Friday, December 26, 2008

The Pleasures and Guilts of Wealth: New Money and What to Do With It


One of New York Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise's recurring themes is that of Turkey's emerging religious middle classes, and her insight into this new elite is on full display in this article from today's NYT. From the article:
Money is at the heart of the changes that have transformed Turkey. In 1950, it was a largely agrarian society, with 80 percent of its population living in rural areas. Its economy was closed and foreign currency was illegal. But a forward-looking prime minister, Turgut Ozal, opened the economy. Now Turkey exports billions of dollars in goods to other European countries, and about 70 percent of its population lives in cities.

Religious Turks helped power that rise, yet for years they were shunned by elite society. That helps explain why many are engaged in such a frantic effort to prove themselves, said Safak Cak, a Turkish interior designer with many wealthy, religious clients. “It’s because of how we labeled them,” he said. “We looked at them as black people.”

Mr. Cak was referring to Turkey’s deep class divide. An urban upper class, often referred to as White Turks, wielded the political and economic power in the country for decades. They saw themselves as the transmitters of the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder. They have felt threatened by the rise of the rural, religious, merchant class, particularly of its political representative, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The old class was not ready to share economic and political power,” said Can Paker, chairman of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a liberal research organization in Istanbul. “The new class is sharing their habits, like driving Mercedes, but they are also wearing head scarves. The old class can’t bear this.”

“ ‘They were the peasants,’ ” the thinking goes, Mr. Paker said. “ ‘Why are they among us?’ ”

Ms. Aydin, 40, who wears a head scarf, encountered that attitude not long ago in one of Istanbul’s fanciest districts. A woman called her a “dirty fundamentalist” when Ms. Aydin tried to put trash the woman had thrown out her car window back inside.

“If you’re driving a good car, they stare at you and point,” Ms. Aydin said. “You want to say, ‘I graduated from French school just like you,’ but after a while, you don’t feel like proving yourself.”

She does not have to.

Her father started by selling curtains. Now he owns one of the largest home-appliance businesses in Europe. Ms. Aydin grew up wealthy, with tastes no different from those of the older class. She lives in a sleek, modern house with a pool in a gated community. Her son attends a prestigious private school. A business school graduate, she manages about 100 people at a private hospital founded by her father. Her head scarf bars her from employment in a state hospital.

Her husband, Yasar Aydin, shrugged. “Rich people everywhere dislike newcomers,” he said. In another decade, those prejudices will be gone, he said.

The businessmen describe themselves as Muslims with a Protestant work ethic, and say hard work deepens faith.

“We can’t lie down on our oil like Arab countries,” said Osman Kadiroglu, whose family owns a large candy company in Turkey, with factories in Azerbaijan and Algeria. “There’s no way out except producing.”
Tavernise also briefly touches on how this newly emergent middle class is dealing with their new money status, and religious dictates that one should not consume more than one needs. Tavernise observes many wealthy and religious Turks justify the purchasing of extravagances by complementing such acquisitions with generous donations to religious charities (like Deniz Feneri). For full article, click here.

In my mind is Dutch painter Pieter Aertsen's juxtaposition of sinful meats and mussels alongside less lavish foods of piety, like bread and fish. For more on Islamic Calvinism and Turkey's religious classes, see the European Stability Initiative's 2005 report on the subject. For more on class politics in Turkey, see my June analysis of a 2005 law prohibiting newly arrived "black Turks" -- by no means the Islamic Calvinists referred to by Tavernise as buying fancy sinks and curtains -- from swimming in their underwear.

2 comments:

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

This is a fluff piece parroting a particular line of propaganda like many coming from Tavernise.

Money is at the heart of the changes that have transformed Turkey. In 1950, it was a largely agrarian society, with 80 percent of its population living in rural areas. Its economy was closed and foreign currency was illegal. But a forward-looking prime minister, Turgut Ozal, opened the economy. Now Turkey exports billions of dollars in goods to other European countries, and about 70 percent of its population lives in cities.

That it took a coup d'etat and about 5-6 years of martial law for all this forward-looking stuff to happen is not worthy of mention, obviously. Mercedes-envy has more explanatory power than actual history.

Religious Turks helped power that rise, yet for years they were shunned by elite society. That helps explain why many are engaged in such a frantic effort to prove themselves, said Safak Cak, a Turkish interior designer with many wealthy, religious clients. “It’s because of how we labeled them,” he said. “We looked at them as black people.”

I don't understand why people use references to American concepts that they have no first-hand experience of. I do understand that this is in vogue (which, incidentally, is what Cak's company appears to be named) but I don't see why a peddler of last days of Rome style of extravagance would have anything insightful to say about anything. I would be treated as a 'black person' too if I showed up in my regular attire, stepped out of public transportation and tried to price shiny bathtubs and expensive floor tiles (check out the guy's site).

Mr. Cak was referring to Turkey’s deep class divide. An urban upper class, often referred to as White Turks, wielded the political and economic power in the country for decades. They saw themselves as the transmitters of the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder.

Oh I think the semi-secularised Muslim bourgeois created by the new republic knew what game they were playing and any lip service they paid to Ataturk was out of political necessity.

They have felt threatened by the rise of the rural, religious, merchant class, particularly of its political representative, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Missing in all this is RTE's and his organization's past, but if you start history from the Fall of 2002 and use fashionable fluffy rhetoric about what took place before that, of course it will appear to make a lot of sense.

“The old class was not ready to share economic and political power,” said Can Paker, chairman of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a liberal research organization in Istanbul. “The new class is sharing their habits, like driving Mercedes, but they are also wearing head scarves. The old class can’t bear this.”

This does not explain why a whole bunch of white collar but non-Mercedes driving folks went and demonstrated against the AKP in 2007 even though they didn't necessarily realize or agree with what the organizers were after. There's something else that's being feared but isn't getting adequate attention. (I don't understand much of it either, I was very much surprised to find out how many people I knew went to Rallies for the Republic. The tale being spun about people being jealous of cars and in-your-face sort of extravagant waste sounds ludicrous though.)

Ragan Updegraff said...

This last point is especially salient. Many analyses explain discontent with AKP and a more conservative politics as a function of class, and Tavernise tends to focus on this explanation at the exclusion of other factors. I have met numerous Turks who express disdain for "green capitalism," but their disgust does not come from a sense of jealousy or some kind of Nietzchean resentment, but more often than not from fear that the green capitalists threaten the country and are intent to undermine the republic. The best example I can think of is when I was told not to buy Ülker food products because a bit of every YTL I spent went to support a slow-moving, but smart effort to overthrow the ideals of the republic. If fears of conspiracy are not behind such thinking, at the very least there is real concern about creeping conservatism in Turkey, the thought being that the more powerful -- in this case, wealthy -- the green capitalists become, the less "liberal" Turkey will be in the future. These logics are certainly not to be considered benign, especially not the oversimplifications embedded in the conspiracy narrative, but do evince that there is certainly much more going on here than class competition and petty resentment. Also, I am not sure how useful the "black/white" Turk distinction is when it comes to serious analysis; although I have heard some newly monied Turks from the East joke of themselves as "black," the label's meaning is deeply rooted in the idiosyncracies of Turkey's sociocultural experience, similar to the focus on class in British social dialogue, and its utility in terms of describing politics rather limited.