The Gezi-Taksim Utopia

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(All the paintings in this post are by the turkish artist Yuksel Arslan)

La poésie ouvre le vide à l’excès du désir.

Georges Bataille

For ten days, from the 1st to the 11th of June, Taksim became … a free zone where, sheltered behind barricades where one could read Taksim Commune, people walked about happily.  On the weekend of the 8th and 9th of June, hundreds of thousands of persons came to discover gezi park, its stands, its library, they sang and danced together.  They felt safe precisely because the police was far away.  At the centre of this zone, the occupants of the Park succeeded in creating a space of life, a concrete space for the sharing of practices, completely different therefore from a shopping centre.  In this spatial dichotomy, each discovered what is precious in such a place of encounter, each discovered to what degree one could find pleasure in being there and staying.

Ferhat Taylan, “Taksim, a vital square”, Le Revue des Livres, n°012

The resonances of the occupation of Gezi Park-Taksim Square continue in Istanbul and beyond: in the gathering of neighbourhood assemblies, in the mobile protest picnics marking the end of daily fasting during the month of ramadan, protests during football matches, and so on.  And all of this carried through in the face of ongoing harassment, persecution and violence from State authorities and AKP (turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party) hirelings.

Readings of the Turkish events now abound, often in the context of broader efforts to interpret them comparatively with other protests in North Africa, Brazil, Peru, Chile, etc. and within a time frame that begins with the “Arab Spring” of 2011.

A typical and paradigmatic example of such efforts is Francis Fukuyama’s declaration (Wall Street Journal 28/06/2013) that all of these protests can be understood as a consequence of the rise of a global middle class (a refrain so widespread that were it not for its role in shaping understanding and events, could be simply ignored as tedious).  With statistics on for evidence of the increasing prosperity of sectors of the populations of emerging economies, Fukuyama is then able to apparent enigma of contemporary serial protests: “Everywhere it has emerged, a modern middle class causes political ferment, but only rarely has it been able on its own, to bring about lasting political change”.  It has been young people, according to Fukuyama, “with higher-than-average levels of education and income” that have led the recent protests, not the poor;  Their level of income, education, occupation and ownership of assets lead to a conflict between their expectations and existing political, economic and social realities.  “While the poor struggle to survive from day to day, disappointed middle-class people are much more likely to engage in political activism to get their way”.  This is true today, as it was during the “French, Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions”.  For Fukuyama, the rise of a new, global middle class announces the “end of power”.  “The middle classes have been on the front lines of opposition to abuses of power, whether by authoritarian or democratic regimes.  The challenge for them is to turn their protest movements into durable political change, expressed in the form of new institutions and policies”.

Ii is hard to know where to begin in evaluating Fukuyama’s thesis, for the extent of its generalisations and accordingly simplifications, leave one dumfounded.  We are offered up a global, universal agent (the agent of Fukuyama’s fantasy of modernity as the end of history) with common interests and aspirations, which if only given political form (i.e., programs, policies and institutions) will guide us all to a liberal-capitalist utopia.  We then learn that this same agent is divided, as in turkey it is divided between a “new, pious and highly entrepreneurial middle class” that “works hard and saves its money (a sort of contemporary incarnation of Weber’s puritan Christians) and a “more secular” and “more connected to modernist values” middle class.  Brazil’s middle class exhibits parallel inconsistencies, with an older body desirous of continued state protection and clientalism, versus a more “entrepreneurial minority” that may seek to “reform the Brazilian political system as a whole”.

Our universal actor is therefore not so universal after all.  How then are these contradictions to be explained?  It cannot again be by appeal to the same concept of the middle class.  Other factors, historical, political, economic, social and the like are necessary to mention and analyse.  But then the unifying and explanatory role that the concept is made to play by Fukuyama begins to unravel.  And if it is extended to encompass the French, Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions, then it becomes effectively useless.

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The concept of a middle class has always been sociologically dubious, bringing together as it does an enormous variety of people on the basis of criteria such as income, education, employment or property ownership.  Seemingly exhaustive, the criteria are in fact vague (How much income is a middle class income? How much and what kind of education defines a middle class education? What kind of employment (industrial labour, high or low end service sector, contractual, precarious, CEO or cleaning staff, etc.) marks someone as a middle class employee?  What kinds of private assets (thousands or millions in investment funds or a house fully mortgaged to a bank) qualifies one as a middle class property owner?).  More than a sociological concept, the “middle class” has always functioned as a political concept, a political concept that helps to cover over relations of power, of domination and exploitation, in capitalist societies.  And it is a political exercise that Fukuyama is engaged in.

