Turkey’s other ‘Gezi’ moment

There were two Gezi moments: one, a resistance to neoliberal authoritarianism; the other, a defence of representative democracy and ‘the national will’, for whom Gezi spelt the end of democracy.

Ali Bilgiç
15 February 2016
Erdogan at huge AKP election rally, Istanbul, May 30,2015.

Erdogan at huge AKP election rally, Istanbul, May 30,2015. Demotix/Avni Kantan. All rights reserved.The events of May–June in 2013 in Turkey were the first example of public protests that were pluralist, inclusive, non-masculine, egalitarian, and secular, yet not anti-religion. The country-wide protests in the occupied spaces and their related community activities, such as public forums in parks, were practices of horizontal politics through which different singularities communicated with and were linked to each other.

It was a first encounter between social and economic classes that had historically grown estranged in Turkey. Different subjectivities and conflicting identities managed to form temporal communities to challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) neoliberal project of aggressive privatisation, gentrification, capital accumulation through dispossession, decreasing social security and job security, financialization of material and immaterial public goods, and conservative majoritarianism. But during those very same days, some segments of society attended pro-government gatherings and developed an antagonistic view towards the horizontal politics of Gezi. During those very same days, some segments of society attended pro-government gatherings and developed an antagonistic view towards the horizontal politics of Gezi.   

Much ink has been spilt on the Gezi protests in Turkey. What kind of legacy they will have for politics in Turkey is still a contested issue. The question of legacy, however, cannot be addressed simply by focusing on the anti-government groups and their interactions.

A challenging question for the legacy of Gezi stems from the fact that many groups remained ambivalent to the horizontal politics of Gezi, and some of them took an aggressive counter-position to the Gezi protests by joining in state-sponsored meetings. This discussion will focus on the ‘anti-Gezi’ social groups and their protests, which were happening concomitantly with the Gezi protests: the ‘other’ Gezi moment in Turkey.

It will question how and under what political and economic conditions the government was capable of creating a counter-discourse to Gezi and garnering support for the regime. The analysis will be conducted through telling the brief story of a securitarian nation state's journey to Empire. This allows me to reveal complex dynamics that are derived from the interesting interplay between Turkey's democratic crises and global neoliberal economic processes. 


The story begins with the 1980 military coup. Because of the tranquillity of Turkish politics following the military intervention, the neoliberal economic policies of Turgut Özal's Motherland Party (ANAP) were implemented without opposition. Deregulation of the financial markets, privatization, de-unionization, regulations to attract foreign capital especially from the Gulf countries, and decreasing public expenses were the first steps of the Turkish state towards Empire.

However, this was a securitarian nation state. As a panacea of divisive ‘party politics’, and to clear the left from the political arena, the State launched an aggressive campaign to reshape society along the lines of a ‘Turkish–Islamic synthesis’. The synthesis constructed multiple ‘others’ for an essentialized Muslim, Turkish society with a strong emphasis on Turkishness and (Sunni) Islam.

The new regime created a cult of Atatürk that was supposed to represent national unity by subsuming differences. This was one way to produce a conservative, Turkish, and Muslim citizen subjectivity, with some strongly secular characteristics. For this Turkish-Sunni citizen was also a homo economicus: a perfect market man.

As a result, neoliberal economic policies were put into effect against a backdrop of multiple internal and external threats – from Kurdish separatism, political Islam, the infiltration of western culture, Greece, Armenia, Europe, Iraq, Iran, Syria... Each threat provided an opportunity to exclude certain groups from the public political space by securitizing, marginalizing, and silencing them. Each threat provided an opportunity to exclude certain groups from the public political space by securitizing, marginalizing, and silencing them.

In the 1990s, the democratic crisis continued. Threats were multiplied. Several Kurdish and political Islamist parties were shut down by the Constitutional Court. Politicians from these parties were persecuted and banned from politics. The centre-left, represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), turned to extreme nationalism, abandoning its social democratic roots; the centre-right parties became corrupted and fragmented.

The predecessor of AKP, the Welfare Party (RP), was toppled by a post-modern coup in 1997. During this political turmoil, each economic crisis was used as an opportunity to implement a new structural adjustment program of the IMF that furthered Turkey's integration into Empire. Before the 2002 elections when the AKP came to power, society was estranged from existing political parties; the military enjoyed unchallenged hegemony in politics; and draconian nationalism and secularism were used to obscure democratic practices that would be appealing to the overwhelming majority of society.

