INTERVIEW - 'The loss of public is the main concern today'
"The loss of public is my main worry for today. And I do not see an environment where public can be formed again" says Prof. of Political Science Tasansu Turker, reviewing the search for a new world system
Chair of Comparative Politics, Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University Prof. Tasansu Turker argues that the world is stuck in a trespassing and a fundamental search for a new tomorrow is still uncertain where there are options which are worrying.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Prof. Turker answered questions on the current global political environment.
Zeliha Eliacik: In the first days of the war in Ukraine we had an interview and since then I am asked to continue the course in depth, namely beyond Ukraine and generally about the global politics. It is a global problem already we are passing through, as you said before.
Tasansu Turker: Well, Ernesto Laclau’s 1992 article, “Universalism, Particularism, and the Question of Identity” is still timely at the age of transition of World order nowadays. While mono-, bi- or multi-polarity debates have been the main issues of international politics for the last two decades, Brexit and especially the strong wind of Trump and beyond himself, Trumpism -- which was internationalized, as well -- have brought up new questions and new realities despite the triumph of Biden at the presidential elections of 2020 and pledge of the conventional -- if we call the post-cold war hegemonic arguments that way -- in new ways to be called back. Since the promises of Biden on international politics and what the world has seen until today were not in harmony, even in contrast in some areas. Therefore, the debates of the Trump era are still fresh, and the question of a world order still needs to be inquired.
The last decade was an era when the main basis of Western societies and international system were challenged by three factors; i. the internal problems motivated by the transformation of technologies, capitalism, society and government, ii. international rivals at regional scales and iii. a total rivalry from China. It is obvious that those three factors have created a complex picture for the West, which was crystallized in anti-systemic challenges. (The terms “right or left populism” cannot explain the complicated situation. Sometimes I think that even Ubu Roi explains more than the whole literature on populism of last decade… Those have been argued to be a spontaneous change or a serious diffraction in the history of the West and the world where the old could not die, and the new could not be born and we fight with monsters.
Eliacik: As Gramsci says, right? So, three challenges you mentioned?
Turker: Three layers maybe... About the internal problems of the West, Bauman and Bordoni’s “liquid modernity” explains a lot which is briefed by Umberto Eco with a description, “a trespassing for tomorrow’s unsettled contingency, yet.” Bauman and Bordoni in their book “State of Crisis”, were arguing that a two-way crisis is actual for modernity, where the first is the impotence of the states and the second is the radical change in social structures. And the results of the crisis of modernity can be categorized as political and social. The most prominent political result, which I want to underline, can be titled as the loss of identity or a collective consciousness which was created by the nation-states for their continuity and the whole international system depending on those again. That identity or collective consciousness has two faces: The local one describing the particularity referencing nation, language, religion, history etc. by providing cohesion inside the borders of the country, and the universal one referencing security, justice, democracy, human rights, etc. by providing the continuity of the values system and even international system, as well. Except for the debates on universalism vs. particularism here, I guess it is acceptable that the particularity of nation-states is depending on the universality of values which creates the international system, meaning that huge erosion for universal values is another important fact.
Another side of the political result can be summarized as the weakness of the state against the political demands of the masses where legitimate and effective ways for governance are still searched. Here, throughout the demands of the masses, social results can be linked to political ones. It can be argued that the demands of masses have transformed as well. In current social debates it is observed that masses do not know what they want, but they know very well what they do not want, which makes those social wishes less governable throughout modern ways like representation, parliament or parties, even civil society. The other side of social results is the mass hunger for consumption. As authors’ conceptualization, a consumer society is the new fact for all social and political spheres instead of citizens and that makes the consumption is the current telos.
The crisis of modernity and the current liquidity are actually indicating the crisis of sovereignty and the crisis of democracy for the modern world. Post version of modernity was generally founded on those evaluations by the claims of postmodernity as supranational organizations and micro nationalisms will be replacing nation-states and nations even, updated versions of democracy would be improved by the means of social media, civil society, etc., number of blue collars would be reduced by white collars and economy would depend on more technology and innovation.
Eliacik: But those have changed?
Turker: Yes. The reverse wind of the conventional politics, namely Brexit and Trump first, but the infrastructural dynamics of the conventional society stroke back as a challenge to post-industrial economic relations and conservative values set to the liberal promises of a fiction society. In the paradigm of Kojin Karatani -- state, capital, society triangle -- it can be argued that capital’s enlargement against the state and society has created many areas of problématique at that period. Just one example, social media monopolies suspending the accounts of an incumbent American President, should be shocking if it is remembered that “the monopoly of violence” is the most basic explanation of the legitimacy of the state and the authority of censor in that framework belongs to the state, not to a few capital groups. This is statelessness…
At the other hand, all the debates about populism at that period should be another strong example of the crisis. Especially the warning of Madeleine Albright by her 2018 book about fascism should be something more than to be mentioned only, I guess. All that is solid melted into air already and solidification desires can easily call for fascism! Look at the French elections! France, we are talking about…
Eliacik: So, a total loss of what we know! And about the international politics?
