Reflections on Turkey’s Gezi Park Protests

Onur Kapdan

This article examines and draws lessons from the Gezi Park protests as a new type of horizontal social struggle that goes beyond earlier Turkish politics, whether leftist or nationalist. It also analyzes the ideological control mechanisms of Turkish capitalism under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) – Editors

Gezi_Park(Persian Translation)

REFLECTIONS ON TURKEY’S GEZI PARK PROTESTS

Author’s Note: Unfortunately, I could not stand in solidarity with the protestors as I was away from Turkey when the events started. This account is an elaboration based on my own observations of the events via social and traditional media. The former has especially proven its worth for disseminating information during the protests as the mainstream media chose to ignore the events or reflect the government’s point of view (thankfully no one has yet called this the Twitter revolution). Moreover, I rely on accounts of friends who have kindly shared their emotions and observations, whose names I keep hidden for the moment. My anticipation for a broad movement to change the course of Turkey reflects an excitement in the article that could impede a grounded analysis. This is a challenge I accept, and just as there is excitement in these world-historical moments, there is tragedy as well: five people have been murdered and thousands injured by the Turkish police and thugs; the culprits roam free, and the government shows no signs of even procedural democracy.

 

In the last two months, Turkey has witnessed the most persistent and popular upheaval in its history since the 1970s. Under the 10-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) the country has often been presented as an economic and political success story. Yet, these events have demonstrated the government’s authoritarianism and neoliberalism’s lack of concern for the public good.[1] The events started with a small group’s occupation of Istanbul’s now-famous Gezi Park. The protestors aimed to prevent the park’s demolition for the reconstruction of a long-forgotten Ottoman era military barracks, which was planned to serve as yet another shopping mall in the city.[2] The protests’ green roots and emphasis on the right to enjoy the city expanded to include a number of grievances with the AKP within a couple of days. To the surprise of many, the protests spread to 79 of 81 cities in the country and drew significant numbers into the streets following two unwarranted and violent police raids on the Gezi Park occupiers at dawn. Eventually, the protestors included a wide range of groups, from Kemalists and nationalists to the Kurds and the broad left, each expressing different grievances with the AKP government. The most notable actors and the nucleus of the protestors have been the 1980s and 1990s generations, who made up more than 63% of the protestors in Istanbul, where more information is available at the moment.

These generations have often been considered as victims of the 1980 military coup’s depoliticization efforts; thus “apolitical.” There is some truth in this analysis, and their central role in the protests actually demonstrates the latter’s significance for Turkey. I suggest the main reason behind their participation can be found in the AKP’s attack on “culture” to appropriate it as an ideological state apparatus. This attempt has turned into an attack on culture as the daily, lived experience of these generations. Moreover, they have expressed their “apoliticalness” throughout the protests as a rejection of established politics in Turkey. The outcome of this firm rejection has been a democratic inclusiveness for all groups of protestors. Consequently, a space has been created where these groups could converse with each other, and new groups, such as the Anti-Capitalist Muslims, and the self-defined socialist hacker group Redhack, could find room for expression. These aspects make the protests a genuine challenge, not only to the AKP government but also to the foundations of Turkey. They also show an important affinity with the global wave of protests since 2011 concerning the challenge to traditional politics through horizontalism.

 

 PART 1 – THE LIMITS OF THE AKP MODEL: REASONS BEHIND THE MASS UPHEAVAL

The range of the political views and the number of participants reveal the depth and extent of the discontent with the AKP government. More telling is the persistence of the protests in a country where street demonstrations have been mostly limited to organized right and left (mostly to the latter) pushed to the margins of the political realm. To be honest, Erdoğan’s description of the protestors as “looters, marauders” (Turkish çapulcu, now a neologism re-appropriated with a positive meaning by the protestors) would normally resonate among the Turkish public had the people not been on the streets already. That said, despite this broad discontent, there has been a very different picture of the AKP outside Turkey, especially within policy circles. The “Turkish Model,” as it has been propagated to the Muslim world, gained legitimacy in the eyes of the AKP cadre and supporters as well. This picture described a “moderate Islamist” party, which has internalized democracy — even pushed for further democratization of the country — supported a re-interpretation of laïcité in Turkey rather than abolishing it, made peace with the West (in contrast to the tradition of political Islam in Turkey), and led the country to significant economic growth by implementing a textbook neoliberalism. In fact, as recently as February 2013, the Brookings Institution published a report proposing the AKP as a model for the post-revolutionary Arab governments.[3]

What this picture has missed is the pragmatism of the AKP in its first years in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the EU and the US. Such legitimacy allowed the party to enhance its chances of success by attracting foreign capital and also impeded the counter-attacks of the Kemalist establishment, which in 2008 tried to close down the party on the basis of its anti-secular activities.[4]

The party’s pragmatic acceptance of democracy can be observed on a simple yet relevant policy issue relevant to the protests. In 2004, the AKP proposed a comprehensive local government reform in line with the European Council Local Government Charter, which would practically delegate the authority on issues like Gezi Park to elected municipal governments.[5] When the proposal was vetoed by then-president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the AKP’s reaction was quite strong. However, the AKP has never again proposed a similar reform, and today, all local decisions seem to be taken by the central government, or even worse, by PM Erdoğan himself.

