Liberal-conservatism was the dominant intellectual discourse in Turkey for more than three decades. The 1980s was its moment of departure. It suffered a hiatus under the shadow of the Kurdish war in the 1990s, but militaristic brutality also increased its sympathizers. The 2000s was its golden age. Its triumphalism reached an apex during the 2010 referendum. Ever since, its dominance has been crumbling.
State versus Society, the Military versus the Civilians, the Authentic Bourgeoisie versus the Old Elite
Among other factors, the 1980 coup convinced many intellectuals that the military was at the root of Turkey’s problems. Therefore, any civilian initiative deserved support. This belief was further strengthened by the global spread of liberal discourses after the defeat of the 1968 revolutionary wave. “Civil society” became the buzzword in academia and independent intellectual circles. The new focus on civilians and civic actors (somehow believed to be brought into existence without state and military involvement) got an additional boost from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European intellectuals’ liberalism.
The rise of the Islamist movement put a new spin on this emergent discourse. The dominant intellectuals perceived Islamism as a threat, but also a possibility. It was obviously one of the voices in society against the state; but it also harbored a lot of authoritarianism. If the civilian elements within the Islamist movement could be harnessed to the liberal project, then the resulting combination could turn into a veritable force against the state. Simultaneously, many intellectuals within the Islamist movement also started to use the vocabularies of liberalism, civil society, and, interestingly enough, postmodernism. The question then became: were these just isolated and unrepresentative maverick intellectuals, or was there a social force behind them?
Here, a liberalized Marxism rushed to the rescue. Liberalized Marxists had been arguing for a while that the lack of an independent bourgeoisie was the main cause of the lack of a true democracy in Turkey. The existing bourgeoisie was the result of official manufacturing. Young Turks and their descendants, the Kemalists, had first forcefully dispossessed the non-Muslims and then artificially created a new bourgeoisie. As a result, the business class in Turkey was indebted to bureaucrats from the get-go. It could never become the voice of democracy as it had in Europe.
By contrast, the emergent bourgeoisie of the 1980s had developed as a result of market dynamics. Kept in check under the corporatist regulation that characterized Turkey from the 1930s to the 1970s, small merchants and entrepreneurs were set free by the liberalizing atmosphere of the 1980s, especially thanks to Turgut Özal’s reforms. Conservative religiosity had bound this class together during these unfavorable decades; now the language and networks woven by that religiosity further allowed it to flourish. Unlike the official bourgeoisie, this emergent bourgeoisie did not have a bloody record. Among those less educated, Islamism was a movement of cultural reaction against westernized and educated people. But in the bosom of this authentic bourgeoisie, there were deeply liberal orientations; hence the quite grounded Islamic liberalism of the above mentioned intellectuals.
In sum, society’s struggles against the state and civilians’ fight against the military found their class counterpart in the struggle between the new, autonomous bourgeoisie and the officially created, inauthentic bourgeoisie. This chain of equivalence was no longer an intellectual exercise by the 2000s. It had become official ideology. Some leftist intellectuals declared the victory of a bourgeois revolution when the Islamist party (which was reconstituted and reformed along pro-business lines in 2001) assumed governmental powers. The president Abdullah Gül, the Islamist who became the intellectuals’ hero, echoed their sentiments by announcing that they were carrying out a “silent revolution.” The wildest intellectual dreams had come true. The bourgeoisie was in power. Democracy had arrived…or was around the corner.
Certainly, the bourgeois revolution is not an overnight event, and it takes effort to finalize it. The new official ideology underlined this fact by emphasizing how the new governing party, the Justice and Development Party, was in power, but still not completely empowered (iktidar oldu ama muktedir olamadı). The military, the judiciary, universities, and the media were full of old elites still seeking to obstruct the bourgeois revolution. A secularist coup against the government was imminent.
