Critical Approaches to State and Sovereignty: Part 5 (Uysal)

15th Jan 2024 by Simon Mabon

Critical Approaches to State and Sovereignty: Part 5 (Uysal)

The State, exception and Turkey

Gönenç Uysal

Lecturer in International Political Economy, Lancaster University.

There is a burgeoning academic interest in the notion of exception to discuss the state and its sovereignty in today’s world order. Such interest is no surprise for ones who have witnessed exceptional measures the advanced capitalist states and states in the Global South have resorted to. Some scholars date back the exceptional forms and practices to the COVID-19 pandemic when the states “adopt[ed] repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic” (Guterres 2020). Some scholars date the rise of exception to much earlier, such as in the case of the repressive measures adopted by the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (Ralph 2013), arguably turning the exception into the norm.  In the case of peripheries of world capitalism, particularly in the Middle East, the state of exception rather functions as a “‘new paradigm of government’” (see Mabon 2022). In this regard, the prolonged period of state of emergency and the ruling of the country by decrees (in the force of law) since 2016 has been considered as the continuous state of exception in Turkey (Choukroune 2020). This paper aims to critically and coherently discuss the rise of state exception in Turkey in order to contribute to the literature on the exception and the state.  

Debating Exception

In the liberal understanding of the state and law, the state of exception includes “any type of severe economic or political disturbance that requires the application of extraordinary measures”, particularly “the temporary, partial or total suspension of ordinary and constitutional laws” (Schwab 1989: 7). Carl Schmitt, most significantly, rejects this idea since the jurisprudence only deals with the normal order and any extreme case is already a “disturbance”. In extreme or emergency cases, law “recedes” whereas the state “remains” to restore and maintain order in the juristic sense “even if it is not of the ordinary kind” (Schmitt 2005: 12). In this regard, Schmitt (2005: 5) identifies the internal relationship between exception and sovereignty as well as the political nature of exception by stating that “[s]overeign is he who decides on the exception”. Giorgio Agamben (2005: 2) draws upon Schmitt to explore how “a permanent state of emergency” can be created and the state of exception can become “the dominant paradigm of government”. For Agamben (2005: 2–3), the state of exception is “the state of war” and “a legal civil war” where the abolition of the distinction among legislative, executive, and judicial powers becomes the permanent practice of the sovereign. 

Both in Schmitt’s and Agamben’s works, the state as the sovereign is rather understood as a political entity that exists external to society and above class-interests. Therefore, the state is understood to aspire after certain interests and goals on its own merits. This ideational conception of the state is criticised by Mark Neocleous who offers a – dialectical – materialist understanding of the state. Neocleous identifies the notion of exception as an inherent and internal feature of the capitalist state. The state of exception is the function of the state that enables “the fabrication of order” (Neocleous 2008: 53). The state of exception is particularly instrumental and necessary to discipline social and political opposition, particularly labour movements and radical political movements. In this sense, Neocleous (2008: 42–59) dates the state of exception back to the seventeenth century, linking the consolidation, crisis, and restoration of the sovereignty of capitalist states in past and present forms. 

Even though his critique is important to understand the political nature of exception in relation to material and antagonistic class interests, Neocleous seems to converge with Schmitt and Agamben regarding his emphasis on the state of emergency and martial law. This limits a comprehensive conception of the state of exception as a totality that involves practices and process before and after the state of emergency (Oğuz 2023: 108). In this sense, Neocleous’s emphasis on the continuity and arguably permanency of the state of exception complicates the historicising of exception in relation particular configurations of social forces that brings about the political crisis and the crisis of the state. 

Poulantzas, the state and exception

Nicos Poulantzas (1978, 1979, 2008)’s discussion on exception as a form of the state that emerges in particular conjunctures of the political crises and crises of the state and configurations class forces is important for two reasons. Firstly, the state of exception has an inherent political nature that can only be understood in the nexus of material and antagonistic class relations. Secondly, the state of exception cannot be limited to certain legal or legislative practices but it indicates a fundamental transformation of state apparatuses, such as the judiciary and the police. When the exceptional state is conceptualised as a particular form of state, how the exception becomes the rule is understood in relation to the exceptional transformation of the state and its repressive and ideological apparatuses as well as the reconfiguration of relations among these state apparatuses. 

For Poulantzas (2000: 129), the capitalist state is a “specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions”. The form of state is important to understand the relationships among different configurations of class relations and the transformation of the state apparatus. The forms of capitalist state can be categorised as the normal form of state and the exceptional form of state. In the normal form of state, the bourgeois hegemony remains relatively stable. The exceptional form of state emerges as a response to resolve the political crisis and the crisis of the state through the institutionalisation of exceptional means. The political crisis and the crisis of the state demonstrates the paralysis of the state, demonstrating the political struggles of classes and class fractions with the state apparatus. The exceptional form of the state manifests the transformation and adaptation of the state to “the new realities of class conflict” (Poulantzas 2008: 297). 

Turkey, crisis and exception 

Poulantzas’s conception of the exceptional state can be applied to the case of Turkey, which has staged a prolonged political crisis and the crisis of the state since the mid-2010s. The mid-2010s staged the rise of signals of an economic crisis, which finally broke out in the form of currency and debt crisis in 2018 (Orhangazi and Yeldan 2021). The mid-2010s further staged the rise of working classes and various social forces opposing the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party), such as the Gezi Park protests (Uysal 2013a, 2013b), and the deepening political crisis and the crisis of the state. Most significantly, a power struggle broke out between the AKP and its de facto coalition partner, the Gülen congregation – a branch of Nurcu congregation – by the mid-2010s (Uysal 2019). 

