Soon after Donald Trump was elected U.S. President in 2016, there was a strange sentiment amongst my friends in Turkey. Not “joy” but something akin to a sense of relief or maybe schadenfreude. The so-called greatest nation on earth, which for some time had been “guiding” Third World citizens through the path of modernity, now had to deal with some of the problems that we, as citizens of Turkey and the broader Global South, had been facing for some time. In fact, for a few days, Turkish media’s obsession with Trump worked for me and my friends. While recognizing the hardships awaiting our friends in the U.S., we were momentarily relieved from Turkey’s own suffocating national agenda.
Liberals in the U.S. were — and some still are — shocked. The election of Trump devastated the liberals’ American dream. Trump’s grotesque political style revealed that the U.S. wasn’t as awe-inspiring as the liberals imagined it to be. And yet, hadn’t they just elected the nation’s first black President? How had the country deviated from liberal politics to such vulgarity?
Was this a deviation though? Rather than seeing him as the choice of angry voters victimized by conservative media or social media algorithms, critical scholars attentive to history, political economy, and race saw Trump as the outcome of institutional racism, sexism and rampant neoliberalism. Perhaps, it was time to start addressing structural issues, which were not simply the products of bad Republican policies. After all, as Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla have argued the liberal tendency to exceptionalize Trump “delinks present-day racism from colonial histories of power, disavows US settler colonialism, and silences critiques of global coloniality.” This tendency to see Trump as an aberration imagines an exceptional pre-Trump America whose institutions worked just fine.
I was particularly interested in Trump’s election because when I was a Ph.D. student in the U.S., I found it odd and somewhat politically disturbing that many of my liberal friends and colleagues consumed news primarily through The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In fact, I was half jokingly warning my colleagues against the possible advent of fascism, which, I argued, might very well come through laughter and satire. Using fascism and the U.S. in the same sentence sounded like a joke, an unlikely political scenario at best. After all, The Daily Show was a smart and affective means of satire, helping the U.S. liberals endure conservative politics. Now, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are providing the affective release against the Trump apocalypse, which some have defined as neo-fascism.
Turkey’s citizens have too endorsed satire to deal with political despair for some time now. A relatively recent joke highlighted how the U.S became a “Big Turkey” in contrast to Turkey’s longstanding aspirations to transform itself into a “Little America.” Another joke capitalized on Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again.” The joke on Turkish Twitter went: “Make Turkey Eh Iste (So So/OK) Again!” The implication was that even though Turkey has never been great, it was still OK or good enough in its pre-authoritarian years. Undoubtedly, both “Make America Great Again” and “Make Turkey Eh Iste (So So/OK) Again” are racialized and gendered discourses. For certain populations, neither of the countries was great or even “OK.”
The most recent “OK” years for Turkey’s liberals would be the early 2000s, the honeymoon period between the governing Justice and Development Party (JDP) and Turkey’s liberals, pro-European Union capital, the EU and liberal circles in the West. For various reasons, JDP’s supporters in this period reaped the benefits of Turkey’s march towards a liberal economy. Turkey was finally becoming the mature and country that the EU desired. The bridge between the East and the West could potentially bring peace to the Middle East. Turkey, the liberals hoped, would exemplify the co-existence of Islam and democracy. Political Islamists would at last bring the marginalized communities to the center and integrate them into urban, liberal public life. In sum, Turkey was the source of hope for a diverse set of political projects.
The reality, however, was nothing but a big blow to such liberal dreams. As of today, the economy is in deep trouble. Wage laborers hardly get by. The Peace Process regarding the Kurdish issue is off the table. Academics who have signed a peace petition have been purged. Wikipedia is censored. Mainstream media is dead. As if these were not enough, RTUK (Radio and Television Supreme Council) will now inspect online broadcasts, including news websites circulating news from abroad. Internet-based foreign businesses will have to pay taxes in Turkey. Hypothetically, Netflix or a news organization such as Deutsche Welle can be banned in Turkey.
