The nexus of political and economic dispossession, vulnerability, and exploitation has become the norm in capitalism. This creates the adverse conditions for systemically conditioned ‘natural’ disasters, as evidenced by the recent earthquake in Turkey. In light of this, the transnational working class is challenged to reboot environmental struggles in order to contest existing power structures, as Özgün Eylül İşcen argues in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
“The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way, that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” (Fred Moten, The Undercommons, 2013)
A devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and neighboring Syria on 6th February 2023, followed by a second major earthquake and many aftershocks (up until today). It heavily affected the provinces of Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman, Hatay, Osmaniye, Gaziantep, Malatya, Elazığ as well as Şanlıurfa, Adana, Diyarbakır, and Kilis in southeastern Turkey, where estimated 15 million people reside, including 1.7 million refugees mainly from Syria. Over 50.000 people died across the border (as of early March, and expected to rise much higher since thousands have gone missing under the rubble), hundreds of thousands were injured, and millions were displaced. Some called it “the worst natural disaster in the region for a century.” Many know, however, that it is a human-made disaster. In other words, this massive scale of destruction, almost completely wiping out multiple cities, could have been prevented if the government had managed urban and disaster planning in compliance with the scientific standards and predictions regarding the region at the crossroads of fault lines.
The disaster neither began nor ended with the event of the earthquake. The growth fetishism of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002 led to the erosion of egalitarian means of urban and environmental planning. Admittedly, this structural deterioration did not start with the AKP regime. Yet, the electoral authoritarianism and neopatrimonialism underlying Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s one-man rule leading up to his presidency destroyed the legitimate ways of contesting the controversial plans affecting millions, such as the Istanbul Canal Project. Indeed, the regime utilized the risk of an earthquake to displace people and develop private profit-seeking rather than public safety-seeking “urban renewal” projects. For instance, “the shock of the 1999 Marmara Earthquake has been effectively used by the neoliberal market and government as a ‘shock therapy’ to implement a construction-led development model for Turkey and to favor the construction sector by introducing new incentives, exceptional rights, and interventions, which otherwise might be challenged,” K. Murat Güney argues somewhat appropriating Naomi Klein’s notion of “disaster capitalism.”
The delusions of state care
Most of the destruction in the current earthquake zone was caused by the collapse of buildings not constructed in compliance with the established safety codes and by the one-man regime’s inefficiency in handling rescue and aid organizations. The corrupted mechanisms within expanding public-private hybrid sectors, such as construction and disaster mitigation (as it comes to the surface now), led to massive fatalities in the earthquake zones. Alongside growing nepotism under Erdoğan’s rule, state regulation benefited private gain in the hands of a few contractors and misused populist agenda with construction amnesties. This earthquake demonstrated in the most painful ways that the AKP regime hollowed out state institutions, now filled with people based on loyalty rather than merit or democratic legitimacy.
Despite the presence of the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, which the state aid agency established in 2009, the Erdoğan regime was too late to coordinate the first response. This is yet another serious failure of a neoliberal-illiberal power apparatus whose misprogrammed operating system (‘profits over people’) has been instrumental in not saving more lives under the rubble in the severe cold. Symptomatically, the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) sold thousands of tents to a Turkish charity while thousands sought shelter in freezing weather conditions.
As of writing this piece (a month later), the government still continues failing to accommodate the basic needs of the earthquake victims, such as providing tents, water, and toilets. In the meantime, it is unclear where and how the AKP regime spent the earthquake funds (like other state funds gone missing), including the mandatory earthquake taxes collected from the residents since the 1999 Marmara Earthquake.
Expanding the frontiers of extraction
With the general elections coming up in a few months, the AKP (alongside their electoral and nationalist-Islamist ideological ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)) prioritized protecting its political image and electoral ground rather than the lives of earthquake victims. Even though millions had lived and witnessed it firsthand, state authorities, and most perfidiously Erdoğan himself, tried to cover up their unpreparedness and attacked the ones criticizing the government instead.
As usual, the regime disseminates its propaganda with mainstream channels under its control while repressing oppositional voices by blocking social media and public protests, including crowds chanting for their resignation. The authorities even confiscated aid from political parties and municipalities not aligned with the government and canceled on-campus higher education where oppositional unrest could arise. In the meantime, President Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency in the earthquake zone, thereby self-granting total control in managing aid and reconstruction. The Presidential Decree immediately opened forests and pasture areas in the earthquake zone for construction, expanding the frontiers of extraction.
‘Disaster communities’ of the oppressed
The disorganization of state authorities yielded the rise of organized efforts by people for people while relying on existing grassroots infrastructures, as much as emerging know-how and cooperation on the ground. Thus, due to the growing distrust of government authorities, residents increasingly relied on non-governmental organizations such as AHBAP, especially in the early days, to provide care to the earthquake areas left to their fate.
Civil society immediately organized itself through messaging services, social media platforms, and public journalism to coordinate the rescue efforts and aid, ranging from international teams to coal miners rushing to the rubble. While effective on short notice, however, the long-term political implications of these solidarities across different social groups are hard to assess. Despite the government-coordinated provocations, how to look out for the rights and demands of already marginalized groups such as women, children, refugees, LGBTQ people, migrant laborers, as well as ethnic, racial, and religious minorities?
Ideally, all these mobilizations should partake in the upcoming reconstruction efforts to embrace the care necessary for preserving the cultural heritage and diversity of the region. This can only be possible by advocating a more locally-situated (rather than top-down), egalitarian, and sustainable process of reconstruction that prioritizes ecological sustainability, the needs of the working class, and social justice over greed for profit and political power. However, it remains to be seen whether the emerging disaster communities of the oppressed can use the moment of crisis as an opportunity for struggles against the ruling class and whether they can combine environmental struggles with labor struggles for a more just and democratic society.