The exceptional state is characterised by the restructuring of the state apparatus and hierarchies among the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary as well as the suspension of the electoral principle – but not plebiscites/referenda – and the plural party system (Jessop 2008: 129–130). In June 2015, the AKP in effect suspended the functioning of the Parliament and hence the legislative power owing to its majority following the general election. In the election of June 2015, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. However, the AKP evaded the public calls for negotiations for a coalition government and stayed in power. The AKP won a majority in the snap election in November 2015, which it forced in the first place. 

The exceptional state is further characterised by the restructuring of the state apparatus and hierarchies among the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary as well as the interruption of the rule of law to amend the Constitution and administration (Jessop 2008: 129–130). Prior to the election of June 2015, the AKP government had already assumed the legislative function and overruled the Assembly owing to its majority. Following the abortive coup of July 2016, the AKP declared state of emergency and began to rule the country by decrees. Following the transition to presidentialism in April 2017, the President began to rule the country by presidential decrees. 

The exceptional state is also characterised by the extension of its relative autonomy vis-à-vis the dominant classes. In August 2016, the AKP established the Wealth Fund (Varlık Fonu), which created a discretionary fund for the use of executive power and hence enhanced the relative economic autonomy of executive power vis-à-vis the capitalist classes. In this way, the AKP used the Fund as a trump card to promote certain fractions of capitalists and obtain their support. 

The exceptional state is further characterised by transformation of the hierarchies among, and fundamental functions of, the ideological and repressive state apparatuses as well as the subordination of the ideological state apparatuses to the repressive state apparatuses and dominant classes (Jessop 2008: 129–130). In this regard, the exceptional state advances repression and coercion of the subordinate classes. Police and intelligence emerged as the most important repressive state apparatuses. In 2015, the police and the intelligence began to replace the judiciary and undertake extraordinary competences, such as pressuring public prosecutors regarding counter-terrorism cases – for the police – and gathering information about any public or private institution without a judicial decision – for the intelligence.  


The AKP has often explicitly stated that it was “their aim to turn the crisis into an opportunity” (BBC Türkçe 2018). The AKP has managed to turn the currency and debt crisis erupted in 2018 into a shock in relations of distribution by loading the economic burden on the shoulders of working classes (Boratav 2023). The AKP has also managed to evade the destructive political impact of two major earthquakes in February 2023 by gaining the majority in the election in May 2023. However, the crises are also opportunities for social and political opposition to equip with radical discourses and mobilise working classes to challenge the restoration of exception and seek for alternatives that brought about the exceptional state in the first place. For this reason, the understanding of the state of exception in relation to class relations and the nature of the capitalist state remains significant to identify the true character of exception and develop an agenda seeking for alternatives. 


Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. The University of Chicago Press. 

BBC Türkçe. 2018. “Erdoğan'dan McKinsey açıklaması: Fikri danışmanlık alınmayacak, biz bize yeteriz”. 6 October,

Boratav, Korkut. 2023. “Korkut Boratav seçim sonrası Türkiye'yi değerlendirdi, Cenk Saraçoğlu ve Fırat Çoban”. İleri Haber, 7 June,

Guterres, António. 2020. “We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery”. The United Nations, 23 April,

Choukroune, Leïla. 2020. “When the state of exception becomes the norm, democracy is on a tightrope”. The Conversation. 27 April,

Jessop, Bob. 2008. State Power: A Strategic-Relational Approach. Cambridge: Polity. 

Mabon, Simon. 2022. States of Exception, Bare Life and Agamben in the Middle East. In: States of Exception or Exceptional States: Law, Politics and Giorgio Agamben in the Middle East, edited by Simon Mabon, Sanaa Al Sarghali, and Adel Ruished, 5–26. IB Tauris. 

Neocleous, Mark. 2008. Critique of Security. Edinburgh University Press. 

Oğuz, Şebnem. 2023. “AKP’li yıllarda siyasal rejimin dönüşümü: Çelişkili bir süreç olarak yeni faşizm”. Toplum ve Hekim 38(2): 106–125. 

Orhangazi, Özgür and A. Erinç Yeldan. 2021. “The Re-Making of the Turkish Crisis”. Development and Change 52(3): 460–503.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1978. Political Power and Social Classes. London: Verso. 

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1979. Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism. London: Verso. 

Poulantzas, Nicos. 2000. State, Power, Socialism. London: Verso. 

Poulantzas, Nicos. 2008. “The Political Crisis and the Crisis of the State”. In The Poulantzas Reader: Marxism, Law and the State, edited by James Martin, 294–322. London: Verso. 

Ralph, Jason. 2013. America's War on Terror: The State of the 9/11 Exception from Bush to Obama. Oxford University Press. 

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. University of Chicago Press. 

Schwab, George. 1989. The challenge of the exception: An introduction to the political ideas of Carl Schmitt between 1921 and 1936. Greenwood Press. 

Uysal, Gönenç. 2013a. “Unrest in Turkey: from ‘3 or 5 Trees’ to ‘Democracy’”. Strife, 5 June,

Uysal, Gönenç. 2013b. “From the Gezi Parki Protests to the Democratisation Package”. Strife, 10 December,

Uysal, Gönenç. 2019. “Charity State: Neoliberalism, Political Islam, and Class Relations in Turkey”. New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry 10(1): 16–28.