In this essay, I will make a case for thinking about the relationship between the state and the media in historical and political economic terms. Centering this relationship in discussions of media and populism can be an antidote against the liberal bewilderment regarding Turkey’s “deviation” from liberal democracy. This analysis would also help us understand the recent developments in Europe and North America, the “cradles” of liberal democracy.
Turkey’s Drift to Authoritarianism: A Deviation?
Turkey’s experiment with neoliberalism is almost forty years old now. Similar to what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine,” the country’s economy has been radically deregulated since the 1980 coup d’état. Public resources including education, health care, and housing are now widely open to market forces.
The country’s state-controlled media has not been an exception. 1990s witnessed the emergence of commercial television and radio channels through much contested and ad hoc regulations. While the citizen-consumers enjoyed the spectacle on TV screens, the political elite was busy making alliances with media owners in order to consolidate their power. Still Turkey’s post-Cold War liberals were happy. Commercial media meant democracy. Period. Alternative voices would proliferate thanks to a deregulated media environment. Citizens would have more options to choose from in terms of both consumption and news access. Thanks to a privatized media system, good days were to come.
Yet, liberal dreams can become nightmares. As Bilge Yesil (2016) illustrates in her excellent work on Turkish media, deregulation does not and did not automatically lead to pluralism. In fact, Yesil argues, JDP’s authoritarian crack down on the media system has been in the making since the 1980s. The military’s pressure on the unions, business elites’ entry into journalism, an illegal deregulation of broadcasting, and the emergence of sensationalist journalism have been the historical cornerstones in the making of contemporary right-wing populism in Turkey. In particular, the dissolution of the state- owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT in Turkish) and the advent of commercial media took place under such an arbitrary legal infrastructure that ultimately the sole beneficiaries of this transformation were political economic actors that were close to the government. In this regard, the initial phases of neoliberal media deregulation in Turkey are essential to understand how the JDP’s authoritarian turn is not necessarily a deviation from a well-functioning system. Rather, authoritarianism is the governing principle in Turkish state’s longstanding practices of interventions in the media system and its ad hoc regulatory actions.
Dreaming about a liberal media system and democracy but waking up to authoritarian nightmares should at least now guard us against assuming a direct link between liberal democracy and freedom. We might as well turn to critical theorist Walter Benjamin, who in his well-known Theses on the Philosophy of History alerts us towards progressive conceptions of history and political projects that desire to restore the liberal state whenever it deviates from its “progressive essence.” In the 8th thesis, Benjamin writes: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” And he adds: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.”
This is such a powerful warning for us to critically think about media and populism. On one hand, as critical scholars we need to stop being amazed at the actions and capabilities of right-wing governments just because they operate within the “boundaries” of law. Nothing that we are witnessing is outside the boundaries of the law. And yet, Turkey’s liberals have always been puzzled by the governmental takeover of mainstream media and the absolute lack of tolerance towards the slightest criticism and asked in disbelief: Journalists are being fired/arrested/ jailed? Websites are shut down? How can it be possible to restore the good old days from the 2000s?
This continuous liberal bewilderment highlights the urgent need to understand JDP’s authoritarian turn in terms of state-capital relations, inter-capital interest conflicts, as well as the power struggles and strategies of journalists and media professionals as active subjects within the media ecology.
To illustrate how media authoritarianism is entrenched within political economy and capital-state relations, let me give a specific example here. Earlier, I mentioned that mainstream media is dead in Turkey. The death of mainstream media refers specifically to the moment when Dogan Media Group (Turkey’s erstwhile largest media company that has politically positioned itself in the center but always sided with the state) sold its assets to pro-government Demiroren Media in 2018. The ruling JDP has always been displeased with Dogan Media since it came to power in 2002. On the one hand, following the populist repertoire, it consistently framed Dogan Media as part of the corrupt cultural elite that was against the power of “the people.” On the other hand, Dogan Media’s criticism of the government has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, the JDP government issued a fine of 2.5 billion USD to Dogan Media. In the aftermath of this economic pressure, Dogan Media closed various newspapers, fired critical columnists and finally sold almost all its media assets shortly prior to the Presidential elections in June 2018.
