“I am one of the early birds…” Ece Temelkuran told me, “I saw democracy collapse in Turkey and tried to warn the United States, European Countries and Britain about this. I’ve been telling people that what you think is normal, or a passing phase, is part of a bigger phenomenon that affects us all. Somehow though, European democracies feel they’re exceptional – and too mature to be affected by neofascist currents.”
Ece has seen this all before. In her incredible 2019 book How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she notes, “We have learned over time that coups in Turkey end the same way regardless of who initiated them. It’s like the rueful quote from the former England footballer turned TV pundit Gary Lineker, that football is a simple game played for 120 minutes, and at the end the Germans win on penalties. In Turkey, coups are played out over forty-eight-hour curfews, and the leftists are locked up at the end. Then afterwards, of course, another generation of progressives is rooted out, leaving the country’s soul even more barren than it was before.”
Ece Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator, whose journalism has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, New Statesman, Frankfurter Allgemeine and Der Spiegel. She has been twice recognised as Turkey’s most-read political columnist, and twice rated as one of the ten most influential people in social media (with three million twitter followers). In this exclusive interview, we discuss the dangers of populism, authoritarianism and fascism, and why we need to act now.
[Ece Temelkuran]: Today, there is less time to understand the differences between nationalism, populism and authoritarianism. In Britain, democracy is literally crumbling at the hands of a strange guy with funny hair! People simply aren’t recognising the dangers that lay ahead, so there’s not enough time to get into definitions
One truth is that you cannot really know what populism is until you experience it. Populism is the act of politicising and mobilising ignorance to the point of political and moral insanity. Nationalism as we know, comes from the phenomena of nation-states – and it’s quite ironic therefore that we are now talking more and more about the failure of nation states and the failure of supranational and international institutions as well… and meanwhile neo-nationalism is on the rise.
It’s not about the maturity of your democracy, it’s not about the strength of your institutions either…. Once the cancer of authoritarianism gets into the veins and organs of society, it’s not easy to get-out – they have this very specific way of paralysing political mechanisms and dismantling the fundamental human logic.
There’s not much time left for British democracy; to tell you the truth, I would never have anticipated one of the world’s oldest democracies being shattered at such speed, with almost no resistance… I am really shocked and appalled.
Q: Why are nationalism and populism creeping back into our world?
[Ece Temelkuran]: The Second World War taught us a specific aesthetic of fascism. We always imagine that Nazi uniform, and the kind of futuristic authoritarian settings we see on Netflix and HBO. In our culture, we see the uniform and the militaristic as the representations of authoritarianism and fascism.
Today, right-wing populism, authoritarianism and neo-fascism are coming from different places. Reality TV stars, strange men, and people who otherwise would be considered national jokes. Many of today’s right-wing populist leaders are political figures that nobody really took seriously from the beginning. Nobody expected that neo-fascism could take hold with swagger, in such a laid-back manner.
To understand why these phenomena are creeping back into our world, you have to look for the roots. Neoliberalism has- since the 1970s- imposed this idea that the free-market economy is the best (and most ethical) system humanity can come up with to organise itself. Neoliberalism changed the definition of what human fundamental morals are, and what justice means – and it’s created a new kind of being. It tends to be the extreme examples of neoliberal being that disgusts, appalls and surprises us – but those are also the people who have become the leaders of our world.
The neoliberalist model has been put forward as a solution to which there is no alternative; we’ve crippled the political spectrum, cut the left away, and shifted everything to the right. Politics has become a competition, who can be further right – and who can further deliver numbing of the mind through consumerism – after all… people are only allowed to be free when they consume, and thus we are political objects, not political subjects…
Politics has become entertainment – and people feel like their opinions do not matter any more… this became clear after the Iraq invasion when millions of people took to the streets of Europe, and saw that their call for peace meant nothing. Now? people carry this sense of being a political object as a badge of honour – they want strong powerful men to be in charge… they want bold action like the suspension of parliament…. There is an incredible willingness to be shepherded and that’s only because we’ve lost faith in democracy, in politics and ourselves as political subjects.
