28east

Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘political science

Prospects for a liberal Turkish society

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The following was written as a guest post for Atatürk’s Republic, a collaborative blog that seeks to follow Turkish news, politics, arts, and culture.

Most liberal-minded individuals, if asked to choose between a multi-party and a two-party system, would choose the former. After all, liberal democracy is all about freedom of choice, and choosing between chocolate and vanilla is simply not satisfying when one might prefer pistachio, cookie dough, or “Karamel Sutra.”

But what most people do not seem to understand is that representative democracies are designed to be deliberative bodies, the essence of which is “settling.” Without “settling,” the liberal concept of value pluralism goes out the window, and with it, the very basis for our conception of a free and fair society.

If the voter refuses to “settle” on chocolate or vanilla, and instead prefers everyone to have a broader range of options, one of two things will happen:

(1) Once the voting is over and done with, the vast array of flavors will seek to mix themselves with whatever will give them a strategic advantage in legislation. Pistachio will mix with “Karamel Sutra,” and the sweet-and-sticky combination will satisfy neither pistachio- nor caramel-lovers. The concept of political parties as principled factions is lost completely when the principles are cast aside for expediency, as inevitably occurs in this case.* What’s more, banana and rocky road will be ignored completely.

(2) Chocolate will acquire a tyrannical rule owing solely to vanilla-lovers’ slight preference for a variety of other flavors, which will never attain a majority—and if they do, it will be dishonestly, by coalition. The party that is capable of organizing itself and sowing discord among the opposition will acquire, and keep, power.

In the first consequence, the purpose of the political party (democratically forwarding principles at the state level) is lost in a mindless scramble for power by majority. In the second, the state becomes as tyrannical as in a de jure “one-party system.”

This is one arena in today’s politics in which we cannot practically hope to expand the scope of individual freedoms. In order to maintain the classical liberal, laissez faire idea of “freedom from” (which is necessarily prior to the expansion of “freedom to” in a liberal state), the multi-party system must be shunned in favor of a two-party system and the citizen must take it upon himself to begin the “settling” process by choosing from a limited number of representatives.

Paradoxically, the severe limitation of choice necessitated by a two-party system is characteristic of a much more liberal, democratic system. It not only protects the people from tyranny and maintains the possibility of value pluralism, but it also entrusts the people with beginning the all-important, essentially liberal “settling” process that continues in the legislature.

Because this is not obvious to the average voter, a two-party system must be somehow (overtly or otherwise) established from above by strong tradition, or a constitution, in order to establish a liberal, democratic state. Only if a liberal tradition is pre-existing, if the power of the legislature is severely tempered, or if a country is ideologically homogeneous, can a multi-party system survive as “liberal.”

Of course, my interest in exploring this problem lies in the Republic of Turkey, which has a large, heterogeneous population, a powerful parliament, no tradition of liberalism to speak of, and a multi-party system. Predictably, Turkish society and government are grossly (visibly) illiberal.

From two different Turkish liberals in a period of two days, I heard the complaint that Turks vote on (a) emotions and (b) “lifestyle.” Kurds vote for Kurds (actually they don’t, but that’s a different story—they do still vote based on lifestyle), Anatolian Sunni Muslims vote for Anatolian Sunni Muslims, nationalists vote for nationalists, etc. Because of this fragmentation—this variety of flavors—no responsibility to compromise is ever placed on the voter. The result is an instance of consequence (2) above, where one party dominates the state. Half of Turkey may not want to have vanilla, but they couldn’t—and will never be able to—agree on chocolate.

And with a party in power that benefits from the disorder of the multi-party system, it is fairly unlikely that a two-party system will be enforced from above in the form of a new constitution, or otherwise.

What’s more, because the last decade has shown Turkey’s material success to be tied to economic, but certainly not social, liberalism, it is to be expected that Turkey’s near future will be characterized only nominally by “liberal democracy.”

If Turkish citizens are never confronted with the spirit of “settling” between the many flavors that they prefer, and are never themselves faced with the idea of value pluralism, they will never become liberal democratic citizens. And what more is a liberal democratic society than the collective conscience of its citizens?

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*Some would aver that an effective two-party system is necessarily unprincipled if the opposing parties wish to shape themselves according to shifting public sensibilities. There are two responses: (1) That this is acceptable because their principles shift in order to garner votes, but do not shift while they hold offices, and they are able to remain honest to their principles for a given term. (2) That the only principle that truly matters is a faithful attempt at maintaining a two-party system for its own sake, as a safeguard against tyranny.

