Gezi Park and the Class Struggle in Turkey

The article below presents a Marxist perspective on the demonstrations in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the Kurdish separatist movement, the Arab Spring, and Turkey’s current perilous financial condition. It appeared in a German-language site that covers Turkish affairs, and was translated by JLH.

The translator includes this introductory note:

This is an interesting survey of the forces at work in the Turkish uprisings from a Marxist point of view.

There are a couple of interesting vocabulary clues to be found here. “Horizontal” turns up a few times as a code word for “classless.”

The resistance is discussed in terms of being: basic democratic, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, cooperative and ecologically oriented

The advance of feminism in Marxist propaganda: I originally witnessed “multi-genderism” in the double ending where the masculine had sufficed as a collective — e.g. Arbeiter (workers) became Arbeiter(innen) — (men or women workers). This article is the first time that I have seen the parentheses removed, thus making the longer and clumsier feminine the collective noun (e.g. WählerInnen — voters, Activistinnen — activists).

Enthusiastic boosters of American-style capitalism please note: The Marxist proponent is always on the ground where the action is and is concerned to make his battle theirs and theirs his.

The translated article from Infobrief Türkei:

The Commune of Gezi Park and Class Warfare in Turkey and Kurdistan

by Michael Backmund
December 19, 2013

The uprisings in western Turkey and the commune of Gezi Park have radically changed Turkey and visibly improved the conditions for social struggle in Turkey and Kurdistan. They are also closely connected to the developments in Syria and the entire Kurdish area. In the absence of peace, there is the danger of the (Gezi) insurgent movement being smothered by the AKP, which tends towards Islamic repression in a crisis.

On the way back from Tarlabaşı to Erminönö through the jammed streets, after asking if we had just been at Taksim Square, the young taxi driver began to talk — at first softly, then more self-confidently: “I am a çapulcu too! I spent three nights in Gezi Park. These protests will change the country. No one can take away what we young Turks, Alawites, Kurds and many others have experienced together.” However coincidental and fleeting the encounters during these Istanbul nights might have been, it had been a long time since the destiny of Turkey and Kurdistan had been discussed so openly and intensely on the Bosporus, and the necessity of a comprehensive democratization of the entire land spoken of.

Three very concrete aspects of the protests point up the strategic perspective of the communes of Gezi Park and the possibilities of class warfare in Turkey and Kurdistan. The Gezi protests have broken through the interpretive control by the Turkish elite and their mass media. Until now, “the others” and especially “the Kurds” have been the terrorists. Since being characterized by Erdogan and the AKP as “marauders and terrorists” (çapulcu) the slandered demonstrators have given a self-confident reply. “Then we are all marauders and terrorists” they shouted back at authorities. In the large demonstrations at Taksim and in Gezi Park, for the first time Kurdish banners, PKK flags and pictures of Abdullah Öcalan could be seen as a matter of course next to banners of feminists, anarchists and communists. And after the murder of a young Kurd in Lice, there were solidarity demonstrations for the first time in Istanbul and western Turkey under the motto, “Taksim is everywhere, Lice is everywhere — resistance is everywhere.” This solidarity of a broad protest movement in Turkey with the Kurdish freedom movement as an expression of horizontal self-empowerment opens up a prospect for comprehensive social changes with an anti-hegemony and anti-chauvinistic emphasis.

Three theses on the actual situation in Turkey and Kurdistan:

1. The communes of Gezi Park and the uprisings in all of western Turkey have radically altered society in Turkey. That — independent of what happens next — is the historic achievement of these protests.
2. This has considerably improved the preconditions for a successful class war in Turkey and Kurdistan. For the first time in decades, there is a real chance for basic change in social conditions in Turkey.
3. There is an interrelationship between the Taksim uprisings, the Kurdish peace process and Kurdish and autonomy in Rojava/West Kurdistan, as well as the developments in Syria. This is an opportunity, and shows both the complexity of societal power relationships and the danger of a reactionary escalation.

The most important participants and the dynamics of the uprisings — the groups that determine the dynamics of the uprisings.

  • Young people and students. They are fed up with authoritarian paternalism — internet censorship, restriction of alcohol consumption, patriarchal biological control policies including banning abortion, repressive sexual roles and clothing norms, as well as family policies under which, according to Erdogan, “all young women should bear three to five children.” In addition, rapid, neoliberal reorganization of the entire educational system and with it precarious future prospects for the majority of emerging academics.
  • Women, lesbians, gays and transgenders are especially strongly affected by the prevailing sexual preconceptions and the authoritarian/patriarchal AKP policies.
  • Young Kurdish militants with the practical experience and the courage to battle with the police are severely affected by urban expulsion policies.
  • Soccer fans, as a social and political milieu, see themselves victimized by the repressive police, the alcohol ban and a prohibition on politics in the stadiums. They have a long tradition as a social space for sub-cultural “survival” after the 1980 putsch.
  • The so-called “white collars” — precariously employed in the services industry — from marginalized and badly paid to extremely well paid employees (but working precariously without professional specialty).
  • The old experienced militants of the socialist Left.
  • And especially an undogmatic new Left of the 21st century, globally connected and ideologically current with international political discourse. They have been active for years against gentrification, the tearing down of the old minority and immigrant neighborhood, Tarlabaşı, and are entrenched in the No Border struggle. They are somewhat involved in the previously local protests against environmental depredation and nuclear plants — now becoming country-wide — and are locally active against deportation detentions in Istanbul, and in the networks against global capitalism, war and patriarchy. Example: the network, Our Commons.

