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Turkey’s fragile Bonapartism

Turkey may hold a referendum on the transition to an authoritarian presidential system as soon as late March; however, Erdoğan’s Bonapartist shift does not herald stability for the ruling class, nor a solution to the crisis of neoliberalism.


The argument that the contemporary world panorama resembles that of the 1930’s has almost become a cliché. A severe economic depression unseen since that period was likewise followed by a wave of uprisings (2011-14), which, for the moment, seems to be defeated, as we witness a sharp turn towards the right among the working masses. The capitalist system’s current crisis is not cyclical, but rather “organic” in character, in that, the neoliberal order can no longer be sustained, yet neither is the working class capable of taking the initiative to tear it down. All this happens against the backdrop of a severe crisis of hegemony within the imperialist system.

As center-right or center-left parties, the “true” representatives of the bourgeoisie, rapidly lose their support among the masses due to their insistence on the neoliberal creed, we see the rise of right-wing populist, authoritarian parties with an anti-immigrant, racist and misogynist discourse. Needless to say, this trend has culminated in the election of Donald Trump as US president, and it is possible for similar right-wingers to rise to power in France, the Netherlands or other countries in the coming months. In parallel to this worldwide trend, Turkey is in an authoritarian drift characterized by the exacerbation of political and social instability.

One may be tempted to take the easy way out, describing the Turkish case as simply an “illiberal democracy” or “sultanism” of sorts. However, the authoritarianism in Turkey is directly related to the crisis of the neoliberal model. In fact, neoliberalism had entered a crisis in peripheral or semi-peripheral countries such as Turkey in the 1990s, way before it did in the core imperialist countries: While parties of the center saw their support erode rapidly, a “pink wave” overtook a large part of Latin America, whereas Turkey and a number of Eastern European countries came under the rule of right-wing populist strong men. The crisis of hegemony in Turkey mainly arose from the neoliberal policies that alienated the working masses from the regime, the antagonism between the grand bourgeoisie and the Islamist bourgeoisie, and the powerful Kurdish rebellion in the 1990s; and was exacerbated by a severe economic crash in 2001. Right after that, AKP (Justice and Development Party) presented itself as the only force capable of overcoming the bottleneck.

Culture wars

Courtesy to
Courtesy to

In the absence of an alternative on the left, Erdoğan’s authoritarian populism succeeded in channeling the social resentment created by the 2001 crisis. This populism shaped the political arena by investing in the imagined cultural divide between a “non-national”, elitist establishment that supposedly despises “authentic” national values, and the “heart of the nation”. Despite being in power, AKP could argue that it was fighting against the elitist tutelage of the bureaucracy and military that hampered Turkey’s progress. In this way, AKP managed to spread its hegemony over wider masses and co-opt potentially dissident elements. It employed a discourse of “pluralist democracy” that did include various popular demands in distorted form, and presented itself as the true representative of the nation, historically construed as a coherent community without classes and distinctions by Turkish conservative nationalism.

As such, although it actually pushed the lower strata out of the political arena through “market reforms”, AKP could argue that it was carrying through with a process of “democratization.” While obliging the wider masses to choose a side in the supposed struggle between “the Jacobin – Kemalist elite” and “the god-fearing nation”, AKP debilitated the working class, and depoliticized class antagonisms by hiding them under this culturalist veil. Of course, one important component of this populism was the rather materialistic promise that “we, the pious people” would replace the old elite.

The shrinking hegemony

In the beginning of the 2010s, however, this hegemonic discourse faced a serious challenge: The power bloc started to shatter (eventually culminating in the failed coup of July 2016), AKP’s attempt to act autonomously in foreign policy (especially in Syria) led to the crumbling of its international alliances, the global financial crisis exacerbated the conflict between different fractions of the bourgeoisie, and of course the Gezi uprising erupted -all of which revealed that AKP’s anti-establishment, populist discursive strategy had hit its limits. The contraction of AKP’s hegemonic capacity, and the cracks appearing in its alliances obliged the party to reinforce its core social constituency. The consolidation of this base around the figure of Erdoğan and his “New Turkey” myth, was possible only through the continuous polarization of the society on the one hand, and increasing recourse to brute force, on the other.

AKP’s attempt to consolidate its core social base was basically a defensive move. To this end, the party rekindled the fears of these social groups, through a highly alarmist discourse. It made extensive use of tried-and-true clichés such as “the faith and the fatherland are in danger” and “our flag will be torn, call to prayer silenced”, which historically have reflected the fragile self-confidence of Turkish nationalism. As such, AKP shifted the focus of its discourse from “democratic revolution” to “the second Turkish War of Liberation”. The cornerstone of this defensive move was the myth of the “national and authentic” leader who bravely stood against a conspiracy forged by foreign powers and “lobbies”.

