Seizure of the Social in Turkey: The AKP’s Totalitarian Project and its Discontents

*Source; Wochit News ©

Seizure of the Social in Turkey:
The AKP’s Totalitarian Project and its Discontents

When President Erdoğan disavowed the decision of the Constitutional Court, the highest legal authority of the country, last week, we came to realize that political power has been concentrated in the hands of an individual who presents himself as the ultimate leader of the nation as well as of society. Erdoğan as the President of the Republic of Turkey holds de facto power that allows him to say he will not obey the Constitutional Court. With this move, he has indeed asserted himself as above the law, as the embodiment of the nation; as the sovereign whose power is impossible to challenge without being targeted as a traitor. With this in mind, revisiting the idea of totalitarianism and its potential emergence in Turkey can help us understand recent developments.

The Logic of Totalitarianism and the Death of the Social

In his 1986 work, The Political Forms of Modern Society, Claude Lefort characterizes the logic of totalitarianism as the total domination of the social that results from the appropriation of state apparatus and the dissolution of the social sphere by political power. In this scheme, society is imagined – or fantasized – as People-as-One; it is homogenized and secured against the potential enemies of the body. In this characterization, social relationships are fused within the state and every interaction among people occurs either through the mediation of or within political power. The state is the sole proprietor of not only the political but of the social, which is represented either by a political party or in the personality of a leader.

As Lefort emphasizes, one of the many peculiarities of totalitarian logic is the relationship between leader/party/state and social body. In this relationship, while the party-state fusion is the embodiment of the social body, it, at the same time, remains above the social whole, ruling and dictating. In this discourse of being the embodiment of the national will as the head of the political/social body, politics is limited to what appears to be compatible with the national will. Since politics is only possible through and for the Will of the Nation, any final word as to the character of the national will belongs to political power.

For Lefort, “the social” is important in two respects: firstly, it is the social sphere where the interaction among different persons occurs; secondly, human rights are anchored not in the individual but in the social. It is the general conception of society, or the polis, where human rights are vindicated as the condition of human co-existence. As human coexistence necessitates interaction and the possibility of mobilization, this very conception of polis is what the logic of totalitarianism negates and attempts to suppress.

Even though, as a Trotskyist, Lefort’s main aim was to give a critical account of the Soviet Union’s politics of human rights, this formulation of totalitarian logic is relevant for an understanding of contemporary Turkish politics. In Turkey, the logic of totalitarianism plays itself out in the personality of President Erdoğan as the ultimate leader not only of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) but also of the nation and the state, which confers vast powers on him – with little or no consequence.

One Nation, One Will

As the AKP has seized the apparatus of state in its 14 years in power, the totalitarian project of the party has come to grasp the social as a homogeneous entity, the People-as-One. Organized around the mythical leadership of President Erdoğan, the logic of totalitarianism in Turkey is evident in the extralegal yet political power that seeks to merge the social body and the state in its entirety. In this merger, the AKP’s discourse emphasizes its primary role as the representative and interpreter of the will of the nation, which is constituted through the identification of its enemies, threats to its best interests or to its existence. President Erdoğan now stands as a politically indisputable and extra-legal force, whose authority is unchallenged.

Due to this seizure of power of political and legal institutions in Turkey, the forms of legitimate political existence are under strict control by the state’s apparatus. This control is rooted and often justified by the notion of preservation and protection of the unity of the nation. Under the guise of security measures, the AKP is relentlessly controlling and if necessary eliminating “illegitimate” segments of the society. A securitizing discourse, meshed with nationalism and Islamic ideology, can be seen as the catalyst of the totalitarian project of the AKP’s engagement with any sort of resistance; identifying each of them as a threat to unity of the nation. As a result, in each case of resistance against the AKP’s invasion, the way in which the ruling party responds changes, yet these responses shape the frameworks of the totalitarian project.

However, the fusion of the party with the social is not complete, and forms of resistance against the AKP’s discourse are evident. In this regard, contemporary Turkish politics can be read in terms of the tension between this totalitarian project and resistance against it.  One of the recent examples of this tension was the encounter between Erdoğan and academics who signed a peace petition alleging that the government’s policies in South Eastern predominantly Kurdish cities, including curfews, amounted to human rights violations.

Both in Turkey and abroad, 1,128 academics signed the initial petition on the 11th of January 2016, under the name of Academics for Peace with the slogan  “We are not going to take part in this crime,” condemning the AKP government’s unruly war and massive civilian casualties under the guise of the War on Terror. Four days after the petition was released, Erdoğan responded to the petition naming the signatories “anti-national academics” and “traitors.” Following Erdoğan’s condemnation, the AKP government promptly responded with numerous acts ranging from open threats to legal proceedings. In many universities, academics who signed the petition have been detained or fired from their jobs, and are now under investigation for propaganda against the state and its organs.

