[This article is part of a roundtable produced by Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page Editors reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and its afterlives. Read the introduction and see the other articles of this roundtable here.]
Guided by international authorities, the Turkish state and its capitalists set sails to a path of massive creative destruction in 1980. Social forces that could negotiate or resist this route were crushed. They have been trying to reorganize ever since, but with no clear alternative project for the present and future. The devastating events of February 6 show that we are getting closer to a point of no return. The only hope is for the current moment to create sustainable dynamics of opposition to, and mutual aid in the midst of, ecological destruction. For this, we need to take lessons from the gradual dissipation of ecological voices after the Gezi Uprising.
The roots of Turkey’s financial and ecological destruction were in the policy packages of two World Bank figures: Turgut Özal and Kemal Derviş. The crux of their models was low wages supplemented by (first) cheap dwellings and (later on) targeted welfare and household debt. But World Bank projects in themselves didn’t produce the entire disaster. The AKP’s innovative combo of Islamism and state capitalism gave them an original, and ultimately horrific and fatal, twist.
Communities and activists organized urban and environmentalist movements in response to this utter annihilation, and these got stronger in the 2000s. However, until 2013, they remained restricted in pockets. The destruction of a park in Istanbul’s entertainment district catapulted ecological issues into public consciousness. The rebellion that followed, however, was a multi-issue one. Turkey’s entrenched secular/Islamic divide soon overshadowed the ecological dimension of the rebellion. Urban and environmental issues dropped from the public agenda, and once again became the turf of experts, local communities, and activists. This on and off mass-politicization of ecology diverted attention away from the ongoing devastation that wrecked Turkey and paved the way for the catastrophe of February 6. Nevertheless, there is hope that the mutual aid and anti-government activities that have been flowering in the past few weeks can add up to something bigger than themselves.
Creative Destruction of the Commons under Özalism
Low-quality urbanization was a core part of Turkish capitalist development from the 1940s onwards. Insufficient capital accumulation and lack of giant landowners in the cities allowed bureaucrats and capitalists to shift costs: with some conjunctural fluctuations, authorities allowed rural immigrants to occupy land and build their own housing, thereby spontaneously “resolving” the housing question. This was certainly done at the expense of broader public interest, and urban populations had to unevenly shoulder the costs of haphazard development. However, squatting’s ecological damage and its threats to public safety were not as dire in these decades, due to the limited size of the resultant buildings.
1980 was a crucial turning point. World Bank-imposed economic decisions and a NATO-supported coup lowered wages and worsened job security, while opening the gates to more systematic – and now commercialized – urban plunder. Before, the relationship between authorities and squatters was shaped by the global, modernist ethos of the mid-20th century: Elite culture looked down on squatting. It was occasionally tolerated due to the structural reasons listed above, but it was also perceived as non- or even anti-mainstream. Not only revolutionary leftists, but also Islamists and fascists could organize in squatter neighborhoods easier than they could in more regulated ones, which added to their notoriety. The new global climate started to change this perception. “Self-help housing,” as it was now called in the mainstream, came to be reframed as a solution rather than social problem (which “squatting” always was). Even though this was not an easy sell to established (national) urban elites, (global) experts opined that free markets in wages should be supplemented by freedom to occupy public lands for cheap residence. But in order to do that, first the actors who politicized squatting had to be removed. The 1980 military intervention in Turkey hit two birds with one stone by destroying the unions that fought for higher wages, and the far-left political factions that politicized squatter neighborhoods.
Turgut Özal, the engineer-turned-economist who brought the World Bank’s neoliberal turn to Turkey, served as prime minister and then president between 1983 and 1993. Even though he sparred with Kenan Evren (the NATO-trained counter-guerilla officer who led the junta of 1980-1983) over the issue of military-civilian balances, the two had a unified agenda: commodification of everything including housing, the abolition of social rights, and the crushing of unions. Evren and Özal had very different backgrounds and certainly didn’t share a systematic “worldview.” Özal had shifted in a neoliberal direction as a result of his interactions with the Turkish “big business” organization TÜSİAD and his time at the World Bank. The primary movers of Evren, by contrast, were military and counter-guerilla training and activity. But coming at it from different angles, their cultivations both made them anti-union and anti-high wages.
