State at the Epicenter: What the Earthquakes Exposed in Turkey

What is the State? With the two massive earthquakes that shook southeast Turkey and northwest Syria on February 6th, 2023, this question fell right into the center of political debates in Turkey, and is likely to continue to shape the next phase of political struggle. In video after video from the earthquake-stricken region, we saw survivors cry, scream, plead: “Where is the State? Why isn’t it coming to our rescue?” or declare that with the quakes, the State has also collapsed and disappeared. What is it that was absent in those places that led people to conclude that the state itself has too vanished? Once again, they tell us in footage after footage: There is no police, there is no military, there is no governor, no government official, no coordination, no law and order, no security. But also, no electricity, no running water, no heat, no reliable communications network. Many of the public buildings themselves have collapsed -state hospitals, police headquarters, city halls- as well as some of the roads that connect neighborhoods or villages to town centers. These various components of statehood -the uniforms, the buildings surrounded by walls and fences, the public infrastructure, some semblance of law and order- together help produce the specter of the state; and with their constant presence in our daily lives, they reassure us that the state too exists. For many, these projections of statehood are indeed reassuring, they invoke a benevolent, paternal image. Hence, in one video, an earthquake survivor cries, “where are the warm hands of the state?”

Of course, many citizens and residents of Turkey know the state not through its warm hands but through its slap. Especially for those in minority or opposition groups, or those that state actors have deemed a threat, the state has been not a source of security and welfare but the very source of insecurity, intimidation, silencing, surveillance, blacklisting, discrimination and violence. And for even larger portions of the population, the state is as much associated with red tape, inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption, cronyism as it is with paternal authority. Those for whom the state invokes this less benevolent and capable, more intimidating, corrupt and culpable image point to the ruins to answer those who ask where the state is: This is the state, in full-glory of its corrupt, nepotist, construction-crazed, rent-seeking reality, its signature is everywhere. Here too is the state as it quickly moves to shush those who ask where the state is, as it tries to silence its critics, and sees the ascent of civil society initiatives as a threat and tries to actively undermine them, take credit for their rescue efforts, and even contemplates appropriating the millions of dollars of donations they have raised.

Aside from the voices that ask where the state is and those that seek to expose its naked truth, a third image of the state emerges from top down. This is “L’etat, c’est moi” a la Louis XIV. Of course President Erdogan sits at the very helm of that attitude, but it does not end with him, it emanates from him down, spreading to government officials and lower cadres of AKP and state bureaucracies, and even ordinary party supporters. Hence, a police officer or a board member of AKP’s women’s branch or just a random civilian takes offense at the question of ‘where is the state?’ and points to their own presence in the scene as evidence of the existence of the state: Here I am and thus is the state. Needless to say, this attitude is also shared by AKP’s coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist MHP, at the core of whose ideology lies this identification with the state. Out of this “I am the state” attitude comes the defensive reflex of denying -at all costs and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary- that the state has been complicit and has stumbled, as well as the continued insistence that we, aka the state, will fix it all, we will deliver the goods, build it all back up, and we will do so in just one year. Those who question us, those who think they do our job better than us, we are taking note, and we will collect the bills once the dust has settled.

Partly due to this “L’etat c’est moi” attitude, debates around the nature of the state have become conflated with debates around the failures of AKP rule. But how much of the problems exposed by the earthquakes are inherent in the structures of statehood, and how much of them are the result of the ways in which AKP has captured state power and transformed state institutions in the last two decades? While state dysfunction may have reached new and unprecedented heights during the AKP rule, and without absolving the latter from any culpability, it is also important to recognize the ways in which the structural incoherence and contradictions of the state generate ever-expanding opportunities for power, corruption and cronyism while also giving rise to irregularities, incompetencies, failures and disasters. All states -to varying degrees- contain cracks, blindspots, gaps, ambiguities and inconsistencies, and evade efforts to rationalize, standardize and reform them. Among other things, they are discontiguous networks of flawed institutions and infinite collections of laws, rules and regulations, many of which are arbitrarily implemented, altogether ignored or interpreted in self-serving ways by corrupt/corruptible, apathetic and partisan bureaucrats that inhabit those institutions, and no amount of institutional reform or better regulations can fully remedy that. The image of the benevolent state will always have to coexist and contend with that of the omnipotent Leviathan as well as the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of redundancy, inefficiency and red tape. It is a constant struggle to differentiate practices of statehood from the ideology of the state and its cultural productions and projections, and to detangle all that from those of a particular government.

So as the focus of political debates shift toward the upcoming elections and Turkey begins to move slowly on the road to recovery, and t it is important to continue to contemplate not just on how to rebuild the towns, buildings and infrastructure that are in ruins, but the state itself, whose ideological coherence seems to have taken a serious hit from the earthquakes too. It is especially important to continue to grapple with this question even after Erdogan and AKP are no longer sitting at the steering wheel of state power, as the problem underlying the question is neither unique nor limited to the state under AKP rule or even to the state in Turkey. The ongoing challenge is to build stronger, better functioning, more harmonious public institutions without restoring and reproducing the ideology of the state -without assuming that those institutions would then automatically form a coherent whole, that the laws and regulations that are written will necessarily be adhered to, that meritocracy, rational decision-making and efficient implementation come naturally with the territory of the modern state. Instead, we need to start by accepting that none of these things can be taken for granted, that they always need to be demanded, monitored, cultivated. Of course civil society actors are indispensable in sustaining that pressure. But as important is a citizenry that continues to put demands on state actors while remaining disillusioned by the fairy tale of the state as the savior and keeps the spirit and organizations of horizontal solidarity and mutual aid alive, so its well-being and survival is not solely dependent on the competence and benevolence of ‘the state’. These are demanding tasks, especially for a people in the midst of collective trauma, but those are exactly the times for new openings and possibilities.