Connecting environmental struggles with class struggles?
The current earthquake urges us to look back at preceding turning points – the urban and environmental struggles that attempted to stop the AKP regime’s expanding destruction over the years. One of the most significant moments would be the grassroots defense of trees in Istanbul Gezi Park in 2013. The involved activists faced violent treatment by the police while only there to preserve the park, officially designated as an evacuation area for the expected Istanbul earthquake, but where the government already had plans for building a shopping mall. Then, the resistance of a few snowballed into a country-wide anti-government protest, also known as the Gezi Park uprising. The government scapegoated a dozen people declared enemies of the state by Erdoğan in the infamous Gezi Park trial for attempting to overthrow the government.
One of these imprisoned people is Mücella Yapıcı, a renowned architect and civil society activist who fought for Gezi Park and many other occasions regarding humane housing and environmental protection. She is a member of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, whose active role in assessing urban development proposals was restricted in the aftermath. The same institution contested the 2018 construction amnesty bill that legalized thousands of nominally illegal, hazardous buildings in the earthquake zones, which only boosted the revenue and popularity of the government.
International reception of the Gezi Park struggles in academic and activist circles has foregrounded the democratic demands of the movement. However, it should not be forgotten that these demands have also been linked to class and environmental struggles. One particularly striking process, and of particular relevance to the current post-earthquake crisis, took place alongside and in conjunction with the state-led urban renewal projects: the enclosure of the commons. They systematically advanced according to the privatization agenda of the authoritarian-neoliberal state and its ethnocratic regime, depriving many of their livelihoods – their means of reproduction and production – and thus proletarianizing them in the course of this. Here, gendered patterns of inequality and division of labor have come to the fore. According to Dalya Hazar Kalonya a positive but ambivalent concomitant is the participation of women in environmental struggles: They are “used as display window, while they are not adequately represented in the decision-making process due to male-dominated environmental NGOs.”
It is precisely this nexus of political and economic dispossession, vulnerability, and exploitation that has been normalized by the Erdoğan regime, producing violence and risk to which – as the systemically conditioned ‘natural’ disaster of the Earthquake has shown – historically and socio-economically marginalized communities are disproportionately exposed. Therefore, the question is: How can alliances be constructed among the oppressed and exploited and struggles initiated against a common foe so as to prevent a ‘return to normality’ that will most likely reproduce and even advance a structurally unjust system?
It will not be enough to defeat the oppressive regime in power. Moreover, it will be necessary to keep fighting against its militarist-fascist, patriarchal structures that manifest in everyday life and even in the moment of collective grief and solidarity. The alliances of the oppressed and exploited should work towards dismantling the deepened social hierarchies and inequalities that have been created by the ruling class.
Everything about this earthquake was, is, and will be political. The scenes from the post-earthquake moment recall the two-fold nature of disaster capitalism characterizing the strategic absence and presence of the state in the disaster zones. On the one hand, the geopolitical context of the region encompasses Kurdish-populated areas (on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border), as well as Alawites, Armenians, Christians, Jews, Arabs, and Syrian and Afghan refugees. These communities have lived through the excessive presence of the Turkish state in attempting to control the border region as a source of extraction and political/military power. On the other hand, the systemic neglect of state authorities through corruption and impoverishment has ultimately led to this mass destruction. And the president is picking up where he left off: Erdoğan immediately turned the disaster into an opportunity through a speeded up reconstruction plan that would profit his fellow contractors via the government-backed public housing agency (TOKİ) while strategically dispossessing local communities.
Thus, the political implications of the earthquake are uncertain, signaling the fragility of allied grounds. The short-term consequences depend on the outcome of general elections (they likely will be shaped by how the cities have been impacted by the earthquake and crisis management). And the consequences will depend on the growing presence of civil society emerging from struggles of immensely polarized social classes with devastating economic conditions. Millions come together around collective loss, grief, anger, and solidarity demanding accountability from the government and whoever is responsible for this destruction. Yet, will a big “We” emerge and challenge the existing order?
Unpacking our spatial and historical situatedness
“The toxically interlocking and mutually fueling economic and ecological crises” underscore the continuums (despite varying urgencies and immediacies) throughout imperial wars, disaster zones, and everyday life as much as within, at, and beyond the national borders.
The earthquake, for instance, has shown such a continuum across the Turkish-Syrian border: Here the Erdoğan and Assad regimes are strategically managing international aid and political visibility in its aftermath – with deadly consequences. More and more people face and witness systemically conditioned disasters or what Jasbir K. Puar calls the massification of “debility.“ In response, we need organized efforts across borders, aspiring to be there for and with others, also targeted by this violence, however unevenly.
Ultimately, the possibilities of allied grounds could flourish through unpacking our spatial and historical situatedness, our implication in all this violence and injustice, and the resistance and collective mobilization against it. Writing this piece in Berlin, it has been shocking that there was little official attention in Germany (except contributing to international rescue and aid efforts) paid to the post-earthquake context, especially considering the demographic significance of the affected communities in Germany. Some advocate easiness on visa applications as many earthquake victims have relatives in Germany, while others, including popular media outlets, voiced their concern about the new waves of migration.
Nonetheless, some local organizations, often dealing with migrant and feminist issues, came forward for relief efforts through aid campaigns, concerts, and screenings. Amid all this, I am finishing this text right after the Revolutionary Internationalist Demonstration in Berlin on 8th March International Women’s Day, where we marched with banners and chants alongside our fellows here and elsewhere. As the earthquake has shown once again, however painfully but louder: “Dayanışma yaşatır/Solidarity makes life”!
Note by the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de