Making Sense of (Anti) Politics In and Out of Crisis in Turkey: A Critical Intervention

Making Sense of (Anti) Politics In and Out of Crisis in Turkey: A Critical Intervention[1]


In honour and memory of all the Soma miners we have lost…

This article had long been accepted and was already in the process of final preparation for publication at Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) when the Soma massacre took place on 13 May 2014. Unfortunately it is not possible to reflect upon these latest dreadful events in great detail in the article. However it is noteworthy that the murder of hundreds of miners kilometres below the ground due to the absence of necessary health and safety regulations is nothing but another brutal outcome of the capitalist social relations which have long been entrenched in Turkey and intensified further with the policies implemented in the post-2001 period by the AKP government. The outrageously unacceptable ways in which the AKP officials has reacted to the catastrophe, miners’ relatives and the anti-government demonstrators ever since reveal that the authoritarian form of governing these inherently destructive and conflict-ridden social relations becomes consolidated in Turkey which further fuel anger and frustration and carry the potential for the evolution of societal politicisation toward more radical forms.


This article discusses the recent developments within Turkish politics through a critical understanding of depoliticisation and (re-)politicization processes. In doing so the crisis-ridden capitalist social relations and their different forms of appearance are treated as the starting point of analysis. It problematises the intrinsic yet often disguised class character and capital logic behind the policy prescriptions in favour of further depoliticisation. It aims to equally highlight the gradual entrenchment of government-led politicisation and emergence of diverse forms of expression of societal discontent thanks to the expansion of the political terrain through prior government-led politicisation efforts and the politicising pressures arising out of the crisis. The nature of the interrelationship between the processes of depoliticisation in one policymaking area and politicisation in others at governmental and societal level has not yet been fully acknowledged or scrutinized, as the various literatures engaging with these phenomena have not been in communication with each other. This commentary aims to point out the scholarly as well as political importance of such a dialogue drawing on the case of Turkey. In this light it emphasises that the emerging and deepening authoritarianism of AKP government, which is now widely acknowledged across Turkey and beyond, finds its roots in the very permeation of capitalist social relations across the whole of society since the early 2000s that continually deepens the societal conflict, as initially observed with the June uprising in 2013, and evolving into diverse forms ever since.


This opinion article aims to put forward a critical reading of the changes within Turkish politics and policy-making processes through the lens of depoliticisation and (re-)politicisation. It problematises the intrinsic yet often disguised capital logic behind the policy prescriptions in favour of further depoliticisation (particularly in economic policy making). It aims to equally highlight the gradual entrenchment of governmental politicisation and emergence of diverse forms of expression of societal discontent thanks to the expansion of the political terrain through prior government-led politicisation efforts and the politicising pressures arising out of the crisis. This becomes possible by holistically taking the conflict-ridden capitalist social relations and their different forms of appearance in the embodiment of state, government policies, social uprisings and protests as the starting point of analysis. The nature of the interrelationship between the processes of depoliticisation in one policymaking area and politicisation in others at governmental and societal level has not yet been fully acknowledged or scrutinized, as the various literatures engaging with these phenomena have not been in communication with each other (for a thorough critique of this divorce in the context of social movements studies, Goodwin and Hetland, 2009). This short commentary aims to point out the scholarly as well as political importance of such a dialogue drawing on the case of Turkey.

Crisis, Politics and Policymaking under Capitalism: Brief Overview of a Conceptual Framework

In this part a brief overview of the literature and the proposed conceptual framework will be provided before it is adopted to investigate the case of Turkey. The debate on the value of rule-based (i.e “depoliticised”) forms of decision making structures and processes has a long history in the mainstream scholarly and practitioner community (Barro and Gordon, 1982; Rogoff, 1985; Watson, 2002; Bakir, 2007; Akcay, 2009: 118-140 for a critical review of the literature on rule vs. discretion in relation to central banking). Crisis moments particularly contribute to the emergence and deepening of this debate whilst certain areas of policy-making remain more prone to the dominance of these forms of governing than others (Allard et. al., 2013; King, 2005). The debate also often takes on a very technical form entrenched in the normative framework of the unchallenged acceptance of rule-based policy arrangements whilst the political dimension behind such policy choices are generally overlooked if not fully discarded. This section presents the theoretical basis for a critical undertaking of these processes in relation to the forms of governing in other policy areas and more broadly to the totality of social relations.

