Assemblies emerging in Turkey: a lesson in democracy

by Jerome Roos on June 19, 2013

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The protesters are starting to counter-pose their own direct democracy to the sham of a democracy proposed by Erdogan’s authoritarian neoliberal state.

Something quite amazing is happening in Istanbul. In addition to the silent “standing man” actions around the country, people’s assemblies are slowly starting to emerge in different neighborhoods across the city. As in Spain, Greece and the Occupy encampments before, the protesters in Turkey are starting to counter-pose their own form of direct democracy to the sham of a democracy proposed by Erdogan’s authoritarian neoliberal state. If there was ever any doubt, this shows how deeply intertwined the global struggles truly are.

As the state launches its merciless witch hunt on protesters, activists and Tweeters, thousands of people are starting to gather in dignity in various public spaces. As Oscar ten Houten reports from on the ground in Istanbul, the Beşiktaş Assembly in Abbasaga park, which has been going on for days, tripled its number of participants on Tuesday night, with a total of ten popular assemblies taking place in Istanbul alone and at least one more in Izmir. As Oscar writes on his great blog (which he started at the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid in 2011):

These meetings have nothing to do with Taksim Solidarity any more. They are spontaneous initiatives by local people who are fed up with Erdogan’s disregard for the Turkish citizens, their rights and freedoms, their history, beliefs and traditions. … We arrive in Kadıköy, and truly, I couldn’t believe this was happening. Well over two thousand people were gathered on the green, to express their anger with the government’s eviction of Gezi, and to share their hope for a better Turkey. Like anywhere else, it was a cross section of the population, which included all races and creeds.

Interestingly, the members of the popular assemblies in Turkey use the same hand-signs as the indignados, indicating that some of the methods were directly inspired by the real democracy protests in Spain. This, in turn, seems to confirm the idea we raised very early on in the Turkish uprising, and a claim that many Turkish activists have been making from the very start: namely that this movement is not just a local or national protest, but part of a global struggle against the subverted nature of representative capitalist democracy and for real democracy and total liberation.

What, then, is real democracy? Obviously it’s difficult to have a straightforward answer to such a complex question, seeing that different people will interpret the idea (and the ideal) differently. It is quite easy, however, to identify what it is not. Democracy stands for the rule of the people. As a result, when corporate interests and religious delusions begin to dominate government, that is not democracy. In fact, when a small elite of elected politicians is delegated to speak on behalf of the rest, that is not the rule of the people but their representation.

Illustration: map showing 35 active popular assemblies in Istanbul

The worldwide experiments with direct democracy — in the form of horizontal self-organization through popular assemblies, decentralized mutual aid networks, thematic working groups, and so on — provide a glimpse of what another world could look like. Of course, none of this is to say that the protesters have a blueprint in hand for the ideal revolutionary society; but they are actively testing and trying out different models to see how large groups of people can effectively organize themselves without hierarchical and centralized leadership.

Last year, when shooting our first ROAR documentary – Utopia on the Horizon – in Athens, we interviewed Manolis Glezos, the 90-year-old Greek WWII resistance hero who is currently an MP for the coalition of the radical left. Glezos experimented with direct democracy when he was the mayor of a village on the island of Naxos. Even though Glezos still believes that a parliament controlled by popular forces can help activists on the ground, he insists that the citizens’ revolution as such cannot proceed if the people do not organize themselves from below.

So what about the popular assemblies in Syntagma Square, Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park? Was that real democracy? When we asked Glezos, he looked at us with an amused smile on his face, and — to our great surprise — just said: “No. This is not democracy. How can a few thousand people assembled in a square claim to speak on behalf of the millions that live in the region? This is not democracy — it’s a lesson in democracy. If this movement wants to survive, its direct democratic models will need to spread to the neighborhoods and to the working places. Only then will we start seeing the emergence of a genuinely democratic society.”

What Glezos is saying, in other words, is that for direct democracy to work, the assemblies need to be radicalized and extended into the working places in the form of workers’ self-management, as in the inspiring case of the Vio.Me factory in Greece. Obviously, none of this will be enough to overthrow the capitalist state as such; but it is a starting point to help engage people in different forms of decision-making, different forms of production, and different ways of being, thinking and interacting. In a word, it is about building the social foundations of self-organization that will allow us to replace the oppressive institutions of the capitalist state when the time comes.

But there is something more. The direct democracy of the squares is also about saying that we cannot wait for some distant revolution to overthrow the capitalist system. We are currently facing a global humanitarian tragedy, an ecological disaster and a profound social and political crisis. We have to act now. We cannot rely on corporate elites to do this for us. We cannot trust in political representatives to take the process ahead. The only ones we can trust are ourselves. We, the people, will have to carry this revolution forward. Starting now.

Still, on a more humble level — yet perhaps the most important of all — we should be careful not to fetishize direct democracy. At the end of the day, the assembly is a very simple phenomenon: it is about ordinary people craving to be heard and to have a say in their lives. Assemblies are a way to allow those who have been shut up for years to finally stand up in dignity and to speak their voice — and be heard. It is about recovering our collective sense of humanity from the rapacious claws and unrepresentive institutions of the capitalist state.

As such, the assemblies are a beautiful and crucial form of social engagement and political participation. In the future, they may well be expanded to cover more and more segments of the population. But even in these moments of elation, when we see the people taking matters into their own hands and enacting real democracy in the places where they live and work, we should stay realistic: this is only just the beginning. The capitalist state survives, and creating our own parallel society is not enough. We must self-organize, and then push our quest for autonomy outwards to eventually encapsulate all of society.

