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The Fall of the Turkish Model Reviewed

by Gorkem Altinors on February 23, 2017
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In November of 2016 the EU Parliament voted to suspend talks with Turkey on its bid for membership of the European Union, highlighting the deterioration of human rights and the whittling away of democratic norms under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule. This development almost certainly puts an end to Turkey’s accession to the EU as the model country of Islamic liberalism building a bridge between the East and the West. However, as Ece Temelkuran fittingly argues in her review of Cihan Tuğal’s book The Fall of the Turkish Model, the EU’s agreement with Turkey on the blocking of Syrian refugees had already heralded the collapse of this bridge, and the rise of the wall.

The Fall of the Turkish Model is a well written and well researched book offering an alternative reading of Turkey’s claim to Islamic liberalism as a model for other Islamic countries to emulate. With its accessible language, the book clearly aims at a broader readership beyond merely academic circles. The book is focused on the historical development of the Turkish model and how it has been marketed to and perceived in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia. The first three chapters of the book outline the old secular regimes in these countries and demonstrate how various social forces were positioned before their respective Islamic passive revolutions, defined by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as processes of ‘restoration-revolution’, took place. The relationship between class forces and Islamic movements is well explained in these chapters. The political liberalisation of Islam and its later articulation with neoliberal doctrine is historically and comparatively analysed in chapters 2 and 3. Following on from this, in chapters 4 to 6, the author explores precisely what went wrong with the Arab dictatorships that led to the regime crises and the popular uprisings of 2011, but also, ironically, what went wrong with the Turkish model of democratic-authoritarianism leading to the political crisis of 2013. The irony here is, of course, that the Turkish model had long been suggested to Islamic movements in the Middle East as an example of how Islam can be compatible with liberalism and democracy. The marketing of the Turkish model was not only directed towards the West; it was also promoted within the Middle East. This part of the book skilfully questions the dynamics of these uprisings and in particular the role of the new middle classes within late capitalism – as a key factor in these revolts based upon an analysis of the strengths and limitations of ‘middle-class’ revolts. The book finally concludes with its main argument that today’s responses to the old regimes connect the dots between disparate events, rising social forces and institutions in history.

Tuğal disagrees with the orthodox claim that Turkey represents a model for other Islamic countries with its unique form of Islamic liberalism and refutes any suggestion that what went wrong in Turkey is limited to the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) or more directly to Erdoğan’s arrogance and authoritarian inclinations. He rather puts the very concept of ‘Islamic liberalism’ under the spotlight and questions the limits of Islamic liberalism through a political society-based explanation. By doing so, he is able to evaluate the claims to both ‘justice’ and ‘development’ in the AKP’s rule. However, there are certain problems in the application of this concept of political society, which is taken from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, to refer to the state in its strict sense. The concept of political society is always used by Gramsci in dialectical relationship with civil society in order to conceptualise the integral state. For Gramsci, the integral “[s]tate = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion”, to cite Gramsci directly. While the book claims to be established on Gramscian foundations, there is a lack of any direct engagement with the Prison Notebooks and as such the text can be accused of moving towards a non-Gramscian analysis with Gramscian terminology. This is problematic because it results in a misapplication of Gramscian categories, through an analysis built on what Adam David Morton suggests is an “ontological exteriority, meaning the treatment of state, civil society and the economy as always-already separate spheres”. Similar to his previous book, Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, Tuğal, despite the Gramscian terminology, fails to construct his theoretical base on solid Gramscian foundations and as a result his approach is much closer to something resembling a neo-Weberian account – see Ertan Erol.

This is most apparent in chapter 6 where Tuğal analyses the Gezi revolt of 2013 which undermined the Turkish model and marked the beginning of the end for its claim to represent a unique form of Islamic liberalism. The analysis defines the revolt as a confrontational carnival and demonstrates the collectivist, leaderless, heterogeneous and multiclass character of the protests. However, the analysis fails to analyse the importance of working-class agency appropriately. In this context, Tuğal claims that “only the middle class participated with a discernible class belonging” and “working-class unions were near-absent and professional associations weighed in heavily”. He also offers that “[w]hat is as important is that proletarian and subproletarian participation was heaviest in Alevi regions” (original emphasis). Such claims would appear to be either unaware of the call for a general strike by the KESK (Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions – with around 250,000 members) and DİSK (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey – with around 120,000 members), or to be ignoring it. Furthermore, the problem of unionisation in Turkey cannot be reduced to the lack of working-class participation, it rather lies much deeper, in the structure of neoliberal governance. Equally problematic is the lack of any recognition of the proletarian class character of professional associations in Turkey, such as the TMMOB (the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) which clearly played a key and pivotal role during the Gezi revolt. Here again, the book moves away from Gramscian foundations by reducing the class belonging to consumption habits and education levels, and defining a section in wage-labour as middle class that demonstrates a basic misreading of the crucial Gramscian concept of hegemony.

At a time when neoliberalism increasingly appears to have come to a point at which it can no longer handle its own contradictions, leading the world towards a right-wing populism and the crisis of liberal democracy, Tuğal’s book offers a timely alternative reading of the rise and demise of the Turkish model of Islamic liberalism. However, the lack of textual Gramscian engagement means the book is theoretically flawed. In order to overcome the shortcomings of the book, the Gramscian terminology needs to be developed without detaching it from its original epistemological and ontological foundations. To conclude, The Fall of the Turkish Model is certainly worth reading for its accessible analysis of important empirical phenomena, despite its important theoretical limitations.

This post originally appeared in Capital & Class. I would like to thank Dr. Jonathan Mansell for his comments.

Gorkem Altinors

Dr Gorkem Altinors is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, at Bilecik Seyh Edebali University, Turkey. His research interests extend from international relations to political theory. He is currently working on various publications on the relationship between Islam and capitalism.

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