Between global and local: a new dialectic of political expression for the twenty-first century

Three weeks into the ongoing protests in Bulgaria, the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations invited Kerem Oktem and Dimitar Kenarov to participate in a discussion named “After Taksim: What happened in Turkey?” This is an account of the conversation that ensued on the meaning, specificity and implications of the protests in Taksim, and Sofia.

Dimitar Kenarov Kerem Oktem Yavor Siderov
22 July 2013

The discussion took place in the midst of what is perhaps Bulgaria’s deepest crisis of political representation since the advent of democracy in 1989, beginning in June, 2012 when various Green groups took former PM Boyko Borisov’s government to task over the destruction of the country’s natural environment.

Last February citizens confronted the government over unemployment, low wages and high energy prices. The protests gradually undermined Borisov’s authority and led to his resignation in February 2013. Elections followed in May, resulting in a hung Parliament. Two parliamentary groups, those of the socialists and the ethnic Turks, agreed to form a Cabinet with the tacit support of the extreme nationalists, while Borisov’s GERB walked out. One of the first appointments of the new government - to the post of national security director - was Delian Peevski, a media mogul with shady connections.

Ever since, and despite the withdrawal of Peevski’s candidature, the streets of Sofia have been packed with thousands of marching protesters, who demand the resignation of the coalition government and  the onset of political reform in tune with values and principles emanating from Bulgaria’s membership of the EU. The day after the ECFR discussion, journalist and academic Yavor Siderov asked Dr Oktem and Dimitar Kenarov to look beneath the surface of events in Istanbul and Sofia and search for deeper commonalities and global trends, as well as differences between the protests and possible precedents in the past.  Oktem and Kenarov witnessed and participated in both Sofia’s and Istanbul’s protests.

YS: Looking at Gezi/Taksim, Sofia and the various cities in Brazil, are we witnessing a throwback to 1968, or is there something completely new taking shape?

KO: I think 1968 is a far cry: it was a very different movement.  Back then you had a clear ideological project - communist, socialist, Maoist ideas about how to shape society, how to rebuild it. This is not the case today. Back then you had these tough protesters whose language was very ideologically driven, but on the other hand, they were also trying to have fun, to explore their sexuality.

The two projects didn’t really work together ideologically. What was more important, in 1968, was the sexual revolution amongst other things, taking place at a time when we had a completely different technological infrastructure. There was no internet, no Twitter – all the media constitutive of the protests we are seeing at the moment. Also, 1968 was very much about the Vietnam war, about solidarity, whereas the protests we are seeing at the moment are more about local issues, discontent with government and the kind of democratic or multiparty election structures we have.

YS: Elsewhere you have spoken about the current protests resembling a ‘supermarket of ideas’.

KO: The ‘supermarket of ideas’ is a post-modern phenomenon. Under these conditions everything is both much more diffuse and more coherent, because more a matter of choice and yet you can borrow from different traditions. In the end it all comes together. You don’t have this tension between ideology and practice that you had in ’68, because there is no ideology, or only the very first green shoots of one. So the comparison with ’68 is probably not the most appropriate.

YS: Are these in any meaningful way middle class revolutions, or is there a better way to describe them?

DK: Well, it depends on the specific case, on the country, of course. I don’t think we can confine them to the definition of middle class revolutions, because so many different layers of society have participated in one way or another. But it is true that the engine driving a lot of these protests, in Turkey, Bulgaria, or in Brazil, are people who are not struggling for their daily bread, who are not necessarily starving. So these are not economic revolutions, in that way, but they are revolutions about a vague idea, a new kind of ideology, a new kind of order, and it is interesting that people cannot really define it yet.

You were right when you said that in 1968 people were clearly demarcated. Things were delineated more clearly than they are now. And now, in this ‘supermarket of ideas’ people sometimes have the difficulty of choosing, yes. They have a choice to make, but it’s really hard to pick what’s best. And so there is some confusion among, say, even people who are well educated and know different political traditions. People are struggling in the dark, trying to figure things out. That’s the difficulty, and that’s how the entrenched current political class exploits the protests, by saying, well, people do not really know what they want, so we cannot fulfill their demands.

