Preliminary Disclaimers

As the dramatic Turkish protests subside, or declare an intermission, this is a time to take stock, but cautiously.

Precisely when political reality explodes in unexpected ways, pundits come along suggesting comparisons, offering hastily constructed explanations, and cite influences and antecedents. Surprise is suppressed by most ‘experts’ who do all that they can to hide these awkward exposures of how little they knew about the explosive forces in society, which erupted without any advance notice. After the explosion these wannabe gurus step forth with undiminished confidence to tell us with learned demeanor why and how it happened, why it was almost inevitable to turn out as it did, and the most arrogant and often most influential even dare tell us what to expect next, and why it is good or bad.

While appreciating this fact of public life, let us take note that even the most wily intelligence agencies, with billions at their disposal, total command over mountains of secret data, running roughshod over the privacy and legal rights of even their own citizens and others to get it right on behalf of their government employers, still invariably miss ‘the jumps’ of change that are the real stuff of history. Why are the historians of change so bad at anticipating these jumps of history? Partly, for the same reasons that even the most sophisticated vulcanists cannot predict with any accuracy an earthquake or volcano—as in politics, the tipping points in nature and society are rarely anticipated by interpreting scientific trends or through the analysis of incremental changes, but generally disclose themselves with an unforeseeable abruptness.

In reaction, an appropriate level of humility and tentativeness goes a long way, acknowledging these limits of understanding, suggesting hesitantly and explaining as best we can such charismatic events when they occur, taking due account of their distinctiveness and admitting our inability to access deeper meaning that lie beneath the surface of cascades of events.

Another type of difficulty associated with these interpretative ventures is the bias associated with the observer’s gaze. We are habitually trained and experienced to look at politics from above, whether our perspective is that of elites or counter-elites, but revolutionary impulses come, if and when they come, almost invariably from pressures generated from below, that is, from the ‘multitude,’ pressures that materialize by suddenly bursting forth as happenings that startle and reverberate (e.g. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the velvet revolution, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street).

The Gezi Park Protests

Was Gezi Park in Istanbul such a happening, as many here in Turkey hope? Did it reflect the wishful thinking of those among the protesters who were seeking a genuinely inclusive democracy in Turkey respectful not only of the environment and cultural identity, but dedicated to the rights of all, especially such habitually abused minorities as Kurds and Alevis? Professor Asli Bali, a highly regarded young law scholar teaching at UCLA, persuasively encapsulated the core of the struggle as an epic encounter between two models of democracy—the majoritarian entitlement claims of Erdogan (but not necessarily all elements in the AKP) versus the participatory and populist ethos of the younger generation, which is almost as opposed to the republican (anti-democratic) ethos of the secular elders who were mainly aligned with the recently inept and anachronistic CHP as it is to Erdogan’s leadership of the AKP.  Bali pins her own best hopes for the political future of Turkey not on an anti-AKP challenge being mounted by an opposition party, but rather on a split within the AKP that will transfer control from Erdogan to the more inclusive moderate wing, which I presume would be led by the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.

This is a most unusual way to conceptualize the best political alternative for Turkey, and it underscores a situation in which a change in the leadership of the country would be beneficial, but cannot be seen as issuing from either the present arrangements of governmental authority or as a result of a successful challenge mounted by the organized opposition. The idea of a split within the AKP that produces a more moderate and inclusive leadership is an attractive option for three reasons. First, it validates the positive contributions of AKP governance over the past eleven years, while rejecting the style and some of the majoritarian implications of Erdogan’s leadership. Secondly, it implicitly rejects the prospect of an electoral transfer of governmental authority to the traditional opposition represented by the old Kemalist party, the CHP, as a result of elections, which despite its strong presence in Gezi Square and in the protests throughout the country, was viewed by the core protesters as politically antagonistic to a reshaping the political future of Turkey through redefining an understanding of democracy. In this regard, the republican/CHP conception of democracy so long as the party held the reins of government in its hands was intolerant toward the religiously observant, as well as repressive toward the Kurdish regions of the country.  Thirdly, strong doubts are present as to whether the Gedi protests, with neither party, program, agenda, nor leaders, strong anarchist elements could grow into an inclusive movement along the lines of what Derrida calls ‘democracy to come,’ an aspirational vision of the future that embraces a liberating conception of freedom that far transcends any historical embodiment of ‘democracy,’ anywhere up to this point. If the past teaches us anything, it suggests that such revolutionary impulses, no matter how intense, will quickly dissipate or implode, either because they become institutionalized in stultifying bureaucracies, engage in a torrent of revolutionary terror, losing their revolutionary identity authenticity, or they don’t institutionalize and purge enemies from within and without and simply fade away.  Of course, for reasons suggested at the outset, history is cunning, and may not mimic the past.

