Superman, Clark Kent and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

  • January 13, 2014

City & Commons

The çapulcu were heroes by night but still kept working by day. Without occupying the sites of production, there can be no long-term arrest of capitalism.

At the height of the Turkish uprising in June 2013 the figure of Superman gained a remarkable currency among those protesting against the AKP government. Banners that read “Clark Kent by Day, Superman by Night” hung from the occupation tents in Gezi Park, T-shirts with the yellow and red diamond insignia peeped out from underneath starched button-downs, and the Plaza Eylem Platformu, a solidarity group of Turkish white collar workers, declared that “Everywhere is Taksim, Everyone a Superman.”

What to make of these references to an American comic-book hero? Why did Turkish, especially middle class, protesters see themselves as Supermen? What does this self-fashioning reveal about the nature of the Turkish uprising? In this short piece, I will argue that the figure of Superman and the strengths and weaknesses of the Turkish resistance were (and are) intimately linked.

Superman Is in All of Us

For many protesters, the image of the superhero hidden beneath the Clark Kent suit was the perfect expression of their own transformation during the June uprising. Hundreds of thousands of young precariats took off their working uniforms, battled through water cannons, gas canisters, and police truncheons, to collectively withdraw their consent from the ruling AKP government. In a country whose history had hitherto been dominated by strong leaders (whether civilian or military, welcomed or not), the multitudes of supermen perfectly symbolized the spontaneous and leaderless nature of the June uprising.

Rather than wait for a savior from up high to swoop down and rescue Turkey from its myriad problems, the people of Turkey transformed themselves into the collective saviors of their own situation. The image reinforced the idea that underneath the ties and tucked in shirts, ordinary Turks were the real heroes of the uprising. That, in effect, we are all Supermen.

Arrest the Old, Create the New

Yet the Turkish uprising had its own form of kryptonite as well, one ironically inscribed into the very symbol of Superman itself. There is of course the obvious criticism to be made of the overtly gendered narrative of this image (where was Supergirl or Wonder Woman?), one that points to the troubling continuation of patriarchal discourses despite the active participation of women, at all levels, in the resistance.

Perhaps more disturbing however, was the resonance of Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent, the clumsy submissive white collar worker. In the appropriation of both figures of this split persona, of both Superman and Clark Kent, stands the ultimate weakness of the Turkish uprising. To understand why, we have to look closer at why these supermen emerged and what they did during the resistance. I have remarked in a previous ROAR article that the Turkish uprising is best understood not as a social movement but rather as a social arrest. Arrest, rather than movement, defined both the content of the protester’s discontent and the form of their resistance.

Among the varied and over-determined list of grievances were: the continued destruction of green spaces in the city; neoliberal municipal development that sought to re-territorialize central Istanbul as a space of elite consumption; and a creeping authoritarian and Islamist agenda. All of these grievances were about halting or arresting disturbing developments that began under, or were continued by, the AKP government. Social arrest also marked the fundamental form of the uprising. The barricades, the tents in the parks, the forums: all were predicated on the occupation of public space, the arrest of what had previously occurred in these spaces, as opposed to the momentary collection, marching, and dispersal of crowds. In this manner, the Turkish uprising was a continuation and adaptation of a form that has come to define mass political struggle since 2011.

Social arrest in no way implies that the Turkish uprising involved a restorative or conservationist politics. As in other instances, occupation and the arrest of movement allowed new forms of social relations and practices to emerge that fundamentally challenged the previous circulation and goods, information, and people within Turkish cities. By mid-June, thanks to the work of the protesters, networks supplying Taksim and other urban centers with food, medical supplies, and news offered totally new (and free) channels by which goods and information were collected and distributed within Turkey.

The most noticeable effect of these new practices of circulation was to call into question the existing division of labor within Turkish society. Within the newly formed networks of resistance, specialization withered away as everyone became a reporter, a medic, a construction worker, a food distributor, and so on. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances took on tasks outside their areas of expertise and in doing so reconfigured what it meant to be an individual in society. For many people I spoke to, this was the most exhilarating part of the whole uprising.

In fact, the activities of many of the working groups formed in the park assemblies were a direct continuation of this impulse. Working groups on Education, Law, International Relations, Criminology, Politics, Urban Design, Culture, etc., involved a critical rethinking of these concepts and their relation to Turkish society as a whole. All questioned the social function of these fields and redefined them through and in light of the uprising. Most importantly, these working groups were not limited to ‘experts’ in each field, be they lawyers, trained teachers, architects, etc., but rather went to great lengths to encourage participation by non-specialists. All of this was made possible by the initial occupation of public space, by the disruption of previous arrangements in order to redefine what it is possible to do in a place.