Most liberals were extremely enthusiastic about the Justice and Development Party from the very beginning. The dominant intellectuals of the left, by contrast, had their moments of optimism and pessimism. In 2010, however, all caution was put to the side. The intelligentsia threw its wholehearted support behind the government’s thus far most massive attempt to purge the bureaucracy of the old elites. This crystallized in September 2010 around a referendum for constitutional amendments.
The governing party was having a hard time justifying a wide sweeping liquidation. Some leftist actors came forward as the saviors of the liberal-conservative project again. They formulated the referendum’s slogan: “not enough, but yes!” The proposed amendments, according to these leftists, were among the most serious steps towards democracy in Turkish history, but they supported them with the understanding that more would come later, after the government was really empowered (muktedir).
Liberal intellectuals embraced this leftist analysis immediately. Surprising to those uninitiated to the complexities of “passive revolutions” (processes that bolster dominant power structures through the absorption of at least apparently revolutionary cadres and discourses), the government hailed this analysis too. The governing party turned “not enough, but yes” into its own referendum slogan! After a clear victory in the referendum, the Prime Minister personally thanked the slogan’s author. The finalization of the revolution was near.
Some in the left voted against the constitutional amendments. Their argument was that the amendments would lead not to democratization, but to the monopolization of power by the governing party. The dominant intellectuals accused them of being in cahoots with the old elite and their coup plots (the shorthand word for this accusation was Ergenekoncu, referring to a secretive ultranationalist organization, Ergenekon, which was behind the assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, ironically a former columnist of one of the leftist newspapers informally accused of being pro-Ergenekon). Many other leftists either believed these accusations or at least did not want to be in the same camp with the (Kemalist) Republican People’s Party and the legal party of the ultranationalists, the Nationalist Action Party (both parties voted against the amendments, though there were splits among the ultranationalists, many of whom are religious conservatives); but they simultaneously distrusted the governing party. This third camp within the left boycotted the elections. In the eyes of the intellectuals, these latter were not traitors or enemies like those who voted “no,” but they lacked sophistication and an understanding of practical politics.
How to Save the Bourgeois Revolution?
Something went terribly wrong after the victorious referendum. It was not simply that the awaited democracy did not come. Things actually got worse. According to the dominant intellectual narrative, Erdoğan became more and more authoritarian. He started to be much stricter regarding issues like alcohol regulation. His speeches turned extremely polarizing. He openly incited hatred against non-practicing Muslims and Alevis. The freedom of the press suffered horribly. Turkish citizens erupted against Erdoğan’s authoritarianism during the well-known Gezi Protests. Yet these made him even angrier and more paranoid. Ultimately, he went as far as banning YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. The authentic bourgeoisie did not quite fulfill its mission! It should have prevented the emergence of such an autocrat. Why could it not?
It should not be surprising that the dominant intellectuals are not in the least bit inclined to revise the major contours of the discourse they have built, since they are so heavily invested in. As the paragraph above suggests, they are rather seeking to personalize the problem. It is really Erdoğan who is at fault. And certainly, there are some evil people around him; and perhaps their common roots in the authoritarian Islamist movement provide another part of the puzzle. The intellectual venues today are full of articles on the personality of the Prime Minister. Still, it is not easy to answer how one person can outweigh a whole class of people (the revolutionary bourgeoisie) and the liberal dynamics it has unleashed. Here, liberalized leftists provide the answers again.
The cultural reactionaries who are at the basis of Islamism’s past authoritarianism are also behind Erdoğan’s increasingly paranoid style. They simply cannot stand “modern,” more cultivated people and relish Erdoğan’s anti-secular vituperations. Unlike the pious bourgeoisie, these people are full of anger, fear, and inferiority complex. Even though their class belonging is not mentioned, we understand that they are mostly lower class, since the left-liberal discourse defines their attitudes in contrast to those of the bourgeoisie, the upper-middle class, and the middle class. The autonomous bourgeoisie, in contrast to these people, retains its hopes in integration with the more secularized groups of society. It stands to gain, not lose, from co-existence and shared enrichment. The Prime Minister’s new style disturbs them.