Economic management (particularly its monetary policymaking pillar) is certainly one of the main policy areas where “transparent”, “accountable”, “rule-based” decision making practices at arms’ length from elected officials are largely characterized as the constitutive elements of what is often termed “good governance” in the mainstream literature (for a critical assessment see Jayasuriya and Hewison, 2004; Bayramoglu, 2005, Akcay, 2009). There is, however, limited critical engagement in this literature with the broader social and political impact of institutional and procedural changes made in economic policymaking and the impact that the latter potentially makes upon the broader terrain of politics.

In contrast the argument raised in this article aligns itself with the critical strand of political economy scholarship in its ambition to explore the “social constitution” (Bonefeld, 2006) behind these seemingly and unquestionably technical arrangements (Watson, 2002). Despite appearing to be solely restructuring a very specific domain in a very specific manner, its far-reaching but often disguised implications could be uncovered within such a perspective.

Two of the key scholarly interventions in politicising the above-mentioned narrative in this manner emerges from the works of Peter Burnham (2001) and Colin Hay (2007) whose research in large part draw on the transformation of politics and policymaking in Britain from the late 1990s onwards (see also Wood and Flinders, 2014). Burnham (2001) defines moves toward this form of governing under the umbrella term “depoliticisation” emphasizing its very political character. Whilst depoliticisation aims to place the latter “at one remove”, it serves to protect the policymakers from the consequences of implementing unpopular policies (2001: 128-129, 134). Rather than explaining the need for shielding merely in the self-interested and electoral motivations of politicians, it is conceived to emerge from the intrinsically crisis-ridden character of social relations that govern and give shape to the formation of the state, its elected and appointed managers and the specific relations that govern their interaction. Therefore this act of displacement, in a sense, helps disguise the constitutive role of the state in the maintenance of existent power relations as understood in class terms. In this perspective the political as a concept and social reality does not stand on its own but is defined to be organically linked to yet seemingly detached from the economic under capitalism with its uniquely designated domain in the government and parliamentary system. Put differently capitalist social relations rest on an inherent depoliticisation- that of the political from the economic and the state from society (Wood, 1981). Since Burnham takes the political under capitalism as the domain within which (de)politicisation strategies emerge, the key agents of these processes are the state managers who articulate and implement these strategies in their attempts to govern the capitalist social relations. In this view, politics and radical political action necessarily involves struggle and is, by implication, about demystifying the separation described above and revealing the class character of the political under capitalism.

Hay (2007), on the other hand, broadens the conceptual reach of (de)politicisation beyond the governmental realm which allows the possibility to extend the agents of these processes beyond state managers and explore their impact upon the broader social relations in closer relation with politicising dynamics and pressures. His three-level typology of depoliticisation implies a gradual move of an issue area from the governmental sphere, to the public/non-governmental sphere (type I), private sphere (type II) and the realm of necessity and fate (type III) (vice versa in the case of politicisation) (2007: 81-85). Unlike Burnham, he defines politics broadly as “capacity for agency and deliberation in situation of genuine collective or social choice” (ibid: 77). This approach needs to be embedded within an understanding of the inherent asymmetrical power relations within society that could potentially make an impact upon which issues enter into the political domain and which remain outside of it. As incorporated by Buller and Flinders (2006) in their definition of depoliticisation as arena-shifting, both Burnham and Hay’s conceptualization largely focus on the spatial shifts of the political activity. Whilst such an approach needs to be complemented with an account of rapid and simultaneous politicisation of multiple issues at all levels in moments of societal upheavals and uprisings and pay more attention to the character and content of (de)politicisation (progressive/reactionary) alongside the dislocation and relocation of the political activity as such, Hay’s approach, when embedded within the critical framework laid out by Burnham, appears plausible for assessing the Turkish case in the following section.

Therefore, combining the insights of both perspectives, politics in general terms refers to the capacity for agency in order to address collective, social choices inclusive of the potential intervention of progressive, radical agendas and agency for the materialization of alternative forms of organizing society. However politics under capitalism takes on a historically specific form and reflects the separation of the economic domain (market/production) from the political (state) and the continuous disguise of the unequal and exploitative character of social relations within the former by means of the latter. This dual character (constraining and emancipating) of politics opens up the possibility to push beyond its established boundaries under capitalism (i.e. manifested in forms of government-led politicisation) toward a full realization of the premises of politics in general (i.e. societal politicisation).

