India, Turkey and the dark beginnings of the 21st century

India, Turkey and the dark beginnings of the 21st century

Pankaj Mishra’s elaborate review of India’s elections (Guardian Review, May 17) was a sad read for me, especially in these troubled days of democracy in Turkey. As Mishra states, although newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings to mind early 20th century authoritarian demagogues, he “also belongs to the dark days of the early 21st century.” One cannot avoid thinking of Turkey’s darkening prospects too. Moreover, this is not only true for Turkey and India, but also elsewhere we witness almost a global rise of new authoritarian politics in new forms.

The political stories of Turkey and India are totally different, but nevertheless they are very similar in many respects. The founding ideologies of both countries were based on ambitious projects of modernization from above, as in many other non-Western countries. In both cases, the idea of independence from Western supremacy did not overshadow their ultra-Westernist approach. Turkey’s modernizers were less elite socially (coming from middle-class bureaucrats) than their Indian counterparts, but their common grand idea was to transform “backward” masses into modern citizens, in the image of the West. Turkey’s experience was more one of “authoritarian modernization” while India’s was of “democratic mastership,” but at the end of the day, the “modernity” aspect of these grand projects failed, as modernization created more resentment than compliance among the majority of both populations.

Nonetheless, so many years after Marx and his followers hoped that “the revolt of the masses” would lead to the end of capitalism, capitalism turned out to be the only survivor. In many countries, the revolt ended up not being against the capitalist economy; on the contrary, capitalism still lures most of the poor with its lottery-like promises. The revolt of the so-called masses turned out to be against the best part of the bourgeois revolutions: The promise of civility and freedoms. As for the idea of democracy, it is reduced to majoritarian rules where majorities have the freedom to choose tough leaders who promise to suppress political criticism, individual freedoms and minority rights in the name of strong collectivities.

It is not only the rising middle classes, but also the aspiring majorities in economic growth countries that seem to project their ambitions onto the idea of “national, religious, civilizational revivals.” The majorities tend to elect leaders who they can identify with, not only “culturally” but also “ideally.”

India’s Modi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not only come from lower middle class backgrounds, but they also both mirror the aspirations of their class in word and deed. Both leaders have proved to be successful economically and politically, to the point of being able to challenge the old elites and their cultural hegemony. Besides, both men come from radical ideological backgrounds that reflect class resentment along cultural lines, compensating class difference with imagined “cultural supremacy and historical belonging.”

In the eyes of millions of people in our societies, national pride is the price of suffering, or supposed historical/civilizational belonging is the price of humiliation. This is the secret of political miracles that manage to gather immense social support behind the elected authoritarian rules of our times. It is better to understand the backgrounds of the success and the rise of new leaders and new political trends than to simply dismiss them, and it is better to see sad side of the story than to demonize its outcomes. However, we should also not forget that it is not altogether a new story. The feeling of humiliation and its compensation with the idea of supremacy has been proven to lead to the most dangerous experiences in modern history. It is revengefulness that turns into one of the basic motivations behind all sorts of suppression - from the suppression of dissent to the suppression of mind and reason altogether. Humanity lived this in the first half of the 20th century, it should never do so again!