A world of irresponsibility and lack of common sense


Gürbüz Özaltınlı

The Turkish original of this article was published as Sorumluluk duygusu

ve sağduyunun uğramadığı bir dünya on 12th October 2015.


Unlike what some people seem to think, traumatic disasters capable of stirring fear, sorrow or hatred are not like putty that you can shape whichever way you want, on which you can easily predicate games of mass manipulation, or instrumentalize to this or that end. Of course, it is possible that a combination of extreme emotions with the mental opacity caused by uncertainty can result in a certain disconnect with reality. But deep inside all the confusion and explosive emotionality, we somehow retain the intuitive understanding that we call “common sense.” It is a foggy kind of raw feeling that has not been reworked into high rhetoric or fancy slogans, but which sustains the broad masses that make up the bulk of any society — those ordinary men and women who pursue their daily lives and travails — and keeps them afloat.


The road to self-marginalization entails not noticing or paying any heed to this feeling, even making a big deal of treating it with contempt, but one way or the other, losing touch with it.   


In the wake of the Ankara tragedy I thought of all this yet again. A pathological political culture had for some time been running below the surface but variously signaling its presence to society at large. The 10th October catastrophe brought it out into the open, exposing all its defining characteristics. This is a tradition of political behavior that we have long been familiar with through the history of the so-called “revolutionary left.” An outlook that lacks responsibility, and is also alien to common sense.  


Let me emphasize yet again that this is a debate about a type of “political behavior.”  It is not, in other words, about an entire, systematically worked out ideology or political program. For in Turkey, it has become  impossible to speak of any remaining “left” with this sort of comprehensive ideology or political program. After [the military coup of] 12 September [1980], but especially from the 90s onward, the vast majority of left/socialist groups or circles ceased to live out their lives in terms of systematically producing and re-producing an ideology, entering into  programmatic discussions or debates, or trying to become an active subject on the political stage. In contrast to the 1970s, “leftist/socialist” came to mean not an intellectual or political practice, but a sense of identity obtained in the course of personal histories. There was no longer anybody who took any interest in the concept of “the dictatorship of the proletariat,”  or in Mahir Çayan’s theories of an “artificial equilibrium,” or in debates about “whether to start from the cities of the countryside,” or in a “peaceful transition” approach. Apart from the outer fringe of the outer fringe, most people had reverted to their daily lives. The majority retained not a sense of “having been wrong” but a belief that they were “no longer valid.” If life had flowed in a direction that no longer allowed the old kind of intense engagement with practical politics, all that people were left with was “a respectable identity.” Years upon years were taken up by “the rites of commemoration, the paeans of nostalgia, the ties of solidarity” that sustained this sense of identity. Meanwhile, a “general left” outlook that had never been systematically rethought kept sustaining individual positions over specific questions. Thus it was that Özal was never liked, that there was built-in allergy to privatization, or that the 28th February [1997] incident [when the military served an ultimatum that forced the Erbakan government to resign — tr. note] was either entirely overlooked or even greeted with some relief.   


Not to be using the old terms and concepts all the time was enough for many people to believe that they had actually “renewed themselves.” Of course, such “renewal” had its emotional limits. There were no further heated debates over the old notions and theories, but any kind of questioning that impinged on Marxism-Leninism or challenged the foundation stones of socialism was likely to trigger that “sense of identity” which would then begin to wax sarcastic over this or that “turncoat.” So at the end of the day, there emerged no new intellectual dynamism incisive and deep-going enough to change the various reflexes peculiar to a certain mode of thinking, to unsettle accepted habits of political behavior, or to create a profoundly new awareness. In short, the left “tribe’s” material existence flagged, but its mental-emotional existence did not break up altogether. It kept waiting for its days of revival under new conditions, in a suitable environment, with updated slogans but still the same patterns of thought and behavior.    


The Gezi events became an incomparable elixir of life for this “sleeping identity” that I have been trying to describe. Then the Kurdish movement opened its doors [to Turkish leftists] and developed an appropriate discourse, which made it clear to all of us where this identity was henceforth going to find a new life.


