Turkish President, Recep Erdoğan won his referendum by a narrow margin last weekend, so Turkish politics will move off in the general direction of Venezuela, though with an Islamic flavor—Erdoğan is a devout Muslim.
I respect the Turks for having done a great and remarkable thing in a short time. The old Ottoman Empire was a classic instance of imperial-bureaucratic despotism: a permanent small ruling class enforcing a state religion while they tax-farmed a passive peasantry with no property rights—what Karl Marx called “The Asiatic Mode of Production.”
Then suddenly, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Turks abandoned that whole model and transformed themselves into a modern, secular, European-style republic. They established a new capital city far from the old imperial metropolis. They scrapped the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one. Men were to wear jackets and pants, women dresses. There were property rights and a free press, a parliament to legislate…and so on.
It was a tremendous revolution. And unlike most revolutions, it was revolutionary in a positive direction. It once fired me up with the hope that, if Turkey could accomplish such a transformation, then perhaps other old imperial-despotic nations could too.
China, for example. Back in 1989 I wrote:
Nothing is impossible when History means business. The Turks passed from a very “pure” form of oriental despotism to republican liberty, or a fair approximation of it, in 20 years. No one should think that the Chinese, with their great resources of national pride and historical consciousness, cannot pull off the same trick.
Now, 28 years later, that looks naïvely Whiggish. It turns out that when History means business, the business it means is sometimes a 180-degree turn back to the past…….
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