Even after Özal passed away and Evren lost his direct influence on politics, the model they implemented shaped Turkey from head to toe. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, both squatters and small/medium contractors flourished. Small to medium sized housing acted as a replacement for secure jobs. This amounted to a Ponzi scheme: Construction workers would build their own houses, while many other workers delegated this social function to small and medium contractors. But instead of creating one to two story buildings as happened up until the 1970s, both construction workers and contractors built 4-story squatter units, with the intention of collecting rent from the units not inhabited by the original occupier. In other words, the newcomers to the cities now shifted part of the cost of the neoliberal package to the newer-comers from the countryside. The rentier class and the proletariat merged, creating a multi-layered hierarchy, with low-wage laborers being differentiated from each other based on their access to urban rents – an access shaped by the size and clout of their kin networks, as much as political and religious ties.
There is no surprise that the housing built during this construction craze did not meet any satisfactory architectural and livelihood standards. That was not its aim. The consequences of quick and cheap housing (not just for neighborhoods but for the entire society) were not yet well-understood beyond a handful of experts. We still don’t know what ratio of the buildings that were destroyed during the 2023 earthquake were built in the 1980s and 1990s, but they (and therefore, the social-political actors behind them) certainly share a huge part of the blame. Still, the following cannot be emphasized enough: the links between the developmental path summarized above and the devastation earthquakes would cause were not yet as apparent.
AKP as the Islamization of World Bank Projects
The 1999 earthquake changed this. The direct links between the quality of buildings and the unusually high number of deaths during the Gölcük earthquake opened everybody’s eyes – or so it seemed, back then. Squatting stopped. Contractors started to be regulated, in the name of creating safer and more equitable cities. The AKP of 2002, voted in partially as a reaction to the poor governmental response to the 1999 earthquake, had a vast popular mandate to enforce the new regulations. Indeed, the party devised very good building codes after that. But they weren’t enforced. The reason is simple (even if the deeper causal structures for that reason are multiple and deep): The increasing central regulation under the AKP was not for safety, as promised by the party. The AKP rather streamlined the wealth creation through cheap buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. In other words, urban rents and profits were centralized and concentrated at the top, in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s where they were relatively more distributed among lower-middle and upper classes.
After this point, the shoddy construction was not a side effect, but a central choice. The top-down reason for this, as stated above, was a conscious strategy of wealth concentration. The AKP wanted quick wealth creation in order to counter-balance the established, secular bourgeoisie. But the bottom-up reasons were as important, if more complex. Both in terms of residence and infrastructure and jobs, cheap housing continued to substitute for high wages and secure jobs, as it did throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In other words, shoddy buildings were what an impoverished people could afford. And in the meantime, they were employed in passing jobs in construction and related sectors, further embedding their lives in the systematic creation of cheap housing, as part of a much more massive, and state organized, production of profit-oriented construction spree when compared to 1980-1999.
To reiterate, this path was devised by the World Bank, but the AKP rendered it much more rapacious. Even under a secular version of the Derviş plan, low wages, and de-unionization would persist. Yet, the AKP pushed this World Bank logic to its extremes, fighting the unions not just due to economic but also ideological convictions: just like the established bourgeoisie, the unions were seen as a part of “Old Turkey,” and they had to be uprooted.
Millions still couldn’t afford any decent housing, and now (further de-unionized in the 2000s) they couldn’t even afford units in these poorly constructed (but now giant, instead of 4-story) buildings. The new World Bank policy package (the Derviş rather than the Özal version) had a solution to this too: Household debt. Ordinary people started to live an apparently more comfortable life, thanks to mortgages and credit card debt. But, as now they say in Turkey, they were buying not chic lives but tombstones.
As if all of this was not destructive enough, the global underpinnings of this entire model made it financially devastating as well. Despite the cheapness, much of this construction craze was funded through debt. Other parties and municipalities also followed this path. While complaining about the AKP’s centralization of rents and its savageness, they also encouraged shoddy buildings and sub/urban sprawl into forest areas. None of this consisted simply of “looking the other way”: the parties encouraged and organized this path of cheap construction. The overall growth of the economy too started to depend on growth in the construction sector. Despite the “costs” justification of this model, the growth still depended on the flow of global cash. It assumed lower interest rates in the West, especially the United States. Once the Fed started to increase interest rates after 2013, the developmental model ran into financial bottlenecks.
