Turkey in Crisis: Capitalism, Nationalism, and War
August 24, 2022
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the perception of Turkey as a powerful international player is on the rise. After all, it has served as a key intermediary between Russia and Ukraine over Black Sea trade and has been vocal in its demands for concessions in discussions over the expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland. This perception is reinforced by the fact that the country possesses a large military and occupies a strategic location. Hence, while many in the West, most especially in Europe, regard Turkey at times as “difficult”, it is ultimately viewed as an indispensable ally. Thus, whatever misgivings policymakers in Washington, London, Paris, or Berlin might have, there is a general understanding that Turkey’s “concerns” must be understood and to a certain degree placated in order to ensure that it stays within the Western fold.
Significantly, this perception of Turkey as a powerful state, particularly in military terms, is shared by many of those both within and outside Turkey who are critical of the country’s prevailing order. Many Turkish leftists, Kurdish radicals, and progressive liberals echo these sentiments and form their criticisms on the assumption that the point about Turkey´s military strength is accurate. In doing so, they internalize and, more importantly, reproduce the power logic that NATO and the Turkish ruling class deploy discursively to maintain a hold of how this entire discussion is framed. This serves to engender a significant degree of dejection, pessimism, and hopelessness, fueling the idea that resistance to the Turkish state is futile.
But how powerful and how strategically important is Turkey really? If there is one thing that has become abundantly clear with the Ukraine crisis, it is that the concept of security touted by NATO is anchored in a rather ossified notion of what constitutes strength, specifically an idea of strength skewed in the direction of regarding quantities of troops and equipment as the most important aspects of military power. The case of Turkey, however, shows that simply having a large military does not necessarily translate to efficiency or strategic preeminence.
And ultimately, the willingness of NATO to buy into the posturing of Turkey so easily on the international scene indicates, at best, a failure to understand the internal dynamics of the country or at worst a cynical weaponization of Turkey´s security politics aimed at safeguarding NATO´s sphere of influence. Of course, it could be a combination of both, but for leftists and other forces resisting the Turkish state, it is paramount to grasp the interlocking dynamics that buttress Turkey´s posture and military endeavors. Turkey´s security posture is a complicated story about nation-building, the territorialization and re-territorialization of the Turkish political project, and, of course, capital.
Nationalism and Capitalism
Ever since the creation of the Turkish Republic, nationalism has functioned as the main ideological force to promote cross-class solidarity and loyalty to the state. As the founding of the Republic occurred following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the social structures of the late imperial era had to become “nationalized” so that people and territory would converge in one unified whole. However, given the ethnic and religious diversity of the masses, as well as the underdevelopment of both the economy and civil society, the Turkish state was heavily reliant on coercive organizational power, such as the military, to ensure that the vision of absolute popular and territorial unity was undisturbed. This imperative to impose unity has consequently served to justify all the atrocities committed by the Turkish state throughout its history.
A vital condition for grounding Turkish nationalism in a material context that could support the state in a palpable and real way, was a strong economy, one that could deliver development across sectors and geographies. Early in the Republic’s history, this involved flirtations with central planning, state capitalism, and autarky. However, beginning in the second half of the 20th century (and more so in the early 21st century), “development” has increasingly meant acquiring large amounts of foreign debt and undergoing periods of significant currency depreciation. This shift was justified by the belief that the Turkish economy could simply outgrow its debt by embracing major developmentalist policies, including large-scale infrastructure projects.
While this certainly has grown Turkey´s economy over the years, including in the industrial sector, the accumulated capital has become increasingly de-territorialized as it was entangled with foreign capital and institutions. This has left Turkish capitalism more and more vulnerable to the volatility of the global economy. Yet, despite this vulnerability, neoliberalism has come to dominate the thinking of the Turkish ruling class. This explains why, despite the often-xenophobic posture of Turkish nationalism, so many companies and industries are being sold off to foreign speculators. And concomitant with this has been the transformation of the Turkish state from a closed, anti-democratic bureaucracy underpinned by the prudence and force of the military to a mob-like structure where personal gain and quick money dominate the policies espoused.
Turkey’s dependence on global financial markets has reached a level of primacy that has halted the relative growth of its domestic economy, thereby placing Turkish capitalism in a position that necessitates a search for new resources and opportunities. This in turn has shaped a re-territorialization of an imagined Turkishness spatially beyond the boundaries of the Republic. This perhaps helps explain why the neo-Ottoman vision and the Turanist/pan-Turkic vision that have up until now been at odds with one another have now converged into a single vision of Turkish re-imperialization. The older Kemalist territorial “civic nationalism” that largely rejected irridentism has now run its course as Turkish capitalism is forced towards expanding outwards again, not because of strength, but because of crisis. Thus, the cautiousness of earlier eras has been displaced by the idea that Turkey must be projected outwards, both through soft power and military might. Inevitably, this re-territorialization must go through all parts of Kurdistan.
