The unbearable appeal of modernization: The fetish of growth - Publikationen

The unbearable appeal of modernization: The fetish of growth - Publikationen

The unbearable appeal of modernization: The fetish of growth

Bengi Akbulut, Fikret Adaman
“The more a country consumes electricity the stronger it is, the faster it advances in the path of development. It means that the wheels in the factories are turning, that production in our enterprises is on the rise, that household consumption is increasing, that technology use is spreading in the entire country (…) In the world’s advanced, developed countries large shortages [of energy] have been met and [energy] issues were solved by measured and rational steps. God willing, we will solve this issue as well (…) This is why we are taking a new step; we are replacing the phrase “water flows, the Turk just watches” with “water flows, the Turk acts,” and God willing, we will meet this shortage.”1

These words are from a speech given by Turkey’s prime minister in 2010 at the opening ceremony of a hydropower plant, highly controversial for its potential environmental impacts. Such pronounced obsession with economic growth, or rather modernization via economic growth, however, is hardly recent. Indeed, the achievement of modernization and economic progress has long been long-standing objective of Turkish policymakers. The idea of “catching up” with the West has been central to politics in Turkey beginning especially with the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, and then being formally instituted with the foundation of the modern Republic. Since then, the idea of modernization has dominated political life in Turkey like no other issue. Although modernization/development2 has come to mean a transformational process surpassing a solely economics, there was, and still is, an inherent central role for growth: rapid economic growth, fueled by the application of modern science and technology to economic processes, is seen as a means of support to the newly-created political and social order. It was, and still is, envisaged as the precondition to and the remedy for all ills in a backward, traditional society. Thus, growth policies have been given priority, based on the assumption that their achievement would automatically resolve social and political issues as well—albeit sometimes with a lag.

It is thus hardly surprising that debates on how to best promote economic growth have always been important in politics in Turkey.3 These debates, however, never shifted away from the politics of “development alternatives” to the politics of “alternatives to development.” Hence, the political landscape does not contain proto-post-developmentalist propositions in the vein of Gandhi’s hind swaraj or Nyrere’s ujaama.4 A wide range of ideologies within politics in Turkey shares a common faith in economic growth as the precondition to progress. While the very foundations of the modern Republic — secularism and unitary nationalism — have been challenged by various political forces ranging from revolutionary socialism to Islamic fundamentalism, the notion that development through rapid economic growth is a sine qua non for progress has remained uncontested. Even when the modernization project was challenged, especially after the 1980s, these critiques were not of modernization per se, but rather of its top-down implementation and, at times, its strict interpretation as a replica of the Western model.5

The roots of the undisputed appeal and the dominance of growth-oriented modernization can be found in the configuration of state-society relationships; in particular, in the way that the state presented itself and legitimized its claim to rule by drawing up a broad consensus for its existence in Turkey. The state of Turkey has historically achieved its power and legitimacy, first and foremost, from the promise of fulfilling the ideal of modernization. The urgency to modernize and realize economic development constituted a collective interest, an outlook for the whole nation envisaged in organic unity without internal divisions, where even questioning its validity was considered unpatriotic. Through a policy of modernization, the Turkish state was able to represent itself as a neutral institution that embodied the collective will of the people, and thus could acquire the consent of society to legitimate its right to rule. That is to say, the idea of modernization/development was integral to the state’s ability to govern not by naked coercion, but built on the foundation of the consent of its constituency. On the other hand, the aspiration to modernize became what united an internally-fragmented society with various dimensions of socio-economic inequality.

Modernization via economic growth came to serve two further, related, purposes by (re)producing the Turkish state’s existence and hegemony. Firstly, the appeal of modernization/development as a goal allowed the Turkish state to preempt opposition that could be mobilized around issues like social justice and (re)distribution. Class-based inequalities, for instance, were brushed aside since “classes” were invisible to begin with; there were no classes, but rather a division of labor among the citizenry of Turkey where each and every individual worked hard to elevate the country to the level of Western civilization. Establishing modernization as a collective interest served to unify diverse groups around this “universal goal” and prevented the formulation of demands arising out of intra-society divisions. Secondly, development via economic growth became a requisite to enable the distribution of material concessions to subordinate classes for ensuring their consent. The Turkish state, to a large extent, managed to maintain legitimacy through its generosity as long as the urban petty bourgeoisie and rural small producers could be subsidized, and even the most impoverished groups in society were co-opted by material improvements to their living standards.6