The de-politicisation of media has also emboldened all of this – the obsession with objectivity has become a substitute for neutrality. The vast majority of the world’s mainstream media have become obsessed with being neutral, and have done so at the cost of forgetting their main job – holding power to account, asking questions to power, and giving a voice to the voiceless. In many ways, the media have become their own class – an elite of sorts… that has cut ties with unions and politics…
Q: Are we seeing the consequences of people not being politically educated and engaged?
[Ece Temelkuran]: The day after the UK referendum, people said, ‘…oh, we didn’t know it was actually going to be counted!’ it was horrible to see that. Those same people are going to have to learn every single detail about politics soon, they’re going to have to learn about the rules of parliaments, the departments of Westminster, how democracy works… they will have to learn to get democracy back in order.
During the 1970s there was a war on politics in our education system – a zeitgeist was imposed such that politics was seen as dirty, boring, unnecessary. It became the norm for people to say ‘I hate politics!’ without realising that is actually one of the most political statements that can be made. If you say ‘I hate politics!’ you are removing yourself from the public sphere, and are rejecting the ability to be a political subject. You are submitting yourself to a higher order, a powerful ruler…
We are seeing this happen extremely fast in Britain and the United States. People are losing their basic rights as citizens… We experienced this in Turkey too – it was an earthquake hit our houses and we realised we hadn’t done enough to keep the walls strong…
Democracy is a very young concept, and as humanity, we are still trying to create democracy, we are still trying to understand democracy…. We have to keep our eyes open.
Q: Why is democracy so fragile?
[Ece Temelkuran]: The real owners of democracy have been pushed away from democracy, and this began when our democracies – in their current state – stripped citizens of an integral part of democracy, social justice. When you remove social justice from democracy it becomes a feeder for the elite – and that’s why progressive organisations can only make themselves heard on the streets, not through democratic and governmental institutions… It was perhaps the Cold War that kickstarted this, because social justice was so related to socialism.
It’s hard for people to defend democracy when it cannot defend them against social injustice.
Q: How can we fight the growth of authoritarianism?
[Ece Temelkuran]: People sometimes look to the Middle East to see where things are going wrong, but I must say… in Turkey, perhaps our democracy was stronger – it took decades for Erdoğan to achieve what Boris Johnson did in a few weeks… maybe we had a better resistance…
I have to say though, it’s difficult to find something positive to say about the fight against authoritarianism in the middle east but I am incredibly inspired by the fight of young women in Turkey and the Middle East – fighting for democracy with their lives… they are unstoppable…
When it comes to Europe and the Western democracies; we have to take to the streets and make ourselves heard – end of story. We have to organise, mobilise and politicise… we have to use those good old-fashioned tools of politics, they’re the ones that count. We have to show-up! We have to fight, we have to get out onto the streets and change things.
Since the 1970s it’s almost become a taboo to talk of conflict – we’ve become a society geared around consensus, and co-existence – and this has domesticated politics in a dangerous way. The media have been too busy finding consensus with the Brexiteers and Trumpeteers to fight them.
This is a political struggle and there is no politeness or kindness in this. It is very clear what one has to do if one has to defend her right. It is to fight back when there is oppression.
Q: What gives you hope for the future?
[Ece Temelkuran]: I am not a big fan of the word hope, I am a big fan of the word determination. Being determined is a moral position, when you are depend on the word hope you are lazy.
Thanks to social media, we are constantly faced with the worst side of human beings – but often we are shielded from seeing the other side, the good, the wholeness of the human story… we’ve come to expect outrage and to feel appalled – but we have to realise politics is not about evil and crazy, it’s about real human communication. I do believe that going back to human communication, back to old school communication a little bit would make a lot of difference in people’s perspective on human beings condition today, and current political situation.
I’ve often thought that maybe there is a certain hormone in human beings that we can only produce it when we are face to face. And it’s the hormone of shame – it becomes absent when you are communicating on social media and you become worse than you are. We just invented this. We just invented social media, this is a new invention – we cannot really control it, and we are experiencing the childhood diseases of social media playing out in our democratic institutions….