The actual picture of the AKP’s reign, therefore, contradicts the propagated “Turkish Model,” with the exception of neoliberalism. The 10-year rule of AKP rather involves a three-part project: (1) neoliberalism, (2) appropriation of the repressive state apparatuses, and (3) appropriation of the ideological state apparatuses. We should mention the “help” of the globally influential Gülen sect in this project. The party shares a sometimes-tense relationship with the sect.[6] The sect is known for setting up its own cadre in the judiciary and the police force as well as being financially supported by a network of companies, some of which have emerged as the AKP’s bourgeoisie. The three components of the AKP’s project are connected to each other. Nonetheless, the AKP’s revanchism against Kemalism should not be dismissed easily, and the subtle relationship between that and neoliberalism calls for further attention.

With respect to the protests, neoliberalism and its murder of the political on behalf of economy could be posed as the main reason behind them. However, the main motive for the protestors, especially for the 1980s and the 1990s generations, has been the last steps of the third component: the AKP’s attempt to take culture under its control.

The AKP has gained a significant success in the first two parts of its project, and in certain elements of the third despite opposition by various groups, which have also joined the recent protests. The Kemalists have been skeptical of the AKP since the beginning of its term. Yet, a series of legal cases, based on allegations of plans to overthrow the AKP on the part of the top ranks of the Turkish military, prominent Kemalists, and nationalists has provoked further opposition from this group. By weakening the role of the military over Turkish politics, the AKP set to replace it with its own repressive force, the police. During the protests, it also managed to send the military police onto the scene, which shows its increasing control of the military as well.

The opposition from Kemalists has appealed to no one else but themselves, however. The same trials later served to imprison any sort of opposition, including anti-militarist journalists, even those who supported trials in the beginning. In fact, Turkey is currently the worst jailer of journalists, alongside China and Iran.[7] Those that have not been arrested but remain critical of the government often lose their jobs. There are two reasons behind this. First of all, there seems to be direct pressure on media bosses, as the accounts of journalists show.[8] Secondly, media ownership in Turkey is confined to a few companies, who have business interests in a variety of areas. They clearly depend on the government’s stability and the continuous implementation of neoliberal reforms. These endless imprisonments and the Kafkaesque judicial labyrinth is possibly one of the turning points in terms of opposition to the AKP. Yet it is hard to talk about any mass mobilization on this issue that reaches to the scale of the recent protests.

Another area of discontent has been the government’s foreign policy referred as “neo-Ottomanism” by many, even though the government rejects the label. The AKP’s foreign policy essentially shows its alliance with the US and the EU, unlike its predecessors. The party’s contradictory changes in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts suggest so. The party’s position shifted between an emphasis on the ummah to comfort its supporters and support to the NATO intervention in Libya and opposition to Bashir Assad. Many, including its supporters, have increasingly criticized these policies, as the AKP has seemed to fail in its plans of bringing down the Assad regime in Syria. The Syrian conflict has now spread into Turkish border towns. Recently, in the deadliest single act of terrorism in the history of Turkey, 48 people according to official numbers lost their lives in the town of Reyhanli at the border with Syria. This tragic event was further exacerbated when the government’s “request” from the media not to publish any news on the event found great acceptance in all major media outlets. The AKP’s firm hand over the media has once again been proven.

The government’s neoliberal reforms also draw resistance from a variety of actors. The unions have responded to their suppression under neoliberal policies with strong resistance on almost every International Workers’ Day. In fact just a month before the Gezi occupation started, their attempt to celebrate the day on the Taksim Square, where Gezi Park is also located, encountered the usual menu of pepper gas and water cannons. Rural protests have been going on against tens of hydropower plants being built by the government across the country. In the urban areas, the Romani population in Istanbul has long been opposing the gentrification of its historic neighborhoods. Moreover, the economic growth of Turkey comes from a heavy privatization and commodification of all that is public, and at the expense of poorer groups. Turkey occupies the third place among OECD countries in terms of income inequality, with a Gini index twice of the OECD average.

