Crisis, City and Democracy: on the uprising in Turkey

  • March 3, 2014

Capitalism & Crisis

As rebel geographies across the world grow increasingly disillusioned with the masquerade of liberal democracy, social explosions are sure to continue.

The June 2013 revolt in Turkey was marked by the heterogeneity of its participants, united by their common contempt for the country’s authoritarian prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The uprising spread like wildfire across the country and brought together many different sectors of society that felt sidelined, belittled and trampled upon by his autocratic rule. Although lost in its international reverberations, the initial struggle that gave birth to the uprising was much more than saving a park and definitely much more than trees. It arose from an economic model emphasizing development that acted as a response to a financial crisis knocking at the door. Through its evolution the rebellion created a rebel geography that captivated the imagination of those who were a part of it.

Different from the recent riots and wild demonstrations in European countries, the uprising in Turkey was not sparked by extreme austerity measures. In fact, having been through heavy neoliberal austerity programs of structural adjustment at the end of the 20th century Turkey can also be seen as a post-austerity nation. Neither was it similar to the popular revolts of the Arab Spring which removed multi-decade dictatorships from power resulting in electoral systems. But similar to its place on the world map, the uprising in Turkey contained elements from both, as it also gave its own flavor to these new currents of popular resistance.

On Crisis

Although the uprising in Turkey was not immediately linked to austerity, it was still deeply related to the financial crisis of 2008. Initially the crisis did hit Turkey, but the strategy of the government was to contain it by massive privatization of land for real estate projects and urban renewal, and through this redefining Istanbul as an AKP constructed modern metropolis. The massive increase in large-scale construction projects was tied to an equally large increase in foreign debt. Capital influx was also bolstered since Turkey became a much more lucrative market for speculators after the US Federal Reserve slashed its interest rate following the 2008 collapse. This situation has resulted in Turkey currently having about $340 billion in external debt (43% of its national income, two-thirds held by the private industry). This liquid capital strengthened the Turkish Lira against the dollar while financing Erdogan’s multiple urban renewal and development projects.

Privatization and debt are engrained into the Turkish economy and have been its hallmarks since the 1980s and ’90s, when Turkey was one of the primary targets of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies. But today is distinct from that period and from current IMF-imposed austerity regimes such as the one in Greece. What we are experiencing in Turkey are debt-incurring measures to keep the crisis at bay and implemented as an economic growth strategy. Turkey has attracted foreign capital due to its balanced national budget since this wards off any fear of extreme inflation. Its budget is balanced in roughly the following way: as opposed to austerity-implementing countries, national expenses are being kept mostly constant but with a shifting emphasis towards infrastructural spending for development projects that benefit the bourgeoisie, especially those in construction and related sectors.

National revenue is produced via privatization (the enclosure of land for the aforementioned development projects), indirect regressive taxes (which also have a conservative character such as increased sales tax for alcohol) and foreign debt. This debt is paid off (notably that held by the private sector) by borrowing even more money (readily available thanks to the high growth rate) leading to the large sums owed today, a significant portion of which is earmarked to be paid off by the spring of 2014. Debt is incurred in order to keep the budget afloat and provides a corollary for enclosure (privatization) rather than the state being forced to privatize in order to receive or renegotiate loans (debt) as it was during the period marked by the IMF.

What distinguishes the current neoliberal regime of the AKP from its predecessors is its emphasis on the city and its transformation of Istanbul into a full-fledged metropolis through the privatization of public land. One of the primary strategies for urban transformation has come through giving exceptional powers for land enclosure in 2003 to the Turkish Housing Development Administration (TOKI), which is tied to the office of the prime minister. The revamped TOKI took the lead in privatizing public space for the purposes of gentrifying neighborhoods such as Sulukule or Tarlabaşı, which had been seen as proletarian eyesores with marginalized identities such as Kurds, transsexuals and Roma people occupying some of the prime real-estate zones of Istanbul. TOKI is now being subsumed under the Orwellian Ministry of the Environment and the City, lead by the former head of TOKI, and has taken over many of the powers once possessed by local municipalities.

