25 March 2022

Neoliberalism and the State

An Interview with Pınar Bedirhanoğlu

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu

In this interview for textum‘s special series on neoliberalism, Kübra Altaytaş and Ozan Sisospoke with Pınar Bedirhanoğlu about “neoliberalism and the state”, in a broad intellectual exchange, which touched on issues ranging from the capitalist state to the modern state form, from the political Islamist transformation of society in Turkey to corruption across the globe, from class relations transformed by financialisation to labour struggles. We hope that this in-depth discussion will serve to clear up confusion about the state-market-society triangle, on which there has been much debate but no consensus has yet been reached.


*Who is Pınar Bedirhanoğlu?                                                    

Having lately placed the neoliberal transformation of the state security apparatus at the centre of her scientific inquiries, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Pınar Bedirhanoğlu stands out for her extensive research, spanning a wide spectrum from global political economy to Marxist theory of the state, from financialisation processes to neoliberal policies against corruption in the Global South. Bedirhanoğlu’s work, published in both English and Turkish, and also translated into other languages, involves profound analyses of such crucial phenomena as the transformation of the state, state-capital relations, and privatisation and financialisation, in particular, in Turkey. Bedirhanoğlu, who conducted research as a visiting professor in the Department of Politics at York University during the 2019-2020 academic year, continues her scholarly work in the Department of International Relations at the Middle East Technical University. She is the co-author of Turkey’s New State in the Making: Transformations in Legality, Economy and Coercion, published by ZED Books in August 2020.

**This interview, originally held in Turkish, was first published by textum on January 26, 2021. The interview was translated into English by Ozan Siso, and revised by Pınar Bedirhanoğlu.

Detail from the frontispiece for Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, designed by Abraham Bosse and dated 1651. The quote in Latin, at the top of the image, is taken from the Bible (Iob 41: 24) and reads: “There is no power upon earth to be compared to him”

In one of his speeches, in November 2020, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current President of Turkey, stated that the fate of his party has merged with that of the country. He emphasised that “Turkey will roll into a pit of uncertainty, instability, political and financial headlock” in the event of the defeat of the Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). Erdoğan argues that this merger is a result of the present conjuncture. Provided said conditions, is it really possible to identify the future of the country with that of the AKP?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: We observe that this kind of rhetoric has become part of Erdoğan’s discourse especially since 2014. From that year onwards, he started making statements about a rather ambiguous ‘finance lobby’ and its conspiracies against Turkey. Erdoğan gradually enriched this rhetoric with an emphasis on the unity of the country against the operations by Western actors aimed at weakening Turkey. On the one hand, Erdoğan’s discourse is a by-product of his efforts to hold the reins of power. On the other hand, his recourse to such a rhetoric after 2014 should also be duly considered. In order to apprehend his discursive break in 2014, it is pertinent to concisely recall the dynamics of financialisation that the AKP implemented until then. In the aftermath of the 2008 global capitalist crisis, the United States (US) gave a new impetus to monetary expansionist policies, which were already on the agenda after the 2001 crisis on a global scale. We see by 2013 that, for the first time, the US Federal Reserve System (also known as the Fed) made an effort to contain monetary expansion. In the world markets, this effort resulted in a tendency of hot money flowing back to developed capitalist countries from 2013-2014 onwards. This process naturally had a devastating effect on the Southern countries. Largely indebted countries such as Turkey, which were in fact locked into debt-cycling to manage their economy during the period of 2001-2013, have been directly affected by the monetary contraction experienced following 2013. As the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world in March 2020, the Fed has returned to monetary expansion once again. This time, however, the uncertainties of the pandemic conditions force finance capital to be cautious in steering for the Southern countries.

We witnessed monetary expansion in global markets systematically triggering private debt in Turkey during the post-2001 period. Since 2001, not only business groups but also households have rapidly become indebted or, to put it more precisely, encouraged by the state to borrow. During this time, government indebtedness also increased despite the decrease in its share in the general debt ratio. Just to remind the reader, the state we’re talking about here is the state that has been ruled by AKP governments since November 2002. In sum, the subordination of the state, enterprises and labour – in other words, social relations in general – to capital in Turkey gradually deepened through indebtedness during the AKP’s rule. We can say that Erdoğan’s rhetoric that the AKP is fighting a war of independence has been developed against the concrete implications of this subordination.

In the most general sense, the subordination to capital is reflected in the imposition of the capitalist market on the totality of social relations as an imperative. This imposition manifests itself by rendering the state, enterprises and labour unable to reproduce themselves outside of the market. Given the increasing pressure indebtedness creates on social relations, it can be said that financialisation processes have, furthermore, deepened the subordination to capital on a global scale. Therefore, financialisation cannot be reduced to such phenomena as increased debt of companies or the financial markets becoming more complex through derivatives and securitisation. At another level of abstraction, financialisation is the expression of the increased subordination of social relations, labour and the state to capital.

