Ottoman Heritage  

In our previous post, we wondered how, after a propitious start, moves towards greater democracy and civil rights in Turkey have stopped and perhaps even gone in reverse.

It will be no surprise to readers of Why Nations Fail that we see the roots of the current problems in the history of Turkish institutions, which trace back to the Ottoman heritage.

We argued in Why Nations Fail that the Ottoman Empire was a perfect specimen of absolutist political institutions, concentrating power in the hands of the Sultan and a narrow elite. First and foremost, this was the result of the highly militaristic nature of the Ottoman state, organized around conquest and expansion, with the role of the Sultan mainly as the commander-in-chief.

The society was explicitly divided into two classes. The ruling class consisted of the military and the state bureaucracy. The rest, referred to as reaya, literally meaning “the flock”, consisted of everybody else doing all the economic activities, mostly centered on agriculture. The military came in part a quasi-feudal arrangement called, the tımar system, whereby lands owned by the Sultan were leased out in exchange for a number of soldiers to be made available at the time of war. From the 14th and 15th centuries on, the military, and to some degree state bureaucracy, came to rely increasingly on the devşirme system, which involved children being taken from the non-Muslim (Christian) subjects of the empire, converted to Islam, and brought up without any political allegiance other than to the Sultan. In fact, the system was largely the outcome of a strategy by the central state to reduce its dependence on tımar holders, who might have otherwise have developed the economic and military power to challenge the Sultan and his bureaucracy. Other strategies involved moving tımar holders large distances within the empire, taking their lands away periodically, and granting tımar rights to soldiers and bureaucrats from the devşirme system in order to prevent the formation of local alliances and concentration of power to rival the central state. The increasing proportion of grand viziers coming from the devşirme system, rather than from local notables and established families, was also part of this strategy. 

Not only military but other political and social institutions were structured so as to minimize constraints on the Sultan and the central state’s power. State bureaucracy, including what we would today view as the equivalent of the judiciary branch, was an instrument of imperial power and thus fully subservient to the Sultan, who was effectively the law and thus above the law (both public and criminal law were based on the Sultan’s decrees). This arrangement naturally removed other potential institutional constraints on the ruler’s power. It was only much later in the history of the Ottoman Empire that parts of the military became sufficiently empowered to resist attempted reforms, and this was only in the context of military reforms targeted at their own removal. 

An interesting argument by Noah Feldman, in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State claims that the ulema, the religious-legal establishment of Islamic societies, acted as a constraint on rulers. Whether this is true in other Islamic societies is debatable, but it is far from the case in the Ottoman Empire, where the ulema were also integrated into the state bureaucracy under a hierarchical structure under the control of the Sultan and the ruling elite. In fact, the Sultan was in many ways the most powerful representative of religious power, even before but particularly after the caliphate passed to the Ottomans (one of the Sultan’s titles was “the shadow of God”). Defending the Islamic faith and community against the outside world and particularly the infidels was the Sultan’s charge.

Limited private property rights in land (in many core parts of the empire only in less than 10% of the land), the successful strategies of the central state in preventing the emergence of economically and locally independent, powerful tımar holders, the dependence of merchants on the state for many of their activities, and the non-autonomous political and economic status of the cities also implied that economic constraints on royal power which sprang up in Western Europe also failed to develop in the Ottoman Empire.

Other aspects of social institutions were also highly hierarchical — for example, completely eschewing the notion of a single law applying to all subjects — thus creating an environment more conducive to the survival of extractive, absolutist institutions.

All of this is not uncontroversial, however.

First, parts of it sound similar to the thesis of ‘Oriental despotism’ going back to Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx (in the form of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’), Weber and Wittfogel. But the differences from our account are noteworthy. Those thinkers saw something qualitatively different in Oriental societies. We see them as attempting the building of extractive political institutions under their control in exactly the same way that European monarchs also did (and in some cases such as the French almost succeeded). In fact, there is a huge literature, mostly by Turkish scholars, criticizing the view that the Ottoman Empire was a highly absolutist state, an example of Oriental despotism. Some of this is on target as a criticism of the ‘eurocentric’ Oriental despotism school, but does not contradict the strong absolutism of the Ottoman state and the almost complete absence of institutions constraining the power of the ruler and ruling elite (and some of it is very very off target…).

Second, even the most absolutist states of the time, given resources and technology, were much less able than the modern nation-state to regulate economic and social activity over its territories. In the Ottoman case, many parts of the empire, particularly much of the Middle East and North Africa, were peripheral and the state was not even present to keep law and order — let alone restrain extraction by local elites.

Third, extractive institutions in general, and strongly absolutist ones in particular, are neither badly designed nor static. In fact, only great organizational skills and almost farsighted institutional design on the part of the early Ottoman rulers could have turned a little insignificant polity on marginal Anatolian lands into a worldwide empire to be reckoned with. Nor were these institutions static in any sense. They changed and adapted to circumstances after the Ottomans started expanding, in some sense, perfecting their absolutism during this phase. They changed and adapted again when Ottoman expansion came to an end (as shown convincingly by Şevket Pamuk in “Institutional Change and the Longevity of the Ottoman Empire, 1500-1800”.

This institutional heritage is very consequential. We’ll argue in our next post that several aspects of these institutions survived the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and formed an important part of the institutions of the Turkish Republic.

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