Turkey’s hostage economy

Erdogan’s politics are reduced to a nexus of exchanges that can hold itself together only through a hostage economy.
Saturday 03/11/2018
Repressive policies. Turkish police officers arrest a demonstrator during protests over labour conditions at Istanbul’s new airport. (AP)
Repressive policies. Turkish police officers arrest a demonstrator during protests over labour conditions at Istanbul’s new airport. (AP)

Turkey’s is a hostage economy. In its most restricted form, the hostage economy can be seen through the plight of intellectuals, academics, journalists, democracy activists and many foreigners either imprisoned, purged or unable to travel abroad. The arbitrariness of the verdicts against them and the ease with which charges are dropped show they are hostages.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pronouncements confirm this view. During the Andrew Brunson dispute with the United States, Erdogan explicitly suggested trading the US evangelical pastor for Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of being behind a 2016 failed coup.

A state of emergency declared after the coup to root out members of the Gulen network provided the legal framework for imprisonments or extended pretrial detentions and has become normalised into a repressive apparatus that ensures a more fundamental red line is not crossed.

Anyone breaking the fundamental taboo of the Turkish state — questioning the official policy against the Kurdish movement — is deemed an enemy of the state. It is not a coincidence that those who dare to take a critical position on this taboo issue tend to be progressives who have connections with liberal political parties, the premier academic institutions and NGOs focused on social justice and human rights. Hence, they have become hostages in the eyes of the progressive public in the West.

The Kurdish-led experiment of democratic federalism in north-eastern Syria is also, in part, a hostage to Turkey’s anxiety over the irreversible Kurdish political awakening across Mesopotamia.

Turkey’s occupation of the Syrian districts al-Bab and Afrin and its control of Idlib were enacted with the explicit objective of limiting the advance of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This anxiety makes Turkey, a longstanding member of NATO and nominally an EU candidate, a particularly problematic liability from the perspective of the Western governments such as the United States and France. They have invested in the SDF to defeat Islamic State and as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region.

Europe’s position in relation to Turkey is also very complicated. Turkey’s debt crisis has made the financial entanglement of European and Turkish banking sectors more apparent. Europe and Turkey are important trading partners. Almost 40% of Turkey’s exports are to Europe but, more important, intermediary goods provide a significant portion of trade between Turkey and Europe. Turkey’s dynamic productive sector has been extensively integrated into the European economy through supply chains.

Because the European economy is very much entangled with Turkey’s, delinking would be costly for both sides.

An equally if not more important factor is Fortress Europe’s fear of refugees at the gates, making it a hostage to Turkey as the state that holds Europe’s border against the social, political and ecological disaster that is the Middle East.

A similar state of becoming hostage by complicity characterises the Turkish bourgeoisie. Even though Erdogan presents himself as a critic of the so-called interest-rate lobby (a code word for the Istanbul bourgeoisie that controls much of the financial sector) and global financial institutions, Erdogan and his party have always been explicitly and aggressively pro-business and anti-working class. His party’s electoral control over the large sectors of the devout working class has been through channels of social policy that meet the workers in the household rather than the workplace.

In the workplace, the ruling Justice and Development Party has always been aggressively anti-union and has always raised the rate of exploitation. The many deaths and horrifying working conditions during the construction of Istanbul’s new airport are the most visible instances of the highly leveraged extractionist government’s routine class violence. The Turkish bourgeoisie, and in particular the Istanbul bourgeoisie, while possibly genuinely uncomfortable with Erdogan’s style, have benefited from and been complicit with the pro-business stance of the Erdogan government.

The debt crisis has rendered this complicity even more explicit. The Erdogan government, while appearing to be blundering its way through crisis management, holds the power to decide who is going to be rescued and who is going to be left to drown through the recession that will last through a good part of 2019, if not longer. While the crisis will have unanticipated consequences (especially with local elections in March), there is no doubt that the government will be looking for opportunities to refashion the capitalist classes to its liking.

The Erdogan government can survive the crisis if only because the nationalist opposition in Turkey (be it the leftish Republican People’s Party or the right-wing Iyi Party) is also, in a certain sense, a hostage to Erdogan’s narrative of imperialist threat against national unity and the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. Here there is a deeper sense of complicity with the official discourse of the state and its deep-seated anxieties over the Kurdish political will.

Perhaps the real hostage at the centre of this network is Erdogan himself. Politics is an art of give and take, of being indebted and making people indebted to oneself. Erdogan has always been very shrewd about this commercial aspect of politics but the rise of political Islam in Turkey cannot be reduced to his manoeuvrings.

Erdogan’s politics are reduced to a nexus of exchanges that can hold itself together only through a hostage economy. He has become a hostage of the very hostage economy that he has weaved around himself.

(This article originally appeared at ahvalnews.com and is reprinted with permission.)