Where is the State?

On February 6, two earthquakes (Mw 7.8 and 7.5) shook southeastern Turkey, affecting ten cities located on the East Anatolian Fault. Thousands of people lost their lives, were injured, or disappeared. More than a week has passed since the earthquakes, and I feel that the only thing I can do to contain my sadness, powerlessness, and rage is to write. Writing is the way of organizing my thoughts and feelings, and thinking is the only way I can calm myself.

Actually, these days I should be writing an academic article titled “Possibilities to weave a real transformation: With or without the State?” But I can’t do it, because every time I try to concentrate, I find myself scrolling on Twitter, reading messages from hundreds of victims and their families, and listening to their outcries recorded on mobile phones. The vast majority of them ask the same question: Where is the State?

Some say that “it is not the people, but it is the State under the rubble”. Others say, “This is not the State’s excavator! Let the State hear us. Don’t let the government tell you it’s here, because it’s not! We rented this excavator by ourselves, and brought it from Urfa. [Thus] we were able to save my niece.” There are other people who warn those who “run the State” to never come back asking for their votes. Among this group of people, I have seen the interview  on a social media with an elderly man from Kahramanmaraş, who was carrying the lifeless body of a family member in a sack. And every time I see one of these videos, I try to answer the question that these earthquake victims ask themselves: Where is the State? This short article is the result of that.

The modern states we know are capitalist states which impose the interests of one class as the universal interests of human beings. Modern state is the political organization —we could also say the political form— of capitalist societies. If, in a capitalist society, the purpose of the bourgeoisie is to accumulate more and more surplus value and to expand capital, the State is the political form of this purpose. It is what establishes contractual relationships of social interaction (rights, freedoms, and duties of the citizens), blurring the relationships of conflict, that is, class struggle. From this perspective, we can understand some of the actions of the Turkish State which have a clear impact on society and in the framework of the first days after the earthquake.

The first issue that I will point out is that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has built its economic growth program in Turkey on strengthening the construction sector as the dominant one. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey observed, urbanization process and exploitation of land have become an instrument and a primary characteristic for perpetuating capitalism and enriching the capital in contemporary societies. AKP’s political and economic strategy is a good example of this theory. Its neo-liberal urban policies, based on commodifying space, exploiting disqualified labor —which also serves to control the social tension created by unemployment and impoverishment—, and allocating the surplus created by this exploitation to public budgets, have been key to the continuity of AKP’s hegemony.

There is no doubt that this economy policy mainly satisfied the needs of a significant part of the domestic companies –especially companies of the Islamic bourgeoisie– to create and absorb the surplus capital, who invested more and more in the construction sector as a new field of wealth accumulation, which protected them from international competition. In addition, since this economic growth strategy goes hand in hand with the process of privatization of debt, it was also useful to safeguard the interests of the financial sector and the banks of the country. Finally, AKP’s famous “construction amnesty”, also known as zoning reconciliation, that entered into force just before the 2018 Turkish presidential election, served to give permits to the buildings that did not comply with the regulations, and, supposedly, “benefited” approximately 7,600,000 people according to the state’s statistics. With this amnesty (and in a population equivalent to the current population in Catalonia) people gained the legal ownership of their illegally built properties, in most cases, to cover their housing needs. In this context where building housing is detached from the need to cover the right to decent housing; housing is reduced to an investment tool, in other words, to creating more and more wealth and facilitating the absorption of this wealth through the State policy that distributes building licenses very easily as a campaigning strategy. It is not difficult to imagine the amount of vitally important building materials stolen during construction processes over all these years, as a simpler and more “popular” form of the corruption culture that reigns in the country. The idea is, therefore, to understand that in Turkey, urban transformation projects are executed based solely on the benefit of the bourgeoisie. And building earthquake-ready cities is not profitable for the Capital. The State has perfectly fulfilled its role in the capitalist order: to enable the enrichment of the bourgeois class  at the cost of the loss of thousands —if not millions— of human lives.

In the same way, in order to talk about the value of human life in the current socioeconomic order, we need Foucault’s biopolitics concept. He argues that in the 19th century one of the most important transformations of political power consisted in the conservation –but also modification and relocation– of sovereignty’s right: if the old right consisted in taking the lives of its citizens or letting them live, the new right consists in making its citizens live or letting them die. Biopolitics allows sovereignty to intervene in the birth and death of the population, that is, the subject of intervention is not society but an innumerable amount of bodies as a whole, which is the population as a biological problem and as power’s problem. Finally, biopolitics addresses the random and unpredictable events that occur in a given population.

However, his analysis tool is useful for us to better understand the inefficiency and slowness of the Turkish State in first hours and first days of the earthquake, which were extremely important for the rescue of human and animal lives. The second issue I want to raise is that, according to Foucault, although we do not know the approximate number of people that the Turkish State could bear to let die, it seems clear that from its state power it makes a calculation which as “population” we are not made aware of. What is clear to me is that letting the victims of an earthquake die, like the Turkish State did, has nothing to do with the fate of the people, but it has to do with an assessment of the extent to which the State power could withstand the death of its population. We speak of “withstanding” because if there is no living population, there is no power. It is a political decision and not a simple lack of operation, unlike some might think.