When evaluated from the perspective of labour, financialisation corresponds to being subject to a novel, generalised and deepened mechanism of market discipline which no longer allows labour to live without debt. Until the 1990s, labouring classes were trying to sell their labour power for a certain wage and live on it. That is to say, the subordination to capital or capitalist market discipline was experienced by labour as a pressure to find employment. The class discipline that has been engendered by financialisation since the 1990s began to take shape through indebtedness. The violence of the capitalist market on labour has since increased with financialisation. Perhaps a more nuanced discussion is needed for Western capitalism; however, if we are to interpret financialisation with reference to Lapavitsas’s work, we can say that the indebtedness of the labouring classes has emerged not only in the global Southern countries but throughout the world as a new phenomenon.C. Lapavitsas (2009) “Financialised Capitalism: Crisis and Financial Expropriation”, Historical Materialism, 17(2), 114-148.I therefore argue that there has been a general historical transformation in the subordination to capital along with financialisation. Today, financialisation is a class dynamic that must be taken into account when considering the domination of capital in a particular social context or over a state.

The financialisation of world capitalism has also changed the conditions of reproduction for the Turkish state. During the first twelve years of its rule, the AKP government rapidly and robustly integrated the country’s economy with that of global capitalism through financialisation. The AKP realised this integration quite recklessly for it sought not to give up the opportunities provided by financialisation at the time. The outcome of this policy has been a country where everyone is in debt and dependent on debt rollover, one that is directly affected by the direction of money flow in world markets. Erdoğan’s rhetoric against the “finance lobby” is aimed at concealing his responsibility in this matter. On the flipside, attracting money to the country is essential for the reproduction of all social sections; this discourse also creates the illusion that government and society share common ground through indebtedness, and it probably resonates with the debtors. However, we need to combine this analysis with a political one in order to understand why the AKP’s crisis has become Turkey’s crisis.

Even though you explain the outbreak of the current crisis as a consequence of processes of financialisation, you still underline the particular role the AKP played as well. Can you explain the reasons for this?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: I’ve already said that in an environment of monetary abundance that marked world markets in the 2000s, Turkish capitalism had articulated with world capitalism through financialisation. Throughout the process that began in 2002 and lasted until 2013-2014, the AKP had the opportunity to implement a range of policies to accelerate the neoliberal transformation of capitalism in Turkey on relatively comfortable grounds, with the funds received from both the EU and the wide monetary opportunities offered by the global markets. In other words, the AKP made the most out of the extraordinary expansion of international credit opportunities during these years in order to consolidate its power in Turkey. This was something that previous governments could not do. For example, it legislated the Labour Law, which was approved in 2003 and laid the legal basis for the flexibility of labour markets, and privatised large-scale and profitable state enterprises. Among the products of this period are also the neoliberal transformation of agriculture and the commercialisation of land. Following this agricultural transformation, large rural populations were relocated in urban zones and this process was economically managed in this global environment of abundant money and credit.

An important opportunity that monetary expansionism offered to AKP was an improvement in the quality of life of the subordinate classes. Here, it should be noted that tight monetary policies, which are subject to many seminal debates within Europe, have not been rigorously applied in Turkey. To the contrary, the 2000s were a decade of general enrichment, especially for the subordinate classes. One should definitely add to this the mechanisms of redistribution managed by the AKP. As a result, the poor got better off in the 2000s thanks to the AKP. Of course, this was a period of loss of rights for the relatively better off segments of labour, which until then had job security, benefited from the health services provided by the state and were able to make retirement plans. However, for those who could not even dream of employment with job security, or enter through the doors of a hospital until then, it was a time of real change for the good, even if through indebtedness. This is, in fact, the material basis of the AKP’s ability to continue getting the majority of the votes of the lower classes in the eighteenth year of its neoliberal rule.

In the period between 2002 and 2013, AKP strengthened its power by combining this material base with a vigorous political-ideological discourse. I think that the principal driving force of the AKP as a political party in this process has not been neoliberalism but Islamism. In my opinion, the political agenda applied and defined by the AKP is shaped by Islamism. Neoliberalism and especially financialisation gave AKP cadres enormous opportunities to implement its agenda. The political Islamist transformation of society was carried out in an environment of increased prosperity through indebtedness. It is also true that the leading figures among AKP cadres, Erdoğan first and foremost, share a mercantile mentality; nonetheless, I do not believe that this autogenously makes AKP cadres neoliberal. For AKP cadres, neoliberalism was a tool that was seamlessly adopted to attain the goal. However, along with the implementation of neoliberal policies, most notably those facilitating financialisation, the entirety of the state and society found itself under massive pressure of monetary discipline. It was in this way that the conditions for the present crisis of Turkish capitalism as well as that of the AKP were put in place.

