The Origins of Turkey’s “Heterodox” Transition to Neoliberalism: The Özal Decade and Beyond

Şahan Savaş Karataşlı


This article examines the origins of Turkey’s neoliberal transformation in world-historical perspective by highlighting interactions between the crisis of U.S. hegemony, social and political movements in Turkey, and Turgut Özal's political career as the architect of the country’s neoliberal reforms. I argue that Turkey’s neoliberal transition during the “Özal Decade (1980-1989/1993)” was not primarily related to resolving the profitability crisis of the existing national bourgeoisie (Istanbul-based industrial bourgeoisie) or reconstituting class power in favor of this segment of capital. The Turkish neoliberal project was more concerned with establishing a stable political-economic environment that would help Turkey's political society reassert its hegemony over civil society and allow for the penetration of the changing interests of the world-hegemonic power in the region. Because of these social and geopolitical concerns, Turkey's neoliberal reforms (1) contributed to the development of an alternative/rival segment of national bourgeoisie which had the potential to co-opt radicalized Islamic movements, (2) aimed at creating a large middle class society (instead of shrinking it), (3) utilized populist attempts at redistribution to lower segments of society to co-opt the grievances and anger of the masses. As a paradoxical consequence of these dynamics, income inequality decreased during Turkey’s transition to neoliberalism. Neoliberal reforms in the post-Özal period – with similar “heterodox” features – resurrected and further deepened during “the Erdoğan decade” (2002-present) although Erdoğan did not share a single aspect of Özal’s professional career as a neoliberal technocrat.

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