This land grab and resulting (rent/unearned) income takes place via massive development projects such as a third bridge across the strait of Bosphorus, an ecologically devastating preposterous new canal through Istanbul connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, and a new tunnel below the strait. These are in addition to the privatization of historic ports such as the Haliçport and Galataport projects and train stations such as Haydarpaşa, with the intention of converting them into high-end condominiums (“residences”), malls or other centers of commerce. Certain central zones in Istanbul now have four separate malls, one beside the other and dotted among skyscrapers, all built within the past few years. The enclosure and privatization of public space is accompanied with militarization to quell any dissent as evidenced today by the police state surrounding the Kadıköy ferry terminal in Beşiktaş, slated for privatization in the service of an adjacent luxury hotel. Upon completion, these gated monuments to capitalism are policed by private security guards.

The unrest across Turkey led to sharp drops in the Istanbul Stock Exchange as the financial forecasts became grim. Remarkably, Erdoğan snubbed his nose at these developments as he continued to blame the “interest lobby” (a populist move with anti-semitic undertones in order to cultivate his base, since interest is seen as a sin for Islam) and “foreign powers” for the tumult in the streets. His cabinet outright dismissed EU calls for less police violence. Picking fights with the liberal secular bourgeoisie (what we can assume he means by “interest lobby”) or debt-holding European nations does not bode well for the future of the Turkish economy. On the heals of the economic volatility precipitated by the popular uprising came the end of low to zero interest rates (quantitative easing) by the Fed. These two factors in concert are leading to foreign capital flight and the lucrative Turkish economy already started to exhibit a downward trend last year.

On the City

Any shrewd politician would have been able to manage this revolt without fanning the flames the way Erdoğan did. His obsession over transforming Taksim Square is a sign of anxiety and arrogance due to political weakness and points to his almost feral desire to leave a neo-Ottoman stamp on the city. The hyper-gentrification and commercialization of Istiklal, a pedestrian avenue that emerges from Taksim Square and is the backbone of the neighborhood of Beyoğlu, and the religious conservative attacks on the street life of bars and cafés in that area are part and parcel of the AKP’s desire to transform the city into a modern yet conservative Islamic Disneyland. Despite this assault, throughout the years Beyoğlu, and the youthful political culture it is home to has resisted the AKP’s vision for the future.

Many of the city’s protest marches emerge from one end of Istiklal and end at the other, unless they are met with a police attack somewhere in between. A multitude of leftist, feminist, queer, minority, counter-cultural groups and radical magazines have their offices in the same area. The Saturday Mothers who are a group of mostly Kurdish mothers of disappeared or murdered political activists have been holding a vigil on Istiklal every Saturday since 1995 to demand that those responsible for their children’s deaths are brought to justice. Taksim Square is also the hotly contested site of May Day celebrations. These are only some of the numerous influences that have shaped the culture of the neighborhood that became ground zero in the June uprising.

Despite the vibrancy of clubs, bars and cafes in the area there is also an accompanying barrenness that comes from it being an extreme commercial district and shopping zone with a slew of the world’s brands having outlets on Istiklal Avenue. Perhaps anticipating the possible eruption of social discontent, the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul (also belonging to the AKP) repaved the whole of Istiklal Avenue about five years ago. Once a street lined with paving stones, Istiklal now has large concrete slabs that have reliefs to give the appearance of cobblestones, a similar aesthetic with none of the utility.

The psychogeography shifts on the streets that branch off of Istiklal and there is a multiplicity of independent bars, cafes, bookstores, restaurants and other small businesses. And there are still some cobblestones. These side streets are one of the primary hangout spots for the youth of Istanbul. That many of those confronting the police were in a zone where they had already spent a considerable amount of time and are familiar with was a great advantage. The terrain of the urban revolt was on the side of those resisting.

