Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

  • January 16, 2014

City & Commons

Gezi lives, but to have a lasting effect it will need to be taken out of the realm of the extraordinary and into the everyday lives of ordinary people.

It has been more than half a year since the Gezi uprising shook Turkey and resonated across the world. Over the course of the past 1.5 weeks, ROAR has been reflecting on this wave of protests through our first symposium, which looked back at the character of the uprising while simultaneously seeking to unearth what remains of it today and exploring some of the steps that may still lie ahead. Just like the movement itself, the symposium emphasized pluralism and internal debate, with a diversity of political positions and strategic considerations interacting with each other in a constructive dialogue for radical social change.

Such an open dialogue is all the more relevant today, now that the political debate in Turkey appears to have largely shifted away from the Gezi uprising towards the corruption probe launched by the country’s national police force against top-level AKP officials and public servants. As new revelations keep on making the headlines, some political analysts argue that these corruption scandals now pose a greater threat to Erdoğan’s rule than the popular movement that emerged out of the Gezi protests. At last, the hegemony of the Sultan appears to be crumbling — and it is internecine power struggles within the ruling elite, rather than bottom-up contestation from the popular masses, that seem to be undermining the AKP’s decade-old hegemony over Turkish politics.

But, however grave the threat may be for the ruling AKP, it is unlikely that a mere replacement of ruling elites at the top of the state apparatus will bring any serious improvement for the great majority of the population. As Burak Kose argued in this symposium, it is not enough to rejoice at the destabilization of Erdoğan’s rule and the exposure of his corrupt practices: “Instead of watching the alleged battle between the AKP and the Gülen movement, or waiting for the ‘corruption operation’ to be continued through legal mechanisms with the expectation that our political life will be finally cleared from corruption, it is absolutely imperative to continue the struggle against the transformation of our living spaces, urban and rural, into means of capital accumulation.”

What’s Next?

It should be clear by now that the grassroots struggle of ordinary citizens must continue. The only real question is: how? Now that the initial mass mobilization has (temporarily) subsided, how does the movement keep organizing for meaningful social change? How can it genuinely transform the political landscape in Turkey? How can it contribute towards the creation of the world that was briefly prefigured, in miniature version, in Gezi Park itself? What pre-existing ideas and practices can the movement draw upon to keep charging forward? What avenues for social and political action are available to its participants in order to realize these ideas?

Some, like Matze Kasper in this symposium, argue that the movement will have to compromise to survive. Kasper suggests that the movement attach itself to a pre-existing political organization, and highlights Turkey’s main opposition party — the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) — as a likely candidate. Others, like some readers on our Facebook page, firmly reject this position and argue that Gezi was a rebellion not just against the AKP but against the entire political establishment; and that the only way forward would be to form a new radical party of the left — possibly modeled on the example of SYRIZA in Greece — that retains a close connection to the movements and breathes some fresh “popular” air into a stale political environment.

Others still point out an inconsistency in both positions by highlighting the “essence” of the Gezi spirit. At its core, Gezi was not about the formation or adherence to flags and symbols, these activists argue; it was about the coming together of a great diversity of protesters who spontaneously self-organized into a different type of sociality, briefly constructing a free space based on the principles of horizontality, solidarity, mutual aid and direct democracy. The Gezi spirit, authors like Lou Zucker, Dilan Koese and Christopher Patz point out, resides in a politics of movement; a fluid form of grassroots politics that continuously seeks to reassert its independence from parties and hierarchical organizations in order to democratize and radicalize society from below.

And so a major debate opens up and the road forks in two. Today, in the wake of the June uprising, the continuation of the struggle can take place either within or outside of the existing political arena. For those who just want to see the AKP go, or those who wish to soften the edges of the establishment’s authoritarian neoliberalism, the current corruption probe might provide some hope that the ruling party may be further weakened, taking away voters from the AKP and thus eventually diminishing its power. On the other hand, for those who rebelled not against the AKP but against the neoliberal state as such, those who want to establish a different type of sociality altogether, this corruption probe is just another act in the endless tragedy of Turkey’s political history. For them, the real struggle takes place on the streets and in the parks, in the neighborhoods and on the campuses — where it all began.

