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What Is a Democratization Package Good For?

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Since at least the summer of 2009, we have been faced with a periodically interrupted negotiation process between the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) government and the Kurdish Liberation Movement, to find a political and constitutional solution to end the thirty-year-old war. Most recently, in January 2013, the AKP administration has publicly declared a new solution phase initiated through direct talks led by the MIT (Turkey’s National Intelligence Service) with Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently held in İmralı Prison. Öcalan’s now-famous message of March 2013, disseminated to millions gathered to celebrate Newroz in the biggest square of Diyarbakır and on live television, generated much ecstasy. In his message, Öcalan called on the armed wing of the Kurdish Liberation Movement to switch to practicing politics on democratic grounds. This call generated a positive and welcoming response within Turkey’s broader public. Following swiftly on Öcalan’s call, the armed wing of the Kurdish Liberation Movement organized a well-crafted press release, announcing to the international community that they were going to honor Öcalan’s call. Subsequently, the armed guerillas started retreating from Turkey’s territory.

The Erdoğan administration has released no information about the contents of the negotiations to this day. But thanks to Öcalan’s messages, which have been shared with the public via delegates from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who have been allowed to meet with him, we have been informed that the negotiations consist of three phases. According to this road map, first a ceasefire between the Turkish state and the armed wing of the Kurdish Liberation Movement will be declared, and Kurdish guerillas will gradually retreat from Turkey’s territory. In the second phase, the Turkish state will generate certain legal and democratic arrangements in order to minimize the legal barriers to the peace negotiations. These arrangements are supposed to include the immediate release of political prisoners, as well as the establishment of various commissions—a truth and reconciliation commission being the most pressing one—in order to deepen and broaden the “peace process.” During the third and the last phase, dubbed the “normalization” phase, Kurdish guerillas are expected to disarm, and if they so choose, will be granted the right to carry their political struggle onto a legal and democratic plane. Furthermore, during the normalization phase, the Turkish state will recognize the right to education in the mother tongue for all its citizens; will transform the bureaucratic and centralist structure of the state through strengthening local governance mechanisms via decentralization; and, subsequently, will open the path to shared sovereignty in a democratic framework.

The negotiation process, however, has not proceeded according to this plan. The Erdoğan administration has not carried out any of the promised reforms, and instead has brought the “peace process” to a halt. The armed wing of the Kurdish Liberation Movement has responded by saying that they have stopped the gradual retreat of their forces from Turkey’s territory while staying committed to a cease-fire. Finally, toward the end of September, the Erdoğan administration made public a set of reforms—the completion of which had been postponed several times. It would be no exaggeration to suggest this set of reforms itself is a continuation of the ambiguous and non-transparent negotiation process. Against this backdrop, in this I article I aim to examine the latest “democratization package.” I will argue that with this set of reforms, both in its inception and presentation as well as in its very foundations, the Turkish state has opted for erecting more barriers in the way of democratic participation and just representation, by subtly institutionalizing Turkey’s cultural inequalities. More important, however, the package has declared once again that the real owners of this state are Muslim Turks, and the rest are mere details.

Distinct from the previous bureaucratic regime, as Ahmet İnsel has aptly pointed out, the Erdoğan administration has allocated mother-tongue education to private schools. By doing so, moreover, the administration also reduced Kurds, not unlike other non-Muslim identities, to a minority status. It is well known that since the Lausanne Treaty, minorities in Turkey have provided education in their own languages in addition to Turkish, supported only through the financial resources of their own communities (through their vakif-waqf charitable organizations). One must also acknowledge in passing that the numbers of these educational institutions, denied access to any public funds or to any other financial or material support from the state, have been systemically reduced; the few ones still standing struggle to keep going.

Once we take a closer look at the arrangements regarding mother-tongue education in the reform package, its plausible effects, beyond the reduction of Kurds to a minority status, confront us with a much deeper and more complex situation on the ground. To analyze these structural effects will enable us to assess the democratic package in a way that neither celebrates it as an epitome of democratization, nor dismisses it as an instrumentalist empty gesture of the state, but rather contextualizes it as an integral component of the transformation of state rationality from that of a bureaucratic state to that of an entrepreneurial-corporate state.

From the Bureaucratic State to the Corporate State

The process of the corporatization of the state involves state officials approaching the problem of managing society and conducting politics with a “manager’s eye.” This allegedly novel regime, often identified as neoliberalism, hinges on practices of (1) the restructuring of public and state-run institutions (first and foremost institutions of health, education, and security) using the criteria of productivity, profitability, and performance, and their subsequent handing over to private companies; (2) the encroachment of unsafe and unstable working conditions and subcontractual arrangements into the public sector; (3) the conversion of the commons and other public and urban spaces into private property, and their subsequent sale to entrepreneurs (primarily those in the construction and energy sectors) with connections to the government for “redevelopment” under the rubric of service to the nation (millete hizmet), development, and urban renewal; and (4) perhaps the most important feature of this process, the transformation of the state’s bureaucratic structure into one that is modeled on the global and multi-national corporation—that is, the reconstruction of the latter’s organizational arrangements and management techniques and criteria as the measure through which the former could be re-envisioned. As Yahya Madra indicates, this leads to the state’s attempt to manage society’s social and political arenas through a corporate rationality and entrepreneurial logic (structured around the exceptional figure of the prime minister as the CEO).

