sure, articulate itself in the language of class struggle – in fact, as Poulantzas notes, the antagonisms among the state personnel due to its distinct internal divisions and mode of operation rarely use that language. Rather, the contradictions and conflicts within the power bloc and the popular struggles often manifest themselves in the shape of cracks, gaps, or splits within the personnel and apparatuses of the state. It is hard not to take notice of such cracks in the Turkish state. As of now, close to 100,000 public employees are being screened or suspended. And what slowly unfolds is the overt and covert struggle over the newly opened positions, which would express the ‘new’ political-ideological composition of the state – Turkish nationalism with its vision of unitary and centralized nation-state is being invoked as the glue of society.

Clearly, the AKP government’s response to the coup attempt has taken the form of securitization of society and state. In that, it suggests some curious parallels with the lustration process (the screening and ban of ‘secret’ communist agents from public life) employed in Eastern Europe, specifically the one in Poland. There are, of course, important differences arising out of the specific historical dynamics of state and class formation in Eastern Europe and Turkey. Lustration is a part of the history of state and class formation in Eastern Europe, inscribed into a contentious post/anti-communist nation-state building project and a bitter struggle, as in Poland, between the blocs of pro-EU secular liberals and conservative nationalists. Moreover, AKP-led purges operate under the “state of emergency” while lustration, formally a “transitional justice” process, tends to be more responsive to rule-of-law centered criticism, even when it claims to be an ‘exceptional’ legal measure to ‘democratize’ the state and the so-called homo Sovieticus.

These are all important differences. Yet, the internal dynamics and moral-political vocabulary of AKP-led purges and lustration also suggest notable commonalities. The AKP-led security operation, which was supposed to focus on the perpetrators of the coup, has quickly extended into a categorical screening of massive sectors of society (like in lustration case). The major aim is to identify, punish, or ban the people who allegedly have links to the (secretive) transnational Gülen community. National Intelligence Service investigates those links by using their security archives and accumulating new evidentiary material gathered during arrests and confiscations – the material, which is not publicly accessible or knowable. It is hard to determine what a link precisely means and who else might be targeted in the purges alongside the Gülen community. In short, the ongoing purges, like the worst forms of Polish lustration, are marked by the secrecy and ambiguity inscribed in the process of examination. Likewise, they foster an environment of suspicion and denunciation.

As far as the moral-political language is concerned, we can also point to some similarities. Like lustration, the purges use the language of purification, a purification of state and society, which is led in the name of democracy. They claim to restore and perform national sovereignty, which they see as violated by the coup attempt and the ‘foreign’ powers involved in it (the U.S. is supposed to have backed the coup attempt). In brief, both the AKP-led purges and lustrations employ a similar language of national sovereignty, purification, security, and democracy.

De-Gülenization also shares the same vocabulary. It rests on a cosmology of pollution and corruption, and a punitive impulse. Symbolic gestures and acts of defamation abound: the proposal to form a special cemetery for traitors who took part in the coup; the plan to turn Fethullah Gülen’s house of birth into a public toilet facility. And a number of punitive measures are being discussed: restoring death penalty, expelling putschists from Turkish citizenship, giving license to civilians to carry guns, and castrating the men who are involved in sexual harassment and rape as a measure to deter violence against women. “This is what people want,” government officials often repeat.

Photo: Saygun Gökarıksel, 31 July 2016, Istanbul
Photo: Saygun Gökarıksel, 31 July 2016, Istanbul

The National Coalition and ‘Democracy Celebrations’

So much has been made out of the radical Islamists (jihadists) and nationalists who took the center stage of the state-orchestrated ‘democracy celebrations.’ It would be a mistake, however, to identify the whole popular base of the AKP government with those groups. That approach would not only mislead, but also immobilize and alienate the oppositional groups from the marginalized and dispossessed classes, which constitute the popular force of the AKP. My recent visit to a ‘democracy celebration’ in the district of Beşiktaş confirmed much of what I have been hearing about those celebrations from friends and colleagues. The celebrations, at least the recent ones, are pretty much organized like a mass entertainment with big screens and a stage at the center. Songs commemorating the heroic resistance of common people who were killed by the putschists; the spectacle of flags enthusiastically waved; selfies made in front of the stage; the free food and drinks distributed at the event; the words “Allah the great” (Allah-u Ekber) sung as the verses of pop music. In short, the AKP’s culture industry seemed to be in full swing.