The AKP’s response to all of these ongoing discontents has been either police brutality or a Kafkaesque judicial labyrinth. Definitely, these discontents have contributed to the tipping point that has expanded the Gezi Park occupation to nationwide protests. However, none of the above grievances managed to mobilize the population at large. The Taksim Solidarity Platform, the main organizing group behind the initial Gezi resistance, has also been incapable of doing this before May 31, when the politically inactive youth and others joined of their own free will. Essentially, all the above encroachments of the AKP over the state apparatuses remain confined to areas distant from the daily experience of the youth, and could be “ignored” unless one is politically invested in these. I think the tipping point was a series of actions from the AKP government, which have tried to take control of “culture” as an ideological state apparatus, whereas the youth has perceived “culture” in a highly subjective way as a collective, daily and popular “lived experience.”[9]

The first such attempt from the AKP aimed at increasing the power of the Information Technologies Institution (BTK), an offshoot of the Prime Ministerial Office, to “filter” and “monitor” the Internet. The protest on May 15, 2011 was relatively successful in blocking this attempt. That protest was also the first time the 1980s and 1990s generations appeared on the streets. Writing on the protests, journalist Ekin Karaca describes the characteristics of the crowd: “an apolitical youth … mostly upper-middle class, probably most has been quiet towards the torture, political killings, censorship of the press, and all other persecutions, … [and are] demonstrating for the first time in their lives for their own freedoms … they may not be able to articulate the deeper reasons of their discontent, but here they are.” The government’s response to the protests was an accusation that has been put into use again during the recent protests: “elitists and Kemalists.” Yet, one of the participants reveals the common spirit: “I am simply against control over the final free space, the internet. I would be against it even if they were trying to censor radical Islamist sites. To decide what can be accessed on the Internet is against the nature of the internet.”[10] This inclusiveness, an understanding of individual freedom as being meaningful only with the freedom of a collective public space, and resistance to any sort of top-down control, foreshadows the dynamics at the Gezi protests.

In the last two years, similar attacks have come towards popular TV series; accusing one of wrongly depicting the Ottoman era — no heroism but the intrigues of the harem, and another one about a social-justice oriented police squad for discrediting the police force as the main characters swear and consume alcohol quite often. Attempts to infiltrate the boards of football clubs and suppress the public presentation of discontent at matches by left-wing football firms have constituted another attack on popular culture. All of these were accompanied by a micro-management project, which included condemning abortion, and a law on the sale and promotion of alcoholic beverages, this in a country where neither poses a social problem. The latter led to the cancellation of one of the most popular music festivals in Istanbul, as an alcohol company sponsored it. It is also worth mentioning that far from being a social problem, alcohol consumption is often performed in a peculiar drinking culture shared by all except the pious. However, despite the AKP’s countless maneuvers to appropriate culture under state control, it has been their least successful conquest, as the success of the protests against Internet censorship, and the continuing popularity of the TV shows indicate.[11] These threats to the daily and collective experience of the youth have been crucial in their politicization and consequent support of the recent protests.

The AKP has also left behind its earlier pragmatic liberal discourse on these issues. It is true that Erdoğan has never been the “politest” speaker. Yet, the AKP would normally test the opposition to their policies before acting upon them or directing words of condemnation from Erdoğan to groups they could easily push to the margins of the political realm. Yet this has recently stopped being the case. Erdoğan associated abortion with murder and described anybody who consumes alcohol as a drunkard. Even during the recent protests, Erdoğan complained about the girls walking by his offices in Istanbul who were dressed “against his understanding,” i.e. moral taste. Atay explains the change in the AKP’s articulation of its position on popular culture in terms of the party’s increasing self-confidence due to its long-term rule.[12] This is a valid point, and the AKP may have felt confident enough to put an end to its pragmatist liberal emphasis. However, it is equally justifiable to add two more reasons for the shift in the AKP’s delivery. First of all, it is increasingly difficult for states to contain cultural freedom today, to the extent that such an attempt inevitably requires authoritarianism.[13] Secondly, the AKP and the conservatives in general lack the necessary social capital to replace popular culture with one according to their understanding.

Regarding the first point, currently we cannot only talk about a spatially observable public sphere for culture to be performed. We have also to include spheres that go beyond such boundaries.  Of course, the cultural agents make use of public spaces, but that is no longer a necessity thanks to the Internet and privatized TV entertainment, with the latter the most common form of family entertainment in Turkey. These spheres of performance fall beyond the grasp of the state. This distance between the state and the lived culture may have been a factor behind the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism as it tried to conquer the former.

