This is an illuminating and fun conversation with award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator Ece Temelkuran about the slide into a more authoritarian world. What’s driving this? Has the pandemic made it worse? And what’s it got to do with inequality? Ece is the author of “How to Lose A Country”, winner of the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book award for her novel Women Who Blow on Knots, and twice recognized as Turkey’s most-read political columnist.
After some light banter and pleasantries, Nabil kicks off the interview. He asks Ece if she’s got any hope that the Corona Virus could serve as a wake-up call to build more democratic societies. Ece says, “Hope is too fragile a word for our times now and for the current political situation. So, I’d rather go with the word “determination”. So, rather than having shallow hope, I think (we should) try to be more determined and more committed and we should believe in humankind so that we can get over this. … The time is not very good for people like me, but (it’s) the best time for authoritarian leaders because they can legitimize the oppressive measures by saying that they are related to our health. … (It’s) really interesting because the rules are constantly changing.”
Ece has talked about the drift to authoritarianism and populism and the relation to inequality. While confessing his dislike for the word “populism”, Max asks Ece what she thinks of the connection between neoliberalism and authoritarianism. Agreeing with Max, she says, “Before getting to that; yes, you are right for not liking the word “populism”, because it’s such a domesticated and … ambivalent word. Maybe it is time we call it fascism now. …The oppression has developed enough; matured enough, that we can now call it fascism. It’s a new kind of message fascism. It doesn’t come in uniform and it doesn’t march in duck (goose) steps like soldier steps. It has a certain swagger to it, but then it is fascism. This is why I wrote ‘How to Lose a Country’… To show people that right-wing populism, authoritarianism, fascism, whatever we call it, this new political insanity, is not a natural disaster that all of a sudden hit our planet. … Neoliberalism in its very essence brings fascism. …we have been treating capitalism, this regime of greed and mercilessness, as a natural phenomenon, as if it’s embedded in our heads. …democracy became a shallow thing which is limited to going to ballot boxes every 4, 5 or years…, casting your vote and then that’s it. You don’t have to do anything (else). Then politics became perceived as a dirty thing that we don’t have to deal with anymore. There are technocrats, politicians doing it for us in Parliament, or in institutions. So, we don’t have to think about this bloody, tiring nonsense thing that we call politics.
So, is there a relation between the massive concentration of wealth we have seen and the rise in authoritarianism? According to Ece, “Absolutely! The word ‘democracy’ does not mean much to the people who are starving because they now know that as long as democracy is constrained by the contract of capitalism, the promises of equality, social justice and better living conditions is false. … democracy does not mean anything to them unless democracy provides them with basic humane living conditions. …if there is no social justice, there is no democracy. … Otherwise, democracy without social justice is just a theatrical act that is going on in the higher echelons of politics.
Nabil digs deeper asking if there is such a thing as good populism. Isn’t it a good thing when people are angry and organizing? Ece responds, “It depends on how you define populism. I define populism as steering the emotions of the masses to manipulate them into a political choice that is against their benefit and against the benefit of humankind.”
What about left-wing populism? Ece vehemently responds, “Why would we need left-wing populism?! … I think this is about how much you have faith in humankind. … Inequality affects us all. It is unsustainable; it is against morals and it is against the basic human values. That’s it. So, we don’t have to deceive people into believing this… (Populism) is organizing and mobilizing ignorance against the better possibilities for humans. So, there is the aspect of ignorance in populism as well. If there is no ignorance, either imposed or natural, populism cannot operate.”
The media can be said/seen to fuel that ignorance. Max asks Ece to elaborate her distinction between being neutral and being objective. She explains, “Journalists were made to feel “neutral” to prove their objectivity. (This) is a very dangerous thing because if you’re neutral in a society where there is inequality, you are automatically on the side of the powerful. … So, actually by being so-called “objective”, whereas actually neutral, the media has been operating on the side of the privileged since 1970s … and actually media was supposed to be the voice of (the) alternative because by nature, media is opposition force. It has to be.
Nabil then asks Ece whether her message is being received across the world, especially in ‘democratic countries’. With a hint of emotion, she says, “Oh my God, you hit my soft spot. … First, because I am a woman, I have to go through the test: Am I good enough to write the book and so on. … but then, there comes an almost reflex reaction to ‘No, it cannot happen here. You’re coming from Turkey. Talk about Turkey because it’s a crazy country. Those things can happen there, but we are United Kingdom; we are United States of America.’ There’s a bit of fear there because they know that something is wrong, but they do not want to admit that they can be as “low” as Turkey. So, there is this strong reaction, especially coming from white men which is not interesting but expected; but still strange.”
Max recalls something in her book, where she says, ‘It’s the white men that for decades have had a monopoly on lying’. Ece explains, “They (white men) had the power of the word. Everything was Euro-centrist. Europe was supposed to be the safe haven of democracy and it is of course not easy for them to see that democracy can be damaged in the cradle of democracy. So, I understand their fear and anxiety, but I come bearing gifts. … I’m telling you; this is happening now to you. It happened to us 15 years ago. This was the Step 1, 2… We are now on the 7th Step, but you can stop this current, but being angry, expressing anger or making fun of the situation or of these right-wing populist leaders is not political action. It is the illusion of political action and you think that you can just distance yourself from what’s coming towards you by making fun of it or not taking it seriously or being angry about it, but it won’t help you. Just be serious about this and listen to what I’m saying. I’m not expecting anything, but I do believe that fascism cannot be beaten in one country only. And btw, if all these populist leaders in the world are constantly paying public respect to each other on public stage… (saying) openly that they are supporting each other, why don’t we do the same? …”
Max refers to yet another quote in the book (I think it’s safe to assume he enjoyed the read!) where she says, ‘What will I tell my grandchildren? That I tweeted as much as I could?’ he reflects upon his own social media use and wonders what her message to people who want to stand up and do something about it is. She answers, “…The book was published only one year ago but … things are happening really fast. The history has accelerated so there are really good things happening in this world e.g. Black Lives Matter… but what I am seeing right now in terms of global politics, might be changing our lives dramatically in the coming decades. I see the new dynamic of politics will be built upon the tension between the local politics and central politics. … Local … governments are hearing the voices of progressive movements more and more. … So, the centre might not hold, but the periphery seems like it is going to hold and in the coming decade, I think we will be talking about how to organize around the local government. …”
You will want to listen to this fun and insightful episode .yourself. It is the latest part of the EQUALS #InequalityVirus mini-series. Do subscribe and share with family and friends. We would love to hear from you, so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org And follow us @EQUALSHope. on Twitter.