What Future for Turkish ‘New Politics’?

The dust in Turkey has not yet settled, although it appears to be settling. At this point, it is far too early to discern whether a new political subjectivity has been born that will fill the Turkish political vacuum. This unfortunate vacuum was formed by the absence of a credible and responsible opposition during this elapsed decade of secular displacement and AKP consolidation. It is uncertain whether this recent venting of frustration and resentment can be converted into a sustainable political movement that offers the Turkish polity a post-Kemalist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP, and does so without losing the very substantial achievements that included ending the practice of prison torture, civilianizing the military, paying off the IMF, tripling the Turkish GDP, coming forward with a promising approach to the Kurdish problem, and gaining great influence and respect for Turkey as a success story in the region and world. Symbolizing these eleven years of national ascent was the emergence of Istanbul as a cosmopolitan crossroads for the world, and a favored site for diplomatic meetings and high profile events.

We also should not dismiss the capacity of the AKP, including Erdogan, to learn from the Gezi Park experience. Despite the bluster and the inflammatory tirades about the evils of social networking, foreign provocateurs and domestic ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’, the excessive police force (hardly a novelty in the region, and even Europe, but no more excusable for being ‘the old normal’), Erdogan did eventually pull back to a significant degree, apparently taking account of the strong objections mounted against the Gezi Park project in its original form. Erdogan seems now to have put the Gezi Project on hold for the indefinite future, awaiting a judicial finding as to the acceptability of the project and possibly organizing a citywide referendum in Istanbul both to consult the municipal citizenry and find out about their attitude. And we should not idealize the protesters, a minority of whom did vandalize and demean Islamic sensibilities with obscene graffiti and allegedly threw beer bottles thrown on the floor of a nearby mosque, although this charge is sharply contested. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, many governments that claim the mantle of democracy use excessive force when dealing with angry protests and demonstrations, but no autocrat worth his name attempts to meet adversaries half way as such temporizing is regarded either as unnecessary or as a display of what such a leader finds most distasteful, namely, weakness.

The government’s new approach to the Gezi controversy may yet prove to be problematic. The referendum may endorse the project as a reassertion of popular support for Erdogan, and he might be tempted to plunge ahead.  A referendum in such situations can often dangerously infringe upon fundamental social values that should be protected regardless of how ‘the people’ vote. The preservation of Gezi Park would seem to qualify for meta-political protective treatment. Gezi Park as a green enclave, along with its proximity to Taksim Square, possesses a vivid resonance for the whole city of Istanbul, including even the revitalized Ottoman heritage that is so dear to Erdogan and the AKP generally. It seems especially precious to a younger generation of urban Turks that often have cherished memories of the park from their childhood. And for the most ardent followers of Kemal Ataturk the Taksim Square milieu has always been hallowed space where patriotic holidays of the Turkish republic are solemnly celebrated.

Of course, except at the very beginning, and maybe not even then, Gezi Park was about far more than Gezi Park. It was, as suggested, a slowly articulated repudiation of the sort of democracy being offered by the Turkish state and as yet unarticulated series of demands for another kind of governance based on a different understanding of what politics and freedom are about. It was also about, although vaguely and incoherently, the cultural leveling down associated with neoliberal globalization and the rise of a predatory private sector that seemed responsible for littering the city of Istanbul with shopping malls and high rise twin towers.