By: The Dawn News / November 16, 2017
Zeynep Gambetti is an Associate Professor of Political Theory at Boğazici University in Turkey. Gambetti recently visited São Paulo to participate in the critic theory conference The Ends of Democracy and spoke with The Dawn News about the rise of the right wing and the political context in Turkey.
– Please tell us a little about the conference you just participated in.
The conference was titled “The end of democracy”, but the subtitle was “Populist Strategies, Skepticism About Democracy and the Quest for Popular Sovereignty”. So it is an theoretical conference but at the same time it is posing itself very practical questions, political questions, and the reason why it was called “The end of democracy” is to play with the double meaning of “end”, the end as a goal towards which we should be oriented, and the end as the collapse of both the institutions of democracy, the desire for democracy, the comeback of sort of fascistic and authoritarian tendencies and of course the question of neoliberal capitalist accumulation and how this affects democracies, and the chances of democracies.
First of all, the conference was organized jointly by the International Consortium for Critical Theory Programs and the University of Sao Paulo, Philosophy Department. The main idea is this: can we revive critical theory today in such a way that it moves beyond the European context, beyond the global north, and becomes a project that can be jointly developed in different geographical contexts including the global south, and to understand how global struggles everywhere, not only in Europe, are affected by similar conditions, and how a theory can actually meet and talk to practice? Instead of being just a university involvement, just a professional career that academics have, how can academics talk to practice and political struggles in a critical way, criticizing the contradictions involved in the systems under which we are living and in such a way as to show or inform popular struggles.
So that’s the aim of the Consortium. My concern basically, and the paper that I presented here is that new capitalist accumulation processes are not only reducing the spaces for popular struggle and democratic struggles but are also affecting us in ways that change our understanding of democracy and its desirability. I was looking at how Hannah Arendt–who is a critical scholar, a German-Jewish scholar who actually experienced the rise of Nazi fascism in Germany and escaped to the United States–how she analyzed what she calls totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism is basically the term that she uses to mean or signify Nazi Germany as well as the Stalinist era in the USSR, where certain populations became superfluous, exterminable, expendable, and mass murders took place and whole the structure of power changed. I’m looking at how the changes that occurred in Europe and in the USSR have been partially caused by capitalist imperialism. Arendt seeks the roots of totalitarianism and fascism in imperialist capitalism, and analyzes how imperialist capitalism creates these power structures that became machines that are self-sustaining, that became systems that no human will can stop, how expansion became the aim of politics, and how perpetual motion became a characteristic of power.
I’m looking at these traits and trying to understand whether today we can analyze the emergence of new fascisms in the same way, and see a link between the new fascisms and neoliberal capitalist accumulation. My conclusion is that neoliberalism produces fascism and only fascism. The neoliberal project has emerged 40 years ago, so it’s not new—but we’re only observing the fascist aspect today. I am arguing that the conditions for fascism were contained in the neoliberal transformation process.
Do you think that this current rise of neofascism, in the context of the crisis of representative democracy, could mean the “end” of democracies—not as in the goal of democracy as a goal but as in the collapse of democracies?
I think that the liberal institutions of representative democracy are collapsing. But of course, as progressive thinkers, we were already critical of those representative institutions, right? I mean, liberal democracy was never something that we thought was sufficient in order to establish social justice and equality. But what I am concerned about is that the desire for emancipation and the desire for equality are also being eliminated by the neoliberal process. How? The notion of financial risk is now part of our lives. So even universities, for instance, are run on the basis of the funds they can procure, the shareholders that are investing in education, or the way capital finances some of the scholarly activities. Even universities are looking at their students as clients. So there is not only a commercialization but also a monetization of all of our activities. That monetization goes hand in hand with an individualization of risk. Tying salaries to performance criteria means salaries are not compensations for a certain amount of labor. Salary is not a right anymore. Salary is based on merit. If you do not perform in a certain way, if you are not competitive in a certain way, the general perception is that you do not have the right to a salary, you do not have any right to social security. The concept of rights, around which social struggles are woven—right to food, right to land, etc.—even the concept of right is now being undermined by neoliberal capitalism. It’s only if you perform, if you’re competitive, if you’re marketable, and you can reimburse your debts to the banks, only then do you have some rights. So the notion of universal rights is disappearing. And this is changing our subjectivities.
So my question is: how can popular movements be built if more and more people come to believe that it’s normal that they do not have any rights. You see? There’s a normalization and a sacrificial logic. “Oh, certain portions of the population have to go bankrupt if they’re not able to pay their debts, they have to live on the street, but that’s necessary for the development of the economy”. That kind of discourse is different from the discourse of industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism exploited the worker but needed a laboring class. Finance capital doesn’t need it anymore! This is the problem.
So the collective subject that is going to oppose the system would have to be thought anew. My concern is that basically neoliberalism did create the conditions of possibility of ordinary middle-class and even working-class citizens to vote for would-be dictators or fascist-populist leaders because they see no other solution out of the system. The large collective subjects of the past, like unions, to which they could adhere, no longer exist. So I think this is a dangerous process.
–So the goal of social movements would be to rebuild this collective subject?