Fukuyama reduces the protests of turkey and brazil, and before them tunisia and Egypt, to movements of middle class youth armed with Facebook and Twitter.  This is patently false, as any attentive reading of these events reveals.  In fact, these events have histories of protest behind them; histories animated by a diversity of social movements, from labour unions, student groups, associations of marginalised populations (the unemployed, the homeless, the landless), political organisations from a broad spectrum of traditions, political parties, and so on.  To reduce all of this to a middle class agency is not only false, it serves also, at least conceptually, to domesticate the protests (Fukuyama insists that the middle class is incapable by itself to bring about lasting political change, requiring thereby alliances with other social classes, though also securing for itself the role of vanguard, a role in turn to be delegated to an appropriate political leadership.  (An ironic coincidence occurs here between Fukuyama’s analysis and Alain Badiou’s insistence that the turkish protests require political organisation if they are to be more than an ephemeral agitation – for Badiou, see the blog of Cengiz Erdem)), as well as to mask the much more radical nature and potential of these movements.

Slavoj Žižek’s take on the recent protests has the merit of at least attending to the events at hand.  (London Review of Books 18/07/2013)  That there have been protests this year in turkey, sweden, brazil and elsewhere, that is in countries held up as prosperous or on the way to so becoming, suggests clearly that there is “trouble in paradise”.  In the cases of turkey and brazil, this is clearly expressed in the “anti-capitalist thrust” of the uprisings, a “thrust” that is paradoxically revealed in the absence of “any identifiable ‘real’ goal”.  “The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular.  What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands. … Is this just a struggle against corrupt city administration?  Is it a struggle against authoritarian Islamist rule?  Is it a struggle against the privatisation of public space?  The question is open, and how it is answered will depend on the result of an ongoing political process”.

Whereas Fukuyama’s global middle class does find voice in specific demands, the “reality of the ground” testifies to something much more akin to diffuse indignation wih capitalism “as a system” and with “the institutionalised form of representative multi-party democracy” as insufficient to fight against “capitalist excess”.  In sum, “democracy has to be reinvented”.

Where Žižek then goes astray is in his conviction that for such movements to gain a grip on reality, to become politically relevant, that they must concentrate, directly or indirectly, on the fundamental social antagonisms that mark their societies’ systems of domination.  “Here there is no shame in recalling the Maoist distinction between principal and secondary antagonisms, between those that matter most in the end and those that dominate now”.  Though Žižek does not elaborate on the matter here, he does defend that such a politics demands foresight, strategy, and organisation, qualities only presumably possible for an institutionalised political agency.

There is a “totalitarian” temptation here that Žižek recognises, but it is a temptation itself rooted in a social ontology of societies marked by fundamental fractures that a real political movement must act upon, if it is to radically change society.  The question is what and where exactly are those fundamental, or even secondary, antagonisms?  If we take capitalism as a social system in movement and comprised of a multiplicity of social relations constructed upon the fields of class battles, with class identities not fixed but constantly in the making, the antagonisms of the system are possibly everywhere, that is, they are to be found in all of our daily relations.  We make capitalism, some of course with much greater benefit than others;  What is then called for, in an anti-capitalist struggle, is not to be imagined along the lines of a battle front marking the prime antagonism, but a much more diffuse and diverse politics of processes of withdrawal and creation.

‘Capital’ is not something ‘out there’, something that we can fight against as if it were external to us and part of someone or something else – even if we sometimes talk about it as if it is. …   Capital is a social relation mediated through commodities.  Capital is the way we live, the way we reproduce ourselves and our world – the entire organisation of the ‘present state of things’ as they are today.

In this nightmare vision of invisible, even ‘totalitarian’ control, it might appear hard to see what space is left for anti-capitalist movements.  But if capital is primarily a social (class) relation, and if the capital relation is a global relation, then capital is contested everywhere.

(The Free Association, “Anti-capitalist movements”, Moments of Excess: Movements, protest and everyday life, pp. 14, 19)

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The lessons to be taken from the Turkish protests now begin to take on a new light, and rather than continue on our own, what follows is a partial translation-summary of a conversation with Paul Ballanfat, professor of philosophy at Galatasaray University in Istanbul and the Periódico Diagonal of spain; a dialogue that sought to bring out what might be the most significant features of the Taksim Commune.  This is not to hide behind another, nor to agree with all that follows.  However, much that follows rings true to us.  What then Ballanfat seeks to articulate is a politics of non-sovereign freedom, what he calls a non-politics, where the poet confounds the ruler.