To explain briefly, the subordinate classes, which were defined by the AKP as the “periphery” against the “Kemalist core,” were integrated into the party’s political line by means of both the expansion of their consumption capabilities through indebtedness, and this centre-periphery rhetoric, which together turned them into the loyal voting base of the AKP. In the eyes of these poor sectors, they have been saved by the AKP from many predicaments – predicaments which are also indispensable to the state of indebtedness – throughout the 2000s. In my judgement, it is not easy to shake this myth of the “saviour” constituted during the AKP’s protracted rule. Notwithstanding, it seems also unlikely that they will be able to readily reproduce this myth of salvation in the new crisis environment, which might easily lead to a crash, within the context of the clearance period in the making in financial markets. Capital demands high returns, and accordingly high interest rates, in order to settle in the country today. Capital’s demand for high interest rates, by directly complicating the conditions of debt rollover for the subordinate classes, implies also that the Ponzi scheme established so far has finally come to an end. Therefore, we have now entered a new era of financialisation, where the demands for profit of capital and the political concerns of the AKP stand in conflict.

Why does this conflict signify a crisis for Turkey as a whole? To answer this, it is necessary to emphasise the alterations made to the historical class equilibria of Turkish capitalism by the AKP, through financialisation. Social segments that the AKP is politically bound up with, through material means provided by financialisation, are also those who had been pacified in Turkey’s uneven modernisation process, through various political-cultural strategies until the AKP’s ascendance to power. The AKP has politicised these segments with its Islamist concerns to such an extent that no other conservative party would perhaps dare to. Put in other words, by turning them into politically active and demanding people, the AKP has constituted Turkey’s “dangerous classes.” In today’s market conditions, where the demands of these poor people can hardly be met and, therefore, serious decline in their living conditions are predicted, it seems that the question of how to control these AKP-revived “dangerous classes” is no longer solely the AKP’s concern. What is interesting is that the AKP, with its hitherto “saviour myth,” seems to be still the only political force capable of managing the social reactions of these classes. Therefore, today, the AKP has not only transformed its own crisis into the crisis of Turkish capitalism, but also made Turkey’s political establishment dependent on its rule.

On the other hand, it would not be appropriate to explain the post-2014 period through Islamism alone. The process we are going through is a state of complete crisis. In this crisis, the AKP tries to stay in power by trying all kinds of strategies. This very reflex itself demonstrates that the party we are faced with is in fact not an ordinary party of the establishment. As the AKP resorts to manifold strategies, ordinary political cycles of the parliamentary system do not function as they should do, preventing a stable change in government, as exemplified in the aftermath of the June 2015 general elections and, thereby, the political crisis deepens. Today, the economic crises in Turkey take mostly the form of currency crises. In addition to this, there is the ongoing debt crisis. This implies that the crisis we encounter today is at the same time a class crisis. Taking into account all of this, I think we are going through a political crisis that emerged as a result of the historical ruptures financialisation has engendered within capitalist relations of production. This crisis also became a state crisis when the government tried to overcome it through the transition to the Presidential System of Government (Turkish: Cumhurbaşkanlığı Hükümet Sistemi, CHS). Consequently, the AKP’s crisis has become Turkey’s crisis in every respect.

Nonetheless, let us not leave out that capitalism is also in crisis on a global scale. Compared to the previous periods of major crisis, US hegemony today is going through one of its most fragile phases ever. This is, as far as I am concerned, a rather unique phase in which US hegemony is both very strong and very weak. From one perspective, this crisis is an inherent product of capitalism, and part of this has to do with the very fact that world capitalism today is very strongly financialised. As a matter of fact, operations by all large conglomerates of capital today are financialised. It is crucial for these groups that the financial markets experience only predictable shocks. In this environment, the US stands out as the sole political force that can steer and direct the immense, self-multiplying and increasingly more and more complex financial markets. On the flip side, financialisation, as a process actually instigated by the US itself, has redefined the hegemonic power of the US. In this relationship of mutual dependence, global markets take sudden new directions just with a statement made by the Fed. We will watch and see how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this process. To sum up, turning back to Turkey in the shadow of such hegemonic crises, we observe that modern bourgeois politics has attained its limits in coping with the current crises of the capitalist relations of production. To what extent are these limits a product of the developments that arose particularly in Turkey and as a result of the Islamist preferences of the AKP? To what extent do these limits point to the inability of the modern state form to handle the contradictions of financialised capitalism? We need time to answer these questions.