Government-Led and Societal Politicisation
in Post-2001 Turkey[2]

The Post-2001 transformations in the decision making processes in the conduct of economic management in Turkey are often characterised to be elements of a broader governing strategy of depoliticisation in line with the developments observed in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1990s as described by Burnham and Hay’s first type of depoliticisation (2007: 82-85).  A quick look into the key areas of restructuring and the ways in which they have been restructured in the early 2000s (e.g. monetary policy, financial system regulation, public finance, regulation of energy, tobacco, sugar sectors, public procurement) would indeed suggest that the overarching objective (regardless of whether ultimately achieved or not) of these reforms was indeed to remove the political character of decision making processes away from the discretion of the elected officials (Akcay, 2009; Bakir, 2007; Bayramoglu, 2005; Guzelsari, 2008; Ercan and Oguz, 2006).

However the connection between the restructuring of economic management in this manner and the space and opportunity it has provided to state managers to politicize other issue areas in a controlled manner has not been explored in-depth. From this perspective, the post-2001 context could equally be read as the period in which new issues have been taken on board by the AKP government and brought into public/political debate within the new terrain that opened up with the depoliticisation of economic management. An example in this respect is the foreign policy itself (Kaya, 2011; Donmez, 2014 forthcoming). In many ways the delegation of decision making powers away from the elected officials in the contested field of economic management has helped facilitate the space within which the foreign policy has grown as a crucial field of political activity led by the AKP government. The cabinet ministers and senior officials have actively taken part in the formulation, promotion and decision making processes in foreign policy making- a policy area largely confined to its established boundaries and not receptive to active involvement of governments in previous decades. Similarly the gradual entry of religious, ethnic, gender-based politics, social-political rights and civil-military relations as issues largely confined to the realm of necessity and private realm into the public and governmental sphere could be seen as cases of this form of politicisation in the post-2001 context (Legislation Database, Grand National Assembly of Turkey 2002-2011). Such a relational approach could challenge accounts which treat the different postures in these policy areas as though they were unrelated to each other. It also challenges approaches which explain the rising politicisation at governmental level solely from within the rent-seeking/political business cycles literatures or as the outcome of recent, unexpected and rather sui generis authoritarianism of the AKP government since its second term in office.

In the first half of the 2000s, government-led politicisation was endorsed and promoted in the issue areas above by the EU as part of Turkey’s membership quest and domestically garnered wide social and political support. The state managers tied their hands in economic management in pursuit of the IMF programme and the EU membership agenda allowing them to shift responsibility and blame to the latter whenever unpopular policies were brought into the agenda (what Buller and Flinders (2006: 57) call “preference-shaping depoliticisation”). At the same time a new terrain of politics opened up, the boundaries of which were nonetheless drawn with the IMF stabilization programme and EU progress reports. Since this process had an impact over the totality of the social and mobilized various social actors outside the governmental realm, Turkey soon became a country where every issue in public debate appeared to be overtly politicised and the political agenda moved very fast, very much disguising the depoliticised character of economic management during years of relative growth and accumulation (Kettell, 2008: 636). However the opportunities presented for government-led politicisation have ultimately brought back the fact that political responsibility and accountability rest with the government in case of failure of policies in these issue areas. This would become the ground upon which societal politicisation would flourish in the post-global crisis context.

From 2006-7 onwards, the unfolding obstacles against the EU membership process, global financial volatility and the domestic struggle emerging within the judiciary-military-government axis partially as a result of the politicisation process described above (leading to the Ergenekon trial amidst claims of a pre-meditated coup d’etat) have brought new momentum to the dynamics of (de)politicisation. The strains on economic policymaking became more evident from 2009 onwards and the independent central bank, the key institution guarding the depoliticisation strategy, has failed to meet its inflation targets as part of a process commenced in 2006. It moved from an initially contractionary set of monetary policies in 2008 to a “policy mix” from the late 2010s onwards and have been in a precarious position in managing the domestic capital circuit through the repetitive upheavals of the global circuit of capital ever since (Central Bank of Republic of Turkey Annual Report, 2010; CBRT Press Releases, 2011; for a critical analysis on the latest interest rate decisions of the Central Bank and its potential long-term ramifications on Turkish economy, Akcay, 2014).

