10 June 2013

The Emergence of Civil Society in Turkey

It will soon be two weeks since Occupy Gezi or Resistanbul began. Most observers -including this blogger- assumed that the protests would wane and people would go home after a couple of days of noisy outbursts.

Instead, these young people organized themselves quickly and skillfully and continued to demonstrate peacefully.

The most interesting aspect of these events is not whether they would be successful in overthrowing the government or they would spawn a new political movement similar to the Five Star movement in Italy. Either is unlikely for now.

To me, the most significant point about these demonstrations is this: The way these events spontaneously came about, the extremely varied composition of the crowds and the way the protesters handled themselves indicate that there is now an emerging civil society in Turkey.

What Is a Civil Society?

You see, civil society is a highly misunderstood concept. Some people use it to refer to NGOs, charities and/or all kinds of associations. Others use it to mean a society with a large number of diversified political organizations. But, by and large, people fall back on the basic conceptualization provided by the conservative political scientists in the early 1960s: these behavioralist scholars conceived of a post-ideology, slightly apathetic, self-content society, which was quite similar to how late 1950s America saw itself.

Accordingly, that society had multiple interest groups competing in a political market place modeled after the neo-classical free market. With economic growth and spreading affluence, this non-ideological and harmoniously resource allocating society expressed itself in what was known as civic culture.

Because of that, we think of civil society as a series of characteristics, as in any society that has these elements:

a) Economic development
b) A political system defined by free elections
c) A legal system with basic liberties
d) Freedom of association
e) Large number of interest groups and associations

Once we have the items in our laundry list ticked off, we determine whether or not we are in the presence of a civil society.

Even today, partly because we never confronted the legacy of those early formulations, we end up making similar arguments in our analyses. Case in point is a recent Op-Ed by an illustrious American scholar (of Turkish descent) about the causal links between economic development and liberal democracy. He was using the Turkish case to demonstrate that economic development was not a sufficient condition for liberal democracy. Personally, I doubt that this is a point worth making.

Actually, civil society is not a complicated construct but you need to see it historically rather than through a list of attributes.

Historically, nation states came about first and subjugated societies for a long time. It took the rise of capitalism, the emergence of various classes and the Industrial Revolution for society to fight off the tutelage of the state. But what needs to be emphasized is that, the way societies tried to emancipate themselves from their states determined the meaning and content of those attributes we placed in our laundry list.

Let me explain what I mean.

The key element in that historical process is the rise of a bourgeois class and the way that class fights for its emancipation. The appearance of that class implies a number of changes. A bourgeois class exists only in a capitalist economy and because capitalist production is based on capital and labor, its existence is inseparable from working classes. When one shows up, the other has to be there.

When that bourgeois class appears on the scene, it has to take on the previous ruling class. The bourgeoisie has to fight for its right to conduct its economic activities, it has to struggle for its political rights, including the right to vote and the right to be elected and it has to revendicate for itself the freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

While these rights and freedoms are meant to be enjoyed by the new bourgeois class, because they had to be formulated in universal terms, over time, they are extended to all members of society.

Secondly, with capitalist economy overtaking agrarian subsistence economy, both the bourgeois classes and working classes undergo internal diversification. Activities span agriculture, industry, finance and service sectors and for each activity area you have a corresponding cluster of business people and working people. The outlook of these groups in different sectors are slightly different from other groups within their classes. Hence their diversified positions.

Thirdly, these expanding new activities require new skill sets. That means that the economy needs (and therefore gets) a better educational infrastructure and wider access to it. Which leads to a more educated and more sophisticated society.

Finally, when the economy is successful and growing, at some point, working classes will acquire a better bargaining position and manage to organize themselves around unions that are capable of negotiating on their behalf. When that happens, there is better income distribution, more affluence and a larger domestic market with a higher purchasing power. Which in turn leads to more growth.

In cases where the process takes place as described, with economic prosperity and a general acceptance of the status quo, politics becomes more moderate, extreme positions subside and new issue areas begin to be discussed and negotiated.

I know I make it sound like a mechanical process that is almost automatic. Actually, it is anything but. In fact, it happened this way only once in history and that was in the UK with the Industrial Revolution in full bloom.

Everywhere else, civil societies were stillborn. That is why those attributes are meaningless without their historical context.

If you remember your basic 19th century history, once the UK became the biggest super power in the world on the basis of its successful capitalist economy, other states began to sponsor the same model at home. France, Germany, Italy and Japan are typical examples of states trying to create a bourgeois class and a capitalist economy later in the century.

In such cases, the new bourgeois classes never really felt the need to emancipate themselves from the state's tutelage. Instead, almost naturally, they followed the state's lead to invest, they sought the state's protection to reduce their risks and they let the state mediate their relationship with their working classes.

The resulting societies had all the five characteristics I listed. But they meant something quite different to these classes. When the first wave of corporatist, nationalist and fascist ideas hit them, these societies did not react like open minded civil entities made up of a rich tapestry of independent associations with different outlooks. Instead, they acted in lockstep like a well oiled military machine. When faced with a crisis their social classes opted for the Fuhrerprinzip and lined up behind the state as a nation.

It took the bloodiest war in human history for these societies to emerge from under their states.

