After losing her job as a journalist in Turkey following her outspoken criticism of an increasingly undemocratic regime, writer Ece Temelkuran set out to alert those in other countries to the signs of creeping authoritarianism. Though there are some rays of light, she warns that many Western democracies are on shaky ground as politics moves rightwards. The road back is long and requires citizens to reclaim their dignity and rediscover faith in themselves, their democracies, and each other.
Beatrice White: In your book How to Lose a Country, you diagnose a form of contemporary authoritarianism that doesn’t roll in with tanks but rather takes hold incrementally. What are the main features of this phenomenon? How do you see it embodied most strikingly in Europe today?
Ece Temelkuran: This book, somewhat ironically, is written as a manual for would-be dictators. But it also provides glimpses of what could happen in Europe. It was actually a call for global solidarity, but it was mostly directed at European countries, and the United States, because countries like India, Turkey, and Pakistan know all about this maddening process of a democratic country sliding down the slope towards authoritarian politics. But Western countries have long taken democracy for granted. They have too much trust in their institutions and their so-called “democratic” culture.
The main message is that authoritarianism is a global phenomenon, and these authoritarian leaders are learning from each other. It does not arrive in uniforms, but rather with funny hairstyles, like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. People are quite puzzled if this is identified as fascism. But we should call it fascism, rather than populism or authoritarianism. People often think that fascism was completely erased in Europe by the end of World War II. In fact, it was just beaten on the battlefield. Few countries, other than Germany, have faced their own histories of fascism.
I was attempting to issue a warning and spur these societies into action, because in countries like Turkey, we are exhausted. Authoritarianism is not only about politics – it creates moral corruption and disrupts the basic consensus within societies. We still need the stamina of the opposing, concerned masses in the West. It is about trying to find a way to build a common language – a shared narrative – so we can oppose this new form of fascism together. It cannot be defeated by the people of a single country alone. It requires global solidarity.
Leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump are adept at appropriating the rhetoric of democracy: only their victories are truly democratic outcomes. How did those defending democratic principles against authoritarians find that even the concepts they defend have been usurped?
What they are saying is not completely wrong. Yes, they win elections, they win at the ballot box, but this just illustrates the crisis of representation we are currently experiencing. Because, over a long period, democracy has become diminished to ballot boxes. The campaign to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a striking example. The streets were full of people saying no to war, yet their leaders went ahead anyway.
When the book came out two years ago, with its warnings about what was likely to come, many dismissed it out of a sense of exceptionalism. But now people in places like the UK, France, Germany, and the US have returned to it. This shows how, in the space of two years, all these institutions, all these so-called mature democracies, have begun to lose faith in themselves. It is happening extremely quickly, in front of our eyes.
The process can be traced back much further – to the end of the 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan declared that “there is no alternative”. After that, especially after the Cold War, democracy became something administrative, something that someone else should take care of for us. Running a country was about numbers – numbers talking to numbers. The people didn’t count anymore. If there is no alternative, what do people do? They get on with their lives. That’s what was expected of them. But this didn’t happen by accident. The Left was suppressed in every country, whether by military coup, as happened in Turkey, or by Thatcher and Reagan waging war on the unions.
The entire political sphere has moved to the right. We have to confront this.
The entire political sphere has moved to the right. We have to confront this. Without progressive elements in politics and society, there are no checks and balances in terms of morality and politics. We are left living with the mutant child of neoliberal politics. Without real democracy that includes social justice, you end up in a situation in which everybody can be a self-proclaimed “real democrat”.
This kind of “democracy”, which is still our current state of democracy, requires apoliticised masses. So they produce an ideal citizen who avoids politics, one who thinks that democracy is only about the ballot box, that identity politics is all that matters, and that freedom is only a matter for the individual, and so on. The result of all these concepts being diminished is people who think that if they get rid of the European Union (especially in the UK) they will be free, and they will be “great”. This paradigm still lingers today. But people want to ignore the period in history when the politics of the Right grew so dominant that it became our natural state. Several other crises are playing out at the same time – the crises of capitalism, democracy, the climate, and so on – and these fears can easily be politicised and mobilised by right-wing populist leaders if people do not have real, solid choices.
Yet there are still people on the streets today – the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, Russia, Belarus, and Myanmar, for example. But also in the West, with young people in particular demanding social, racial, and environmental justice. How do you see these movements?
There is great diversity among these movements – in terms of the people on the streets and their demands, backgrounds, and languages. But I do see a global commonality: they are all asking for human dignity, in several different ways. This is part of the answer to the crisis of representation and other crises we face. There is something very hopeful about these protests and demonstrations that have popped up, even during a pandemic. All around the world, people’s desire for dignity is even stronger than their fear of dying. This shows that humankind still has some faith in itself. I hope that all these demonstrations can be held in solidarity with one another under the banner of human dignity.