KO: Exactly, I concur with this, but what makes 2013 exciting is that in ’68, there were ready-made ‘solutions’. Of course, they weren’t really solutions, but they were coherent ideological frames of reference, which in a way defeated the protests in the end. I think what is happening right now in Bulgaria and Turkey, and maybe to a lesser extent in Greece is that people don’t have these ideological frameworks, but they so have a sense of certain values: for example, what is decency in public affairs? what is the quality of democracy? what role should parties play? So in that respect these are much more revolutionary times, I think, because these are local debates and local contentions about your everyday life.

They are much more real in many ways than in ’68 where there was some discontent with the system and then there were the big answers. Now we are living in a time when the big answers have all been delegitimised and the big questions are not being asked any more. What we are seeing is those questions now emerging from the squares, from everyday life, and I find this much more exciting, actually, because it is really about people wanting to have a better life beyond mere economic security.

YS: If the big questions and the big answers are ruled out of order, does that not put a very substantial question mark on any actual demands? Does it not make them seem impracticable,  even devoid of lasting substance?

DK:  I wouldn’t agree that they are impracticable. I think that people are slowly realising what they want as they go but that these things need some time for development. People who are participating in these protests find their way through this process as they go, and they look back and say, ‘oh yes, this is what we wanted’, after the fact. There is some kind of intuition that people have, political intuition.

Going back to ’68 people wanted a more just life, a more liberal life, to escape the conservatism of the ‘50s and the early ’60. But here right now I think it’s more a question of the legitimacy of the political system itself, and also, I would say, of the nation-state, because although we are living in a globalised world, people are getting more localised, actually, they have more local demands.

What is being questioned is the legitimacy of the nation-state. The question is being posed: is it possible to have a country in the twenty-first century, whether it’s Bulgaria, 7.5 million, or Turkey, 75 million, led by a government that rules over people in a legitimate way? I think people are looking right now at much more localised forms of government, on a neighbourhood scale or a city scale, and trying to find representatives who can address their demands directly and who know what is needed, rather than somebody from a faraway centre of power who deploys it without any kind of understanding for local issues. So what really comes into question here is the existence of the nation-state and how we want to proceed with it.

KO:  At the same time we must say that the protests also bring the nation-state back in. There are lots of Bulgarian flags at the protests. In Turkey there were lots of flags. I actually had the same feeling in both countries, and particularly in the Turkish case, that the flags somehow stood for something else than what they once did. Before, the state represented a top-down project of nation-building, it was exclusivist, it was divisive, particularly in the Turkish case for the Kurds, and now the flag has emerged as a different symbol of the protests…

YS:…as a grassroots embrace of the nation-state, perhaps…

KO …Yes, more of a grassroots entity, where people are actually loading it with different values. That’s why the Turkish flags at the protests in Istanbul didn’t bother me as much as they would have otherwise. It was the same flag, but the meaning of it was very different from the 2007 Republican marches for example. I had a sense that this was also the case in the Bulgarian protests. So there are both dynamics: on the one hand, there is the struggle for transparent, sensible, meaningful local politics, but at the same time there is an awareness that the nation-state is still the framework where all this is decided and happening. Maybe there is novel dialectic between a fresh understanding of the nation-state and a new form of local politics, as well as an awareness of the global frame of it all.

DK: That may be true, but when we look at national flags, whether in Turkey or here in Bulgaria, there is the other concern: that people lack an adequate symbol, or an adequate mythology for what they want to express. The most neutral one in any eventuality is the national flag. Somehow it’s not polarising. That is to say, in certain ways it’s not polarising, of course. You can identify it in Turkey with a certain kind of nationalism, but it’s not a political slogan. It’s not a slogan of a particular political party. When people carry the flag here in Bulgaria, they do have this national identity, but it’s more of a neutral symbol of civic identity.

Bulgaria protests

Protest in Sofia, Bulgaria. Demotix/Katya Yordanova. All rights reserved.

Y.S. Are the differences between the various protests more important than the similarities between them? Is there a culture-specific democracy?

KO: Democracy is a universal project based on universal values. The way it is then translated into various cultural settings might differ, but I think universal values inform the protests in many ways. We said that the big questions are delegitimised and that is why some of these protest movements are also easy for the powers that be to pour scorn on. But what we actually see is that out of local contestations you have questions emerging which are the big questions about democracy: how are we going to live together, how do we deal with our differences, how can we ensure decency in public life? That is one unifying factor for the protests. Another factor concerns the crisis of the political-economic global system we live in – the kind of neoliberalism or global capitalism that Slavoj Zizek speaks about. The way this crisis is played out in every country varies. But it is also about the level of development; Turkey is a booming economy, Bulgaria is not, Brazil is booming, Greece is bankrupt. These are all manifestations of a new global economic system, and discontent with it brings people together, though the grievances are reflected in different issues.