Hence, the reasoning goes, this revolutionary class will be more than willing to support a true Muslim democrat and turn its back on Erdoğan, who promised to be one but did not live up to his promise. The task of the left and the liberals, then, becomes discovering (or inventing) this authentic democrat. Only such a person could marginalize the putrid effect of the anti-modern, lower classes on the liberal-conservative project. And since the bourgeois revolution of the last decade was to the benefit of a crushing majority of society, the broader masses (including many leftists and secular people) would have no qualms about supporting a true conservative democrat.
The Official Making of Authenticity
Leftist intellectuals did not singlehandedly concoct this fairy tale of the authentic bourgeoisie. They just made it more beautiful, forceful, and persuasive. Their voices intermingled with other streams of discourse, mostly originating from liberal sources (a broad local and international spectrum indeed, ranging from “center-periphery” analyses to the glorification of “alternative modernities”). But all of the latter lacked the bite, the combativeness, the élan that would arm disparate social groups with conflicting interests and unite them behind the project of the rising bourgeoisie.
This is a wonderful narrative indeed. We can lose ourselves in its consistency and beauty. Or we can check some basics to see whether any part of this tale stands scrutiny.
The state-society dichotomy (and its nephew, the binary between secular state and Islamic society) is an easy target. Even a brief foray into recent history demonstrates how state and society (including civil society) are mutually constitutive. The Turkish secular state (or at least some of its institutions) has been one of the main agents of the Islamization of society. Furthermore, many Islamic “civic” actors have mobilized state institutions in their fights against not only secular civic actors, but other Islamists as well. A focus on the dynamism of civic activity teaches us a lot about Turkish history. Analytical oppositions between this activity and state-making, however, do not give us much leverage. Politically, moreover, the opposition is disastrous, since it leads to the investment of false hopes in any civic actor who seems to be fighting the state.
The analytical opposition between the military and civilians is an even weaker one, but due to Turkey’s history of coups it has unshakable emotional appeal. It will take a lot of psychological effort to expose the problematic nature of this dichotomy’s centrality. Suffice it to say here that most civilians (including those who build their careers on the mentioned dichotomy) are ever ready to mobilize military and paramilitary forces against their enemies whenever this works. The 2014 flirtations between the civilian government and the generals it had imprisoned based on accusations of coup plots is a painful reminder of this (and has caught the anti-militarist Turkish liberals off-guard). The standing ovation from the liberals when “civilian” opposition figures and journalists were also imprisoned based on parallel “anti-militarist” accusations gives us more clues about the uses of this dichotomy.
But let us come to the most intellectual, provocative, and revolutionary, yet strangest, binary: that between the authentic bourgeoisie and the official bourgeoisie, which has “sutured” these other dichotomies.
It is true that there is a rising, conservative bourgeois class in Turkey. It is also true that this class fraction has been one of the major dynamics behind the rise of the Justice and Development Party. Finally, who can contest that the members of this class appear more local and authentic than their competitors in the established bourgeoisie? They publicly pray and use an Islamic vocabulary!
Nevertheless, none of this is evidence that they have become rich through more capitalist processes when compared to the old elite. As recent research by two social scientists shows, their enrichment was a part of a political project: the bourgeoisification of small merchants and the transformation of small entrepreneurs into giant capitalists was the part of an Islamic-conservative political struggle from the beginning. After the Justice and Development Party came to power, the entrenchment of this class fraction became a state project. Actually, this should not be surprising to anybody who has studied the history of capitalism, where state, civic, and other political involvement in especially initial (but occasionally, ongoing) capital accumulation is paramount.
Even if we ignore all of this deep history and recent research, it is still quite weird to invest democratic hopes in the class fraction in question, given the post-Gezi Revolt scene. Before Gezi, there were many disparate resistances against the enrichment of this class through politically-aided dispossession, but to the degree that these remained isolated and publicly invisible, no iron fist was necessary to ensure the perpetuation of accumulation. The Gezi Revolt has rendered the persistence of social peace impossible by nationalizing the urban issue. This is one reason why liberal analyses of the revolt emphasize its anti-authoritarian aspects to the detriment of its anti-neoliberal dimensions: interpreting Gezi as an exclusively anti-authoritarian revolt (and nothing more than that) reproduces the illusion that if Erdoğan is removed, Gül’s “silent revolution” can go on unabated.