The corporate state appears to be just as despotic and authoritarian as its predecessor, the secular-bureaucratic state in Turkey. Operating like the board of directors of a corporation, the ministerial cabinet acts as if it has allocated many “technical” tasks to independent higher commissions. For instance, the management of the economy is often presented as a technical matter outside of politics and ideology. The legal arena in general, and the judiciary in particular, are either by-passed or staffed with fellow ideologies, transforming the judicial branch into the backyard of the executive. As a result, the so-called independent legal arena turns into a big lie, having morphed into a mechanism that simply legitimizes the executive board’s actions. (It might be fruitful to remember that the previous elite bureaucratic regime, on the other hand, was known for endorsing the actions of the “deep state”). The corporate state, however, has no time to waste; hence, all liberal democratic mechanisms, such as the parliament are rendered inert, while decrees and directives are prepared behind closed doors. Reassembled packages consisting of disparate decrees are passed through the cacophonic parliament with lightning speed, while public communication arenas, media organizations, and so forth are all colonized by the kinsmen of the corporate state, and the critical function of the public is reduced to the problem of governing consumer satisfaction, which is to be measured and aggregated through opinion polls.

Meanwhile, the corporate state desires to diversify the markets through which it could sell its new and improved commodities and services. Organized on a national and global scale, the corporate state also aims at diversifying its customer portfolio by turning its face to potential customers in the west as well as in the east: linking the European markets to Southern Kurdistan, the Balkans, and North Africa becomes a priority to achieve market growth. By competing with other corporate states, it aims to generate economic growth as well as political and cultural expansion. It has already been noted that the recent transformation of the state in Turkey has been driven by neo-imperial desires and compounded by hopes of regional expansion. The state’s recent attempts at the partial recognition of its domestic cultural differences by depoliticization and domestication, therefore, should be approached as strategic moves to achieve these aforementioned desires by forging a project of subtle identity politics—whereby the relative universal identity is none other than an Islamic identity, and the name of the project none other than democratization and development.

From Denial to Selective Recognition

If we return to the “package,” we are confronted with several pressing questions. What kind of a political and managerial logic animates this move? While the bureaucratic structure of the state is being transformed into an entrepreneurial-corporate one, how could we approach and understand the new arrangements about mother tongue education and native language rights? And lastly, in light of these arrangements, could we speculate at all about who is expected to benefit the most from this latest legal restructuring?

First and foremost, this package has made the sophisticated gesture of responding to the Kurds’ demands for equality—whereby Kurdish-language education in public schools constitutes one of the latter’s most important parameters punctuating genuine democratization in Turkey—through the proposal to privatize the right to native language education, categorically considered a human rights obligation, through transforming it into a high-end luxury commodity that could be bought and sold in the market. Rather than following the Kemalist regime’s organization of the public education system as the direct ideological apparatus aimed at assimilating Kurds, therefore, the Erdoğan administration has relegated the restructuring of the educational system in the country in general, and education in the Kurdish language in particular, to his kinsmen entrepreneurs, with their private missionary corporations, charitable organizations, and other voluntary initiatives that understand and present themselves as public service providers. The same legal arrangements governing mother tongue education also come with many incentives, such as property allocation, interest-free investment loans, and tax exemptions; in so doing, they mark the “democratization package” as the epitome of undoing the very construction of the milli cemaat, or a “national congregation.”

While presenting this democratization process as a clear departure from the Kemalist regime’s historical encounter with the state’s Kurdish citizens, the state cannot but present it by using the propaganda of a glorious Ottoman past, whereby the Ottoman state allegedly treated minorities with clemency and acumen. On top of these historical citations, the state also makes copious references to liberalism, obscuring the idea of liberal multiculturalism based on affirmative remedies of recognition and redistribution toward disadvantaged groups—whatever its own shortcomings might be—and transplanting a modified and distorted version of it into Turkey’s contemporary political context. That seems to be the only explanatory frame to approach and understand why the text of the democratization package never mentions the word “equality,” and instead resorts to terms such as “tolerance,” “empathy,” and “fraternity” to sugar-coat the package.

This particular language (and the political mindset it articulates) hijacks and repackages an a la turca version of liberal multiculturalism. Instead of adopting a politics of denial, this language indexes a politics of partial and strategic recognition and points to an attempt at restructuring Turkey’s social and political arenas via an allegedly novel regime. By keeping previously marginalized populations at a distance, and by introducing various hierarchies among them, the democratization package appears to be a product of a managerial rationality par excellence, which partially recognizes and partially denies the various political and social grievances of these marginalized populations.