YS: Isn’t it paradoxical that it’s precisely the middle class that should be unhappy about globalisation?  Globalisation was supposed to empower it over other sections of society.

DK: I think what Kerem is saying about the crisis of global capitalism is absolutely true.  For the first time in living memory wealth distribution is so unequal.  We don’t have two classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – as we had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Now wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, in the hands of corporations and shareholders, in what people call “the one per cent".

It may be a little bit simplistic to put it this way, but when we look at how even in the US wealth distribution has changed thoughout the twentieth century, now what we have is this one per cent owning much of the US wealth. So the middle class is also excluded from a more equal wealth distribution.  They may lead better lives than the poor, but they understand this is an unjust system. The middle class is in the middle between a really, really rich minority of people and a huge majority of people who are excluded from any kind of privilege. Wealth distribution is the trigger for a lot of this.

KO: In the Turkish case, what the neoliberal growth machine provided was also one of the reasons why the AKP was so successful. It created what of course can only be a fantasy, but despite the growing income gap and massively growing inequality, everybody was actually better off. Everybody was benefiting. The number of people who made it out of poverty in Turkey is quite significant.

But of course, this kind of development model can’t go on forever because the inequalities are becoming ever more accentuated. In Turkey, the middle class has been growing, but still, as we are realizing now, the real estate sector, the construction sector, much of any capitalist development is based on bubbles. The boom and bust – we are back to Marx, this is the constitutive character of capitalist development.

YS:  Let me ask you about the long-term impact of the protests. When is there enough democracy, then, if we have such large forces at play? What is the benchmark of a democracy fulfilled?

KO: People are becoming aware of the fact that this is a very global question. The crisis of global capitalism and democracy is also a universal crisis. When you look at the UK, which arguably has the most advanced democracy pretty much anywhere in the world, it has reached a position where hardly 40 per cent vote in elections. The choice is between two and a half political parties which have similar ideological frameworks. That is why what is going on is also about the crisis of ideology.

Even in the cradle of modern democracy things are not going that well. The consciousness that these struggles and the broader crisis are related is definitely there among the protesters. That’s why they immediately connected – Brazil, Turkey, Greece. In Taksim you even had banners in support from Budapest. But as you said, it’s all very murky precisely because there is no ideological frame of reference through which you could subject all this to a coherent analysis, or develop answers about how to proceed.

DK: One area of concern where the questions are a bit clearer, where the driving force is more concrete is maybe the environmental movement.  Environmentalism brings together so much of what is happening at the moment, including the exploitation of natural resources, global capitalism, migration, climate change and so forth. That’s one movement where, although there are different strands to it, it has well-defined aims. Nature is the last common space since everything is being privatized and parceled up. Nature becomes a neutral space, a common space which we have to defend from further erosion. So if we are looking at the forces of the twenty-first century – and Gezi was the springboard for other kinds of protests – it started over a park. In Sofia last year, the protests started over Vitosha. If we look at other protests around the world, they do have environmental issues at the core, which then spread out to different things. Environmentalism and environmental protection have become a rallying call for all these movements that define their aims through the environment, but then expand and enlarge the area of critical thinking. In the twenty-first century that will be a major issue and we are just seeing the beginning of it.

KO: We can extend this analysis to urban movements. Many of the environmental issues are caused by the encroachments of neoliberal economic policy and the redefinition of natural resources as commodities. The same is true of the urban space, where the encroachments of neoliberal economic policy are ever more visible. As in Taksim, the urban space becomes an asset for profit maximisation. That has an immediate impact on people, so the whole discourse over ‘rights to the city’, securitisation and commodification of public space by shopping centres, surveillance of public space, which is particularly prevalent in the UK – all these are questions about what kind of society and meeting spaces we want to have.