A Road Through Kurdistan
Kurdistan, both as an idea and as a physical manifestation of nationhood that is distinct from Turkishness, has been both an obstacle and a reaction to the process of Turkish nation-building. At the same time, given the fact that geographically Kurdistan extends beyond the boundaries of the Turkish polity, encompassing regions within Iraq, Syria, and Iran, it also lies at the crossroads of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. In this sense, it has been situated in such a way as to incur the wrath of the “righteous” Turkish people. This, in part, explains the seeming intractability of the “Kurdish question”; one which has drained the Turkish state of resources, in particular military resources, since the very foundation of the country. In short, Kurdistan and the persistence of Kurdish military resistance to the Turkish state is the manifestation of the failures of Turkish nation-building, a persistent reminder of the weakness of the entire project. Yet, ironically, the impulse to use military power to eliminate the Kurdish threat only serves to further accentuate this weakness and polarize Kurds and Turks.
The militarism of the Turkish state is rooted in the historical underdevelopment of Turkish capitalism, liberal democracy, and civil society. Due to these deficits, the military has served as an outsized factor in the process of national integration and has thus become as much of a cultural entity as a material enforcer of state policy. The Turkish ruling class needs to project a sense of power, even if structural problems in its economy remain and social issues endure unresolved. In recent years, this has captured the country in a logic where military expenditures increase but not military efficiency, thus driving up the costs of military operations which in turn leaves Turkey more reliant on foreign capital – especially from Qatar – and consequently fortifying the neoliberal logic pervading Turkish politics.
Thus, in terms of the Kurdish question, we are left with a destructive and self-defeating cycle. The military suppression of the Kurdish question is driven by a fear that any concession to the Kurdish struggle would signal the annihilation of the Turkish nation-building process and lead to the territorial dissolution of state and society. Yet, the material requirements of the military solution to the Kurdish “threat” (which spreads beyond Turkey’s borders into Iraq and Syria) force an embrace of neoliberalism bounded by an ungrounded nationalism to such a degree that the Turkish state itself undoes its societal seams. Neoliberalism breeds militarism and expansionism, ultimately undermining the material base upon which the viability of the political and ideological superstructure of the Turkish state rests.
How Powerful is the Turkish Military?
In recent years, the Turkish state has invested heavily in acquiring not only state-of-the-art war technology but also developing its own domestic military-industrial complex. The thinking is that through the acquisition of more war materials, the Turkish state can force military solutions to its problems. Yet, Turkey still lacks the intellectual and industrial base to maintain an independent military capacity and is still reliant on foreign support. Moreover, Turkey has neglected the organizational aspects of its conscript armed forces, which have suffered greatly for a long time.
The military also faces ideological issues. The very one-dimensional character of Turkish nationalism - strongly intolerant and based on the simplistic negation of identitarian difference - means that it is difficult to inculcate in their troops the level of will and determination to fight an enemy that is willing to resist, such as the guerrillas in the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed group which has bedeviled the Turkish state since 1984. When the Turkish military has had success, it has often been the result of an unwillingness of relevant actors (such as tribal groups or other Kurdish political parties) to constrain or actively counter Turkey than it has been about the skill of the Turkish armed forces.
In other words, the Turkish armed forces, while being able to marshal significant destructive power, is not as effective as they might first appear. This is evidenced by its current and ongoing invasion of the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan (northern Iraq) directed against the PKK. Despite a large-scale operation launched on April 14 with the not-so-secret blessing of the Iraqi Kurdistan government in Hewlêr (Erbil), these operations have not provided a definitive victory. The PKK resists, understanding the existential nature of this war for Kurdistan, and Turkey is at an impasse, proving the viability of resistance. Having had their goals frustrated by the PKK, Turkey now turns to Rojava (Kurdish-run Syria) – again – escalating attacks and seeming to prepare for a new major invasion, deflecting attention at home away from the reality of the anti-PKK campaign.
Stuck as it is Turkey resorts to ever more destructive weaponry in order to overcome the guerrilla resistance. Chemical warfare has become a hallmark of Turkey´s current war, indicating a total disregard for international law and proving the difficulties Turkey faces in achieving desired results in the form of realizing the so-called Sri Lanka model in Kurdistan. Using chemical weapons, white phosphorus, and other substances that severely damage and kill life and nature adds another dimension of cruelty, but also a sense of desperation. Make no mistake, this kind of warfare does not signify strength, quite the opposite; the Turkish military can destroy and inflict much suffering and pain, but it cannot establish foundations for long-term success.