Concerning the second point, the comments by President of the Scenarists Association in Turkey, Tunca Arslan, are noteworthy. He suggests that Islamist cinema is essentially confined to gemeinschaft and has been incapable of appealing to gesellschaft.[14] To this point, I should add the important role the liberal intelligentsia has played in the AKP’s legitimacy since the first years of the party’s rule. They were crucial in the delivery and legitimization of the AKP’s actions for a long time, until the AKP started its attempt to appropriate culture. As the party did so with conservative significations, their support has mostly decreased, leaving the AKP to its own intellectuals. The latter group, however, could not offer something equivalent to the social and cultural capital of the liberals to legitimize the AKP’s action.

Therefore, if there is a tipping point, it has most likely been the AKP’s attempt to define the ways “culture” should be lived. This is of course perpetuated by the increasing presence of the police on the streets, and the images of the police raids on the small group of Gezi Park occupiers in its first two days. These occupiers were mostly young people engaged in very peaceful forms of resistance, such as reading books as the police stood watch. The police attack on these young protestors could have been the last drop that screamed “De te fabula narratur” to the politically inactive youth.

 

 PART 2 – THE POLITICAL SURPLUS:  THE IMPACT OF THE YOUTH ON THE PROTESTS

The politically inactive youth have created new and noteworthy aspects of the protests: a certain persistence and a radically inclusive democratic dynamic. A survey conducted by Bilgi University with over 3,000 participants during the second occupation of Gezi Park reveals significant results in this regard: 39.6% of the protestors were between 19-25, 24% between 26-30, and more than half of them (53.7%) had never joined a protest before.[15] The most noteworthy information, which I think is quite influential on the dynamics of the protests, concerns the political affiliation of the participants. Only 15.3% described themselves as sympathizers of any political party.

The influence of this disorganized and politically inactive youth sector on the more organized groups in the protests could come as a surprise. However, two things can help us to make sense of it. As the youth has often been regarded as “apolitical,” it remained as a “political surplus” to many established organizations. These organizations have not developed a vocabulary for this particular group.[16] This is why I refer to them as politically inactive youth, since their emergence on the political scene proves apolitical people can also be political when this consists of a rejection of the previously defined boundaries of politics. Secondly, they have given the movement a level of popular support that the opposition in Turkey, particularly the Left, has lacked for much of the time since the 1980 military coup. This is essentially about numbers, but is nonetheless important.

Their distance from established political discourse and organizations can best be summarized through two slogans they have invented in response to those of the established opposition groups. To the Kemalist slogan, “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal,” they respond, “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Keser,” a musician who used to have a popular TV show in the late 1990s with his catchphrases forming part of the popular humor among the youth. In response to “No to Fascism,” graffiti said “No to [well], some things!” Most of the humor is reminiscent of the highly original websites commonly referred as “dictionaries” (sözlük). These websites are slightly similar to the Anglophone “Urban Dictionary” in that they are composed of their authors’ definitions of words and phrases. Yet the Turkish versions allow more than that, as users can define situations and events as well. Though remaining loyal to a dictionary format, where “definition” is required, all definitions are in fact commentaries. All entries are also open to the public. The informative entries balance the humorous ones, and these websites are for the most part open to authors from different political views (or none). Therefore, they create a space of popular culture, which intersects with the edges of a democratic political culture. There is a more creative and dynamic culture of critique compared to the existing culture of opposition in Turkey.

In response to such creativity, the AKP tried to define the protests through its usual discourse based on a dichotomy between the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and itself. Consequently, this has actually widened the distance between the AKP and the worldview of the youth and lowered the AKP’s legitimacy, which had already been put into question. The police violence received a slightly different response as well from the youth. In a few days, we had videos of protestors “moonwalking” in front of the police, as they were getting ready for an attack; another protestor playing the guitar in front of a water cannon on a street filled with pepper gas canisters, a naked man, and then a standing man. A non-violent pacifism with such scenes definitely has helped build legitimacy for the protests abroad, revealing the violence of the Turkish police, a persistent problem that often went unnoticed as the AKP’s model was being propagated.

