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Decoding the Repertoires of Authoritarian Neoliberalism in Turkey

by Cemal Burak Tansel on July 24, 2018
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Turkey’s recent political and economic direction under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has come to occupy a significant place in academic and popular discussions on contemporary authoritarian politics. Amidst a seemingly global resurgence of authoritarian political actors and practices, AKP has been positioned by many scholars and commentators as the harbinger of a particular type of authoritarian governance that combines electoral success with repression. Efforts to bring Turkey’s ‘authoritarian turn’ under the international limelight have gained pace in conjunction with the formal introduction of a new presidential system spearheaded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2018. Curiously, the now-dominant portrayal of the party along these lines marks a drastic shift from many earlier analyses, which characterised the initial tenure of the AKP government as a period of substantial democratisation.

We examine this ostensible realignment in the democratic trajectory of the country and unpack the disjunctures in the assessments of the AKP era in a new special issue published in South European Society and Politics. Our contributions zoom in on the practices, processes and mechanisms that underpin AKP’s so-called ‘authoritarian turn’ by questioning the extent to which the party’s recent performance represents a qualitative break from its earlier practices and policy priorities. In contrast to the approaches that emphasise a strict delineation between ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ phases of successive AKP governments, we demonstrate that authoritarian practices and policies have long been a part of the party’s overall approach to governance. We examine the continuum of authoritarian governance in the AKP era through the prism of authoritarian neoliberalism, which allows us to integrate the vital aspects of the party’s political economy into a broader analysis of its democratic trajectory. Building on the growing literature on authoritarian neoliberalism, we utilise the concept to trace how the policies and practices that facilitate neoliberalisation have engender anti-democratic and disciplinary forms of governance in Turkey.

Our empirical investigations map out the consolidation of authoritarian neoliberalism in several fields. In line with our insistence on recognising the authoritarian constitution of neoliberal reforms, we trace major shifts in economic governance with particular reference to labour relations and corporate ownership from 2003 onwards. We interrogate how developments in these areas have been linked to the broader transformation of the state under the AKP rule, and how these reforms have been enforced through anti-democratic means – often through executive centralisation – or facilitated and normalised further authoritarian practices. We further examine the repercussions of the changing politics of security and of consent generation.

One of the key arguments that tie the special issue together is that many scholars and observers have failed to detect the earlier trend towards authoritarianism due to their unwillingness to engage with the questions of political economy, as well as their commitment to theoretical approaches that exclusively traced the prospects of democratic reform/regression in the arena of formal politics. A set of binaries that pit ‘the state’ against ‘civil society’, and the ‘economic’ aspects of the party’s programme against its ‘political’ ones came to dominate the analyses of the AKP government. These preoccupations have produced lopsided accounts—particularly of the first two AKP governments—whereby patchwork improvements in certain arenas of public policy led many observers to neglect critically examining the emergent and developing trends in wider socio-economic relations.

A major area of transformation that unravels the contradictions of early positive accounts of the party is Turkey’s intensified neoliberalisation in the past fifteen years. AKP’s wholehearted embrace of a set of policy priorities recommended by the IMF marked the government’s early tenure, which subsequently produced (uneven) GDP growth, inflation reduction and significant increases in FDI inflows. Improvements in certain macroeconomic indicators dominated the ways in which the party’s economic performance was assessed, and prioritisation of these indicators led many observers to legitimise, if not actively advocate for, the expansion of neoliberal reforms. What was missing in the positive accounts of the party’s economic performance was an appreciation of the costs of pursuing growth policies, and the increasingly authoritarian mechanisms that the party utilised to advance them.

This detachment of political economy from analyses of democratic progress in Turkey represents a stark warning to the literature on democratic backsliding and authoritarian resurgence/renewal. While some scholars are already positioning Turkey as one of the vanguards of “new authoritarian models”, Turkish authoritarianism seem to be understood largely as a constellation of coercive, extra-legal and corrupt political practices that signal a deviation from liberal democratic norms. While these factors are undoubtedly important, we suggest that an exclusive focus on “the political” risks neglecting how authoritarian practices are constituted in the wider arenas of political economy (production, reproduction, distribution, control over resources). More importantly, processes that contributed to Turkey’s authoritarian drift, such as executive centralisation, are not exclusive to Turkey, but are increasingly becoming prevalent in different contexts in the global South and North.

Our investigations emphasise that conceptual frameworks and assumptions utilised by scholars of politics are not value-free, neutral tools of scholarly inquiry, but are inherently political categories that can be utilised to highlight or diminish the wide-ranging effects of dominant policies. What many observers missed in the so-called ‘golden age’ of the AKP government was an appreciation of how the ‘growth’ years signified a wider transformation of the state in Turkey, which involved the restructuring of the Turkish economy and a wholesale reconfiguration of the state apparatuses around executive centralisation. The challenge for those tracing the processes of democratisation and authoritarianism—not just in Turkey but in other cases of resurgent authoritarianisms and weakening democracies—is to disentangle how authoritarian practices are shaped by and intertwined with the structures of political economy.

Cemal Burak Tansel (Special issue editor, University of Sheffield, UK)

Sümercan Bozkurt-Güngen (Middle East Technical University, Turkey)

Bilge Yeşil (City University of New York, College of Staten Island)

Ali Bilgiç (Loughborough University, UK)

Özlem Kaygusuz (Ankara University, Turkey)

Cemal Burak Tansel
Cemal Burak Tansel is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the editor of States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017) and has published peer-reviewed research articles in the European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies and Journal of International Relations and Development.

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