Neoliberalism’s Crumbling Democratic Façade

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As with so many crisis-ridden countries, Turkey’s problem lies not in the country neglecting neoliberal principles, but in adopting them in the first place.

Years from now, when we look back at the 2010s, what will be the images that come to mind? Will we recall the wealth and prosperity brought to us by free markets and private investment? The freedom and democracy we enjoyed under our neoliberal governments? Or the ways in which we bravely protected our cultural and natural heritage, safeguarding it for future generations?

Most likely not. When we think of the 2010s, we will remember the protesters in the streets, the wars ravaging the Middle East, causing entire populations to leave home and hearth behind, and the millions of people across the globe risking their lives just to make a living somewhere else. We will remember the xenophobic attacks, the racist politicians, the gag orders and the crackdowns. But perhaps most of all, we will look back in disbelief, unable to understand how we could idly stand by and witness the slow but steady destruction of our planet — blindly burning, digging and slashing our way beyond the point of no return.

To be sure, the state’s response to the global financial crisis has been swift and determined: banks were bailed out, protesters beaten back and border fences put up. The economic recession, the popular uprisings and the increasing political instability of recent years encouraged neoliberal governments around the globe to discard their democratic pretenses and let their authoritarian nature to come to the fore. These developments have been particularly acute in Turkey, whose anti-democratic turn in recent years provides one of the most striking examples of authoritarian neoliberalism. As a strategic NATO ally, a former Islamic darling of the West and a long-time contender for EU membership, Turkey’s current state of emergency is in fact not the exception, but the rule pushed to its natural extreme.



The curtain first began to fall on Turkey’s neoliberal success story in the summer of 2013, when the Gezi protests combined with intensifying economic pressures to produce a powerful catalyst for the country’s authoritarian turn. Since then, the violent escalation of the Kurdish question, rising tensions with the Gülen movement and the attempted coup d’état of July 2016 appear to have driven these developments to their logical conclusion: the move towards an authoritarian state presiding over the steady erosion of hard-fought social rights and political freedoms.

Back in 2013, the millions of people who expressed their discontent with the government during the Gezi protests caught Erdoğan’s AKP-led government by surprise. Until then, the AKP had been all but basking in praise and support, enjoying a privileged position as the West’s Muslim prodigy in the region, working hard and successfully to tick all the boxes and join the neoliberal club of capitalist democracies. What it had failed to recognize was that more and more people felt like their neighborhood, city and society was no longer theirs; they had become strangers, outsiders in their own lives, victims of the structural violence that had bulldozed their homes, taken away their jobs, destroyed their theaters, cut their trees and killed their hopes.

Faced with a significant share of the population that refused to buy into the neoliberal myth of progress and prosperity the government responded in the only way it knew how: it sharpened the bayonets and launched a war on its own people.

More and more people felt like their neighborhood, city and society was no longer theirs; they had become strangers, outsiders in their own lives, victims of the structural violence that had bulldozed their homes, taken away their jobs, destroyed their theaters, cut their trees and killed their hopes.
After a very violent police crackdown on the street protests — in which hundreds were arrested, thousands were injured and over a dozen protesters were killed, including the 15-year-old Berkin Elvan — the state then continued its repression in less overt but no less authoritarian ways. Activists, artists and academics who had expressed support for the protests were accused of supporting terrorism, and in many cases charged as such. Teenagers were sent to jail for posting a tweet, and teachers lost their jobs for trying to analyze and discuss the social relevance of the largest popular uprising in the country’s history in their classes.

Many foreign observers have described the violent response of the Turkish state as the AKP’s “authoritarian turn.” While it is true that the government acted in a more authoritarian manner than before the Gezi uprising, it would be misleading to present this development as a break with the past. The post-Gezi crackdown and subsequent political repression did not constitute a breaking point with the past, but a boiling point — the culmination of many years of structural violence and oppression, which have long been so characteristic of neoliberal regimes across the globe.


In the years since Gezi, the reach of state control has expanded dramatically, while civil liberties and freedom of speech have been curtailed and the general state of the economy has continued to decline. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Western allies have failed — or refused? — to intervene or speak up in name of the values they profess to hold dear.

Even as the Turkish state massacred its own people in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, NATO jets continued to take off from Turkish airbases to launch bombing campaigns against the so-called Islamic State in Syria. While hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled their homes, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a friendly visit to President Erdoğan to discuss a highly controversial refugee deal that effectively appointed Turkey as the regional gatekeeper of Fortress Europe.

