The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

  • January 9, 2014

City & Commons

We need to be cautious not to attach an overly optimistic meaning to Gezi — the rebellion against the Sultan may yet complete his neoliberal project.

Due to the ongoing crackdown on political dissidents in Turkey, the author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

When millions of people took to the streets of Turkey last summer, it came as a total surprise. If the uprising served as a wake-up call, as some described it, it felt in the most literal sense as an impetuous awakening to a harsh alarm call — the alarm went off when the police used excessive force against a group of protesters demonstrating in Istanbul’s Gezi Park against its demolition for a developmental project. If one thing is certain about this controversial event, it is that there was no trace of organization or long-term planning, and that the upheaval came out of nowhere like a volcanic eruption. This was the beauty of it. Beginnings are always joyful things.

Some commentators are keen to place the Turkish protests in the context of the global uprisings, seeing them as a part of the pandemic consciousness rising up against the invasion of capitalism into personal lives. I do not rush to view Turkish protests in this regard, merely as a critique of capitalism. For me, whether they serve as a critique or a component of liberal capitalism is still a lingering thought. Definitely, the protests arose from a problem that was shared by the collective, and not simply endured by the individual. They were a reaction against a living, breathing quandary in people’s lives of which they had finally become aware. The tension was in the air, so to speak, inhaled by everyone.

The protests marked the moment when people owned the problem collectively; when they felt the need to communicate it with a sense of estrangement of a familiar condition. It was consciousness rising, but what was it exactly that was rising? What kind of realization was this? What transformation in the global political economy was it a signal of?

The Antagonist at the Center

In the dissemination of the news about the protests in the media, one figure stood out as the demonstrators’ chief adversary, who embodied all the qualities of a nemesis. The consciousness rising was largely against the authoritarian and disciplinary use of force of this figure. The masses shouted in slogans, expressed in posters, scoffed in wall paintings, and sometimes implied in passive resistance their growing discontent and frustration with the strict scrutiny of the ruling government. Turkey’s Prime Minister and leader of the ruling AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was thus positioned at the center of the momentous demonstrations, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that he single-handedly determined how the events would unfold.

After the first spark of events, when the police assaulted the protesters in Gezi Park, all eyes turned to Erdoğan for his response to the uprisings. In a public talk about the opening of the new Ottoman Archives service building, Erdoğan addressed the issue in a dismissive manner likening the protesters to a few looters (çapulcular). He was clearly unhappy to encounter a setback in his decision to re-erect the Ottoman military barracks to their rightful place. This was a part of life’s rich tapestry: the same scenario was re-enacted about ninety years ago when the secularist forces demolished the barracks buildings and rearranged the space to construct a stadium. The same secularist mentality, according to Erdoğan, was now opposing its restoration as a part of the revamping of the Ottoman legacy, to which he always felt more connected than to the Republican past.

Erdoğan’s decision to not lend an ear to the protesters’ demands, labeling them all as part of the same group of secular religion-haters who have no agenda except to criticize and stand against his decisions — in short, his seeing everything in black and white and his refusal to take into account the complex and diverse make-up of the participants and their dogma-free agendas — sealed the fate for the future of the protests. His decision to retaliate against the demonstrators resulted in the legitimization and escalation of police brutality, turning the humble origins of an environmental protest into a full-blown street fight between the police and the protesters.

Victim Turned Dictator

The protests thus marked a turning point in the development of Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism and heavy-handed rule. During his ten year tenure, Erdoğan has always been a “different” type of political leader, invariably aligning himself with the excluded and those silenced by the secularist elite. He has foregrounded a sense of victimhood in his statements and political stances. His victimhood has made him a leader who ideally lends an ear to the pleas of minority groups, acknowledging the voice of the long-repressed ‘Other’. He also greatly reduced the influence of the military over Turkish politics.

However, during his ten years in office, many noted that he changed dramatically, mostly for the worse. His growing authoritarian rule and non-conciliatory tone drew criticism from all social strata like a magnet. Against the violent use of power by the state elite in the molding of the nation as a modern state, Erdoğan represented the restitution of the excluded. However, instead of creating a different, unique path, his return marked the rise of yet another leader who is driven by the lust for power. In his article, Tim Arango writes that Erdoğan’s agenda is based on single-man power politics. Arrango gives examples from Turkey’s foreign policy, citing deteriorating relationships with Israel and Syria as a direct result of the ups and downs of Erdoğan’s emotional register. In this case, Gezi adds yet more evidence to his argument that Turkish politics revolves around “the emotions and whims of one man.”

The politics of Erdoğan thus resembles one-man rule, based on the unconditional submission to the authority of the all-knowing Father. Those who raise their voice or show discontent are not welcomed. There is no place for dissident voices. Loyalty is the only measure.

Big Brother or Sultan?

But the real question is: what happens now, in the neoliberal order of things, to the traditional rule of such an authority figure? In the current society of liberation (equality, choice, enjoyment, whatever one wants to call it), there is no role left to play for the prohibitive father. Former patriarchal authority is now supposed to be broken up on every front. Moreover, because of a structurally determined failure, it now proves impossible for any father figure who wants to embody the strict, absolute definitions to take a position of supremacy. It is one of Slavoj Žižek’s mottos (drawing on Jacques Lacan) that “the big Other doesn’t exist anymore.”

The efficiency of the symbolic structures — the communal, intersubjective networks including familial and national bonds that Lacan calls ‘the big Other’ — has come to an impasse. In late capitalist society, there is no Other of power (figures of higher authority) that escapes desymbolization; that receives unconditional support from believers who concede to their own submission. That is why the fate of a traditional authority figure in neoliberalism brings nothing but ridicule as an absurd, trifling public character.

Neoliberalism itself has done away with the old patriarch. Thereby, Erdoğan’s efforts to establish monopoly power — his desire to bring back the authoritarian rule of the Ottoman sultan — do not take hold because his rule is not (and cannot be) legitimated. What happens is that he ends up appearing as a tyrant or a despot who forces his will on his people. He plays the role of the Big Brother: a totalitarian figure who has access to the most intimate and personal corners of our lives and who is constantly watching us.

One needs to be cautious in this neoliberal state of affairs not to be too hastily in attaching an overly optimistic, revolutionary meaning to the protests. The Turkish uprising might be just an indication, or an element of the transition to late capitalism, where any figures of authority will ultimately turn into despots who are patently absurd. What is favored now are not conspicuously authoritarian leaders, but more affable, gentle, courteous faces. This does not necessarily mean that the new leaders are more truthful or ethical. Definitely not. They exercise power not so much in a visible, physical way, but act as an invisible force, disguised as one’s equal, brother or sister rather than one’s superior or father.

In this sense, as Alain Badiou explains in his response to the Turkish riots, the issue here is to be able to distinguish between taking Western democracy as a guiding star in the efforts to get rid of the monopoly of power and seeing the protests as a separate, unique step in the construction of an authentic democracy. This will determine if the discontent with the authoritarian regime is just a stage in Turkey’s (post-)modernization — its elimination of the symbolic rulers in the course of its integration into the global marketplace — or a genuine outcry demanding something different.

The long-term success of the movement depends on its ability not to fall into the trap of the capitalist illusion of emancipation as enjoyment — by resisting to take Western liberal democracy as a point of imitation — and create a unique alternative that goes beyond binary thinking.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

ROAR Collective

The ROAR Collective published ROAR Magazine (2011-’22), an online journal of the radical imagination that provided grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.

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