Turkey: A Capitalist History

It's not about secularism or the military—economic development has driven events in Turkey for decades. And Erdogan's AKP has outlived its economic usefulness.

The history of the Turkish republic that celebrated its ninetieth anniversary on October 29 has been marked by societal discord and political convulsions: three military coups, violence between the left and the right during the 1970s, a Kurdish insurrection since the mid-1980s and a culture war between secularists and religious conservatives during the last decade. The current polarization over secularism and Islam distorts the view of Turkish history; the conventional narrative of Turkey’s march conjures the image of an epic struggle between a supposedly Westernizing secularist state establishment—until the Justice and Development Party (AKP) conquered the state—and a religiously conservative population. But the key word for understanding why Turkey looks the way it does is capitalism, not secularism.

It is capitalist development that has determined the political journey of the Turkish republic. The turning points in this journey were all byproducts of the development of capitalism. The turning points have translated the class dynamics of capitalism; they have corresponded to the needs of, and mirrored the power of the bourgeoisie, the dominant class. That was the case with the transition to multiparty democracy in 1946, the military coups in 1971 and 1980, and the ascent of the AKP to power in 2002.

The cultural revolution of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, died with him. Since then, the Turkish state has been not so much an agent of secularist revolution as of capitalist development. Indeed, Atatürk’s biggest achievement was to lay the foundations of the latter. After the non-Muslim bourgeoisie of the Ottoman Empire had been eliminated, the new republic set about to nurture a new Turkish and Muslim bourgeoisie. Turkey’s transition to a multiparty system in 1946 reflected the growing clout of the bourgeoisie. Since 1950, the parties of the bourgeoisie have been in power most of the time. With the bourgeoisie in the lead role, the state bureaucracy has performed the supporting role, facilitating capitalist development. When the military has intervened, it has done so not to save “secularism” as the conventional narrative holds, but to save capitalism and to protect the dominant class.

At the end of the 1960s the rise of the left seemed threatening, precipitating the coup in 1971. The ruling bourgeois party had been unable to push through the restrictions of the political freedoms that it desired, and had to leave the job to the military. But during the 1970s, Turkey’s model of capitalist development ran into a deep crisis that required another, more thorough military intervention.

Since the beginning of the 1960s, the state had supported capitalism with import substitution policies. High walls of tariff had shielded industry from foreign competition, but by the 1970s this model had become untenable. The economy had to be subjected to a liberal shock treatment. State subsidies had to be abolished and wages lowered, in order to reorient industrial production from serving the domestic market to world markets. That could not be done without suspending democracy. The forces of resistance—the left and the trade unions—had to be neutralized. The leader of the 1980 coup, General Kenan Evren, marched in the footsteps of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, quashing the left and launching a neoliberal program of privatizations and deregulations.

It is no coincidence that the Turkish military has not taken over the government since then. The military’s function as the vehicle of bourgeois class interests was for all intents and purposes fulfilled once Turkey had been securely set on a path toward integration with the global economy. What has neutered the role of the military is that Turkish capitalism has taken on a force of its own thanks to economic liberalization. Empowered by its integration with global capitalism, the bourgeoisie no longer needs the assistance of the military to secure and advance its interests.

Liberalization and globalization broadened the class basis of Turkish capitalism, by turning the small, rural bourgeoisie of shopkeepers and small-scale producers in Anatolia into an industrial bourgeoisie. What brought the AKP to power was the de facto alliance of this religiously conservative bourgeoisie and the first, secular-oriented bourgeoisie that the republic had created.

With its mix of social and cultural conservatism, free-market-friendly policies and nationalism, the AKP has been a typical bourgeois party of the kind that has ruled Turkey since the 1950s. The AKP is the most successful of these parties. However, it has lately taken religious conservatism several steps further, which puts it at odds with the interests of capitalist development. That could prove fatal. Turkish capitalism has reached a point where it must advance to a higher stage to avoid stagnation and potentially crisis, but the AKP’s insistence on promoting religious conservatism is an obstacle to achieving this.