I heard the same line from booksellers and esteemed political scientists, from television producers and textile workers and from youth activists themselves: “Youth today aren`t political.” It was a common experience for me, when I explained that I was in Turkey to research youth movements, to be greeted with a puzzled look and a comment to the effect of “Why?” or “That doesn`t happen anymore.”
It became clear during the course of my research that this was not simply a complaint about “kids these days”—people from a variety of social and political backgrounds all had the same definition of what youth politics meant: mass organized political action by young people, acting as young people with the intent of gaining (or helping someone else to gain) state power. Absent this, young people were seen to have fallen into myopic, self-indulgent subcultures, caring only for clothes, football, and pop music.
This conceptualization of youth politics is no longer merely inaccurate: it is no longer relevant. Although the Gezi Park protests might appear to be a return to a different era, they are a type of movement that is wholly new, and the reasons for this can be found in Turkey`s recent history.
To put youth into context in Turkey, it is important to note that is not just a generational reference: “the youth” are not just everybody who happens to be young, but were (and to a large degree, still are) considered to be an age-based sub-section of elite, urban populations connected somehow with the state. The young Turkish Republic put considerable effort into creating and maintaining a cult of youth that would both embody and carry forward its westernizing, modernizing mission. This sense of mission is embodied in Ataturk`s “Speech to the Youth,” reprinted on the inside of every school textbook and memorized by millions of schoolchildren, which ends with an explicit call for young people to rise up in revolt should the government become “blind and misguided.” The prominence of the youth in the Turkish Republic`s foundational rhetoric fits well with the state`s overall paternalistic attitude: Atatürk, “father of the Turks,” would raise the new nation into “civilized” adulthood.
As the 1960`s and 1970`s arrived, the children of this pioneering youth became increasingly politicized as the stresses of postwar urbanization and the expansion of Turkey`s limited democracy resulted in a polarized and radicalized nation. Hundreds of groups on the left and right took their struggles to save Turkey from American imperialism or Communist anarchy to the campuses and streets.
This idolized era of heroic youth activism comes with a thick, black line under it: the military coup of 12 September 1980. Unlike the end of many socio-cultural periods, this was not a date chosen by scholarly consensus, but rather by a massive coordinated action of the police, intelligence services, and military that detained forty thousand people on its first day alone. The coup of 1980 can be seen as sort of “zero hour” in the political life of modern Turkey. General Kenan Evren and his compatriots ostensibly acted to secure public order; however, this avowed response to street violence was a convenient fig leaf for the re-making of Turkish political life through brute force exponentially greater than that seen in earlier military interventions. The crackdown came down especially hard on young people. University occupations and boycotts, students` main form of political expression, were forcibly ended. Youth associations and groups were disbanded, and the universities came under immense state pressure. Faculty were forced to recite daily loyalty oaths, while thousands of students were detained and tortured. The establishment of the watchdog Higher Education Committee was intended to, among other duties, prevent any reemergence of leftist tendencies in Universities.
While the main force of the coup was delivering a body blow of state repression that effectively shattered the Turkish left, it is worth noting that hundreds of far-right “Idealist Youth,” more commonly known as Grey Wolves, were also imprisoned. Nobody and nothing was exempt. The scale of the state repression and its consequences would be hard to overstate. The numbers of the detained were in the hundreds of thousands. Torture was common.
During three years of military rule and the army-endorsed reign of Turgut Özal that followed, Turkey began to replace its failed state-driven autarkic industrialization policies. State-run industries were privatized, and further restrictions on Turkey`s once-militant trade unions, already reeling from the effects of direct state violence, were imposed in what amounted to legislative union-busting. This IMF- and World Bank-endorsed program of neoliberal restructuring began to integrate Turkey into the global economy. Protectionist tariffs were abolished, and consumer goods like Nescafe, Marlboro cigarettes, and blue jeans that in the 1970`s had been exotic luxuries became available to anybody with the money to buy them.