What additional proof can we garner to convince ourselves of the democratic credentials of pious business? The intellectuals count on the conservative bourgeoisie’s links to world markets: a functioning business environment requires stability. Consequently, this class fraction cannot stand behind a prime minister who risks stability by his unpredictable behavior. They actually want him removed.
This is a weak version of the liberal identification of stability, business interests, and democracy. Conservative business families might be disturbed by some of Erdoğan’s extravagant moves, but they are the most likely to profit from his “mad projects.” The sheer scale of some of these projects (which will require the removal of perhaps millions from their homes) rules out a politically permissive government.
But perhaps the conservative business class has stronger reserves regarding Erdoğan’s warmongering? Wouldn’t that certainly dynamite Turkey’s international business profile? Again, we might expect foot-dragging from the members of this class in cases of extreme adventurism. However, to the degree that expansionism and soft power are combined tactfully, these are the people to benefit from Erdoğan’s excursions into what is already perceived as rightful Ottoman territory. Business interests have to be protected at home and abroad, which requires a strong will, and an anti-militarist and non-authoritarian (true) Muslim democrat president cannot substitute for Erdoğan’s stamina.
There is one more obvious fact the dominant intellectuals either neglected or consciously sidestepped, despite being well versed in historical debates. The early twentieth century creation of the bourgeoisie was also surrounded by the same kind of authenticist euphoria. The new “national” (milli, a word that has strong religious overtones) bourgeoisie replaced the alien non-Muslim merchants and artisans, the Young Turks and republicans believed. They were influenced by the German, romantic reaction to the Enlightenment and its revised-modernist project of creating a national bourgeoisie. Since the Young Turks and Kemalists have come to be criticized in quite shallow ways and interpreted as direct inheritors of the French Enlightenment and Jacobinism, their creative relationship to European modernity is increasingly neglected. For instance, they were enamored with Jacobinism’s heartless violence, but found its mobilization of the peasantry and the urban poor (the sans-culotte) distasteful. What could be more unfitting of these noble officers and state-makers? They filled the gaps in their hollowed out, anti-mobilization Jacobinism with the Germans’ enchanted Enlightenment and its national bourgeoisie.
The self-righteous vengeance with which Young Turks and Kemalists attacked non-Muslim wealth and privilege is a precursor of today’s revanchism against nominal Muslim wealth and privilege (to the degree that privilege was/is nonexistent in either case, it was/is imagined and attributed). Each “elite” was/is alien and undeserving of its distinction. Each needed/needs to be replaced by the real sons of this land (and their families). Every kind of ruse, trickery, coercion, and fraud was/is justified in dispossessing these worthless pseudo-elites. Dehumanization is serving the same goals. Today’s authentic project is the semi-logical culmination of that of the early twentieth century.
The liberals and the liberalized Marxists might try as much as they want. Their bourgeois project will not garner the same naïve enthusiasm it did back in 2010.
Regime circles have already realized that they cannot play their old game either. Unlike the liberals and liberal leftists, however, they have been not only upping the ante, but also continuously reshuffling their allies, tactics, and discourses to see what works. Antigovernment circles have been much slower and less flexible in their improvisations.
The only major (and not easily dismissible) factor in favor of new attempts at liberal-conservative mobilization is the global scene. The dominant Western diagnosis of the situation overlaps one hundred percent with the liberals’ simplistic analysis: Erdoğan is the root of the problems and the cause of Turkey’s divergence from its path. Get rid of Erdoğan and things will go back to normal. This “analysis” is repeated countless times in the respectable Western press. Such international support might boost the self-confidence of the Turkish intelligentsia, but it will not hypnotize the liberal- and left-oriented middle classes (some of whom got carried away by the “not enough, but yes” campaign) in the same way. Hegemonization of these classes for liberal-conservative purposes will not be as easy after the Gezi Revolt.