The interaction between the youth and other groups has also been significantly fruitful. The new rule of the political game has provided a place for everybody in the protests. Photographs from the protests bear witness to this development. In the first weeks of the protests, we have seen pictures of ultra-nationalist grey wolf signs standing next to the V-sign commonly used by Kurdish rebels; rival football club fans standing in solidarity, even though two of them has witnessed yet another murder after a derby match just a month ago; a man with an Atatürk banner holding another’s hand carrying a banner of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) of the Kurdish movement as both fled from a water cannon attack. In fact, sworn enemies stood together, and perhaps for the first time actually engaged in a conversation with each other. There emerged other groups as well, such as Anti-Capitalist Muslims introducing a social-justice oriented political Islam that the radical secularists could not oppose; and the socialist hacker group Redhack, whose simultaneous hacking of government websites in support of the street protests gained them fame. The conversation has proven to change the youth as well, which has not only learned the tricks of building barricades but also have gone through a political education about other struggles. Most seem to demonstrate a newly found sympathy with the Kurdish struggle after the media censorship and manipulation of their protest made them question the validity of the media depiction of the Kurdish struggle in recent decades.

We can talk about three tentative outcomes based on the two and a half months of protests. The youth that was previously considered to be politically redundant challenged the establishment on its foundations. In that respect, we can perhaps talk about a belated Turkish ’68.[17] The actual era was for the most part missed by the Turkish left, after its alignment with a more orthodox Marxism in response to the Prague Spring. Yet such a view needs to acknowledge the explicit socialist politics of the ’68 movement, an important difference from the political formation of the youth in Turkey. Thus, such a view pertains solely to the cultural challenge to the establishment posed by the youth of both eras. At this point, even though socialist groups have been part of the protests, it is hard to talk about a consolidated coalition, say between the unions and the youth.

A second outcome has been an increasing dialogue among historically conflicting groups. This alone is highly significant in a country like Turkey, where political divisions are marked by a rigid compartmentalization. The final outcome situates protests in Turkey as another node in the zeitgeist of radical politics. The discontent with top-down politics and the distance felt by the youth from the existing political organizations have given birth to a seemingly horizontalist organization. These horizontalist tendencies were initially shown in the “Taksim Commune,” which ended after 12 days when the police took back Gezi Park.[18] Nonetheless, a similar effort goes on through the “neighborhood assemblies” across the country. Even though the actual prevalence of these assemblies needs further scrutiny, based on existing accounts from participants, we can conclude they demonstrate an affinity with contemporary forms of radical social change, which include direct democracy, radical inclusiveness and horizontalism.[19] The impact of this political culture of opposition on the participants is noteworthy. “The Gezi Spirit” is how this impact is now popularly expressed on social and traditional media. At least on my own social media accounts, there have been numerous participants praising the self-sufficient and radically democratic nature of the assemblies and the Taksim commune reminding us of feelings expressed in other protests since 2011.[20]

These three tentative outcomes may help us to draw some preliminary yet instructive lines for the future trajectories of the protests in Turkey.

 

PART 3 – WHAT IS TO BE DONE? POSSIBILITIES and RISKS FOR THE FUTURE

I have intentionally not referred to the protests as a social movement. It is perhaps possible to suggest an emerging “network of movements,” yet whether that network will be able to articulate a common purpose that goes beyond resistance against the AKP government depends on a number of factors. There are hopeful possibilities as much as risks ahead.

Broadly speaking, a common vision among protestors concerning the form of democracy and legitimacy of political projects has begun to emerge. This vision can be summarized as a rejection of top-down political projects. Such a development poses a genuine challenge not only to the AKP government but also to the Kemalists and the ultra-nationalists, thus to the foundations of the Turkish Republic. A coherent refusal of top-down politics with a consecutive demand for a more genuine democracy may consolidate as the protests continue. This alone would be a noteworthy change in the context of Turkey, where “the state” with all its apparatuses and whatever political projects it consisted of has been untouchable for the greater part of the country’s history. After all, part of the grievance can be explained as a reaction to the unfulfilled promises of the AKP (however illusory those promises have been) to open up the overarching state machinery.

Secondly, this rejection has been expressed through horizontalism and radical inclusiveness. These two principles emphasize dialogue, and they have resulted in the mutual acceptance of different struggles for the moment. The youth’s emphasis on subjectivity as the source of freedom has been pivotal in this regard. These dynamics have also been carried into the neighborhood assemblies. Therefore, we can talk about a “space of experience,” in which the call for personal and collective freedom lies at the center.[21] Such dialogue and mutual respect may generate further developments for the future of opposition in Turkey. It may augment the anti-capitalist component of the protests, which until now has been limited to the very beginnings of the protests, the initial occupation of the Gezi Park. Such possibility is rooted in the incompatibility of genuine democracy and neoliberalism, as the latter transforms the political into victim of ruthless economic ends.[22] The fact that Erdoğan’s government’s authoritarianism left behind its neoliberalism during the protests, and that their response continues to be violent on the streets and absurd in rhetoric,[23] may serve to accelerate such awareness. Moreover, such a space of experience can be highly fruitful for democracy in the context of Turkey, where dialogue among different struggles has been limited.

