[This article is part of the Roundtable Discussion: “Remembering Gezi—Beyond Nostalgia Ten Years On" produced by Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page Editors. Read the roundtable introduction by guest editors Birgan Gökmenoğlu and Derya Özkaya and see the other articles of this roundtable here. Bu metnin Türkçe çevirisini burada bulabilirsiniz.]
…optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or people risks striving; and, doubly, it is cruel insofar as the very pleasures of being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content of the relation…
Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (2011)
Hope – a lot of it – certainly marked the period leading up to the 2023 presidential and general elections in Turkey. Despite the commotion on social media, which I wrongly assumed was a case of an echo chamber, I was taken by surprise by the amount of hope that the mainstream opposition held for the upcoming elections when I arrived in Istanbul in May 2023. Friends, family, acquaintances, activist circles, men on television all seemed to believe that these elections would be the sure-fire way to bring down the current regime. The opposition’s electoral alliance, the “Table of Six,” was composed of right-wing and far-right parties and personalities, together with the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), that consistently hushed down grassroots voices and social movements over the years. In a context where the mainstream opposition sounded as right-wing as the parties in power, regime change seemed unlikely to me. Bringing down Erdoğan came up as just as good an option in my daily conversations, where the regime was taken to be incarnated in his person. The relatively smooth victory of Erdoğan and the parliamentary majority of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), therefore, created immense disappointment in the mainstream opposition.
Within this emotional landscape, I would like to linger on hope and think about its social and political dimensions. Instead of understanding hope as a personal feeling, I invite readers to think about hope as a collective orientation to the future, generated not individually or in isolation, but collectively and socially. More specifically, I will draw attention to what hope does politically, by comparing the hope that was mobilized for the elections of 2023 with the hopeful politics that was exercised collectively during the Gezi protests of 2013 and in its aftermath, through to the constitutional referendum of 2017. For this comparison, I will draw on my experiences at Gezi as a protestor, my involvement in numerous grassroots initiatives in 2014, the extensive fieldwork I conducted at the “no” assemblies in 2017-18, and lastly, my observations in 2023.
My main argument is that hope in 2023 took the form of “cruel optimism,” where the elections that opened up possibilities for change simultaneously closed down discussions of a radical break with the current socio-political order and what social transformation could and should look like. The cruel optimism of 2023 stood in stark contrast to the hope generated between 2013 and 2017 across multiple experiments in grassroots democracy. The co-creation of hope in 2013-2017 resembled what Ana Cecilia Dinerstein calls “the art of organising hope.” I thus further argue that what set Gezi and its aftermath apart was the constant experimentation with alternative forms of doing politics, the visions of social transformation, and the building of hope in, and for, political struggle. Looking back at Gezi on itstenth anniversary—when global, regional, and national opportunities for change seem bleak—might offer some insights into where we can find hope, or rather, how to actively and purposefully organize hope.
Hope can be depoliticized or politicized; individualized or collectivized. A comparison between 2013 and 2023 illustrates this point. In Lauren Berlant’s words quoted in the opening of this essay, the 2023 elections ignited “a sense of possibility” that simultaneously made the “expansive transformation” that many people had hoped for, impossible. The hope that was mobilized for the elections was cruel optimism because it was devoid of a transformative vision and a structural critique of what was wrong with the current order of social, political, and economic life. Hope in 2023 was completely dependent on the outcome of the elections, to a change in the presidency or the government, without serious consideration of what comes next.
Sidestepping the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) or the Green Left Party (YSP), and the Kurdish Freedom Movement more broadly, the “opposition” offered no transformative agenda or a true alternative to how we work, live, and relate to one another. The Table of Six, led by the CHP, made only vague promises of restoring the parliamentary system without fully explaining how. Instead of engaging with, and learning from, the myriad discussions of strategy and organization that feminists, Kurds, socialists, and other grassroots activists have had since Gezi (and before), the mainstream opposition positioned itself as an extension of the status quo by tilting public discussion towards nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-queer, and racist politics. The shift to the right of the political spectrum was legitimized by naturalizing existing social divisions. In other words, both the CHP and its voter base seemed to believe that “this is our society”: conservative, nationalist, right-wing. What is missing in this way of thinking about party politics is that political parties are not mere reflections of social divisions; they play an active role in constructing new divisions and reconfiguring existing ones.
The hope for change was locked into politics-as-elections without a vision of a radically different future and without political movements that could sustain promises of change in the long term. This was a hope that was “complicit” in stifling collective political action. It did not challenge the CHP’s understanding of fixed and unchangeable social relations or its understanding of politics that is entirely confined to electoral campaigns. It was a hope that could not imagine otherwise. Hope for the 2023 elections was a cruel optimism that did not engage in social critique, discussions of alternative ways of living and doing politics, and political organizing. As such, it was very much a depoliticized and individualized feeling that perhaps managed to mobilize people into voting, but that demoralized and demobilized them after the fact. In the absence of organic ties between the electoral campaign and grassroots social movements, the potentially generative momentum of the hopeful campaign period was not channelled into social movement organizations or grassroots initiatives, which would help sustain demands for change beyond the elections, regardless of the outcome of the elections.
