David Graeber: Turkish economy being held together by scotch tape

David Graeber

Kom News spoke to well-known anthropologist and activist David Graeber about the financial situation in Turkey and its effects on political developments.

A specialist in theories of value and social theory, Graeber painted a bleak picture of Turkey’s economy.

Interview by *Elif Sarican, London 

Firstly, thank you for answering our questions and being Kom News’ first ever interviewee. We’d like to start by asking you about a recent claim you made about a possible economic crash in Turkey. Why do you think this might happen?

I’ve checked with some of my inside lines in the city, I have some friends who work there and they’ve told me there is going to be a meltdown but for some reason Wall Street is pouring money in, they’re keeping the country afloat but it’s just a matter of time before they pull the plug and the longer this takes the bigger the crash will be.

What would be Wall Street’s motivation behind this?

Well, profit. Everything they do is profit. Essentially they are playing a game with each other to see who blinks first, this is what Wall Street does they blow up bubbles and then they try and be the first to step out of the way when the time comes. That’s what speculation is basically about. At the moment though, the fundamentals of the Turkish economy are just getting worse and worse. You could see how bad it was when Erdogan sort of blinked at Turkey when Putin pulled out the tourists, a large source of their economy. It is not in Erdogan’s nature to say “sorry”, the fact that he did indicated that he was in trouble economically. Their balance of payments is terrible, it’s all being held together by scotch tape, it’s going to collapse, it’s just a matter of when.

Can the rise of the Dollar lead to an economic crash in Turkey?

I don’t know how the Dollar is going to affect Turkey specifically, the Dollar takes the advantage that it is considered safe, the more international instability there is the more people put their faith in the Dollar and this is psychological because the system is basically rigged in favour of the Dollar and the American system. Trump more or less admitted this, he ran against that system. Essentially, the international finance system which is Dollar based, acts as a tribute extraction mechanism, an indirect one, but nonetheless a very effective one which brings advantages of seigniorage to America. The reason why America can have a bad balance of trade is because they are the ones who can determine what money is, what the Dollar is, the bedrock of the international economy. So they can stir things up and create international chaos and people fleeing the chaos will tend to buy the Dollar and this is not good for the Euro and terrible for the Pound and so the larger repercussions largely depend on to what degree Trump maintains that international financial system which he ran against. If he really does go to a ‘re-industrialised America’ approach, then he is going to have to start worrying about American export and the strong Dollar is a problem for that.

How is Erdogan reacting to this?

It is very clear that Erdogan’s primary constituency is the newly enriched Islamist middle class; people often not from Istanbul but Ankara and other smaller cities. This seems to be a real social base that he represents and for these guys everything depends on the economy, as long as he keeps these people afloat and allows them to have this newly discovered pious consumerist lifestyle that works, he’s safe. He’s kind of acting right now like Bush was after 9/11, he’s going out there and saying “if you want to be patriotic buy stuff, go to the bazaar” so consumerism has almost become a nationalist thing now but when that collapses obviously he has to come up with a whole new narrative and what we know about Erdogan is he is going to use things like people are conspiring against him like the bankers using financial weapons. When he starts using that kind of language it’s not going to be taken that well.

Is this what you think he means by the “interest rate lobby” conspiring against him?

Yes, exactly! basically anybody that does anything he does not like is now a terrorist. He’s sort of collapsed Gulenism into terrorism into opposition, basically they’re all the same at this point. So he’s got one language to talk about any problem and it’s always the same “evil people are conspiring and they are terrorists and we must be ruthless and put them down”. One can only imagine how disastrous it is going to be when the crash comes because he’s ravaged the basic technocratic infrastructure of the country, you can’t just imprison thousands and thousands of teachers and administrators, a lot of those people hold bullshit jobs that don’t do anything but a lot of those people are actually holding things together. If you put in the political hacks, at some point when a crisis comes they’re just not going to be able to handle it.

I think you see this in the military, one thing people haven’t pointed out is that the Turkish military is doing so badly in Syria. They’re a Nato army and they can’t take one little town against Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), which the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) are regularly defeating in battle. The Turkish have complete air command, they have endless tanks and somehow they can’t take one measly little town in Syria. The only way you can explain it is total demoralisation and incompetence of the army because they got rid of all the competent officers after the coup and now that’s going to happen on a national level when there is a crisis.

How would you say these economic tensions are impacting on Turkish foreign policy, specifically in regards to Syria?