It is not for nothing that I have undertaken this extensive identity analysis which may be thought too long for a single article. It is connected to that absence of a sense of responsibility and lack of common sense that I mentioned at the outset. 


What do I mean by “a sense of responsibility”? It is to attach prime political value to defending society against huge clashes or conflicts. It is to internalize the right dose of struggle in contrast to all-out confrontationism. It is to have absorbed an ability to compromise and to remain aloof of violence as a cultural value. It is regard the parliamentary system and the legitimacy of the elected as paramount, and while opposing the government to defend the basic parameters of the existing system. In terms of political reflexes, it is to uphold constructing and harmony as against chaos and destruction.


For a left/socialist tradition that hasn’t really confronted itself and its own past, however, the very opposite is true. What they value is confrontation without compromise, justifying violence as clearing the way to change, deprecating the parliamentary system, and basing legitimacy not on elections but on ideology. All mental reflexes have been conditioned to work in this direction. These are such deep mental traces, that if you haven’t settled accounts with them one by one; if everything has been patched up and glossed over in vague and ambivalent words; if those that have “gone too far” have been kicked out of the tribe; and if what has become most important is to protect that sense of identity… At the very first opportunity they will surface yet again, perhaps using a somewhat different vocabulary or flowing into different channels, but always abiding by the same logic. 


And that, indeed, is precisely what has happened yet again. As soon as news arrived of the Ankara disaster, a confrontationist, finger-pointing, “down with” outcry flooded the social media. If the Kurds were to rise in revolt to march on the Palace and claim some heads; if the forty percent that voted for the government were to be drawn into a massive head-on clash with the entire opposition… Would those who raised this hue and cry say “all the better”? I don’t know. But isn’t it very clear that they really wouldn’t care?


It is behind this pursuit of irresponsibility; this logic of behavior that does not attach any value to a non-conflictual society, that cannot even conceive of exercising a calming influence, and which, as if it were in possession of any hard evidence, wholly commits itself to pure agitation in line with its political objectives or hatreds — that there lies a political culture which has not been questioned or transcended.   


And a second major feature of this culture is its utter lack of common sense.


This, indeed, is what really condemns it to marginality. Left/socialist teachings and practice have never attached any importance to understanding the social majority — understanding its perceptions and consciousness of, or its capacity for evaluating, the times and events that it lives through. If, at any given time, the messages that the socialist left was conveying to the masses was not being taken up by them, this was because of the “ideological hegemony” that those intended recipients were under. The key phrase here was “false consciousness.” In the course of struggle the masses would learn from their own experience, come to transcend their “false consciousness,” and the word of the socialist left would reach the people! In this perspective, you would be hard put to find a shred of self-doubt about whether the common sense of the masses might actually have a better grasp of current reality; about whether not your words but their addressees might intuitively be standing closer to the truth.


Hence, too, they can bring the same mental habits to bear on the Ankara disaster, blatantly trumpeting that it was staged by the government, and thinking that you can get the public at large to agree. Furthermore, they actually end up believing it themselves. If society somehow does not end up believing that the government has carried out a savage massacre in the middle of Ankara to kill dozens of people to intimidate the opposition and to maintain itself in power, and that it has actually hoped to benefit from this, again this is because this society is dominated by a false consciousness.


Observe those in your own circle who, after the Ankara disaster, have plunged into the internet to scream and scream about the alleged perpetrators, who have unhesitatingly proclaimed it to be the government that planned this heinous act, and who have been piling up the most provocative rhetoric of agitation sentence upon sentence. Who are they? I am making an exception for those Kurds who have been genuinely hurt and burned by the attack, though not for Selahattin Demirtaş, whom I am coming to regard more and more as a dangerous, low-quality politician. These aside, if the majority of these Turks is not those older people who belong to the socialist left tradition or young people who have somehow made contact with that tradition, I am willing to abandon writing altogether.  


In contrast, it is to those of us who have tried to confront and to settle our accounts with that past history, that falls the task of calling for common sense, or to remind people of the concept of “provocation.”  


Can this be just an accident?