Gezi and its aftermath can give us a clue as to how hope can be politicized and put to transformative use. The Gezi protests erupted at a time when the memory of global uprisings, including those in Europe, the US, and the Middle East and North Africa was still fresh. The revolution in Rojava was also still ongoing. Gezi was a part of this wave of uprisings that made change seem possible. In line with these other uprisings, we were discussing the effects of capitalism, neoliberalism, the ecological crisis, racism, and patriarchy as well as new forms of democratic politics to counter the destructive consequences of these systems of oppression: horizontalism, the commons, self-organization, participatory forms of democracy, the role of institutions in social change, among others. Thetenth anniversary of Gezi has not been on the political agenda in Turkey due to the devastating earthquake and the elections, and perhaps also because it feels to many that it belongs to a different time in the distant past. However, there is still a lot to learn from Gezi, especially today, when our political horizons have been narrowed by years of increasing authoritarianism and repression.
As demonstrated in the various contributions to this roundtable, Gezi led to the proliferation of grassroots initiatives, from park forums and urban squats to food cooperatives and neighbourhood associations. These were spaces that emerged out of and were inspired by Gezi, but never absolute reproductions of it. These grassroots experiments in living and doing politics differently embodied our discussions about how to organize, how to effect change, and how to create new and better social relations. From one initiative to the next, the participants of these collectives critically reflected on the political situation, their own practices, and the organizational dynamics of the spaces that they built. There were contesting visions of what kind of a future we wanted, and how to get there. But working together—whether in a women’s rhythm collective, an urban garden, or a grassroots election initiative—created spaces of hope where people collectively organized hope.
Arising out of this line of grassroots experimentation with alternative forms of politics, the “no” assemblies were established to campaign for the “no” vote in the 2017 constitutional referendum. But their organizers had a much wider vision of social change. The assemblies strove to “socialize” or collectivize politics, as participants involved in the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK) and the HDP often put it. They aimed at (and sometimes missed) inclusivity, participatory democracy, and efficient but democratic ways of decision making. They were also an attempt at establishing local units of resistance against the increasingly repressive measures of the state. The participants of the assemblies were already discussing the different scenarios that could follow from the referendum and taking steps towards organizing against what they anticipated to be a more repressive, more authoritarian regime, in case the referendum was lost.
The “no” assemblies were short lived, but their hopes did not stop at winning at the referendum. In fact, the mass mobilization that went into the grassroots “no” campaign enabled mass protests against the rigged results, which inflicted anxiety both in the AKP and the CHP as a potential “second Gezi.” When the assemblies disintegrated in 2018, some of their participants joined other local initiatives, like queer football teams, animal rights groups, or food cooperatives, utilizing years of local organizing to maintain hope and their activist networks for a future when these networks can be re-mobilized for transformative purposes. While the diversity of local groups might sound disconnected and irrelevant to an outsider, these initiatives help maintain political ties between cycles of mobilization. Maybe even more importantly, they provide spaces of political learning and experimentation, where discussions and practices of alternatives come to life. Instead of taking stock of this rich lineage of grassroots politics, the 2023 campaign remained short-sighted and fixated on the electoral competition between parties.
This is how the “no” campaign was distinct from the campaign in 2023: while the 2023 campaign was organized by political parties to gain more votes, the “no” campaign had a bottom-up component that organized itself into local assemblies. It had a political horizon much longer than the referendum itself, at least for those who were politically engaged. The assemblies were part of a partial and fragmented movement for alternatives, with roots in environmentalism, the Kurdish movement, the feminist movement, workers’ movements, and Gezi. The hope that was organized during the “no” campaign and in other post-Gezi grassroots initiatives was radically different than the cruel optimism of 2023 because these movements were, and still are, engaged in social critique and political experimentation. They organize hope in political struggle towards transformative ends.
I will not end on a hopeful note. We are bound to get disappointed if our hopes are tied to electoral outcomes that are detached from longer-term political projects, with no vision for a substantial break from the way things are. This is why it is so important to organize a radical, critical kind of hope in political struggle, in the workplace, on the streets, in social movements; to think critically about social problems and devise ways of transforming social relations. Gezi and the ensuing grassroots experiments still have a lot to offer that we can take part in: local urban alliances, post-disaster planning initiatives, cooperatives, ecological and environmental groups, the Yoğurtçu Women’s Forum and feminist publications, to name just a few. Without putting in this collective effort in our everyday lives, hope will remain a depoliticized and individual feeling, setting us up for cruel optimism, disappointment, and apathy.
 In 2023, the HDP/YSP did not formulate an alternative either. However, it should be noted that the HDP as a political party already has a transformative political program. This program was not elaborated into an effective electoral campaign in the 2023 elections, unlike in 2015. For a recent comprehensive analysis of the HDP and the state, see this article.