Although the institutions of political Islam were under the strict scrutiny of the securitarian state, the economic classes remained untouched. The Anatolian capitalist groups following an Islamist and nationalist ideology, which emerged in the 1970s, continued to gather strength, although some of them were put on the ‘green list’ of the State. They opened TV stations and newspapers, made organic links between the political Islamist parties, and launched charity organizations. Furthermore, the shanty towns, which emerged as a by-product of the import substitution industrialization model in the 1960s–70s, were targeted by the neoliberals. Given the absence of the left, municipalities run by political Islamist parties and conservative charity organizations forged organic links with politically and economically alienated groups.   

The AKP came to power in 2002 with its metamorphosed ideology: conservative but not Islamist, pro-west and EU, the panacea for the previous decades’ corrupt politics and economy, and a promise to local and global finance of Turkey’s integration into Empire. It presented itself as the successor of Adnan Menderes (the leader and Prime Minister of the Democrat Party, who ended the 27-year long single party government of the CHP and was executed by the junta following the 1960 coup) and Turgut Özal (conservative and economically pragmatic).

In the economic realm, the AKP reintroduced Özal’s neoliberalism, only more aggressively. With the political stability provided by single party governments, the economy seemed to recover. The GDP increased, the service sector’s share in the economy also increased (more than 50 percent by 2014), as did the share of construction. The housing industry expanded. The Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) became the main institution to offer affordable apartment flats to low- and middle-income groups that used to live in the shanty towns.

Privatization was pursued. Shopping malls were built all around Turkey to attract more consumption (in 2011 there were 279 in Turkey, with 109 in Istanbul alone). The neoliberal state’s way of controlling the low-income and poor classes was the ‘Social Aids Program’. In 2014, around 14 percent of Turkey’s GDP was being allocated to social aid (from coal aid to food aid), amounting to 250 million TL (approximately 85 million USD). Urbanization plans, including the construction of ‘satellite cities’ and gentrification through urban transformation projects and commodification of urban and rural spaces, have been important parts of this new neoliberal economy.

The AKP’s culturalist narrative

It is a fact that, especially up till 2006, very important democratic reforms were performed in the quest for EU membership. It is a fact that, especially up till 2006, very important democratic reforms were performed in the quest for EU membership. National security courts were abolished; the status of the National Security Council was reduced to an advisory; the Press Law was liberalized; and radio and TV were allowed to broadcast in languages other than Turkish. In addition, there was progress in returning the assets of the minority foundations, previously confiscated by the State.

In the first years of the AKP regime, the liberal-democratic dimension of neoliberalism was operationalized. In 2005, Prime Minister Erdoğan recognised Kurdish identity in his speech in Diyarbakır. In 2009, for the first time in Turkey’s republican history, the State started a dialogue with the Kurdish movement widely known as ‘the Resolution Process’. The headscarf ban for women working in the public sector was revoked and irtica (religious fundamentalism) was removed from the list of threats to national security. Not only did the military’s role in politics significantly diminish, but also two main domestic threats (Kurdish separatism and religious fundamentalism) were de-securitized.

Despite the above, human rights violations continued. The national security courts were replaced by Special Courts (which were also abolished in 2013); Armenian journalist Hrant Dink (assassinated in 2007) and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk were tried for ‘insulting Turkishness’; the European Court of Human Rights continued its rulings that remonstrated with Turkey on the grounds of freedom of expression; and restrictions on websites such as YouTube and Twitter were intensified. This strategic move has enabled the AKP to be the liberator of masses that were previously suppressed by the nationalist republic.

According to a New York-based watchdog, Turkey surpassed China regarding the number of journalists in prison and became number one globally. Meanwhile, although the post-coup institutions that provided military oversight in politics were reformed, other institutions stemming from the 1982 Constitution, such as YÖK and the 10 percent national election threshold, remained intact.

In 2012 and 2013, the AKP politicized two issues in a way that was considered an intervention in the private lives of citizens. The first issue was the regulation of restrictions on alcohol sale, and the second concerned the attempt to illegalize abortion. Both acts were strongly defended by PM Erdoğan and both ignited street protests. A few weeks before the Gezi protests, an incident occurred at an Ankara subway station, where a couple that was kissing was urged through a megaphone announcement to act ‘morally’. This resulted in a ‘kissing protest’ in the Ankara subway.