Materialist feminism, ecofeminism, and social environmentalism have extensively debated the practices of the sovereignty and political culture of patriarchal states that obviate our dependence on natural goods such as land, water, and air. As Yayo Herrero states, the disaster caused by the earthquake that they want to sell us as natural, is also the result of the patriarchal culture in which there are some privileged individuals who conceive themselves absolutely independent from the land and the very body, and who do not take responsibility for the bodies of other people.

In relation to this, I think it is necessary to reflect on another function of the modern state that has been discussed quite a bit on social media these days. This is the third point I would like to make in this article. This function is related to public education as the means to guarantee exercising responsible, democratic, critical, and free citizenship. The relationship between this function of the modern state –we have already said that it is a capitalist, patriarchal, and ecocidal state– and the tragedy experienced by the population affected by the earthquake deserves special attention, especially in the context of Turkey. Turkey is a country which for 21 years has been governed by AKP, subscribing to political Islam –the global political movement with more dominance in Middle Eastern and North African countries–, and to authoritarian neoliberalism as an economic and political model. In the case at hand, we refer to a capitalist and patriarchal state governed by the ideology of this political Islam. But, in addition, this means that there is no public education that reinforces respect for human rights and respect for life, that puts science before the superstitions of religion, that educates generations to be responsibility-holders who have to live in a country where 42% of its territory is in a powerful seismic peril, and that prevents the development of behaviors that would lead citizens to fraud. This means that the State, as a political apparatus of the capitalist and patriarchal system, can weave a process of regression and Islamization of social relations in a country where a part of the population can feel “gratitude to God” for not dying (and despite living in a building suffering from a high seismic vulnerability) or can believe that the people who lost their lives died due to the term of their life to expire, whichthey had been assigned, had arrived.

The last issue I would like to address is related to the very notion of society. From the materialist perspective, society must be understood as the product of the reciprocal actions between people, in other words, as the sum of relationships that people build. As Marx said, an individual A is not a slave by themselves. Slavery is determined within a particular society, and through that society. However, if there are readers who think I deduce that earthquake survivors create their own living conditions because they ultimately bring a party into government or keep it in government, they would undoubtedly be mistaken. What I want to express is that we cannot understand society as an abstraction positioned against the individual. On the contrary, what shapes and creates society as a historical process are the relationships between people and the interaction of people with nature, that also become social relationships. We are the ones who change the setting and its conditions, and, at the same time, we are the result of the setting and the conditions in which we have grown up. From this point of view, although the earthquake is one of the most destructive natural disasters, we must accept that it is in our hands to considerably reduce its damages, because we have scientific research that identifies seismic zones and develops prevision and protection methods. Pointing out the social and relational context of the destruction implies taking collective responsibility that we have in this tragedy. And again, only in this way we can define human being as a social power which has the power to change and transform.

We can also express this idea like following: companies which, in order to get richer, steal materials during the construction of buildings where their own family or thousands of other families will live, engineers and public employees who do not inspect these constructions, inspectors who grant permits in exchange of bribes, the businessmen who cuts and removes the main columns of a ground floor in order to have a wider space for a gym or a restaurant, as well as those who do not see all this and do not do enough to prevent it… We all have made it possible for this earthquake to become a tragedy. Therefore, maybe the question we must ask is not “Where is the State?” Because the Turkish State, as a strong and authoritarian form of state, fulfills its functions and it is doing exactly what pertains to a state. Instead, we should ask ourselves: Where are we? Who are we?

Faced with the negligence of the Turkish State and the inefficiency of all its search and rescue apparatuses, the peoples of Turkey immediately organized themselves. Miners who have been able to leave their jobs, or people trained or untrained in humanitarian aid rushed to the affected areas to participate in civilian rescue operations. Voluntary health workers and pharmacists; collectives organized around universities, social and cultural centers, opposition political parties; Kurdish movement , and many others joined them. Thus, we have seen how the solidarity capacity, whichthe dominant social order had hitherto weakened, unexpectedly, came to the foreground. Tragedy is shared and it creates cracks in the hegemonic order, opening ways and possibilities for life to be organized in another way. This is what alarms Turkey’s elites. And that is why they intend to steal back the rage that we have seized, and change its meaning again. They want this rage to be chanelled to the refugees, by labeling them as recipients of aid and looters. They want this rage to be directed at the Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, and all non-Muslim minorities who are the cement of Turkish society. In the face of this, there is only one thing to do, as the Zapatista Movement proposes: Be aware that this rage is directed at ourselves and it threatens to destroy us all. That is why we must move from discontent to dignified rage. Either we face it because it is the main obstacle in front of fighting together for our dignity as human beings, or we wait for the future earthquakes that Anatolia bears, trusting that the true Turkish blood that runs in our veins will save us with God’s help.

Originally published in Catalan on February 24, 2023
Translated into English by Pelin Doğan.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Support Velvele English