A Project of Autonomy

The latter group is probably right to argue that the future of Gezi does not lie within the political arena. To be sure, a Gezi Party has been formed, but few have faith that it will actually be able to surpass the electoral threshold of 10%. Two other parties that enjoy relative popularity among the young, urban, educated and left-leaning majority of Gezi protesters are the pro-Kurdish BDP (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, or Peace and Democracy Party) and the newly-formed HDP (Halklarin Demokratik Partisi, or People’s Democratic Party). The latter was formed only last October and has attracted a number of former BDP deputees, as well as its well-known front-man, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who was wounded during the first days of the Gezi protests after he positioned himself in front of a bulldozer that was tearing down trees in Gezi Park. The HDP attempts to transcend the mainly pro-Kurdish identity of the BDP and actively tries to appeal to the large Alevi religious and cultural minority. The party thus aims to present itself as a “Third Way” in the struggle against the ruling AKP.

But despite the political reshuffling, even with new parties being formed, traditional authorities under attack, and decades-old alliances falling apart as we speak, there is little hope of any substantive change stemming from the realm of electoral politics. The enormous strength of the Gezi uprising resided precisely in its autonomy, its horizontality and its lack of centralized leadership; its spontaneity and its enthusiasm; its broad-based support across social, religious and ethnic divides. These values cannot simply be carried over into the political arena and expected to maintain their essence. Even in the highly unlikely event that progressive forces were to take control of the state apparatus, the state would remain structurally dependent on the uninterrupted process of capital accumulation. To satisfy this structural dependence, any political leader — no matter how solidary with the popular will — would eventually be forced to forsake the Gezi spirit in favor of the systemic exigencies of global capital.

How, then, can the spirit of Gezi be safeguarded? How can the flame of popular resistance be rekindled continuously? And how can this resistance eventually be brought to a transformative, even revolutionary conclusion? To begin with, those who participated in the uprising should not be afraid to pledge their unwavering fidelity to the event. What does this mean? It means that the movement must, wherever possible, commit itself to the truth that was disclosed in the June uprising. Autonomy, horizontality and the reclamation of the commons were the essence of the struggle. These principles must now be carried forward into a genuine political project; an ambitious project of self-organization that seeks to construct its own popular counter-power to the capitalist state; a project of autonomy, in other words, that seeks to build new democratic institutions from the bottom up, while continuously contesting authoritarian neoliberal rule from the top down, no matter who happens to be in power at any particular moment.

While far from an autonomist himself, the movement communism of Alain Badiou expresses an important principle that should lie at the heart of any project of autonomy. As Badiou puts it, it is time to replace Mao’s despairing dictum during the Cultural Revolution to “get involved in the affairs of the state!” with a new motto: “You decide what the state must do and find the means of forcing it to, while always keeping your distance from the state and without ever submitting your convictions to its authority, or responding to its summons, especially electoral ones.” The spirit of Gezi still lies there where it once thrived: in the streets, in the sense of communal solidarity, in the neighborhood forums and the grassroots initiatives. As we wrote in the opening editorial at the start of this symposium, Gezi’s legacy cannot be reduced to something physical. Rather, it is the seed of revolt that was planted in the minds of millions of movement participants; the realization that a different society, a different world is possible.

Beyond Beginnings

Needless to say, this realization was only just the start. It was the dawn of a long-term process that will take decades to complete. Gezi was a beginning, and as one author rightly puts it in her essay, “beginnings are always joyful things.” The hard work and the real struggle comes the day after, when the masses retreat from the streets and return to their everyday lives, and nothing appears to have changed at all. A sense of exhaustion, disillusionment, even cynicism overcomes the movement and its key organizers as the realization begins to dawn that society is not revolutionized overnight. Newborn activists begin to feel that it’s all been for naught, that nothing will change, that it’s all hopeless. As Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers point out in a recent article on the Occupy movement, this is a logical stage in the development of any popular movement. The mass mobilizations are just a phase. Beyond the spontaneous uprising, or the original constituent impulse, lies the actual task of building up a proper constituent power; of organizing the movement into a lasting force for social change; of constructing alternative democratic institutions from below; and of painstakingly building majority support for the type of society we wish to see.