Many of the street fights would follow a similar pattern. People amassed on Istiklal Avenue would advance up to the police lines holding the entrance to Taksim Square until faced with an overwhelming amount of teargas and water cannons. Instead of scattering, the crowd would retreat calmly and build large barricades on the avenue. When the police advanced through the barricades, people would take the parallel side streets and then emerge on Istiklal once again, either further down or behind the police lines. This would continue on the same way until the early morning hours. Not only did many of the street fighters already know the geography quite well, but also there was a large amount of sympathy, if not straight up camaraderie, from the owners and workers of the various establishments around Istiklal. As if fish swimming in the sea, people would dip into any given bar or restaurant and hide until the police had moved by or the teargas cleared only to reemerge and converge once again on Istiklal to face the police. It should be noted, however, that after the days of heavy conflict some of this supportive sentiment from businesses waned, especially with the police encouraging those of them who support the AKP and promising to turn a blind eye to attacks on protesters.

The battles which were won in the streets were much more victories of will and perseverance than of violence. A perseverance that was rounded in the will to resist the enclosure of commons and take back space. The taking of the square on June 1 was not done by pushing the police back with a barrage of rocks but was a result of the determination of the massive amount of people who spontaneously emerged to shock everyone. The joke was not only the police, but also those resisting them who had suddenly found each other like never before. Unlike appointments given for street conflicts, such as May Day, where each side prepares their forces and the odds of wining are extremely low, spontaneous eruptions such as those of May 31 and June 1 are when people are the strongest. After two days of non-stop fighting, the police had to retreat from the square and Gezi Park, leaving it to thousands who moved in and started to construct elaborate barricades up and down all the streets leading to the zone.

Despite being the epicenter, Taksim was by no means the only place where revolt was breaking out in Istanbul, let alone in the whole of Turkey, where there were demonstrations in every major city. Especially in the capital Ankara, fighting persisted long after things had taken a lull in other cities. In Istanbul, for almost three weeks whole districts were in open revolt against the police and the AKP. As already well publicized, in some more well off neighborhoods such as Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, Cihangir, Şişli, Kadıköy, but also in poorer neighborhoods with a radical left presence, such as Sarıgazi, Kurtuluş, Gazi, Okmeydanı and Maltepe, the amount of solidarity was unprecedented. People would leave their apartment doors open late into the night so that those still fighting on the street could run away from the police and lock it behind them. Furniture and large appliances were thrown from windows to reinforce barricades as were water reservoirs from rooftops. Windowsills were lined with lemons, milk and water against the teargas. In main streets, where fighting would go on for hours, elderly people would come out to bring food for those in the street. When the police would finally clear a street, residents would come out to their windows and start yelling and swearing at them to get out of the neighborhood. This would be met with another barrage of teargas canisters, sometimes directly into the houses for the sheer purpose of silencing the neighborhood.

It is difficult to describe the muscle memory that developed in those three weeks, which were interspersed with anticipation of police operations and heavy fighting that would last for days. Leaving your house without the obligatory helmet, goggles and gas mask was more of a faux pas than leaving your cell phone or wallet behind. The taunting of the police in chants imbued with melodies and spirit reminiscent of soccer stadiums gave the crowds a collective form of life that felt invincible. When teargas fell, the first reaction was never to panic or run away, but to cheer the arrival of the tear gas. The resistance learned early on that extinguishing the canisters as opposed to throwing them back was much more effective, and large jugs of water were brought from homes and stationed permanently in neighborhoods waiting for the inevitable to arrive. Building barricades and advancing them towards police lines was done without thought and it became second nature to pass bricks hand-to-hand in human chains dozens of people long. Maybe the Istanbul Revolt did lack a coherence to be a veritable insurrection, but it was definitely an insurgency as pertaining to the development of tactics by whole sections and swaths of the city as its partisans.

On Democracy

During the revolt, the signs and banners of people would often call Erdoğan a “dictator” and emphasize that they were fighting for “democracy.” Clearly Erdoğan is not a dictator in the sense of Mubarak, Ben Ali or the PRI of Mexico and has been elected fair and square by democratic elections with a near 50% of the vote. There are certain characteristics of the electoral system, most notably a 10% election threshold, that some in the Gezi Resistance hope to reform. But beyond that, when the protesters ask for democracy they are not actually asking for more opportunities to vote but for certain “rights” or freedoms such as the freedom of expression, assembly, a free press and freedom to conduct their personal lives without infringement from the state. The fact that a democratically-elected government has become so authoritarian and has trampled upon “democratic” rights presents an opportunity to critique the democratic system.