Turker: Well, yes… The second layer; regional rivalries, has been another issue of the crisis. Described as “Westlessness” in Munich Security Forum, or “Hobbesian international environment” at the World Economic Forum; the almanacs for the last decade have written the vacuum and “slight” conflicts in international politics nearly at all the regions of the world. The Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; Africa, especially the Sahel and East African coast; South American democracy crisis, especially Venezuela; Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine in 2022, etc. Regional powers with global impacts emerging at that period like Russia, India, and Brazil; regional powers like Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia were the actors challenging the West. Moreover, the split within the West like Brexit, Turkiye’s quest for a more autonomous foreign policy, France’s unending de Gaullean instincts or African perspective or Germany’s “neue Ostpolitik”…
Eliacik: You mean, a new Eastern policy...
Turker: Yes, all these were bigger challenges for the Western world. All those “small” crises with millions of people’s death or starving or homelessness happened during the Westlessness, and those have strengthened it more in the framework of hegemonic decline, and the rivals have ascended more against the descending West.
Eliacik: But you argue that the main issue in international politics is China?
Turker: Well, indeed… Although these rivalries frazzled the Western hegemony in international politics, the real challenge, which was a systemic one, has come from China. This challenge has been a total one and seeking global dominance. Debates on a “Chinese character Bretton Woods” must be a clue for a total challenge since all the Western hegemonic world system is based on Bretton Woods principally. Of course Bretton Woods created some results to fortify the Western hegemony, but still it was a result of a reality, economic dominance of the US. The Nixon shock -- 1971 decision on dollar-gold bond -- was a comma in the sentence, but not a full stop. Three factors; (i. China’s fast economic achievements today, ii. the comma mentioned above which made the current economic system invalid and, iii. new actors’ -- like India and Russia -- positions towards a search for a new system) can bring down the dominance of US dollar. Obviously, this is a new world. Just remember that the world has always enjoyed a single-currency international trade system. The only two exceptions were Napoleonic wars period and the inter-war period. And I am sure that everybody is aware that the change of the currency is the time for turmoil…
Eliacik: The world has not come to that point in one day?
Turker: Sure, no! While during the two decades of “belle époque II”…
Eliacik: By belle époque II, you mean pre-WWI period right?
Turker: Yes, just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the motto was a new free world where “the history has ended” according to Francis Fukuyama. For the last decade -- especially after Brexit -- metamorphoses of China into a global power has been witnessed and free world with free trade under liberal values have been the first ones to be dropped by the West in the framework of a new cold war-ish environment. And Fukuyama this time writing the “Identity” and legitimizing his late professor Samuel Huntington’s “the Clash of Civilizations” concept.
A summary of last few years’ events will contribute to the context at that point. First issue to be remembered should be the general debate between Trump and Biden before the elections. A total contradiction and even a divided society’s reflection was the main impression about the American elections of 2020. Regarding domestic politics, Trump was ‘conventional’ conservative -- the term ‘conventional’ I use, to distinguish it from the ‘neo’ form -- and Biden was liberal and even social democratic in terms of Europe. About economics, Trump was pro-conventional-industry, while Biden was progressive by supporting the information and service sectors. About international economic relations, Trump was mercantilist-ish while Biden was an advocate of free trade. About international politics, Trump was to create a controlled vacuum which would make the allies needy for the US, Biden was to call America back to the world stage for strengthened alliances with the old allies. Shortly, Biden has been trying to find the golden middle between pre-election himself -- namely, promising a “Great Reset” from Klaus Schwab -- a post-industrial dream, progressive society and American new world order which all were motivated by his liberal weltanschauung (worldview) and ultra-idealistic international politics approach and Trump’s position, promising to return to American Dream of post-WWII, an industrial and solid society, a spontaneous world order where “America is first”; which all were motivated by his conservative views and ultra-realistic international politics premises. It is clear that this is a quite difficult balance…
Biden -- or any other, Democrat or Republican --, today -- and in the near future --, has to deal with dual-society problems of the US, which are based on the need for a coexistence of conventional industrial and post-industrial societies, huge economic problems -- ie. inflation --, divided society, progressive demands and conservative reactions, political stiffness, divided party motivations between generations and even ideologically, challenges for the upcoming elections, etc. However, all those issues may address a more fundamental issue; an inquiry for a new telos, a new habitus, a new modus vivendi, a new American status quo, which can promise a way of being civilized. Especially today, when “post-civilization” term is as valid as the term “post-truth”. This inquiry, of course, will be hand-in-hand with the inquiry of solutions on international politics and even a new world order, where Biden was disappointed for not finding the world he left with Obama in 2016.
