It is official. The world system is in deep crisis. Corruption really does start at the top. The United States, the leader of this system, first wavered in 2011. Yet another wave of protests shook the US from July to December 2014. At the “Occupy” protests three years ago, the system’s inequitable economic dimensions came to the fore. At the end of last year, its political-racial dimensions drew attention. Almost simultaneously, Europe witnessed the rise of anti-Muslim mass sentiment. Right-wing street demonstrations and mosque burnings have recently spread throughout the continent. Such actions are bound to garner more sympathy after the Charlie Hebdo attack. This event might also pave the way for the (further) normalization of repression and surveillance in the West. Whatever way you look at it, it is clear that neoliberal-democratic hegemony is no longer sustainable.
What is new about the murders in New York and Ferguson in July and August, respectively, is not the police’s treatment of black people, but rather the social reaction that they have produced. The system, which lost ground to African Americans in the 1960s, compensated for this by splitting African Americans into two groups (in terms of class) and cracking down violently on poor neighborhoods. As a consequence, the killing of “suspicious” black people (behind the curtain of basic equal citizenship) has been part of the natural order of things for forty to fifty years. What has changed today is that systematic problems of American capitalism have become interconnected. The streets that came to life in America put a hand over this bleeding wound. Hopefully future efforts won’t just cover up the wounds, but will excise them altogether.
The phrase “I can’t breathe” may become a symbol of the impending American rebellion. That is what Eric Garner was saying when he was suffocated by the police for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally, even though he was not armed. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether he was killed so easily for being black or for being a poor street peddler. If one thing is certain, it is that the murder, which the justice system tried to sweep under the rug, was condemned in the public conscience. Even athletes came out wearing shirts that said “I can’t breathe.” And this slogan cropped up frequently at the street protests.
The fast pace of politics in the twenty-first century could lead us to quickly forget the tumultuous last months of 2014 in the US. Now that 2015 has opened with a horrible crime in Paris, why even reflect back on the Garner and Brown murders? Certainly, the killers and their motivations are worlds apart. Yet these quite different barbarisms are also symptoms of the degeneration of a single world order.
From America and Tunisia to Turkey, Those Who Can’t Breathe Are Rising Up
The inability to breathe is, in fact, a general state of spirit and body that extends far beyond America. Let us remember that the Arab uprisings were sparked by the death of a street peddler. Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man from Sidi Bouzid, a poor, provincial town in Tunisia, set himself on fire in response to ongoing harassment from security guards, which is why one of the four fundamental slogans of the Arab uprisings was “dignity.” Today, then, attacks on street peddlers know no borders. Globalization has never made itself so apparent in flesh and bone. Evil has become a single body, coiled around all of the street peddlers of the world, as if to tell them, “You kill yourself, or we kill you.” The border between Tunisia and the United States has become meaningless. All states, like all the poor, are one.
Still, the rise of Salafi-jihadism in the Middle East, the neo-Nazi demonstrations and actions throughout Europe during the last few weeks, and eventually the Paris killings are attempts to resurrect the borders. These heinous acts and processes want to remind us of who we “really” are: Europeans, Muslims, atheists, civilized secularists, Christians, and/or Arabs. Even some of the uprisings of the last few years, such as the Ukrainian one, blended the democratic voice of the masses and crude, extremist identity politics. We are, in fact, witnessing the rise of two parallel tides that reinforce each other: a new, divisive, relatively more self-conscious mass totalitarianism and a potentially emancipatory and uniting, but currently directionless, mass rejection of capitalist destructiveness.
The rebellion of those who can’t breathe is not limited to America or Tunisia. From 2009 to 2013, insurrections around the world emerged and faded out without many results. The Turkish Gezi Uprising (for better or worse) was part of this wave. Maybe some people thought that the global street would slowly come to a stop. Since the start of the summer, however, the American demonstrations against the police that have made advances and drawn back portend that we are in the midst of a wave of resistance. Sadly, the descent of Europe signals that we are also experiencing the return of a despicable enemy.