The AKP’s highly culturalist narrative, which shapes its domestic and foreign policy in the form of neo-Ottomanism, promotes cultural differences, especially ethnic and religious ones. This strategic move has enabled the AKP to be the liberator of masses that were previously suppressed by the nationalist republic. 

In the case of the AKP, Sunni-Turkish culture, whose roots had already been laid by the Turkish–Islamic synthesis of the Özal period, occupies the highest level and, therefore, reproduces the Ottoman experience in a neoliberal context. Various ‘openings’ towards Kurds, the Alevi population (Anatolian Shia), the Rum (Anatolian Greeks), Armenians, Romanis, and Jews have all been orchestrated against the backdrop of a cultural hierarchy where the Sunni-Turkish state was reproduced as a paternalistic protector of cultural differences. The point here is that the AKP was giving the impression of addressing the ongoing democratic crisis in Turkey, by opening a space for previously marginalized groups.  

Wars of position in the age of ‘Mosques and Malls’

When the Gezi protests erupted in Istanbul, there were two opposing social forces in Turkey. Gezi was their first ‘war of position’. One was the segments who were threatened by the neoliberal economic processes and conservative policies of the government; the other was pro-government social forces. The government’s first reaction to the former was to call them ‘çapulcular’ (thugs, drifters, vagabonds). Instead of rejecting this derogative term, the protesters accepted and reproduced the concept as their common identity. This indeed was a rather perfect enactment of performative politics. Following this, the government attempted to frame the protests as anti-Islamic. Again, protestors and also religious groups taking part in the protests (such as the Anti-Capitalist Muslims) immediately countered this rhetoric.

Regardless of economic ‘development’ in some sectors, neoliberal developmentalism based on construction and consumerism and embodied as shopping mall inflation did not address the unemployment problem, especially that of university graduates. According to official statistics, in 2013 the unemployment rate was approximately 9 percent (down from 13 percent in 2009). In 2013, the youth unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent; 10 percent of university graduates were unemployed in 2013. The unemployment rate in the non-agricultural sector, which comprised the main participants of the protests, was approximately 10–11 percent annually. As the (un)employment condition determined the lives of individuals, joining Gezi became a form of resistance that transcended the boundaries between the private and public lives of participants.

As the objective of reproducing individual subjectivities and their bodies according to politically conservative and economically neoliberal ideologies became clearer, the Gezi moment gave an opportunity to individuals to resist through their creativity and their bodies in re-spatialized Taksim Square as a space of freedom. The neo-Ottomanist liberal social engineering project operated on the principle of constructing multiple ‘others’ such as ‘Kemalists’, ‘the elites’, ‘the Istanbul media’, ‘international interest lobbies’, ‘feminists’, or ‘homosexuals’. All these singularities, which did not fit into the culturalist hierarchical difference model of the AKP regime where Sunni Turkishness occupied the dominant position, came together in Taksim Square and practised horizontal politics without an institution or a leader. Identity dichotomies that had been constructed in Turkey over decades, such as Islamist vs. secular, Kemalist vs. Islamist, Turk vs. Kurd, men vs. women, were abandoned in that particular space and moment. Identity dichotomies that had been constructed in Turkey over decades, such as Islamist vs. secular, Kemalist vs. Islamist, Turk vs. Kurd, men vs. women, were abandoned in that particular space and moment.

It must be underlined that the Gezi moment was politically important for social forces in Turkey which have been securitized, marginalized, threatened, and silenced. Some of them, who used to consider themselves as the hegemonic force in Turkey such as the middle and high-middle class Turkish Ataturkists experienced what it meant to be marginalized during the AKP period. They too joined other oppressed forces such as the LGBTQ, socialists, workers, unemployed graduates, and university students. Many segments of society, which had not established any links before, came together and formed temporal communities in these occupied spaces. Several of them (such as the LGBTQ movement) earned their political visibility and power thanks to the Gezi experience.

The other ‘Gezi’

But what about the ‘other’ social forces? So far only the most famous and popular side of the Gezi protests has been told. However, it must be noted that Gezi was not perceived only as a democratic experience or a resistance to authoritarianism, but also as a threat to or an interruption of representative democracy on the part of significant social forces in Turkey.

