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Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park

by Efe Can Gürcan on October 20, 2014
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The Gezi Park Protests (GPPs) began on May 31, 2013 as a localised demonstration against the destruction of a public park at the heart of Istanbul. It soon turned into a nationwide anti-government protest cycle of unprecedented form and scale in Turkey’s history. Our understanding of the GPPs is not limited to its narrow sense that solely denotes the park and its surroundings in Istanbul. Instead, we underline the significance of “Gezi Park” as a nationally recognised and acted out symbol. This feature of the protests was clearly expressed in the widespread slogan, ‘everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance’. Our overall analysis of the GPPs can be found in a forthcoming co-edited book of mine (with Efe Peker) that will be published in January 2015, entitled Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park: From Private Discontent to Collective Class Action.

Protesters_action_during_Gezi_park_night_protests._Events_of_June_15,_2013-7In the book we explain why the GPPs occurred the way they occurred based on class-structural, conjunctural, organisational, and cognitive factors. First, we analyse the class structural background and composition of the protests, which brought together an alliance of various wage-earning class fractions sharing the common destiny of decreased class capacities and life-chances, and increased precariousness, exploitation, and proletarianisation. Mainstream accounts contended to brand the GPPs as an uprising of ‘middle classes’ concerned almost exclusively about secularism. This lent (in)direct support to the claim by the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP: Justice and Development Party) that it was successful in supposedly raising the expectations of middle classes and the attempt to discredit the protesters as a well-off elite. The common denominator of all these ‘middle-class’ references is their taking of the term as given without providing any definition for it, let alone offering tools for its empirical operationalisation. A heavy reliance on the term ‘middle classes’ to understand the GPPs serves to blur the intensification of class struggles under the Islamic neoliberal project imposed by the AKP government. In the book, we advance that the subordination of large segments of working classes through paternalistic work relations, conservative trade unionism, and Islamic-clientelist networks created a supportive environment for the free articulation of class grievances among the secularly oriented educated youth, relatively qualified wage workers, and service sector employees.

HarveySecond, we take a look at the conjunctural factors that led to an enabling environment for collective action prior to the events. Both political-economic and cultural-ideological factors have played a central role in configuring the conjunctural environment of the GPPs shaped by not only Turkey’s aggression to Syria and the Reyhanlı Bombings, but also by the demolition of Gezi Park, Emek Movie Theatre, and the Atatürk Cultural Center, the stigmatisation of alcohol consumption, public shows of affection and abortion, the PM’s three kids “suggestion” and other paternalistic and authoritarian remarks of government officials, the imprisonment of dissident artists and intellectuals, and so on. The case of ‘neoliberalism with Islamic characteristics’ in Turkey speaks to the fact that neoliberalism is a geographically variegated phenomenon that plays on the existing political and cultural framework of given polities. Its particular manifestation in Turkey spearheaded by the AKP government merges neoliberal policies with an Islamist politico-cultural agenda to complement aggressive capital accumulation processes with ultra-conservative/neo-Ottomanist ‘social interventionism’ that dominates urban space and individual lives. We use David Harvey’s notion of ‘spatial fix’ in The Limits to Capital and our own extension of this concept as ‘political-cultural fix’ in order to unfold the way urban restructuring and foreign policy shaped collective action.

Taksim_square_cleaning._Events_of_June_16,_2013-2Third, we scrutinise the underlying organisational factors of the GPPs with reference to innovative strategies and tactics into the collective action toolkit and vocabulary in the country. In analysing how Gezi’s repertoire of resistance strategies and tactics evolved over time, we distinguish between four different processes of deployment, i.e. repertoire refinement, repertoire transfer, repertoire expansion, and repertoire generation. We reveal that the membership base of the Gezi movement presents a highly diversified profile, and draws its strength from a myriad of networks, including social media, friend and neighborhood connections, as well as political parties, trade unions, occupational associations, civil society platforms, mass organisations, online groups, gender/LGBT movements, soccer fans, and so on. In response to mainstream accounts that romanticised spontaneity (as ‘apolitical’ and ‘innocent’) while demonising organised leadership (as an opportunistic search for political gain), we document that the dynamics of spontaneity and leadership were closely intertwined in the development and organisation of the movement. Our understanding of leadership here does not refer to a single centre leading the totality of a given movement, but instead, to a collective initiative involving multiple sociopolitical organisations forming counter-hegemonic alliances.

Fourth, we shed light on the way the protesters developed a shared sense of social critique of dominant class practices so as to initiate and sustain collective action. In our attempt to understand the underlying cognitive structures leading to the protests, we bridge Guy Debord’s concept of ‘détournement’ with Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque’.

Against the various advances of the repressive Islamic-neoliberal power bloc in Turkey, social critique à la Debord and Bakhtin served as a collectively developed mechanism to reverse, undermine, and ridicule the government’s assaults through humor and ‘plagiarism’. Creative slogans, tweets, music, graffiti, photo captions, videos, and other forms of physical and online media contributed to the creation of a ‘carnivalesque’ environment that came to connect diverse and previously discordant groups. This way, the movement found itself largely immune from the government’s consistent slanders and other psychological advances, and managed to preserve the ethical high ground through the collective practices of ‘disproportionate intelligence’. In Gramscian terms, the unique political consciousness engendered during the events crafted a participatory framework where everybody was encouraged to be a ‘philosopher’ on their own right and to challenge ‘commonsensical’ assumptions, while still being a part of mass mobilisation.

We finally argue that Gezi Park was the initial catalyst to instigate a ‘critical juncture’ in the country’s sociopolitical scene, which opened a contingent period, the outcome of which cannot yet be determined due to the ongoing nature of the process. Based on the year that followed Gezi, we identify the emergent ‘path dependencies’ the GPPs for the AKP, which have increasingly locked the government in a political trajectory in a way to generate further authoritarianism and centralization of power. Moreover, we maintain that certain tactics and mindsets that were cultivated in the Gezi Protests established an enduring culture of resistance and social critique that lives on in the country.

Efe Can Gürcan

Efe Can Gürcan (M.A. in International Studies, University of Montréal) is a PhD student in sociology at Simon Fraser University, and holds a SSHRC-Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Doctoral Scholarship. His research interests lie in the areas of Marxism, political sociology (social movements and the state), Latin America (Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina), food studies, and Turkish politics and society.

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