Capital and conflict in Turkey

The Taksim Square occupation movement in Turkey makes explicit the structural contradiction between the ruling elites with their neoliberal leanings and the aspirations of the common people. This was foreseen in the 1950s and the 1960s by Nazim Hikmet, arguably Turkey's greatest modern poet.

Published : Jun 12, 2013 12:30 IST

Nazim Hikmet.

Nazim Hikmet.

And with the pencil which draws the cartoons

of the master of Religious Knowledge,

demolish the pages of the Koran.

You must know how to build your own paradise

On this black soil.

Advice to Our Children, 1928

IT is likely that the millions of men and women who occupied Taksim Square in Istanbul in the first week of June protesting against the state’s plans to convert the Gezi Park into a military barracks-cum-shopping mall really do know something about building their own paradise. Perhaps they are in consonance with the not-so-pious wishes of Nazim Hikmet, modern Turkey’s greatest poet, who died 50 years ago this month, in icy Muscovite exile, away from the daily struggles and resistance of Turkey’s common people, who he glorified in his verses throughout his stormy life.

There is much value today in remembering the life and legacy of a man who single-handedly epitomised Turkey and Turkish culture for most of the 20th century, much before Orhan Pamuk became a household name in the Western academy. For, unlike many of his contemporaries in other parts of the world—Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Garcia Lorca, Nizar Qabbani—Hikmet single-handedly liberated the Turkish language from the stifling conventions of the Ottoman era and brought it into the realm of the everyday vernacular, infused with revolutionary commitment to Marxism-Leninism.

He was born in the early years of the 20th century into a bourgeois family with ties to the decaying Ottoman Empire. As he himself proclaimed in his poem “In the Reign of Sultan Hamid”, “(My father) was a senior civil servant, son of a pasha. I changed my class and became a communist.” Mercifully, the defining event in his youth was not the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23), which culminated in the depredations of Kemalism and which he would later commemorate in a significant work, but his decision to witness for himself the newly consolidated Soviet Union. His subsequent commitment to Marxism-Leninism and opposition to the Turkish ruling elite made him persona non grata in his native country, and resulted in him spending several spells in jails. But it turned him into an international celebrity abroad, until he was able to escape permanently to the Soviet Union in 1951.

The sheer breadth of Hikmet’s subject matter is enormous, from a 15th century revolt of peasants in Ottoman Turkey to the epic of the Turkish War of Independence; from his denunciations of fascism to the deleterious effects of the use of the nuclear bomb in the Second World War; and, from a lament over solitary life in jail to a celebration of love. Hikmet always adopted the position of, and solidarity with, the peasant, the worker, the common man and the oppressed. Starting from his opposition to dictatorship, war and religious fundamentalism, Hikmet was prophetic about the journey of his beloved country from the consolidation of the Republic down to the present time.

Turkey emerged from the ravages of the First World War as the successor state to the defeated Ottoman Empire and, under the dictatorship of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, consciously chose to eschew its Ottoman past while incorporating the projects of Soviet Russia and Enlightenment Europe. However, in doing so, it forged a mythic national consensus where dissenting narratives, such as those of the Kurds and the Armenians, were forcefully and brutally assimilated and any attempt to oppose the ideology of Kemalism from the Left was also brutally crushed.

Meanwhile, Turkey, like Pakistan and Iran, became a front-line Sunni state firmly in the American orbit, against both the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism, by signing a series of military pacts. The military as the ultimate arbiter of Kemalist authoritarianism and secularism was made possible through a series of military coups in the 1950s and 1960s, whose main aim was to crush the threat from the Left, both from the trade unions and from a faction of the Communist movement which had launched an armed struggle.

It is in these crucial decades that Hikmet’s poetic work becomes very important to understand the false sense of independence that the ruling elite had foisted upon the people in the name of order. He evokes this lyrically in his 1951 poem “A Sad State of Freedom”, written very soon after being released from prison in a general amnesty and escaping to the Soviet Union:

You sell out—your eyes’ alertness, the radiance of your hands.

You knead the dough of the bread of life, yet never taste a slice.

You are a slave working in your great freedom.

You are free

with the freedom to suffer hell to make Croesus rich.

As soon as you’re born work and worry,

Windmills of lies are planted in your head.

You hold your head in your hands in your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom of conscience!

You are decapitated.

Your arms loll at your sides.

You wander the streets in your great freedom.

You are free

in your great freedom of being out of work!

