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‘Zones of turbulence’, was a term that the economic historian Fernand Braudel used to describe areas of market instability that were controlled and manipulated by an ‘exalted merchant class’.
A few wealthy merchants, Braudel says, in eighteenth-century Amsterdam or sixteenth-century Genoa could throw whole sectors of the European or even world economy into confusion, creating a ‘shadowy second zone which would represent the favoured domain of capitalism’. This constructed trade zone, where flows of capital could run unchecked and without caution, forms the basis of what we know now as dominant liberal and neoliberal models of economic governance.
These turbulent zones were instrumentalized and solidified by the liberalization of trade beginning in the fifteenth-century and exacerbated by the industrial revolution. It was made possible by increased levels of foreign trade and was tied to trade treaties that enabled the expansion of economic growth for whichever state the treaty would benefit, though, as Braudel again describes, it was a sophisticated art, intentionally open only to “a few initiates at most”.
The ever-increasing power of western economies at the time was linked to this method of trade expansion and paved the way for the system of liberal democracy we now know through such watchwords as freedom and justice.
The belief was that liberal, western values contain the key to maintaining the integrity of all good, rational moral people – so key in fact that, as Francis Fukuyama would argue, liberal democracy even held the power to end history itself and become the final form of human government.
In the European Union and the wider west, liberalism builds upon this premise and is committed to securing individual liberty and human dignity through a political system that typically involves democratic and representative institutions which guarantee individual rights of property and freedom of expression, association, and conscience, all of which are taken to limit the legitimate use of the authority of the state.
Nevertheless, this form of European liberalism would seem to contradict the fact that its central purpose is to exist as a single hegemonic economic area: how can an area equally support the rights of all individual actants while also promoting trade which in the most part benefits a select few “exalted” actors?
Thus, the European Union (EU) has tried to legitimate its own domination through the separation of powers, vis-à-vis its political structure, which supposedly exists to limit those very powers. The effect of this is an EU population that actively consents to be an accomplice to its own domination, relying on ‘justice’ and lawyers for its ‘freedom’.
Hence, when we speak about Brexit, the surging support for the rightwing and how they have come to be linked to vocal and abhorrent positions on migration, we must begin to consider people's own position within the EU and whether our stance on freedom, democracy and justice indeed offers a solution to the ongoing turmoil that currently exists.
What I can offer here is a historical rumination on a treaty between the British and Ottoman empires that traces the logic of how liberalization is both a powerful consolidating move and also a means to capitalize on turmoil.
In 1838, the British signed a trade treaty - a legal instrument presupposing a sense of mutual obligations - with the Ottoman Empire. The 1838 Treaty of Balta Limani, or the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty, abolished all Ottoman monopolies and enabled rich British traders to have full access to Ottoman markets and equal levels of taxation. The circumstances that led to this treaty are important and I will briefly outline them for the purpose of historical context.
In 1831, the Egyptians, as ruled by Muhammad Ali, invaded Lebanon and Syria, defeating its Ottoman defenders. The Ottomans, at the time, appealed to the English and to the French for support, but were turned down owing to their reluctance to become embroiled in a larger war. This led the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II, to turn to Russia for assistance, who helped to negotiate an end to the Egyptian advances.
The tensions that had thus arisen between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire led the British Empire to take advantage of the regional unrest and negotiate the 1838 trade treaty with the Ottomans.The tensions that had thus arisen between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, and with the uncertain possibility of Russian involvement in an ensuing larger-scale war, led the British Empire to take advantage of the regional unrest and negotiate, from a position of strength, the 1838 trade treaty with the Ottomans.
While I am leaving out a large amount of historical detail, including the major role of Mehmet Ali, or Muhammad Ali, of Egypt (of which more can be read in Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant From the Ruins of Empire) what I am taking to be important here is how the British made use of the ‘lack of order’ stemming from this regional turbulence.
The results of the treaty benefited the British the most. While the deal was in part a means to overthrow Ali of Egypt it was equally the means to engage in as much trade as possible with the Ottoman Empire, with very little restrictions on the open market.
Charles Tripp, in Islam and the Moral Economy, writes that the treaty itself didn’t just open up the Ottomans to the British Empire, it set about the process of opening up the empire to a ‘global’ foreign trade, this meant ‘growing indebtedness and concessions to European trading power’ . The ensuing consequences of this were ‘dramatic and unsettling’, he comments, some regions becoming directly effected by fluctuations in the world market .
Tripp cites the political activist at the time, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who, concerned by the loss of power by the states of the Muslim world considered the ‘normative order’ conveyed by capitalism and its material conditioning to be detrimental to the social bonds that gave Islamic society meaning. He saw the advance of the empire’s trade as devoid of any moral or humanitarian attachment and the British treaty as serving self-interested bodies benefiting wealthy merchants seeking to do business in the Ottoman Empire, which ultimately would only bolster the economy of the British elite.
Pursuing Fernand Braudel’s thought on the matter, while zones of turbulence could destabilize nation states and could be instrumentalized to solidify power, it is interesting to note how the turmoil caused by the aforementioned sequence of events led to a widening of the inequality gap between the British and the Ottomans.
According to Charles Issawi in The Economic History of Turkey 1800-1914, the average wage in Britain and in Turkey was very similar in 1858, but by the turn of the century, both money and real wages in England were some 75-80 percent higher than they had been in the 1850s and 60s, and the gap between the two countries has greatly widened since then. This is all due to the ramifications of the treaty.
We can see from this short account that the British capitalized upon this regional turbulence and lack of order, under the umbrella of helping the Ottomans – a humanitarian cause – and instead utilized the treaty to increase the prosperity of their own country through trade expansion. Humanitarian by name, economic by means.
While I do not suggest that the EU is somehow utilizing the migration crisis to economically expand into Turkey, I do wish to suggest that the ‘restoration of order’ following the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal does aid a return of order for liberal markets and political economy, and that, like the Ottoman losses post-treaty, the results of the deal are entirely to the detriment of the migrants affected, while only benefiting the EU.
Equally, the power that Turkish President Racep Erdoğan has been able to accrue, following the failure of the coup, is a direct implication of his status as the key player in the EU-Turkey deal; one who holds all the cards and whom the EU do not want to disturb. Thus, his actions following the coup have been slowly criticised by EU actors, with little condemnation of his shocking, purge-like actions.
The comparison I want to make between the EU and the British in 1838 lies in how the economization of regional instability makes acceptable the braiding of human rights-violating exceptional measures with liberal humanitarianism, a mechanism which is playing itself out with massive consequence, not only on the borders of the Mediterranean, but on the streets and in the schools of Turkey and in the offices of Downing Street in the UK.
 Interestingly, in comparison to the recently discussed EU-Turkey deal, the British wanted the Ottomans to accept this treaty as quickly as possible, as due to the Ottoman Empire’s difficulties with neighbouring conflicts, it had little room to negotiate.