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Ruminations on the political in post-referendum Turkey

Despite the state’s attempts to know and manage, there remain illegible elements, as exemplified by the people who support the No campaign or the women who join the Women’s Rally.

Oguz Alyanak
30 May 2017
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Turkish politician and former Minister of Interior Meral Akşener.Wikicommons/Haber Medya Grubu (Haberaks TV).Some rights reserved.“It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

“…language is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers” James Scott, Seeing Like a State.

If legibility (of nature, and society) is the central problem of statecraft, as James Scott argues in his seminal work, Seeing like a State, what does remaining illegible look like in Turkey today? I offer a quick glance at three moments  – the March 8 Women’s March protests, Women who say No campaigns, and the political campaign of a dissenting female politician – to show that despite attempts by the Turkish state to “make society legible”, there remain radical contingencies that are illegible which may render the social system unsustainable in the long run. 

According to Scott, there are a number of processes at play in making society legible. First is a mode of seeing that organizes nature and society through simplification – a categorization, so to speak, of things, people and ideas according to their usefulness, scientificity and efficiency. Lands, people, and bodies of knowledge that can be transformed within the state’s vision are considered tameable, and therefore, good and useful, while others are rendered disposable. Each is assigned its appropriate role and place – in governing bodies and other forms of state apparatus, or in detention centers and prisons. This semiotic ordering is possible because of the state’s self-confidence, through which it is able to defy critical and empirical analysis, or at best make use of it conjecturally.

This ordering is prophetic, and in some ways, apocalyptic, for it believes (and makes others believe) in the goal it lays out – be it mass scale infrastructural projects, or mass scale social engineering – and effaces all other alternatives. It is of little concern that the path to achieving the goal may be destructive or costly, for what matters is the point reached, and not the economic, environmental, social and humanitarian ruin it leaves on its path. The state, after all, has abundant might and does not shy away from using coercion to undertake these steps. If need be, it is willing to declare and maintain a state of exception to further its apocalyptic vision in the name of the people and the public good.

Scott also calls such coercive systems into question and writes that these systems are bound to fail primarily because the formal state apparatus feeds on informal processes that it alone cannot create or maintain. In other words, the state’s attempt to oversee and manage the political has a limit, and that limit is ascertained by how far removed the polity becomes from the society it governs. Moreover, the state cannot have full supervision over knowledge for while it can oversee the past and the now, and take actions to prevent potential future contingencies, it cannot claim monopoly over the future. After all, the future is unpredictable, and projects that ignore “the radical contingency of the future”, writes Scott, are simply put, unsustainable.                                            

Turkey has been under a state of emergency (OHAL) rule since 21 July 2016. One of the limitations OHAL brought was to outlaw public gatherings and to revoke the right to assembly, both already significantly curtailed since the passing of the Domestic Security Bill in March 2015. Yet, the Women’s Rally on 8 March went ahead. Despite ongoing detentions, coercive practices of the police and continuous threats aired on government-owned and dictated channels, which literally left no room for resistance, let alone protest, thousands of women (and men) stood strong – saluting their counterparts who filled up the streets in the US and elsewhere marching against their own states.

Similarly “Women who say No” was a campaign that took on centre stage with campaign spokespersons, a clear agenda and succinct reasons explaining why some women chose to vote “No” in the referendum. The campaign brought together women from various political parties, trade unions, women’s and LGBT organizations. The group ran several social media campaigns with the hashtag #OHALdeNapcaz (#WhatWillWeDoAtOHAL). They also wrote letters to several MPs and made declarations on several platforms noting: “If we are able to write this letter now and say No to what is imposed on us, and you represent us in the Parliament, that is because women have not given up their fight for freedom for a hundred years. You shall also not give up!”

These protests serve as a reminder that despite the state’s attempts to simplify and reduce human action into inaction, and despite its capacity to transform and manufacture the world in a way that it deems appropriate, people continue to present the capacity to modify or even overturn such transformations. “Improvisations of the speakers” as Scott argues, is still in play here. This is because, despite the state’s attempts to know and manage, there remain illegible elements, as exemplified by the people who support the No campaign or the women who join the Women’s Rally.

It is this illegibility that lies beyond the state’s vision, and contradicts the state’s self-proclaimed mastery over society. Like catastrophes in nature, which can render engineering useless, these moments are unexpected and problematic for the state. Despite strict measures such as declaring a state of emergency, which gave the government all the power there is to keep society under tight surveillance, moments like these continue to flare up outside the scope of the state’s all-knowing and all-mighty gaze.

It was also this illegibility that was instrumental during the referendum in triggering sheer paranoia within the government. Not knowing and therefore not having the power to categorize was a major concern for members of the government (as well as pollsters) who wanted to know where people stood. The simplification of people into a Yes and No camp failed to capture the full picture for underneath the dichotomy laid an ambiguity – those who might not have revealed their true colors. They were called the “secret No-sayers” – people who looked pro-AKP and/or pro-Yes, but could, behind the ballot box, have potentially acted otherwise. They existed because the state did not have full control over human decisions. The contingency was evident. The response to dealing with such contingencies was to further suppress any ambiguity, which could present itself as a future dissidence. But as the secret No-sayers indicate, suppressing voices do not always change the voices themselves, but rather push them into engaging in resentment and protest.

The case of the female politician, Meral Akşener, whose power has long been overlooked for her being a woman in a party dominated by men, and who was therefore deemed at least tameable, is yet another example of illegibility. When this 60-year-old female politician who at one point in her political career served as Turkey’s (first female) Minister of Interior, challenged the decision of her then-party, MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) to join the Yes camp in the referendum campaign, the sole response was to try to silence her by simply kicking her out of the party.

When she took on MHP’s male leader, and confronted his politics, she was denounced both by some members of her own political party, as well as MHP’s nationalist constituents. But there were also others within the same party and constituency who were sympathetic regarding Akşener’s activism. At a time when the MHP leadership was harnessing closer relations with the AKP, which, in time culminated in MHP supporting AKP in the referendum, the dissenters found courage in her boldness, and saw in Akşener an alternative to the state’s vision as it has emerged under AKP domination of the political scene.

Can the Turkish state render the society legible? According to Scott, one could argue that it might well attempt this, and that the attempt itself can have catastrophic consequences. But doing so would also create what Scott calls an institutional neurosis – a condition whereby the state can no longer properly function, due to a lack of trust and cooperation in the very society that it attempts to order and govern.

The most recent Amnesty International Report on Turkey details the intensity of the human rights abuses that took place in Turkey since the July coup attempt with respect to those who have been removed from their jobs with decrees. The report is titled “Future is Dark” and the title reflects what we feel in our hearts. But let us think outside that dark box for a second and ask whether the current state of affairs is by any means sustainable. Let us remember the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs overnight with a decree, and who may eventually come to resent the government and politicians who signed those decrees.

Or the readers of newspapers which were shut down on spurious claims; journalists, academics, artists and writers, social workers (and their families) who face daily threats of a bleak future if they engage in critical activities; students whose schools and universities were closed down with blanket decrees cannot be expected to simply give into the circumstances they were put into.

And let us also remind ourselves of the case of two academics, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, who were detained on the 75th day of their hunger strike with a police raid to their homes. It would be naïve to think that the thousands who supported their demands to be returned to their jobs will drop their support as a result of these detentions, and find comfort in apathy and silence.

Despite the costs we endure, the future, after all, is ours to make.

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