Disaster Capitalism and International Socialist Solidarity: Lessons from the Earthquake in Southeastern Turkey and Syria

Turkish leftists parties and organizations including the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish Workers’ Party (TiP) have held protests calling for the ruling government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to resign because of their handling of the response to February’s earthquake in the southeastern region of Turkey and Syria. These demonstrations began specifically in light of the fact that the Red Crescent–a nominally independent aid organization that in reality has close ties with the government–sold 2,050 tents to another charity instead of simply distributing them to those in need free of charge. This prompted protests in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kadıköy in which demonstrators were attacked and detained by police. Moreover, the police blocked TİP from sending more aid to the region.

On top of the forceful requisition and redirection of critical medical supplies, foodstuffs, equipment, funds, and personnel provided by others, the government’s response to this disaster has been effectively absent. It did little to address the crisis for a full 72 hours–the most important time for the effective deployment of aid in a humanitarian crisis, especially one involving collapsed buildings and individuals trapped under rubble. 

It would be easy to see the earthquake as a tragic natural disaster. But it is better understood as a political problem, as a TiP demonstration slogan indicates: “They were killed not by the earthquake, but by your rent-seeking system.” The resources and knowledge to prevent such a loss of life–more than 50,000 people–were and are available. It is only the political conditions that made the worst possible outcome a reality. After two decades of right-wing rule, the socially oriented arms of the state have been hollowed out. The original 1999 Special Communication Tax (otherwise known as the earthquake tax), for example, was instituted after an earthquake hit the city of Izmit in the same year, killing 18,373 people. The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) was also established in 2009 to consolidate relief efforts, but despite AFAD collecting vast sums of money meant to go toward relief efforts for situations exactly like the February earthquake, most journalists and lower government officials are simply unsure of where all the money, estimated to be the equivalent of 22 billion U.S. dollars in 2020, went.

In addition to the mismanagement of funds, AFAD has been stocked with AKP party loyalists with little expertise in the area of emergency services and humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the construction industry in most of Turkey’s urban centers regularly pays variance fees in order not to comply with newer earthquake building standards, which has contributed to the many deaths we see today. AKP’s corrupt relationship to this industry has led to the intimidation or even imprisonment of left-leaning professionals, including architects, urban planners, and lawyers over the past decade or so for raising the alarm on corrupt building practices and violations of law. 

Many liberal journalists, both Turkish and international, have noted the historical and political context of the February earthquake and have described the way in which locals of the earthquake region have learned to prepare without relying on the state for help that they know will not come. However, few have recognized, until recently, the role of the organized Left in filling in the role of social solidarity and mutual aid in the absence of the state. Even the popular liberal-progressive journalist, Nevşin Mengü, for example, has praised the Turkish socialist and communist relief efforts as being among the first responders and the most effective in the early days of the earthquake. AKP, instead of responding to its own failures, has cracked down on these relief efforts, leading to widespread dissent and a precipitous fall in popularity.

Implications for DSA

“An injury to one is an injury to all,” is not only an important dictum for organized labor, but can also apply to all political conditions of dispossession and misery that capitalism creates. Understanding the February earthquake as a political crisis instead of a natural one clarifies the importance of quick and prompt international solidarity, not only for obvious humanitarian reasons but also to help build a strong international Left through alternative institutions of mutual aid. 

We in DSA have encouraged mutual aid in our own country. Should we not encourage it internationally by making formal links and contacts with other socialist organizations in other countries that share similar platforms? What this process would look like is an open question that should be debated within DSA. The network of official contacts I’m suggesting would likely involve an organization-wide, democratic process that clearly and publicly delineates our relationship with other socialist organizations or parties with similar platforms and ideological orientations. 

A look at some Turkish Left Twitter debates shows that the Turkish Left was disappointed by the response to the earthquake from western and U.S. leftists (with some singling out DSA specifically). Kubilay Cenk, for example, who sits on TiP’s International Relations Committee, noted in private correspondence, Except for a few sister organizations in Europe with which we already have established relationships, the initial response from the international left was rather weak and close to none I would say. We immediately published several political as well as brief reports about the earthquake, and the political-social magnitude of the disaster and sent them to plenty of left-wing organizations but the only response we received were from comrades from Greece and Cyprus. . .”

At the root of this lack of solidarity, he proposed, is the fact that “left-wing organizations and intelligentsia all over the world are buried in their own country’s agenda because there is no international union like the International that would unify the agenda of the working class movement and bring workers of different nationalities together in a commonality of feeling. This is the essence of the issue. We have to work for the means to create a common sentiment and political agenda.” (emphasis added)

Although some members of the International Committee work with left-wing groups in countries not directly affected by U.S. imperialism, most IC work is done through the lens of U.S. anti-imperialism. To a certain extent, this is understandable, given U.S. history, especially in the Global South. But in the U.S. Left’s desire to avoid accepting the biases of the U.S. State Department, we have a tendency to limit our international work to where the U.S. government is the culprit. Instead, we should invite others to speak to us about their conditions, to create a chorus of voices and an informed, borderless internationalism.

Internationalism ought to be based on the working classes of the world and their interests as independent entities, not just on reactive negation to U.S. imperialism. February’s earthquake and the lack of response from the Western Left indicate that we need to start somewhere.

Special thanks to Asya Uzmay and Kubilay Cenk, a member of TiP’s International Relations Committee.

If you would like to donate, please consider donating to the Turkish Workers’ Foundation which provides funds for comrades and partnering organizations doing relief work in the region: https://www.gofundme.com/f/all-and-any-support-can-save-lives-help-turkiye?utm_campaign=p_lico+share-sheet&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer

If you would like to get involved in DSA’s International Committee please contact them at https://actionnetwork.org/forms/dsa-international-committee-application. The deadline for applications in the current round is March 30, 2023.