Turkey’s Crisis: Totalitarian Democracy



The coup in Turkey which happened recently was fascinating to watch. Seeing a democratically elected authoritarian fight it out with the military junta over the fate of the country.  From a libertarian perspective it was fascinating to watch a state at war with itself. What happened there cannot be explained without first explaining the Turkish context.

Modern Turkey emerged as the fractured center of the Ottoman Empire after the numerous Balkan Wars, and the disastrous First World War. The Ottoman Empire had originally been a very diverse, multi-ethnic empire, but seeing as Turks were the people who founded the Empire, they stayed loyal to it during the chaotic 19th century as nationalism ripped away the Greeks, Balkan Christians, and various other peoples.

In 1908 the Young Turks, a group of young idealistic reformers wanted to replace the Ottoman Sultanate with a more modern secular liberal state that would be more just and attractive to the minorities within the Empire. They believed it would better be able to withstand the intrigues of European empires which for decades were negotiating among each other how to divide up the Ottoman Empire when it collapsed.

As soon as they gained power they were sucked into a decade of disastrous war, first with Italy which lost them their remaining North African territories, then with the Balkans which ended their foothold in Europe and brought the Greek armies within miles of taking their capital of Constantinople. Then they fell into World War One and found themselves pitted against the Russians. Angered about how the Christians of the Empire had stabbed them in the back and literally opened the gates of Thessaloniki to the invading Balkan forces, they waged a genocidal campaign against the Christian Armenians, many of whom were more sympathetic to the Orthodox Russian Empire than the new Turkish State.

By 1921, after a genocidal campaign against the remaining Greek population, most of Turkey’s Christian population was deported and then replaced with the deported Muslim population from their former Balkan states. Only Russia suffered more from the outcome of the Great War. Most of the Ottoman Empire had been stripped away from them through the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Sultan was exiled and the remaining Young Turks put Mustafa Kemal in charge. Kemal was a Young Turk general who oversaw the only deceive Ottoman victory in the war, defeating British forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula, humiliating the future Winston Churchill and preventing Britannia’s powerful navy from sailing down the Bosporus and taking the capital.

Like many Ottomans, his birth city of Thessaloniki was gone forever, because as he saw it the ineptitude of backward superstitious Sultanate which didn’t embrace modernity and was ripped apart by the technologically advanced European states that did. Kemal, who eventually stylized himself as Ataturk (Father of the Turks) used his power to abolish Sharia courts, banned burkas and removed religion as much as he could from society. His position of power was backed by the militantly secular Turkish Army which vowed to overthrow any elected government that would undo the secular reforms he instituted and drive Turkey backwards. Much of the country remained religious and true to their promise the army instituted coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.

Erdoğan, who was formally Mayor of Istanbul, represents a conservative populist feel in the country. His worldview has been described as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’. He is a nationalist but unlike the Ataturk tradition that has dominated politics for the last eighty years, he embraces Turkey’s Ottoman past as the most influential state in the Muslim world and seeks to re-establish that, rather than have Turkey become merely a lesser state in the European sphere. The Turkish Army for years has resented this. Erdoğan was well aware and knew that the Army would  eventually move against him.

In 2010 he arrested over fifty high ranking military men who were plotting a coup. In recent years the military has been ordered to help Islamic militants destroy al-Assad in Syria. Erdoğan believes that such a victory would give Turkey prestige in the Muslim world. Military generals have been begrudgingly following these orders, but feared chaos as radicals have spilled into Turkey along with nearly a million other refugees. These generals also believe that the Kurdish secessionist rebels who have been engaged in a decades-long war with the government pose a far greater threat than Syria. The June 29th Istanbul airport bombing was probably the last straw, which led to the military beginning to plan this coup. Its fears that without an iron hand more Islamic attacks would occur within their country compelled them to act.

I was shocked that Erdoğan was able to hold on to power. It seems nearly half of the armed forces were against him. Their tanks gained a foothold in the capital of Istanbul, they captured crucial communications, and at one point had the President’s jet within their missile sights. But unlike the other coups this one failed. Erdoğan knew this would happen at one point and had made arrangements. He had put people in charge of Turkey’s police who he knew would be loyal to him. More importantly, when the coup happened, he reached out to a country as the democratically elected leader saying that this coup was not just against him but was against democracy itself.

The Gezi Park Protests of 2013 which were made of mostly young liberals took to the streets had nearly toppled their government, but many of those young people who hated the authoritarian polices of Erdoğan didn’t want the authoritarian polices of a military junta and  so they took to the streets with Erdoğan supporters  blocking tanks and surrounding soldiers who were naturally reluctant to fire upon protesters. When it became evident the military had not taken control and soldiers were surrendering to police the coup collapsed.

