Turkey’s existential angst
Orhan Pamuk’s most recent novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind,” tells the story of Mevlut, a boza seller, and his life in rapidly changing Istanbul from 1969 to 2012. He is originally from the countryside, and like his fellow migrants to urban areas he has a cloudy anxiety or “strangeness” within himself.
Indeed, Turkey transformed itself from a crumbling empire to a nation state, and from a sleepy agrarian country to an industrial one over the course of less than a century. This is a country of migrants. When the empire collapsed, it was full of migrants from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Arab Peninsula, and when the country industrialized it was defined by migrants from rural to urban areas. Like everyone ripped from the setting they are used to, we all had that cloudy anxiety about survival, that strangeness to ourselves in our new settings.
Lately, that feeling of strangeness has been getting stronger again. Looking for the best quote to describe what has recently been happening in some Turkish universities? Try the following: “In 1948 my father was fired from university. Then I was fired in 1980. Now in 2017 my assistant has gotten the sack.”
These words belong to Korkut Boratav, a distinguished academic and renowned economist who is currently retired. Has nothing changed in Turkey since 1948? Perhaps many things have, but the periodic purge of the intelligentsia at critical moments has remained one constant. Why? When Turkey feels an existential threat, there is that strangeness. When Turkey had that strangeness, universities usually feel the heat. Let me elaborate.
Korkut Boratav’s father was Pertev Naili Boratav, who is known as the founding father of Turkish folkloristics in the early Republican era. In 1948 he was accused of promoting socialism and undermining nationalism, acquitted, but fired from the university anyway. His department was also shut down. Boratav the senior then fled to France in 1952, studied Turkish folklore there, and died in Paris. His son became a famous economist and was sacked from university right after the 1980 military coup. I remember him wandering in exile, from Zimbabwe to Switzerland, for a long time. Then he returned to the university. And now it is the turn of Nilgün Erdem, his student, to be fired from the Department of Public Economics of the Faculty of Political Sciences. All three were expelled from Ankara University in 1948, 1980 and 2017.
Where does this anxiety come from? What is the common denominator in these three years?
Let’s start with 1948, the heyday of the Cold War. Turkey had a weak economy with a large savings deficit after the Second World War, facing the threat of a domineering Russia. NATO, of course, was established in 1949, and Turkey and Greece entered in 1952. Those were the years of international Keynesianism.
Government-to-government funding was the way to finance current account deficits. Turkey had an excellent location to capitalize on, so we jumped in with that strangeness in our minds. Marxists in Turkish universities felt the impact, and it was in those circumstances that the purge of 1948 took place.
1980 was another turning point in history. The world as we knew it had started to change. The end of international Keynesianism was nigh, which posed a big problem for a country with a structural savings deficit like Turkey. It meant the end of government-to-government flows and the emergence of international financial markets: A brave new world. Remember the oil crisis, euro deposits and systemic change in the financial markets? Reagan and Thatcher became brand names. The Turkish economy was in a shambles again due to the balance of payments crisis of the late 1970s. That’s how the Turkish economic transformation started with policy reforms. Turkey was one of the earliest countries to start a financial liberalization program. Deep structural transformation started under the post-1980 coup military regime.
Wages declined. And a purge in the universities was part and parcel of the package. That was how Korkut Boratav got the boot.
And now we are in 2017. Under the impact of last July’s failed coup attempt, Turkey has that strangeness again. On the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France during the First World War, Turkey feels a growing threat of border changes emanating from the war in Syria. A new region is taking shape around us and we have that cloudy anxiety again. That is why the purge of Gulenists evolved into the kind of general purge that we have seen time and time again.
Over the past 70 years Turkey has changed from a sleepy agrarian society to a dynamic industrial country. Urbanization has increased from 25 to 75 percent. Yet two things have always remained constant: A domestic savings deficit and the existential angst of the 1920s. Today it is a reflection of our growing insecurity. When we have that feeling, we always do strange things.