The monetary policy has failed to deliver but still kept formally depoliticised, in the sense that the formal independence of the central bank has not been fundamentally questioned despite gradually moving away from the price stability agenda toward financial stability. At the same time the government has also attempted to take a closer grip on a number of other areas of economic policy through, for example, incentive and stimulus packages, proposals to increase the Treasury borrowing, postponement of the implementation of a fiscal rule, legislative efforts to tackle rising consumer and private sector debt (Parliamentary Deliberations, 23. Term, 3-5 Legislative Years meetings, 2009-2011). The deteriorating domestic macroeconomic indicators as well as the instability of the broader region from 2009-2010 onwards have contributed to the problems in policymaking in newly politicised areas. The derailing of the “new” foreign policy in the wake of the uprisings in the Middle East, the “Kurdish and Alevi opening” against the background of Roboski massacre, hunger strikes and Reyhanli bombing, rising and sustained forms of violence against women in private and public sphere against the backdrop of government-led politicisation of the issues of adultery and abortion have been some of the most visible outcomes of this process. Whilst the 2001-2005 period had a short-lived “success” in the depoliticisation strategy (for a critical conception of success/failure of depoliticisation, see Kettell, 2008), the 2006-2010 period witnessed relative control over the crisis dynamics in economic management and continued shielding the government. The recent period from 2011-2012 onwards, however, have led to rapid, all-encompassing and simultaneous politicisation not only at governmental level, as already characterized in its expanding authoritarian political discourse and practice, but this time also at societal level since the full responsibility for failures and unpopular policies has inescapably been levied upon the government. This was indeed the broader context within which the “Government resign!” slogan of the June uprising matured[3].

Given the limited scope of the article, it is not possible to evaluate the June 2013 protests in detail here. However a number of preliminary points will be made in relation to the discussion on societal politicisation. A major preoccupation of the scholarship on depoliticisation during the 2000s has been on the broader issue of political apathy and societal disengagement and distrust with representative political systems in formally democratic countries (Boggs, 2000; Hay 2007; Stoker, 2009).In general terms it has been considered as a logical societal precursor/consequence of depoliticisation in policymaking.

A similar observation has often been made in relation to the Turkish polity during the 2000s with the underlying dynamics of political disengagement running even deeper in the country and linked to the short-term but continuous depoliticising attempts through military interventions (Alemdaroglu, 2013; Celik, 2013; Pfannkuch, 2013). Therefore the emergence of new forms of political mobilisation and engagement across the globe in and through the global crisis during the late 2000s and early 2010s presents itself as a puzzle before the scholars. How could societies that are now presumed deeply apathetic toward politics engage in such collective political mobilisation? Are they merely anti-political reactions of a still-apathetic populace or in retrospect were the assumptions of political apathy and disengagement misplaced all along (Alemdaroglu, 2013)? This is certainly one of the key questions with respect to the June uprising in Turkey. A relatively straightforward response is that they have been the outcome of long-standing societal disillusionment with the failures of the representative political system and therefore an anti-political manifestation in so far as they locate themselves outside the existent political domain confined to the government and the parliament, organize and mobilize in non-traditional forms. However it appears more plausible to identify them as emerging forms of societal politicisation in so far as they rapidly and radically politicise the issues which were either never been on the political agenda before or predominantly limited to the horizons of government-led politicisation (in line with Hay’s conception of the term).They  also possess the potential to challenge the boundaries of the political beyond the government and which are drawn by the capitalist state and social relations (in line with Burnham’s critical political economy approach) despite being continuously constrained by the latter and directed towards reactionary forms.

Concluding Remarks

This opinion article has proposed a critical reading of recent changes in Turkish politics drawing on the conceptual framework of (de)politicisation. The post-2001 transformations in Turkey are often described to have depoliticised economic management as well as the polity leading to entrenched apathy within society toward political affairs as well as a sense of powerlessness to influence a decision making mechanism that is now far more distanced from the populace.

