Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

  • January 7, 2014

City & Commons

The Gezi uprising should be seen in its proper global context, as yet another revolt against neoliberalism, lauding the start of a new era for Turkey.

Boyun eğme (“Don’t bend your neck”)

− Slogan of the Gezi movement

Everything starts in Taksim

On May 27, a group of about 70 activists occupied Gezi Park in the Taksim district in Istanbul in order to prevent the destruction of one of the last-remaining green spaces in the city. A while ago, the Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — without entering into dialogue with the people — had decided an urban construction project which among other things included the conversion of Gezi Park into yet another shopping mall.

Widely ignored by the mass media, the news on the protest in Gezi Park spread like wildfire through social media. Within a few days, the number of protesters increased to an estimated 10.000. However, this did not prevent the AKP government from aggressively cracking down on the protesters, following a simple motto: “we don’t care what the people want; we do what we want.” On May 31, police forces set protesters’ tents on fire and evicted the park, using tear gas and water cannon against the people. In the following days and weeks, mass demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters took place all over Turkey. Thousands of people were injured, and six people lost their lives.

In solidarity with the Gezi protests, millions of people took to the streets in Turkish cities and abroad. Contrary to the image of Gezi as a secular middle class movement created by the mainstream media, participants included workers, the unemployed, leftists, anarchists, trade unions, anti-capitalist Muslims, feminists, LGBT activists and ethnic minorities. While the global mass media tried to portray the protests as a “clash of civilizations” between “secular” and “religious” or “white” and “black” Turks, the reach, intensity, continuity and composition of the protests, as well as the solidarity among people of very diverse backgrounds, indicates that Gezi in fact became something that went beyond the actual trigger — the destruction of a public park — and far beyond a pure cultural-religious conflict between Kemalists and Islamists. Rather, the Gezi uprising is yet another symptom of a global legitimation crisis of the neoliberal capitalist system which is failing more and more to fulfill the social and political expectations and needs of large parts of global society.

No Trace of Democratization

Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis forced the country to fall back on so-called IMF rescue packages which came with certain strings attached: labor market reforms, the privatization of the public sphere, the crack-down on trade unions and workers’ rights, and the cutting back of social spending. With the implementation of neoliberal reforms under Erdogan’s AKP, Turkey experienced a period of rapid economic growth (measured in terms of GDP) over the last 10 years. However, due to the privatization of many parts of the public sector and the restriction of workers’ rights, large parts of the population saw their social positions eroded and as a result became less and less satisfied with the political system.

Despite numerous protests, such as the long-fought strike of TEKEL workers in 2010 and the anti-IMF demonstrations 2009, the AKP still managed to legitimize its market-friendly politics through the successful marginalization of protest (mostly by weakening the trade unions) and the implementation of a conservative Islamic cultural agenda, for which it gained support from the religious conservatives of the middle and lower class, who used to be excluded from the country’s political processes for years and who now suddenly benefited from the privatization and dismantling of the military and the economy, receiving numerous social and political benefits.

Those who did not agree with the AKP’s conservative orientation and its neoliberal “modernization program” found themselves increasingly marginalized on the edges of society, affected by poverty and facing an intensification of state repression. Under the pretense of anti-terrorism laws, leftists, critical journalists and students are regularly taken to court and imprisoned for many years. Moreover, a huge part of society perceives the AKP’s efforts to limit alcohol consumption and overturn abortion laws as a creeping Islamization of society. Recently, these fears were promoted through the decision of the government to name the third Bosphorus bridge after an Ottoman Sultan who was responsible for the massacre of the Alevi religious minority.

The high popular participation in the Gezi protests should be seen in light of this context. The destruction of Gezi Park and the police violence that followed both functioned as a catalyst for many pre-existing social and political discontents. Besides the destruction and privatization of public space, increasingly precarious life conditions, the sharpened repression against broad sections of the population, and the drastic restriction of democratic rights, people are confronted with politics — which not only tells them where to live and how to live, but besides “the right to the city” refuses them the right to a life in dignity.

Gezi: A Colorful Mix of Everything

A poll by the Turkish Research Institute KONDA, conducted on 4.411 participants one week after the start of the Gezi protests, is fairly representative of the movement’s general profile. According to the poll, over half of the protesters were employees, 40% were students, 6% unemployed, 3% pensioners and 2% housewives. The average age of the participants was 28 years; 49,2% were male, 50,8% female. Nearly 10% of participants did not have a high school degree, 35% finished middle school, 43  had a high school degree and 13% a university degree. The survey results point to a relatively high proportion of academics inside the movement. However, Gezi also consists to a large extent of participants with lower degrees.