Exactly. My conclusion is that we cannot fight fascism without fighting against neoliberal capitalist accumulation. Every anti-fascist movement must at the same time be anti-finance capital, and we must create a political movement that puts a halt to the process of capitalist accumulation because this process is now like a machine. The whole world is caught in it. It reproduces itself over and over again, it sustains itself!
-And how is this affecting Turkey in particular?
In Turkey it is affecting us very, very badly. I think there are certain comparisons to be made between Brazil and Turkey, in certain aspects. You know, Turkey was also pushed into the global market through a military coup, through a lot of violence, in 1980. Until the AKP, the neoconservative government of Erdogan, came to power, we had a more or less republican regime, that imposed certain common values, republican values and, of course, nationalist values on the entire population. And that is why, for instance, the Kurds were revolting against that homogenous idea of the nation. When AKP came to power, its promise was more democracy—why? because they said: a portion of the population that is not republican, that is religious, is being oppressed. So the AKP would represent the whole of the oppressed classes.
What it did was complete the globalization of the economy. That could not really be achieved immediately after 1980, it took a lot of time, 20 years, to adjust the economy. AKP began monetizing and commodifying everything, including agriculture, seeds, and products that the Turkish farmer was dependent upon–because Turkey was previously a subsistence economy. Mines, telecommunications, everything that was owned by the state was first privatized and then opened up to global capital and global finance. And AKP, in order to finance some of its populist policies, became more and more indebted. It is borrowing heavily from international markets. But it is through distributing that money that it is able to keep its populist hegemony. What is happening here is that, for instance, social security in Turkey is still universal –everybody has the right to social security— but if you don’t buy private insurance, you can go to only very few hospitals and get very few services. The university education prices are going up. There are a lot of peasants who are driven out of their land because they can’t compete with the global market or with multinational corporations. Peasants and workers are now unemployed, there’s a lot of unemployment. And in that sense, the Turkish economy is always on the verge of crisis. This creates an anxiety, and AKP uses this anxiety—although it is the author of this crisis, it uses it in order to turn people against so-called “internal enemies” like academics who work on the Kurdish question, or the Kurds themselves, or workers, or popular struggles—everyone is labeled a “terrorist”. That’s how the neoliberal game is played out in Turkey.
-What’s the state of the repression against the Kurdish people in Turkey with Erdogan in power?
Erdogan was promoting peace with the Kurds until 2010. From then on, there was a shift in his discourse. Either because the Kurdish movement was becoming a civil movement that got a lot of support also among non-Kurdish Turks, or because it has a new vision of the economy and politics. The Kurds promised to promote a more direct or more participatory democracy, an alternative and ecological way of life, an economy based on the principle of preserving and sharing the commons. The AKP saw this and of course it was afraid that its hegemony would be damaged by the success of the Kurdish movement. And then there’s another factor which is very complicated. The Gülen organization, which is a sort of religious organization, a sect, that attempted a coup last year in Turkey, was at that time, that is in 2010-2011, re-advocating a military approach to the Kurdish question. So the AKP was also manipulated by the Gülenists. But the Kurds succeeded in having 80 deputies elected to Parliament in the 2015 general elections. They got 13% of the vote. Non-Kurdish citizens also voted for them. They succeeded in uniting small leftist parties, ecological parties, LGBT groups, a lot of very progressive forces under the umbrella of the HDP. But that same summer, the government re-manipulated the fears of the population and re-militarized the Kurdish question. The Kurds responded militarily, which unfortunately produced a spiral of violence, and now most of the Kurdish leaders of the HDP and many Kurdish mayors and elected officials are in prison. A lot of people have died in South-east Turkey since 2015.
-You worked on the Kurdish issue from a special point of view. Could you talk a little bit about it?
I was looking at how the Kurds, who are actually concentrated or living mostly in the South-Eastern part of Turkey, were using that special location and certain big cities like Diyarbakir as bases through which to realize their ideal of participatory democracy. By winning the local elections and having Kurdish mayors elected to certain big cities in the South-East, they started promoting the emergence of a Kurdish civil society. This led to the diversification of the Kurdish movement, which was of course an armed movement. Diverse actors were produced in these local spaces, although they couldn’t immediately become national actors but remained local. So what I did was look at how locality is important in the production of social movements, and how space can become a vector in developing certain aspects of these movements—their diversification and democratization, for instance.
And what I also did was compare the Kurdish movement to the Zapatista movement. I went to Chiapas, and I did some research there. I also looked at the Zapatistas from the spacial perspective since they are also concentrated in one region, Chiapas. But their influence doesn’t stay local. They inspire other movements by developing a new politics and a new economics in that space. So that is why I say space is important and looking at the differences. And today I think we should look at how in Rojava, which is Western Kurdistan, the Kurdish region in Syria, the Kurds have developed a grassroots democracy that includes different religions and different ethnicities but doesn’t use the modern state form as a model. I think this is a very important experiment and I believe that the seeds of that experiment were sown by the Kurdish movement in Turkey.
Do you think that maybe it could be an end for democracy—as in a goal?
I definitely do, well said! The disappearance of liberal democracy as we know it, which is limited to the nation-state, and limited to the idea of citizenship does not have to mean that democracy is disappearing. These popular movements, the Kurdish movement, the Zapatista movement, maybe also the MST in its own workings, go beyond that idea of democracy. They are innovative in that sense. And that’s something new, something we should cherish and develop.