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Reflections on the rebellions in Turkey

(Periódico Diagonal 09/08/2013)

The unexpected expected

In one way or the other, everyone says it: the events in turkey were a surprise.  They were something unexpected.  No one thought of a mobilisation on such a scale, no one believed it possible that Turkish society would abandon the state of inertia in which it found itself to express itself in such a radical manner.  It was nevertheless something that was expected. There was no date: it was in no one’s agenda, but it was known that it would happen.  It would occur sooner or later.  However, for professor Ballanfat: “Personally, I didn’t expect this so soon”.

In 2007, the politics of Erdogan showed themselves to be far more centralising and authoritarian.  They soon carried out all of the necessary “moves” to render all opposition impossible: purging of the army, warnings to and imprisonment of journalists, the use of legislation against students to prevent the extension to Turkey of the Greek protests.  The university students had begun to struggle against the education and university reforms.  Furthermore, amidst the many impositions, one must not forget the religious dimension of the government project.  Ballanfat: “Erdogan always had an Islamist program, but after the rejection of Turkey by the European community, this program was intensified.  In the last years, Erdogan must have thought that he was sufficiently strong to go even further in Islamist legislation”.   In this way, the social explosion was expected, but it was overwhelmed by uncertainty.

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The protest that begins in Gezi Park

a) “Never seen before”.  It is something that is repeated constantly, the immigrants, the turks, the youth … but also by older people: “What happened in Gezi Park was something never seen before”.  But let us not be mistaken, what was never seen before has not only to do with the scale, but above all with the form that events took.  For … Paul Ballanfat: “In comparison to other youth protests that have occurred recently (the indignados in Spain, Greece …), this was the most exemplary, the most notable movement.  Why?  Because it involved the organisation of a commune in a particular place without a political system as we always think of it: an arche (a principle of rule), representation, competences shared between movements, etc. …”.

Gezi Park was in addition a place of encounter that lasted two weeks and that was able to distance itself from all temptations of violence.  “It succeeded in establishing that it was outside of the political conflict with power, it was able to safeguard its position while other movements fell into the police trap, always thereby entering into the conflict as it is defined by power”, Ballanfat states.  It is not a minor point.  The movement never gave into provocation.  The people of gezi Park limited themselves to staying in the Park.  The people in the streets did nothing other than walk in the streets.  The violence always came from the side of the police.  The confrontations were responses that never degenerated into uncontrolled violence.  Had this been the case, it would have served as the justification for brutal violence on the part of the State, because it always needs confrontation.

On the other hand, in Gezi Park, different elements of Turkish society gathered together.  Gezi allowed for the destruction of certain obstacles that difficult or impossible being together.  This fraternal energy already existed: in social networks, in personal friendships, between families. … In Turkey, there is a diversity that co-exists, without the possibility or the strength to show itself.  The political occasion to unite, to create a space, to be together and show or realise something which existed previously, that was there, was missing.  The political occasion was Gezi Park.  Organisations that are historically inimical, for example, Kemalists and the PKK, resolved to stay in the same space.  In this sense, Gezi also permitted a joining of extremes.

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b) Without a political program.  At this point, it is impossible not to refer to the text by Alain Badiou on the events in Turkey.  A counter-text that answers Badiou would require more spqce to lay out in detail the gaps into which the French philosopher falls, as well as to reveal his political project.  It is nevertheless important to signal that he develops a lamentable reading that wants to see and impose a political program on something that has no political form.  The movement in turkey in general and in Gezi Park in particular is a movement that contests the political.  It is not an a-political or non-political movement, but a movement which criticises the political.

In this respect, Ballanfat notes: “Instead of the metaphysical reconstruction that Badiou desires, it is the Nietzschean transhumant that appears: not a revolution, but a fundamentally anti-metaphysical movement.  Erdogan and Badiou are engaged in the same combat, they are the two faces of the same coin, they work together, each needs the other; both operate in the same political world”.

For his part, Badiou endeavours to recognise in the Turkish events the realisation of his own political project.  “If you want that there be a project, an organisation, if you want to see a rebellion that can be so categorised, either it transforms itself into a revolution or it disappears.  But this is neither a rebellion nor a revolution”, says the professor of philosophy of the University of Istanbul.  As it happens, there are circumstances that some academics fail to appreciate.  “Badiou commits a monumental mistake in ignoring the Turkish context.  The use of humour by this movement is terribly evident and it is an old Turkish tradition of Anatolia.  It is something specifically Turkish: humour against the system.  Yet it responds to nothing because its goal is not to take power, nor to construct a political project; it serves solely to reaffirm its position and to determine what the system is”, Paul Ballanfat reflects.  That is, through humour, to see the political system as it is.

Finally, Gezi can be understood as a true utopia.  Not a utopia that brings with it a political model, but as a without place, an absence of topos or the impossibility of giving a place.  There is a potential in indetermination; the strength of that which lacks form, of that which evades all types of form.  It, as a result of the fact that no centre was sought, refused to determine a legislating principle; there was no elaboration of a government at Gezi.  If, in effect, there were codes, these were not imposed by force.  There was a necessity to sanction some principles to have people respect those around them who made up this movement.