Finally, we should acknowledge the potential that neighborhood assemblies may have for Turkey.  Neighborhood carries a strong significance in the Turkish social imaginary. This significance is double-edged. There is an oppressive and conservative side to it, as the thugs of the AKP have shown in their attacks on the streets against the protestors. This is perhaps what Turkish sociologist Şerif Mardin defined as “neighborhood/community pressure” (mahalle baskısı) back in 2007. Mardin sees this conservative side as connected to a lack of a debate on societal morals during the Republican period of Turkey. He suggests this gap in the social imaginary is filled by the historical roots of the neighborhood, which is itself rooted in a local interpretation of Islamic morality.[24] The neighborhood assemblies can fill this gap with an alternative imaginary based on democratic values and the right to the city. This may lead to a more intimate “space of experience,” where participants can further educate themselves about others in the newly emerging democratic political culture. There is also the possibility that localization of the struggle can eventually affect the popular support enjoyed by the AKP. The AKP owes part of its electoral success to its populism towards poor neighborhoods and municipal-level experience in local politics. Last but not least, the revival of local solidarity can be crucial in asserting the Right to the City, which is one of the main threats of neoliberalism in general, and where the roots of the protests lie.

In short, the neighborhood assemblies can form the organizational basis for a new political culture of opposition in Turkey, while horizontalism and radical inclusiveness could mold its content.

Yet the very factors that make a new political culture of opposition possible in Turkey also carry certain risks. The risks are inherent in horizontalism, radical inclusiveness, and the characteristics of the youth. Horizontalism emphasizes the prevalence of form before efficiency, which means that the principle of “everyone gets a voice” becomes more important than “what is to be done?” Having underscored the gains of this horizontal turn, we need to underline its risks and question the possibility of moving beyond it, in order to avoid the fate of Occupy and similar groups in Egypt. Whereas the former succeeded to re-kindle anti-capitalist radical imagination after decades in the US, it now remains somewhere between a nice memory and the margins of political reality. The latter have faced the appropriation of their revolution twice now; first to the more organized Muslim Brotherhood, and then to the Egyptian military. Both risks are pertinent for the newly emerging political culture of opposition in Turkey. Regardless of their limitations, the Kemalist discontent is more organized, and with a watered down laïcité, they can steal the spirit of opposition. The neighborhood assemblies, similarly, can burn out the dynamism through a fetishism toward the process of giving everyone a voice.

A related risk lies in the need for constant engagement and dedication from participants in horizontal organizations. Even though this form of politics can generate a certain flexibility, what Marina Sitrin underlined, in her book on these forms of struggle in Argentina, as one of the biggest obstacles to maintaining horizontalism — an “individual and collective protagonism” — is pertinent. This asks participants to constantly generate and sustain a sense of self-activity and capacity to decide for themselves.[25] This is of course a “space of experience” where a prefigurative politics can take place. Yet it also requires a certain political consciousness, which the nucleus of the Turkey protests may be lacking. I have constantly referred to them with the perhaps politically vague term “youth.” This has been to avoid quick judgments on their class composition but also to underscore the creative disorganization and challenge to the “old” that they have brought into the Turkish politics. However, Tuğal’s description of this nucleus as essentially Poulantzas’s “new petty bourgeoisie” is noteworthy and suggests a possible shortcoming when it comes to political dedication.[26] Nonetheless, this is a point that requires further research, and unlike the similarity Tuğal draws with the precarious workers behind Occupy, my own observations suggest a social composition that is more consolidated middle-class than precarious. Therefore, a more immediate risk may turn out to be very narrowly defined liberal democratic demands, as compared to what the current dynamics have to potential to achieve.

The dissolution of the collective struggle into neighborhood assemblies can also exacerbate these risks by multiplying the number of voices in an already highly heterogeneous protest. This may further fragment the decision-making process when it comes to common demands. Equally important are the socio-economic disparities among neighborhoods, both in big cities and the countryside. The availability of resources for richer neighborhoods [27] can enhance the urban, middle-class characteristics of the protests and push it further away from the rural areas and the periphery of the city, which remain significant bases of AKP support. There are also lessons from elsewhere related to this risk. Neighborhood assemblies turned into a significant network in Argentina from 2001 to 2004, emphasizing similar democratic values. Yet, they have eventually been incorporated into the Kitchener’s’ neo-corporatism, and have disappeared. This is so despite the fact that the Argentinian rebellions included a strong anti-capitalist struggle, represented by the piqueteros from de-industrialized poor urban neighborhoods, and the tomas, factory occupations by the newly unemployed working classes.