What do you mean by the concept of “modern state form”? If we are to speak from within the framework of Marxist state theory, does this concept offer an analysis that goes beyond those predominantly confined within the boundaries of liberal ontology? Moreover, what strategic importance can the concept of “modern state form” have for us in struggles over the state today?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: What I mean by the modern state form is the parliamentary form of the capitalist state that reproduces itself in a class-neutral institutionality and tries to fulfil its claim to popular sovereignty through periodic general elections. I do not think that Marxists have sufficiently discussed this state form, which historically emerged during the transition process of European feudal monarchies to capitalism, via complex and multi-layered class and interstate struggles. One notable exception to this is Heide Gerstenberger’s 2007 book, Impersonal Power: History and Theory of the Bourgeois State.H. Gerstenberger (2007) Impersonal Power, History and Theory of the Bourgeois State, Leiden and Boston, Brill.Even though Gerstenberger does not rethink the concept of the modern bourgeois state within the framework of Marxist state theory, she helps us to understand that this particular state form did not emerge as a necessity in the historical development of capitalism. In other words, capitalism and the modern bourgeois state form are not indispensable pairs. In Marxist state theory, the concepts of capitalist state and modern bourgeois state are often used synonymously. This will maybe sound very speculative, but had the modern state form been defined on the example of the English constitutional monarchy tradition only, which sanctified the rule of law without necessarily coming any closer to the claim of equality of all before the law, we might have been speaking of a form of capitalist state that preserved or revised some of the basic feudal political institutions to date.

Nevertheless, the universalised historical form of the capitalist state in today’s world, which was shaped by the long-term development of European capitalism, is the state model in which all citizens are considered equal before the law and stipulated to partake in its administration by the way of elections. Marxists have so far rightly deemed it a political goal to reveal the class content of the capitalist state, which reproduces itself thus in an apparently class-neutral way, and attempted to identify by which mediations the state and capital are interconnected. I think the fundamental flaw in this vital political effort has been leaving the analysis of the modern bourgeois state to Weberian theories by failing to address it within a class-based and historical analysis.

However, the “modern bourgeois” state form is not a form of state produced by the bourgeoisie alone. To the contrary, we see upon historical investigation that the modern bourgeois state is a necessary bourgeois class response to the social struggles of the 19th century, and it bears the hallmark of those struggles. This state form, which emerged for the first time with the French Revolution, is the product of a very specific historical process. Let us not forget that the essential intent of the Vienna agreement of 1815 was to bring the post-revolutionary political and class relations back under ruling-class control in Europe. This process, which was triggered by the French Revolution and not yet tamed through powerful market discipline, was shaped in response to the destructive anger of the lower classes, who took to the streets at every opportunity with anti-establishment demands. We speak of a terrifying destructiveness that openly threatened the ruling classes of that period. The modern form of the state was established in such a historical period when these angry masses struggled to death against capital trying to expropriate them. This state form was not a functional requirement of capitalism; it is rather a form of state that has been formed incidentally, in the course of history, through struggle. Otherwise, why would the ruling classes spontaneously offer equality, even if only before the law, to the classes they strived to dominate?

We trace the historical development of the modern bourgeois state form from the Jacobin period of the French Revolution to the present. It is difficult to properly discuss this whole process of political development here. Nevertheless, it should be emphasised that this process has been a lengthy one, determined by trial and error by inter-state relations as well as class and political struggles. Two important points should not be overlooked in this discussion. First, the modern bourgeois state emerged as a response to the robust social struggles that marked Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Second, the universalisation of this state form was made possible through its adoption as a model in the former colonies, which gained their political independence from European powers in the post-1945 period. This historical reading tells us that the modern state form has been established not only by the bourgeoisie but also by the struggles of the working masses and the exploited peoples of the world. Of course, this state form is also one that is intertwined with nationalism, which has been quite effective in absorbing and/or pacifying these struggles. However, I think that the critical space that the irresolvable tension between the class-neutral appearance and the class content of the modern bourgeois state form has opened up for emancipatory social struggles is not one that could be easily discarded today.

I think it is very important to remember this, especially today, when the processes of authoritarianism observed in many countries of the world target the political institutions that are identified with this state form. These authoritarian processes are the result of the neoliberal transformation of the state, to the advantage of capital, since the 1980s. Notwithstanding this, we need to also consider that the assault against modern parliamentary state practices, which are intensifying today, take place in a period in which labour has already been extraordinarily weakened against capital from a historical point of view. I think that these transformative tendencies are not limited to Turkey. The basic institutions of the modern bourgeois state, which have, over the years, been the main object of criticism for Marxists, are being simultaneously destroyed today in many countries of the world. In an era when labour has little power to preserve its historical gains provided by the modern state form, let alone its ability to radicalise the class contradictions engraved in the modern bourgeois state, the prospect for the development of a new pro-labour state seems extremely unlikely. If the form of the state is historically determined by class struggles, it is more likely that the form in the making today bears the stamp of capital rather than that of labour. Consequently, contemplating the modern bourgeois state in such a historical process of change can provide us with a new vision in identifying pro-labour strategies in political struggles over the state.