The famous ‘Gezi’ reflected only partially the population of Turkey, almost always neglecting the performative politics of the pro-government social forces: the ‘other’ Gezi moment. Following the failed attempts to present the protestors as ‘çapulcu’ and ‘anti-Islamic’, the AKP government successfully re-monopolized national security state discourse as well as the centre right’s famous narrative regarding the centre-right parties being the sole representative of ‘the national will’, which had historical capital in Turkey, in order to delegitimize the protests.

As discussed above, Turkish political culture has long been modulated through the national security discourse by constructing certain enemies in different historical periods: Europe, communism, the left, Kurds, fundamentalism (irtica), Greece, Armenia, Cyprus, and so on. Since the Cold War, national security has always been a central political concern, often used for domestic and foreign policy purposes. The political movement from which the AKP was derived was itself a ‘national security threat’ in the 1990s.

During the Gezi protests, the AKP cadres monopolized this discourse. The then Minister of European Affairs went so far as to argue that the neglect of the protests by the Turkish media (the protests were not broadcast by the mainstream Turkish media) was similar to the American media’s ‘sensitive’ approach to national security after 9/11. In 2015, ‘attempts at civil disobedience and popular rebellions’ were included as a national security threat in the 2015 National Security Strategy Document of the National Security Council. The AKP had indeed de-securitized many issues, including political Islam, but continued to securitize certain segments of society as threats to national security. So the securitarian state did not disappear, but has been further re-appropriated to secure neoliberal authoritarianism.     

The second move of the government was to organize public rallies called ‘Respect for the National Will’ (Milli İradeye Saygı Mitingleri). The second move of the government was to organize public rallies called ‘Respect for the National Will’ (Milli İradeye Saygı Mitingleri).This was to remind the people that the AKP was the legitimate ruling party and successor of the Democrat Party (whose leader, Adnan Menderes, was toppled and executed by the junta in 1960) and the ANAP (whose leader, Turgut Özal, was allegedly ‘poisoned’, thought this was never proved). The AKP, as it fought against the establishment, mainly the military, to consolidate its power, had always legitimized its position by claiming itself as the sole representative of the national will.

This centre right narrative was revitalized during the protests: after the military and the judiciary, ‘the establishment’ used Gezi to seal the deal on the national will. Pro-government forces prepared and spread banners that depicted Adnan Menderes, Turgut Özal and Tayyip Erdoğan with the following words under each photo, respectively:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 10.45.54.png

‘The Men of our Nation: You killed him! You poisoned him! We won’t let you have him…’: Source: screen shot of 2013 billboard from haber7.comThese banners were often on the billboards of Istanbul and Ankara and were used during the ‘Respect for National Will’ meetings, where several men came to the meetings wearing shrouds. This kind of ‘body politics’ was a direct response to the body politics in Gezi: the ‘real’ people are here to sacrifice their bodies for Erdoğan, for their democracy.

The success of these two discursive performative practices by the government and pro-government social forces is yet to be determined. However, they are important for this analysis. Firstly, the Gezi moment in Turkey’s democratic crisis had a different meaning for different social forces. For the protesters, it was resistance to neoliberal conservative authoritarianism; yet, for the pro-government forces that associated themselves with the AKP’s ‘national will’ rhetoric, Gezi was a dangerous attempt to suppress ‘the nation’ and to terminate ‘real democracy’.

The latter forces had finally experienced representative democracy with the AKP and were represented at the state level thanks to the AKP. The groups that benefited from TOKİ housing, social aid, and increasing hospital numbers were not part of the Gezi Park protests.

It is true that the Turkish neoliberal state had been re-organized in favour of capitalist interests while at the same time employing ‘the national will’ discourse effectively and without marginalizing the middle- and low-income population. These groups’ economic status has been elevated through the neoliberal restructuring of the economy, although not through an increase in their income level but rather through debt.

Secondly, the government’s response to the protests was derived from Turkey’s two powerful discourses on national security and the national will. This enabled it to reproduce itself not simply as the protector of the State and/or the nation, but also as the saviour of a democracy that was finally freed from the vested interests of ‘the establishment’, ‘the elite’. The Gezi protesters could not produce counter-discourses to address these two powerful narratives.

