INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay and Ayşecan Terzioğlu on the making of neoliberal Turkey

INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay and Ayşecan Terzioğlu on the making of neoliberal Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Cenk Özbay and Ayşecan Terzioğlu on the making of neoliberal Turkey

A general view of Istanbul as seen from the Bosphorus. AP photo

The economic reforms kicked off in Turkey in the 1980s caused lasting changes not limited to the economic sphere. Almost all areas of life were affected by the opening up of the Turkish economy.

“The Making of Neoliberal Turkey” (reviewed in Hürriyet Daily News here) is a collection of essays exploring the political, cultural, and social effects of economic policies implemented in Turkey since 1980. With 13 chapters mostly written by sociologists, anthropologists and ….., the book explores diverse topics including masculinity in satirical comics, laws to address violence in football, and the healthcare sector in the years since the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup.

Two of the book’s editors, Sabancı University associate professor Cenk Özbay and Galatasaray University lecturer Ayşecan Terzioğlu, spoke to Hürriyet Daily News about their book and what it can tell us about persistent divides in today’s Turkey.

After the 1980 military coup there were huge changes and the Turkish economy was opened to the winds of the free market. Summarize what took place in this era.

Cenk Özbay: Actually everything started with the Jan. 24 decisions and economic reforms undertaken by the Süleyman Demirel government in 1980, which was followed by the coup in the same year. The military administration appointed Turgut Özal - who was the architect of the Jan. 24 decisions - as the interim economy minister of the military government. Then in 1983, after the first free elections Turkey had after the coup, Özal became prime minister. His agenda was clearly neoliberal, integrating the Turkish economy into global markets, applying deregulation, de-unionization and privatization. He used similar slogans and mottoes to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and said Turkey should "catch up with the world" and "integrate into the global system." 

Later, during the 1990s, we had what Turkish scholars call the "long decade to forget" because of a series of governments that failed to take economic reforms and because of various intense social conflicts. The current AKP government came after an economic crisis in 2001, and since then we have been living with a strongly neoliberalized government. But it is one with its own contradictions. It's not a typical neoliberal government, as the state has only gotten stronger during this period.

This term “neoliberalism” is often slippery and many people using it don’t seem to know what exactly they are referring to. But a key point you make is that neoliberalism doesn’t necessarily mean a retreat of state power. Instead it means a kind of retrenchment of the state, an increase of state intervention into society. Could you just explain that a little? 

CÖ: This point is really important to understand the Turkish case of neoliberalization. In one sense, the transformation that the state has been subjected to is typical: The state left the citizen alone in terms of many responsibilities that the state used to have - for example in welfare, education, retirement and unemployment. So in many spheres of life the Turkish state is typically neoliberal in the sense that its priority is serving capital instead of taking care of citizens. But on the other hand there are certain areas that are quite atypical. In the backstage, the state is gaining more power every day, in apparently self-contradictory ways. This is the outcome of a political will, which is really important to understand what is going on in Turkey.

In the introduction you write that as a result of the neoliberal reforms, “The political landscape that had been structured around the meta-narratives of the left and right in the pre-1980 period got fragmented to include identity issues, culture and lifestyle choices as the new bases for politics.” Could you open this up a bit? 

CÖ: This is not unique to Turkey. It's a larger trend starting in the late 1970s. Marxist-based class analysis and class-based social institutions like unions declined. And with the integration of the world economy, which we now call neoliberalism, identity politics rose. Last week I was discussing with my students at Sabancı University how everyone today criticizes the [main opposition Republican People’s Party] CHP because it doesn't get many votes from the working classes anymore, although it's supposed to be a leftist party. But the point is that is not the basis of politics anymore; neoliberalism is now so inevitable and normal that nobody can challenge it. Rather than economic inequalities and class-based analyses, people are looking to their identities – for example religious identities and religious politics against secularist republicanism in Turkey. 

It's not only religious identities that emerged in more culture-based politics after the 1980s, secularism and laicité also became a political issue. In addition there is Turkish and Kurdish nationalism that rose together. And there are also smaller sections of identity politics - people who came together in social groups that are not necessarily translated into party politics, for example feminists, LGBT activists, environmentalists, vegetarian people. They all developed a voice that was not the case in the 1970s.

Ayşecan Terzioğlu: All these voices and identities became more multiple and micro at the same time. Also they were more and more negotiated on a daily basis. I think it's all related to political imagery and ideology: How a particular ideology binds or doesn't bind people together. In the beginning of the Turkish Republic it was all about citizens saying that they were Turkish. They wanted to create a certain kind of Turkish-Sunni-Muslim-but-secular identity. That came with certain limitations that certain ethnic or religious groups didn't belong within. That's why most journalists and academics read the period after the 1980s as the return of the "repressed." But today the dynamics are different because the repressed has become much more vocal.

Perhaps there is a paradox at work. There’s a kind of double movement going on in Turkish society, in which some parts are becoming more liberal and open but others are heading in the other direction at the same time. Both things have been unleashed and are probably uncontrollable, which may be where a lot of the tension in the country comes from. 

CÖ: LGBT activists are a good example. That area is where a larger question became crystallized in terms of a duality in Turkish society between people who are more open to global currents and the rest of the world, and a growing majority that is becoming more insular and closed off. I don't know where this will go and which direction it will take. But this everyday tension and the discontinuity of social relations between different segments of people seems unsustainable. What's more, in this kind of polarization the state is not neutral.

The state is on the side of the growing majority who are becoming more insular and conservative, and who see the rest of the world not as an ally but with hostility.

AT: It's a question of being open or closed to the world. There are many silly debates about "importing Western technology but not importing Western lifestyles and morality." But you can never do such social engineering, it doesn't work in everyday life. 

The current government dominates in most areas of life. But there's still a big cultural and economic divide: Between government supporters who are generally poorer and the opposition who are generally of the middle and upper classes. Perhaps part of the reason why the government gets so angry is that there's a kind of subconscious sense of resentment about this division. They still sense they are looked down on.

CÖ: I think that must have something to do with it. But I want to oppose you by saying that the supporters of the government have their own social classes that have emerged over the last 15 years. In the past the middle classes were all basically secular, and before around the year 2000 the middle class essentially meant being secular - implying they were "enlightened," "modern" and "educated."  But now we have the rise of the government-supported middle and upper classes, who you can find in certain locations in the consumption economy, in certain shopping malls. Obviously their choices and tastes are strikingly different from other classes. As a sociologist, I look at how masses of people are divided on basic questions of judgement. One phenomenon in social media that I have followed is the idea of "çomar." Many college and high-school students of the formally educated, "Western" type often call the government's supporters "çomar."

AT: It's very condescending, basically the name of a type of dog, a street dog. It's quite a recent thing, maybe going back one or two years at most.

It is very rude and condescending to call someone a “çomar.” But when you look at how this differentiation happens at the societal level, it's not necessarily based on political views, or on how much money you make. It's about a question of taste and deep-rooted cultural values and judgements. In addition to the power struggle between two different classes there is something more going on at the social level.

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