This was a contentious moment for a few reasons. First, although Mr. Aydin Dogan — the founder of Dogan Media — mentioned that he voluntarily sold the company, many claimed that he was simply forced to sell due to government pressure. In fact, some found the sale price of the assets to be quite low which brings to mind dispossession rather than a commercial transaction. That is, the state coercion was at the center of this acquisition. Second, the new owner Demiroren Media Group had acquired Dogan Media through loans from government banks. This also raises questions with respect to how liberal the journalism “market” functioned. Third, this acquisition sparked debates about the nature of “mainstream” media.
Some, especially those journalists who previously worked for Mr. Dogan or other mainstream news outlets, lamented the sale of Dogan Media. For them, it was the end of an era. One could no longer speak of free press in Turkey. Some pro-government columnists celebrated this event mainly because Dogan Media had to pay the price for being against “the people.” Some others highlighted the fault lines in Dogan Media’s history, during which the group consistently negotiated with whatever government was in power at the expense of freedom of speech. After all, Mr. Dogan was the central figure in union busting in Turkish journalism. He was not even coming from a journalism background. At the end of the day, Dogan Group was involved in oil, tourism, and construction businesses until it had to downsize due to government pressure.
Another point concerning the journalists who had worked at Dogan Media or other mainstream news outlets is in order here. They were upset because mainstream media was dead. They were also shocked that the government went after a highly compliant and financially underperforming Dogan Media. Although the survival of mainstream media would probably be a good thing for contemporary Turkey, wishing for this should not terminate the need for historical thinking and reflexivity. Specifically, these journalists and media professionals who enjoyed the peak moments of media liberalization with their lucrative salaries, private chauffeurs, subsidized international travels, and hang-outs with the political elites and their own bosses may want to stop for a moment of self-criticism, because the media system before the JDP years was “OK” only for them as the cultural elite. The golden era that they long for — either in Turkey or the U.S. — was not quite like what we imagine it to be. It might indeed have been better for some, but the 1990s media system in Turkey was mostly a nightmare for women, Kurds, and religious minorities. These former media elites might have saved the day back then but this is no longer an option in the war-torn zone of Turkish media where survival is not even guaranteed to those who fully comply with the demands of the government.
This is why Walter Benjamin’s thinking is useful since it de-exceptionalizes the current state of emergency in the Turkish media ecology. Rather than approaching the death of mainstream media as a radical rupture or deviation, we might do better to see it as the logical outcome of years of neoliberal deregulation, sensational journalism, anti-unionism, a consistent weakening of investigative journalism at the expense of star figures on national TV or high-circulation newspapers, clientelist relations between the state and the economic elite, media moguls and columnists.
Therefore, Turkey’s authoritarian media turn was not simply a top-down process. It has been rather embedded within the political economy of liberal markets and liberalism as a political philosophy, which sacralizes private property and accumulation of wealth through the force of both law and violence. Then, media authoritarianism is to be seen as a logical outcome of neoliberal state formation as opposed to some linear logic of causality between liberal markets and democracy.
Right-wing populism has become a problem only when the liberals of the U.S. or the U.K, suffered from it. Accordingly, the Turkish case along with other cases from the Global South such as India, should be a warning against Euro-centric approaches that assume a direct relationship between liberal media and democracy. Research on media and populism should not shy away from considering the relationship between the state and capital. Addressing this relationship is important. Intellectually, it helps us to go beyond the West. Examining state-capital relations matters because we are better able to understand how national capital collaborates with other governments or international capital at the expense of public good. This perspective can be an antidote to seeing right-wing bigotry as either an individual or a Third World problem as opposed to grasping it as some kind of political venom that is intrinsic to liberal politics. This could be a modest but politically important stepping-stone in establishing a framework for international solidarity in struggling with right-wing ideologies and practices.
Ergin Bulut teaches in Koç University’s Media and Visual Arts Department. His book, A Precarious Game: The Illusion of Dream Jobs in the Video Game Industry,is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. Twitter: @ergincloud