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HomeExpertsDemolition and Destiny: Reflecting on Turkey's Earthquake Legacy and Societal Collapse

Demolition and Destiny: Reflecting on Turkey’s Earthquake Legacy and Societal Collapse

Polat S. Alpman*

“If You Destroy, It Will Fall”

The title above is an ironic reference to Demirel’s statement from the opening of a dam in 1966, “if you do it, it gets done.” According to Tanıl Bora’s delicate style, this attitude and effort of encouragement, being the “perfect slogan of pragmatist voluntarism,” largely encompasses destruction in today’s Turkey, and that too with the same ‘pragmatist voluntarism’ [1]. I’m not just talking about demolition on construction sites, demolishing to build, or demolishing under the pretext of building. I mean the very act of demolishing, the flourishing of rubble and debris, and deriving a kind of ‘building’ pleasure from this. To this, we can add the disgusting and frenzied entrepreneurship that sees every demolition, even every disaster, as an opportunity for itself.

What makes me think of these is our reaching the anniversary of the earthquake in February 2023. The earthquake affected 11 cities, some irreversibly. The discussions following the earthquake, the apparent state of the government from top to bottom, the shameful condition of AFAD, the Red Crescent, and similar organizations, the propaganda activities of non-governmental organizations, the pitiable states of the media, and many more… showed that the debris of this earthquake stands on another demolition and its debris, demonstrating, through the earthquake, another round of destruction.

I did not see the places affected by the earthquake after it occurred. I do not know about the destruction caused by the earthquake there, or what happened afterwards. Like many, I followed the events largely through social media, which included short videos, photos, anecdotes of varying lengths, some exposés, messages of rebellion, or shared despair… Setting aside the bizarre braggings of bureaucrats and government officials or those politically ‘affiliated’ with them, who are far from empathy and finding common emotional ground with victims and reasonable people, it seems that those living in this country have also stripped away from ordinary human qualities of coming together in sorrow and grief. It takes a different kind of resilience not to be surprised by the confidence of speakers who continue to speak with thick necks from leading and taking sides, and with empty, meaningless, or outright absurd syntax.

In such situations, being exposed to such degeneration feels like an insult to one’s expectations of humanity.

I, like everyone else, am tired of cliché statements like “earthquake is a reality of Turkey.” I am fed up with politicians who point out how helpless we are regarding earthquakes, drawing attention to it and turning this helplessness into a pillar for their continuation in power or their demands to be in power. I believe I am not alone in thinking this, as many of us sense that we are in the midst of a destruction that causes us to think so. Knowing that the real reason behind the destruction caused by both the current earthquake and the ‘big’ earthquake expected to happen soon is not the earthquake itself, inflates all this anguish and sense of helplessness.

Oğuz Işık, in his article “Insecure Cities, Insecure Citizens” in the 165th issue of Society and Science, talks about how cities in Turkey are vulnerable and unprepared for disasters and possess a structure that blocks democratization, prevents urban living, and imposes conservatism on its citizens. Oğuz Hoca talks about the process of deterioration in the relationship between the city and citizenship in Turkey, stating “whatever makes a society can be read through the city” (p. 9), and mentions that the real relationship between the August 1999 Earthquake and the February 2023 Earthquake lies in the corruption of the networks that built those cities [2].

It’s impossible not to agree with Hoca. Indeed, the reason why no one can be blamed for the serial murders committed under the guise of the earthquake and why the real culprits cannot be punished is due to the corruption in the relationships that built the cities, stemming from the city order functioning as a large criminal network. Consequently, as capital continues to inflate through the city, it turns various individuals and institutions, from local governments to squatter owners, into its accomplices.

Thus, the devastating nature of the earthquake is experienced not as a natural movement, but as a result of the economic and political choices of people living in cities, the conditions that guide, drag, or force them into these choices, and it easily becomes ‘fate.’

The issue here is not just the destruction initiated by earthquakes. I believe there’s a process behind these destructions, triggering and experienced in a vicious circle – let’s call it the mechanism of destruction. As known, nothing in society is ‘something in itself.’ Since no relationship in society can be easily isolated from another when social relationships are concerned, the destructiveness of earthquakes melts into a larger sense of destruction. There’s no need to elaborate in detail to ground this view. Look at what people living in Turkey are willing to endure to migrate to western countries and start a new life; look at their trust in the economy, law, politics, education, or their expectations for the future; the picture is the same, a dense sense of despair and entrapment. I’m talking about something beyond hopelessness. Not just the so-called ‘opposition’ voters, but all citizens and immigrants, everyone living in this country, share a sentiment that encompasses them all.

I cannot fully describe the process that followed the February 2023 Earthquake and its impact on people living in this country. As far as I can see, initially, there emerged two tendencies: opportunism, which saw the shock and turmoil caused by the earthquake as a chance to win elections, and folly, which wanted to show the speedy removal of the earthquake’s debris as ‘getting things done.’ Subsequently, the destruction caused by the earthquake and its consequences gradually faded under the shadow of political rivalry. What remained was to bring politics to this agenda. This would mean that individuals capable of demonstrating the will to settle accounts with those responsible for the post-earthquake destruction, along with many other issues, needed to be present in current politics, including local administrators, deputies, party provincial chairpersons, non-governmental organizations, and others, to press politicians, bureaucracy, relevant mechanisms, and officials to hold those responsible for such a disaster accountable and to prevent such mistakes from recurring. However, those who did not learn from the August 1999 Earthquake, instead of preparing Turkey for subsequent earthquakes, facilitated further distorted and unsafe urbanization, using it as an opportunity for land speculation, including politicians and bureaucrats from all parties and tendencies, wished for the order to continue as before, and so it has, and so it does.