Eliacik: What did Biden find after his inauguration?
Turker: Concisely, the world of 2020 was far beyond the Western hegemony and lacked a stable architecture. In general view; a total rival -- China -- an old rival which is in between the US and China -- Russia -- challenging allies -- Germany and France --, rising regional powers and their ambitions all over the world. Kissinger’s adverse Nixon plan for the Trump era, namely articulating Russia and adding India to the alliance of Pacific countries with the core Anglo-American bloc which is formed of the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia, to contain China was realistic and promising for Biden administration, as well. Until February 2022… After that time, it has been observed that Anglo-American bloc (reinforced by 2021 New Atlantic Charter) has chosen a path of consolidation of trans-Atlantic relations by suppressing the continent and pushing Russia. It is obvious that this process is not a sustainable option. Because of the facts like; i. a global economic crisis threat, ii. reactions from continental Europe, iii. the need for Russia and its allies (especially India) in the Pacific. Moreover, maybe the most important reason can be the threat of consolidation between China, Russia, India, and many others from the Pacific region and maybe the Middle East and even Europe on a consensus for a search for a new world order. Although Russia is not capable of a global challenge, she being together with China is a total game changer. That’s why, a 1940 Moscow Peace Treaty ending the Winter War may be a model for Finlandization (not the way Russia meant at the beginning, obviously) after the November elections or the process may begin after June summit of the NATO.
Eliacik: For the close future, if the US-China rivalry is the main axis of international politics, what kind of rivalry would the world live and what kind of architecture would this create?
Turker: Since politics are created by material necessities, that rivalry between the US and China should create a political discourse that will legitimize the current positions. At that point, Kissinger’s phrase can be a beacon for the debate. He was arguing that through all history, humanity created ways to explain the world around them. In the middle ages by religion, in the Enlightenment by reason, in the 19th century by history, in the 20th century by ideology. In other words, 20th century was dominated by identity and positions based on an ideological confrontation between the US and fascism first and socialism later. The 19th century was the age of nationalisms and was dominated by historical approach, which was the basis of national identities. The masses in the politics have brought the identity issue since then. Identity will be the core point of the politics if still masses will be the actors in politics. (Although the death of koinon and the dominance of idion were argued during the pandemic by dystopians.) However the description of identity is the problem at that point. National identities did not fade away while the prior identity was the ideological one. This accumulation, despite replacement, will be the course again. So, national identities will remain, ideological identities will remain -- as Biden calls the world to value-based politics -- but the prior and new identity should be more complex and explaining the rivalry and convincing for the legitimacy, also creating cohesion for domestic politics of the West, especially the US; which can be the concept of civilization(s).
Eliacik: Can you explain this more?
Turker: Civilization(s) is an ambiguous, even controversial term. Contrary to the general opinion, the term was used in a singular form for a long time. “We and others” issue, before becoming the problem of modern politics, finds it roots at the Numbers chapter at the Old Testament. All “we” were counted and the “others” were gentiles. Antique Greeks used the word “barbaric” for the others. Rome used the concept “Romans versus savages”. So, the concept was based on the universality claims of the identity and it was dichotomic. After a while Rome had become the only source of legitimacy so that four Roman Caesars reigned at one same period. One in Rome, one in second Rome -- Istanbul -- one in third Rome -- Moscow -- and one in another Rome -- Vienna -- for which Voltaire was saying that “it was neither holy nor Roman, but a bunch of Germans.” Latin word “universal”, and Greek word “ecumenic” had been the basis of legitimacy until the Westphalian world, which granted particularism’s legitimacy and enabled the triumph of nationalisms in the 19th century. At that time the term “civilization” was used to explain “having manners” or “decency” and it can be seen well at Mirabeau with the meaning of the modus vivendi belonging to the aristocracy. Later, in French again, it regained its universal meaning by covering ages in humanity --chronologically multiple civilizations later --, while German language has always preferred the word “Kultur” instead. At the same period, while France was creating a republican political model of nation on Rousseau-aen views, Germany was to form her own nation model on Sittlichkeit (morality) of Hegel and “Addresses to the German Nation” of Fichte. Or a combination of von Ranke and Lamprecht from historiography, namely the state and the nation.