So, what is to be done? Tentatively, the lessons from horizontal forms of struggles point to the necessity to formulate a common framework, perhaps pushed by forming a counter-hegemonic body in order to move beyond a simple anti-AKP stance. Yet, the true lesson is the need, at the current juncture, to organize under an umbrella party in order to be able to counter state repression. Currently, in a wave of arrests driven by the police, almost 3,000 people have been arrested after the protests. Five people have been murdered, with the murderers arrested yet not kept under custody or already released; thousands injured, some permanently; and the AKP government does not seem to step back in any real sense. The question therefore is how to end this violence, and to everybody’s dislike, elections can still be the viable path. To diminish this newly articulated dislike of “antiquated” politics, a few points can be put forth.

There are of course significant similarities between Turkey’s protests and those across the globe as all put into question the legitimacy of representative democracy and neoliberalism as a system. However, there are also important differences, which may make the party of a broad coalition temporarily effective in Turkey. Turkey has not yet exhausted its left option. That path is still open, as the pre-1980 coup left has been incapable of emphasizing freedom in socialism and the left spectrum is currently occupied by the oldest of the old, the Kemalist CHP, which fails to even “re-brand” itself as a social democratic party (that does not mean they do not have social democrats or even socialists in the Party, but the institution is so embedded in its Kemalist past that they have no space for maneuver). Unlike Egypt, Turkey has had some experience with democracy, although interrupted multiple times. If political Islam, the old regime’s unwanted child could make it, a genuine Left option can also achieve it. There is also more hope to be placed upon a broad coalition party here than in the West. We are not dealing with the breakdown of a system, which just a decade ago appeared almost perfectly complete to many. Turkey’s system has never offered anything that barely felt complete. Thus, as the country stands at the door of Dr. Parnassus’s Imaginarium with a newly discovered desire to imagine, there is no reason not to imagine transforming power just where it shows its ugly face, at the level of the state. It is true that the vertical organization of the state runs against the horizontalism of the Gezi Spirit. Yet, this does not mean the state can be avoided and possibilities to render the state radically inclusive might as well be imagined at the current moment. “Would it [the imagination] come with a happy ending?” “Sorry, we can’t guarantee that.”[28]

 


[1] Soon after the first days of the Turkish protests, another “emerging economy,” Brazil, witnessed mass demonstrations highlighting the fragility of neoliberalism. At first sight, however, the content of grievances in Brazil appear to be more concerned with neoliberalism than they are in Turkey.

[2] Istanbul ranks number one among European cities in the number of malls being constructed. Moss, N. (2013): “Shopping Centre Development – The Most Active Cities Globally.”  CBRE Global View Point. Available at http://goo.gl/fuflw  However, it has the least green space per person in Europe, with 6.4 square meters according to official statistics by Municipality of Istanbul. The Chamber of Urban Planners in Turkey presents an even worse number, slightly above 1 square meter only.

[3] Kuru, A. (2013) Muslim Politics Without An “Islamic ” State: Can Turkey’s Justice And Development Party Be A Model For Arab Islamists?”, Brookings Institution: Doha.

[4] Erdoğan and others in the AKP cadre come from Milli Görüş, a political Islamist organization with a radical anti-imperialist discourse (against the imperialist West and Israel), and an equally radical opposition to the Turkish laïcité. The organization has given birth to a number of parties over the course of the Republic, most of which have been closed on the basis of anti-laïcité activities, despite serving twice as coalition partners. Ruşen Çakır, a Turkish journalist focusing on the political Islam in Turkey, suggests the main reason behind Erdoğan and his cadre’s break with the organization has been a disagreement on Realpolitik. The AKP cadre simply defended the need to acknowledge the power of the West in order to come to power. Cakır, R. (2012). “Erbakan ile Erdoğan Arasındaki Temel Fark.” Vatan. (February 28).  To this observation, I should add that the increasing Islamic capital in Turkey (green capital as called in Turkey), has also pushed the political branch to accept the rules of the game, and adopt a more lenient approach towards capitalism and the West.

[5] Decentralization and local autonomy does of course not mean democracy immediately. In fact, neoliberalism may pervade much more easily into these areas that may potentially “lack state-level safeguards that economic globalization thrives upon.” Collier, G. and E. L. Quaratiello. (1994). Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland, CA: Food First Books. 190.

Moreover, given the very hierarchical and undemocratic party system in Turkey, this may have left enough room for locally elected bodies to take decisions on their own. On the other hand, it may facilitate the functioning of resistance by diminishing the distance between the mediators of hegemony and the people, and is definitely more progressive than the rigid, central state in Turkey.