Written by M. James

November 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Democracy, dialectic, and subtle revolution

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From H.S. Maine‘s Popular Government (1885), Essay II:

The old Italian toxicologists are said to have always arranged their discoveries in a series of three terms—first the poison, next the antidote, thirdly the drug which neutralised the antidote. The antidote to the fundamental infirmities of democracy was Representation, but the drug which defeats it has now been found in the Caucus.

The “Caucus,” according to Maine, is “the agency, by which the representative is sought to be turned into the mere mouthpiece of opinions collected in the locality which sent him to the House of Commons….” Today, we can readily acknowledge this as an artifact of political “party.”

I found this quotation fascinating primarily because of the easy parallel that one can draw between “old Italian toxicologists” and so-called “Hegelian dialectics,” by which the zeitgeist formulates (1) an abstract idea, after which develops (2) its negation, and finally, (3) its “concrete” formulation. This formula is more commonly known as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”

When we run this through the subsequent filter of Marx, who advocated what is now called “dialectical materialism” (as opposed to Hegel’s “idealism”), we get this (from his afterword to the second German edition of Das Kapital, here):

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

By making Hegel’s dialectic purely material, Marx formulates a dialectic of, quite specifically, political economy. For anyone who wishes to hold on to Hegelian dialectic, though, Marx’s materialism as a “direct opposite,” or antithesis, of Hegel, may offer justification for Hegel himself if a subsequent sort of “synthesis” between the ideas can be agreed upon.

But anyway—returning to the parallel that I claimed I would make—observe how Maine’s assertion may seem to be influenced by contemporary Marxist thought on historical dialectic. Being that Maine is not too keen on the idea of “Popular Government,” the “zealots of democracy,” or the “Caucus,” the prospect of dialectic may seem appealing to him in this case. I will steal a line from Wikipedia by way of explanation (here, as before):

Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism, synthesizing Hegel’s dialectics, which proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, while simultaneously developing internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its systemic decay.

So, if party politics within a democratic republic (where democracy was the thesis and representation was the antithesis) is the concrete, synthetic, maximally-efficient, and final formulation of a political-economic order (democracy) in a materialist, dialectical conception of history, then it is the last stop before that political-economic order’s systemic decay, and subsequent revolution.

What is fascinating about this theoretical decay and revolution is that someone like Maine becomes the “revolutionary” in this case. This is a different kind of revolutionary than Marx described—he is one who openly scoffs at the proletariat, its corrupt tendencies, and the harm caused by its place in government. He is indignant, but he is also subtle.

Now, if the reader finds any of this—(a) the truth of dialectical materialism or (b) Maine’s interpretation of the development of party politics—convincing, more questions arise. What would Sir Henry James Sumner Maine’s revolution look like, if the system fell into decay? Could you tell if it were happening? Would the “contradictions” be visible? Would there be rallying cries or war? Perhaps economic upheaval? Would new terms be coined, or would the old ones simply be recast?

Knowing that a new “thesis” would only be met with “antithesis,” wouldn’t Maine publicly assert that, really, nothing had changed at all?

Written by M. James

October 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

Nursi on sincerity and brotherhood

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Or “How to Regain Imperial Power”

I was handed a neat little booklet titled “Sincerity and Brotherhood” not too long ago. It was all in English, and claimed to be from Said Nursi‘s Risale-i Nur Collection. Having just been implored by a Turk to read Nursi in English rather than Turkish (significantly better, in his opinion), I was delighted to run across the booklet. And so, on yet another unpleasantly long bus ride (not an uncommon phenomenon), I began to read some Nursi.

It was not at all what I expected.

One thing was made clear to me from the outset: Nursi is very political, and very much a product of his times (late Ottoman Empire). There are two parts in the booklet: One on “Sincerity” and one on “Brotherhood.” But they really aren’t about sincerity or brotherhood—they are about how sincerity and brotherhood are instrumentally useful for delivering Muslims from their humiliation and disgrace as a civilization. In fact, the whole booklet reads like an apology for the collapse of Islamic civilization.