The government responded with even more state involvement. The AKP was also investing in more tech-heavy, at least medium-tech, sectors. Yet, this wasn’t as structured as its construction madness. Ultimately, not even more systematic state organization of real estate and infrastructure capitalism could prevent a financial crash in 2018. The value of the Lira spiraled downwards. In other words, reliance on construction resulted in financial devastation after 2018, a few years before it destroyed the lives of 15 million people in the earthquake zone in a more direct way.
Could any of this have been stopped, or even slowed down? To answer that, we must look at society’s response to this madness. The societal counterpoint to the AKP’s developmental model was condensed in the Gezi Uprising. But before an appraisal of that uprising, a quick word is in order about the structural limits to a popular embrace of any thorough critique of this model. The heavy investment in construction and household debt meant that even ordinary people’s fates were completely at the mercy of the party and its economic model. People could therefore not stomach (let alone mobilize based on) any sustained ecological critique for a very long time. Their short-term survival depended on the entire “anti-ecology” system mapped out above. These factors eventually dampened the ecological inspiration that initiated the Gezi uprising.
A proper understanding of society’s self-protection against destruction, and of why and how this self-protection was derailed, also requires a rethinking of words such as “the environment” and “ecology,” especially in light of the 2023 earthquake. Housing, land, and nature are not simply a part of what “surrounds” us. They are not a part of our “environment” in that sense, but a part of “us.” Concepts such as “ecology” and “social metabolism” help us see how integrated we are with land and nature, and how destructive it is to treat them as external “resources” or “instruments.” As Joel Kovel explains using ecosocialist lenses, nature “is not … an “environment” surrounding human habitation and useful to us. It is part of us, or to put it better yet …, an aspect of our being, absolutely essential if not the whole of it.” Capitalism is “anti-ecological,” it follows, not in the simple (and familiar) sense that it degrades nature, but in that it violates our integrity by treating nature as something outside us: a bunch of resources to grab and exploit. February 6 confirms Kovel’s insights. Capitalism’s orientation to land and shelter paves the way for the utter destruction of human beings, beyond just the degradation and demolition of what “surrounds” them. If housing units are destroyed, so are we.
The Self-Protection of Society
The links between Gezi and the Maraş earthquake are both structural and intimately personal. Structurally speaking, Gezi was the name of the possibility that Turkey could have changed track. It could have charted a unique path, where the needs of humans and non-humans could have been relatively harmonized. It could have paved the way for sustainable housing, that is, the construction of infrastructure and dwelling units that wouldn’t result in the displacements of millions of humans and non-humans from Maraş and surrounding areas. Yet, there are immediate personal links too: The same individuals and associations that were active in the Gezi Uprising were and are involved in earthquake preparation and post-earthquake relief. Many of them were also among the most active social actors who had been warning society about the impending destruction. Today, too, they are central to self-organizations in and around the earthquake area, except those who are in prison.
