As a part of the conference on ‘Financialisation, Crisis, Social Protests and Development Alternatives in Southeast Europe’, held at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara (14-15 February 2014), I had an opportunity to think and discuss on the context, potentials and limits of the recent social mobilisations in Turkey. The papers of the conference subsequently constituted a special issue of the journal of METU Studies in Development in which my article analysed the nature and future of social movements in Turkey entitled ‘Re-territorialisation and the Sites of Autogestion within the Periphery: Counter-hegemonic Socio-spatial Movements in Turkey’.
I have three simple objectives in this paper. First, it is quite important to underline the main features of the historical conditions in which these social mobilisations explode simultaneously and spontaneously in different parts of the world with different igniting events but in very similar spatio-temporal contexts. This well-known context needs to be spelled out in the very first instance in order to avoid arguments that tend to identify these social movements within their own short-term political conjuncture. The spatio-temporally specific conditions originate in the three decades of neoliberal restructuring in peripheral societies. This restructuring process had been organised mainly through the privatisation and marketisation of all remaining social services and public investments, including the valorisation and utilisation of local resources and the internationalising of a flexible labour market.
Three decades of neoliberal restructuring finally paved way to a crisis of political legitimacy by dissolving the traditional mechanisms of control and consent thus opening severe cracks in society across both urban and rural contexts. While the social relations of neoliberal order intensified in the urban context through the precarious and flexible labour market in the city, it also expanded towards rural areas by valorising under-utilised natural resources and de-valorising the livelihood of the peasantry, forcing a choice between migrating to big cities to join the reserved army of labour or staying to live dispossessed from the means of self reproduction.
In that sense, after shortly outlining the very well-known socio-economic conditions of the neoliberal transformation in Turkey, my paper argues that, even though the Justice and Development Party (AKP) still enjoys considerable electoral support, there is a deep crisis of political legitimacy in Turkey. Obviously, AKP is not the creator of this crisis. However, since it has been the most stable political agent that has had the capacity to implement and maintain the neoliberal programme since the Özal government installed by the military junta in the 1980s, it is the main flag bearer and defender of this hegemonic order. Moreover, the AKP consolidated its political power by allocating and organising the public resources and finances to further its grip on economic and institutional actors, inevitably becoming an organic part within the neoliberal process of accumulation by dispossession.
In my paper, the TEKEL resistance is highlighted as one of the most important cases that demonstrates the emerging crisis of political legitimacy and the subsequent inclination of the AKP government to perceive any social discomfort or opposition as a serious threat that needs to be eliminated swiftly. When the state owned tobacco company TEKEL was privatised and its workers were forced to choose between resignation or acceptance of yearly contracts without guarantee of renewal, the TEKEL workers launched a fierce resistance that lasted 78 days from December 2009 to March 2010, camped in public spaces, located in sit-ins and demonstrations in Ankara. It became one of the most important labour movements to receive the most national attention since the 1990-91 Zonguldak miners’ strike and forced the AKP government to use a strong police response in order to dissolve it. After the TEKEL strike, the AKP government became very careful in terms of ‘not letting it happen again’ and any public demonstration became practically impossible. From the TEKEL workers’ resistance in 2010 to the Gezi Park resistance in 2013, the utilisation of state violence through extreme police actions became a norm in relation to urban social protests and local resistances against mining and hydro-electrical dam projects.
In that sense, similar to other peripheral societies, while neoliberal restructuring eliminates traditional mechanisms of consent and control deeply rooted in uneven relations of production, it also opens cracks that simultaneously and spontaneously produce social uprisings against these processes. Therefore, the question that we face is whether these social uprisings have the potential to occupy these cracks and widen them by establishing practices of autogestion. As Henri Lefebvre details in State, Space, World: Selected Essays, autogestion (or self-management) is defined as a site and stake of constant struggle which is born spontaneously with the capitalist mode of production. My paper argues, these social mobilisations bring significant practices of autogestion to life and ignite a process of consciousness building. Undoubtedly, they also contribute to the further erosion of the already debilitated political legitimacy of the current ruling elite. Therefore, it is possible to talk about ‘autogestional momentum’, at least in the peripheral world, where the uneven development of capitalism has taken a new form. However, it is still impossible to speak of a genuine movement of autogestion movement in which the working class—including the urban proletariat, the unemployed and the university students—consciously and systematically unites to create a direct antithesis of the neoliberal state. This appears as the limit and the biggest obstacle that oppositional social forces face today.