Turkey as a new model?
“Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country.” (Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”)
It could be argued that Hannah Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism should not be used very easily and without noting the historical context of her definition. Indeed, that is why she underlines the differences between totalitarian politics from similar cases. Nevertheless, we need her political philosophy to comprehend peculiar circumstances wherever and whenever they arise. As for historical context, we should remember the famous dictum that “history repeats itself as farce for the second time.” The revival of authoritarian politics at the beginning of the 21st century has its own context and peculiarities, yet political theories and philosophies which are based on historical examples are our best clues to understand the new political phenomena. Even though totalitarianism is an even more controversial political term or concept, there is no reason to disregard its explanatory power when needed.
Arendt argued that totalitarianism may and did arise from one-party rule but ended up with the abolition of state institutions and the party apparatus at the expense of the rise of a leader and the mass movement. In this respect, the case of Turkish politics has begun to show increasing similarities with the totalitarian definition of politics (or in fact, “non-politics”). The ruling party has long been defined as “no ordinary political party” but a cause (dava) and a historical mission.
Finally, the removal of the last “ordinary” prime minister by the president who is the leader of the “dava” marks the explicit end of the party apparatus. Moreover, it is the harbinger of the end of state institutions as well since the president publicly declares his contempt for its institutions like the Constitutional Court and his political followers publicly denounce parliamentary system.
In our case, a peculiar Islamist ideology seems to have replaced the role of secular totalitarian ideologies of the past. It may be that Turkey is becoming “a model for Islamist totalitarian politics” as a novelty of the new century. In the past, we had the combination of authoritarianism and Islamic legitimacy in different ways like the rather different cases of Saudi and minor Gulf theocracies on one hand and the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan on the other.
Now, perhaps, Turkey is pioneering a new post-totalitarian version of politics with reference to Islamic legitimacy. We have a charismatic and able leader who is defined as the embodiment of the whole body politic and the historical leader. Once that dictum is accepted as the definition and the rule of politics, it follows naturally that political institutions are rather meaningless.
At the same time, it differs from personal dictatorships as long as the leadership is regarded not as a personal matter but as a historical and ideological embodiment. In this case, the leader has more power than ordinary despots since he (or she) has the power to mobilize masses in the name of a political ideology with historical emphasis.
I do not know if I’m making sense, but if I am, then it means that the future seems downright scary.