From our “correspondents on the ground” we are publishing here an opinion piece on the situation in Turkey after the June elections. The analysis tries to make sense of the lasting stabilization which, despite its permanent weaknesses and shortcomings, the AKP regime seems to have achieved, both through its political appeal and its class alliances. In this sense, the article provides a three-fold discussion on (i) what should (not) be expected by (some of) the leftist actors of Turkish politics, (ii) how we should (not) understand the present politics of Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey and (iii) why he is held in holds such high regards by his constituency. In the end, the piece mainly intends to explain why the current socio-political atmosphere in Turkey should be considered a ‘Geist of wickedness’ and how the much-devoted gaze of AKP’s constituency can be understood.
In the days before the June 24 election, there was quite a bit of skepticism towards Muharrem İnce, the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate, and his populism – especially coming from leftist intellectuals. In Jacobin, for instance, three commentators argued informatively that the alliance between the centre-left CHP, the right-wing Good Party (IYIP), and the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) was a centrist movement. Though the CHP, the founding party of Republican Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, labels itself a centre-left party, many leftists consider them yet-another centrist party—and with good reason.
As an understandable result of this frustration with the CHP, many both in Turkey and abroad have portrayed the Peoples’ Democratic Party as the potential saviour of the Turkish Left. Just before the elections, several highly sympathetic pieces about this pro-Kurdish, left-leaning party appeared, celebrating its leftist discourse, and emphasizing the decisive role of their constituency in a very probable second round of the presidential elections – the round that was not to be; Erdoğan and AKP celebrated a decisive victory both for the presidential and parliamentary elections in the first round on May 24. No doubt, HDP has some (or many) leftist factions—and it is also not surprising that many leftists, both in the grassroots and the party-cadre level, were willing to take part in HDP. Indeed, some have argued plausibly that a “genuine” leftist agenda was achievable only if HDP has some say in the executive branch. After all, it was hard to find any leftist discourse in Muharrem İnce’s campaign. No debate on labour rights, no criticism towards the capitalists, and no mention of tax or land reform.
Yet CHP’s weaknesses do not necessarily make the HDP the inevitable top contender in being “the genuine left”. Now that election season has passed—and with all due solidarity to the HDP cadres being arrested, imprisoned and removed from parliament in Erdoğan’s Turkey—it may be time to step back and take a sober look at all that has made it hard for Turkey’s different secular and progressive factions to work together over the last decade or so. Whether to support HDP and its predecessors is one of the longstanding problematics of the left in Turkey. In 2009, different leftist factions, including the Communist Party of
Turkey, were discussing whether or not to embed themselves into the Kurdish political movement. The upside of this move was obvious. The downside was leftist factions losing track of their own agenda and ending up propagating a quasi-left identity politics. This is not to deny that the Kurdish political movement upholds any emancipatory and socialist inclinations that go beyond the category of “identity.” One should acknowledge, for instance, their call for strengthening the autonomy of local governance, a more inclusive educational curricula, and the strong presence of Kurdish workers in the working class nationwide. Notably, though, its conjectural and actual power is rooted in its identity politics. It was no surprise that their founding party program had described HDP’s goal as a move from an ‘oppressive modernity’ to a ‘democratic modernity’ problematizing, first and foremost, how republican Turkey has long treated different cultures and identities. In the first big congress of HDP in 2013 there were four big banners: ‘Democratic autonomy’, ‘Alevi rights’, ‘LGBTQ rights’, and the fourth was ‘An End to the exploitation of nature and labour.’ Then, there was an addition to the last banner: “Solution: Ecological Living”. Though the last banner certainly gestures toward some sort of eco-socialism, there was no explicit mention of the capitalist class nor of private property.
Moreover, when one steps back from the immediate Turkish context to survey how such rhetoric resonates globally, a more general reservation toward the HDP and its leftist discourse comes into view. It was no surprise (to me, at least) when Selahattin Demirtaş (one of the political leaders of HDP) made controversial remarks about the Gezi Protests back in 2013. The Erdoğan government was in negotiations with Kurdish political movement at the time, and Demirtaş, most probably, did not want to openly support Gezi Protests as this could have been detrimental to negotiations with the government or peace-talks. Indeed, any political movement might make compromises. However, making contributions to the mainstream political discourse is a different story. Demirtaş’s statements, regardless of his intentions, were manipulated a lot and used in favour of the discourse which to this day labels the Gezi Protests a Western-backed coup attempt.