Urban rights, anti-extraction, and environmental movements flourished in Turkey after the 1980s. However, they did not turn into a “national-popular” movement, or even one main axis thereof. Reasons abound: “Environmentalism” was misleadingly perceived as the turf and issue of middle classes and college students, as it was in the rest of the world. Unions frequently butted heads with activists who fought, for example, against the further spread of unsustainable extraction. Villagers, whose subsistence as well as lifestyle were threatened by the commodification of the countryside, also frequently sided with companies and (municipal and national) authorities against environmentalists. Nevertheless, the poorer of the squatters came to coalesce with environmentalists in the course of the 2000s, as the unsustainable megaprojects displaced them from the cities. Even if in the margins, a cross-class coalition for sustainable cities and energy policies was slowly taking shape. Activism against hydroelectric power plants and gold mining faced repression, as almost all other movements do in Turkey, but with added viciousness, since they threatened the overall accumulation regime. As importantly, no major political party wanted to take on ecological causes, due to their apparent unpopularity, and that very misleading assumption about their notoriety became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yet, these movements, despite being quite dispersed, created a vocabulary. In 2013, urban rights and ecology became a national-popular cause for a few months. Despite the plurality of causes and social languages that marked the Gezi Uprising, what came closest to a “common language” of the movement had strong ecological elements. Most clearly embodied by “Taksim Solidarity” (the coalition of movements, associations, unions, experts, and artists that attempted to draft statements and demands during the rebellion), ecological concerns started to capture the imagination of people. But the way to that common language was paved by years of hard social movement work. And several of the urban rights and ecology organizations throughout Turkey (such as İmece and Ekoloji Kollektifi) were among the actors that protected the park from destruction. It was police brutality against these relatively small groups of activists that ignited the Gezi Uprising. But police brutality is rampant in Turkey and never gives rise to this kind of response. Certainly, the international conjuncture and the increasing repression at home helped crystallize feelings of frustration with the government at this moment. Yet, the “condensation” of frustrations in the defense of a park reveals the power of ecological symbols. Society recognized and realized itself in the bodies of the activists and the trees these activists protected.
The ecological spirit of the rebellion was expressed not only in the demands of Taksim Solidarity, but the many slogans and placards that distinguished the protests from others in recent history. Along with the humor that many commentators have emphasized, nature-focused messages were plenty in the placards, graffiti, and other street art generated during the rebellion: “Don't touch my neighborhood, my square, my tree, my water, my land, my home, my seed, my forest, my village, my city, my park!”, “Long live our ecological revolution,” “Government kills, nature gives life!”, “Respect existence or expect resistance”, “The squares are ours; we shall not give them up to capital,” “Capitalism will cut down the tree whose shadow it cannot sell,” said graffiti and placards, highlighting the green tones of Gezi against authoritarian market logic.
However, competing with this framing was one that marginalized Gezi’s ecological message. A viral tweet by a prominent film actor summarized another very common sentiment: “The issue is not just Gezi Park, haven’t you still figured this out buddy?” In a matter of minutes, slightly distorted offshoots of the original tweet became the mainstays of the uprising. Many of them removed the qualifier “just”: They simply said, “The issue is not a couple of trees, haven’t you still figured this out buddy?” These tweets and slogans mocked Tayyip Erdoğan, who alleged that the protests had nothing to do with trees, and that he himself was actually more of an environmentalist than the protestors. But mentioned tweets and slogans also called on the protestors to focus their energies on getting rid of the dictator. “This is not about a couple of trees” became as strong a rallying cry for the protests as its ecological axis.
In the beginning, there was something healthy about this focus, since Erdoğan (his person, his cronies, his party) has been core to the whole developmental model. And history has shown that naming a very clear, personalized target is an easy way to mobilize. Unfortunately, that tactic can be self-defeating when it turns into a strategy, especially when the dictatorship is not restricted to personalistic networks and mechanisms. Many revolutions have toppled apparently strong but infrastructurally weak dictators through precisely personalizing strategies. Yet, the AKP dictatorship’s hegemonic” structure, that is, its reliance on organized masses, prevented an easy way out of Erdoğanism.
The Evisceration of Gezi’s Ecology
As a result of the Gezi Uprising’s increasingly personalistic focus, among the conservative half of the country, Gezi came to be perceived as “a rebellion against Islam,” since (despite all complications), the predominant Islamist movements had identified Erdoğan with Islam in the preceding decade. In other words, notwithstanding the complexity of motivations among Gezi protestors, the issue was simple among government supporters: the uprising threatened religion. Participation in Gezi by leftwing Islamists, who are a small contingent, did not alter the dynamics. This dishonest framing succeeded in preventing any fractures within the governing party. The leader emerged stronger (and more authoritarian) from the rebellion. Gezi’s unintended consequences were 1) the solidification of the AKP as an Erdoğanist and Islamist party and 2) as a direct corollary, the solidification of the anti-Erdoğan and personalistic emphasis of the opposition. In the following years, the major opposition parties took great care to avoid any questioning of the AKP’s developmental path or ecological destructiveness and focused all their attention on Erdoğan and his cronies. It is true that the Kurdish-led HDP partially differentiated itself from this main trend, but that party (for multiple reasons I cannot explore in this essay) could not become a hegemonic option.