You love your country as your dearest love,

but one day, for instance, you could sign it over to America

together with your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom to become its airbase.

Wall Street grabs you by the scruff of your neck.

One day they could send you to Korea.

You could fill a pit with your great freedom.

You are free

with the freedom of being the unknown soldier.

You say you should live like a human being,

Not a tool, a number, a means to an end.

They clap on the handcuffs in your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom to be arrested, go to prison, even be hanged.

In your life there are no iron, bamboo or lace curtains.

There’s no need to choose freedom:

you are free.

This freedom is a sad thing beneath the stars.

What Hikmet saw as a pathology in the early 1950s became a permanent structural contradiction between the Turkish ruling elite and the people for the rest of the decade. Turkey indeed became only as free as American airbases allowed it to be, and emerged as a happy playground for American capital.

The roots of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, lie in the 1980 military coup, which took place with the support of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) immediately after the revolution in Iran in 1979. As in Pakistan, the coup brutalised Turkish society and led to increased Saudisation of society and culture, with increasing crackdowns on the struggles of the Left, workers, intellectuals, students and Kurds. As one friend told me during my visit to Istanbul in the summer of 2012, a boss was quoted as saying: “Until now [before the coup], the workers had laughed, now we will laugh.”

Erdogan’s Turkey After the end of the dictatorship, Turgut Ozal’s administration opened the economy to neoliberal policies in 1989 and kept up with the repression of the Kurds. The corruption and opportunism of the 1990s produced the economic collapse of 2000, which allowed Erdogan to ease into power in 2002.

The anomaly is that Erdogan, who, ironically, was once jailed and banned from public office for reciting a Hikmet poem in public, is now the first democratically elected leader since Adnan Menderes in 1960 to have won three successive elections. This he achieved by deepening the so-called “‘Turkish model”—being a loyal satrap of Washington, privatising everything and Islamising everything so that in effect they are little more than NATO’s Islamists.

In an attempt to understand Erdogan’s Turkey, I went to see Caglar Keyder, Professor at Bogacizi University in Istanbul, who talked about the evolution and the rise of the AKP for more than an hour with me. According to him, the AKP benefited from the economic crisis of 2000 because there was no great dispute among the Turkish ruling class and therefore they did not need a coalition to rule.

The AKP has also been lucky in terms of economic performance, enjoying a fairly good 10 years of economic growth. However, the AKP is also a very good follower of the post-Washington Consensus, having created lots of new institutions in agriculture, helping to subsidise smaller-town capitalists against the Istanbul bourgeoisie. Its social policy consisted of getting rid of old subsidies to farmers but also making sure that they were within the populist reach of the government. Apart from doing things to rationalise the economy, the AKP government followed poverty-reduction policies such as sending children to school, increasing health expenditure by making hospitals autonomous and instituting comprehensive health reform; for example, people could access drugs without private insurance. By playing such a double game with the people, the AKP penetrated the capillaries of socio-economic life and assumed full control of everything.

The outcome, according to Keyder, has been capitalist development, which is pervasive and dominates social life. Thus, while income distribution did not worsen much, Turkey’s neoliberalism had a lot of social schemes, allowed a lot more political control and facilitated the development of a new capitalist class as an alternative to the old Istanbul-based capitalist class. Also, the relatively successful economy had led to a 10-fold jump in university and high school attendance despite the low quality of the universities.

Keyder also pointed out that the AKP does not rely only on the peasantry for support and obviously satisfies half the electorate to be able to do so well at the polls. Disagreeing with my characterisation of the AKP as Bonapartist, he said it could not be labelled as such because it relied on a market-oriented population. The opposition to the AKP, in his opinion, came from people who were not getting as much as they should; a third of the opposition is secular and felt that the AKP is a threat to their mode of life. And what of the resistance to these policies, I asked. According to Keyder, there was some resistance, but it was not effective because it was not taking place at the ideological level. For example, in the health sector, the doctors and the union of hospital workers frame their opposition saying that health is a right and must be provided free by the state. But what the AKP has achieved in the sector is a vast improvement over what previous governments had done, so the doctors’ demand sounds utopian, according to Keyder.

There has been a material improvement in the lives of people under the AKP, and the Left in Turkey is not strong. The “‘very doctrinaire Left” wanted to rely on an industrially weak working class; and the “immature Left” split into factions after the 1960s, became militant and opted to go down a revolutionary road without any social base. Therefore, concluded Keyder, it was easy for the army to get rid of the Left, and after 1980 “there hasn’t been any Left in Turkey”.

However, Keyder admitted that leftist factions existed in Turkey today which work with the Kurdish movement but they were not important. There were leftist movements in the 1970s which thought of themselves as social democratic and nationalistic, which were similar to Arab socialism. But they were never a realistic option for Turkey because this was a front line state with American military bases.

Regarding Erdogan’s quixotic foreign policy, which even at the time when I visited Turkey was massively unpopular (regarding Syria), Keyder said the AKP tried to pretend as if it were a sovereign country by allying with China and Iran, but had now defaulted back to falling in line with U.S. policies. Foreign policy under the AKP has been a failure since the very beginning because the regime claimed to do things it could not. They still had pretensions that they could act as messengers of the West, but they had failed miserably. Therefore, it would be difficult to impose a coherent agenda abroad. But the AKP has been more successful in its domestic policies. Some of what Keyder told me was borne out by the fact that the Erdogan government had aggressively worn the mantle of Neo-Ottomanism by sanctioning the construction of multiple mosques and by promoting a grotesque personality cult fed by giant portraits of the supreme leader everywhere, as well as promoting a book he had supposedly written.

I also think that Keyder, who is no longer in touch with what he calls this “non-existent Left”, rather underestimates its existence. For instance, the Turkish Labour Party (EMEP), founded in 1995, whose roots lie in the origins of Turkey’s communist movement in the 1920s, of which Hikmet was a pioneer, is doing very important work with the oppressed Kurdish movement, which is the single most important issue in Turkish politics today. Women make up 30 per cent of the EMEP and I was privileged to be a part of their Youth Camp at Dikili, an idyllic place next to the Aegean Sea near Izmir, where some 1,500 youth from all over the country came to debate everything from the Kurdish issue and women’s rights to Turkey’s political economy. Meanwhile, the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which is playing a leading role in the rebellion at Taksim Square, has valiantly fought back the AKP’s attempts to declare it illegal. It maybe small, but in the last national elections, the party got 70,000 votes across Turkey.

High unemployment rate So, Erdogan’s Turkey blunders on. Where the international media and financial institutions see only compliant Islamists buoyed by turbocharged neoliberal capitalism, the regime has managed to accumulate $93 billion in debt servicing alone. Erdogan is wont to reiterate the need for Turkish women to reproduce more children per family. He wants to turn Kurdistan into a cheap labour economy for Turkey. Meanwhile, a large number of college graduates are unemployed and they will become part of this cheap labour force. Youth unemployment rate is between 10 and 15 per cent. Also, 30 million women in the country are now housewives but are excluded from the unemployed category, so the official unemployment rate is deceptive. Real unemployment rate is 25 per cent. Turkey leads Europe in the number of worker casualties in mines and construction. The AKP government is now trying to abolish the unemployment benefit for the laid-off workers.

One of the achievements of the AKP government’s decade-long tryst with power and NATO-Islamism is also a huge mass of depoliticised youth. This section and the peasantry, whom the Turkish Left has not really touched since the failure of armed struggle in the 1970s and who are conspicuously absent from Taksim Square, hold the key if the slogans of the occupiers are to reach anywhere beyond “‘Hukumet Istifa” (The government should resign).

As Erdogan moves to crush these latest protests, he must surely know, as the proud conqueror of the Turkish military and the media (which is barely being allowed to report on the Taksim occupation) and the architect of Saudi-Neo-Ottomanism in the Levant, what happened to his predecessor, Adnan Menderes. After winning three consecutive general elections and even with a former coup-making general on his side in the presidency, he was confronted with a similar level of discontent, and was ultimately overthrown, paying with his life. In his sober moments, he would also do well to heed this prescient early warning from a young Hikmet:

For centuries instead of heaven’s eternal light,

The gloom of dark fanatical forces

Has pervaded the purest, cleanest hearts

Of this land.

For centuries this dark power,

A wound that bleeds in our souls,

Has growled like a parched wolf

Whenever the country ran towards radiant light.

While the swart hands of this dark force

Encircle our throats,

We, in our hearts, still give this thief

The most sacred place.

But ungrateful are all the Faithful

If they don’t kneel and give thanks to God

When those hands that steal youth’s sacred light

Are cut off like the hands of a thief.

The Dark Fanatical Forces , 1921 .

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist.He is at present working on a history of post-Arab Spring Yemen. Email:

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