Liberal political and economic prescriptions that defined the world since the 1970s have collapsed: either something will take their place or those in power will use forceful and unconventional means to overcome this unrest. What is clear for now is this: neither those in power nor the opposition has any alternative. There are of course ideas flying around. But at the moment there doesn’t seem to be a group or movement—either within the system or outside of it—to shoulder responsibility for them. In such a situation, those in power suffice by making tiny changes to the system. The opposition on the streets “hits and runs”: it damages the system, but neither fixes it nor offers an alternative. It is in this regard that we should evaluate the increasingly unconventional use of force throughout the world.
We can understand how novel (and dire) the situation is by comparing it with the end of the 1920s. The system at that time had also collapsed in every possible way. But there was a loud and clear (oppositional) alternative: socialism. The dominant classes, troubled by the gravity of this alternative, were forced to create an alternative within the system (one that would meet the raised expectations of the opposition). Keynesian economics, which could have been dismissed (under normal circumstances) as the crazy idea of one unusual academic, became a life preserver in this threatening atmosphere. The vast majority of socialists, afraid of fascism as well as the radicalism of their own left wing, understanding that they could not come to power without a number of risky upheavals, came to an agreement with those in power over this new, apparently centrist economy.
In the times in which we find ourselves, someone looking for Keynesian economics and other similar life preservers will find them. However, those in power, who do not see themselves as under systematic threat, have no such desire. This is because the streets are not overwhelming them. In other words, those in power are still able to breathe. It is highly likely that the next few years will witness huge numbers of uprisings against inequality, environmental disasters, “workplace accidents,” police violence, and ethnic-racial-sectarian discrimination. But this time, unlike the 1940s, those in power might prefer to establish an environment of wholesale oppression and ideological terror instead of reconciling with these actors. As a consequence, the totalitarian 1930s, experienced as a parentheses in the middle of the twentieth century (both historically and geographically), may become the dominant paradigm of the twenty-first century. This difference, of course, has many causes, but the most important is the “anarchistic” nature of the current uprisings. Contemporary insurrections, which (for the most part) define themselves as without leaders and without ideology, are pushing those in power to use criminal solutions, rather than political ones.
The Three Primary Components of the New Century: Walls, Masses, and Purging Frenzies
The ruling groups that are targeted by uprisings can employ two primary methods. The first, which comes up frequently in Hollywood science fiction movies, is a strategy of withdrawing behind a wall, of completely isolating oneself. The number of films in the last ten years that have employed this theme is beyond count (The Hunger Games, Elysium, Upside Down, Total Recall, etc.). The rich create two worlds: while luxury and health are the normal way of things in one, the other is in the clutches of disease and police terror. In these films, you can see not only the shadow of class polarization but also of the ongoing American occupations. District 9 is a good example of this. The leader of this strategy will most likely be the United States. (Along with Los Angeles, Israel can, of course, be seen as a small-scale leader of this strategy. As I write this article, an Israeli soldier beat a Palestinian minister in the chest with his rifle, signaling the direction that representative democracy is taking.)
The other strategy is to establish state-civilian blocs that cry out against the destruction wrought by neoliberalism but that become authoritarian by protecting—even securing—the privileges of the capitalist elite. This strategy is frequently rehearsed in Turkey (maybe more than anywhere else). For example, the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak has been aware of the global uprising for a long time; it has been brooding over how it will preside over this. Some of its columnists know very well that the problem is not simply an “interest lobby,” a “coup” by the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, etc. (the tropes Tayyip Erdoğan, their hero, has used to account for the Gezi protests). Therefore, they have been revising their discourse since the Gezi Uprising. A mob that shamelessly colonized, exploited, and monetized Turkey`s natural resources, its cheap workforce, and its historical fabric for ten years, now relishes engaging in anticapitalist and jihadist tirades. They want to say, “If post-capitalist society is coming to Turkey, we’ll be bringing it.”
If someone who didn’t know Turkey, didn’t know the kinds of politics the AK Party has pursued over the past twelve years, who is not aware that these writers have positions at the highest levels of the party and the state, were to read these articles, he or she would think that these individuals were Islamist Marxists, radicals with an Islamized liberation theology, or forty-year disciples of Ali Shariati. What should we say to the efforts of Yeni Şafak`s writers to dig up revolutionary leader and social justice proponent Sayyid Qutb, even after Yalçın Akdoğan, the author of Conservative Democracy, the (official) booklet of the party, ruthlessly buried Qutb in his book Political Islam? Wasn`t the AK Party founded upon the rejection of Qutb and similar (radical Islamist) thinkers? Seeing as you are trying to bring him back to life, why were you killing the deceased in your columns for ten years? Now we have a Qutb before us, his heart and spirit torn out, his limbs falling off one by one. Don’t expect social justice or revolution from such a Qutb. Instead, you can expect excommunication and elitism. In other words, “New Turkey” equals the era of Zombie Qutb.