The most important participants and the dynamics of the uprisings — the groups that determine the dynamics of the uprisings.

All of these groups together have a creative new space. The commune was a laboratory, a place of experiment and success, of the reality of direct democracy structures of discussion and decision-making. Gezi was everywhere in western Turkey and Turkey in turn was present in microcosm in Gezi Park. It was an experience in the spirit of the “Paris commune,” of the revolts in city squares around the world, in Athens, Tunis, Cairo, New York, Frankfurt, São Paulo and Mexico City.

For the first time, a Turkish-Kurdish generation born in the 1990s has fought together on the streets against government power. “We are so happy that we have finally arrived at the time of resistance to capitalism and war,” a young, female political friend said to me on June 22, 2013 at Taksim, when ten thousand people were demonstrating again, after Gezi Park had been cleared out and there had been days of associated battles in the street. The answer to the old political model was clear: We need a new anti-authoritarian, horizontal movement. Although Che is revered by the old Left in Turkey, there was as yet in many parts of the Turkish Left no creative-dynamic break with the many versions of the Marxist-Leninist party orthodoxies. For that, the common action in Gezi Park was an overdue liberating stroke, and can also be a bridge to the Kurdish movement, which has grappled with state socialism more consistently and with more permanent effect than great sections of the Turkish Left.

“When the big cheeses of the classical Left came to Gezi Park, the process choked for a few days. In day-long forums, they proclaimed their ideological assessments — which naturally did not agree with each other. They temporarily blocked the dynamic of the process. After a few days, even they realized that the commune of Gezi Park was already functioning successfully. From that point on, some of them learned something new.” This was how a young activist summarized her experience of the revolt.

The AKP developmental model collapses

In domestic politics, the increasingly Islamic and authoritarian leadership style of Erdogan and the AKP has raised more and more social groups against them — especially those dynamically involved in the metropolitan area — youth and women. On top of that, economic growth has stagnated and with it, the attraction of the AKP model.

In foreign policy, Erdogan’s dreams of being a major power (as the “new Sultan on the Bosporus”) have already failed. After the Arab Spring, he advertised himself from Benghazi to Tunis to Cairo as the new Pro-Consul of a neoliberal, Islamic economic zone. He dreamed of a swift regime change in Syria and close cooperation with the Islamic government in Tunis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

And then, the global crisis. Turkey’s NATO allies have no realistic, strategic plan for solving the global and regional (commercial exploitation) crises of neoliberalism. For quite some time, there has been no promise of economic development for most of the people in Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan. And now the economic model of the AKP is hitting the wall. The decisive aspects of the EU’s and NATO states’ imperial policy are long-lasting warfare and a simultaneous attempt to keep trade routes and productive areas open.

Gentrification, building boom and Turkish crisis

For real estate speculation to facilitate an accelerated luxury renovation rejected by millions of citizens of Istanbul, the price is the destruction of broad areas of the architecturally and historically unique Old City quarters of Tarlabaşı, Kurtuluş or Kocatepe and of precipitous and winding quarters like Katip Mustafa Çelebi, Tophane or Cihangir.

At the expense of resident populations, the construction boom has already destroyed forever groups of buildings, and will enter the architectural history of Istanbul as a cardinal sin. Many people have been driven out to make way for the logic of profit and the leveling effect of bad architecture, which makes money, but makes no sense in terms of social and cultural structures.

And similar destruction can be observed in eastern Anatolian Van and other Kurdish cities. The destructive dimension of capitalism after the earthquake came with particular force in Van. Block upon block of houses that had withstood the quake are being razed for a credit-financed building boom. It has been evident for a long time that this alleged success story of a capitalist building boom can fall like a house of cards, the minute the international hedge funds and stock market speculators turn away to some even more lucrative enterprise. A possible crash in Turkey as a result of the precipitous departure of short-term investments would make the bursting of the real estate bubble in Spain look like a gentle Spring breeze.

With the decline of the Istanbul stock market since the beginning of the protest movement, the decline of the Turkish lira, Turkey’s rising trade deficit, the growing mountain of credit and debt, as well as the declining economy on the AKP model — once acclaimed as the “China of Europe” — powerful Spring storms could be brewing for banks and corporations on the Bosporus.

Crisis in the “China of Europe”

The Turkish lira fell to a historic low at the end of September: one euro now = 2.70 lira. In September it was 2.30 and in 2010 it was 1.99. Loss against the dollar is just as dramatic. Since a majority of Turkish entrepreneurs in the boom years accepted euro and dollar credits but took in Turkish lira, the economic loss is serious. The Istanbul benchmark index at the end of May, 2013 was at 93,000. By the end of August, it plummeted to 65,000. In a mere three months, the Bosporus stock market lost a cool 27%. Now it is hovering around 75,000.