This new generation is so angry with previous generations. Why wouldn’t they be? They have had all these crises dropped in their laps. They feel like they have nothing to lose. They see the hypocrisy; they are cynical, they are sarcastic, and they are angry. But they are still bargaining – they still want something, and they are clear about what they want. If they are not listened to, however, the next waves of protest will not be as eloquent.
People are also on the streets in democracies that are backsliding, particularly marginalised groups whose fundamental rights are now threatened, such as women. How do you see their role in resistance movements?
It isn’t a coincidence that today’s most vigorous resistance comes from the women’s movement. When you fight for your life – literally – you fight hardest. This might sound like a distant problem to women in the West. But think about everything that has changed in the past few years that seemed previously unthinkable.
Women are the canaries in the coal mine […] because fascism always attacks the female first […]
In countries like Turkey, there is an all-out war on women. But this is predictable because we know that misogyny is the wingman of fascism. Women are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to fascism. This is not because their political and moral sensors are more sensitive than men’s, but because fascism always attacks the female first, and here I am talking not only about women themselves but rather all that is female. And fascism will be, I think, defeated by dismantling misogyny. That’s up to women, and they are now becoming aware all around the world. In my opinion, the only inspiring thing about politics today is the young people, particularly the women.
Protest movements often develop new ways of doing politics. One of the legacies of the Gezi Park protests were the bottom-up people’s assemblies that popped up around the city. Are there signs that conventional politics may open up to some of these practices, as social movements increase their power?
Yes, I think the political establishment is realising that unless it welcomes these movements, it is going to be outdated, passé, and ultimately defunct. We have seen new political organisms emerge from the movements in Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Cairo. But they are not compatible with our current representative democracy.
The only way I see out of this impasse is local politics. Progressive mayors, municipalities, and local politicians who are eager to find new ways of doing politics are more willing to interact with these political movements. If the Gezi protests had not happened, [centre-left opposition CHP candidate] Ekrem İmamoğlu would not have won again when the Istanbul mayoral election was re-run in 2019. It was those people that organised and mobilised themselves and others to vote again. I think those political movements are teaching us through their actions. The determination, stubbornness, and mischievousness which makes them so invigorating can refresh our political institutions – if they are open to being refreshed.
How can Greens and progressives reach out beyond their own circles to wider society, whilst avoiding the type of populist rhetoric and strategies deployed by their opponents?
We are living in an age of fear and disintegration. Fascists play with emotions and monopolise them in their discourse. I think the Left in general, but Greens in particular, has to think about its political relationship to emotions, as well as values. To stop being afraid of emotions, and learn how to talk to people again, as well as amongst ourselves, about love, anger, fear, and even faith. What is faith for us? What do we have faith in? What can we say about love as leftist people? Or about pride? I see a learned distance from emotions within progressive politics. Yet this is what new political organisms are trying to do; they are trying to express emotions. That’s why they are so dynamic and so completely different to institutionalised and established politics.
As a novelist, you explore the complexity of human nature and motives. What role can fiction play in changing our politics and our societies, and helping us to understand one another?
Words, be they political or non-political, do not change the world; it is only the people who believe in these words who can. It is therefore impossible to compare writing about politics with writing fiction in terms of the moral judgement of our contribution to the world. If you ask me, my novel Women Who Blow on Knots has been far more politically transformative than How to Lose A Country. The advantage of fiction is that the story is a more compassionate and embracing form of communication; the reader finds it easier to approach the seemingly apolitical writer. Then, within the realm of fiction, the writer can talk about the most controversial ideas and truth in the absolute.
As a journalist who continually spoke out, you were often confronted with those behind Turkey’s democratic decline. Your new book Togetherasks the reader to choose to have faith in the people we share this planet with. How would you say that we can now build bridges, to have this faith in one another?
I think the question of “how to build bridges” is not the right one to ask. Sometimes there are no bridges. Politics is not all about peace and harmony, it’s about confrontation. Yet we have banished this way of thinking from our political sphere. The political system doesn’t like confrontation, it doesn’t want antagonism. That’s why people need to believe that there is no alternative; there is nothing to fight for anymore. Without even noticing, we normalised this idea. We took the fight out of our vocabulary in a bid to survive. We accepted our diminished space for existing. But if we instead realise that they have beaten us, and that we are angry, this can be a starting point from which to do something. Politics is about fighting, unfortunately. It would be nice if this fight only involved words, but sometimes it doesn’t.
That’s why I go back to this defeat; once you are defeated you somehow legitimise, normalise the defeat, and then you start asking how we can build bridges. We’re going to defeat them. They have to be stopped. How did we come to the point of asking this question about living together with fascism? No, that is the wrong question! These are the enabling questions of the dominant ideology.