The Turkey-Syria Earthquake: a Foucauldian case study of the degeneration of human life

By Anil Kaan Yildirim, PhD student at Leicester University: 

Unlike many other crises, natural disasters like earthquakes can be prepared for through regulation and legislation i.e., safety standards in construction can be strictly controlled by authorities, or after-crisis management procedures designed to minimise casualties can be put in place. Therefore, it can be argued that the number of casualties in natural disasters significantly depends on regulation and legislation as in the earthquakes in Japan

However, among the blurry lines of truths that wander around our post-modern political structures, how do we regulate this regulation and legislation system in order to foster human life? How valuable is life? What does ‘attachment of human life to regulation’ mean?  What are we to do when the cost of a human life exceeds the value of human life?

This article will discuss the connection between ‘degenerating human value’ within regulations and the high casualties of the earthquake in Turkey by utilising the Foucauldian genealogy of the present and regime of truth. After discussing the Foucauldian reading of history, the Turkish experience of history will be explained. In the final section, the value of life within power relations will be discussed.

Reading Foucauldian History

In the “Society Must be Defended” lecture series, Foucault examines the sovereignty structure from unified royal power (King must be protected) to a more decentralised power relations form (Society must be defended). With this structural change in the seventeen and eighteen centuries, extensive knowledge production and establishment of regulations had been one of the main duties of states. The continuation of the war in the political sphere resulted in a professionalisation of state roles. The health, economy, and security were tied to the regulations that are expected to be protectors and promoters of human life.

In this social structure of Foucault, there is no truth without power. His concept of a regime of truth indicates a power structure that enables society to produce knowledge. Therefore, the producing, differentiating, and sanctioning of mechanisms like true and false depend on this regime. 

For this discussion, there are two significant conclusions from this reading of history. One is the unique structure of the regime of truth. In this formulation, societies define and create their own truth mechanisms in which certain political and economic gains could be regarded as more significant than human life. And the second one is the extensive flow of knowledge production and regulation attempts, along with this structure of truth.

Experience and knowledge: Earthquakes in Turkey

Among the Eurasian, African-Arabian, East Anatolian, and Aegean plates, Turkey hosts two major fault systems. Namely, the North Anatolian Fault and the East Anatolian Fault. Due to this geographical placement, there are more than 450 fault segments that might trigger a magnitude of 5.5 or higher earthquake in Turkey.

Figure 1: Active Fault Map of Turkey, Source: General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration.

In this hazardous region, the 1939 Erzincan and the 1999 Kocaeli have been the two most destructive earthquakes in Turkey. In his study, Bikce found that there had been 96,064 casualties between 1900 and 2014. However, the earthquake that hit Turkey on February 6th 2023 caused more than 45,000 casualties and the regulations were the main point of criticism.

How could a country that has many fault lines and recent destructive experiences let many of its citizens die due to regulations

Value of Life in Regulations

While it might be useful, even having a calculation of human life value (as ‘value of statistical life’ in economics) is quite interesting as it demonstrates the attempts of placing human value to other forms of knowledge systems. 

The knowledge production system’s focus in Foucauldian reading of history follows its unique regime of truth. When everything is controlled among the paragraphs of the regulations, it is quite easy to forget the value of human life.  While the regulations are mainly there in order to foster life, when there is another form of political and economic truth involved in this regime of truth, the significance of human life can be forgotten.

As it was discussed above, Turkey has a long history of earthquakes due to its tectonic place. Therefore, the lives of citizens had been attempted to be protected with certain urban planning and construction regulations. After the destructive earthquakes in 1999, there have been many promises of strict regulations by the government. But only earthquake taxation could be implemented strictly. The buildings in Turkey did not reach the standards and many of them had received relief from the state with a policy called  ‘zoning amnesty’.  This policy allowed constructors to evade safety regulations and the risky buildings received certification after paying an application fee.

Figure 2: Members of the UK’s International Search & Rescue Team, Source: FCDO, Flickr

The last zone amnesty that was started before the 2018 presidential elections attracted approximately 10 million applications. These figures which are given by The Ministry of Environment and Urbanization of Turkey, demonstrate the status of construction quality and regulation implementation in the country.

Therefore, the issue is not only about the morality of the contractor but also about the dependence of human life on the regulations that are supposed to protect. However, this doesn’t mean the regulations are the main problem. Within this discussion, leaving the value of human life to the regulation is seen as a problematic issue. Regulations were there to foster and protect life with certain scientific sets of truths but when a statement with a different political and economic value found a place in a regime of truth, human life is mostly forgotten. Consequently, the government’s behaviour to attract more votes and the companies’ goal of economic gain caused thousands of deaths.

Beyond the Legislation and Regulation ‘Humanity Must be Rescued’

Reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Hannah Arendt demanded a different perspective on human rights. 

The main problem with this ‘universal’ text for Arendt was its requirement of ‘territorial’ sovereignty for its protection. While the declaration was discussing the sovereignty of individuals along with their rights, the historical reality was quite different as there was only territorial governance. Therefore, human rights were attributed to the political communities. When a person was excluded from a political group, he/she was also losing their fundamental human rights. Hereby, Arendt offered the ‘right to have rights’; non-political life (zoe) was regarded to be the precondition for political life (bios). She argued the politico-linguistic existence of being a human being was enough to have the right of having rights.

Following her perspective above, maybe only when we could extend human life beyond regulations and legislation, we can be sure that human life will not be subject to political and economic structures. Individuals as members of ‘humanity’ (I am because you are) , should be enough to be considered as an ultimate valuable term so that among the lines of regulations and legislation, we will not expense human life as in the case of the earthquake in Turkey, which once again demonstrated how the value of human life has degenerated.

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