It seems strange now, but as far as I remember, the August 1999 Earthquake was at least considered a turning point, with long speeches about the lessons learned and grand words spoken to the public about what was done and said. The February 2023 Earthquake, however, is being treated as if it never happened, to be forgotten and not talked about. A few headline-grabbing statements, some rhetoric, a few PowerPoint slides on ‘here are our actions and magnificent TOKI’ are enough to dismiss an unpleasant day. Maybe I think this way because I couldn’t follow the agenda and current news well, but I sense similar feelings among the people around me. An earthquake that never happened, or if it did, it doesn’t concern anyone, quickly recited a few memorized sentences by the authorities and just as quickly shrugged off their responsibilities. An earthquake where the complainers, who should be grateful for still being alive and showing their gratitude to the administrators morning and night, are blamed as ungrateful. An earthquake where they might be blamed for the disasters that befell them because of the earthquake.

One of the things that came to mind when the parliamentary membership of Can Atalay, the CHP deputy from Hatay, was revoked was just this. They neither died in the earthquake nor elected Atalay as their deputy! Should we say ‘such voters should not exist’ or ‘such a national will is null and void’?

“Doing leads to being done” or “demolishing leads to collapse” are not particularly profound expressions. Yet, they do point to something. It’s necessary to see that the destruction in Turkey, including earthquakes, is part of something much larger. I’m talking about a kind of demolition that does not include building. When the law is demolished for patronage, lordship, despotism, or when the economy is demolished, leading to impoverishment for the majority while only a very narrow group benefits and becomes rich, every demolition collapses onto this debris.

Despite a century of the Republic’s existence, the fact that these are happening shows that voters in Turkey are still not mature. The trusteeship issue is an example of this. The practice of appointing bureaucrats instead of elected officials when the state disapproves of voters’ political choices has taken its place in the glorious pages of Turkey’s political history, as a technique that, due to the earthquake, could or why should it assume any responsibility?

Understanding the relationship between political actors and voters in Turkey, their interests and orientations towards them, is not difficult [3]. What’s difficult is witnessing the efforts of those who wholeheartedly applaud these happenings, expecting benefits from such political orientations and administrations for their own good, even at the expense of others, and denying that they are also under this debris.

In short, this destruction did not happen in a day or by the merit of one person. We have come to a point where even the proxy of an elected deputy is not recognized. I am not a lawyer, and I do not have the audacity to advance legal arguments about the usurpation of deputyship, but do we need to know anything to see that what happened is blatantly unjust? Besides, if there is to be a country called Turkey, based on which principles it will be built is a discussion that should be one of the founding elements, and the search for law, legality has long left this country, we know that. We also know that the ‘national will’ phrases that the Turkish right clings to do not include a large portion of the citizens. Thus, the usurpation of Atalay’s deputyship and being doomed to die in the earthquake are – involving all of us in some way – openly related. So, are there those who are determined to change this relationship, to reorganize and truly unite Turkey as a country of dignified citizens?

[1] Tanıl Bora (2023), Demirel, Istanbul: İletişim, p. 52. Another anecdote from the same book: Demirel writes elsewhere, “Civilization is achieved if you make it” (p. 126). Demirel’s approach, at least for a long time, was based on genuine Westernization, ambition for developed country status, and developmentalism motivation. Today, however, what is generally understood by ‘service politics’ is often blatantly about nepotism, cronyism, and seizing the commons, nothing much different.

[2] Oğuz Işık, (2023), “Insecure Cities, Insecure Citizens”, Society and Science, 165, pp. 8-21.

[3] At the AK Party Hatay District Municipal Candidates Introduction Meeting in Antakya, Erdogan’s message to the people of Hatay as the Party Chairman and President shows how the current power in Turkey views politics, administrative relationships, and how they view the governed and their national will. Let’s quote Erdogan’s words: “I am saying a reality right now, if the central government and local administration do not join hands and stand in solidarity, nothing comes to that city. Did it come to Hatay? Right now, Hatay is left strange, Hatay remained mournful and currently, the existing local administration in Hatay unfortunately became ‘after the ruins of Basra’ after this earthquake event.” News link: Anadolu Agency (aa.com.tr); l24.im/9UPVNv, [February 3, 2024].

*Polat S. Alpman is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Work, Yalova University. He was born İstanbul, Turkey. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in Sociology from Ankara University. His main areas of interest are the state, class, social inequality, discrimination, migration, citizenship and urban issues. Alpman, in addition to several book chapters and articles, published his book titled Esmer Yakalılar: Kent, Sınıf, Kimlik ve Kürt Emeği (Dark Collar: Urban, Class, Identity and Kurdish Labour) with İletişim Publishing in 2016.

This article originally was published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.

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