BOOK REVIEW:THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN POLITICS, RELIGION AND BUSINESS
by Ayse Bugra and Osman Savaskan (Edward Elgar Pub, 2014)Reviewed by Aykut Öztürk, PhD Candidate, Political Science
The deep social, political, and ideological transformations in Turkey that were generated by the “moderate Islamist” Justice and Development Party (AKP) are well-mapped in Western academia; much less is known, however, about the role of the AKP on the economic transformations in Turkey. Most of the scholarly analyses of the Turkish economy reduce the AKP to an agent of the global neoliberal wave; the constitutive effects of the Islamist character of the AKP on Turkish political economy are surprisingly under-theorized. New Capitalism in Turkey, co-authored by Ayse Bugra, one of the most eminent Turkish political economists, and Osman Savaskan, a promising scholar, undertakes the challenge of bringing politics and ideology into the study of Turkish political economy.
Relying on a historical institutionalist framework, Bugra and Savaskan start their work by empha-sizing two structural features that shaped the recent decade for the Turkish economy. First is the state-led capitalist development legacy of Turkey that characterized the power balance between state and business in Turkey. Despite the increasing independence of bourgeoisie vis-à-vis state officials, the Turkish state has continued to control a significant amount of economic resources, and the main path to enrichment. The pre-AKP period was particularly characterized by a close and exclusionary relationship between state insti-tutions and the secular bourgeoisie created by the state. Second is the restructuring of the global economy after the 1980s. As highly-regulated, industrial modes of production located within developed countries were gradually replaced by flexible webs of production mostly situated in under-developed regions, new opportunities of capitalist development for peripheral firms emerged. This created the first tensions be-tween Istanbul-centred secular bourgeoisie of Turkey and newly emerging Anatolian firms. The rise of the AKP to power occurred in the context of these developments.
Against this structural background, New Capitalism in Turkey describes the role of Islamist identity in the economic sphere as a “network resource.” The authors argue that “Islam” was the main reference point for peripheral businessmen who were pushed by global economic trends but excluded from the pre-vious interest configurations of state-business relationship. Thus, the AKP, the Muslim-conservative bour-geoisie, and the people living in peripheral towns found themselves in a new economic interest web that was constructed around Islamist references and constructed against the “secular elites.” Bugra and Savas-kan focus especially on the roles of entrepreneurial associations during this process in order to emphasize the ideological dimension of these economic interest webs. Secular business associations, pro-government business associations, and pro-Gülen movement business associations defended competing hegemonic visions for Turkey that went beyond simple forms of representation of economic interest.
Bugra and Savaskan’s book reveals only a narrow part of the role played by religion in the struc-turing of the Turkish economy. Most importantly, they limit their analysis to the state-business relationship and do not engage with the interactions between religious identities and the economic sphere that arise at a more popular level. Still, however, their account reveals how economic interests are always constructed via political and ideological mechanisms; thus, it can be taken as a huge step forward from economistic approaches. What makes the book even more interesting is the corruption scandal that erupted several months after the publishing of the book. The illegally recorded phone conversations of Recep Tayyip Erdo-gan demonstrated that a narrow coterie of businessmen, who were all close friends of Erdogan, won the most important bids in return for “donations” to the “charities” managed by Erdogan’s family. This may be taken as the not-so-surprising ending of the story told by Bugra and Savaskan. It can be argued that as the judicial and elective control mechanisms controlling the government eroded over time, the broad coalition of the AKP, propelled by the shifts in the global economy, was supplanted by much more informal, narrow, and contemptible relations between state officials and some capital owners. Bugra and Savaskan’s book does an important job in revealing the process that led to the current situation for the Turkish economy.