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c) The outside.  It needs to be recalled that the Polis created by Plato was not spontaneous.  It was the product of a fabrication: an authority, a few principles, legislation, legitimacy, etc;  In this project, Plato traced a line of delimitation between the Polis and an outside.  The outside will be the place of those poets who do not submit to the political order, for one of the fundamental principles of Plato’s Polis is that the production of the poets must be controlled.  Their works, in the interior of the Polis, should abide by the dictated norms.  Well then, Gezi Park represents this “outside”.  “The people developed in Gezi a place that is no place, that is a non-place because it has no principles, a place that is in effect at the margin of the political, outside the Polis.  Before Plato, the poets were integrated in a world where such things were mixed, con-fused.  Thanks to Plato’s Polis, there is an outside and this outside on occasion takes leave”.  On other words, Gezi Park is the emergence of this outside that radically criticises the political and all of the instruments that are specific to it.  “In Gezi, there was for the first time a consciousness of the collapse of the political.  People felt the necessity to fix our accounts with the political.  This is truly important”.

d) Failure.  What will happen next?  This was the question that was asked every night of the encampment of the park.  What it reveals is our difficulty to think outside the categories and the forms of the political.  It is a question that someone like Badiou pretends to answer.  And he answered it.  This type of movement is however condemned to failure: if it becomes political, that is, if it decides to act under the norms of the Polis, that is, if it compromises itself with that which it denounces.  “The only success of this movement is to be found in its failure.  The failure has to be withstood.  Yes, it is condemned to failure.  But this is good”.  The Gezi Park and the Standing Man protests are tightly linked, they belong to the same logic against the political: “On est là, on est là et on vous emmerde!”

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City without shadows  

Our contemporary societies pronounce with pride the word democracy.  They nevertheless exercise repression with precision; they dream with authoritarianism as their best face, the most solid, the most present, the most profound.  This dream is not for them some distant idyllic horizon, but a progressive realisation.  The fine tuning of the methods converts itself into the labour of artisans.  The technological, the legislative, the visual, the communicative … they are all connected with mastery to the arbitrariness of the police.  The strength of the State’s apparatuses is rendered subtle, in this way maximising their effectiveness.  That there be no fold, no pleat out of control!  In this way we summarise the will of the State to penetrate private life, recording all details, knowing each segment.  There are spaces with which the State does not bother, but its desire is divine omnipresence.  This is the typical attitude of neo-liberal capitalism.  The anti-capitalism of Gezi park raises itself precisely against this system that does not wish for there to remain private spaces, but on the contrary seeks to found a system of total transparency, to imagine a Polis without shadows.  Ballanfat: “Again, that very truth of Plato’s Polis is that the Polis must be placed beneath the sun in such a way that no shadow remains.  One lives accordingly in a totalitarian system where shadow must be suppressed”.  The movement in Turkey rises up saying: “But no! Shadows exist!”  Gezi would be this shadow zone, the black hole of a cosmos that does not desire to be known in its integrity.

Ballanfat: “Gezi is the black hole of the poets.  If the poets are outside of the Polis, this means that they are not controlled, that what they say is not known … There is a place that remains night, there is night; there is not only day, night exists”.  A very nocturnal night that is full of music, dancing, song, wine, sex.  These are places that the gaze of the State does not succeed in penetrating; places where the radiant light of control does not triumph, where shadows are fought for against transparency.

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Brandon Jourdan and Marianne Maeckelbergh, of the Global Uprisings news and video collective, have produced an excellent document about Gezi Park, The Taksim Commune: Gezi Park and the Uprising in Turkey.

From the site …

This short documentary tells the story of the occupation of Gezi Park, the eviction on July 15, 2013, and the protests that have continued in the aftermath. It includes interviews with many participants and footage never before seen.

Since the end of May 2013, political unrest has swept across Turkey. In Istanbul, a large part of the central Beyo?lu district became a battle zone for three consecutive weeks with conflicts continuing afterward. So far five people have died and thousands have been injured.

The protests were initially aimed at rescuing Istanbul’s Gezi Park from being demolished as part of a large scale urban renewal project. The police used extreme force during a series of police attacks that began on May 28th 2013 and which came to a dramatic head in the early morning hours of Friday May 31st when police attacked protesters sleeping in the park.

Over the course of a few days, the police attacks grew to shocking proportions. As the images of the heavy-handed policing spread across the world, the protests quickly transformed into a popular uprising against the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his style of authoritarian rule.

 

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