Here’s how it begins:

The agreement among the people of misguidance is on account of their abasement, and the dispute among the people of guidance is on account of their dignity. That is to say that the people of neglect – those misguided ones sunk in worldly concerns – are weak and abased because they do not rely on truth and reality. On account of their abasement, they need to augment their strength, and because of this need they wholeheartedly embrace the aid and co-operation of others. Even though the path they follow is misguidance, they preserve their agreement. It is as if they were making their godlessness into a form of worship of the truth, their misguidance into a form of sincerity, their irreligion into a form of solidarity, and their hypocrisy into concord, and thus attaining success. For genuine sincerity, even for the sake of evil, cannot fail to yield results, and whatever man seeks with sincerity, God will grant him it.

From this excerpt, it is not entirely clear what “attaining success” means, but it seems to me that Nursi is speaking of imperial power—the imperial power that has been lost by the Ottoman Empire and gained by the godless Europeans.

What surprised me was that, immediately before explaining the success of the “people of neglect,” Nursi accuses them of being “sunk in worldly concerns.” In order to avoid calling Nursi a hypocrite himself, we can only assume that imperial power is either (1) not a “worldly concern,” or (2) a “worldly concern” that only Muslims are allowed to have.

The implications of this view—if it has been conveyed to me accurately by this booklet—are enormous. From the man who is regarded as perhaps the most notable Turkish-Muslim Sufi in history, this is not what I was expecting.

Written by M. James

August 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Before and after: museums to mosques

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Before

After

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The İznik (formerly Nicea) Ayasofya Müzesi (formerly a church) has at last been converted into a mosque. I don’t think I should have to explain the symbolism of the secular state’s museum becoming a mosque—especially in light of the parallel controversy over İstanbul‘s Ayasofya (which is still a museum)—but I will take the time to mention that the conversion was tastefully done.

In fact, the space has been shared so effectively between the faithful and the tourist that the former church now fully serves a dual function of museum and mosque.

The remaining adornments of the former church—of which there are few to appreciate—are not only visible and accessible, but are separated from the carpeted prayer space. Even the altar is left alone.

It was as if when the question of turning the museum into a mosque came up, someone said: “Why not both?” What would be useful to know, of course, is how that compromise was made. Is this Kemalism, still kicking? Or is this “moderate Turkish Islam” at work?

Written by M. James

July 6, 2012 at 12:29 pm

The “jet crisis”

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The big news in Turkey in the last few days has been the jet krizi. As far as the story goes, the only thing that everyone can agree on is that a Turkish F-4 Phantom was shot down somewhere close to Syria. Of course, the word on the street in Turkey is that it was the fault of “international Jewry,” the United States, or—as I heard from one ornery fellow—the French.

From what I saw of the initial reports on the incident (even in Turkish papers), there was little apparent distress, and a lot of the word “apology.” Here’s an early example from four days ago:

“At this moment the air force and navy are conducting search and rescue operations in the western Mediterranean and luckily our pilots are alive, we have just lost a plane,” [Erdoğan] told journalists while travelling back from Brazil

There was an apology from Syria, it seemed, and nobody doubted its sincerity. It could have been worse, they seemed to think. But this is from today’s Hürriyet (here):

The Turkish government said that all options against Syria were on the table, including the right to military retaliation, also vowing to keep its rights stemming from international law reserved.

“Turkey will protect itself within international law,” Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said following a Cabinet meeting, adding that Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet could not be left unpunished.

“Syria shot down our unarmed jet in a cold-blooded and hostile way in international airspace. International law is on our side. Turkey will not hesitate to take its steps to this end,” Arınç told reporters at a press conference.

More from the Hürriyet (here):

Syria has come to constitute a “clear and present danger” for Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, adding that all military elements approaching the Turkish border from Syria would be considered “a threat” from now on. 

The Turkish Armed Forces has changed its rules of engagement in the wake of the crisis, Erdoğan said. “The Turkish military will retaliate against border violations by Syria.”

And the icing on the cake—this is from from the New York Times today (in direct contradiction to several of the early reports—here):

The two crewmen are still missing.

Written by M. James

June 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Gülen declines invitation

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Gülen says prefers staying longer in US to avoid ‘harming positive things’
Today’s Zaman; Jun. 17th, 2012

Turkish and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen has said he prefers staying in the US longer to avoid damaging positive developments in Turkey in a first public response to Turkish prime minister’s invitation to Turkey.

Written by M. James

June 17, 2012 at 4:34 am

What’s in a street sign?

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Caution: Men dragging women across street.

Written by M. James

June 17, 2012 at 3:59 am