Earthquake Shakes, Capital Kills: The Origins of the Disaster in the Turkish Model

A week after the disaster, the death toll from the Turkey-Syria earthquake has risen to 43,000, making it the fifth deadliest earthquake of the 21st century. Some experts expect the death toll to rise above 70,000, as rescue efforts wind down in Turkey and end without having begun in Syria. More than a million currently live in temporary shelters in Turkey, and about 160,000 people have been displaced to different cities. In Syria 5.3 million people are currently homeless, thanks to the combined disasters of the earthquake and the ongoing civil war. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has declared the earthquake ‘’the disaster of the century.’’ As his government comes under intense scrutiny for the lack of substantial and timely disaster response, his public relations office works full-time to hold up a narrative of the exceptionality of the situation.

Coupled with this effort is a concerted and ongoing repressive regulation of the disaster response. In the first days of the disaster, the state pursued persecution of critics and grassroots organizers, with Erdo​​ğan appearing on TV several times to decry oppositional elements as well as on-the-ground NGOs. Now, aided and abetted by mass-based ultranationalist and fascist elements, public discontent is being directed towards anti-looting and anti-immigrant sentiment. Police and vigilante groups roam the streets of the disaster zones, seizing and maiming alleged looters. News of a person accused of looting being tortured and subsequently dying in a police precinct arrived on Monday, day six post-earthquake. The state is also taking advantage of the situation to crack down on the radical democratic and pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). 

Socialists have correctly pointed out that the juxtaposition between an overpowered security response and a terribly shortcoming relief response is not arbitrary—in fact, it is a classic hallmark of the neoliberal state. Expanding police and military budgets, shrinking social security and welfare expenditures—these are familiar pictures across the world. Especially given a military industry attached to government expenditure, it is often much cheaper to “manage” the crisis than to prevent it. Turkey is a definitive example of this, as a heavily militarized state which spent nearly 20% of its budget on military activities in 2022. This doubles the US’s gigantic 10%, and is almost 20 times the EU average. Some of the largest state subsidies in the private sector go to regime-allied weapons industries (the Bayraktar drone, for instance, is produced by a private company owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law). These expenditures support a warring state that reproduces a decades-old conflict in Eastern Turkey with the Kurdish population and which has conducted four cross-border invasions of Syria in the last four years, destabilizing the region, perpetuating civil war and foreclosing chances at peace. 

In contrast to ballooning military expenditures, Turkish spending on disaster relief has dwindled from constituting around 2% of the annual budget seven years ago to less than 0.5% this year. But relief is only one part of the picture: from the 1980s onwards, a growth model which has depended, at least in major part, on prioritizing the construction sector (which, at the time, was touted as a cure to the instabilities of the import substitution model) has produced a sectoral capital with a sizable access to political power. As part of hyper-capitalist redistributional politics, Erdoğan’s regime has repeatedly relaxed building regulations and allowed regime-friendly construction bosses to go ahead with socially and environmentally destructive megaprojects. In turn, economic growth is sustained against all odds, satisfying sectoral cartels and financial speculators. Most of these bosses are now implicated in the disaster, their flashy new projects reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds. This dependence on state-subsidized construction booms, of course, is not separable from Turkey’s positioning within the world economy: it was precisely as a result of its peripheral status that it was pushed into a lopsided economy, state stability requiring an explosively growing low-tech sector to compensate for Turkey’s relatively low position in the value chain.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all this dispossession of property and of life, we see emerging amidst heaps of rubble signs of a new way of being. It was, in contrast to the abject failure of state operations, the very self-organization and spontaneous solidarity of working people that shone forth in the first days of the disaster. Thousands of tonnes of relief material began shipping from across the country to the disaster zone within hours; workers, often risking firing by unfettered bosses, flocked to help with rescue efforts; and miners, who have been at the forefront of radical labor organizing in Turkey for years now, picked up their helmets and drillers and wasted no time to travel to the region. Socialist parties, including the Workers’ Party of Turkey, punched above their weight, setting up disaster coordination centers across the country against all odds, exposing the malicious neglect of Erdoğan’s regime, and ensuring a regular flow of information. Özgür Orhangazi, Professor of Economics at Kadir Has University put it succinctly: 

‘’In a time when popular and socialist ideas are marginalized most, we have seen just how much we need them and their realization. We have seen the power of popular self-organization and solidarity… We have seen the necessity of leaving aside shallow debates on monetary policy and picking up, not meekly, but forcefully, once again, the defense and discussion of planning and social economics… We have seen that when the planning power of the state is weakened, there remains nothing but a state that cannot coordinate anything but its security response.’’ [My translation.]

Beneficiaries and lackeys of Erdoğan’s regime, construction bosses, real estate cartels, torturers and murderous fascists have come to believe that only those they don’t know are bound to suffer. An Anatolian mysticism prevails in the art and literature of our times: these lands are haunted lands, we often tell ourselves. But this haunting is mystical only to those who have not listened carefully to its windy tunes: they whistle of revenge and liberation.