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Occupy Gezi: The Limits of Turkey’s Neoliberal Success

[Turkish police pursuing protesters in Istanbul on 1 June 2013. Image from Associated Press] [Turkish police pursuing protesters in Istanbul on 1 June 2013. Image from Associated Press]

There are two telling, though widely neglected, details about what initiated and popularized the groundbreaking protests in Taksim Square, Istanbul: the protests started out as a response to the governing neoliberal party’s project of urban transformation or urban renewal; yet, urban questions quickly took a backseat as the protests became massive. Understanding these two facets of the mobilization sheds much light on what is happening in Turkey and why.

What the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) disingenuously calls “urban transformation” is the demolition of public places, green areas, and historical sites, as well as the displacement of poor populations, in order to rebuild the city in the image of capital. All these unwanted spaces (and people) are being replaced by malls, skyscrapers, office spaces, and glossy remakes of historical buildings. Resistance against this project has been unfolding for quite a while, mostly out of sight for the national and international mainstream media. The lack of media interest or mainstream hostility is only partially to blame for covering up these past resistances. The governing party, with its cleverly crafted hegemonic apparatus, has been quite tactful in dividing and marginalizing protest. For instance, whenever squatter populations were removed, they were selectively paid: homeowners (rather than tenants); the better-connected families; the politics-prone people in the neighborhoods were compensated generously; dispersing the capacity to resist. When money did not do the trick, the new regime planted seeds of sectarian and ethnic division. When all else failed, the squatters faced heavy-handed police repression. Only one neighborhood in the huge Istanbul metropolitan area was able to withstand all of these pressures and consistently resist the project. But the exceptions proved to be the rule: urban transformation, even though it is a project that influences millions of people, was only resisted in pockets, rather than at the level of the entire city (let alone the whole country, where it was implemented with lesser severity, but still comprehensively, destroying rural as well as urban livelihood and health, despite the misleading “urban” title).

The protests in and around Taksim seemed to be adding to the chains of isolated resistances. When intellectuals and artists recently mobilized against the demolition of first a café and then a historical movie theater in Istiklal Caddesi, they appeared to be fighting a rearguard elite battle, focusing on sites that were of little interest to the popular classes. Each protest would remain marginalized either in elite or squatter corners of the city, until police brutally cracked down on several dozen protesters who wanted to protect the last green area (Gezi Parkı) in Istanbul’s main entertainment square, Taksim. The will to save this park from turning into a mall initiated Occupy Gezi.

Popularization and the Expanding Protest Agenda

Initially, thousands flocked to the square in solidarity with those attacked. As a result, police brutality moved to the top of the agenda. Still, during the first day of popularization, talk about urban transformation was prominent. In a couple of days, however, the focus on police violence, the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP, and the persistent lack of democracy in Turkey marginalized the focus on urban issues. Many tweets and other information circulating on the web emphasized that the protests were “not about a couple of trees, but about democracy.” This was a very crude and ultimately counterproductive rhetorical opposition. The significance of that bunch of trees was that they had fallen, temporarily, outside of economic logic in a country where everything came to be bought and sold freely.

Nevertheless, there are still banners that insist on emphasizing the trees, not only as a symbol of nature, but also of the popular democratic uprising. This is much truer to the initial spirit of the protests. Occupy Gezi has started as a revolt of people who reject being focused on money around the clock. This brings them in confrontation with the government and the police force, who wipe out everything in the path of marketization. The trees are the symbols of unity between the targeted squatters, the students with grim job prospects, the striking workers and civil servants, the intellectuals, and nature. But we should understand that there are also strong dynamics that decenter the focus on urban transformation.

The Context for Intensified Repression

Some elements within the government made a very risky calculation during the last few months. The government has been preparing Turkey for a regional war and needs a unified country with no threatening opposition in such crucial times. This is why after a decade of persistent marginalization it reached out to the Kurds. The Turkish rulers (quite reasonably, it would seem) saw the Kurds as the only force that could stop the government in its tracks. With the Kurds on their side, the calculation went, they could divide, marginalize, and repress the rest of the population, which was already much more disorganized when compared to the Kurds. The peace process with the Kurds also gave the government the chance to win back many liberals, who had been disillusioned ever since 2010. With its renewed hegemonic bloc, elements in the new regime felt that they could easily silence everybody else. The governing party thus intensified police brutality and some other conservative measures (such as tightened regulations of alcohol). People outside of this renewed bloc–whether elite, middle-class, or lower class; secular or Alevi; man or woman; right-wing nationalist or socialist–have been feeling under threat. When Occupy Gezi turned into an anti-police protest, hundreds of thousands therefore joined in to voice their frustration with increasing authoritarianism.

