Translated by Translators for Justice
by Cem Bico
Supporters of Turkey’s three big football teams tying together their scarves and marching side by side, protesters carrying BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) holding hands with those carrying Turkish flags and running away from the police attack together, socialists forming a blockade to protect fellow Muslim demonstrators while they prayed, and leftists and ülkücüs (the “idealists” of the Nationalist Movement Party youth organization) chanting the slogan “Shoulder to Shoulder against Fascism!” together… These were arguably the most striking examples of the solidarity, social cohesion, and culture of respect that grew from within the Gezi Park resistance movement.
Time and again, people with no previous connections have been to Gezi Park and Taksim Square and all told the same story of mutual respect. That these stories are told over and over is as important as the phenomenon itself, as it shows the centrality of this sentiment within the meaning matrix of the resistance. The general characteristics of the resistance movement are indicated in its persistent efforts to challenge the longstanding and polarizing divides established through ethnic, religious and political discrimination and hooliganism and the determination to develop new discourses aiming to bridge them. I see this as a manifestation of society’s will to reconstitute itself as egalitarian, emancipatory, open in its communication, and built in a social environment where different identities are not nourished by absolute divides and oppositions.
Not surprisingly, as the current power bloc has risen from within and benefitted from these divides, it has shown no tolerance towards this alternative political imagination. That the government quickly realized how existential this challenge was can be seen in the relentless efforts made by all its branches—its chief, media spokesmen, propaganda apparatus and civilian extensions—to revitalize and sustain religious reactionary sentiment and marginalize the demonstrators with domestic and international crusades. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government’s reaction has mostly been concerned to reinforce its own base by organizing mass meetings—entitled “Respect for the National Will”—and mobilizing paramilitary sub-groups in order to break and marginalize the resistance. In time, we will see if and to what extent these strategies are successful and sustainable. However, we can also argue that these strategies nourish the excitement among the resistance as they clearly demonstrate all the movement’s criticisms of the government. This attitude has helped unmask the power bloc and enabled us to see the real political mentality behind it. Having positioned itself against a certain form of social engineering in the post February 28 era, AKP rule enjoyed popular support and attempted to alter the political framework and power structure. As events have shown, however, the AKP’s strategy was not about developing a democratic attitude that would make politics available to masses but about upgrading the tradition of social engineering it initially opposed with more effective tools for engineering consciences. This conscience engineering depends on maintaining and managing the segregation between its own base and the opposition, underlining and benefiting from the differences between segments of society, provoking the opposition, playing on its past experiences of victimhood, and finally, its reluctance to overcome certain issues, like the legalization of headscarves in public service. All these strategies add up to a hyper-pragmatic mentality which could aptly be called “Instigation Engineering.” The prime minister and the power bloc he heads are very well aware that they can only rule a society emotionally polarized along these lines. However the model as they imagine it does not rely on an ethics of citizenship and society, but corresponds to imperial organizations that aim to govern populations using communitarian ethics. It is this particularistic and sectarian ethic and the current neoliberal socio-pathology that make possible what is being challenged by those who take to the streets and resist in the name of a wider public.
With the attacks in Yeniköy, we see the further implications of the Prime Minister’s efforts to use ordinary citizens as part of his own thinly attended shows of strength, which would constitute a crime in any democratic order. While the AKP is usually described by terms such as “Conservative Democrat” and/or “Moderate Islamic,” in this case it has actually aimed to subdue the masses, recalling the paramilitary organizations of 1970s. With such an attitude, the AKP better deserves the title of a 3rd Nationalist Front, rather than anything “mild,” “moderate,” or “democratic.” The resistance would do better to reflect on the reasons underlying such conscientious paralysis—that is the indifference and insensitivity of AKP base—rather than simply being agitated and reacting to it. First and foremost, we should reject the defeatist idea that the Prime Minister has the unconditional backing of 50 percent of the population. We have seen many AKP voters in Gezi Park, and we have agreed on many points with our friends who have long supported the party against what the Prime Minister currently represents. Despite that, it would be foolish to expect a sudden and automatic dissolution of the power bloc that is hegemonic within the AKP. In order to understand the contours of the resistance and possible ways to proceed, we first need to examine the institutional structure of politics and then analyze the performance of the Prime Minister on his way back from his trip to Africa.
