The word, “resistance” has not been widely heard in Turkey till recently, and the unfolding of the Gezi Park events. We have been pushed into a universe of discourse which interprets these events as ‘black and white’, especially with reference to the deeds of Erdoğan. Envisaging a third way has never seemed so difficult, especially within the frame of a leftist perspective. Yet certain questions await unanswered; who is really speaking through resistance?
Erdoğan: dictator or saviour?
Leftist politics in Turkey has always been closely aligned with the Kemalist modernization process, since both construed “Islam” as “the uncivilized other”. In the past eleven years of the AKP government, those who have intrinsically close ties with the modernization process have difficulties in comprehending the ways in which Erdoğan’s government has managed to improve the level of social welfare for the silent majorities. As columnist Markar Esayan noted in his essay in Turkish, members of the privileged classes cannot comprehend how people’s lives have changed since the price of a simple medication fell from 100 liras to 10 liras.
It is not credible to call this a revolution, since the medical system has not been radically transformed. But it was a serious reform. The distribution of primary and high school coursebooks to students was also a serious reform. The stipends provided to university students of around 500 liras were significant, and did touch the lives of the people. Yet the Gezi Park resistance did not consider these measures transformative because the low-class, suburban poor, whose lives have been positively effected by Erdoğan’s government, were hardly on their radar.
This particular class ‘distance’ also explains the dichotomy currently at work among different segments of society, namely, between people who declare Erdoğan a “dictator” and people who still have confidence in him and his policies. Since the 1980’s Erdoğan has managed to project his own political subjectivity as “one of the people” by cultivating close relations with the suburban poor and the marginalized, non-secular masses in Istanbul. This was while leftist politics was busy trying to theorise society at the same time as accusing the masses of “ignorance” in failing to realize their own ideals.
Though leftist politics has reacted against Kemalism from the 1960’s onwards, their leaders have enjoyed nevertheless the privileges transferred to them by a generation of Kemalists. On the other hand, the discriminatory power of those regimes against the non-secular masses was so strong that the mere fact that the positions of power are now occupied by ‘Muslim’ individuals is still sufficient legitimation of Erdoğan and his government. This is why the distance can only become wider between the activists who insult Erdoğan, calling for his resignation as a dictator, and the long-oppressed masses who were able to maintain some kind of relationship with the state apparatus for the first time in republican history through the symbolic figure of Erdoğan as “one of them”, a symbolic figurehead for the democratic opposition against the Kemalist project of modernization.
AKP’s success, rather than merely receiving the support of the non-secular masses, was built by consolidating the interests of different social classes into a hegemony. The AKP represented both right wing and left wing politics. Until 2011, Erdoğan maintained the AKP’s power by continuously struggling with the state apparatus, which was republican and elitist in structure. After successfully waging its struggle with the coup organizers against the civil government throughout the 2000s, the AKP felt as if it had control of the state apparatus. After that, things began to go wrong.
While the AKP defended the country from its internal enemies, they also reproduced a militarist and patriarchal discourse; while they switched vocabulary to describe the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from “baby killer” to “PKK leader” in order to open up a space for peace negotiations, they also drew a clear line between “good Kurds” and “bad” ones who were terrorists; while creating medical and employment opportunities for the suburban poor, they at the same time turned them into the vulnerable subjects of a neo-liberal economy; while politicizing veiled women who began to rush to the front of every gathering organized by Erdoğan, they reproduced the status of women in patriarchal society as “mothers” with “three children”; while returning the possessions of non-Muslim minorities which have been seized by the state since the days of the early republic, they also passively watched the assassination of Hrant Dink in silence.
So where to now?
As the carrier of an underlying democratization process in Turkey with all its paradoxes, AKP still goes unchallenged insofar as the different groups of opposition who became visible in Gezi Park still cannot put forth convincing arguments to win the “50 per cent”. If anything, they can only unwittingly sharpen the cultural and class-based distinctions between themselves and the “others”. Those of the “50 per cent” who were becoming disillusioned with the AKP have now been once again united behind Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership. For a truly effective oppositional democratization process, activist groups will have to spread their arguments to the wider public by speaking to “the other” in face-to-face encounters, rather than by attempting to march towards Gezi Park to “recapture” it from the police in militarist fashion.
Nowadays, it is suggested that the once-oppressed social classes, namely non-secular Muslims, have become the owners and perpetrators of the state apparatus. It is not possible however, for a whole community to occupy the centre. Instead the AKP has created its own middle class, which is distinct from the lower classes of a Muslim habitus. Here there are possibilities for a class-based conflict to occur between the new middle class and the lower classes within those voting for the AKP. A strong criticism of the AKP would seek to politicize this class conflict, rather than talking to each other in the forums organized under Gezi resistance, where the “resisting subject” is the secular middle classes; either leftists or Kemalists. With all the potential that it shows, Gezi can pave the way for democratization, only if one avoids the stigmatization of the figure of Erdoğan, with whom the masses identify, aiming instead at a process of political disenchantment with this relationship. Unfortunately, the cultural predispositions of those active in the Gezi Park resistance make this possibility seem a long way off.