This might not be a timely criticism towards HDP – a party which has been gradually shut down by the government – and its efforts. However, my point is rather made in the spirit of a general warning for the (western) Left against the fetish treatment of any faction of the Turkish Left at the expense of the whole. The example of SYRIZA and the difference between what they advocated and what they ended up with provides ample warning against such an attitude. Though the hope that such new formations can inspire in the Left is not to be discounted, we must acknowledge that in the absence of an explicitly anti-systemic program, it is hard to diverge from what is imposed by mainstream politics and its dialectics.
Those who counselled a big tent of anti-AKP forces before the election were not wrong. No matter what, we should democratically unite against the Erdoğan government. One might ask, why ‘no matter what’? That is because, I believe, we have rather another problem – an issue of a different kind, an issue of wickedness and immorality.
A certain form of wickedness, indeed a wicked political Geist is what troubles me the most about Turkey. At the risk of provocation, let us even call that Geist by its proper, Kantian name: evil.
Yes, ‘evil’ is the term I am using here. I would not jump on the bandwagon and call whatever Erdoğan or his party does ‘dictatorial’. Maybe I am invested too much historically in the interwar period, or maybe just tired of the same western media calling him a dictator which only a decade ago hailed him as the bearer of democracy and stability to the region.
‘Evil’ is a better term – not to describe the president per se, but the very Geist he and his party has engendered over the years. Such a term is more fitting to his and his party’s discourse, his pragmatism and his self-promotion. There is no theological connotation in my use of this term. This is more of a Kantian and secular definition of evil. For Kant, individuals become ‘radically evil’ when they give up on the moral law (or any understanding of morality for that matter) for the sake of their self-interest. The issue is not about whether one follows the moral codes and norms, but that morality is altogether withdrawn from the calculations behind any action whatsoever. Kant, I believe, intended to explain the very spirit of immorality with the term ‘evil’. Yet if the theological connotation of the term ‘evil’ still rankle, perhaps one can settle for the term ‘wickedness’.
There is nothing Erdoğan and his party’s cadres won’t do to stay in power. It is a mistake – especially now – to expect any ideological stance from the AKP and try to read their policies under such a light. Their ideological background surely lies in political Islam, yet their present doctrine or rather inclination is to promote self-interest for themselves and for anyone close to them. Over the years, their controversial acts also made it a possibility that losing their rulership means more than simply being deprived of their political power anymore. To that end, they ended up being obliged to follow a pure Machiavellian logic (or even ‘Machievalist’) as much as one can do.
It is also a must to describe the situation not as a personal or psychological trait, and rather as a (social) Geist. It seems to me such a geist of wickedness seems to penetrate into every social norm and ritual especially in urban areas where the competitiveness of urbanized city-life is already an issue on its own. People tend to have no sense for their surroundings as they prefer to focus on self-promotion in every aspect of their life. Spending a day in Istanbul, for instance, is like an endless self-stressed struggle, a journey in the search of whether something like the value of human life really exists. In a Goffmanian sense, there is no individual who can transcend a self-stressed role as such. For Goffman, individuals perform certain particular/reproduced roles depending on the given social stage and in relation with the other individuals at that very scene. It is simply unfortunate yet obvious that if individuals prioritize their self-interest in any mundane incident within the social stage (be in a café, a metro, a line for paying the bills) no matter what, this surely tells what that very social stage itself engender: a geist of wickedness. And one cannot live or even survive without living what the Geist imposes. Oppress or be oppressed! It would be unfair to neglect all the oppressive policies of the previous governments towards the personae non gratae of Turkey. However, as appalling as such policies may be, what I refer to here is not simply an oppressive attitude towards a certain group of people, but a culture or a spirit of pure and unrestrained self-promotion.
Some might problematize Erdoğan and his party as a threat to freedom. As true as this might be, I rather think of them and their actions as a threat to (any conception of) morality. Funny, how a party which allegedly defends some form of utmost morality is actually transforming the country into a place where a non-moral ethic of self-promotion, partisanship and power is championed the most. I cannot decide which example of immorality I should pinpoint. Stating that it is in the nature of the profession to die after around 300 miners died in 2013 the Soma mine explosion? Not only trying to cover up but also publicly underrating sexual harassment and assault on 45 minors in the dormitories run by Islamic foundations which are close to the government, and continuous underreporting of rape and sexual harassment as such? Refusing to investigate railroad safety conditions after a fatal train crash? Censoring the media outlets any time there is some sort of accident or attack that might actually shed light into some sort of negligence by the state officials? Calling any form of opposition “terrorists” or even “infidels”?
One might even think that letting the wickedness grow might provide the actual circumstances something a people’s movement might stem from. Just like what is meant in the Communist Manifesto: “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” This question does not have an answer. It is hard to see what awaits Turkey. However, I have my doubts about an economic or political turmoil bringing about a change in the electoral behaviour. This is for two reasons: Erdoğan still has no problem with the given neo-liberal economic order, while his power also comes from a certain omnipotent perception of him in the eyes of his constituency.
