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The Pious Predator State: The Cookiecutter Shark and the New Regime in Turkey

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The Pious Predator State: The Cookiecutter Shark and the New Regime in Turkey

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Jerri-Lynn here. I’m posting this piece because I confess I’m envious of Adem’s cookiecutter shark image. It’s such a good description of what predator states do: they don’t necessarily kill you outright, but come back occasionally to take another chomp. Umm, umm good. I wish I had thought of the image myself! But since I didn’t, the least I can do is help disseminate it more widely.

Adem Yavuz is an associate professor of economics at Fitchburg State University, Massachusetts. He is the author of Brain Drain and Gender Inequality in Turkey, Palgrave Pivot, 2018 and The Economics of Military Spending A Marxist Perspective, Routledge, 2019. 

This short piece argues that the new regime in Turkey is a unique form of the predator state introduced by Galbraith (2008). In fact, I have modified his concept to the Pious Predator State to explain the symbiotic relationship between the so-called pious private sector and the state during the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-Justice and Development Party) era, underscoring the critical role of religion in constructing and sustaining this relationship (Elveren 2018). However, there has been another unique feature of the predator state in Turkey that has become remarkable recently, and it is worth discussing.

Veblen’s concept of predation is highly functional to explain business life in the twenty-first century. According to his theory, the history of modern capitalist societies is a process of fierce competition between capitalist groups. The role of government is to regulate business life to tame the predator actions of capitalists. John Kenneth Galbraith noted in 1967 in The New Industrial State that with the mastering of advanced technology, giant corporations displaced small firms from the business sphere. Yet, James K. Galbraith in 2008 said that in the era of globalization and financialization, government’s strategies of controlling the predator actions of these giant corporations failed. The predator had escaped its cage, was now seeking the “complete control of the apparatus of the state” (Galbraith 2008, 131). Galbraith illustrated this new predator state with examples such as the government allowing pharmaceutical companies to enjoy a monopoly price, or with the case of some Bush family members exploiting the No Child Left Behind program-introduced by Bush administration-by selling test preparation programs (ibid, 135).

The new regime in Turkey is very similar to what Galbraith described. A strict dichotomy between government and the market as opposed forces has faded. Rather, so-called pious capitalist has entirely relied on growing the authoritarian role and size of government in the economy. The substantial increase in public education expenditures was one key area for the Pious Predator State in Turkey. The Turkish government now provides textbooks to students free of charge -similar to the No Child Left Behind program- and the publishing and delivery of textbooks was privatized, transferring enormous public funds to the private sector. Similarly, the government introduced a new project to provide a laptop and a smartboard to each classroom and a tablet to each student, creating unprecedented profit opportunity for the pious private sector (Elveren 2018).

Yet, the main beneficiary of the Pious Predator State has been the construction sector. The Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKI), a public agency, has quickly become the key agent in the housing market to provide houses for low and middle-income groups as well as to build roads, schools, hospitals, mosques, and government buildings. The Pious Predator State was ready to exploit TOKI. Islamist construction companies, as well as those that newly assumed a pious front, enjoyed the construction boom (Sönmez 2015). The boom has come with alleged tender irregularities and the violation of zoning laws, and a corrupt network between several real estate developers and state agencies.

I have called this new regime the Pious Predator State to underscore the role of religion, which is the key difference with the predator state. As I argued earlier, it is pious because “these pious business groups have financed charitable work in support of the party, a crucial tool that the government has used extensively to provide social aid to the poor. On the other hand, the pious charity organizations have promoted religious familism, and gendered division of labor in private and public spheres, and thereby reinforced women’s subordinate role in society. That is, religion through familialism in the hands of the Pious Predator State becomes the key tool in the transformation of the welfare regime in the absence of a universal welfare state that provides social benefits to all individuals based on citizenship” (Elveren 2018: 90).

However, I argue this corruption has created the ultimate form of the predator state in Turkey. A common definition of a predator is an organism, an animal, which catches, kills and eats another animal. However, for some animals this definition does not work exactly. For example, cookiecutter sharks –isistius brasiliensis– catch and feed on prey but don’t kill their prey (Ebert 2003). Although they can eat a whole smaller prey such as squid, they mostly feed by gouging round plugs out of larger animals such as porpoises, dolphins, and whales by biting them until they look like they have been cut with a cookie cutter. This is similar to how pious construction companies operate in Turkey.

A tangential aspect of the Turkish construction boom has been the need to repair newly completed or sometimes ongoing projects. There are several examples of collapsed highways (Cumhuriyet 2015), or a tunnel shut down due to the risk of collapse (Yeni Yaşam 2020). Needless to say, most of the time the very same pious construction companies were right there to exploit these failures. Likewise, cookiecutter sharks do not kill their prey, but keep coming back for another bite.

Perhaps the most scandalous example was when a pipeline transporting water from Turkey to northern Cyprus suddenly snapped. This project had been promoted by the government as the Century’s Project, but broke down after only five years after its completion. Winning the public procurement for repairing it, the lucky cookiecutter shark – the very same construction company who originally undertook the project- got its second bite from the same whale -the Century’s Project. This second bite – the cost to the public- was as big as about 75 per cent of the first bite when measured in Turkish Lira or about 33 per cent in US dollar terms (Muratoğlu 2020).

Unprecedented corruption in Turkey has created the ultimate version of the predator state, where the predator does not kill its prey but enjoys feeding on persistent bites, keeping its target alive so it can feast again and again.

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