İnce Memed and Paternalism

I just found out that somebody (from behind a pseudonym) has accused me of engaging in “fascist cultural production” – mainly on the basis that I reject “paternalistic systems of domination”  which my accuser identifies with “all non-capitalist relations”. That’s nonsense, of course, as fascist cultural production is, for the most part, precisely this: a celebration of paternalism.

For anybody thinking highly of paternalism because it looks like a cosy alternative to capitalism, I recommend the work of a socialist who knew paternalism inside out – Yaşar Kemal.

In his most renown novel İnce Memed (Memed my Hawk) it is when the protagonist first gets away from the villages controlled by the ağa, secretly making a trip to the kasaba,the local market town, that the possibility of a life free of oppression occurs to him. After a day in the shops, after being treated with respect by shopkeepers who want to sell to him, and after finding out that there are inequalities between haves and have-nots, but no single master, no ağa, whose control seems inescapable, Memed’s world changes:

‘Dünya kafasında büyümüştü. Dünyanın genişliğini düşünüyordu. Değirmenoluk köyü bir nokta gibi kalmıştı gözünde. O kocaman Abdi Ağa karınca gibi kalmıştı gözünde. Belki de ilk olarak doğru dürüst düşünüyordu. Aşk ile şevk ile düşünüyordu. Kin duyuyordu artık. Kendi gözünde kendisi büyümüştü. Kendini de insan saymaya başladı. Yatakta bir taraftan bir tarafa dönerken söylendi. “Abdi Ağa da insan, biz de…”’

(Kemal, Yaşar (2005) [1955] İnce Memed, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, p.80)

“In his head, the world had grown. He was thinking about how wide it was. In his eyes his village, Değirmenoluk, had shrunk to a small point. That mighty Abdi Ağa had shrunk to the size of an ant. Maybe this was the first time that he thought properly. He thought with passion, he thought with zeal. And felt hatred. He felt he himself had grown. He began to see himself as a human being. While turning from one side to the other in bed he told himself: “Abdi Ağa is a human being, but so are we…”

True: urban life is far from free of oppression, inequality, violence, humiliation. Kemal would be the last to celebrate “the market” as the ultimate utopia of freedom and justice (after all he spent time in prison for “communist propaganda”). But however unjust and thereby illiberal the “free” market is – it contains the promise and possibility of freedom and justice. Simmel rightly remarked that socialism is a product of the pervasive use of money and its cultural impact (and Marx often implied the same).

Memed underlines his status as individual by bringing back tokens from the markets (which he has to hide from the ağa who forces the villagers to buy from his own shop) – and in order to stand up for equality and freedom one has to achieve such individuality. Memed’s failure to achieve something more fundamental than just the death of one oppressor is due to the fact that he is one of only a few who manage to establish such individuality in a quasi feudal world.

Marx postulated the necessity of individualisation on a mass basis as a precondition for any communist revolution (explicitly so in the German Ideology). (It is Gerald Cohen’s take on this: the liberation from “engulfment”, that the anonymous paternalist took issue with.) The capitalist market has this power of alienation and thus both the frustration to drive change and the individual agency to perform it. Paternalism, if left alone, can reproduce itself endlessly.

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1 Comment

  1. ghosts of capitalism past, present and yet to come: the plan | metax‎‎ý

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