In that sense, what determines a civil society is not so much its economic development, its legal and political liberalism, the number of associations, but how its business classes see themselves vis-à-vis the state and how they led their society to extricate itself from the state's tutelage.

The moment they ask for liberties and allow others in that society to enjoy them is the starting point of civil societies. And if after that, this society develops the prerequisites I mentioned, including the rich tapestry of independent organizations, then they will react to crises quite differently.

Turkey and Civil Society

The roots of the Turkish case were in the same European (and Japanese) experiments. When the Republic was founded in 1923, the people in charge were part of the 19th century Young Turks movement and they were quite familiar with the idea of a state-sponsored bourgeois class. And this is what they set out to do.

I will not bore you with the subsequent evolution of bourgeois classes in Turkey. Suffice it to say that, until recently, Turkish bourgeoisie has always had a symbiotic relationship with the state. Let's call it the Republican bourgeoisie. This calls grew through the state's largess, it relied on the state to protect its investments and assets and it called upon the state to suppress unions and other unpleasant associations. And the state complied.

In the 1970s and 80s, a large number of SMEs began to blossom in Anatolian cities like Konya and Kayseri. The owners and managers of these enterprises had a conservative Islamist outlook that was rather Calvinist in essence. They had an entrepreneurial attitude, an investment oriented perspective, a disdain for ostentatious consumerism, a protective approach to their workers and a missionary zeal for their work.

Max Weber would have been proud.

As they believed that the state either ignored them or persecute them for their religious beliefs, they kept their distance from it. But they quickly became a formidable economic force and came to be known as the Anatolian Tigers.

After the coup d'etat in 1980, the military put in charge a moderate Islamist, Turgut Ozal, who implemented the IMFs economic liberalization policies. These measures removed strict import-export controls, allowed the currency to float freely and in essence removed the state from its role of primary economic regulator. These reforms were good for both the Republican bourgeois and the Anatolian Tigers but the newcomers were the biggest beneficiaries.

When the AKP came to power, liberal intelligentsia assumed that they were the political representatives of the Anatolian Tigers. And initially, the government received their enthusiastic support. Early economic policies led to an exponential growth (GDP quadrupled between 2000 and 2013). The country's economy also became very diversified with industry and service sectors rising and agriculture's share continuously declining.

The essence of the Tigers' belief system comes from Fethullah Gulen, a preacher who sees education and service to society as the twin pillars of his teaching. He established over 1000s schools around the world and he has been maintaining them with money contributed by this bourgeois class. To give you an idea about their push for widespread education, before 1980, there were only a handful state-owned universities in Turkey. As of this year, there are 174 universities and academies. And most of them are now in Anatolia.

This class also fought for the female students right to wear the Islamic scarf to get an education. Previously, women were not allowed to enter university buildings with a turban but over time, they won the right to do so. Interestingly, the previous generation of students following the lead of the Republican bourgeoisie supported the ban. This current generation is much more tolerant and they think it is up to each person to decide for themselves.

To illustrate: An opinion poll in 2006 asked university students to rank equality, freedom and solidarity and the majority chose equality as number one priority. In 2012 the same poll found that an overwhelming majority was now in favor of freedom.

With growth and widespread education, this new society focused on other issue areas. Instead of using state controlled associations and old style politics they hit the new social media. Internet, Smart Phone, Facebook and eCommerce penetration in Turkey is phenomenal. With 36 million Internet users (half the entire population), Turkey ranks 5th in Europe. For Facebook it ranks 7th in the world and for Twitter it occupies the 11th position globally.

You could say that a conservative and Islamist bourgeois class set the tone for a liberal civil society by fighting off the state (and the state sponsored bourgeois class), by accepting to share the freedoms it won for itself and by establishing the prerequisites for such a society.

In the last three years or so, they have been distancing themselves from the Prime Minister and his entourage of crony capitalists. They are behind Gulen supporters like President Abdullah Gul, the Deputy PM Bulent Arinc, and the Speaker of the House Cemil Cicek.

Tellingly, the President was the first to intervene and to announce that the demonstrators had every right to protest and the police reaction was too violent. The next day, Deputy PM apologized for police violence (which reportedly infuriated the Prime Minister). Many other Gulen supporters within the AKP and the state bureaucracy expressed their sympathy and support for the demonstrators. Their media outlets (like Zaman, which is the largest Turkish Daily) were critical of police intervention to Taksim Square.

As I said, the responses of a bourgeois class determines how a society handles crisis situations. In the case of Resistanbul or Gezi Direnis the responses were very different from the Arab Spring or Paris 1968.

What I have been trying to explain is being expressed much more eloquently in these pictures.

Here is a Muslim protester in Taksim praying. Check out the indifference around him.

Here is another group praying. A non-practicing protester is holding an umbrella for them.

Around the corner, young women in leotards participating in an open air yoga session.

In another part, street performances with a newlywed bride watching

Here is a sign that reads "The only thing they don't know how to handle is non-violence and humor"

Cleaning crews keeping the square in good shape

An elderly woman with her Guy Hawkes mask

A man and his best friend

Two young women in Islamist headscarves with a poster that reads "Don't give in"

Turning pepper gas canisters into flower pots

A young man and his guitar

And old man and his pen

These are the reactions of a civil society.

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