The Gezi Uprising was the largest urban rebellion Turkey ever saw. Close to 3 million people participated in street action. But a rebellion is not a movement. In the end, Taksim Solidarity could neither sustain the occupation, nor channel its energy in a sustainable direction. The neighborhood assemblies (also called public forums) that continued to meet for several weeks after the police emptied Gezi Park, as well as dwindling protests throughout the country, attempted to keep the momentum, to no avail. These assemblies are crucial nodes of self-organization. They still continue to meet in many towns and neighborhoods, and they do so with a strong ecological focus. They form an important part of the country’s democratic legacy. But they are far from acting as venues for organized, sustained popular power. Generally speaking, protests and occupations cannot go on forever, but they can create alternative institutions with novel messages. In the case of Gezi, this could have taken several shapes: For example, a national assembly of assemblies could have formulated urban and rural reconstruction projects, in coordination with architects, engineers, and other experts. This assembly of assemblies, and its allies in the expert class, could have exerted pressures on parties and elections without being subservient to them. Other routes that would have upheld and expanded self-organization along ecological lines were also possible. This was the missed opportunity ten years ago.
Nevertheless, not all ecological gains disappeared after Turkey’s “turn to normal.” Mobilizations against the destructions of parks and other common spaces, such as the one in Validebağ (İstanbul) and Yırca (Manisa) started to have more national visibility than in pre-Gezi times. They also started to use a more shared language. The uprising also arguably shifted public, activist, and academic ecological consciousness in a more global and structural direction, even though this shift is incomplete. However, the hope that Gezi would teach us to go beyond some of our petty conflicts to unite against oppression did not materialize.
Among these mobilizations, Northern Forests Defense deserves special mention, due to its organizational, structural, and discursive links with Gezi, as well as its aim to protect the immense forests to the north of İstanbul, which were threatened by the construction of the Third Bridge over the Bosporus. The initial popularity of, and afterwards the major parties’ and the public’s growing inattention to, this movement speaks volumes regarding the accomplishments and limits of the Gezi Uprising: the ultimate destruction of the forests it aimed to protect were core to the governing party’s project, both symbolically and economically. The millions mobilized by “a couple of trees” in Gezi Park had long turned to “normal” politics and everyday life as the government uprooted millions of trees to successfully build the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, an imperial symbol named after an Ottoman sultan known for his exceptional brutality against the Alevi religious minority.
One crystallized expression of all the accomplishments of Gezi and its limits is the fate of one of its core spokespersons and symbols: Mücella Yapıcı. An experienced architect and a longtime socialist-feminist activist, Yapıcı was able to demonstrate all of the links between housing, ecology, neoliberalism, disasters, and disaster relief and voice them in a lucid, compelling way. She warned many times that fatal and immense destruction was around the corner. This is far from accidental. Her own engagement with civil society had its roots in earthquake-related and disaster relief organization. Mücella Yapıcı might be exceptionally articulate and charismatic, but she is not the only expert who has been speaking and organizing along these lines. In other words, Gezi was and is connected to the earthquakes not only through the structural links I pointed out to above, but through many personal and associational threads.
Yet, Yapıcı’s striking story should not hide from view the limits of one kind of activism. The AKP regime imprisoned Yapıcı with the allegation that she attempted to overthrow the government. However, the truth is, she only provided the technical, architectural, and social language that could have been deployed to organize an uprising. But such an organized uprising never existed in the first place. Gezi was a rebellion without a proper set of unified demands and proper organizers. In fact, architects and other experts can contribute to shaping the language and demands of a revolution, and afterwards the policies of a revolutionary regime. But not even those among them with lifelong experience in activism can organize a revolution or an effective revolutionary regime. Only professional revolutionaries can do that, if and when embedded in institutions of people’s power and balanced by an autonomous civil society.
