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Revolt of Dignity

Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

von Dilan Köse

Englische erweiterte Fassung des ursprünglich bei sopos.org erschienenen Artikels. Erstveröffentlicht im Roarmag.org 01/2014

Boyun eğme ("Don´t bend your neck")
slogan of the Gezi movement

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.

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 reconstruction of Gezi Park into another shopping mall.[1]

Widely ignored by 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 protesters, following a simple motto: we don´t care what the people want; we do what we want.[2] On May 31, police forces set protesters´ tents on fire and evicted the park, using tear gas and water cannons against 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"[3] between "secular" and "religious" or "white" and "black" Turks[4], 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 spheres, the crack-down on trade-unions and workers´ rights, and the cutting back of social spending.[5] With the implementation of neoliberal reforms under Erdoğan’s AKP, Turkey experienced a rapid economic growth (measured in terms of GDP) over the last 10 years.[6] However, due to the privatization of many parts of 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[7] and the anti-IMF-demonstrations 2009[8], the AKP still managed to legitimize its market-friendly politics through the successful marginalizing of protest (mostly by weakening the trade unions)[9] 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 profited from the privatization and dismantling of the military and the economy, receiving several social and political benefits.[10]

Those who did not agree with 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.[11]

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. Beside 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"[12] refuses them the right to a life in dignity.

Gezi: A Colorful Mix of Everything

A poll by the Turkish Research Institute KONDA[13] 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 participants was 28 years; 49,2 % of participants were male, 50,8 % female. Nearly 10 % of participants did not have a highschool degree, 35 % finished middle school, 43 % had a high school degree and 13 % have 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 protest 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 critic was first of all directed against police violence, since they are confronted with it on a regular basis.[14] 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 for the anti-systemic character of the movement was the participation of the so called anti-capitalistic Muslims. Though they belong to the Sunni religious majority, they criticized the AKP government for its abuse of religion "to legitimize capitalism".[15]

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.[16]

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 of 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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19] Beside the solidarity among each other, people learned what it means to attend a protest. For the first time in their life 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.[20] For the first time, transsexuals talked about their compulsory prostitution and citizens mentioned "Kurdistan" in public without getting booed.[21] Similar to its predecessors in Greece, Spain, the US and Egypt, Gezi – rather than following a ready-made ideological frame – orientates on the political-philosophical practice of the Zapatistas, expressed in a simple slogan: preguntando caminamos or "asking we walk".[22]

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.[23]

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 %.[24] 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 of 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.

Dilan Koese (dilankoese@gmail.com), PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science of the University of Bremen, Germany.


[1] In Turkey exist 347 shopping malls, 94 of them in Istanbul. See: Özdemir, Cüneyt 2013: AVM sayisi müze sayisini gecince! In: Radikal, May 7.

[2] Radikal 2013: Başbakan Erdoğan: "Topcu Kislaşı´ni yapıyoruz", June 6.

[3] Huntington, Samuel P. (1998): Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon&Schuster.

[4] Steinvorth, Daniel/ Zand, Bernhard: Weiße Türken, schwarze Türken. In: Der Spiegel, No. 26, S. 80-85.

[5] Roos, Jerome 2013: The Turkish protests and the genie of revolution. In: Roarmag.org, June 3. URL: http://roarmag.org/2013/06/tahrir-taksim-egypt-turkey-protests-revolution/ (20.08.2013).

[6] Tansel, Cemal Burak 2013: The Gezi Park Occupation: Confronting Authoritarian Neoliberalism. In: David Morton, June 1. URL: http://adamdavidmorton.com/2013/06/the-gezi-park-occupation-confronting-authoritarian-neoliberalism/ (20.08.2013).

[7] Numerous articles on "Privatization and Resistance" in: http://labournet.de/internationales/tr/antipriv.html (20.08.2013).

[8] Roos, Jerome 2013.

[9] Cakir, Murat 2013: Arbeiterklasse am Taksim. In: Junge Welt, July 2.

[10] Aver, Caner/ Halm, Dirk 2013: Proteste gegen die Regierung in der Türkei - eine Zwischenbilanz. In: Stiftung Zentrum für Türkeistudien und Integrationsforschung (ZfTI), 24 June. 1-4.

[11] Seifert, Franz 2013: Auch eine Folge der neoliberalen Politik. In: Science ORF, 11 June. URL: http://science.orf.at/stories/1719331/ (20.08.2013).

[12] "The right to the city" is a concept which originates from the French sociologist Henri Lefébvre (1968).

[13] See KONDA 2013: Gezi Parki Arastirmasi. URL: http://www.konda.com.tr/ (20.08.2013).

[14] The not ready documentary "Istanbul United" deals with the role of football fans in the Gezi protests. URL: http://www.istanbulunitedthemovie.com/ (20.08.2013).

[15] Yinanc, Baris 2013: Anti-Capitalist Muslim leader says Gezi youth want new approach to Islam. In: Hürriyet, August 21.

[16] Saktanber, Binnaz 2013: The voices of Turkish protesters have been heard. In: Guardian, June 2.

[17] Žižek, Slavoj 2013: Trouble in Paradise. In: London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 14.

[18] Mumcu, Özgür 2013: Herkes ABD´ye kizgin. In: Radikal, August 29.

[19] Bianet 2013: ODTÜ Direniyor: Kahrolsun Bagzi Yollar. In: Bianet, August 26. URL: http://www.bianet.org/bianet/insan-haklari/149421-odtu-direniyor-kahrolsun-bagzi-yollar (10.09.2013).

[20] Talay, Zeynep 2013: The ongoing Turkish protests have left us enlightened and emboldened. In: the Guardian, July 20.

[21] 07.07.2013 Yoğurtçu Parki Forumu 2. Bölüm. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSOW825Kjgg (20.08.2013).

[22] Oikonomakis, Leonidas 2013: Don't miss the forest when it comes to Turkey’s trees. In: Common Ground News, June 17. URL: http://www.commongroundnews.org/article.php?id=32992&lan=en&sid=2&sp=0&isNew=1&partner=rss&emc=rss (22.08.2013).

[23] Weblog of Kazova workers. URL: http://kazovaiscileri.blogspot.gr/ (10.09.2013).

[24] Milliyet 2013: AKP oylari yüzde 35´e gercekten düstü mü? In: Milliyet, June 18. URL: http://blog.milliyet.com.tr/akp-oylari-yuzde-35-e-gercekten-dustu-mu-/Blog/?BlogNo=419390 (20.08.2013).

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