Recently the Ron Paul Institute and Zero Hedge published an article titled “’Why They Didn’t Fire Is A Mystery’-Coup Pilots had Erdogan’s Plane In Their Sights And Did Nothing” seems to insinuate that the entire plot was a false flag operation planed by Erdoğan to be used as a pretext to purge all of his political enemies. It’s true that with in the past week thousands of Turkish military personal, judiciary and other people involved in the coup have been rounded up like animals, stripped tied and kept in  aircraft hangers at gunpoint while Erdoğan tries to legalize the death penalty. Conspiracy theorists love to say follow the money,  or the Latin cui bono (to whose profit?), because it is not an irrational assumption that anyone who benefits from a disaster or a crime was the likely perpetrator.

The problem is that some libertarians who are well aware the government struggles to run a post office, endorse the view that the state is an omnipotent creature carrying centuries old plans for domination. Everything from the attack on the USS Maine in 1898, to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to 9/11, were a part of an elaborate plan to create chaos and have government use it as a pretext to gain more power.

Penn Jillete articulates the issue better than I can, but in essence is that if you apply the Ockham’s Razor principle, it is more likely that instead of a massive and complex plot involving tens of Satanic agents, is better explained by a 1) catastrophe happens 2) the state which is caught off guard thinks up some  sort of half-baked contingency plan acts. Did the FED create the Depression so it could gain more power? No. Did it take cognizance of the opportunity and used its pretext as a justification to gain more power? Absolutely. Did a bunch of lizards build the World Trade Center in the 1970s with the explosives already planted in there and then elected Bush to steamroll over American civil liberties when they detonated? Or did our government, which was so trusting of the Saudis, ignore the signs that radical Salafis on their payroll we had been fighting in Somalia and Afghanistan during the Clinton administration were planning something big and then when it happened instituted sweeping war powers which had been drawn up in Christmas wish-list fashion years before by salivating neoconservatives?

As Obama’s Chief of Staff  Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

The people who seek to control the world wait for pretext. They wait for the Reichstag to burn down or another massacre to happen. They know, like actuaries, that it will happen and plan. The people who run the world don’t get there by making hurricanes, they get there by adjusting their sails to the changing winds.

Erdoğan insulated himself as best he could from a coup he knew would happen sooner or later, and probably drew up a little list years ahead a time of likely instigators or innocent rivals that would stand in his way in the near future.

What I find interesting is, what if the pilots have been more bold and had shot Erdogan down, leaving a power vacuum? What would the conspiracy theorists say then? The logic of cui bono would be correct in that the Turkish Kemalist military instigated and benefited from the plot, but what other puppet masters would have been involved? Would Obama (or his Illuminati handlers) who was involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi be blamed since he can use the coup as an excuse to kick rogue Turkey out of NATO? What about Putin? The Turkish military would likely cut down its activity in Syria allowing him and his ally al-Assad to mop up lost rebel territory. What would have been absolutely certain is that if the military had taken over there would have been mass purges like Erdoğan’s, except instead of hundreds military officers being held like cattle in airport hangers turned into detention centers it would have been thousands of police officers loyal to the regime, and likely hundreds of other future society offenders who may be underground.  Many in the West, including myself hoped that the coup would have succeeded but it’s absolutely evasive to think there wouldn’t have been blood in the streets, it’s likely that there could have been more as tanks rolled over Democracy protesters trying to rally at Gezi Park.

The truth of the matter is that as Machiavelli said centuries ago, the power of the prince often rests on fortune, things like an apprehensive trigger finger on a heat seeking missile.

I don’t think Erdoğan is going to prosper in the long run, like Stalin in the 1930s, or the Iranian Ayatollah in 1979 he is purging his government of most of its talented and experienced military leadership while engaged in a losing war in Syria which could spill over Turkish borders.  The legitimacy he had as a democratic defender is being undermined as he vindictively scrambles to change the laws so he can execute hundreds of plotters. He regained the control of Turkey, and is concreting power into his own hands whilst popular and international opinion turn against him.

Politics is supposed to be a mechanistic substitute for civil war, in a democratic society it is a way to change and reform the regime without overthrowing it and sewing more disorder and hostility.  Erdoğan illustrates a type of authoritarian democracy, hostile to liberal ideas it is meant to aim for and so righteous because of its support from the public that it ruthlessly prosecutes any opposition as  dissent against the ruling party is taken to be treacherous dissent against the society that put it in power.

Currently we have two Presidential candidates who want to change the laws to prosecute opposition, Hillary Clinton wants to prosecute people who dare question the often inflated models of Climate Change, and Trump wants the prosecute media figures who question his competence, business dealings, character, etc. Our politics seems to be more and more about crushing the enemy (the money hoarding 1% or job stealing but somehow never working Mexicans, take your pick) than uplifting everyone is  new normal because we are so fixated on putting those people down than creating a system to raise everyone up. There is extreme disagreement on how to make the nation more just ( just look in our comment section), but at least that can be the aim of conversation rather than revenge fantasies against the nefarious  opposition once power is gained. Turkey is halfway round the world but its problems needn’t be need to be viewed through telescope or translated, they’re already here.

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Neil McGettigan

Graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Rutgers University. Former Campus Coordinator with Students For Liberty. Currently works in Real Estate.