In the summer of 2015, the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish PKK escalated anew, barely two months after the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), with its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement, had booked a historic victory in the general elections by passing the exceptionally high 10 percent parliamentary threshold.

The two events were intricately linked. The pragmatist AKP had never really seen the country’s oppressed Kurdish minority as anything but an electoral asset, and the AKP’s earlier attempts at brokering peace with the PKK had never come from a sincere intention to address the Kurds’ long-standing grievances relating to the historical denial of social, cultural and political rights. Rather, its rapprochement with the Kurds stemmed from a belief that the only thing required to solve the Kurdish question was to turn them into model citizens in the neoliberal sense of the word — indebted, enslaved and forever precariously employed. In the post-2013 context, however, the AKP came to realize that it had more to gain politically from appealing to its nationalist constituency and attacking the Kurds, than by continuing to try to resolve the Kurdish issue.

The pragmatist AKP had never really seen the country’s oppressed Kurdish minority as anything but an electoral asset.
Ever since this shift in political strategy and the escalation of the war with the PKK, the Turkish state has shifted its authoritarian drive into second gear. In an attempt to legitimize its full-fling crackdown on all forms of political dissent — whether in the press, in the streets or through a simple petition — the government has resolved to frame anyone who dares to disagree with its policies as a “terrorist.” The HDP leadership has since been jailed and thousands of the party’s cadres have been detained, arrested, fired from their jobs or forced to flee abroad. All stand accused of “abetting terrorism,” or in other words, of having demanded the official recognition of Kurdish rights and culture.

The failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016 has provided the AKP with the necessary pretext to purge tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, lawyers, teachers and security personnel from its ranks. Over a hundred media outlets have been closed down, and in its December report the Committee to Protect Journalists claims that 81 journalists are currently in jail in Turkey — a number local activists claim is even higher. All in all, Turkey, a country that was once hailed as an example to its neighbors of what an Islamic democracy could look like, has come to rely on increasingly harsh methods of state repression to strengthen the ruling party’s grip on power and supposedly protect the country from “disaster.”


The Turkish case shows us what lurks behind the fairytale façade of neoliberalism, and what happens when its authoritarian nature comes back to the fore. Turkey’s adoption of neoliberalism as its guiding principle on the one hand allowed for the country’s political and financial elites to build, bet, bulldoze and brawl to their heart’s delight, and on the other it threw up a smokescreen of high growth rates and profitable investment opportunities that permitted business to continue as usual without outside intervention.

Ian Bruff writes in his introductory essay that “neoliberalism is about the creation and maintenance of the kinds of markets that it wishes to see, with a central role accorded to the state in this process.” Perhaps Turkey takes us even a step further: in successfully creating and maintaining the “kinds of markets it wishes to see” the neoliberal Turkish state grows ever more dominant — both vertically, in its relations with its own citizens, and horizontally, with respect to other countries. The neoliberal state turns into an ever more controlling entity at the command of its ruling elite. If these elites then happen to be xenophobic populists with an authoritarian streak, it will not be long before the country finds itself staring into the abyss.

  • tibetan cowboy

    Sounds a lot like America to me, especially in the drive state by state to criminalize protest and to pass laws now identifying protesters as “domestic terrorists”. This means that freedom of speech is more or less wiped out now in America. If you protest and have a grievance, you can be arrested for terrorism and jailed, indefinitely under the NDAA and Patriot Acts. And you may never face a judge or jury, or the light of day again the way this is going down, and I mean “down”. The country is going down, and taking all of We The People with it as the 1% thrive and get richer.