The tension between the two interpretations of democracy, as an electoral system vs. as inalienable rights, have become even more acute due to the particular Turkish context of an elected neo-Islamist government attempting to transform a society with a secular legacy. Erdoğan has further exasperated the situation by threatening to unleash his voter base by saying that he is “having trouble keeping the 50% at home.” On June 16, in Istanbul, Erdoğan organized the second of a series of “Respect the National Will” rallies that would occur during the following weeks. Having ordered the eviction of Gezi Park he came to Istanbul as a triumphant conqueror and spoke to a massive crowd of hundreds of thousands. He talked of how they had indeed democratized Turkey and that if people wanted to oust him the only legitimate way was through the ballot box.

There is no overlooking the fact that the prime minister is able to mobilize huge crowds for his rallies. The AKP enjoys an incredibly subservient media, a well-oiled political machine — which amongst other public services controls transportation (routinely offering free transport for its rallies while canceling services for rival events) — and is incredibly well organized within a patriarchal and nepotistic party structure. It is possible that the resistance might not win a headcount in the squares, but this is why the experience of the commune created in Gezi Park and the street battles which surrounded it are a testament to the limitations of the bourgeois democratic system, despite some of the participants’ insistence that it is a fight for democracy.

Looking at content and experience rather than quantity and votes gives us a clue for a way out of the democratic stranglehold. Mutual aid, solidarity and direct action, all of which have been the hallmarks of the Gezi Resistance, are in fact the antithesis to the democratic system run by elections and regulated by representatives. In fact, the Gezi Resistance was profoundly anti-democratic in the sense that it barricaded itself against the guardians of bourgeois democratic relations: the police. In another sense it was incredibly more democratic as people who were not agents of the state could come and go freely as they pleased, in stark contrast to the closure and militarization of the park by the democratically elected AKP for weeks after the police seized it on June 15. The two conceptions of democracy, as elections and as rights, are posed for a profound severance.

The fickleness of Erdoğan’s democracy has truly come to light, especially concerning the peace process with the PKK, put into motion since March 2013. Maybe due to closing ranks in the aftermath of Gezi, or out of reprisal since important Kurdish figures including PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan himself expressed support for the uprising, but most likely because of already existing insincerity towards the process, Erdoğan is not holding his side of the bargain with the PKK. This is despite a great number of Kurdish guerrillas already having left the battlefield by crossing out of Turkish borders. Erdoğan has recently reneged on constitutional reforms to include the Kurdish identity and language and there are ongoing construction projects for dozens of new military police outposts in Northern Kurdistan (within the borders of Turkey).

On June 28, 2013 soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in Lice to protest the construction of one of these outposts killing one and critically injuring many others. Northern Kurdistan has had to endure such violence for decades but this particular attack might have been a turning point for the Kurdish struggle for freedom and autonomy. Having endured police violence in the preceding weeks those who were part of the Gezi Resistance, who are mostly concentrated in the western and non-Kurdish zones of the country, immediately staged huge solidarity demonstrations against this attack in the Kurdish territory. Before Gezi, it would have been unimaginable for such expressions of solidarity to spontaneously erupt from a non-Kurdish segment of society. As opposed to a vacuous democratic peace process, people had enacted revolutionary solidarity.

Those who have been evicted from Gezi Park attempted to recreate its spirit in popular assemblies that mushroomed around Istanbul and in other cities. The proliferation of these public forums has lead some to claim that it is an experience in direct democracy. Regardless of what one might call them, they are a refreshing form of political being for those who have lost hope in a democratic system. It is still unclear what shape these forums might take, but at their onset and during the largest participation they’ve had, they forego any sort of decision-making structure that would pretend to speak and act on behalf of the whole assembly. Apart from some exceptions, by and large the crowds did not seem to opt for a crippling consensus system neither for a majority vote negating the agency of minority opinions. Instead, proposals would be made from the stage and if there seemed to be enough interest, action would be taken. Sometimes this would be in the form of a spontaneous march and sometimes in the form of a working group.