Certainly, this obsession with modernization/development, which became a building block of the very existence of the state, has transformed the physical environment in various ways—in this sense, it is possible to read the making of the state of Turkey by looking at the making of the environment. One direct example of such transformations is the building of dams in Turkey and “the king of dams,” Süleyman Demirel, who served as the prime minister multiple times between 1965 and 1980 after his post as the head of the State Hydraulic Works (SHW) is perhaps the epitome of this strategy. During his time in office, Demirel oversaw the construction of several dozen dams and initiated the construction of over 50 more and also launched the massive Southeastern Anatolia Project (SAP). His words regarding the Project are more than telling, and they are a perfect example of the rhetoric that has been continuously invoked to promote the image of the state as the deliverer of modernization, through which it seeks to secure the consent of its people: “The love of [SAP] is the love of Turkey. [SAP] is the cement that unifies Turkey; it is the largest project of the Republic. (…) It is beyond an engineering project (…) It is a struggle to make people happy. It is not only about taking water from rivers and bringing them to the plains. That is just a part of the bigger picture. It includes the education of people; their preparation for a new world, for the conditions of a new world.”7

AKP: “Let stability last, let Turkey grow”

The AKP has not only retained the historically-strong commitment to modernization/development, as attested by its most recent election slogan quoted above8, but it had also adopted a radically-aggressive agenda in its implementation, the main pillars of which seem to be state-facilitated (if not state-led) construction bubble and destructive energy investments, largely financed through the inflow of hot money. Arguably more effective than ever, modernization/development continues to be constituted as the collective interest through which the consent of the ruled is acquired and the marginalized sections of the society are co-opted into the political system; in a sense it is the implied answer to the structural crises of the political order.9

The specific operationalization of the modernization/developmentalist agenda under the AKP administration, on the other hand, seems distinct from previous periods on more than one count. It is widely recognized that the AKP has mobilized a different business group, namely the small- and medium-size capitalists previously excluded from the dominant coalition, albeit ultimately around the familiar ideal of modernization. A notable ideological turn that accompanied this was a re-interpretation of the Islamic ethic in a vein similar to what Protestantism meant for Western capitalism.10 More importantly, the modernist/developmentalist fetish of the AKP has a visibly spatial twist. This period has seen an especially accelerated capitalization of the natural environment including the privatization of lands previously under public ownership, and the expropriation and redistribution of property through “legal” means such as urban transformation.

In that sense, the AKP has successfully mobilized a spatial politics with the idea of modernization/development continues forming an indispensable basis: monumental projects such as the highways, power plants, a third bridge to be built over the Bosphorous and a canal to connect the Marmara and Black Seas do not only reproduce the existence of the state in the most visible way and create the image that it is indeed working hard for its people, but these projects are also the materialization of the very ideal of modernization/development in the most effective way to receive admiration from various groups in the society. On the other hand, this spatialized, construction-led modernization/development model reproduces the consent of large sections in the society, not only through the distribution of rents to large masses and the opening up of new areas of investment, but also by the effective persuasion of middle-lower classes through housing property and consumption opportunities. The parallel silencing and de-legitimization of social struggles against ecological destruction and urban transformation, with construction resonating closely with modernization in the social imagery, has buttressed this strategy. All in all, the notion of modernization/development has been worked and reworked to cement state hegemony in the familiar ways discussed above, albeit with different manifestations and at different layers.

Socio-environmental consequences
of growth fetishism

Against this backdrop of modernization via growth fetishism, the ability and willingness with which environmental issues can be addressed are often severely limited. The supremacy of economic growth as a singular goal renders other issues, such as environmental quality and social justice, secondary. Not only have the development strategies undertaken by the state of Turkey, among other things, put immense pressure on the environment, but they have also often impeded the effective enforcement of environmental protection policies, even when the state of Turkey is in a position to implement them.