  • eight.of.wands

    True dat!….our brothers and sisters across this beautiful land had better wake the hell up SOON! to our government ‘representatives’ (both D and R) backstabbing and selling us out with a vengeance, and handing the blood money back to their corporate overlords…..WAKE UP, everybody!!….this is not alarmist paranoia, dammit….some of us can’t help it if we are somehow capable of seeing the future by simply extrapolating our shitty present condition forward…..when the grin wears thin, Obama shall become one of the most despised people in America, for lying to our faces about Hope and Change at a critical watershed moment in our country’s history, when America desperately craved leadership and vision to turn things around…..he kept his word on none of it, with a smile and a wink, as con artists always do…..and so here we are today, thank you very much…
    These cowboy and cowgirl ‘rantings’ you now see popping up will be totally accepted as ‘common knowledge’ 5 years from now, when it’s too fucking late… may be too late already…..i know the ending to Cool Hand Luke….but hey, i’ll ride with Paul Newman any day….we may or may not win, but we do it with a swagger and grin….a real one…
    The fight is on….i know quite well who the enemy is…

  • mwildfire

    For now, they’re thriving. But as in the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the machinery they created with such enthusiasm is now out of their control and running amok. That machinery we call corporations; and they are still funneling ever more wealth into the hands of the rich, but they are also destroying the Earth, creating hundreds of millions of refugees, and will soon inevitably bring on famine and the plagues that conflict and famine generate. The Four Horsemen are saddling up now, and when they come galloping through our land, even the rich will not be spared. For now, their wealth protects them from the consequences of their choices, and it’s the rest of us who pay the price. But eventually, there is no place with a climate reliable enough to grow food; diseases leap the walls of their redoubts and affect the soft rich at the same rates as the rest of us. And they have the problem that their own children hate them, for destroying the only world we’ve got.
    Not that this obvious prospect will stop them from doubling down on their stupidity.

  • eight.of.wands

    …and yet, to be a bright-eyed silly dreamer, i posit that no particular endgame is inevitable….i’ve learned the gospel truth of that at the blackjack tables….”all bets are off” in our current political and socio-economic deep malaise….any and all outcomes are possible, in wondrous proportion to whatever you and i and every single one of us can muster against the Dealer’s down card….haha!!….the only certainty is that NOTHING gets better if nobody does nuthin, dig??!….i’ll be the Fifth Horseman, let’s posse up…
    So just keep doing what you’re doing, you 1% dirty twisted sons and daughters of bitches….we’re about ready to teach you the meaning of the phrase ‘don’t fuck with a fucker’ and have ourselves a WHOLE lotta fun doing you the favor…..bring it on…

  • DHFabian

    The US has been embracing neoliberal ideology since the 1980s. Even today’s liberals have embraced the notion that only those who are of current use to employers (the corporate state) are deserving of basic human rights protections. Via media, the state has effectively reshaped our very concepts of reality in a way that ensures that the “masses” will effectively protect the neoliberal agenda.

    One story that will be remembered, passed along, and one day highlighted, is that of this country’s war on our own poor, and the degree to which this generation worked to keep the consequences swept under the carpet. Someday, it will be noted that the US was a country that crowed about being a “peace-loving nation” while pursuing war almost constantly for over a century.

  • DHFabian

    Yes, and our political leadership has (since Reagan) stressed what all good Americans must do. We must “get up every morning, work hard, and play by all the rules.” Don’t look around, don’t ask questions. Why does our economy continue to sink? Not because of corporate choices, but because Americans just don’t work hard and long enough! We must “get with the program.”

    As a land of freedom, of course we support the right to protest, as long as people first purchase a protest permit, and follow all the rules and restrictions. No signs, keep it quiet, stay in the designated protest zone, rarely any media coverage.

  • DHFabian

    Yes, but the rich and powerful have no interest in what happens in the long run. It’s about gaining the advantage right now. For now, they know that Americans will continue to complain about corporate powers while still driving their cars, consuming massive amounts of fuel, and will remain useful consumers until the nation collapses.

    Because US corporations are now international entities, they are no longer dependent on US workers or consumers. It appears that their “game plan” consists of draining the last of the wealth out of the US, then simply moving on.

  • DHFabian

    I do agree, but we’ve been hearing this same thing since at least the 1980s. Having any chance of pulling “the masses” together, so that we would have a chance of pushing back, would require coming to terms with how deeply we’ve been split apart, pitted against each other by class and race. I don’t see how this is possible because it would require a discussion that many don’t want to have.

