Alarm bells have been ringing for the Turkish economy in recent months. The plunging value of the lira, the dangerous levels of private and corporate debt, rising unemployment, a stubbornly high current account deficit, and a crisis-stricken tourist sector are all ominous signals. The situation contrasts starkly with just a few years ago, when breakneck growth rates marked the Turkish economy as a global shining star.
Much of the praise for the “Turkish model” stemmed from the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) apparent blending of economic development with “moderate Muslim democracy.” The government was hailed for opening up the country to liberal market forces while also extending services to the poorest parts of society. A rising tide seemed to be lifting all boats.
The reality was more complicated. As Ayşe Buğra and Osman Savaşkan showed in their book “The New Capitalism in Turkey,” the AKP came to power promising to abide by “good governance” regulatory reforms after the crippling 2001 financial crisis. But it steadily rolled back many of those reforms and opened the path to the crony capitalist economic model of today’s Turkey.
In fact, early neoliberal reforms back in the 1980s were also entirely dependent on state enforcement. Turkey’s military coup of 1980 aimed to put an end to the near-civil war between and within left and right-wing groups in the 1970s, and ushered in a period of harsh economic liberalization. As Nilgün Önder described in “The Economic Transformation of Turkey,” opening the country to global market forces paradoxically could only be achieved through a reinforcement of central state power. The effects are clear today.
“The Making of Neoliberal Turkey” is a collection of essays exploring the political, cultural, and social effects of economic policies implemented in Turkey since 1980. Edited by Cenk Özbay of Sabancı University, Ayşecan Terzioğlu of GalatasarayUniversity, Maral Erol of Istanbul Medipol University, and Umut Turem of Boğaziçi University, the book considers developments broadly from the left. Some chapters are more efficient than others, but on the whole there is plenty to learn from the volume.
As Özbay writes in the introduction, the economic shock treatment applied by the post-1980 military regime and subsequent governments bulldozed over Turkey’s pre-1980 axes of politics: “Unions and other labor associations were silenced and tamed by the military rule of the early 1980s and kept under control by the ensuing governments.” There was a deliberate move to separate the economic and political spheres. “Under the neoliberal reforms, politics would be a technocratic endeavor: Rational, sterile, and free from the messiness of ideology and ideological struggles,” Özbay writes. This new consensus largely held in subsequent years.
The eradication of the “old” politics of redistribution was accompanied by the emergence of a “new” politics focused on identity, locality, consumerism, and a celebratory rhetoric of free choice. “The political landscape that had been structured around the meta-narratives of the left and right in the pre-1980 period got fragmented to include identity issues, culture and lifestyle choices as the new bases for politics,” Özbay also writes. This broad remaking of the political landscape amounted to a shift from politics of left versus right toward a “politics that emphasized identities: Islamist, Kurdish, secularist/Kemalist, and of course Turkish nationalist.”
This new arrangement had huge unforeseen consequences. In addition to state-approved nationalist and religious openings, other identity-based social movements – such as feminist groups, LGBT activists, Kurdish associations, and environmentalist organizations – were politicized and rose in prominence. “The Making of Neoliberal Turkey” turns its attention to these welcome developments while lamenting the economic consequences of depoliticization. Personally I doubt the two can be so easily separated.
Overall the book is a stimulating read addressing a diverse range subjects – from football violence laws to masculinity in satirical comics, from healthcare policies to environmental campaigning. Each one shows practically how – in contrast with free market doctrine – the tentacles of the state have actually spread further across all public and private sectors since 1980 in Turkey. That process is accelerating under the current government.