[6] For a very elaborate analysis of the relationship between the two, see Tuğal’s latest piece in Jadaliyya, available at http://goo.gl/mNqSi Tuğal’s conclusion suggests the Gülen sect, rather than being aides of the regime, is the official line instead. Despite accepting that the Gülen sect is more influential than often pictured, I suggest that they have lost some of their control to the AKP and that Erdoğan’s charismatic authority is too influential to easily dismiss. The police force has often been considered as one of the main institutions where the sect has set its own cadre. However, the sect’s leader has condemned their violence during the protests alongside a critique of the protestors. The police’s relentlessness shows that allegiance to the AKP seems to prevail in their response to political contestations.

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, http://goo.gl/TQJ04 and http://goo.gl/TZ7pd

[8] Güven, B. (2011). “Banu Güven’den Başbakana Mektup” Milliyet. (July 14). Available at http://goo.gl/ACDHI.

[9] I accept the existence of the hegemony’s manipulation through popular culture but also claim that it has always had the capacity to produce and reproduce daily life independent of hegemonic forces. This has been increasing with the emergence of the Internet. This is not to dismiss its more historical resources. There is a historical and culturally praised “drinking culture” in Turkey, which increases the discontent with the AKP’s legislation towards alcohol.

[10] Karaca, E. (2011). “‘Ailece Internet Keyfi’ Yaşamak İstemeyenlerin Taksim Yolculuğu.” Bianet. May 18. Available at http://goo.gl/1PTVz .

[11] Atay, T. (2012). “AKP’nin Fethedemediği Kale: Popüler Kültür.” Radikal. (May 30). Available at http://goo.gl/bHM6O .

[12] Ibid.

[13] Perhaps the U.S.’s attempt to push for Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) can also be read through this perspective. That is of course after the post-9/11 U.S. securitization.

[14] Aydemir Ş. (2013). “Islami Sinema Çıkmazda.” Radikal (May 13). Available at http://goo.gl/iNXbyK.

[15] “Gezi Parkı Direnişçileriyle Yapılan Anketten Çıkan Sonuçlar.” (June 6, 2013). Available at http://goo.gl/P56h1 .

[16] Part of this problem can be related to the Turkish generation of 1968’s inadequate conceptualization of the international movement that year. In a turning point for the Turkish left, the Workers Party of Turkey (TIP), the most prominent socialist party of the 1960s in the country, aligned with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring.

[17] Saymaz, I. (2013). “Gezi Parkı Eylemı: 90 Doğumlularin 68’i.” Radikal (June 03). Available at http://goo.gl/1hSmW .

[18] The AKP government in its pure absurdity declared this taking-back as an attempt to give the park back to the people. Yet, as the real people came to its opening, the Governor of Istanbul chose to close the park within two hours of its “re-opening.”

[19] Köroğlu, U. (2013). “Mahalle Forumlari, Mahalle Meclisleri.” Sendika.org. (June 25). Available at

http://goo.gl/CU9k7 .

[20] Such a link is clear in the following quote from Amira Magdy, a youth in the Tahrir Square crowd (Fahim and El-Naggar, 2011 cited in Anderson, 2011:11): “We don’t need a leader. This system is beautiful.” Available at http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.org/articles/arab-revolutions-crossroads-kevin-anderson

[21] Pleyers, G. (2012). Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age. p. 37. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[22] That is perhaps the most common ground of the Turkey protests and the global wave of protests since 2011. The explicit challenge in these protests has been to the legitimacy of political systems. This perception suggests neoliberalism’s failure to create a political system that could generate “consent” for its hegemony.

[23] The AKP government as if to prove there was really nothing new about them resorted to the age-old accusations of the Turkish state to de-legitimize the protests. “Foreign powers against Turkey’s unity and progress,” “a financial interest lobby” as if the AKP’s “economic success” has not been the result of it, and finally the Zionist lobby have been listed as the forces behind the protests.

[24] Mardin, Ş. (2008). “Mahalle Baskisi ile Ne Demek İstedim?” Speech at a Conference organized by SORAR on Mahalle Baskisi. (May 23). Available at http://goo.gl/1GLsF .

[25] Sitrin, M. (2006) Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, AK Press.

[26] Tuğal, C. (2013). “Gezi Hareketinin Ortak Paydalari ve Yeni Örgütlülük Biçimleri.” (June 3). Available at http://goo.gl/vwC5E .

[27] Resources beginning with a public space to do such a forum. Considering that the protests started with the demolition of a public space, their rarity in Turkey should be apparent.

[28] In the movie by Terry Gilliam, this dialogue passes between the character Percy and a little boy who wishes to get into the imaginarium.

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