Clark Kent by Day

Yet the arrest of the old networks of circulation, be they of people, goods, or information, stopped short of the “factory gates”. In fact, the Turkish uprising was by and large marked by an absence of arrest in the workplace. The major trade unions of the old left, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DİSK), the Public Workers Unions Confederation (KESK), the Turkish Doctors’ Union (TTB) and the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) did indeed walk off the job on June 5 in a one-day solidarity strike; however, this action had been planned before the uprising began and the form of their protest — marked by manifestation, orderly movement, and eventual dispersal — was out of step with the uprising itself.

The other centrist unions, led by Türk-İş, took a much more reserved approach, citing the influence of “marginal groups” and the abuse of the demonstrations by “those with bad intentions toward our country.” In a familiar refrain that dates as far back as 1968, these bureaucratized unions proved either unwilling or utterly unfit to adapt their organizations to the creative and spontaneous practices of resistance being generated daily by the uprising.

In the absence of wide-scale work stoppages, the uprising took on a split personality. Aside from a vocal minority of students, artists, soccer fans, and the un- (or under-) employed who provided a permanent presence in squares, the great majority of protesters dutifully went to work each day and swelled out onto the streets in the evenings and the weekends. By the end of the first week a familiar rhythm had established itself: protesters defiantly marching through evening teargas and returning to work the following morning. Supermen by night, Clark Kents by day. This split personality of the uprising led, predictably, to stalemate. A stalemate that, in hindsight, was advantageous to the government.

The Ghosts of Paris

A recent post compared the Gezi protests to Paris in 1968, posting side-by-side stills of Turkey’s June uprising with those of France 45 years ago. The historic resonance of the barricades, teargas, mass demonstrations, mass media, and police brutality certainly invites comparisons between then and now. Yet the most important comparison was one that could not be made for lack of a Turkish counterpart: General Strike. As the spring turned to early summer in 1968 France, around 10 million people, nearly two-thirds of the total workforce, simply stopped working. Of these workers, 4 million, or close to half, struck for over three weeks, bringing both production and government throughout the country to a standstill.

The absence of widespread wildcat strikes in Turkey was the single most important factor contributing to continued stalemate and the eventual dissipation of the uprising. It was as if an invisible Kryptonite lined the borders of Turkish workplaces. The continuation of production not only limited the efficacy of the uprising but also placed severe limits on its political imagination. It marked the effective boundary between what the uprising achieved: a politicization of economic policy (environmental and social justice critiques of neoliberal development) and what it could not: a politicization of the site and relations of production itself (from demands to end the precariat economy all the way to worker self-management).

From Wildcat Strikes to Occupying the Workplace

Wildcat strikes are the natural complement, within the privatized sphere of production, to the occupation of public space. Both transform the sites of circulation and production into a space for the manifestation of the subject, be it the people, the workers, çapulcus. This new collective subject is not born through the gradual development of class or citizen consciousness but in an instant, in and through the very act of social arrest.

The arrest and occupation of factories, squares, offices, and parks, also halts the previous arrangement of people and things, opening up new possibilities for what there is to do in these spaces and how to do it. Much as the occupation of Gezi Park occasioned the wholesale re-organization of people, goods, and information to serve the new subjects of the resistance, arrest of the economic sphere could occasion a questioning by a new subject — revolutionary (white and blue collar) workers — of what they are producing, why they are producing it, and whom they are producing for.

The complementary occupation of the workplace was the absent specter haunting the June uprising in Turkey and, extrapolating, the global uprisings since 2011. It is the reminder that without arrest of the sites of material and immaterial production, there can be no long-term arrest of the world’s neo-liberal regime.

The Kazova textile workers of Istanbul, the Turkish Vio Me, have been an exception that has proved the general rule. On June 28, 2013, complementing the uprising’s occupation of public space, workers of the textile factory — finding their bosses had fled, taking with them 4 months of back-pay — occupied their workplace, recuperated stolen machinery, and began mass production. Workers of the new cooperative set up kiosks at neighborhood park assemblies, linking the re-organization of their place of work to the re-organized public spaces of the resistance.

On a very small scale, they have embedded the products of an occupied and self-managed factory into the new networks of circulation created by the June uprising. In contrast to the for-profit production of Che Guevara, Deniz Gezmiş, (and Superman) T-shirts snapped up by middle class protesters eager to parade their revolutionary credentials, these unassuming sweaters were products of the resistance, made by Istanbul’s very own full-time Supermen

On the tag accompanying each sweater is written a short message. “The Spirit of Gezi has allowed us to look at each other for the first time.  Yet some of our brothers look, but cannot see us.  We are screaming, but it feels as if we are trapped behind a glass wall.”  The tag ends with a question fundamental for the Turkish Clark Kents: “we are looking at you.  But do you, see us?”  Here’s hoping the next time around, they do.


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?

Mehmet Döşemeci

Mehmet Döşemeci is a historian of modern Europe and the Middle-East. His latest project, The History of Disruption, is a kinetic study of social struggle in the Atlantic world since the 18th century. It questions why activists and academics have come to associate social struggle with the category of movement and the consequences of this understanding for present day political activism.

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Magazine — Issue 11