You define the modern state as a state form that has engraved class neutrality in its institutional form and has in due course become universal; so, how does its character change today? Can we say that the modern state form, which stands out with its class-neutral appearance, is under threat in today’s capitalism?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: To begin with, the class-neutral form of the state and class struggles are changed, transformed, and experienced in diverse ways across the globe, because of the tension between this class-neutral form of the state and the capitalist relations of production within which it exists. This process should be examined at different levels of abstraction. By definition, the capitalist state is a state that is defined by the separation of the political and economic spheres and reproduces itself within capitalist relations of production. In defining the capitalist state as such, Simon Clarke does not actually assert anything about the institutional content or the class neutrality of this state.Clarke, S. (1991) “State, Class Struggle and the Reproduction of Capital” in S. Clarke (ed.) The State Debate, Macmillan: London, 183-203. Rather, this definition implies that the capitalist state emerges as a social relationship that reproduces itself within the capitalist relations of production– that is, within all the contradictions of these relations. Different forms that the capitalist state has taken historically, through class struggle, bring about its reproduction in different institutional configurations. Diverse political forms that the capitalist state has taken so far within the historically specific class dynamics of different countries are already important objects of analysis in Marxist debates about the state. The modern bourgeois state is another long-term historical class form, which I propose to be included in these debates. In my opinion, different state forms in different countries need to be taken into consideration within the political boundaries drawn by this long-term and generalised historical form of the capitalist state.

It is possible to better grasp the development of the modern bourgeois state in Turkey, as an institutional form determined by class struggle, by tracing the alterations within the legal field. For instance, it is often stressed today that the difficulties we face within the field of law are beyond those during the 1980 coup d’état period, infamously remembered for mass torture and executions. What is meant by this is that there existed even back then the possibility of getting a fair decision from the courts within the institutional set up of the modern bourgeois state, defined by its claim to class-neutrality, despite the dire conditions of the 1980 coup, such as torture. What is being rapidly lost in contemporary Turkey, where the law is privatised, is this possibility per se. The counter-argument to this, i.e. that the rule of law is a necessity for capital, is gradually losing its meaning today. Indeed, many of the problems that directly concern global capital, in particular, have long been resolved by international courts. That being the case, we are passing through a phase where equality before the law evidently ceases to exist for individual persons in Turkey. As we assume that this situation cannot be legalised, we want to believe that this is only a temporary period.

The public character of the state, which the state assumes in the context of its modern bourgeois historical form, and its reflections in the legal arena have been subjected to serious modifications, even transformations since the 1980s. I am speaking of a change beyond the much-discussed privatisations or public-private partnerships. For instance, state security apparatuses are getting rapidly privatised all over the world today. This dynamic does not only imply the opening of the security space to capital accumulation; it also illustrates that capital has begun to directly get involved in the safe reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. This question has been discussed extensively in the works of Funda Hülagü and Çağlar Dölek, with whom I have been working on the modern bourgeois state.Ç. Dölek (2011) “Privatisation of Security and Transformation of the Modern Bourgeois State in the Neoliberal Era: The Case of Turkey”, Unpublished MSc Thesis, METU Ankara; Ç. Dölek (2015) “Privatisation of Security as a State-Led and Class-Driven Process: The Case of Turkey”, Science and Society, 79(3): 414-441; F. Hülagü (2017) “Post–Cold War Police Reform and the Transformation of the Modern Political Field: Reflections from Turkey”, Science and Society, 81(1): 98-123; F. Hülagü (2021) Police Reform in Turkey: Human Security, Gender and State Violence Under Erdogan, IB Tauris/Bloomsbury Publishing.The police and local powerholders today build relations that are more intimate than ever before, and that clearly bypass the public organisation of the state. It is within this context that the security structures of states are getting transformed simultaneously on a world scale.

To give a direct answer to your question, the class-neutral appearance shaped within the public institutional set up of the state in such areas as security and law is a product of centuries-long processes. Moreover, this state form has also created its own politics throughout this process. Therefore, this form cannot be expected to disappear easily from one day to the next. In our scholarly studies, with Funda and Çağlar, we focus on the dimensions of class struggles today that revolve around the modern bourgeois form of the state, and draw attention to the class tensions and contradictions that arise within these struggles.P. Bedirhanoğlu, Ç. Dölek and F. Hülagü (2016) “The Transformation of Internal Security and of the State in Turkey during the AKP Rule: A Class-Based Analysis”, JEP: Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, XXXII (1/2), in Ilker Ataç and Joachim Becker (ed.), Turkey: The Politics of National Conservatism, 21-41; P. Bedirhanoğlu, Ç. Dölek, F. Hülagü and Ö. Kaygusuz (ed.) (2020) Turkey’s New State in the Making: Transformations in Legality, Economy, and Coercion, London, ZED Books. I also try to draw attention to a blind spot in Marxist theories of the state by emphasising that the modern bourgeois form of the capitalist state with its class-neutral appearance is historical and that there is no necessary overlap between them.

