North Africa, West Asia

Two visions of politics in Turkey: authoritarian and revolutionary

Politics is not a mere choice between white and black, but rather a creative way of people running their daily lives in all their colourful richness.

Cihad Hammy
20 August 2016

The leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, speaks to his party supporters during an anti-coup rally in Istanbul,July 23,2016. Petros Giannakouris/Press Association. All rights reserved.Late last December, upon returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia, Turkish President Erdogan was asked by Turkish reporters whether an executive presidential system was possible while maintaining “the unitary structure of the state”. He responded, “There are already examples in the world. You can see it when you look at Hitler’s Germany.” Following a failed coup d’etat attempt this July, as Erdogan started excluding and imprisoning political rivals, laying the groundwork for authoritarian control, some critics have begun taking the comparison more seriously.

In fact, Erdogan draws on the same conception of politics, drawing on the thinking of Carl Schmitt, the German jurist and political theorist who was a passionate defender of Hitler’s regime. According to Schmitt, politics is based on nothing more than the distinction between “friend” and “enemy”. This concept of politics is not determined by economics and ethical categories. Rather, the state needs to create enemies to constitute itself and to ensure its own survival.  Erdogan's politics have much in common with this central premise, as he explained here:

“Democracy, freedom and the rule of law…For us, these words have absolutely no value any longer. Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friends. Those on the opposite side are our enemy,” July 16, 2016

Any opinions or policies outside the boundaries of the ruling ideology of the Turkish state are deemed to be a threat to the unity and security of the state. The friend and enemy binary is not a rigid concept. A friend can become an enemy and an enemy can become a best friend out of the blue. For this politics is not structured around ethical principles. The enemy, for Erdogan, is whoever stands against him on his way to building an authoritarian state, as he deploys the declaration of a state of emergency, imprisonments, war and massacres against his political rivals.

Erdogan has called the failed coup attempt “a gift from God”, since it would help to quash his rivals within the state. It "proved" the existence of an enemy he has been rhetorically constructing over recent years. Consequently, it will pave the way for him to consolidate his power throughout the state, allowing him to install a new authoritarian hyper-presidentialist system. Now everyone in Turkey – the army, academics, journalists, judges and political opponents – can be the enemy in the eyes of Erdogan. God’s gift plays its role whenever necessary to enable all the state’s “enemies” or political rivals to be arbitrarily packed off to jail.

God’s gift is the moment of the “state of exception” that Carl Schmidt outlined in his book, Political Theology, which begins by defining as “sovereign… he who decides the exception”. The sovereign is a charismatic leader who saves his people from “peril” by acting outside the law if necessary. He is sovereign in an absolute sense; in other words, a dictator.

What Erdogan is trying to achieve through this kind of politics is to build an authoritarian state by fighting diversity and plurality within the body of the state, firstly by excluding the different parties that are not compatible with the ruling party’s ideology, such as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – whose elected representatives were recently stripped of their immunity for allegedly “abetting terrorism.” The democratic aspirations of the HDP were an obstacle to Erdoğan’s dream to establish a hyper-presidentialist system. The other threat to Erdogan was Fethullah Gulen – the prominent Muslim cleric currently living in exile in the US accused by the Turkish government of plotting the coup – and the Gulenist cells within the state apparatus. After this, by penetration of the social realm with his politics, Erdogan aims to reduce the Turkish masses to passivity.

Revolutionary politics as an alternative

The friend-enemy political binary does indeed limit the scope of diversity and plurality in administering the social realm. This crude dualism cannot encompass the complexity and richness of life, and neither can it ultimately divest the rich meaning of politics from its original Greek meaning as the self-management of the community. This self-management is rooted in the people and based on their empowerment in participatory democratic institutions. For politics is not a mere choice between white and black, but rather a creative way of people running their daily lives in all their colourful richness. Theodor W. Adorno, German philosopher and sociologist, in his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life countered this central concept of Carl Schmitt’s politics with an emphasis on freedom, writing:

“Carl Schmitt defined the very essence of politics by the categories of friend and enemy... Freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices”.

In Turkey today, we see both these visions in contestation. On the one hand, Erdogan is pursing Carl Schmitt’s political trajectory: on the other hand, many are drawn to a radical politics which is totally at odds with Erdogan’s politics. Despite the harsh conditions of being in solitary confinement on Imrali prison island in Turkey since 1999, Ocalan, thinker and ideological father of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), developed his concept of revolutionary politics after drawing on the thought of philosophers such as Hanna Arendt and Murray Bookchin. This kind of politics is practiced by the Kurdish Freedom Movement in North Kurdistan(southeastern Turkey) and Rojava. Their revolutionary politics aims at creating a dual power to challenge the nation-state: a non-state public sphere empowered by grassroots assemblies, combined with a confederation of democratized municipalities, elected by the people through direct face-to-face democracy.

One of the main characteristics of this revolutionary politics is its strong melding with rational ethics in society. While ethics tries to determine morally good actions, politics tries to create the best action. Any action or politics is pushed by ethical needs, and this politics is the manifestation of an ethics that seeks to achieve creative self-realization through participation in a non-hierarchical and free society. In his fifth volume, Ocalan analyzes the way in which this ethics plays the same role as politics in managing society. He argues, “while politics performs a routine creative, protective and feeding role, ethics does the same service in the society, via the institutionalized and rule-based force of tradition. One can judge ethics as the political memory of society.”

Erdogan’s politics and Ocalan’s politics collided head on when the HDP, embracing a revolutionary and democratic politics, scored a great victory in the June election, surpassing the Turkish parliament's 10% threshold. This impressive performance temporarily stalled Erdogan’s ambitions, hence the subsequent escalation of conflict and the brutal crackdown on the Kurdish movement ever since. Erdogan terminated the peace process and launched a war against the popular base of the HDP. In reaction to this war people organized local assemblies and declared self-rule all over North Kurdistan. Ever since, the Turkish government has chosen coercion and social engineering policies enacted through war as its approach to uprooting the seeds of revolutionary politics in North Kurdistan. The war in North Kurdistan is a war against the will of the Kurdish people to pursue a revolutionary politics dedicated to freedom, democracy, diversity and plurality.

It follows that the first step to solving the Kurdish question in North Kurdistan is an end to militarism on both sides, since militarism too can only suffocate the real role of politics, that is more active participation in building a peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurds.

When Erdogan, aided by the CHP and MHP – two parties which have a similar mentality to that of the AKP – stripped parliamentary immunity away from the  HPD, Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the HDP, eloquently expressed his vision of a revolutionary politics rooted in people. He said:

 “People form parliaments, not parties, and the people can form multiple parliaments if they wish to do so... The people, the public would be able to do whatever they wish to do and we would not stand in the way of our people.”

Turkey is heading to a gloomy future under the shadow of an AKP politics  based on exclusion and the denial of all forms of democracy and diversity in Turkey. To avoid the abyss, people need a new revolutionary politics aimed at absorbing the power of the state and giving it back to people to run their own lives in a free, democratic and ethical way.

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