ISTANBUL -The Turkish intelligentsia erupted in commotion when he suggested Turkey needs a "Second Republic." Some celebrate him as an economic genius who supports unconditional democracy. Others, however, deride him for once abandoning his ideals to accommodate "political realities" at the time.
Mehmet Altan’s older brother Ahmet Altan is also a journalist and columnist. The older brother is one of the founders of Turkish liberal independent daily Taraf. Although Mehmet Altan believes both he and his brother were influenced by the environment in the home where they grew up, he would like to differentiate between his career and that of his father’s.
The difference, Mehmet Altan believes, stems from the fact that the father and son studied different subjects in college. "My father is a lawyer; he is a graduate of the Ankara [University] Law Faculty. I am an economist. Not only am I an economist, but I am also an instructor; I have been teaching for the past 25 years at Istanbul University and have been a professor since 1993. In other words, I am not only an economist but also an academic," said the 56-year-old Altan. However, he sees that although their professions may be different, there are commonalities between his father and himself. "Being a writer, academic, scientist, and even lawyer, [in] all of these, thought makes up the common ground," said Altan.
Also, Altan does not think it would have been possible for him to choose a very different career. "It was my father’s penmanship that earned the bread that went down our throats until we each started earning our own money; writing is behind it all. Today my father is 82 and he continues to wake up each day, write his article, and earn his living. I have often asked myself what the odds are for a person that grew up under these circumstances to be different," he said.
Paris leads to change of heart
Although his unkempt, long gray hair and beard make him look like a rotund version of the founder of communism Karl Marx, Mehmet Altan’s views have changed a lot since his youth when he used to support the Marxist ideology. The change came, many argue, when Altan returned from his studies in Paris to find that the political environment in Turkey had changed and defending Marxist views were no longer favored. His opponents say Altan accommodated himself to the new political realities of a changed Turkey.
Altan said his years in Paris, where he attended Sorbonne University between 1979 and 1984 for his postgraduate and doctorate studies in economics, were determinant in his life. "As developed an environment as you might come out of in Turkey, as rich a climate as you might have lived, if social development is not on the same level as the developed societies of the world, a lot remains missing. In Paris, [I understood] how democracy, being developed, and a forward society breathes, and also my perception of concepts became clear," said Altan.
"The society that had formed, developed and produced that concept does not use it in the same manner that we use those concepts in Turkey. Its contents have been diluted, distorted and castrated because that concept was not born here and there is not a situation that can be identical to where it was born," he said.
Altan said it has caused him to use the saying "becoming worldly" for Turkey. "I saw that Turkey is too introverted, too local, too peculiar, too detached from being a part of the world. I have spent my life trying to make Turkey a part of the world, trying to find out how to increase human kind’s freedom and affluence," he said.
Understanding ’worldly’ concepts
The columnist and academic says it is impossible to understand the concepts of modernism and "being a part of the world" by only living in Turkey, and that one needs to live abroad to understand these concepts. "Or at the very least, every morning, every day, one should have an open window; you should read foreign newspapers and watch foreign television," he said. He blames Turkish people’s detachedness from the world as the biggest barrier in Turkey’s way to democracy.
"[When I returned, then Prime Minister Turgut] Özal was trying to lay the foundations and somehow the operations of a market economy instead of a mixed-economy state. And I, as someone who has finished a doctorate in France and who is interested in Turkey, realized that it was impossible for Turkey to understand market economics," said Altan.
Altan said he blames statist economic policies for this. "Since 1923, they have been saying, ’We are Westerners, modern, and contemporary,’ but because of the statist economy they could not understand market economics. I have been trying to explain this, that a statist economy would not create riches, that it would not induce competition, that if competition is not incited, resources will not be used well, that a market economy is important for society to get richer. In other words, I have been trying to explain economic liberalism," he said.
Altan is angry with people who say he changed his views when he returned to Turkey from France. "So it is not I who have changed but those who find this strange in their connection to the world," he said.
Marxism meets liberalism
Sitting at his cluttered desk in a sun-filled office at Istanbul University’s Policy of Economics Faculty with a nude oil painting hanging over it, Altan agreed his views have changed somehow following his Paris years. "Instead of market economy, I used to think that Soviet-style central planning would be more meaningful. But after the USSR fell, market economy proved itself, and today claiming that centrally planned economy will use resources more efficiently than a market economy is off the agenda," he said.