Well, they are certainly changing their priorities in Syria. Their number one priority was never getting rid of Assad that was number two; their number one priority was always making sure there was no successful Kurdish autonomy. They wanted both but at this point they will settle for number one and sacrifice number two. It looks like people have this feeling that the new global dispensation is going to be an alliance of Trump or Putin-like or Erdogan-like strong-man leaders and Assad fits that model. Sisi, Assad, Erdogan are all now seen as guarantors of stability since democracy and human rights are being pushed aside by the big power-brokers at this point. It’s going to settle into some kind of broad alliance, it looks like Trump will like to enter into an alliance with Russia which would be against the EU and China. Would this mean that the EU and China would have to have some kind of response, it really is not clear how it’s going to work out geopolitically it’s so counterintuitive in a certain way.

Erdogan is trying hard to manoeuvre around and since we’re in a period of shifting alliances where it is utterly unclear how it’s going to stack up and who is going to end up against who and aligned with who, he’s trying to make himself an unavoidable figure in the sense that everyone will have to try and align with Turkey. And he’s hoping that that way he can float the economy by investment and float the military with military aid despite the fact that he’s destroying his own military and keeping the country afloat despite him completely ravaging the bureaucracy.

Why then is Erdogan sharpening his rhetoric against the ‘West’?

Pretty much every hyper-nationalist authoritarian figure needs a story about the guys who stabbed you behind the back, it’s always part of the narrative, “the global elites who betrayed us, we tried to play by the rules and do what they said and look at what they did”. I think that the EU, for example, becomes a perfect villain. The question is: will he be accepted as an ally? Trump has already said good things about Assad, he’s already said good things about Sisi in Egypt. He certainly wants to see Erdogan as a ‘bird of the feather’ type to create some sort of an alliance. But I think Trump’s attitude towards Turkey will depend on Putin.

The other thing is Trump might get serious about Daesh because in the complicated chess game that was going on under Obama, who is such a conservative by instinct, the first thing he would ask is “if we could defeat IS in two weeks then what could fill the vacuum? Could we maintain control?” I think Trump doesn’t have the same conservative instincts. He’s been saying “I want to start withdrawing to a certain degree from the world in terms of imperial investment”, he’s been saying this his whole career like “we don’t need to defend Japan, we don’t need to defend Saudi Arabia, we don’t need to defend Estonia”. He doesn’t really believe the imperial role will be helpful. And only a right-wing populist could dismantle American imperialism in that sense. Only a right-winger who is filling his cabinet with crazy military guys can get away with it. In order to be able to do that he has to start with a victory. So I figure Trump says, “Daesh, they’re easy. We could actually beat them.”

What American military operation has happened since the First Gulf War, where America clearly won? Basically none. They never secured Afghanistan, basically lost in Iraq. Over and over again the US seems to be foiled as a power. So what his logic is “go in their all guns blazing, throw everything we got at Daesh, they’re not that strong anyway. Once Raqqa and Mosul fall they’ll just turn into a terrorism problem and that plays into my hands because I’m a strong man and I like terrorism”, and that way he can say “look I had a tremendous victory” and then he can pull out of other places.

So I think we’re going to see a large scale withdrawal of America in the world. The question is: who is going to step in? Is Erdogan going to be able to establish a regional hegemony? Or, is he going to be checked by other powers?

Within this framework, what do you think the future holds for the Kurds in Syria?

It is really unclear what the fate of Rojava is going to be. They are doing what they can in terms of trying to make themselves indispensable and they’ve been doing a remarkably good job of it. In a way, Turkey is embarrassing itself by playing the same game, they have this enormous army and air force and resources, yet they haven’t been able to do ten percent of the job the YPJ has been able to do in clearing out cities of Daesh. It really depends on the nature of the long term settlement in Syria and the attitude of Russia. America is famous for its cynicism, it will sell-out anybody. The people in Rojava correctly calculated that the Russians, while scary right-wing crypto-fascists, would have some sort of feudal honour rather than purely utilitarian cynical realpolitik calculations. The Russians might feel they couldn’t totally stab someone in the back if they have been a loyal ally. It does sound like the Russians are essentially telling Erdogan and the Syrian government, “no, you cannot just go and attack the Kurds, we’re not going to back you up on that one”.

And your outlook for Turkey in 2017…

I think the crash is going to come at some point. And when it does, Erdogan’s first reaction will be to impose even more presidential control, even more military control he’s going to start losing his base and when that happens it’s really unclear what the result is going to be, if nothing else, there will be huge political opportunities to reverse what’s happening.

*Elif Sarican is a freelance journalist interested in political and economic affairs in Turkey. She is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests include transformations in the position of women in Kurdish society and women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa.