Note from the LeftEast editors: this text is also published by the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle Eastern Conflict.
My class yesterday began with something close to an apology from me for holding the class at all. Times like this can make anyone engaged in intellectual work feel inadequate. To some it seems vain to make statements and take up positions when hundreds have died. To this I can find no Spilling ink may be impious, but saying nothing is worse. We have the duty to understand what has happened, even when it might seem more decorous to be silent.
It’s too bad there’s so little to understand this time. On Tuesday a fire broke out in a mine in Soma, in the district of Manisa in the Aegean region, trapping as many as 700 miners underground. By Thursday afternoon 282 have been declared dead, with as many as 150 still missing. The mine belongs to Soma Holding, which acquired it from the state in one of the AKP governments’ many privatizations. Its executives maintain close ties to Erdoğan’s party, though the government would like the public to forget this; one worker who told the host of a live news program on the privately-owned, pro-government Habertürk television network about the company’s AKP ties found his broadcast very quickly cut off.
On April 29, the parliamentary faction of the main opposition party CHP had requested an inspection of the mine’s safety measures, which the ruling AKP rejected.
The twelve years of AKP rule in Turkey have set records for both privatizations and work accidents. Work accident fatalities in Turkey in 2002 numbered 872, and in 2013, 1235. The mining sector, which has been largely privatized since 2002, has seen a comparable rise in casualties, along with an apparent decline in already weak safety standards; on this score, Soma Holding owner Alp Gürkan’s boast to have reduced operative costs by about 80%, “thanks to the operating methods of the private sector,” now looks especially suspect. Union officials largely ascribe the rise in fatalities to privatization, which has also brought a sharp drop in wages. Kani Beko, chairman of the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers’ Unions’ (DISK), one of Turkey’s largest labor organizations, calculated that deaths in the mines had increased 40% in the first nine years since privatization began, the same year that the AKP gained power. In the same period, he stated, the wage of miners in privatized mines had seen a 30% decline.
Soma Holding is building a residential skyscraper in suburban Istanbul with apartments starting from 1,350,000 TL (642,092 USD). The monthly pension Turkey’s Social Security Agency (SGK) has announced for the family of each worker killed in the mine will be 1000 TL, marginally above the minimum wage of 846 TL.
The miners’ deaths by fire and asphyxiation have provoked unique apologia from pro-government circles. Mining engineer and writer Orhan Kural commented that, “a death from carbon monoxide is a sweet death.” In an echo of former EU point man Egemen Bağış’s comment on those angered by the death of Elvan Berkin, a division of the official youth chapter of the ruling party called the miners’ mourners “necrophiles” (see image below), an epithet which pro-government newspapers echoed in turn. Police assaulted protesting workers in Soma, many of them relatives and colleagues of the deceased, and the Secretary of the Prime Ministry kicked one of them personally. Supporters across the country faced the usual treatment of tear gas, water cannon and beatings from police, sending such stalwarts as Beko to the hospital. One video now circulating appears to show the Prime Minister himself punching someone on his way into a store in Soma where he went to seek refuge from the booing crowd. Witnesses report that his target was a fifteen-year-old girl.
Possible corporal punishment aside, Erdoğan’s major contribution to systemic damage control took the form of the rhetoric for which he is duly admired, and which once again proves that his education in Imam training school has not gone to waste. In a press conference soon after his rough reception in Manisa, Erdoğan reminded the public that such accidents are common, citing a number of cases of catastrophic mine collapses in the West, primarily in the nineteenth century. “These are normal occurrences,” he summarized; “this too belongs to the nature (fıtrat) of that profession.”
Some observers had been wondering whether Erdoğan would make use of the notion kader (fate), as he had after a similar explosion killed 30 in a mine in Zonguldak in 2010, later explaining that if any had further questions about that concept, they should direct them to the Director of Religious Affairs. Erdoğan’s appeal to kader generated resistance from the non-fatalist; this time he opted instead for fıtrat.
Both fıtrat and kader belong to the philosophy of religion; such terms delineate the place of individuals in a larger cosmic and societal order ordained by God. Men and women each have a fıtrat, for instance, and the term often finds use in defenses of traditional gender norms.
Understanding this event does not require ingenuity. It does not demand a nuanced view of the contemporary workings of ideology; here a “vulgar Marxist” one does just as well. For just as Erdoğan’s grasp of industrial safety conditions seems stuck in the nineteenth century, so too is his understanding and employment of bourgeois ideology, which in that era commonly took the form of pretending that the consequences of one’s policies toward workers are simple acts of God, and pointing to religious conceptions to distract from critique.
Already in 1829 Heinrich Heine announced, “we have found…that this earth can feed all of us respectably, if we all work and no one person lives at the expense of the others; and that we have no need to send the greater and the poorer class to knock at the doors of heaven.” This was years before his friend Marx grumpily declared religion “opium for the people.”
But while they would not admit it, there is another god in the AKP pantheon, one whose workings are both mysterious and beyond question, and whose mere mention is allegedly sufficient not merely to silence critique but to make it ashamed of itself. It is called milli irade: the national will. This too echoes the bourgeois revolution, when wide-eyed radicals rediscovered that vox populi vox dei est. The voice of the people is the voice of this god, and it speaks through the mouth of RTE.
The AK Party is the party of the nation,” its leader said in a speech a few months ago; “the AK Party is the nation itself.” The nation encompasses only those 45% who supported Erdoğan’s party in the recent local elections; or at most those 49.7% who supported it in the parliamentary elections of 2011. When the nation consists only of those who support its rulers, the slim majority that does not need not only be silent, but ought to be ashamed of itself.