In this witch-hunt, the state-apparatus waged a full-fledged war against its critics, mobilizing all the possible mechanisms such as the media, the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and university administrations. Even mafia leaders who have been known for their close relations with government officials in the recent years mobilized against the academics, threatening them with death.

As the example of Academics for Peace shows, since the boundaries between President Erdoğan, the ruling AKP, and the state are blurred in a drastic way, and anyone who is not aligned with the government is marginalized through the discourse of terror and security.

Turning Oppression into Solidarity

However pessimistic the political landscape of Turkey, the aim of this article is to rethink the meaning of human rights under a totalitarian project. With the release of the Academics for Peace statement, the main aim was to point out state-led human rights violations and mass atrocities in the Kurdish region, where a war has been on-going since July 2015. This petition was not only a call upon the Turkish state to put an end to the crimes inflicted upon civilians in the Kurdish region but also a call for solidarity in the face of the human rights violations. Ironically, this call for peace and solidarity has been reframed as a terrorist act and treated accordingly. This reframing however has led to a greater solidarity both on a national and international level. As a result, the war waged against Kurds has become part of an international conversation concerning the state of human rights in Turkey. Therefore, oppression itself has paved the way for greater solidarity and has attracted greater worldwide attention than the petition – or the war – had done thus far. In such a situation, we believe, it is important to revisit the meaning not only of the status, but also of the “demand”, for human rights in a totalitarian system.

A brief return to Lefort might be of help here. While discussing dissident human rights movements in the Soviet Union, Lefort underlines a peculiar moment: those dissidents are insistent on the fact that their struggle is not a political one. Lefort agrees that these movements have no ambition to take over political power or overthrow the existing system; neither do they criticize the socialist ideology. Yet still, these movements are deeply political in that their demand for human rights is incompatible with the totalitarian regime which dissolves individual as well as human coexistence into the unity of People-as-One.

In this regard, demanding human rights readily locates itself vis-à-vis the totalitarian project.  For that matter, it is a heavily political project. According to Lefort, the struggle for human rights belongs to the realm of the political, the moment it challenges and targets political power. The challenge posed by the human rights struggle results in resistance against the state’s appropriation of the social space in which subjects can interact. In this way while the totalitarian project appears as a force, invading the “empty space” that allows political action for the individual, human rights discourse manifests itself as the protection of this very space against its invasion, resulting in its immediate politicization.

An exemplary form of this resistance against seizure of the social by the political power manifests itself in freedom of expression. For Lefort, freedom of expression goes beyond an individual right; it is the condition for socialization, for hearing different voices; it is the vindication of human coexistence. It should not be construed as a universal human right based on liberal understanding. It is a radical postulate against which the all-encompassing and depoliticizing political will acts upon people’s lives. Once freedom of expression is disqualified, the only voice that can be heard becomes that of the leader who speaks on behalf of the totality of the People-as-One.

Freedom of Speech: an Antidote to Totalitarian Logic

The struggle for freedom of expression in Turkey is one of the many frontiers in the struggle against the totalitarian project of the AKP. What is at the stake is the diminishing of an active social body in which the totalitarian invasion leaves no space for any form of political action. At this very frontier, we believe, the struggle for freedom of speech paves the way for resistance against the constitution of the People-as-One, who can only speak and act through the leader.

However, resistance against a totalitarian project can by no means be narrowed down to only the struggle for freedom of speech. Turkish politics has been marked by numerous forms of resistance, ranging from feminist movements to ecological movements and peace movements. What we attempt to do here is to point out the significance of human rights, and of freedom of speech, in particular. That is to say, even at the moment it denotes itself as a non-political intervention, it asserts itself in opposition to the political power which absorbs society into itself. Having a voice – or fighting for it – is the opening of new spaces for the resistance against the AKP government by depriving it of the chance to speak on behalf of the totality of Turkish society.

In this deprivation, the totalitarian project remains incomplete due to its fundamental necessity to be able to expand itself to every layer of the social body in every possible way. The demand for human rights in Turkey manifests itself as a radical challenge to a totalitarian project in which politics is held hostage by the AKP’s discourse of national will. This challenge is directed by the demand for freedom of speech against the total appropriation of the political action and socialization of people. As long as this demand continues, the possibility of political action is alive.

Eda Sevinin & Uygar Altınok

Sevinin Eda & Altınok Uygar,  “Seizure of the Social in Turkey: The AKP’s Totalitarian Project and its Discontents”, Independent Turkey, 7 March 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link:



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