The bottom-line is not very complicated: meaningful social change cannot be brought about overnight, nor can it be brought about by playing by the rules of someone else’s game. The task of today’s revolutionaries is to invent a different game altogether — and to force those in power to start playing by our rules. Rather than pursuing them at the ballot boxes, let us pursue them in the streets. Let us take the initiative and set the agenda; let them be the reactionaries. The opponents of the AKP government might not be able to overthrow it through institutional means, let alone abolish the institution of the state in its entirety — but they do have the power to begin crafting grassroots institutions of their own, gradually reclaiming space (both physical and political) from ruling elites, lessening the firm grip of the powerful on their personal lives. This is what the anarchist philosopher Simon Critchley refers to as a “politics of resistance“, which fundamentally revolves around maintaining “an interstitial distance within and against the state.”

Change and resistance go hand-in-hand, and it does not necessarily require active street battles, barricades, clouds of tear gas and thousands of casualties to force dominant institutions to adapt to the popular will. Gezi Park today still stands — and while this small and hard-fought victory is far from enough to satisfy the hunger for change that animates the movement, the fact remains that Erdoğan’s initial plans were obstructed and the Sultan was forced to retreat in face of the popular will. This in itself is a sign that autonomous movements are capable of winning meaningful political victories even at the “mundane” level of policy formulation. In the context of a global crisis of representation, it is precisely the various forms of direct action and everyday resistance that may prove the most effective, and hardest to eradicate. Such resistance can take many different forms: from occupying a park and preventing its destruction, to squatting an abandoned building and turning it into a social center; from occupying factories and resuming production under workers’ control, to the formation of neighborhood forums and other platforms of direct democracy.

Arresting Neoliberalism

But, as Mehmet Döşemeci crucially points out in his excellent final essay in this symposium, the Gezi uprising itself was not without its limitations. To continue the struggle in the streets, parks, neighborhoods and campuses is one thing. Reclaiming public space and prefiguring a better world is obviously a crucial precondition for any type of meaningful social change. But as long as people keep dutifully showing up at their jobs in the morning; as long as workers — blue-collar, white-collar; partially employed, self-employed — keep reproducing the preconditions of their own exploitation, there can be no long-term arrest of the present neoliberal order of things. To truly challenge the ruling elite, workers of all stripes need to be actively involved in the revolutionary process, autonomously and from below, and begin to organize for the type of nationwide general wildcat strike that could truly begin to put some pressure on those who still fancy themselves to be in control.

For all its resilience and impermeability, this system still has a soft-spot: it continues to depend — every moment of every single day — on our continued submission to its dictates. Capital is permanently on life support by the ordinary people whose alienated labor keeps on reproducing it. It is high time that we began to withdraw this support and start producing for ourselves. Occupy, resist, produce! That was the slogan of the reclaimed factories movement in Argentina. With the occupation of the first factory in Turkey (the Kazova textile factory) in the wake of the Gezi uprising, this motto may be starting to resonate in Turkey today. Of course Kazova, like its Greek cousin Vio.Me, is only a small-scale example — but it may yet inspire the birth of a broader autonomous workers’ movement that has the potential to deepen the resistance that was born in Gezi Park. And it is crucial to remark that it’s not industrial workers who have the power to reclaim their workplaces; any enterprise can potentially be occupied and collectivized by its employees, as the various worker-run hotels, printing presses and other cooperatives in Argentina attest.

Recent grassroots initiatives in Turkey — the neighborhood forums, the Kazova factory, Istanbul’s first squat — show that the Gezi spirit is still very much alive. But for it to have any lasting effect, the Spirit of Revolt needs to be taken out of the realm of the extraordinary and become a guiding light for the everyday lives of ordinary people. Only then will it be able to grow roots deep and strong enough to effectively take on the neoliberal state. Slowly but surely, like a tree pushing its roots through the tarmac — or like Marx’s old friend, the mole, “who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear” — the everyday resistance of ordinary people will burrow its way through society, cracking the concrete, undermining the foundations of the neoliberal urban landscape, and ultimately allowing us to reclaim the physical and political space we so desperately need to live, produce and share in common; in solidarity, democratically, and as equals. Truly free at last.

As the Greek anarchists say, “the passion for freedom is stronger than any prison”, and so the power of the people will prove sturdier than all the forces of oppression the state can muster by means of violence and intimidation. However desperate our times may appear, real power still resides with the people. It is only the collective realization of this fact — and the large-scale popular insubordination required to actualize it — that can take the movement forward. We find ourselves on the eve of a historic transformation. We must push on.



Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

Joris Leverink

Joris Leverink is the managing editor of ROAR Magazine.

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