Politics of farce in Turkey

Politics of farce in Turkey

When I expressed my concerns about the signs of a move from authoritarian rule to fascist political discourse in Turkey (in daily Cumhuriyet last week), I only wanted to underline the danger of ever increasing militarization and “statization” of politics and party in the country. 

The state model, the quest for a homogenous “nation/community,” imperial nostalgia, suppression and intimidation of dissent, and the rise of the intelligence state, is widely understood as a warning of coming fascism - rightly or wrongly. Fascism was a tragedy that human history witnessed in the West, between the two World Wars. As famously said, tragedy can be repeated the second time only as farce, and we have witnessed many different forms of farcical petty dictatorships in many non-Western countries since then.  

Now, in the post-industrial age, farce has become an even more appropriate word for late imitations of fascist politics and discourse; indeed, this is the case of Turkey.

In fact, Turkey’s slide into authoritarian rule shares similar lines with many other experiments of once praised “non-Western modernities” and so-called “illiberal democracies.” Turkey has been an experiment of economic growth based on illiberal politics and on celebrated “native values,” which happened to be defined as “moderate Islam” in the case of Muslim majority countries. Turkey also witnessed a kind of “de facto democratization” in the process, as the so-called moderate Islamists were struggling against military hegemony over civil politics and successfully managed to remove it - even if they were only motivated by the desire of eliminating a secularist power center. What’s more, that process reinforced democratic social and political dynamics by creating a middle class society in economic and cultural terms.

Despite all justified complains about its Islamist-nationalist backlash and democratic deficit, Turkey is a more differentiated and, paradoxically, more liberal society now. In fact, the authoritarian backlash and/or swing to authoritarianism is also the product of this “de facto democratization and liberalization,” as the rise of authoritarian and fascist politics have historically always been reactions against modernity’s complexities and uncertainties.

I am not suggesting that we should read Turkey’s story along the lines of a linear history of modernization. I only need to remind us that a reversal of the modernist reading of history may also lead us to miss the point. In fact, various forms of reactions against the complexities of the post-industrial, post-modern world can only be better understood by some reference to the history of modernity and its backlashes. It has been misleading to classify societies along cultural-historical and geographical lines and explain away their politics as “non-Western peculiarities,” to be understood only in their “own” terms. It was the paradox of post-modern politics that started out with the criticism of “essentialism” and ended up with “essentialisms.” In short, Turkey’s story is less surprising and peculiar than it may seem.

My purpose is not to engage in a theoretical debate. I simply want to point out that Turkey’s difficulties, on the one hand, stem from being an experiment in a non-Western modernity and illiberal democracy. On the other hand, these difficulties can be defined as a reaction to and backlash against the intimidations and anxieties of its post-modernity, which are often little different from the history of reactions against the difficulties of modernity. 

All this is not to deny the social and political risks and shortcomings that Turkey currently faces. After all, it does not need to be qualified as only tragedy; farce can end just as seriously painful as tragedy.