A quick snapshot of the environmental problems in Turkey, ranging from pollution to overuse of natural resources to the extinction of species, is illustrative of the toll taken by growth fetishism on the environment: Pollution of seas and inland water bodies; excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides in agriculture; one of highest rates of increase in CO2 emissions in the world; problems in the disposal of domestic and industrial waste; ecological destruction of mining activities, to name a few. Although such measures of environmental quality are infamously fraught with measurement and representation problems, Turkey’s 109th rank among all countries in the 2012 Environmental Performance Index, a composite of the biodiversity of various natural resources, pollution levels and the negative impacts of environmental conditions on human health, confirms this general picture.11 Especially over the last twenty years, these developments have catalyzed rising social opposition and resistance. Socio-environmental conflicts focused around energy investments, especially heightened with the liberalization of the energy sector and highly visible around hydropower plant constructions, point to the depth of environmental conflicts in general. A few notable examples of such conflicts include the local resistances against a coal power plant in Gerze, gold mining in Bergama, Ida, and Artvin, and nuclear power plants in Sinop and Akkuyu in addition to the numerous opposition movements against the aforementioned small hydropower plants scattered around the country.

The impacts of the primacy of developmentalist goals over environmental issues are manifested in the environmental pressure caused by many spheres of economic activity, from tourism to industry, from mining to agriculture. The state efforts to promote tourism as the new growth industry in the 1980s, for instance, went hand-in-hand with the disruption and destruction of the ecological balance, the disappearance of flora and fauna, the damage to sensitive geological formations, and intense pollution due to inadequate infrastructures for sewage treatment and disposal.12 The case of industry is much more alarming; without limits on the polluting activities of industrial firms - despite continuous lip service paid in official documents to the abatement of air and water pollution- severe environmental degradation poses serious threats to human health. The case of Dilovası, located 60 kilometers east of Istanbul, is especially noteworthy. The home of six Organized Industrial Zones, the percentage of deaths related to various kinds of cancer in Dilovası is 33%, about triple the national average.13

Agricultural growth policies pursued by the state of Turkey arguably provide the most visible evidence of the environmental repercussions of the modernist, growth-oriented fetish. In the 1950s, the agricultural sector underwent rapid commercialization which was paralleled by the promotion of Green Revolution technologies and the use of agrochemicals, with the state often acting as the main supplier of agricultural inputs with the aim to increase productivity. Agricultural intensification was encouraged through various schemes and pricing mechanisms, which, coupled with heightened land fragmentation and a dearth of off-farm employment opportunities in rural areas, led to further intensification of land use. At the same time monumental irrigation works undertaken in many river basins put a strong emphasis on the importance of dam building. The problems caused by large dams, such as human displacement, loss of flora and fauna, salinization, and silting were ignored in favor of highlighting the economic gains of increased irrigation and productivity. The socio-environmental costs of this strategy of agricultural modernization proved to be quite heavy: increased chemical use led to pollution, especially of groundwater resources, as well as to a loss of soil fertility; agricultural intensification and chemical use compromised long-term productivity; and large-scale dam construction has not only disrupted the natural hydrological cycle and led to biodiversity losses, but also provided an incentive to increase irrigated farming at the expense of environmental quality.

These processes of environmental degradation and pollution should not be considered independently of their socio-economic consequences. Given that the social sphere is woven through with inequalities in different dimensions, different types of environmental transformation often implied burdens shouldered disproportionately by the poor and disadvantaged sections of the society. While tourism establishments, mining companies, large land-owners, and industrial capitalists have enjoyed profits from the very activities that put pressure on the environment, the rural and urban poor have lost livelihoods, faced degraded natural resource bases and been subjected to contaminated living spaces.

The possibility of a different kind of development: Limits and prospects

The last twenty years have witnessed the emergence of attempts from academic and policy-making circles alike to redefine the concept of development in a way more compatible with social justice and ecological quality, as attested by the highly popularized concept of “sustainable development.” Now emptied out of any radical element and co-opted into the contemporary neoliberal growth paradigm, considerable debate has revolved around how to define and operationalize sustainable development. An extensive elaboration on these debates is neither our intention nor within the scope of this article. It is, however, noteworthy that the primary tension revealed in these debates was related to the role of economic growth in development, which illuminates the strength with which the notion of growth has become entrenched within any idea of development. In short, while some argue that economic growth is perfectly compatible with ecological quality and conservation through dramatic improvements in resource-use efficiency, others believe that investment in sustainable technologies and decoupling economic activity from ecological impact are doomed to fail.