Can we say that the alliances of different power groups formed within capitalist relations, and the reflection in the state of social struggles against capitalism, serve to hide the class nature of the state?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: This is, on the one hand, true. The struggles of different power alliances, even those of labour fought through the state, serve to reproduce the class-neutral appearance of the modern bourgeois state. Nonetheless, the same struggles can also strain the conditions of its reproduction. After all, the modern bourgeois form of the capitalist state, historically determined by class struggle, may change and get transformed again through class struggles. The democratic possibilities in this form may be radicalised or the democratic claim of this form may be abandoned altogether. This situation reminds us that the positions obtained within the state should not be easily jettisoned. This is also a warning to those who take for granted the modern bourgeois parliamentary form of the capitalist state either in its liberal or authoritarian versions.

At this point one could justifiably ask this question: will not the disappearance of the modern bourgeois state form along with its claim to democracy, which has successfully concealed the class essence of the capitalist state up until now, open up more space for emancipatory social struggles? I don’t have an answer to this question, but let me draw attention to an important point that we should take into account while thinking over this question: capitalism marks only a very short period in human history marked by class inequalities. Before capitalism, there was a social order in which all class antagonisms were experienced face to face and with utmost harshness. The subject of exploitation was known, and violence was evident. It wasn’t until the 18th century that these oppositions evolved into a generalised demand for equality. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the manifestation of inequalities will have good results, that a liberating struggle will rise from the crises created by the deepening inequalities, and that a more egalitarian system will thereby be established. However, there are concrete historical examples of how naked class inequalities before the 18th century could be managed through overt violence and religious repression.

Nonetheless, we should also remember that in the short history of capitalism, the universalisation of the modern bourgeois state in the nation-state form is also a very recent development. I believe that we should understand the dissatisfaction expressed by neoliberal ideologues such as Hayek or Buchanan against democracy, as an extension of this form. To put it in the historical class context, Hayek’s concerns about the tyranny of the majority F. Hayek (1992/1979) “Majority Opinion and Contemporary Democracy” in A. Levine (ed.) The State and Its Critics, Vol.I, Aldershot, England, Edward Elgar, 231-249. and Buchanan’s warnings that democracy without being reinforced by a constitution would threaten, rather than protect, individual freedoms – and, of course, his expressive silence about who would set these constitutions –J. M. Buchanan (1985) “Chapter 23: Constitutional Democracy, Individual Liberty, and Political Equality” in J. M. Buchanan, Liberty, Market and State, Political Economy in the 1980s, New York, New York University Press, 248-260. demonstrate that the neoliberals’ only concern has not been the welfare state of the post-1945 era. The German Ordoliberal aspiration for an authoritarian liberal state, as Bonefeld reminds us, should be reconsidered in this context.W. Bonefeld (2017) The Strong State and the Free Economy, London, Rowman and Littlefield.

In fact, it seems that financialisation processes have provided an effective pro-capital solution to such concerns raised by Hayek, Buchanan and German Ordoliberals in the neoliberal era. One of the most fundamental class dynamics that prevents states from threatening “individual freedoms,” which can be read as the freedom of capital, is financialisation. By advising, in its own language, regarding which freedoms should preferably be restricted, neglected, or even violated, financialisation prompts states to seek creative solutions in managing crises that arise in different conditions. It can be said that the search for an “authoritarian liberal state,” which capital has always longed for, has entered a new phase owing to neoliberal financialisation. Political experiments on how such a state is going to be institutionalised are carried out under the conditions determined by the global common pressure of financialisation processes in many countries of the world today. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the solid constitution, which Buchanan demanded, is no longer needed from the viewpoint of capital.

You assign a dominant role to financialisation in drawing the capitalist boundaries of the state. What are the terms through which you discuss the relationship of the state with different sections of capital?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: We need to reconsider the relations of different sections of capital to the state within the historical specificities of the global process of capital accumulation and take into account how the state in question reproduces itself in this process. Simon Clarke defines these relations as political class relations and assigns them a critical role in determining the political form of the state. S. Clarke (1992) “The Global Accumulation of Capital and the Periodisation of the Capitalist State Form” in W.Bonefeld, R.Gunn and K.Psychopedis (ed.) Open Marxism, Vol.I, Dialectics and History, London, Pluto Press, 133-150. But, as I also said before, he asserts that the capitalist form of the state is determined, not by these relations, but by money, which is one of the main mediations between the state and the process of global capital accumulation.