The focus on the personality of Erdoğan (centerpiece in today’s liberal-conservative game) is also an easy way for the intellectuals (and their Western allies) to wash the dirt off their hands. This is the implicit message they want to give: the overall direction of the liberal-conservative project was great; Turkey lived its golden era between 2002 and 2011 (or thereabouts); the corruption and the decline that started in 2007 was caused by Erdoğan, a few bad apples around him, and their common Islamist roots (even if it was also supported by some contingent factors). This story minimizes the structural problems of liberalism and neoliberalization, as well as the role of intellectuals in not only upholding, but instituting, those very structures in Turkey.
The parallels to the 1930s are worrying, but can also be informative. Hitler’s personality was indeed one of the central dynamics of interwar fascism, but it was certainly not the most important. This is not to say that Erdoğan’s rise to the presidency would be inconsequential (and therefore not worth fighting against), but an obsession with his power and personality (and the justification of that obsession through liberal discourse) obscures more structural problems. The destruction of the 1930s cannot be understood without appreciating how the belle époque of the 1920s prepared the scene for it. A full, unreflexive immersion in the same kind of luxury, commodification, complacence, and downplaying of social ills should not have been repeated.
And this is the more crucial point: no matter how the intellectuals play it, the victory of the kind of presidential candidate they desire is extremely unlikely at this point. The intellectuals are suffering from an empty nostalgia for the 2000s, but that decade is gone. The macro- and meso-dynamics that made the decade possible (a growing world economy and the sustained flow of hot money to world capitalism’s semi-periphery; the silence of the Arabs and the unfounded Western hope that when they started to speak they would be eager followers of the Turkish model; the temporary and liberal unification of the Islamic field in Turkey; a passive Turkish public; and so on) have evaporated. Intellectuals are now busy figuring out all the reshuffling of votes and constituencies that would favor a true conservative democrat against Erdoğan. What they do not want to realize (not because they are not wise enough to know, but because they do not want to know due to their vested interests in liberalism) is that their calculations will come to naught.
The game based on the struggle between state and society, the military and civilians, the conservative bourgeoisie and the old elite, authenticity and top-down modernity has come to an end. The winners have reaped the benefits and these binaries serve them no more. The common sense oppositions of the 1980s through the 2000s do not make sense today, if they ever did. It is time to pack up and leave the grandstand—or the field, if you were one of the players. The master-crafters of the field have already left the building. Do not expect an encore.
This essay was finalized a few days before the mining massacre in Soma. Capital’s passive revolution, for which liberal-conservative discourse procured a lot of elite and international support, took hundreds of lives by disqualifying all kinds of regulation that would create secure working conditions. Liberals might now race with each other to explain this murder based on Erdoğan’s personality and the authoritarianism of his circle. Or they might temporarily pay lip service to “neoliberalism`s" destructiveness (as a couple of them did during the Gezi Revolt, only to return to their liberal-conservative agenda in the following months). They will thereby seek to cloud the obvious: the sociopolitical model they propounded for a decade is a blank check for these kinds of “accidents.”
Today, it is clearer than ever that any meaningful mobilization in Turkey has to be organized against the business class rather than with the business class. And the dominated classes, which the refined intellectuals look down on, have to be at the core of it.
 This is not the place to engage in a full analysis of pro-government leftist discourses around this time, but it should be noted that the analysis of the situation varied significantly from one leftist circle to the other. For instance, the slogan’s neo-Trotskyist author compared the “yes” voters of the 2010 referendum to the masses of the October Revolution, insinuating that he perceived the new regime’s base as proletarian rather than bourgeois revolutionaries.
 Ayşe Buğra and Osman Savaşkan, New Capitalism in Turkey: The Relationship between Politics, Religion and Business (Edward Elgar, 2014).