Protesters flee police in Diyarbakir, 31 December. Photo: Getty
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Slavoj Žižek: Is something rotten in the state of Turkey?

A reply to my critics. 

My short comment on the "war on terror" published online by New Statesman has triggered a series of critical reactions which definitely looks like a well-coordinated campaign, so it deserves a short reply.

With regard to the statements quoted in my text and falsely attributed to Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, things are simple and clear. After friends informed me about these statements, I searched for them on the web and found a couple of sites with them, plus I did not find any sites denying them. So I quoted the statements, mentioning the website where I found them. After it was discovered that these statements are false, the paragraph containing them was immediately deleted. What more could I have done with my limited resources? Furthermore, I find totally out of place the attempts to locate this accident into a series which allegedly demonstrates my "passion for plagiarism and fabrication", and where I am accused even of plagiarising myself (in one of my columns for NYT, I used two passages from a book of mine).

But the main voice in the debate was that of Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesperson for the Turkish presidency, who published on the al Jazeera website a column on "Zizek, Turkey and intellectual frivolity" - a very strange text indeed. It attributes to me "the laughable claim that Turkey is somehow responsible for the Paris attacks" (which I never made), plus the claim that "Turkey buys oil from ISIL" (which I also never made) as well as the claim that "Turkey is fighting the Kurds fighting ISIL in Syria" (also never made by me).

My claims are much more modest and cautious, in accordance with the obvious limitation of my sources: I speak of the "benign neglect" towards ISIL, of "facilitating" oil commerce of ISIL, I mention Turkish attacks on Kurds in Turkey itself, not in Syria. I explicitly put the blame on all sides: Russia and the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. I am well aware that, in its bombing operations in Syria, Russia is following the pro-Assad agenda and also bombing non-ISIL opposition to Assad. My sources are numerous reports and comments in the Western (not Russian) press, as well as in the Turkish opposition press – I refer to David Graeber's comment in The Guardian.

In contrast to me, Kalin writes as an official spokesperson, giving us the official version of the situation. From following the news, the least I can say is that I find deeply problematic not only many of Kalin's particular claims, but also his overall stance. While he reproaches me for my silence about the PKK terror (a reproach that I find meaningless: of course I didn't mention it, as it was not the topic of my very short text), I find it politically and ethically deeply problematic how Kalin reduces the Kurdish resistance to terrorism, ignoring the blatant fact that the fate of the Kurds is an authetic tragedy of colonialism imposing artificial borders: divided among four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey – they are deprived of cultural and political autonomy.

Kalin writes: "The PKK is trying to conceal its terror crimes on the pretext of fighting ISIL. The fact is that Turkey does not bomb any Kurdish targets in Syria. It only goes after the PKK terrorists that put Turkish and Kurdish lives in danger." Some acts of PKK are definitely problematic, but to reduce PKK to a terrorist organisation and to ignore its roots in the actual situation of Kurds is a frivolous obscenity. My impression from reading numerous reports is: Turkey definitely "goes after the PKK terrorists" in an incomparably more brutal way than it goes after ISIL, without seriously addressing the justified Kurdish demands for cultural and political autonomy. Turkey endorsed the "war on terror" so that, under its banner, it was able engage in a new wave of brutal attacks on Kurds, not only on PKK (ignoring strong forces within PKK which are ready to renounce armed struggle) but also on Kurdish legitimate political organizations which are denounced as the public face of terror. The true question is how much of Kurdish armed struggle is simply a reaction to Turkish oppression.

This is why I find deeply problematic Kalin's claim: "If we are against terrorism, we must be against them all whether it is ISIL, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ETA or PKK terrorism." Yes, but we must also be against STATE terrorism which is most dangerous of them all. "The fact that PKK is a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organisation does not absolve it of its crimes." Yes, and the fact that Turkey is a state also does not absolve it of its crimes.

Kalin writes: "The fact that the vast majority of terrorist acts in Europe and the US are committed by home-grown terrorists should be a wake-up call for the failure of multiculturalism and social imagination in Western societies." I am a long-time critic of the predominant Western multiculturalism, but what, exactly, should replace it? Certainly not the way Turkey is dealing with its own other "cultures", especially Kurds – to paraphrase Kalin, PKK activity should be a wake-up call for Turkey, a clear signal of its failure to deal with Kurds, of the lack of "social imagination" in allowing Kurds to attain cultural and political autonomy.

It is also clear that the core of the problem does not reside in how Turkey relates to the Kurds. Turkey's inability to integrate Kurds as an autonomous ethnic group is part of a larger struggle that is going on in Turkey, a struggle for what Turkey is and will become. Continuous tensions between the Turkish state apparatus and intellectuals, journalists, etc - tensions which spectacularly exploded in Gezi Park protests in 2013 - are a clear sign that Turkey is in the middle of a struggle for its identity. There are good reasons to presume that if the political forces which oppose the Erdogan regime were to gain the upper hand, the struggle of Kurds would enter a new stage.

Incidents like the one with Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, are indicative of this predicament. After they described how Turkey’s secret services had sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria, Dundar and Gul were accused of spying and “divulging state secrets”, and placed in pre-trial detention. Erdogan personally filed a criminal complaint against Dundar, demanding he serve multiple life sentences.

Such incidents bring us face to face with what goes on in today's Turkey: threat to the freedom of press, obscure links with Islamists, etc. An observer has to make a choice here: are all these accusations reported in hundreds of texts part of a gigantic plot – or is there effectively something rotten in the state of Turkey?

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game