I find this formulation very important in terms of understanding AKP-capital relations in Turkey. In the face of the politically strained relations between the AKP and Istanbul-based large and internationalised capital, what I have found very problematic, from the very beginning, is to shift the debate to the relationship of the AKP with small and medium-sized “Anatolian” capital in order to demonstrate that the AKP is a party serving capital. I do not hesitate to define this latter relationship as one of mutual dependence in which the state dominates. These business groups need the support of the AKP government in order to survive fierce global competition, and to the extent that they receive this support, they support the AKP government politically. On the other hand, this relationship is of political significance for the AKP. These enterprises employ more than 70 percent of the working population in Turkey and control the (undissolving) electoral base of the AKP. This relationship does not prove to us that the AKP is either a pro-capital or a pro-labour party. This relationship basically describes how the AKP government manages its own class contradictions within the capitalist boundaries drawn by financialisation – which implies employing conservative strategies due to the conservative nature of both the AKP and this section of capital. The AKP strives to stay in power by managing the perpetual crises of financialised Turkish capitalism with Islamist conservative and repressive political strategies.

The AKP has ruled Turkey in the last eighteen years as an Islamist party with an anti-Western rhetoric. One of the most politically striking aspects of the AKP-led neoliberal transformation process of the state in Turkey, in my opinion, is that despite this anti-Western rhetoric, the AKP has further deepened the state’s dependence on the West in parallel with the increase of financial domination over the state. The AKP will probably – and ironically – go down in the history of Turkey as the government which attached the country the most to the West. This alone testifies to the limits of all political dreams, rigidly imposed by financialisation today.

International financial institutions, identified with the West, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), which play a driving role in the financialisation processes, repeatedly bring up the issue of corruption by emphasising the principles of “transparency” and “accountability”. Corruption also stands out as a fundamental object of political criticism in the internal debates of countries. What are the implications of these criticisms of corruption for the transformation process of the public institutional character of the state?

Pınar Bedirhanoğlu: It is inevitable that the transformation of the public character of the state will raise the issue of corruption, which is generally defined as the use of public power for private interests. At this point, however, rather than saying that there is a real debate on corruption, it is more suitable to state that the struggles over the transformation of the state’s public character are conducted via corruption. Let me broach the subject this way: on the one hand, corruption is inevitable due to the bourgeois class content of the capitalist state, given the relations of capitalist production, which reproduce themselves within the constantly changing conditions and struggles the define the process of capital accumulation, also require the constant redrawing of the boundaries between the public and private spheres. On the other hand, the preservation of the modern, class-neutral and public appearance of the state requires the legal fixation of the public-private divide, which is indeed constantly redefined in practice, and the definition of some acts as corruption. These tensions and contradictions, inherent in the modern bourgeois state, become easily visible, especially in times of critical changes in the processes of capital accumulation. In fact, it is during these times that states have to manage the new de facto borders imposed by such changes on the public-private divide, despite the existing laws. In relation to this, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves of Bonefeld’s remark that order is not established by law but instead establishes law.W. Bonefeld (2006) “Democracy and Dictatorship: Means and Ends of the State”, Critique, 34(3), 237-252. In the process of instituting the new order, states become both the domains of this change and the targets of criticisms of corruption by those who lost due to the change of affairs. Therefore, it is not surprising that the issue of corruption has always been on the agenda in the neoliberal era, which indeed caused significant changes in both capital-labour and intra-capital relations.

Moreover, even stressing the inevitability of corruption in capitalism on the basis of the general definition of corruption based on the public-private divide is not sufficient to examine the relationship between corruption and capitalism. As anthropological studies have well demonstrated, corruption is what the system itself is for the broad masses of people, who constantly experience the direct results of class practices inherent in capitalism. Seeing corruption in this way is an indication that the people are aware of the reality they live in and do not take the modern state’s claim to class-neutrality seriously. In other words, the modern definition of corruption, which narrows down the term to the use of public office for private purposes, finds no echo in the popular masses. For them, a world without corruption is a world with justice – something that has never happened anyway. For this reason, it would be more accurate to see the current situation as the further unfolding of class relations, rather than as corruption caused by the erosion of the public domain.

