Lessons From Turkey: Dangers of Market Fetishism

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

What we do not see in the western press is a call for introspectionand self-criticism. The Gezi Park Protests, as the countrywidedemonstrations are called, are not about the tension between theIslamists and the secularists, but between crony capitalism and asegment of population who dare to question the personal profits thatwere made from their country's heritage. In other words, the protestsrepresent the tipping point of the frustrations of the informed publicwith a government that has treated forests and historical buildings asprivate property, constructing luxury residences and shopping centersthrough contracts given to family and friends. These authoritarianpolicies have long been deliberately ignored by business and politicalcircles in the West, in favor of the seemingly positive economicindicators and the increasing attractiveness of the Turkish market.Such tunnel vision has kept the West from wondering how sustainablethis growth will be, let alone forecasting that deficiencies in thecountry's democracy would inevitably lead to instability. In terms ofarrests and imprisonment of journalists, under the AK Party governmentTurkey long ago surpassed Iran and China (there are almost noreporters or journalists left to cover the protests in the mainstreammedia, and the Turkish people followed the demonstrations frominternational outlets). Still, Turkey remained the Muslim-majoritypolitical model of choice for many pundits.

These figures have not bothered analysts since they did not have anyimmediate market effects. Although there are serious ethical issueswith treating a country as a stock market bond, even from a pragmaticneoliberal perspective such optimism was naïve, to put it mildly.Demonstrators from all walks of life, ethnicities and degrees ofreligious observance are demanding transparency, real informationabout new construction plans and their stakeholders. The protestorsare not against new construction projects per se; if anything, theirrequests are very conservative. Ironically, they are trying to correcta market failure that the short-sighted neoliberals have beenconsolidating in Turkey. Protesters and those who support theirmovement are aware that there will be no sustainable economic progressif families are instructed to have at least three kids regardless oftheir economic status, if people cannot talk or write freely, or ifthe country is ruled by a "scientifically political" elite that haswithdrawn its full membership from the European Organization forNuclear Research -- the entity recently credited with the discovery ofa particle believed to be the basis of universe.

One can find hundreds of speeches and articles in the internationalpress that romanticize the AK Party government and even portray itscritics as paranoid. What is going on in Turkey should be a goodlesson for those who have seen the country merely as a stable holidaydestination, an emerging market or a political model for theMuslim-majority countries. The next time we evaluate the economic andpolitical feasibility of a model, we should look at the whole picture,not only the parts we like. Even if the government manages to brutallysuppress the demonstrations, this movement tells us that the realprofit lies with the freedom of the people, not with the whim of therulers. Nothing can stand against water cannons and tear gas, not eventhe most promising markets.

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