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Middle Class Rhetoric

Tamer Söyler
Wiretaps allegedly featuring phone conversations between Prime Minister (PM) Erdoğan and his son were leaked on February 24, 2014. The recordings provided material for everyday jokes in Turkey. Focusing on the dramatic aspects of the corruption scandal will be a grave mistake. This significant event has provided a historic opportunity for the citizenry of Turkey. People of Turkey are now rendered receptive more than ever for challenging the middle class rhetoric which is accompanied by a strong discourse of ethics. Both must be deconstructed by pointing at ways the middle class discourse is embedded in the capitalist order of things.

Middle class is valid as a provisional analytical category. It will however prove to be a convincing conceptualisation only if it successfully correlates with the empirical data. In the case of Turkey, a corpus of empirical evidence points at an obvious demarcation in the category of middle class. Even a preconditioned analyst would find it difficult to cluster all kinds of social groups under one uniform category of middle class.

Against this background, Turkish middle class can be divided into two major parts: the real middle class and the precarious middle class, depending on how people have fared as the economy has changed. The "real middle class" identifies with capitalism while the "precarious middle class" is close to the working class. Popular discourse in Turkey ignores the existence of the precarious middle class by dissolving the latter in the real middle class.

This mistake is not one of analysis but motivated by an ideological conviction and promoted by the mainstream media. It is suggested that the real middle class forms the backbone of Turkish economy and society, a generalization which represents a considerable intellectual homogenization. It is suggested that virtually every event taking place in Turkey can be interpreted along these lines.

An all-encompassing capitalist order of things embeds this line of hegemonic thinking. When the real middle class is set as the primary level of analysis, the counter-hegemonic voice of the precarious middle class is muted. Within such configuration a systemic critique is unlikely to come into being. This is how one must regard the inflated coverage of the corruption scandal with a strong rhetoric of morality. In the absence of a systemic critique, the public is left with a superficial analysis of the current corruption scandal. We have witnessed a similar process of superficialization during the Gezi upheaval.

When protesters gathered for opposing the demolition of Istanbul Taksim Gezi Park in late May last year, virtually nobody was able to foresee that an environmental protest would pave the way for a historic public unrest. Erdoğan was quick to announce the upheaval an international conspiracy with his democratically elected government as the target. Now, facing charges of being the main actor of the biggest corruption scandal of modern Turkey has ever seen, the PM today takes refuge in the same crippled logic.

Erdoğan is not alone in his habit of utilizing populist rhetoric with serious sociological flaws. Despite compelling evidence, both the Prime Minister and a good percentage of the opposition fail to understand one fact: The precarious middle class—not the real middle class—was the main actor of the unrest. And the real middle class—not the precarious middle class—keep harping on the rhetoric of morality today. The antagonism between the real middle class and the precarious middle class must be recognized.

The demarcation between the two classes cannot be regarded as a simple lack of concord between different social milieus. In the eyes of the precarious middle class, the real middle class hijacked the Gezi upheaval and stripped it off from its counter-hegemonic character. And the very fact that the real middle class is promoting the rhetoric of morality today must be interpreted along these lines. The core principle of the Gezi opposition—launching a systemic critique of the current order of things—has been trivialized by the real middle class. While the government tried to dominate the opposition with use of police force and failed miserably; the real middle class successfully imposed upon their hegemonized consciousness and rendered a historical upheaval system-friendly.

The corruption scandal has proved to be entertaining for the precarious middle class. After all where one hears the voice of preachers of morality louder, there finds one the least amount of morality. Nevertheless, entertainment never substitutes for emancipation. Precarious working class is not interested in rediscovering what Hannah Arendt famously coined as the banality of evil. The government officials may be caricatured as greedy hypocrites but one cannot miss to register the fact that they are the natural products of a fundamentally corrupted system. There is a strong demise of morality within the Turkish socio-political system. All parties, including the opposition, have contributed to the disappearance of morality.

One must do better than recommending an idealized conception of middle class morality as the way out of this decadence. No systemic critique and consequent social change can come into being out of empty rhetoric. The precarious middle class as an emerging working class must be put under the spotlight. They are against a neoliberal political rationality that has been self-evidentalized in the last decade. Without conforming to cynicism, the new working class is aiming for a systemic critique. We will see if their efforts will suffice to prevent an emancipatory class-based oppositional consciousness turning conservative.

* Tamer Söyler is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.