The main aims of the democratization package seem to be covering up the state’s colonial history and responsibility for the “Kurdish problem,” and deliberately overlooking the economic marginalization and class stratification, as well the intensification of a class-based division of labor, in the country. Furthermore, it epitomizes the state’s refusal to address the reallocation and redistribution of resources in a restructuring process and its continued refusal to come to terms with the past atrocities that were committed during the thirty-year war. Particularly with regard to the “Kurdish problem,” the corporate state not only obscures the Kurds’ fundamental grievances and ignores Kurds’ demands for freedom, equality, and sharing of sovereignty. It also aims to solve this problem—fundamentally one of rights and citizenship—either by relying on a discourse of individual rights, or by privatizing these rights for the consumption by certain worthy members of the “minority” populations.

The second point lies within the analysis of the following problem: How exactly will Turkey’s Kurds (the crushing majority of whom subsist as small-scale producers in villages, or have been proletarianized in the ghettos of Turkey’s metropoles as a result of forced migration) make use of these fundamental rights? The very fact that the Kurdish language in general, and education in Kurdish in particular, are transformed into items of luxury consumption will engender further injury rather than “satisfaction” for Turkey’s Kurds. This package of reforms divides the Kurdish population into two groups: those who are worthy of learning their native language—that is, those middle-class Kurds with financial resources and access to a luxury commodity—on the one hand; and those who are unworthy of this universal human right, namely those poor Kurds who cannot afford it. In inventing this new regime of class-racism, the contemporary corporate state draws upon a well-established colonial legacy. Those Kurds who own property and pay their taxes, in other words, are given the “right” to buy education in their native language. The overwhelming majority of Turkey’s Kurds, those who try to make ends meet under very difficult conditions in rural environs or those millions forcibly relocated to the ghettos of Turkey’s metropoles, are told: “Continue attending state schools providing education in Turkish only, and carry on with your Turkification.”

Thus, as Nazan Üstündağ has aptly put in a recent article, it is imperative for the state to produce middle-class Kurdish citizens first, before they will be able to make use of these newly implemented services and rights. In other words, first and foremost, Kurdistan’s landscape and environment has to be opened to the free market, and the region needs to be tamed through suffocating investments, so that the “Eastern” citizens of Turkey will be able to reach the capacity of consuming its very own native language. A possible scenario proposed by this package of reforms, then, is one through which the careful crafting of a Kurdish middle class could both economically revivify Turkey’s Kurdistan and partially satisfy its population’s desire to remain “different.” Taken together, such a double move is expected to produce pious generations beneficial for the nation and the state.

And what happens to those working-class and poor Kurds—those unable to transform themselves into middle-class citizens—and their children born into decades of violence, dispossession, and discrimination? Another possible scenario lies in the response to this question: they will most likely be left to the mercy of charitable organizations and philanthropic social entrepreneurs. The most agile and brightest ones among this population will be recruited and provided with full scholarships to attend certain schools with a mission to provide education in Kurdish alongside Turkish. Those who have committed themselves to taming the Kurds’ rebellious souls and minds with Islamic fraternity will be given the opportunity to provide their most pious and patriotic services to those in need. And of course, these missionary companies will prioritize providing these services selflessly, without looking for large profit margins!

In other words, not unlike the way missionary schools, known as “regional boarding schools,” have historically served as the fundamental institutions of denial and assimilation during the era of the bureaucratic state, the private schools erected and run by charitable organizations and social entrepreneurs will serve as the main ideological apparatuses of the neo-liberal corporate state. Distinct from their historical predecessors, however, these private schools will also serve as the melting pot in which the poor and rebellious Kurds can be re-molded into bearers of a consumerist and pious identity. Turkey’s non-Muslim populations remain outside the customer profile of these charitable missionary schools, and it is precisely on this basis that Kurds remain distinct from non-Muslim “minorities,” both in terms of quantity and quality. 

To put it differently, for the sublime duty of providing its Kurdish citizens with education and nurturing, the new corporate state has once again opted to use subcontracting companies that quite literally have kinship ties with the Erdoğan administration. The democratization package remains anything but the harbinger of a democratic stance. Once the corporate state allocates the reproduction of labor and national identity to civil society, charitable organizations, and subcontracting companies, it is assumed that all of Turkey’s citizens will be “satisfied.” The corporate-state, which follows an entrepreneurial logic in all its affairs, will remain sovereign; subcontractors will profit; the separation anxiety of the sensitive Turk (or essentially, the sensitive Turk’s anxiety about having to become equal to the Other) will be addressed; and the Kurds are asked to content themselves with a crumb. What more could the corporate state do!

[An earlier version of this article was published on 13 October 2013 on BIA ("Independent Communication Network"). The link to that version can be found here. This article was translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz.]

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