The Russian Empire, in a search for a modern political identity concept, created a more suitable and useful formulation for her identity purposes, coherent to her current needs as an Empire. Of course, after Alexander II’s reforms which made Count Uvarov’s “Czar-Church-Peoplehood” conception void. That was the book by Nikolay Yakovlevich Danilevsky, “Russia and Europe: A Look at the Cultural and Political Relations of the Slavic World to the Romano-German World” (1875). Danilyevsky, in his book, for the first time categorized the civilization-s and created the concept of civilization in a Westphalian nation-ish modern model with answers to cohesion of the masses with identity formulations. As in Mark Twain’s saying, “history never repeats itself, but often rhymes”, his formulation rhymed with Uvarov’s by referring Czar and autocracy as an imperial (Romanic) loyalty, church as philosophy of Orthodoxy and peoplehood as a more Germanic national essence. (Of course, the term samobytnost’ (uniqueness) for Russia of Slavophile thought which derived from German anthropology and philosophy, helped a lot.) However, it was miraculous in the way that it created an identity which an empire needed for modern politics and transnational domestic and even regional influence. It was so successful that Dostoyevsky followed this categorization in the last years of his life, Leontiev’s Byzantinism idea derived from this categorization, even Bakunin could argue that anarchy would have been successful only in Russian and Ottoman Empires based on this categorization of civilizations.
Eliacik: This was the first plural use of civilization?
Turker: Yes, and this was followed only in Britain, not surprisingly, as another empire’s needs were similar to Russia’s. Spengler, first, in 1919, in his book “The Decline of the West” continued to use the plural form of civilization. Later Toynbee, in 1934, in his book “A Study of History” based his ideas on civilization-s. (Continental Europe was still using the term singular principally, but like L’École des Annales of France with Braudel’s historical related periodical approach with the term “synthétique geographies” or not using at all like in Germany.) This British Tory mind was imported to the US by Leo Strauss, who was followed by pupils Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. So, the concept of multiple rival civilizations is not something the US, the UK, or Russia are stranger to.
Although the continental European mind is far away from the concept, the EU itself can be accepted as an example of the concept, especially with the founding ideas of Alexander Kojève, who was a Hegelian philosopher and Russian immigrant and familiar with the ideas of Danilyevsky. Also, China with the pattern of imperial thinking and self-naming Zhongguo, which means the middle-world, is not far away to the concept.
Eliacik: And you argue that this formulation is possible for the world today?
Turker: Yes, not a wish, not a worry, but possible, I assume. “Wie es gewesen” (how it has been) principle takes me to that, by intuitions or guesstimates depending on given situation of the US, China and international politics. First of all, the concept is flexible enough to involve a large area of the world with its meaning larger than culture or nation and again flexible enough than the terms of ideology. It can be called like a co-existence pacifique of cultures and nations under a larger tolerant umbrella (Although it can be easily argued that civitas and culture are rivals with a reference to Terry Eagleton). Also, it is not strict like an ideological bloc-forming and welcomes different political patterns with narrow red lines. After it is understood well that post-nationalistic trends are just utopical and democracy should be described wider nowadays, with more applicable approaches and by paying regard to different patterns compared to the Chinese political system; the flexible concept of civilization can be useful to contain larger alliances. Also, although it is particularistic in nature, by the call for universalism it can be inviting and attractive. Maybe more importantly, it has a basis of nearly two hundred years of westernization for the countries which can be called (on the Shores of the West) with a reference to Jacques Rancière. It has a larger geographical advantage, from Japan to India; even from the post-Soviet geography by mutating/underlining the meaning of the term Eurasia -- which is used contradictory to the West currently -- to Europeanized Asia, to larger Middle East with an interpretation of “Mediterranean roots” including Islam to Judeo-Christian heritage. Finally, it can be argued that, the need for a new telos and the promise for a new habitus and modus vivendi -- which all are the strongest sides for the West in the new rivalry -- are probable and accomplishable with a discourse of civilizations. In this framework, it can be argued that the German use of Kultur (culture) and even Kulturkampf (culture war) would be the essence of the world in the short term.
Instead of the 19th century alliances based on nationalisms and history or the 20th century alliances based on blocs and ideologies -- but including nationalism as well -- a 21st century world can be founded on civilizations and sociology (maybe culturology or anthropo-philosophy) -- including ideological heritages and national sovereignties. What we should hope is, that kind of configuration of world politics would bring a more peaceful and stable system and would not remind us Bauman’s view on fascism that it was a natural and compulsory result of modernity itself.
Eliacik: But you are not optimistic?
Turker: It will be the second time I refer late Albright today. She once said that she was an optimist who worried a lot, and I might say I am a pessimist who rarely gets his hopes up. This, what we live, looks like the long 19th century where all the world was rebuilt. It began at the last quarter of 18th century and ended at the mid-20th century. It is today even much more complicated. The loss of public is my main worry for today. And I do not see an environment where public can be formed again, yet… The basic principles like, humanity, peace, justice, enlightenment and democracy are safe shelters, I assume after all, so as to be more optimistic…
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