Altan refers to himself as a "Marxist-liberal." This, he believes, is the new trend, the way of the future. "We started living in the 21st century. In the social structure of the 20th century, liberalism represented the viewpoint of capital and Marxism represented the viewpoint of labor. These were concepts that clashed and contradicted each other," he said. "The point that they clashed and contradicted each other came forward but their commonalities and similarities were never emphasized. The industrial revolution is slowly being replaced by a post-industrial society. Slowly the size of the working class is decreasing; it is no longer the most effective power or the most determinant element as it used to be. We are entering a new era. Marxism and liberalism are going toward a new synthesis based on their common points."
Altan explained the two view’s common points. "For example, both put the human at the center of their system of thinking. Both are anti-state. I believe that the positive aspects of Soviet Russia’s experiences and of the capitalist system will create a synthesis in the 21st century," said Altan. He calls the new structure to come out of this synthesis "Marxist-liberalism." He believes the current economic crisis the world is suffering can be explained in the light of this view. "The global economic crisis, just as I have foreseen, is beyond crisis, it is a renewal. The institutions and understanding of the post-industrial society are changing the structures from the era before that have not been able to adjust themselves [to the new era]; it is demolishing them and will reconstruct them," he said.
Between being a professor of the policy of economics, the lead columnist at daily Star, a columnist at Business Week Turkey and economics magazine Infomag, writing books (27 to date), and being the editor of the Internet site, www.secondrepublic.org, Altan is a very busy man.
"I liken myself to trucks that mix cement as they go," he joked. "The thing that helps me relax the most is to meaninglessly zap between television channels, to walk on the shore, and to go to foreign lands," he said, adding that such times were unfortunately very rare.
The book "Cities Fit for People" is one that stands out from all the otherwise political or economic books in his library. He travels both in and out of the country often for work. "I understand [traveling abroad] as part of the hustle and bustle but I can feel that there is less stress and that I am away from the shallow and infertile environment of Turkey," he said. One of his favorite places is Venice, Italy and he realizes there is a common aspect between the cities he enjoys the most. "Bruges, Paris, Heidelberg, Damascus É At the end I started wondering why I like them. Then I found out that these were all cities of the modern middle ages. I am sure I would be fascinated by any city of the modern middle ages even if I have never been there before."
His travels do not always take him to romantic cities, though. "Lately, for example, a negatively influential place was Afghanistan where I went with [Foreign Minister Ali] Babacan a couple of months ago Ğ to Kabul. If we are talking about being influenced, I should say that I returned with a horrifying feeling; I can say I was much influenced by it. I was in Cambodia before then. If you can see them, the drama surrounding the local people affects you very much," he said.
Although Altan loves swimming, he unfortunately cannot find time for it in his hectic daily schedule. "Yesterday I woke up at about 6 a.m. and only about 2 [a.m.] I was able to go to sleep. OK, I went to a soccer game, but I had time to only eat a few bites," he said. "Days go by so quickly; I can hardly understand what happens. Since this morning there have been many calls. Unfortunately, I do not have the luxury to enjoy my free time nowadays." Although he does not seem to have any, Altan enjoys peace and quite. "Maybe because I speak and listen to [others] a lot, I look for serenity," he said.
Altan is also the father of the term "Second Republic." This term, he said, was necessary to establish the concept of what he believes a republic should be and should do, and to distinguish it from the concept of the republic that Turks have come to accept. "When Turkey was announced as a republic after the sultanate [was abolished], this Republic was charged with all sorts of meanings, good and bad, democracy, etc. It got to include all sorts of things," he said.
Altan said the Turkish people in general were unaware of a distinction between the concepts of "republic" and "democracy."
"People, including the most educated, do not know the difference between democracy and republic. Republic is preventing government from being passed on from father to son, taking it away from the hands of a dynasty. But in order for this to be transferred to the public, there needs to be democracy, different opinions, competition, pluralism, freedom of thought, respect for others; principle rights and freedoms should be developed," said Altan.
"However, what has Turkey done? It took government from the Ottoman dynasty but then gave it to a single party regime. This is not democracy, this is only a republic," said Altan. He said this has continued to be the case although Turkey has been a multi-party regime since 1946.
Altan said he used the term "Second Republic" to refer to "a democracy in accordance with EU standards that should replace a single-party ideology such as Kemalism." He said, "It is that simple and I wanted to say that republic should be democratized."