The Horizon

Financial crisis pushes democratic governments (in terms of elections) to become undemocratic (in terms of rights), and in Turkey this has been felt more acutely due to the conservative nature of the government managing the crisis. The twist and innovation of the rebellion was that it did not emerge as against the classic austerity response to crisis, but against development and enclosure based on a prosperous, albeit temporary, period. This twist was also observed in the visceral rage that marked Erdoğan’s speeches, as he couldn’t seem to comprehend the ingratitude of the people he rules, especially while one neighboring country is in the grips of a civil war and the other in a deep economic crisis. Prosperity and massive construction projects have not created a subservient population, and when the delayed crisis eventually hits Turkey those affected might have more in mind than to return to the good old days of liquid capital.

Many activists had been fighting the different manifestations of Erdoğan’s neoliberal city long before Gezi and this was a struggle stretching back almost a decade. Neither they nor anyone else predicted the contagious revolt that would spark from a battle against developing a park, what had seemed to be just another losing fight amongst many. Those defending the urban commons converged with almost the whole spectrum of social movements and were fueled by a visceral hatred of the police and a patriarchal prime minister. It became clear that revolts happen for psychic reasons as well as for material ones. Forecasters of social revolts (i.e. orthodox Marxists) should learn this and many other lessons from June 2013 in Turkey. In fact, forecasting is both impossible and counter-productive, and it is best to be prepared for social explosions rather than attempt to predict them. Those of us who are part of anti-authoritarian and anti-state currents must always be ready to push revolts, such as Istanbul, to their farthest limits and beyond. In moments like these, which promise to be more frequent around the globe, whoever is most organized is able to transmit their ideas and tactics in the most effective manner and become more potent within the rebellion.

A further lesson concerns the idealized revolutionary worker. Those who see the worker as the primary revolutionary agent must begin (as if they have not had sufficient reasons to do so already) to shift their gaze away from labor unions. Even the most leftist labor confederations in Turkey, such as DISK and KESK, were impotent in propelling the movement into the realm of the economy. Although this is not completely a fault of their own and also has to do with the historical decimation of organized labor by the state in Turkey, it was also clear that beyond the classical factory or industrial worker, the formally unorganized, precarious, white-collar and diploma holding proletariat on the brink of unemployment have the potential to take many initiatives in social revolts. Furthermore, the traditional blue collar proletariat might hold more revolutionary potential outside of their workplaces under the dominion of their unions. A crucial turning point for similar rebellions will come through the arrival of the antagonism from the squares and parks into the arena of commerce and work where this unorganized proletariat either already works, or is kept docile with its promise.

Turkey is not the only country where democracy, which is supposed to produce social peace and prosperity, has had its alarm bells ringing. An even more dramatic example is Egypt, where only a year after the democratic election of Morsi the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square came back in order to continue where they had left off. So much for the pundits who were quick to label the Egyptian January 25 movement as one purely against the dictatorship of Mubarak. Although the real movement of the people has once again been stalled by the Egyptian military, one can predict that this will not be the end of the spirit of Tahrir. Looking from Istanbul and considering that both the military-drafted constitution of Egypt and the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood are modeled upon Turkish examples, it appears that there is a growing number of people who desire to do away with both.

The rebel geographies of the world are becoming less and less content with the poor choice between a democracy or a dictatorship, and social explosions challenging the roots of the liberal democratic paradigm are sure to continue. In the meantime, the anti-capitalist and anti-state revolutionaries of the world must not be idle. Getting organized and staying active so that our valuable muscle memory does not atrophy is crucial. Updating our age-old praxis to consider these emerging new contexts and coming up with a fresh and appealing formulation of a post-capitalist world based on contemporary social, ecological and economic realities is also just as important. Ultimately, what will make us the most effective within these revolts is to produce in action the new sets of social relations that will expand our sequestered horizons.

This essay originally appeared in Occupied London #5 and was republished with the author’s permission here. It is now available as part of a pamphlet: ‘This Is Only the Beginning.’ For hard copies of the pamphlet or other inquires, write to: beginning@riseup.netAll proceeds are donated to the Revolutionary Anarchist Activity (DAF).

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Ali Bektaş

Ali Bektaş is an anarchist from Turkey living in Oakland, CA.

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