After the 2008 financial crisis, capital flowed freely into Turkey, because no one in Europe wanted to invest in euros or dollars. Bernanke’s announcement of intention to end the expansive money policy of the American Fed will make the dollar attractive again, that is, money will again flow out of countries like Turkey. Just since May, global investors have pulled ca. 44 billion dollars out of stock and bond funds with a concentration in emerging economies, as confirmed by data from EPFR Global (Emerging Portfolio Fund Research).

The weak lira has fatal consequences for Turkey. For one thing, imports are becoming more expensive. The country is traditionally dependent on oil and gas imports. Even a rise of 10 dollars in the price of oil can lead to an additional current account deficit of ca. 5 billion. Rising oil prices have already cost Turkey 300 million dollars, as the government recently admitted.

Turkey’s total gross foreign debt rose from just 292 billion dollars in 2010 to almost 337 billion dollars in 2012. While the GNP rose by 9.2% in 2010 and 8.5% in 201, it was only 2.6 % in 2012. For 2013, Germany Trade & Invest Corporation predicts for foreign trade and location marketing 3.4% and the hoped-for 3.7% for 2014 cannot realistically be anticipated.

That is exactly one of the sore points in the AKP economic boom. Until now, the deficit could be financed by money from abroad. Without that, things get tight. “Investors are becoming increasingly nervous,” Gregor Holek of the Turkey experts of Raiffeisen Capital Management said recently. They are not yet withdrawing, he said, but the general insecurity is increasing. Larger funds especially presently have little presence in Turkey.

One of the causes can be found in domestic unrest. There are the pictures of occupied Taksim Square, where altogether several million people are in revolt against Erdogan’s regime and brutal police interventions. Popular dissatisfaction is increasing considerably because of price rate increases. At 9%, the average price increase is very high. The unfortunate trajectory of the Turkish lira could further heat up the discontent. At the least, the air — or the money — may be leaking out of the AKP model. And with it, its strongest ideological weapon also disappears — The success of a self-confident Turkey which offers voters of the AKP prosperity, power and opportunities for advancement. The horizontal counter power of the commune of Gezi Park and of democracy in Kurdistan are parallel developments.

The democratic autonomy project in the Kurdish liberation movement and the Gezi Park commune show several basic similarities, both in organization and in political strategy. In both, it is about basic democracy, about anti-hierarchical self-empowerment. This shows up in the Kurdish councils as well in the Istanbul forums. It is not about seizing power in the state or capturing the old forms of domination, but something far different. Autonomous self-empowerment in basic democratic, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, cooperative and ecologically oriented council structures are evident in the Kurdish movement, for example in the degree to which women are organized. In both cases, it is not about the power of state, about the military or the borders of arbitrarily constructed nations. It is about autonomous spaces with internationalist aspects. The military attacks on autonomous Rojava/West Kurdistan — whether by Turkey and the Alliance of Islamic Forces or Al Qaida or Saudi Arabia and Qatar shows how necessary, and fragile, these prospects are.

For the activists of the Gezi uprisings, this means in the coming months extending the autonomous spirit of the movement to the time of the local and parliamentary elections. The dynamics of the upcoming elections also present the challenge of resisting the urge to simply subjugate oneself to any of various leftist parties — especially if they will not recoil from coalition with old kemalist forces. The recent fashion show in an occupied textile factory is an example of more rewarding fields of endeavor.

In Kurdistan too, there might be practical ideas for class warfare projects independent of major policy. If there is no thinking and discussion now about capitalist tourism — that is, about ecological alternatives and long-term energy conservation — the capitalist modernization cycle could roll right over Kurdistan. In the last one and one-half years alone, discarded plastic bags and bottles as well as the attendant effects of global trade have left devastating marks on the rivers in the Van region. But where are the clarifying ecological campaigns, and cooperatives that construct socially and ecologically appropriate residences as a counter model to the gated communities for the Kurdish middle and upper class and rampant land speculation? Where are the regional cooperative enterprises that can provide Kurdish cities with self-produced, high value foodstuffs? And where are the autonomous cultural centers to counter the governmental and Islamist educational offensives? Without the autonomous project in west Kurdistan/Syria — a society beyond colonial and neocolonial border demarcation, ethnic purifications and authoritarian regimes, and against the interests of regional as well as global major powers — the worst can be expected for developments in northern Kurdistan. Without a realistic chance for a just peace in Kurdistan, however, the uprising in all of Turkey would stutter to a halt and be in danger of being brutally suppressed.

Michael Backmund lives and works as a journalist, author and filmmaker in Munich. He is a member of the Friends of Andrea Wolf and since 1998 has advocated the clearing up of Turkish army war crimes in Kurdistan.

4 thoughts on “Gezi Park and the Class Struggle in Turkey

  1. There is something fascinating about this article with its root neoliberal heterodoxy of Marxism v. Muhamadism.

  2. And what does this mean for the rest of the world? I’m conflicted between having the Turkish government crack down on such a flagrant display of left wing scum, or allowing the leftists to take over and thereby, weaken a Muslim country. Thoughts?

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