Finally, although the Kurds joined the protests individually, the Kurdish movement did not take part in the Gezi community, as the AKP was the first government that had opened the communication channels with the Kurds. This other blast from the past, created by the securitarian nation state but now addressed by the AKP – the securitizing and marginalizing of the Kurdish movement – probably more than anything else changed the destiny of the protests. In fact, these three reasons taken together are crucial for discussing any potential legacy of the Gezi protests.     

The legacy of Gezi?

Hardt and Negri define four subjectivities of the neoliberal crisis in their Declaration. The first subjectivity is ‘the indebted’. The indebted are those whose lives are determined by the cycle of debt. Whether this is a farmer who needs a loan to ‘modernize’ and increase competitiveness, a university student expected to pay the ‘college fund’ when s/he secures a job, or a mortgage payer, the modern subject is in debt, which shapes his/her life choices and freedoms. Neoliberal capitalism controls its subjects through debt. The second subjectivity is ‘the mediatized’, who are expected to share their views by using extensive communication technologies. Social networking media, online news channels, personal blogging, and photo-sharing are united with one purpose: to increase the quantity of ideas, but not their quality, because that could lead to the transformation of the status quo. While mediatized individuals experience ‘participatory democracy’ via ‘liking’ a link, their physical proximity, which is required for political action, is hampered. Furthermore, the mediatized are recorded and are under scrutiny.

‘The securitized’ is another subjective figure of the ‘crisis’. They are the ones whose personal data, fingerprints, eye retinae, daily habits, and every public moment is recorded, collected, and stored for ‘security’ purposes. The object of the modern politics of security is also its subject, because fear unleashed on the securitized encourages them to act like ‘security officers’. Agamben’s ‘state of exception’ becomes the norm, not simply because the security institutions ‘securitize’, but because the objects of the politics of security reproduce the normality of the exception (for example, the current curfew state in France, detention centers for refugees, acceptance of personal data collection, and storage by international bodies). The final subjectivity is ‘the represented’, whose political power is reduced to the democratic golden objective of representative politics. Representative politics is a powerful mechanism that disciplines the indebted, mediatized, and securitized subjects, so that their mirage of participation in politics through voting, lobbying, or joining ‘civil society’ can be reproduced. In fact, those who are in debt, or who experiences fear, or is alienated cannot practise politics.

However, these four subjectivities do not necessarily operate similarly in Empire within the same country, or even universally. In order to understand from a radical democratic standpoint how they perform politics, it is necessary to look into how neoliberalism is appropriated in the country’s historically constructed political context and how these subjectivities interact with each other and other political institutions.

In the case of the Gezi protests, these four subjectivities were already ‘out on the streets’, but ‘other’ indebted, securitized, mediatized, and represented individuals were ambivalent towards the protests or joined the pro-government forces. This was mainly because of the Turkish political context, which has long been shaped by democratic crises. Since the 2002 elections, the AKP had successfully reproduced itself as the only party that was against the political status quo previously dominated by the military, the corrupted centre-right parties, and the nationalist left. It claimed that it had opened representative democracy to the wider public, and supported this discourse through multiple ‘openings’. The party was represented as the only signifier of the national will and real democracy. Those whose standard of living had risen were indebted to the party: they had a good house, a smartphone, a car… For them, Gezi was not a democratic renewal; it was an attempt to shut down representative democracy.  

If the neoliberal journey has been successful in Turkey, it is because the AKP capitalized on the problems derived from Turkey's political context, representing itself as the saviour of democracy, and meanwhile constructing the economic classes to support its power. The legacy of Gezi does not depend on the founding of a political party, creating a social movement with clear objectives, or finding a leader.

That is why we have to recognise that there were Gezi moments of opposing social forces. The legacy of Gezi does not depend on the founding of a political party, creating a social movement with clear objectives, or finding a leader. First and foremost, it depends on the extent to which the problems originating historically in democratic crisis on which the AKP capitalised, and on which basis it established its political and economic hegemony, can be addressed by the Gezi protestors.

It goes without saying that the Gezi moment is a crucial first encounter between a myriad of subjectivities, but it is questionable how the momentum of Gezi has been furthered among these singularities. Moreover, unless the two opposing Gezi moments start to conflate, it will be almost impossible to discuss, or even imagine, a legacy. The first task of any progressive individual against neoliberal authoritarianism is to stop romanticizing Gezi and focus on ‘the other Gezi moment’. Only this way can radical democracy be practised in neoliberal Turkey.  

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