Luckily, there is hope that such radical aspirations may not just be a pipe dream. In a sign that this leaderless movement is already deregulating the violent flow of authority unleashed by the Turkish state, the increasingly desperate government is doubling down on the repression, arresting random people who were sighted at the protests or who sent out “provocative” Tweets, and even threatening to send in the army. As Oscar puts it, “the authorities still don’t understand what’s happening. They look for leaders, people to corrupt or to eliminate. But there are none. We are not an organisation, we are a world wide web. We are the people on the threshold of changing times.”

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

gaocoin June 19, 2013 at 22:46

The Stigmergic Revolution
It was long believed that the queen played a central role in the complex social order of an ant colony, through the exercise of direct command and control over her subjects. Not so. Biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse coined the term “stigmergy” for the anthill’s social organization There is no central coordination, no hierarchy, no administrative mechanism. Each ant’s behavior is entirely spontaneous and self-directed, as it responds independently to the chemical trail markers left by other ants.

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Jerome Roos June 19, 2013 at 22:47

Haha, nice!

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gaocoin June 19, 2013 at 22:54

The Stigmergic Revolution by Kevin Carson November 12th, 2011

Here is the web: http://c4ss.org/content/8914

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vasif June 20, 2013 at 17:38

finally, thank you for bringing up the stigmergical aspect, i have been wanting to for the last two weeks but did not dare, could have been labelled as neolib postcrowdsourcer…

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Christine Hanna June 20, 2013 at 05:13

I needed to create this video as a tribute to the beautiful people of Turkey…they are definitely not alone in the treatment they are receiving from police…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyyiIfSgwjc&feature=youtu.be

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Christine Hanna June 20, 2013 at 16:40

I just updated this video with a few more pictures….heart goes out to all the innocent people world wide who have been at the receiving end of police violence…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNexgb_Rqbc&feature=youtu.be

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DilloTank June 20, 2013 at 08:53

Democracies always fail eventually. Majority rule is simply mob rule. The United States is a ‘constitutional republic’, a form of representational government, but not democracy.

Totalitarians like democracy, once they are voted in, they do whatever they want.

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Jason Catalyst June 20, 2013 at 12:50

Join the Dual Power Revolution!

http://www.facebook.com/earthassembly

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dave June 20, 2013 at 22:36

Thanks for the link to David Harvey page.

It’s amazing how what goes around comes back around. How Bookchin’s LM differs from Kropotkin’s vision of anarcho-communism is not at all clear.

Kind of related and kind of not is Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City about the rent strike in Barcelona [and other things] which…launched?…prefigured?…the Spanish Revolution.

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True Believer June 21, 2013 at 13:36

Outstanding article… Yes, “leadership” has been hijacked by politicians and corporate capitalists and as such must be removed from society as it is understood today. Servant leadership that offers support, guideance, and empowers others to their full potential is a powerful component of what is to come. Even within popular movements some try to “lead” and drown out voices. Leadership has been so drastically twisted and distored, the word may no longer be usable. Let us work with each other, learn how to help each other and how to live together again. We have done this before, it will feel natural to us as we remove the chains of the states and corporations that have enslaved us all.

Peace and Solidarity

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Esin June 21, 2013 at 19:03

Please, please sign and share this petition. It needs over 84,000 signatures as of the date and time of this post. We’d like to bring this issue to the attention of the White House as soon as possible. Please share on your website and social media. Anything you can do is greatly appreciated.

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/condemn-actions-taken-against-peaceful-protesters-istanbul-turkey/zDGtGCDZ

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dave fryett June 22, 2013 at 05:36

With all due respect, dear comrade, it is of no use to bring the police brutality to the attention of the White House when it is directing it. Turkey is a vassal state, NATO runs the place.

States need to go, not be summoned for help. As Flora Tristan put it [paraphrasing]: The emancipation of the woeking class must and can only be achieved by the working class. The solution is for the assemblies to to take power, become the governing bodies.

The only assembly which has the right to govern is the people assembled. No state is going to help you, least of all the one headquartered in Washington.

If ROARers will forgive me for beating my favorite dead horse yet again in this space: The greatest single advantage reaction has had in countering this latest round of global resistance to capitalism is the latter’s disunity. Try to imagine what the world might be like today if Sidi Bouzid, Tahrir, Taksim, Syntagma, Bulgaria, Chile, Occupy, Los Indignados, Brazil, Wisconsin et alia were COORDINATED! If the protesters worldwide broke thru national boundaries and acted jointly! I get weak in the knees just thinking about it.

We need to reestablish the Internationale, or Tristan’s Workers’ Union, and along the lines suggested by Benoit Malon.

Think about it.

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Jerome Roos June 24, 2013 at 00:19

I just got a little weak in the knees as well. You’ve got me hooked on the idea of a new Internationale. The radical cosmopolitanism of the street is beautiful to watch, but it needs to be coordinated — from below. Where do we start?

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salam June 26, 2013 at 23:06

il faut maintenant trouver des solutions.ou faire des reformes.je suis de tout coeur avec vous.mais le but c’est la paix et le bonheur.
salam.

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Güler November 19, 2013 at 23:50

Dear Jerome,

I read the article and you have written it straight to the point, where I really like the direct reference to democracy. You evaluate properly and objectively.

Well done!

I’m writing an assignment on this issue as well. However, I focus more on the trends in public communication in the East. As an example I chose Turkey.

May I ask you for your opinion about the topic or can you advise me someone who I can interview concerning my issue. I would really appreciate your help.

I look forward to reading your respond. Thank you in advance.

You can contact me on via e-mail….

Best,
Gül

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