The capitalists are ultimately fine with Erdoğan. He recently referred to the state of emergency in Turkey as instrumentally important to economy and financial sector: “State of emergency is here also to protect the businesses. Thanks to the state of emergency we do not allow labour strikes.” Such statements are there for a reason. However, I think it is best if I do not delve into the matter of the state-capital relations, as this deserves a thorough exploration and analysis in the context of contemporary Turkey rather than a mere assertion. Notably, the only thing that might concern capitalists about Erdoğan is his inconsistency and fury. Regardless, it is certain that his pragmatism has come in handy when it comes to the actual, practical basis of his power. However, his power also has a discursive basis on the basis of how his constituency perceives him and identifies themselves with him.
Sometimes our inclinations and choices, as human beings, lead to a certain feeling of belonging to a camp or group of people. The next stage is self-identification. Why we had such a choice to begin with becomes obsolete at some point. We even spend years legitimizing the choice no matter how wrong we might be. More polarization and, possibly, more conflict. Erdoğan, if nothing, is a master of engendering and strengthening an already self-invoked cultural polarization that runs in Turkey especially since 1990s in between who consider themselves secular and those who are against it. He is the master of otherization, so that anyone who is critical of him and his party is not a patriot and no good for the country.
However, I do not think, this alone explains Erdoğan’s discursive basis of power. His power, I think, also comes from a non-secular understanding of political authority. Secularism, historically, has not only brought a certain change in the political power of the church in Europe, it also led to a certain understanding of the world on the basis of what is on this earth, including the very source of the political power. The idea of god-king-monarch whose power was believed to be coming through a certain transcendental being was put into question. It is no surprise Thomas Hobbes and many others were looking to explaining what then might be the source of political legitimacy. Like Hobbes, one might think it is the need for survival, and assume a more absolutist position, or one can rather highlight some form of ideal picture and cherish a certain form of democracy. The idea is that power comes from the people. No matter what the answer is, it is something based on reason and facts of this very life.
In the recent years, I see some sort of revitalization of the discursive power of seeing the head of state as a god-king. This results in legitimizing any form of action Erdoğan might take. After reading or hearing many unbelievably controversial statements coming from AKP officials, I keep wondering if they are truly aware of how perverse their statements are that are mentioned above. Is it the hate they have towards ‘the other’? Regardless, what made me rather more puzzled was not understanding why so many people still relentlessly support such statements. I guess, it is not the statements which matter anymore but the ‘man’. Whatever he does is treated as some form of projection of a transcendental and omnipotent being. It is no surprise nor a coincidence for his constituency and party members (or even himself) to relentlessly refer to him as some sort of a prophet-like being.
It is no surprise that Erdoğan has tirelessly used religious symbolism to create a new understanding of popular sovereignty in Turkey by reinterpreting the word people (millet) to mean a community defined on the basis of religious unity. Arguably, such a reinterpretation is also supported, throughout the last decade, via internalization of the non-secular norms and rituals into schools and public policies. This is obviously an assumption, or a thesis, yet it surely is a call for exploration.
 Işıkara, G., Kayserilioğlu, A., and Zirngast, M. 2018. “Everything You Need to Know About the Turkish Elections.” Retrieved on June 29, 2018 from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/05/turkey-snap-elections-erdogan-aksener
 Just to be clear, I define being leftist as prioritizing class politics, yet asserting its intersectionality and focusing on any emancipatory realm, be it LGQBT movement or minority rights, while also accommodating genuine liberal inclinations such as human rights.
 2009 is an important year in this regard, as it was the peak moment of pro-Erdoğan liberal discourse.
 Letsch, C. 2013. “Turkey protests unite a colourful coalition of anger against Erdogan.” Retrieved on June 28, 2018 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/03/turkey-protests-coalition-anger-erdogan
 Hess, Jake. 2013. “Turkey’s PKK Talks.” Retrieved on June 29, 2018 from https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/08/turkeys-pkk-talks/
 Polenta, D. 2018. “Why Greece’s “left government” failed.” Retrieved on June 29, 2018 from https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2018-04-25/why-greeces-left-government-failed
 Card, C. 2002. The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Goffman, E. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.
 Vassaf, G. 2011. Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in everyday life. Iletisim.
 To be fair, notably, Turkish republican tradition has tended to understand secularism in practice, which in some cases the right to religious self-expression has been curtailed for the purpose of ensuring secular public spaces.
 An interesting piece about such policies (and how they should also be understood as a cover for an economic neo-liberal agenda can be found here: https://lefteast.org/the-market-and-the-minaret/