If we return to the issue of corruption, as a strategy of struggle that marks critical periods of change and transformation, such as the one under neoliberalism, it is imperative to underline that there are indeed power relations within these struggles that determine what is going to be defined as corruption and at what point.For details of the examples below on this subject, see also: P. Bedirhanoğlu (2007) “The Neoliberal Discourse on Corruption as a Means of Consent-building: Reflections from Post-crisis Turkey”, Third World Quarterly, 28(7), 1239-1254.To give an example from Turkey, no one was unaware of the corruption during the Özal period in the 1980s, for instance, when neoliberalism was first popularised. Nevertheless, no one in the international arena discussed corruption in Turkey at that time. The fact that international actors, such as the IMF and the World Bank, raise the issue of corruption as a problem is mostly a reflection of their concern about finding solutions to the burning problems of the West. To give an example, the international agreement opened for signature by the OECD, in the name of anti-bribery in 1994, aimed to regulate competition among Western companies in a period when the former Eastern Bloc was opened up to the looting of these companies, following the collapse of the USSR. As an IMF official explicitly remarked at the time, the pioneers of said agreement were US companies, which did not have the ability to account for their bribes as expenses, and thereby deduct them from their taxes, due to US law – a benefit which their European counterparts did enjoy.

It is not surprising that the argument for “crony capitalism” was first put forward by the IMF in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. With this concept, the IMF tried to attribute the responsibility of the crisis to the once “miraculous” Asian tigers, and to the corrupt relations in these countries, which remained somehow unnoticed until then. Let us recall that this conception made its entrance onto the Turkish scene in 2001, when Kemal Derviş was running negotiations with the IMF. Going back to a more recent period, we should ask ourselves whether there was no problem of corruption in the first period of the AKP government. We see indeed an extremely corrupt government in the first period of the AKP’s rule as well, even though this period is renowned as one of great democratic achievements. However, nobody discussed the AKP’s malpractices of corruption during this time. In sum, we should perhaps interpret the rise of corruption in Turkish political debates today as a quest for a politics “without the AKP but still neoliberal.”

It is also possible to take a step further and say that corruption itself has sometimes been used as a carrot to enable neoliberal transformations. Today, liberals also admit that the capitalist transformation process in Russia was a process of neoliberalisation and that the shock therapy policies of the time were equivalent to neoliberal programs in other countries. In that period, we witnessed Yeltsin’s advisors clearly saying that opposition against privatisation had to be bought off somehow or the privatisation policies would be interrupted. This means that in the neoliberal era, corruption was also used, and is still being used, as an effective way to dissolve, or neutralise, political opposition groups and, thereby, weaken their opposition.

In conclusion, I believe there is merit in discussing corruption at a higher level of abstraction if we are to debate corruption. Questions regarding who bribed whom and how, or the level of corruption in politics and state-capital relations can, on the one hand, serve to delegitimise some existing governments, and may also very well be really important and on-point in overthrowing them. However, let us not forget that the inquiries into corruption at this level also reproduce the illusion that a non-corrupt state is possible within capitalist relations of production. Capitalist relations, which are intrinsically based on labour exploitation, are genuinely unjust, corrupt relations. It is a fact that the modern bourgeois state form serves to render this basic injustice invisible through its claims about a public-private divide. This is something I wished to especially underline because this debate on corruption has also allowed me to vocalise something I had emphasised earlier, namely the differentiation between the capitalist state and the modern bourgeois state. What I propose is not an unconditional defence of the modern bourgeois state but the need to reveal and radicalise the emancipatory possibilities, which social struggles have engraved within this state form.

Works Cited in the Interview

Bedirhanoğlu, P. (2007) “The Neoliberal Discourse on Corruption as a Means of Consent-building: Reflections from Post-crisis Turkey”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No.7, October 2007, 1239-1254.

Bedirhanoğlu, P., Ç. Dölek and F. Hülagü (2016) “The Transformation of Internal Security and of the State in Turkey during the AKP Rule: A Class-Based Analysis”, JEP:Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, Vol.XXXII, Issue 1/2, Ilker Ataç and Joachim Becker (eds.), Turkey: The Politics of National Conservatism, 21-41.

Bedirhanoğlu, P., Ç. Dölek, F. Hülagü and Ö. Kaygusuz (eds.) (2020) Turkey’s New State in the Making: Transformations in Legality, Economy, and Coercion, London, ZED Books.

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Dölek, Ç. (2011) “Privatisation of Security and Transformation of the Modern Bourgeois State in the Neoliberal Era: The Case of Turkey”, Unpublished MSc Thesis, METU, Ankara.

Dölek, Ç. (2015) “Privatisation of Security as a State-Led and Class-Driven Process: The Case of Turkey”, Science and Society: A Journal of Marxist Thought and Analysis, 79(3): 414-441.

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Hülagü, F. (2021) Police Reform in Turkey: Human Security, Gender and State Violence Under Erdogan, IB Tauris/Bloomsbury Publishing.

Lapavitsas, C. (2009) “Financialised Capitalism: Crisis and Financial Expropriation”, Historical Materialism, Vol.17, No.2, 114-148.