Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Power Checking Power

BBC News - Turkey issues arrest warrants for seven top officers

A Turkish court has ordered the arrests of seven generals and admirals accused of trying to undermine the government....

Dozens of other senior officers are in detention over a separate investigation into an alleged plot to provoke a coup.

Four top military commanders, including the Chief of the General Staff Gen Isik Kosaner, resigned 10 days ago in protest at the jailing of officers as part of the investigation into "Operation Sledgehammer".

The conspiracy is alleged to have been drawn up in 2003 at the Istanbul base of the First Army, shortly after the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party - which has Islamist roots - came to power....

In the past, the army has regarded itself as the guardian of the secular Turkish state. It has overthrown or forced the resignation of four governments since 1960 - the last time in 1997.

I started writing about Turkish history, about the deep state and the CIA training of rightwing death squads, stay-behind paramilitaries, and domestic spy networks. I started writing about what I saw in Turkey a little while ago, as investigations of military and police corruption were under way. In my original post, I rehashed a lot of things I wrote when I was getting my often-delayed undergraduate degree, going to school by night and watching my son by day. It was then that I said that honest-to-goodness, not-merely-rhetorical-or-bombastic fascism was present in Turkey, present in uniformed and irregular bands of assassins and thugs supporting an industrial, nationalist, statist ideology and program. It is why Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was jailed, harassed, and murdered. And it is what appears to be on trial, bit by bit.

But that's not a post. That's a fucking book, and it will be written by Turkish citizens, though with great difficulty and, I fear, at a terrible cost.

Instead I will go to the generalities, not for avoidance, but to glean from obscure Turkish politics some truth for myself and maybe some meaning for you, my few but increasing readers.

First, it is important to think about what a military coup means. It is violent, it is coercive, it is unpopular in the sense that it is not motivated by the people but by an organization with its own goals and interests (as opposed to whether or not people support it or obey it), all of this is true, but it is also, almost always, extrajudicial. Coups are illegal. They counter the state, move from within it to above it and then replace it. The latter we usually emphasize but the interesting thing that this illustrates, for me, is the illusory nature of power. I define "State" very loosely. Whether it is the Soviet or the Russian or the American or the French, whether it is the British East India Company or the Raj or the British Empire, it is the State. If some other force were to become greater, then it would become the State as well.

Some argue against this, saying that the State is a matter of essence rather than position, that a State that is truly democratic or truly communistic would be no State, that businesses could never be states because they are not coercive or something, blah blah blah...

And some tacitly accept the contention of powers to further enrich and justify their side. In the United States we see corporations and political groups each claiming to serve liberation from each other or from other putative forces. In England and Great Britain (and most of Europe in general), the nobles contended with the crown, and these nobles inspired most of the oligarchs who succeeded in American secession from Britain.

In the Turkish context from the 1300s the conflict has taken place between military forces and the central ruler, whether he was Sultan or President or, now, Prime Minister. Mehmed created the Janissary corps to counter the Turkish aristocracy, Janissaries deposed sultans to increase their power, and in the 1800s the so-called "Fortunate Incident" saw the Ottoman Sultan side with those long-denied aristocratic military forces to hunt down, disband, and in some cases exterminate the venerable and ruthless Janissary bands. A modern, national, and Western-style military was formed. Students of Japanese history may read this as an anticipation of what would befall the samurai.

In any case, this has continued, with that new, Western-style military claiming itself, in the person of Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), as the savior of the nation in opposition to the Ottoman state. They continued to claim the right until very recently, and now it appears that this is coming to an end.

It is hard not to cheer. The military committed many, many crimes, against Turkish leftists, against Islamists, ethnic minorities, journalists, to name but a few, and it is not mere rhetoric to discuss a profound conspiracy the likes of which one would expect in a novel. And yet justice is not merely about who deserves what but about how it is imposed and by whom. Justice and Development, or the AKP, has done a lot for the conservative, religious bourgeoisie of Turkey, and with it has come the usual costs of "competitiveness" and "efficiency." Monopolies, themselves a statist relic, have been challenged and threatened with closure, their employees no longer useful enough to deserve security in the new, confident, and increasingly capitalist Turkey. And religious conservatism seems the same all over; Erdogan has brought with him a creeping religiosity, not that of the mullahs but more familiar to Americans living post-Christian-Coalition. On the Kurds, Erdogan has been mixed. There have been legal reforms, but challenging of Kurdish parties, shooting and jailing of protesters. On the subject of protests in general, Erdogan has displayed a hypocrisy common to rulers the world over, speaking positively of protests that challenge other states while beating into submission those who challenge his own. That his government has shifted in regards to the Palestinian question is probably more pragmatic than idealistic. In any case, I think I've made my point.

Those of us who find ourselves in the puzzle of challenging power against power often take refuge in the myth of big protectors. The world over, I believe it is clear that big powers have their own interests, and we should be cautious. It is good to see thugs, murderers, and tyrants put on trial, but when they are judged and executed in turn by thugs, murderers, and tyrants, what victory have we really been delivered?

