Lessons From Turkey: Dangers of Market Fetishism

As international media cover the demonstrations in Turkey, even the most seasoned in policy circles are shocked to witness the flagrant human rights violations, including demonstrators of all ages who are beaten and gassed by the police on a daily basis. The news agencies and political commentators write passionately about what is going on, usually representing the protests as the result of the tension between religious policies of the AK Party government and the secular Kemalist opposition who are frustrated with the Islamists. Other analyses have included the symbolic importance of the Taksim Square (where the demonstrations started), Erdoğan's personality, and comparisons with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the so-called "Arab Spring."

What we do not see in the western press is a call for introspection and self-criticism. The Gezi Park Protests, as the countrywide demonstrations are called, are not about the tension between the Islamists and the secularists, but between crony capitalism and a segment of population who dare to question the personal profits that were made from their country's heritage. In other words, the protests represent the tipping point of the frustrations of the informed public with a government that has treated forests and historical buildings as private property, constructing luxury residences and shopping centers through contracts given to family and friends. These authoritarian policies have long been deliberately ignored by business and political circles in the West, in favor of the seemingly positive economic indicators and the increasing attractiveness of the Turkish market. Such tunnel vision has kept the West from wondering how sustainable this growth will be, let alone forecasting that deficiencies in the country's democracy would inevitably lead to instability. In terms of arrests and imprisonment of journalists, under the AK Party government Turkey long ago surpassed Iran and China (there are almost no reporters or journalists left to cover the protests in the mainstream media, and the Turkish people followed the demonstrations from international outlets). Still, Turkey remained the Muslim-majority political model of choice for many pundits.

These figures have not bothered analysts since they did not have any immediate market effects. Although there are serious ethical issues with treating a country as a stock market bond, even from a pragmatic neoliberal perspective such optimism was naïve, to put it mildly. Demonstrators from all walks of life, ethnicities and degrees of religious observance are demanding transparency, real information about new construction plans and their stakeholders. The protestors are not against new construction projects per se; if anything, their requests are very conservative. Ironically, they are trying to correct a market failure that the short-sighted neoliberals have been consolidating in Turkey. Protesters and those who support their movement are aware that there will be no sustainable economic progress if families are instructed to have at least three kids regardless of their economic status, if people cannot talk or write freely, or if the country is ruled by a "scientifically political" elite that has withdrawn its full membership from the European Organization for Nuclear Research -- the entity recently credited with the discovery of a particle believed to be the basis of universe.

One can find hundreds of speeches and articles in the international press that romanticize the AK Party government and even portray its critics as paranoid. What is going on in Turkey should be a good lesson for those who have seen the country merely as a stable holiday destination, an emerging market or a political model for the Muslim-majority countries. The next time we evaluate the economic and political feasibility of a model, we should look at the whole picture, not only the parts we like. Even if the government manages to brutally suppress the demonstrations, this movement tells us that the real profit lies with the freedom of the people, not with the whim of the rulers. Nothing can stand against water cannons and tear gas, not even the most promising markets.