That is the essential message of AKP: that it is shameful to dissent, shameful to speak truth to power, shameful to disagree publically with the authorities: shameful, that is, for the truth-teller and dissenter, not for those in power. Shame visits the son who has disobeyed his father, especially in cases that expose the father’s shortcomings. To tell the emperor that he is naked is shameful for you, not the emperor.
How else can one explain the strange spectacle that took place yesterday on the campus of Middle East Technical University, in which police first warned demonstrators to act in a fashion in which they could “take pride” on this official day of mourning? The students were out to protest the conditions which led to the death of hundreds of workers, conditions utterly avoidable and demonstrably brought on by the state’s negligence, and here were the agents of the state, warning the students not to besmirch the solemn day with their protest. The student response, that the police should consider whether they could take pride in defending such a government, was no doubt met with incomprehension, along with the tear gas and rubber bullets all must have been expecting. As in many other cases in which Erdoğan’s defenders tell his critics they should be ashamed of themselves for criticizing him, the two sides in Turkey’s culture war are not merely refusing to consider each other’s position; rather, they are talking past each other.
While the material substance of this conflict is unmistakably one of class and exploitation, the rhetoric deployed to conduct it exposes a clash of cultures no less real than their material basis. It is not hard to detect whose conflicting cultures these are. Sociologist Şeref Mardin has emphasized the strong role “shame” plays in Sunni conservative culture to crystallize attitudes toward authority and public identity. Mardin’s thought has seeped down to the popular discourse on Turkish politics, even if sometimes in zany ways, for instance in Cemal Dindar’s “psychobiography” of Erdoğan, Bi’at ve Öfke (“submission and rage”), which treats the Prime Minister’s psychic development through an analysis of his relationship to former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the Islamist (but not quite so neoliberal) mentor whose cause Erdoğan is seen to have both fulfilled and betrayed.
The international commentariat has long been uncertain about how the two sides of AKP’s party identity—neoliberal “reform” and the return of Sunni conservatism to Turkish political life—fit together. Many consider the link merely accidental. Support for this view is not hard to come by; it is easy enough to find upper class Turks who condemn Erdoğan’s public religiosity but don’t at all mind his privatizations or the real-estate boom that has taken place on his watch. Likewise, it was the leadership of the main secularist party CHP, under the tutelage of economist Kemal Derviş, who first submitted to the International Monetary Fund’s guidelines the year before the AKP came to power, and Erdoğan spent his first term in office carrying out their agreement.
Nevertheless, I think the events of the present betray a deeper historical logic whereby the two halves of the AKP program fit together like hand in glove. The AKP may not have begun Turkey’s slide toward speculator’s paradise—that started in the aftermath of the 1980 coup under a military regime that both planted statues of Atatürk everywhere and made lessons in Sunni Islam compulsory in school—but it has more effectively carried it out than any other government, thanks in part to its ability to cloak its rule in religious rhetoric.
The Prophet Mohammed may have said, “anyone who fills his stomach while others go hungry is not one of us,” but those who have hearkened to this message under the banner of the oppositional “Anti-Capitalist Muslims” have been very small in number, at least measured against the large swath of the electorate that treats Erdoğan as its anti-secularist savior, even if its benefits from having him in power have been more symbolic than material. This cohort is pleased to see a few of its own join the ranks of the wealthy, even if the masses have not; it can nod in approval when government officials praise plural marriage or marriage as a solution to rape, or when a pro-government newspaper editorializes in favor of Boko Haram.
The real income of the bottom half of the Turkish population has not risen since 2002, and the sheer number of those in the middle and upper-middle income brackets has not grown appreciably, even if the allowances of a recently introduced credit economy enable many of the newly indebted to enjoy some of the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle, at least in the short term.
The news from Manisa may shed light on the tangled web of class and culture in Turkey, even in relation to some of what seem to be the sillier manifestations of this tangle. In the wake of the Soma catastrophe, opposition media is awash in reports citing the Soma mines as the source of the coal the ruling party has long been rumored to distribute free of charge to impoverished supporters at election time. If this is true—and it is hard to know what to make of these rumors besides conceding their ubiquity—the case reveals two different models of working-class solidarity: on the one hand support for unions as vehicles of legitimate collective assertion on the part of the class creating the wealth, on the other an informal system of charity from the benevolent hand of a patrimonial state, to whom gratitude is expected, its transgressions forgiven as they are committed in the name of the people. Through the course of its privatizations, the AKP has suppressed union power as has no other government before it; as for the rumored coal and pasta, who knows? These benefits may still be the figment of a middle-class secularist imagination; but the demand for gratitude is real, and violent.
It is entirely fitting that the executors of the will of capital in Turkey are a party whose most visible trait is its defense of ultraconservative mores. In an era when global capitalism is in intellectual retreat—witness the craze for Thomas Piketty among the western mainstream, and the tendency of such establishment journals as Foreign Policy to try to harness Marx for their own purposes—the guardians of capital find themselves, in the face of rising protest in many parts of the world, dependent on brute force, and the insinuation that it is somehow shameful to resist that force. The AKP is a party tailor-made to suit that current need.
While the economy of much of the liberal west shows at best middling gains since the shock of the 2008 crisis, economic growth has fled to the periphery, and it is there that, through a combination of low-wage industrial labor and speculative gamesmanship, capital looks to secure itself against an increasingly uncertain future.
With neoliberalism’s pitfalls in full view to the rational, it is rational for capital to forsake its historical heritage and ally itself to forces that explicitly reject the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Erdoğan said, in a more triumphant moment, “when we say conservative democracy, some editorialists respond that there is no such term in the political literature, neither in Montesquieu, nor in Rousseau…they have understood us well. We are not a party that has emerged from Montesquieu, or from Rousseau. The consciousness of this work, we have created ourselves.” I doubt that the executives of Soma Holding have any objection to that.