It is on this point that the simple narrative of purposeful youth giving up and turning to consumerist indulgence breaks down: if the very same process that gave rise to market-driven consumerism in Turkey came hand-in-hand with the wide-ranging violent political repression of young people, is the relationship between consumerism and depoliticization one of correlation or causation? A generation of children was raised by parents who experienced state terror, indefinite detention, and the disappearance of friends; this generation was told again and again to “not be political.” The risks were too high.
With organized mass movements rendered off limits, and with the effects of structural adjustment whirling around them—creating new tensions, urban spaces, economic conditions, and a newly vibrant and expansive profit-driven mass media—a “retreat” into subculture followed. “Youth” as a coherent political identity no longer existed, and young people began to choose their own identities. Some of these new identity formations were deeply threatening to existing power structures: Kurdish movements that emerged out of the Turkish left would soon engage in a secessionist armed conflict that would become a civil war in the country`s south-east, and LGBT and feminist movements would challenge foundational constructions of gender. As neoliberalism progressed under Erdoğan, other identities emerged that appeared to be totally apolitical. The commercialization of football led to large, fanatical fanbases with customized jerseys and scarves, and the proliferation of private media channels created common touchstones for young people that were not state-centric or politicized. While “politics” in the traditional sense remained firmly off-limits, nothing else seemed to be.
Many, myself included, were surprised when the efforts to save Gezi Park escalated into a national mass movement (due, more than anything else, to people of all ages mobilizing against police violence), but the diversity of youth identities involved and the apparent reconciliation of intractable identity conflicts did not seem like such a contradiction after a year of fieldwork among Turkey`s youth activists.
The subaltern activisms which emerged in the 1980’s and 1990s—LGBT, feminist, and Kurdish—have led the way in this movement. For these groups, their struggles have been long and difficult, involving consistent politicization for decades. Yet the treatment of the new movement as the “repoliticization” of youth remains apt, because outside of those subaltern activisms, the majority of those who have joined in street activism belong to the much maligned “subcultures” long held to be totally antithetical to any sort of social activism, and these formerly “apolitical” groups have entered the streets with equal enthusiasm. Blasé hipsters, football hooligans, Eksisozluk-trawling computer nerds, and monied tikki party kids have all taken to the streets when facets of their identities came under threat. Identities matter, and the networks of belonging—even transient, impersonal, “inauthentic” belonging like hanging out in the same neighborhood or “liking” the same Facebook page—can, as we have seen in the past months, lead a gang of rowdy soccer fans to charge police riot vans with a bulldozer, turn a nightclub into a refuge for street activists, and make an ironic penguin meme into a symbol of revolt.
Indeed, rather than Gezi Park being a re-emergence of the politics that the 1980 coup repressed, the suddenly expansive and inclusive movement can instead be read as an expression of the politics the 1980 coup created: small, affinity based “subcultural” movements, many apolitical in the traditional sense, which emerged as a sort of survival tool, an evolutionary response to the complete impossibility of traditional mass movements in a repressive state.
In my own research, youth activists from across the political spectrum no longer discussed politics in terms of manifestos and doctrines, but rather as a series of experiences rooted in personal subjectivity. The young people politically active in Turkey today practice a form of activism that is increasingly informal and ecumenical. Activists from across the ideological spectrum consistently made reference to their political activity in personal terms. Literature, humor, creativity, and subcultural belonging are the basis for youth politics in modern Turkey. As we have all seen, this is a powerful force when mobilized. In this light, what we are seeing is not a “re” politicization of young people, but rather a new politics which has actually existed for years taking to the streets.
This has important implications for the future of youth and street politics in Turkey: The informality of this new politics and the manner in which it is embedded in youth culture(s) has made it resilient, flexible, and open to whole new arenas of non-traditional resistance. Police, in great enough numbers, may clear out a park, but rooting out a politicization that has organically emerged out of youth identity is a much taller order, and something no amount of tear gas can accomplish.