This article discussed the inherent complexities of (de)politicisation in such a context, understood more as a process than a specific moment or outcome. Unlike the conventional wisdom in mainstream scholarship which present depoliticised forms of governing as the objectively only viable direction and best practice to overcome the crisis both at national and supra-national levels, the article aimed to challenge their presumed neutrality and argue that politicisation in other areas have had the potential to flourish within the space and opportunities created by the adoption of depoliticisation in economic management. Such an approach is deemed important in order to reveal the conflictual role of the state in the maintenance of capitalist social relations and the constant challenges it encounters in this process.

With particular reference to Turkish politics, it is argued that the post-2001 restructuring of state and social relations cannot be unequivocally characterized with depoliticisation but that the institutionalization of the latter in the key policy area that govern the relationship between capital and labour via the management of money has contributed to the opening up of a new terrain before the Turkish governments to politicise a number of other issues that are at first sight seemingly separate from the economic domain. Such an approach suggests that the now widely acknowledged authoritarian turn in AKP government is in fact not a novel phenomenon but its roots rest in the character of social relations and their very restructuring in the aftermath of the 2000-2001 crisis. An additional implication is that the broadening of the political in this manner has also opened up the possibilities for novel forms of political engagement. These new forms, while not engaged in the traditional political party and parliamentary system, strongly represent a renewed wave of societal politicisation nonetheless. They present the potential to explore alternative progressive forms of organising social relations and re-define the political (i.e. encompassing the governmental, the public and private in Hay’s terminology) beyond its given limited domain under capitalism. Their success will depend on their ability to organise and mobilise around the latter objective and demystify the class character and capital logic behind these governing strategies, that is to give a progressive character and radical, anti-capitalist content to politicisation as opposed to the reactionary and increasingly authoritarian character of its government-led counterpart.

It is difficult to envisage what the future holds for the ongoing shuffling and struggle within the Turkish state amidst evolving expressions of social and political discontent, polarization and deepening authoritarianism in all spheres. However it is plausible to suggest that forms of politicisation at government and societal level (the rapid and continuous centralisation of decision making processes as recently manifested in the legislation on the regulation of the internet, the blocking of the use of social media site Twitter across the country, the murder of 14-year old Berkin Elvan and the immediate expansive societal uproar as well as the controversies surrounding the recently held local elections being the latest of the many ongoing manifestations since the summer of 2013) are likely to persist and evolve amidst the deepening global crisis and its continual impact on the social relations.

Dr. Pınar Dönmez, Visiting Research Fellow, Central European University, Center for Policy Studies, Budapest, Hungary

Please cite this publication as follows:

Dönmez, Pınar (May, 2014), “Making Sense of (Anti) Politics In and Out of Crisis in Turkey: A Critical Intervention”, Vol. III, Issue 5, pp.39-53, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


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[1] This opinion piece is a shortened, adapted excerpt from a working research paper. The author would like to thank the Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) editors and the two anonymous referees for their insightful comments on the previous versions of the article as well as the translator for the translation of the piece into Turkish.

[2] It should be noted that the distinction presented here between “governmental” and “societal” politicisation is not an ontological but an analytical distinction on the basis of the distinct political, economic, ideological and institutional forms that the capitalist social relations take (Clarke, 1991: 38). This conception acknowledges that neither the “government-led”, nor the “societal” forms of appearance of politicisation are monolithic but emerge as terrains of continuous struggle and contestation. For a recent thorough theoretical conceptualization of governmental, societal and discursive (de)politicisation and the utilisation of the politicisation/depoliticisation framework in a variety of contexts and policy areas, see Wood and Flinders, 2014 and Special Issue, Politics & Policy, 2014).

[3] In contrast to the pre-2001 period during which the key politicising dynamics have been more visibly connected to the economic domain, it is striking that the governmental discourse countering the latest societal politicisation has reversely appealed to continuous reminders of the post-2001 “success” achieved in the area of economic management in order to offset the negative consequences of politicisation in other issue areas (“Erdogan Kazlicesme’de milyonlara hitap etti” [Erdogan addressed the millions in Kazlicesme], Haber7, 17 July 2013; “Asil milliyetcilik IMF’ye olan borcu odemektir” [Genuine nationalism is in paying off the debt to the IMF], Sabah, 18 March 2014; “Basbakan Hatay’da konustu” [The prime minister’s speech in Hatay], Sabah, 22 March 2014).


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