İbrahim Karagül’s writings are quite instructive on this topic. Below I offer a selection from one article, and recommend reading the rest:
[It is expected] that traditional modes of conflict will be replaced by street movements and urban warfare in the twenty-first century. [It is understood] that time-worn cities will emerge as an identity to replace the metric of the nation state, that urban identities will take the place of ethnic identities.…
Efforts at resolution that rely solely upon state power, solely upon security forces, will be unsuccessful and will in fact exacerbate the reaction of the masses. Even if you declare and enforce a legal state of emergency, you will not be successful in ameliorating the anger of the masses.…
I believe that the next few decades will witness the oft-discussed urban warfare. I believe that new civilian power structures will emerge alongside state power and that this situation will become the primary determinant of the stability of countries.…
The most significant thing that politics can do here is to produce grand causes, ideals, and goals, and ensure that the masses adopt them. By using civilian methods alongside state forces and knowing how to govern the predispositions of the masses, politics enables the state and society to develop a common language and common goals. The only formula is for the state to become civilian and to feel like a citizen.
In other words, the ideologues are quite aware that there will be many insurrections like Gezi, and after a certain point, police violence will not be enough to suppress them. Against the rebellious masses, the state will have to cultivate another mass (one that is more organized and aware). In this age of new uprisings, as the dominant writers, state, business groups, etc. organize around the necessity of manipulating and reining in resistance in both the political and civil domains, let us note in passing how significant it is that the left and liberals are distracted with autonomist, post-structuralist, institutionalist, and other theories that downplay the role of mass organization, leadership, and common platforms.
But stirring a bloody terror over the opposition in order to thrust Turkey in a fascistic direction is not enough. The AK Party has to be quite merciless even within its own ranks. Putting the ideals discussed by Karagül into action is not something one can do without paying the price. A piece titled “Purging” by another ideologue-bureaucrat offers the news that the bickering within the party (which has been going on for some time behind closed doors) will come to light:
What should we do with the wealth to which an individual morally succumbs? We don’t want to become rich like the West, we’re different, we have our particularities. If we become rich, if we become powerful, if we become a superpower; then we should ascend with a structure in which the individual and the family are spiritually, morally, and ethically strong. I’m not addressing faraway people as I say this; I intend it for everyone who is reading these lines, especially myself: Something is going wrong in our life, let’s take a look at ourselves first, friend. Let’s turn in on ourselves, let’s do a little accounting, let’s fuss a bit. We’re in need of a purging. If you love this country, this nation, this religious community, stop for a moment, look at yourself, and find your own mistakes first. Then find a way to purge yourself of the mistakes, the sins, the wrong acts, and the bad temperament.
If we consider the earlier and later articles from the person responsible for these lines, which seem written with an almost Sufi-like innocence, we can predict that anyone who does not purge will be purged. In one of his former articles, the author vengefully attacked his enemies: not only the anti-Islamist forces in the whole world, but the pro-Gezi and pro-PKK forces in Turkey. One reason for this author’s rage, which he occasionally tries to suppress (or hide), is that some people were quicker to act on the urge to purge. Three top journalists of his ilk were recently expelled from pro-government newspapers. The government’s (“Islamist”) ideologues are rushing to cover up the fact that the real problem is within their ranks as they shout, “We are making Islam’s enemies crawl.” They will clean out whoever isn’t (or doesn’t) clean himself. As the mass-scale, iron will that İbrahim Karagül longs for is being established, it is unclear who will be purged, or when, or how.