This latter camp, baptized the “de-growth” movement,14 argues that any development based on growth in a finite and environmentally-stressed world is bound to be inherently unsustainable. That is, since current consumption levels exceed the planet’s ability to regenerate resources, economic growth will inevitably lead to their exhaustion. Perhaps more importantly, “de-growth is not just a quantitative question of doing less of the same, it is also and, more fundamentally, about a paradigmatic re-ordering of values, in particular the (re)affirmation of social and ecological values and a (re)politicisation of the economy… [D]e-growth is not just a quantitative question of producing and consuming less, but a tool proposed for initiating a more radical break with the dominant economic thinking”.15

Starting with this observation, we hold that the (im)possibility of a development vision divorced from growth fetishism is not a technical question, but rather a political one. It requires a radical redefinition of development and human betterment, one that is embedded within both society and the environment. Given that such a redefinition would have to take place within existing political-economic settings marked with power inequalities, it cannot be considered as a sterile, non-politicized process. More specifically, such a redefinition and rethinking would imply a fundamental shifting of power relations (with “winners” and “losers”) as well as of relations between the economy, environment and the society.

In the specific context of Turkey, the notion of development qua economic growth is deeply imprinted in the broader practices of the state to establish itself within the social sphere and legitimize its existence. In a parallel vein, the ideal of growth-oriented modernization dominates the social imaginary in a way that cannot easily be dismissed. That is to say, commitment to development via economic growth involves stakes farbeyond economic/material ones, and extends to the whole constellation of state-society relationships and the historical, mutual shaping of these two spheres. Against this backdrop, the possibility of not only effectuating, but also imagining and desiring an understanding of development that does not fetishize economic growth calls for a radical reconfiguration and democratization of state-society relationships in Turkey.



2.         Modernization/development is used interchangeably throughout the article to highlight the fact that the two have come to mean the same thing, both in the eyes of the state and in the social imaginary.

3.         That the discourses of the two main parties of parliamentary politics, the Republican People’s Party - the traditional party of the military-bureaucratic elite - and the resurgent Democrat Party - the main oppositional party that came to power in the 1950s- were dominated by developmentalism is illustrative in this respect. The clashes between the two parties were not centered on the validity of the developmentalist goals to achieve modernization nor related to distribution and social justice, but on whether the growth strategy should be state-controlled or follow a liberal path.

4.         Arsel, Murat (2005): Reflexive Developmentalism? Toward an Environmental Critique of Modernization, in: Environmentalism in Turkey: Between Democracy and Development? (Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel, eds).

5.         Keyder, Çağlar (1997): Whither the Project of Modernity?, in: Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey (Sibel Bozdoğan and Reşat Kasaba, eds).

6.         Keyder, Çağlar (1997): Türkiye’de Devlet ve Sınıflar.


8.         “Turkiye Hazir Hedef 2023: Istikrar Sursun, Turkiye Buyusun”

9.         Madra, Yahya: Yapısal Krizin Sınırları Üzerine Düşünmek, in: Özgür Gündem,ısal%20krizin%20sınırları%20üzerine%20düşünmek&action=haber_detay&module=nuce

10.      Çavuşoğlu, Erbatur (2011): İslamci Neo-Liberalizmde İnsaat Fetişi ve Mülkiyet Üzerindeki Simgesel Hale, Birikim, October.


12.      Tosun, Cevat and Alan Fyall (2005): Making Tourism Sustainable: Prospects and Pitfalls, in: Environmentalism in Turkey: Between Democracy and Development? (Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel, eds).



15.  Fournier, Valérie (2008): Escaping from the economy: The politics of degrowth, in International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 2008, 28(11/12). Fournier also provides a comprehensive literature survey on the de-growth approach.


Bengi Akbulut

She received her B.A. from Boğaziçi University (2004) and her PhD from University of Massachusetts at Amherst (2011), both in economics. Her articles on the political economy of development, issues of political ecology, agrarian and environmental change, state-society relationships, social and environmental movements, and gender and household work have been published in national and international journals. 

Fikret Adaman

Professor of economics (BA and MA in Economics, Boğaziçi University; PhD in Economics from Manchester University) at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. He is currently acting as an expert on social inclusion to the European Commission.


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