“Then you too can dance the dance of insanity, that halfway house between catatonia and drooping, a dance that is devoid of spirit but wears a fixed grin, a hollow mask that was one used in a carnival.” Ece Temelkuran.
At the heart of Ece Temelkuran’s book How To Lose a Country is the claim that shameless populists like Trump and Erdogan have filled the causal void of neoliberalism with its ‘ideal’ of an attenuated human beings and the atomized society it has created.
“The ethical vacuum of neoliberalism,” she writes “its dismissal of the fact that human nature needs meaning and desperately seeks reasons to live, creates fertile ground for the invention of causes, and sometimes the most groundless or shallowest ones.” And again: “It is therefore possible to see right-wing populism as providing neoliberalism with its cause.”
Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist, journalist and political commentator who is an ardent critic of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, therefore, is forced to live in exile. Her book has the sub-title The 7 steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, which is a response to the complacency that sometimes arises in democracies, often revealing itself in the phrase ‘it couldn’t happen here’.
The first move against democracy, she writes, is to create a ‘movement’ that denies it is a party but consist of ‘real’ people as in ‘this is a movement, a new movement of real people beyond and above all political factions’. In the process the ‘real’ people end up ‘moving against their own interests, and against what are so obviously the wrong targets’ like immigrants rather than the ‘cruelty of free-market economics’. But what is it that makes some movements lead to populists and others – like Podemos, Occupy and Extinction Rebellion – do not? The answer, according to Telenkuran, is the infantilization of the ‘people’. Now this is interesting because it feeds into the narrative that the advertising industry has been hellbent for decades on infantilizing us so that, like children, we want everything now ‘on demand’, undermining whatever facility for delayed gratification we might once have had. It could be argued also that this is the drive behind attempts to reduce the use of cash in favour of plastic because it’s psychologically harder to part with money using the former than it is using the latter. Even some shops are now taking card payments only. And it is possibly behind the convenience and normalization advanced by the big tech companies that enable them to accumulate information about us, package it and sell it on to their real customers, the corporations, as a means to first predict and then manipulate our behaviour. If this sounds like the mad ravings of a conspiracy theorist, have no fear for there is no need for conspiracy – it’s just good business.
Anyway, according to Temelkuran, it’s the infantilization of the populace, or at least significant sections of it, that enables the populist because ‘once you infantilize the common political narrative, it becomes easier to mobilize the masses, and from then on you can promise them anything’. In much of this book Temelkuran seems to echo the sentiments expressed in Hannah Arendt’s epic The Origins of Totalitarianism, especially when the latter writes that the ‘masses’ who ‘for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organisation’ but are not ‘held together by a consciousness of a common interest’.
How does all this lead to the kind of mind-numbing cruelty and insensitivity that seems to thrive today? Well, says Temelkuran, and somewhat counter-intuitively, it begins with laughter that during the process of infantilization turns from resistance to bitter and sarcastic humour as joy is twisted into the grotesque. Three years after a dissident movement in Turkey that came to be known as the Gezi Spirit Temekuran writes that: “More importantly, the laughter that had been used as a tool to embrace diversity during the Gezi resistance became a tool to destroy and divide dissidents,”. It’s the point at which cruelty and loss of shame become a badge of honour and the question arises ‘how can they be so cruel?’
As the title of the book suggests there are five more steps to losing ones country and she sees these as her gift to other countries in the throws of, or at least in danger of, falling to populism. As such it does not offer a comprehensive solution to the problem she so clearly articulates. But towards the end of the book Temelkuran does write: “Whatever the answer is, it ought to be clear to all of us that it does not include the luxury of not taking action, namely political action.”
How To Lose A Country is published by 4th Estate.