Ultimately, the parliamentary system is a political system based on multiple choice. If we accept that one party has repeatedly and unjustly won elections and want to assess this dynamic, we need to analyze the other options and their policy proposals. The next democratic candidate, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), seems incapable of gaining votes from AKP’s base despite the transformation it has gone through in the last couple of years. The main reason is its shortsightedness and its reluctance to challenge the AKP’s divisive politics or counter it with policies that would bridge the gaps between different identities and remedy such polarizations. Perhaps it is not just lack of courage but the absence of such values and public ethics in general, or the relative weakness of the faction with such values within the party. The new cadre of the CHP has been unable to renew the legacy of post-February 28 Baykal faction, which is also based on political confrontation and polarization. The new cadre often presents itself as an involuntary “hypocrite” rather than a fully renewed party with an alternative agenda. With the image of a hesitant reformist, the CHP offers very little for those who felt victimized by the February 28 process. Deep down, this is a symptom of the CHP’s inability to offer clear policies regarding the basic civil problems of our society, such as the exclusion of women with head scarves from public service, or answer fundamental questions over the kind of Turkey we want to live in. On the other hand, one of the AKP’s major accomplishments is its ability to quickly and successfully identify the disquiet of modern life and the injuries of the class divide with its Kemalist elitism and top-down language. With such aptitude, the AKP has effectively created a partisan bourgeoisie, described as an “Anatolian bourgeoisie,” mostly fed through public resources, and simultaneously stigmatized as enemies of the people the secular middle classes and high bourgeoisie, often called the “Istanbul bourgeoisie.” In other words, the costs of the modern capitalist system to the disadvantaged classes are attributed to the opposition party and its legacy. The ineptitude of the opposition in challenging this rhetoric is due to the lack and/or inadequacy of an egalitarian element in the Republican tradition. Hence, at this point, rather than questioning the CHP’s ability to transform this momentum or debating the odds of this movement evolving into a political party, we should turn our attention to the forums that are popping up and developing everywhere as sites of potential answers to all of our questions and concerns. Surely, contributing to the debates in these forums seems more relevant than the questions above.
Returning to the Prime Minister’s rhetorical performance, since his return from Morocco, we have seen him producing the same divisive rhetoric blended with open lies, provocation, and manipulation. This provides a unique and comprehensive perspective from which to assess the situation. He repeats the same material in every single demonstration, suggesting that it is produced and circulated by a single source as part of a major PR campaign. We hear similar—in fact almost identical—rhetoric in other public and private media channels, which is a good indicator of how deep the AKP’s hegemonic outreach is. While this was one of the main reasons the resistance movement began, it also shows how desperate the AKP is to form a blockade of consent around the masses. Given that it has encircled the legal, media, and other institutions of the state such as the police force, its postmodern/sustainable totalitarianism seems difficult to challenge, let alone overthrow. Behind the success of the government’s black propaganda campaign lies the entrapment of institutional politics in Turkey. There are no easy formulas to solve this equation.
Nevertheless, against this pessimistic background, we also see the will to resist. The relentless, pluralistic and collective will to oppose absolute domination gives us many reasons to be hopeful. The source of this will is neither internal nor external sources of power. Claiming so, or simply arguing that the CHP or other organizations were the main forces behind the movement, are evidently parts of an effort to suppress it. On the contrary, what we see is a variety of organizations trying to keep pace with the movement’s spontaneity. This resistance stems from a conscientious/ethical collectivity, and it has disproved all prior doctrinaire pessimisms or optimisms, and all historical, sociological and political expectations. What has made such collectivity possible is the accumulation of common experiences: the police officer who tear-gassed the woman in red dress from a meter away was already considered by many as corrupt, ignorant, disrespectful, and a militant with evident AKP engagement. In the media corporations chasing after government contracts, the blackmailers and the rent seekers, the masses see a cadre they know from the historical experience of a millennium: an immoral and greedy bunch encouraging the beneficiaries to lynch the dissenters. It was conscientious collectivity which motivated citizens on the streets to paint the AKP’s light bulb symbol with swastikas as a group of intellectuals with more or less representative power (and others who had nothing like that) were forced to negotiate—in vain—with the Prime Minister. This revolutionary public opinion sees the current administration as an illegitimate form of government because of 1) its transformation of the police force into its own, violent militia; 2) its totalitarian control over media; 3) its provocation of civil war and lynch culture; and 4) its exploitation of public property to feed its power base. The reason for this loss of legitimacy is the irreversible awakening to the government’s flawed paradigm of sovereignty, best witnessed in its metaphors of “conquest” and its hatred of society.
The public opinion formed through this process is now trying to find its way in park forums. Through the forums, society is trying to reconstitute itself against the manipulative and postmodern-totalitarian totality. The value of these spaces, where we can breathe in the midst of a repressive system, are not only their responsive/critical characteristics. They also provide an opportunity to foment a more pluralistic and democratic discourse of totality as opposed to the government’s sui generis totalitarianism. However, this is only possible if we continue to work on the content we debate in these forums. We need to patch things together to form something evolving from fragments into a whole as we keep in mind that the inclusivity and participatory practices of these forums are only possible by scaling up through a certain procedural evolution. It’s hard to say whether this will give birth to a political party or not. Nevertheless, it is very easy to say that this revolutionary public energy and hard work will create a new political language. This language should become immune to totalitarian forms of discourse as it becomes richer and ever more inclusive in terms of content. As it attempts to achieve the seemingly impossible and open to consciousness all the pains of Turkey’s society and history, this enhanced content will either give birth to its own, new structures or radically and effectively transform current ones.