It is instructive to compare Turkey to Greece when illustrating the ineptitude of the Turkish military. Unlike Turkey, Greece does not have a big army in absolute measures and has fewer armored vehicles, tanks, and other such hardware. Greece has, however, focused on developing and achieving excellence in one category that they deem more important than all others, airpower. Today, having high competence in aerial operations is strategically sounder than simply pouring resources into ground forces as Turkey has. Having many troops was a major advantage in the past, but it simply is not as important anymore. In other words, Greece is strong where it matters most to be strong. Of course, this is not because of any innate Greek superiority or tactical brilliance, but rather because the Greek state is not so dependent on its armed forces to maintain its internal cohesion. In Turkey, the army is needed to delineate the social imaginary of the Turkish republican and now neo-imperial ideal, a kind of sociological necessity for Turkish nation-building. The Turkish army is the embodiment of the Turkish civic nation – derived, constituted, and executed –from coercive force. The left must understand these realities if incisive criticisms of a complex field such as military affairs are to be expressed in a cogent way.
Economic Crisis and Neo-Imperial Adventures
As the Turkish economy falters, with rampant inflation and a high unemployment rate, more and more people are having abject poverty visited upon them, unable to afford food, fertilizer and many other crucial items once produced domestically but now imported from abroad. Precarity has become the core structure of the Turkish economy as the cross-class solidarity, which is needed to preserve social cohesion, degenerates, demonstrating the vapidity of nationalist rhetoric proclaiming the unity of the Turkish people in a time of crisis and exposing the class order of society. Turkey’s ruling class, of course, is not blind to such developments. In order to pacify the growing numbers of unemployed and discontented and forestall class-based solidarity through labor, scores are enticed to enroll in the army as contractors which the state can deploy on a more unofficial basis, making it easier to deny the inefficient structures within the army and obfuscate its losses. This, in turn, is framed by a more bellicose imperialized nationalism whereby the struggle for Turkishness must be secured proactively by waging war abroad.
Channeling the labor precarity of Turkey into a bellicose foreign policy serves to impede the emergence of labor-based resistance in Turkey while simultaneously reterritorializing Turkish capital by reterritorializing its empire. Foreign interventions and outright occupations present opportunities for Turkish capital. Yet, Turkish military power becomes increasingly disorganized, the rank and file made up of jihadist mercenaries (often imported from Syria) and poor Turks whose only actual reason to fight is that their family will receive some sort of allowance if they die. The military is well-armed, no doubt, but is not ideologically grounded in a material base that can sustain the degree of will that is needed to achieve Turkey´s imperial ambitions. Where there is actual resistance, Turkey cannot proceed, perhaps winning battles but losing the long-term war, or peace, depending on your perspective.
But for the elites running Turkey, peace is unthinkable. It would mean the clearing of the mind and the potential roar of labor, so the wars must continue, and the Turkish people must stay passive through political repression, drugs (which are currently flooding Turkey), and foreign interventions. The Turkish ruling class knows that social misery and labor precarity may beget organized resistance, so it must anchor the frustrations and pain of the people in a material context outside of their own, namely in foreign lands, to obscure other more humane possibilities. Projecting the struggle outwards renders this struggle controllable and imprisons the masses in a biopolitical trajectory of tending to their individual needs while also servicing a complex collective whose emancipatory potential the state must always quell.
Heading towards economic collapse, Turkey desperately tries to maintain industrial, but more importantly, social resilience. Yet, a power logic that envelops Turkey in things it cannot control in the long run, leaves the country in a state of slow but steady social dissolution. Despite flirtations with “anti-imperialist” phraseology and appeals to “Turkish greatness”, Turkey’s ruling class knows that the country’s strategic significance today stems from its utility to the Western Bloc. The West can further its geopolitical ambitions by allowing Turkey to intervene in Iraq and Syria, while in turn enforcing material submission in the shape of capital integration. Turkey may not always act in precisely the way the West desires; it is a blunt instrument, yes, but overall, it is more a help than a hindrance.
For instance, it could be argued that the massive intensification of Turkey’s war on the PKK guerrillas in the mountains of Kurdish Iraq is linked to a desire to transport natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan via Turkey to Europe to protect Europe´s economic interests, an even bigger priority now given the Ukraine crisis. The PKK stands in the way of this hence it must be eradicated, a task which Turkey is already ideologically and materially predisposed towards. Turkey is by no means the strong party – it is the vulnerable and exploitable party in relation to the West due to its fundamental economic and political underdevelopment. And as Turkey´s domestic economic and social turmoil fester further, this weakness is clearly exposed, pegging Turkey ever closer to the path of implosion.
Dangerous times loom in Turkey and the Middle East. A fascist locomotive will ultimately always crash – the question is just how many people die and suffer as it derails. The picture depicted in this article is certainly not exhaustive, but it captures some of the most salient dynamics in play. While many Turkish and Kurdish leftists might be tempted to view the growing destructive capability of the Turkish military and the state’s willingness to deploy that capability on more and more fronts as a sign of its unbridled strength, the reverse is true. An understanding that these realities are a sign of not only the state’s weakness but the profound contradictions within Turkish society is a prerequisite to any clear-minded analysis or action.