As for the political background of the participants, nearly 80% have no affiliation with any political party or political organization, 44,4% have never participated in a protest. The motives for participation are various, but all contain anti-systemic components. Nearly 60% of protesters participated because of the restriction of their personal freedom, 37% are against “AKP politics”, 30% don’t like “the way Erdoğan conducts his politics,” one fifth is against “the cutting of the trees” and another fifth “against the order of the state”.

The Gezi movement, in short, was a very colorful one. Besides the many newcomers, a large number of leftist and anarchist groups attended the protests. Alongside these traditional actors, the Kurdish movement and the Kemalists participated in the protests as well. The latter, rather than criticizing the system as a whole, were explicitly against the AKP government, demanding its resignation. Rival football fans took part in the events too, united for the first time in Turkish history. Their critique was first of all directed against police violence, since they are confronted with it on a regular basis. Another atypical movement participant that often gets affected by police violence was the bloc of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGTB). Particularly outstanding and representative of the anti-systemic character of the movement was the participation of the so called anti-capitalist Muslims. Though they belong to the Sunni religious majority, they criticized the AKP government for its abuse of religion “to legitimize capitalism”.

The Gezi movement shares many features with other protest movements of the past year. It is heterogeneous in every aspect. Still, there has been enormous solidarity among the participants. A general feeling of discontent unifies the various sets of specific demands. What stands in the foreground is the fight for free space and the questioning of a political system that is becoming increasingly authoritarian. In its forms of activism — the occupation and appropriation of public space, peaceful and creative actions like the “standing man,” and the use of alternative media as an instrument for counter-information — Gezi is very reminiscent of the global Occupy movement. Furthermore, Gezi is a movement without representatives; it is organized horizontally and largely dispenses with the support of trade unions and political parties. Instead, it shows a high degree of self-organization.

In recent months, the mass media have tried to portray the Gezi movement either as a local protest against the destruction of some trees, or as a national revolt against the creeping Islamization of Turkish society. But given the proliferation of protest movements around the world, Gezi should rather be interpreted in connection with processes of global transformation — more specifically in the context of neoliberal globalization, which is marked by an expansion of the market, the restriction of public space, the abolition of public services and an increase in authoritarian politics. What unites social movements all over the world, despite the obvious nation-specific differences, is that they are all reactions against different facets of the capitalist system.

What’s Next? Asking We Walk

After weeks of demonstrations, occupations of public spaces, and clashes between protesters and police, Gezi started showing its first signs of fatigue. Many participants did not know how to continue programmatically and organizationally. The demobilization of the protests was especially hastened by the immense police violence. Six people lost their lives, thousand were injured and imprisoned. But Gezi did not reach an end. A big part of the movement is still politically active. Protesters organize solidarity events for imprisoned people, commemoration marches for murdered protesters, and anti-war demonstrations.

After Gezi, students of the technical University ODTÜ in Ankara demonstrated against the construction of a street, which is planned to lead through the campus and a nearby forest. Beside the solidarity among each other, people learned what it means to attend a protest. For the first time in their lives they inhaled tear gas, faced water cannons, clashed with the police and built barricades. Moreover, the movement entered a new phase of democratic self-organization.

Similar to the global Occupy movement, in its first week Gezi began to create an autonomous infrastructure. In the occupied parks, participants built first-aid tents and libraries as well as their own radio station and newspaper. In many neighborhoods in Istanbul open assemblies took place. Organized horizontally, these forums served as an attempt to self-create a new form of grassroots democracy. Despite the search for alternative forms of participation, people there discussed how to revive public life.

Doctors, lawyers and journalists as well as sexual and ethnic minorities attended the debates. For the first time, transsexuals talked about their compulsory prostitution and citizens mentioned “Kurdistan” in public without getting booed. Similar to its predecessors in Greece, Spain, the US and Egypt, Gezi — rather than following a ready-made ideological frame — orientates itself on the political-philosophical practice of the Zapatistas, expressed in a simple slogan: preguntando caminamos, or “asking we walk.”

By transferring its democratic self-organization processes from the neighborhoods into the production sphere, the movement might be able to open the way for a transformational social change in the country. One step in this direction has already been taken: after not having been paid for months, workers of the textile factory Kazova in Istanbul started an unlimited strike in April 2013. During the summer, they occupied the factory and began with production under workers’ control.

While the AKP continues its authoritarian politics, the Gezi uprising helped to destabilize the government. According to recent polls, the AKP’s electorate shrank by 10%. Amid ongoing protests, the stability of the government will remain fragile. The AKP will probably face an internal crisis, which sooner or later could lead to a split within the party. The political prospects remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure: Turkey is no longer what it was before. Gezi offered many people an insight into how politics could function beyond the logic of capitalism and the state. Those who participated in the movement were greatly impacted by that experience — and the newborn resistance movement won’t be broken that easily.


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?


Dilan Koese

Dilan Koese is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science of the University of Bremen, Germany.

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