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The forceful seizure of property in Turkey

Tanil Bora*

The modern new meaning of the verb “çökmek” (to collapse) appears in Ekşi Sözlük (a popular Turkish online dictionary) records only as recently as November 2015 – as follows: “The forceful seizure or looting of property by someone more powerful over someone weaker and defenseless.” In May 2021, a user named drgogol on Ekşi Sözlük interpreted the concept as: “It is one of the most important actions of the mafia. It is the blatant, intimidating, and coercive seizure of a rich man’s property. It is known that some state officials also perform this act by transforming into a mafia state. Thankfully, our country is an independent state of law, so we should not experience such a thing.”

The 11 current meanings of “çökmek” in the TDK (Turkish Language Association) Dictionary do not yet catch up with this new, contemporary meaning. Nowadays, when we talk about collapsing, before construction and body movements, this new economic-political meaning comes to mind. The economics and politics of collapse can be followed day by day, especially through the writings of Çiğdem Toker and Bahadır Özgür.

The word “mülk” (property) in Arabic means “owned thing, domain, state.” Its English and French equivalents, property / propriété, come from the Latin “proprius,” meaning “private, individual, belonging to someone.”

There is this famous parable about the origin of private property: the story of the man who first encircled a piece of land and declared “this is mine.” Or, the first act of fencing in history… Fencing is not a once-and-done event in history. Those men, their representatives, some companies are still fencing off places saying, “this is mine, ours.” Generally, they do this under the guise of the state. Property, not just purely personal-private, expands and spreads through legal or semi-legal violence, partly through illegal coercion, in short, by collapsing. “Primitive accumulation” is not a procedure that took place in ancient times – it is ongoing.

The destructive and eliminative aspect of capitalism in its neoliberal phase speeds up the wheel of this fencing and collapsing dynamic.

This should be considered in connection with the thesis in Kai Lindemann’s book “The Politics of Gangs” (İletişim, 2023). He describes how in the neoliberal era, the state’s ancient/original essence of providing protection in exchange for a share of the spoils has become more pronounced. Capital-state-society relations are shaped within such a “gang” relationship, according to him.

The book “Property and Commons,” edited by Begüm Özden Fırat and Fırat Genç (Metis, 2023), aims to ‘revalue’ the concept of property in social theory and politics, as the editors mention in the Introduction. Note the subtitle: Construction, Execution, and Violation of Property in Turkey. The articles in the book show that property cannot be understood as a static legal and economic status, but must be understood as a social relation. Notice: alongside construction and execution, violation also forms a dimension of property relations. Violations of property, whether based on violence-force, official-legal, or often – legally-violent forms, can very well be part of the property regime.

The authors of Property and Commons emphasize that recent practices in Turkey, which “expand and deepen” the dynamics of commodification, also make the institution of property contentious. There are especially three main risky applications: Registration, privatization, and urgent expropriation.

In particular, the latter, urgent expropriation, serves to fuel the construction and energy economy, which are the lifelines of the government’s economic politics. We know how urgent expropriation practices lead to ecological destructions that the word “destruction” is insufficient to describe, making people uninhabitable in places they have inhabited for generations. Beyond property-land, they are collapsing onto nature, fate, the universe.

As the government’s hunger for “resources” reaches the stage of rummaging through the bottom of the dowry chest to sell grandma’s old laces, a new method was invented right around the time the Property and Commons book was released: “Reserve building areas.” According to the official definition, areas determined to be at disaster risk will be designated as “reserve building areas” by the Ministry, either upon request from the Housing Development Administration or “Administration” or ex officio, and all kinds of applications that “generate income and revenue” can be made there. The first applications were seen in Hatay, Antakya, Defne, and Samandağ, transferring hectares that included solid homes and shops, i.e., living spaces, to the treasury. A residential complex in Üsküdar was transferred to the Religious Affairs Directorate as a reserve area, even though no earthquake risk had been identified.

The term “reserve area” is actually used for nature conservation areas. Thus, this move is also consistent with the government’s method of inverting or emptying concepts.

We know about “reserved” tables in restaurants. They are set aside for “some people,” others cannot sit there. Reserve building area is also suitable for this ‘joke’.

There is also the concept of a “reservation area,” as you know; homelands allocated to communities at risk of extinction, such as Native American lands in the USA. In the horizon of perpetual enclosers, after privatizations, urgent expropriations, reserve building areas, etc., what may remain for the people, the public realm, are some reservation areas.

[1] Hikmet Kıvılcımlı spoke of “unprecedented rampantness in the loss of personal property.” Even he might have found it difficult to find adjectives for today’s scales.

[2] She sees three layers there: 1- A slogan that challenges state institutions and the status quo law – and negotiates with it under the table, 2- an amulet, 3- a challenge to the established middle classes (the world won’t be left to you).

[3] An impressive example is the study conducted by the Justice in Space Association and BAYETAV about the Menderes Basin: [URL].

[4] Regarding how the climate change crisis stimulates land grabs all over the world, especially the looting of propertyless-titless-common areas: Jason Hickel: The Divide. Trans. Deniz Keskin. Metis Publishing, Istanbul 2023, pp. 269-273.

[5] For a detailed information about the essence and law of this issue, see the Umut-Sen page.



*Tanıl Bora was born in 1963 in Ankara. He graduated from Istanbul Boys’ High School, then Ankara University Political Science Faculty. He was a journalist at Yeni Gündem, a weekly news journal, in between 1984-88. He has been the research / reading editor in İletişim Publishing since 1988. In between 1993 and 2014, he was the editorial director in Toplum & Bilim Journal, a social science journal published every three months. In 2012, he became the editorial coordinator of Birikim, a monthly socialist culture journal for which he was writing articles since 1989.

This article was first published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English bu Politurco.

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