We should not think of these two strategies (the building of walls and the construction of mass mobilization from above) as entirely separate from one another. In order for the social democratic capitalism of the twentieth century to take hold and mature, fascism had to be liquidated. The strategy of withdrawing behind walls, on the other hand, can entertain evanescent syntheses with totalitarian practices. Israel is a leader in this regard too. Europe is also experimenting with this synthesis, even if rather amateurishly in comparison to its mentor. While erecting ever-higher barriers between its secular-Christian “democratic” “civilization” and its “less civilized” others, it does not fail to unearth the Swastika. During the last few days of 2014, Angela Merkel and other European leaders condemned the continental spread of neo-Nazi action and ideology. They will now feel justified, in the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in incorporating more of both into their democracies.
The AK Party’s increasingly fascistic tendencies will inevitably generate serious friction with the United States and Europe. But unless the party loses itself completely, it may continue to have very close dealings with the US, both strategically and ideologically. As a result, instead of regimes that make a one-time trip through fascism, a wide array of fascistic, authoritarian regimes that bring these two strategies flexibly together could spread throughout the world. In such a situation, rather than transforming into a simple radical Islamist regime, the AK Party will become a rough composite of neoliberalism, fascism, conservatism, and jihadist Islamism. Yet calling this kind of opportunism “radical” would be giving these shrewd ideologues and bureaucrats too much credit.
Journalists and academics have been warning us for a couple of months that the Turkish regime is switching from conservatism to radical Islamism. An article by Nuray Mert, one of the people who know the Islamist movement best, is significant in this regard. Mert focused on the changes in the regime and intelligentsia and asked the question: “Are you aware of the threat?” This appropriation of a Kemalist slogan from the mid-2000s was a rather surprising move. Back then, the Kemalist street had mobilized against the AK Party’s desire to have a covered first lady. One of the core mobilizing slogans was “Are you aware of the threat?” Mert, a leftist academic and journalist, had issues with the AK Party’s insistence on the covered first lady, but she was more distanced from the Kemalist upheaval, given its elitist overtones. Some seven years later, Mert’s endorsement of the slogan signals that many leftists today think that Kemalists had an insight into what was going on, while all others in Turkey (liberals, conservatives, the anti-Kemalist wings of the left, etc.) underestimated the “threat.” Whether the Islamists inside the AK Party really had a (radical Islamist) hidden agenda as early as the mid-2000s is a debate that cannot be resolved here. My point is rather that the threat we are facing is neither simply one of Islamism, nor is it restricted to Turkey.
It is true that the local dynamics that have generated ISIS and PEDIGA (as well as the proto-ISIS tendencies within the AK Party) are starkly different; but it is as true that neither organization would thrive if it were not for the global crisis of hegemony. The looming danger is a world without (physical and political) oxygen; a world where Obama’s, Merkel’s and Erdoğan’s environmentally destructive surveillance regimes pose as the only antidotes against ISIS and PEDIGA, while either co-operating with them, tolerating them, or at least fostering the conditions for their further empowerment. Turkish fascistization might have many specific aspects; but make no mistake about it, the attack on our very ability to breathe is global, even if our will to defend the atmosphere is still less so.
Can You Breathe?
There is only one way to not stand idly by, watching these events unfold: by taking seriously the global uprising (with all of its positive and rather negative dimensions alike) as much as the “threat.” The only way to save Turkey (and the world) from the dreadful nightmare that these two strategies (building walls and becoming fascistic) will cause is for the uprising, which does not currently have a common trajectory or language, to produce concrete and convincing alternatives. Of course one needs to be aware of the threat, but that is not enough. One also has to be aware of the global unrest and uprising to keep from framing the situation in terms of a religious-secular (or civilized-barbarian) polarization within the system.
I am currently in Istanbul, where millions of trees were cut down in one short summer, where common spaces are disappearing day by day, and where even children’s parks smell of sewage, and I can’t breathe. It is as if the hand that murdered Eric Garner is on my throat. The hands that have suffocated miners across Turkey for years, now determined to become iron claws, are reaching for my chest. The only thing keeping me standing as my lungs tighten up is the possibility that those who cannot breath will unite. From Ferguson, from Soma, from Sidi Bouzid, a muttering reaches my ears: “I can’t breathe.” The future of this planet depends upon this voice transforming into a new alternative.
[An earlier version of this article was originally published on T24 in mid-December 2014. It was translated from Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury and slightly revised after the Charlie Hebdo attack.]