In the Turkish case, if this neoliberal encroachment on the city goes on, we will end up having only shopping centres, mosques and motorways connecting them. This goes to the heart of the capitalist system as we know it now, where every individual is valued only for his/her role as a consumer, where every citizen has to become entrepreneurial, where political struggles and rights are reduced to economic rights, where everything is organized and expressed through the language of the economy. That’s why the ‘rights to the city’ movement, the right to non-commodified public space is also very central and is also very deeply connected to the environmentalist movement, thereby creating new spaces for a coalition as well…

DK: … Precisely because it’s so hard to define an ideological agenda that people can agree on and because nature and urban spaces are the most concrete things they could latch onto. A tree or a park is a very concrete thing and they connect people through their concreteness. That’s why environmentalism is such a powerful force, because even if people have very vague ideas about what they want or are uncertain of the way forward, they know the concrete tree and concrete park and concrete urban space they want to preserve. Environmentalism provides a sort of an anchor for many of these movements.

YS: Early days as these are, can you detect any sort of coherence about the various groups represented at Taksim as well as the various other protests you might have followed?

KO: The short answer is no.

DK: The short answer is no, except for the dislike for Erdoğan. Specifically Erdoğan – I wouldn’t say AKP, or Islam. Just a certain figure, which has become a symbol of autocratic rule. The unfortunate truth is that he is the only figure that unites the protesters. Otherwise they are very different: there is a feminist movement, an LGBT movement, nationalists, communists, you know - the far left.

KO: From the perspective of struggles and organizing movements, Turkey has had more of a chance than Bulgaria because of the government in Sofia taking a step back and ignoring the protests. The protest movement here in Bulgaria needs to reenergize itself the whole time.  There is no outside force which pushes it: whereas in Turkey you can quite clearly see that the government response and the extreme police violence brought more and more people to the square.

But when we think about what unites protesters, well, yes, there is Erdoğan, people dislike him, and then there are the extreme socialist and communist groups, but let’s leave them aside, because they don’t ever change their position on anything. They are coherent until they die. If you are always coherent in a changing environment, in a changing world, that’s not necessarily a big success.

But the protests are changing the political consciousness of people. What we have seen is that people are exploring points of connection on the Square but especially in nightly discussion forums where people from very different backgrounds come together and are trying to see to what extent they are connected in their struggle. During the Gezi Park and the Square, a self-correcting mode emerged: you had macho slogans, very sexist slogans - but they were abandoned when feminist and LGBT groups joined in and opened up their critique.

So there was a conversation between the groups. If you ask people now, they will probably say, it’s not only about Erdoğan, it’s about more than him. There are the environmental issues, the urban issues, discontent with social conservatism, with sectarian violence. I think there is a repertoire, much more of a common ground now between, let’s say, the majority of groups in the protests, as long as you keep the far left out, who in terms of numbers are not that important anyway.

Having said that, some of the socialists and the Kurdish groups were very important in the logistics of the struggle because they know how to deal with police violence. But in terms of ideas they were not that influential.

Istanbul forums

Free park forum in Istanbul with Turkish, Kurdish, Greek and Armenian placards marking the Sivas Massacre.. Demotix/Akin Aydinli. All rights reserved.

YS: Alright, let me wind this up by asking one last question. Are you optimistic about this current wave of protests going some way towards the re-legitimating of politics?

DK: Regarding Bulgaria, I am optimistic not because of new elections, or because the political figures will change necessarily. But there is already a debate about what is a functioning democracy and constant pressure from citizens on the government.  I think if you take any politician, even the most upright, and you leave them without checks and balances, they will turn into corrupt politicians.  I guess I am optimistic because I see this awakening in Bulgaria that will pressure politicians no matter what the new government is. The configuration will probably not be that different, but there is already a functioning mechanism or civic observation that will keep politicians fearful. This is really important.

KO: This is also true for Turkey. In the absence of strong and impartial institutions which provide checks and balances on power, it is up to the citizens to play that role. This is exactly what happened in Taksim Square. Now, of course, there is some road to travel between that and established institutions of the kind you have in a mature democracy, but that is the voyage these societies have embarked on.

In the case of Turkey it’s more complicated because it’s a very big country, but we can certainly say that there is a new generation of young people – hundreds of thousands of people – who were seen as a depoliticized, self-interested lot, and now they have seen what democracy looks like on the ground.

This has certainly transformed their political consciousness, so we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people for whom politics now is something worth engaging in. In that respect, the protests have brought legitimacy to politics as a means of changing one’s life, as a transformative mechanism.

That will definitely stay with us no matter what happens in the meantime. We also need to remember that five young men were killed during the protests and that their families demand justice. In many ways, we have all woken up from a dream, in which a booming economy obfuscated the ugly face of what has always been, at least in Turkey, a nasty, overbearing state.

YS: Thank you.


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