  • mwildfire

    So it does! But my point was that even if they have a long-range view, it wouldn’t be easy to rein in these machines they created to hide behind while amassing wealth. Everyone knows that whatever the Supreme Court said, corporations are not people. But a lot of people make the mistake of thinking they are LIKE people–and they’re not. They’re like machines. Completely incapable of caring about anything, but programed to pursue profits, and armed with tremendous power.
    Draining the last of the wealth out of the US–and the rest of the world–and moving on to where, Mars? Our ecosystems are being rapidly destroyed, not just in the US. I do get the feeling they see the US as a collapsing nag they can flog for a little more–draining out the oil and gas, and using the last decades of a marginally viable economy to create the garrison. They don’t need us as workers OR consumers anymore, so they can divert pretty much all the tax money into the military. When people start dying in the streets for lack of food, shelter and medical care, they’ll shrug…

  • eight.of.wands

    Not only is it possible, it’s already happened and is growing…..Bernie proved it, by beating Hillary in the primaries (until it was stolen from us)….i was front stage at Sanders rallies in IL, WI and IA, and the coalescing of EVERY faction of citizens (fuck that “Bernie Bro” David Brock bullshit p.r. swipe) was awesome!!!….True populism – as opposed to Hillary’s condescension and Trump’s con game – started a fire in people that bitchslapped the Establishment out of nowhere…..the elites NEVER saw it coming, and to this moment still cannot comprehend what the Sanders campaign generated…..good!!….i like my adversaries fat and stupid…..the bigger they are, the harder they’ll fall…
    Will a populist pushback against corrupt governance be swift, easy and painless?….of course not….should we just throw in the towel before we try?….double of course not!….should doubts or self-defeating thoughts cloud our thinking?….triple Hell no, not with so much at stake, and all of us getting closer and closer every day to ‘nothing left to lose’…..i’m not cynical or skeptical at all….a little revolution now and then does the body good!!…..soul, too…

  • Jon

    When will academic writers such as this one ever learn that the term “neoliberal” is nothing more than a euphemism given to what is actually a system of neofeudalism perpetrated by corporate globalism? Nothing “liberal” about it at all. The corporate power structure seeks to control every aspect of our lives, just as the fusion of church and state did in the Middle ages. “Neoliberalism” is what they call themselves to disguise the class-based order. It is nothing of the kind. l

  • Jon

    This is the dialectic at work–internal contradictions that lead to a rupture with the existing order. It is literally unsustainable, meaning it will end. How is largely up to us,The People.

  • Jon

    And Jill Stein took it to another level when Bernie’s campaign faltered, and he ended by backing the person he had critiqued so effectively.

  • Jon

    Even you, Fabian, are using the euphemism “neoliberal.” See my post above.

  • eight.of.wands

    If by ‘faltering’ you mean beating HRC in the primaries (then having it stolen) you have a point….brother Bernie made a yoooooge and tragic blunder triangulating w Clinton against Trump, for marginally understandable reasons, and it absolutely infuriated a great number of us, yes it did….i love Jill, i voted for her, but Bernie possesses a gravitas and an unbelievable power to inspire and galvanize millions which no other 2016 candidate could even come close to, still….this isn’t just some drunk guy babbling…..ALL the photos and footage and memories of Sanders’ rallies dwarfed the efforts of every single other campaign last year…..i want to see that nuclear furnace of genuine populism reignited with his kind of once-in-a-lifetime leadership…

  • Jon

    Yes, that is what I mean–we are on the same page, but Bernie never returned Jill’s attempts to reach out to him–for years. She said so directly in my presence. Yet Dems represent, as a party, a corpse. As for “nuclear furnace,” the ONLY safe nuclear furnace is 93 million miles away. As for one on Earth, this in from Citizens for Legitimate Government 2/5/17:

    Fukushima nuclear reactor radiation called ‘unimaginable’,
    highest since 2011 triple meltdown |
    03 Feb 2017 | Radiation levels inside a damaged reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi
    nuclear power station are at their highest since the plant suffered a triple
    meltdown almost six years ago. The facility’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power
    (Tepco), said atmospheric readings as high as 530 sieverts an hour had been
    recorded inside the containment vessel of reactor No 2, one of three reactors
    that experienced a meltdown when the plant was crippled…in March 2011. The
    recent reading, described by some experts as “unimaginable”, is far higher than
    the previous record of 73 sieverts an hour in that part of the reactor. A single
    dose of one sievert is enough to cause radiation sickness and nausea; 5 sieverts would kill half those
    exposed to it within a month, and a single dose of 10 sieverts would prove fatal
    within weeks.

  • Poor people in the US are already dying in the streets for lack of food, shelter and medical care. And the top 20 % – the upper-middle class and the rich – just shrugs now (and even outright denies that it’s happening).