Cadres, Experts, and the People during Revolutionary Regeneration
Experts in fields such as the natural sciences, social sciences, applied sciences, or engineering can certainly contribute in variegated ways (as experts, citizens, consultants, activists, critics, internal checks, etc.) to the constructions of political and social alternatives to the existing order. However, they don’t (and should not be expected to) have the capacity to organize and lead uprisings, let alone overthrow a government. For that leg of the movement, cadres (whose whole life is dedicated to nothing other than sociopolitical transformation) are necessary. Without activist experts such as Yapıcı, revolutionary movements cannot have any meaningful technical content. And revolutionary regimes that don’t grant them space and autonomy would quickly devolve into either a rule of (non-activist) experts (as in much of state socialism) or unsustainable anti-expert sociopolitical configurations (as in the early years of the Cultural Revolution). Yet, such experts can never be tasked to remove the enemies of nature and society from power, or even coordinate the broader task of socio-natural reconstruction after such removal. Also, we should never forget that experts constitute a group with (at least “class-like”) interests of its own, and cannot be trusted without reservations, and without a strategy of embedding them in institutions of popular power.
We should be clear about this: During 2013 and afterwards, no effective organization had the capacity to bridge ecological and architectural experts on the one hand, and popular will on the other. This bridging is where the responsibility of “activism” ends and that of professional revolutionaries start. There are many reasons why the existing revolutionary cadres were insufficient to the task, and only some of these reasons can be mentioned here: Ideologues and intellectuals who have emphasized the futility and undesirability of cadres and revolutions in the last forty years; mainstream politicians who have crowded cadres out; and repressive apparatuses that have crushed them have dwindled the numbers of professional revolutionaries and shaken public confidence in them. Now it is time to restore those numbers and – with a new language and mode of operation true to the pro-autonomy spirit of the times – also resuscitate that lost public confidence. A restricted number of professional revolutionaries were indeed active during and in the aftermath of Gezi despite all of the mentioned impediments. But an ever-expanding body of cadres (with the lessons of the 20th century under their belt) will be direly needed in the coming decades, given the expanse of the disasters we are about to face. The cultivation of such cadres is an urgent task, if we want to avoid utter ecological annihilation.
Turkey’s ecological story is far from over. The devastation caused by February 6 is yet another wakeup call. Ecologists, feminists, socialists, labor unions … in short, “society” has been organizing mutual aid once again. Self-organization has become a constant topic of discussion among intellectuals, activists, and revolutionary circles. Ethnic and religious minorities are also fundamental to this self-protection, and there are several reasons for this. As most recently Nancy Fraser has emphasized, colonialism, racism, capitalism, and ecology are not separate issues. They are all intertwined. Dominated racial and ethnic groups pay the dearest prices for ecological destruction. One example of this is the thorough ecological devastation of Kurdish regions during the last decades, through a variety of means and methods including deliberately incited forest fires. And another example is the government’s alleged discrimination against Alevis in aid delivery during the days following the 2023 earthquake. But one unintended outcome of these processes is that the dominated groups also become the reservoirs of the most developed self-organization and mutual aid repertoires during times of destruction. Attesting to this legacy, Kurds and Alevis undertook impressive aid efforts in the earthquake-affected regions, despite explicit attempts by the government to thwart their relief campaigns.
Small to medium-sized associations and political parties that claim the spirit of Gezi are active on this scene too. Several associations and movements which we saw on Gezi’s stage – from the Chamber of Architects to the ever-growing multiplicity of feminist and LGBTQ organizations – have been providing the most basic necessities, whereas the neoliberal state has sunk so deep into a shameful existence that it has started to sell basic necessities in the earthquake region.
Yet, from the unrealized proclamations of Taksim Solidarity we know that these same actors have capacities way beyond mutual aid and fighting the police on the streets: There is still hope that they might start to build a sustainable countermovement to stop ecological devastation and build an alternative path for the country. This time, the stranglehold of established hegemony and its mirror image in the mainstream opposition parties can really be broken, for there is increasing awareness that hundreds of thousands can perish in the (expected) Istanbul earthquake. A quick, popularly supported, and popularly organized reconstruction of the entire city and its hinterland is the only thing that can prevent such a trauma, which Turkey would never recover from.
Can society indeed survive neoliberalism? The following months will be decisive in answering this question.