While this was the pro-government democracy celebration, the political opposition had two separate meetings, one organized by leftwing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) with the slogan “no to the coup, no to the dictatorship – democracy now,” and the other by Republican People’s Party (CHP). The latter meeting, though attended by a variety of civic-political organizations, mainly functioned as another platform for the CHP to rehearse its same old secular nationalist state-centered political vision and claim to speak for the entire opposition. Later, however, the CHP, together with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), accepted to take part in an exclusive meeting organized by Erdogan. To manage the ongoing ‘crisis’ in the state, the national coalition of ruling classes, especially the secular liberal and conservative bourgeoisie, is being devised – the glue again is Turkish nationalism and the urgency to restore and defend the sovereignty of the state against all dangers from within and without.

So far the large segments of society and social-political opposition are mainly implicated as the spectators of a hidden transcript being written ‘at the top.’ The conditions that made the coup attempt possible remain largely intact. The purges and security operations – the change of state personnel – would do little to change those conditions and transform the material and ideological framework of the state, particularly, the relationship of the state to the popular classes. For instance, the institutions and the ideological vision of unitary, majoritarian, centralized nation-state are quickly reinserted, which would allow for the coup fantasies of ‘capturing’ the ‘center,’ that ultimate center, which is supposed to stand for all. The model of strong executive power decorated with emergency powers makes the suspension of civil and political rights particularly ‘feasible.’ The suppression of the coup attempt with the involvement of civilian groups also set out a dynamic of militarization of society and political power (Erdogan began to be called “başkomutan,” the head of the army; AKP proposes to move the army under the government’s and later president’s control; there is the production of nationalist legends based on sacrifice and victimhood, which fuels militaristic, masculinized sentiments). Finally, the ongoing renationalization of society under one state and flag may also intensify anti-minoritarian, xenophobic attitudes.

Indeed, ‘democracy celebrations’ play a double role. While aiming to reinforce and display the sovereign unity of one nation, the state-led celebrations also function to protect the government by forming a human barricade, and absorb and contain the possible spilling of conflicts in the state by occupying the streets.

In closing, let me point to a few questions of practical relevance. Might the shifting political alliances and splits in state apparatuses offer oppositional groups any objective possibilities for collective action that could act on the conditions of coup? Could these splits and shifts also open up a space for critical engagement and appropriation of ‘democracy’ into a popular struggle for social equality, justice, and emancipation? So far, the flows of capital did not seem to have been notably altered with the events, though the economic situation at the moment is known to be very fragile (as the government tries hard to prevent capital flight and attract foreign investment). May we soon witness a crucial shift in capital flow and accumulation? If so, how would that impact the force and composition of the opposition? Considering the central political role of redistribution for the AKP government, these questions will be decisive.

At any rate, to be an oppositional force, the Left needs to leave the position of spectator and seek ways to form a common platform for action, and connect to the popular classes that are being reintegrated into the ranks of the ‘national front.’ For that, however, one also desires, yes desires urgently, a space to breathe – away from the all-absorbing ‘coup industry.’

[1] I borrowed this phrase from Ahmet Saymadı.

[2] See Cihan Tugal “Turkey’s Disaster:”

saygunSaygun Gökarıksel is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. He got his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and M.A. at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. His research concerns the reckoning with the communist past in Poland and Eastern Europe, especially lustration, with a focus on law, state and class formation, rightwing populism, and neoliberal globalization. He was a co-editor of an on-line forum on social movements at the Council for European Studies, Columbia University. His writings and political commentaries appeared in journals and forums across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. He’s been involved in collectives engaging in themes of equality, justice, and emancipation.

By saygun gokariksel

Saygun Gökarıksel is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. He got his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and M.A. at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. His research concerns the reckoning with the communist past in Poland and Eastern Europe, especially lustration, with a focus on law, state and class formation, rightwing populism, and neoliberal globalization. He was a co-editor of an on-line forum on social movements at the Council for European Studies, Columbia University. His writings and political commentaries appeared in journals and forums across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. He's been involved in collectives engaging in themes of equality, justice, and emancipation.