Regime-building through war

However, it quickly became clear that sheer defense would not suffice, and Erdoğan and AKP resorted to war. The continuation of war, within and outside Turkey, was key to turning the state of emergency into norm, and establishing a new “normal”. AKP overcame the severest crisis in its history triggered by the June 2015 elections by means of war. War became a lever for regime-building, as the dominant party / strong man regime was reinforced by carrying the “friend or foe” logic to the extreme. AKP seized the opportunity to restructure the alliances within the state to its benefit, and to reorganize the society through severe political polarization. It made a sharp turn towards securitarian policies (to put it mildly) in the Kurdish question; on the Syrian front, it promptly shifted its focus from regime change towards “fight against terror”.

These maneuvers were also prompted by the wish to gain new allies, such as Russian president Putin, prominent figures of the Turkish “deep state”, or ultra-nationalist leaders such as Bahçeli and Perinçek. As such the regime started to drift rapidly towards a repressive “dominant party” model centered around a strong man, and based on a “stable instability” generated through continuous war. Marx had argued that Napoléon III hijacked class struggle by waging regular wars overseas; likewise, Erdoğan first distorted class struggle through “culture wars”, and then opted for reinforcing his power by means of military wars.

As such, Erdoğan’s rule came to resemble a Bonapartist regime, defined by Trotsky as “a government of the saber as the judge-arbiter of the nation.”[1] Because, the state’s architecture had become very fragile due to the unraveling of the national and international alliances that used to underpin AKP rule, and the only way to compensate for this weakness was dictatorial power. As argued by Walter Benjamin, “the ruler is designated from the outset as the holder of dictatorial power, if war, revolt or other catastrophes should lead to a state of emergency.”[2] What created the “state of emergency” in the Turkish case was the internal strife within state institutions and the fragmentation of the dominant class.

In the writings of Marx and Engels, Bonapartism refers to a regime in which the executive branch of the state, under the rule of one individual, achieves dictatorial power over all other parts of the state, and over society. The intensity of the class struggle in a society has led to the exhaustion of the opposed classes, to a point of a deadlock where neither the bourgeoisie can rule as before nor can the working class take power: The result is that the state turns autonomous, and generally through the emergence of a powerful political figure (a Bonaparte), brings a solution to the conflict, ensuring the continuation of bourgeois rule. Bonapartism thus constitutes an extreme manifestation of what, in more recent Marxist writing on the state (e.g. Poulantzas), has been called its “relative autonomy”.

Bonapartism is mostly seen as the product of a situation where the ruling class is no longer able to maintain its rule by constitutional and parliamentary means; but where the working class is not able to affirm its own hegemony either. However in Turkey the Bonapartist moment is not reducible to a balance of forces between two opposing fundamental classes. Rather it is the outcome of internal divisions of the “party of order” and the resulting weakness of the ruling class and the fragility of the state apparatus. As early as 1866, Engels, in a letter on the Prussian constitutional reform, underlined a weak bourgeoisie’s tendency to opt for the Bonapartist path, stating that “Bonapartism is after all the real religion of the modern bourgeoisie”: “It is becoming more and more clear to me that the bourgeoisie has not the stuff in it to rule directly itself, and that therefore unless there is an oligarchy, as here in England, capable of taking over, for good pay, the management of state and society in the interests of the bourgeoisie, a Bonapartist semi-dictatorship is the normal form.”[3]

A challenge from the oppressed?

Bonapartism in Turkey does not arise from a stand-off between the dominant and subordinate classes. The Gezi uprising of 2013, the massive strikes that hit the metal industry in 2015, and the rise of the Kurdish movement culminating in the June 2015 elections did each pose significant challenges to the regime; however, these were not what forced the dominant class to abandon the “normal” parliamentary rule. The main reason prompting the rise of an autonomous, strong executive is, as indicated above, the parliamentary system’s failure to stop the dissolution of the state and the fragmentation of the bourgeoisie.

Although according to Gramsci, ‘Caesarism’ occurs when the two opposing fundamental classes are evenly matched and potentially threatening mutual ruin, he like Engels points to another possibility in which Caesarism “may be brought about by a ‘momentary’ political deficiency of the traditional dominant force”. According to him, even the Caesarism of Napoléon III was a result not of the power of the “rival progressive force” -the oppressed classes- to change the existing social order, but rather of the sharp political division of the “dominant force” in France into rival camps (“legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, Jacobin-republicans”).[4]

That is certainly the case in Turkey. The constitutional amendment soon to be brought to the Turkish parliament, under the guise of a presidential system, provides a judicial veilto this de facto “Bonapartist semi-dictatorship”. However, this concentration of power is not a sign of strength, but rather shows that the regime fails to check the strife between rival bourgeois parties and sectors through “normal” parliamentarian means.

Towards a failed state

This war-driven Bonapartism fails to yield the desired results due to a) the continuing ideological and fractional divisions within the security apparatus despite an extensive cleansing after the July 2016 coup attempt, b) the fact that Erdoğan’snew “alliances” in state and society are already fraught with antagonisms that could end in a sharp rupture, c) society-wide polarization, d) the aggravation of conflicts within the capitalist class (and therefore within AKP) by the rampant economic crisis, and e) the crisis of hegemony in the imperialist system.