No victory can be delivered. It is only experienced by those who have won it themselves.


  1. I think the definition is too loose, Cuneyt. The Golden Horde was not a State. The Roman Republic was one.

  2. That's very interesting. See, the Golden Horde had leadership, a monopoly on the practice of war, laws, religious policies, and conducted diplomacy and trade with neighboring entities... It may have exercised its power differently, claimed different jurisdictions, but I would say it was a state as much as the Roman republic. That said, there are plenty of holes in my study of history. What did it not do (or do) that exempted it from being a state, in your opinion?

  3. It could not perpetuate itself from dynasty to dynasty. Political unrest or succession disputes always saw the Horde fragment (as was the case with the Oirats, the Nogai and the original Gengiz Khan's, as well) and lose cohesion. The horde was not held together by its myriad sub-tribes and traditions. Those tribes could and often did separate, depriving the Horde of the capacity to defend itself, especially after the fall of the last Great Khan and the rise of real successor states in Muscovy and Crimea.

    It continuously shattered into successor khanates and khaganates.

    I think a baseline definition for qualification as a "State" must be effective self-perpetuation.

  4. Very interesting. One thing that may explain my different perspective on this is that, given what you've argued, then the Ottoman Empire was not always a state. I see the evolution from routine civil war upon the death of a leader--characteristic of the Turks in classic and medieval times--to a more routinized passing of leadership, culminating in a consolidation under Suleiman that ended utterly the period of fratricidal conflict but, in my view, merely shifted the violence to the seraglio and the palace. And obviously, it led to the ossification and decay of the state--and I would call it a state the entire time, of course.

    I see all of those you mentioned as akin to, if not identical to, the feudal structure in Europe, itself a system of statelets within a state context. Was England a state only because the War of the Roses was less typical than succession conflicts in the steppe societies? I see tribes as states at merely one form of evolution, and maybe that's why we're at odds here.

    You've given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

  5. Another thought: is a confederation (tribal or otherwise) a state?

  6. Cuneyt,

    I think the conflict between the Lancasters and Yorks was an anomaly, both in England, and in the feudal system, as a means of settling succession. The English throne, though, was never in doubt.

    [Which was not the case with Burgundy, which went from jewel of the Franks to shrunken dependent, and then into non-existence after Charles the Bold's gambit failed.

    The Burgundian state ceased to exist, and it was absorbed into France, Austria, or provided the foundation for the emerging Low Countries.]

    At least, up through to the first succession war which went continental - the war of Spanish Succession - European feudalism was never really threatened by dynastic instability.

    To the point of feudalism - the state tended to survive disputed succession, even in hotly contested bouts, such as the collapse of the Trastamaras.


    I think a confederation which self-perpetuates, holds contiguous territory, maintains a cohesion with its controlled population through one or more moral, religious or educational interfaces, can suppress dissent, put down rebellion and thwart the designs of enemies qualifies as a state.

    The Haudenosaunee would probably qualify as a state, or a proto-state. But, not the Shawnee.

  7. Interesting. I would see Burgundy as a state, albeit one which hinged on a very loose sense of identity. Had battles gone differently, or heirs better chosen, some would have been more persistent than others. I mean, Genghis Khan's empire was different in many features from the British Empire and yet it fell apart as a result of no intention. He performed all the acts of a state, though his state did not long survive him.

    This is a lot for me to think about; the claimant to anarchism might rebel as much against the Golden Horde or the empire of Sargon as against the modern nationstate... Still, this definition of a state is important, I feel. I guess it just doesn't capture enough of my ancestry; I have a lot of history in tribal wars which Anglos considered lawless, chaotic, or uncivilized. It was a different kind of civilization, a different kind of abuse of power. Maybe a different breed of state. I may generalize unfairly, but I like to make clear that which I'm criticizing. Like I said, I think even if the hordes were non-states, as you say, they were governmental enough to check the rights of the individual...

    And if a confederation of forces, tribes, or states is not a state itself, then I would term it an alliance of states... The state, in my mind at present, abides as the highest form of group power inflicting its will on the world. That's not an argument; I can't say you're wrong. That's just what I see so far.

    Also, you know your fucking history (or, rather, our history), and I love that. You know who Charles the Bold is! And the Oirat? Holy shit!

  8. Cuneyt,

    Thank you.

    FWIW, I think it's important to differentiate between government and state. Here in the US, we have both. In much maligned Somalia, there is only occasional and occupational government.

    There are times when I undoubtedly govern my children, but I am not a state.

  9. And maybe, then, persistence has something to do with it. If either the Western-backed government or the militias were able to take hold in Somalia, they would form a state, in my mind. And if you were to govern your children as long as you lived, maybe then you would become something else, though I believe a master is a master, not a state in itself; a state is the one who supports the mastery of some against others, which is why I see the Turkish military or the US mil as, potentially, states within states.

    And you are very welcome.