This naturally brings into the picture a lot of people who have been benefiting from urban transformation as well. Some of these people have not had any problem with police brutality and authoritarianism either, as long as it was channeled against workers, Kurds, socialists, or Alevis. Some of them are chanting extreme nationalist slogans throughout Istanbul and Turkey. It needs to be emphasized that these groups are overlapping circles: there is no necessary unity among these factions, though almost everybody calls them “ulusalcı” (extreme nationalist) as a shorthand. Despite government propaganda, they constitute the minority around Taksim Square, but are certainly the majority in better-off parts of the city. There are more organized nationalists among them who want to hijack the protests. Yet most of these disjointed masses do not even understand the protests and issues that initiated the protests. They are in it mostly as a way to defend their own interests and lifestyles. These people do not define the Gezi movement, but have already muddied the waters.  Occupy Gezi has become much stronger partially due to their participation, but its national and international message risks being less clear now.

Stumbling Blocks

The people who initiated the protests (and are now in control of Taksim) are well aware of these dangers, as some of them are activists with years of experience. The public declarations they issue squarely focus on urban transformation, police brutality, and authoritarianism, though these declarations get lost in the muddle of huge protests throughout the country. These experienced activists are coming up against two stumbling blocks:

First, there, are the structural issues and successful hegemonic political moves that have so far divided protests against urban transformation. It is still very difficult, due to reasons which I hope to analyze elsewhere, to construct one consistent block against urban transformation with an alternative vision of development, urbanization, and nature. Class, culture, locality, and much else cut off the people who are suffering from urban transformation from each other. Unlike the governing party and its technicians, who have a bird’s-eye view of how the suffering is connected, they know very little of each other. It is not easy to both sustain and popularize Occupy Gezi if it remains integrating urban questions.

Second, and perhaps as big of an issue, is Turkey’s peace process with the Kurds. The government and its liberal allies spread the propaganda that the current demonstrations are against the peace process. Actually, it is not hard to believe that some of the disjointed Turkish masses pointed out above were partially motivated with an opposition against peace with the Kurds (as well as many other things, including alcohol regulations). However, the groups who are still in control of Taksim have defended peace for decades, when the Turkish state (including the new regime) was fighting its bloody battles against the Kurds. In this context, dishonesty would be a light word for the liberal ideologues of the new regime who accuse the protests of warmongering. Yet, even though there are many Kurdish activists in Taksim today (along with hundreds of others mobilized elsewhere in support of the protests), most Kurds have not joined the protests, out of fear that they will eventually derail the peace process. Nobody can blame them, as Kurds have been paying a high price for a long time. One of Occupy Gezi’s most difficult tasks will be finding a way to draw the Kurds in without alienating a crushing majority of the non-leftists who have given the movement a part of its life force. This is a multi-class and cross-ideological movement against authoritarianism and marketization. The movement has no reason to exclude some upper-middle class and elite factions (who unevenly benefit and suffer from marketization and authoritarianism), but these latter might willingly opt out if the Kurds weigh in (which is a small likelihood to begin with).

Occupy Gezi sits in a privileged position when confronting these issues. On the one hand, unlike Occupy Wall Street and other similar movements throughout the West, many of the activists do not reject traditional forms of political organization and calculation (even though such sentiments are widespread among some of the younger leading protesters in Taksim). Such abstentionism from formal politics cost dearly to Western movements of the last couple of years. Unlike Arab protesters, on the other hand, Turkish and Kurdish activists have been living and breathing under a semi-democracy, so have a lot of everyday political experience under their belts. In short, “the leaderless revolution” has not arrived in Turkey. The disadvantage of Occupy Gezi, though, is that it is facing a much more hegemonic neoliberal regime when compared to the Western and Arab regimes. Turkish conservatives have been much more successful in building a popular base and a militant (but pragmatic) liberal-conservative intelligentsia (when compared to their fanatical and shallow counterparts in the West, not even to speak of their inexperienced counterparts in the Arab world). This consent is multi-dimensional and integrates compromises and articulations at ideological, religious, political and economic levels. The demobilization and counter-mobilization that neoliberal hegemony could generate cannot be taken lightly.

If the Turkish and Kurdish activists find innovative ways of overcoming these hurdles, Turkey will have the potential of adding a new twist to the post-2011 global wave of revolt.

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