On the domestic front, “the war against terror” of Erdoğan does nothing but aggravate the existing “security risks”, and further expose Turkey to intensifying international geopolitical rivalry. The government simply fails to stabilize a new balance of power. For instance, the aforementioned “culture wars” and Islamisation, which for AKP are indispensable instruments to consolidate its base, push social polarization to a level where it is no longer manageable, introduce Islamist violence to the heart of the state (“Pakistanisation”), and push the government to the brink of rupture with its allies within the state or on the international arena.

On the international arena, Turkey’s 180-degree turn in its Syrian policy and cozying up to Russia and Iran have led to a further aggravation of the tension with the USA, crystallizing in debates on the US support to Syrian Kurds, or the demand that USA return FethullahGülen to Turkey. Government officials frequently utter conspiracy theories about how the USA is trying to destabilize Turkey by sponsoring terror. This leads to increased antagonism between the so-called pro-NATO and “pro-Eurasian” camps within the state, and even within AKP itself. The competition between different imperialist powers reflects upon the structure of the Turkish state.

The economic situation is dramatic as well: As finance capital flees from the peripheral countries to take refuge in the core countries, the economic turmoil deepens in Turkey. Following Trump’s victory, the Turkish currency was sharply devalued, as was the case in Mexico and similar countries. Credit expansion came to a screeching halt, industrial production started to contract, and in the third quarter of 2016, Turkey has seen its first negative growth figure since 2009. The result is rising tension within the government, between a neoliberal group preaching tight fiscal discipline, and a more neomercantilist / developmentalist group arguing that the government should facilitate access to credit, invest more in construction and infrastructure, boost the domestic market, and step into non-European markets. This struggle within the ruling party is of course closely related to the struggle between different capitalist factions.

In brief, the Bonapartist orientation, which is supposed to bring about the reconfiguration and thus stabilization of the power bloc, paradoxically accelerates the dissolution of the state’s institutional architecture. The massive purges under way, and political instability make the bureaucratic reorganization of the power bloc extremely difficult and risky. The bloody attacks and explosions occurring every other week, the assassination of the Russian ambassador, the January 1st massacre at a night club, all combine to paint the picture of a deeply fragmented and almost `failed state`.

The view from below

To put it simply, in times of crisis when violence and instability prevail, people cry out for a “strong man” to get a grip on the problems. But what if violence and instability create an almost chaotic situation in a country already under the thumb of a strong man? In Turkey’s current Bonapartist moment, Erdoğan presents himself as the savior mounted on a white charger. But Erdoğan must actually rise above the social classes and also the factions within the state to be truly Bonapartist. However, in case he stumbles, other potential Bonapartes may also appear, for instance with the covert support of the grand bourgeoisie, which Erdoğan is unable to fully win over.

In a striking and by no means isolated incident, a retired military judge said a few days ago that, in case Erdoğan fails to establish the “unity and coherence” of the state and nation, the military may take over. As such, the fate of Turkey’s fragile Bonapartism turns around the question of who will secure this fleeting “unity and coherence”: Erdoğan, or maybe another actor, such as the army…

The only force that may change this picture radically are “those below” -hammered by the government’s “shock and awe” policies in the last year and a half. In late December, the constitutional amendment introducing a presidential system, drafted by AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP, was approved at the parliamentary commission, and will soon be brought to the general assembly. It gives the president immense powers over the legislative, judiciary and military branches of the state; as the parliament will most probably pass the amendment, it will be put to referendum, probably in late March or early April.

Due to the immense state violence towards the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), and the incarceration of its co-chairs, MPs and co-mayors, the party is unlikely to organize an extensive campaign. That role may be taken up by the Union for Democracy, a platform that brings together HDP activists as well as various radical left parties, union confederations, and professional chambers. If this more “established” branch of the social opposition can join forces with the bottom-up initiatives created after Gezi, as well as the grassroots labor movement, there may appear the chance to organize an effective “No” campaign at the spring referendum -which could then power a united front for the years ahead. Such a confluence of the Kurdish movement, the Gezi dynamic, and the labor movement may be the only hope for putting a brake on Turkey’s authoritarian drift.

The original (and much shorter) version of this article could be found on the Başlangıç site.

Foti Benlisoy, a member of Başlangıç, is a historian and co-founder of the Greek-Turkish publishing house Istos. He has published books on the protests of Greece, Tunisia and Egypt and on the Gezi movement – both in Turkish.

Barış Yıldırım is a member of Baaşlangıç. He ıs a translator and an activist living in Istanbul.


[2]             Cited in Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, Verso, 2005, p. 58.


[4]             The Gramsci Reader, Selected Writings 1916-1935 ed. David Forgacs, 2000, pp. 271-2.

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