Open Democracy: Turkey and neoliberalism, a prequel to #occupyGezi – Kerem Nişancıoğlu

The drive to reclaim a people’s right to their city led to the revival of Turkish civic identity and highlighted the growing importance of social capital. Why did it take so long for Turkey?


Street art in Istanbul. Flickr/StuRap. Some rights reserved.

Before the summer of 2013, Turkey was considered one of the few success stories of the post-2008 global political economy. Within the last decade the country had experienced unprecedented economic growth, rolled out hitherto unimaginable political reforms and established itself as a regional geopolitical power. That this had taken place under the direction of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) gave rise to the image of the Turkish ‘model’ – an ideal example of a stable democracy in a predominantly Muslim society forother states to follow in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

As a sign of this stability, there was seemingly no political agency either willing or capable of posing a challenge to the hegemony of the AKP. Many believed that the defining feature of urban Turkish youth was the individualistic self-indulgence typical of late capitalist consumerism, and a widespread disengagement with social, political and economic issues.

This appeared to represent the temporal closure of political imagination predicted by Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’, and absence of any alternative visions of what society should look like. But how do we explain Turkey’s depoliticisation prior to Gezi? And does answering this question shed any light on how and why, in 2013, this very same individualistic and apolitical youth paradoxically became the driving force in Turkey’s biggest movement of political contestation since the 1970s?

Displacement of dissent

Many have correctly attributed the retreat of political contestation to the state violence that followed the 1980 military coup. Without wishing to detract in any way from such explanations, it is necessary to superimpose complementary (and therefore in themselves partial) accounts of the sort of political subjectivity that has emerged specifically in the AKP era of neoliberalisation.

Focusing on Istanbul, the explanation offered suggests that the shutting down of political alternatives implied by the AKPs end-of-history discourse, have been broadly circumscribed by enclosures of urban space under the auspices of Istanbul’s regeneration programme. More specifically, the 1980 coup not only violently expelled the agents of political contestation from Turkish public life, it also cleared the way for shifts in the political economy of Istanbul.

These shifts were marked by the transformation of the city, away from being the centre of import-substitution manufacturing of the Kemalist developmentalist state, to a post-Fordist site of financial, service and cultural production – a Global City. Such transformations created a city of enclaves, producing a state of banal disengagement, brought on by a sudden and involuntary loss of access to social and political wellbeing for the majority of Istanbul’s population.

These processes have been mostly felt in Istanbul’s numerous ‘gecekondus’. Springing up on top of unoccupied sites of state-owned land from the late 1940s onwards, these squatted neighbourhoods were built by rural migrant workers who provided labour for Istanbul’s burgeoning industrial sector. Owing to their working-class character, many gecekondus became sites for radical left networks of solidarity, unionisation, education, social welfare, political organisation and prefigurative social experiments.

By the late 1970s, as protests, direct action and political confrontations with the state escalated, some gecekondus functioned as de facto autonomous zones – strongholds of the left – while others became sites of contestation between fascist, communist, Islamist and mafia groups. During the extensive and brutal state violence unleashed by the 1980 coup in the decades that followed, gecekondus came under attack. Community leaders were jailed, tortured or murdered, and all avenues of political organising and participation were effectively shut down by police repression.

These ‘idyllic proceedings’ of state violence cleared the way for the neoliberalisation of the economy. But they also indicated the start of a spatial disconnection of the gecekondus from wide sections of Istanbul’s political life. Previously depicted as “the place of dangerous classes”, the squatter communities were reframed as “the place of danger” to be separated from ‘normal’ and ‘civilised’ neighbourhoods.

In 1995, following violent street protests, one commentator summed up his attitude to gecekondus by excluding them from the future conceptions of Istanbul: ”Slums are different worlds, I understood when I came here these are different worlds. Is this Istanbul? Will this place be integrated into Europe? Is this place in Istanbul?” Later, in 2007, Erdoğan Bayraktar, president of TOKİ – the state agency for ‘social’ housing and one of the biggest drivers of property development and privatization of state land – echoed these sentiments when identifying the gecekondu ‘problem‘: “…terror, drugs, psychological negativity, health problems and oppositional views all come out of gecekondu zones and irregular areas. For this reason a Turkey that wants to integrate with the world, that wants to join the EU, must rid itself of illegal dwellings.”

“A vast, conforming suburb of the soul.”

These ideological attacks on gecekondus and other working class communities indicated a broader shift in the political economy of Istanbul to a post-Fordist Global City – a metropolis, constructed in the image of international elites, that met the functional requirements of consumerism, tourism, and finance capital. As services, finance and cultural production came to dominate Istanbul’s economy, the light manufacturing industries were closed or ‘decentralized’ to areas outside of the city, thus rendering gecekondus ‘useless’ in their existing function as a source of cheap Fordist labour. Nonetheless, as geographically central and visible areas in Istanbul’s rapidly developing metropolis, they became a blight on the idealised image of the Global City. But simultaneously, they were occupied land of immense commercial potential.

Much of the violence towards, and vilification of, these communities thus became additionally related to a new ruling class frustration that the undeserving poor had squatted such valuable locations. From around 2004 onwards, many gecekondus were earmarked by TOKİ as urban regeneration projects. This put in motion a rapid and often brutal process of displacement and relocation of Istanbul’s urban poor. Despite many (and some partially successful) attempts to resist the machinations of TOKİ, the overall effect has been to render the urban poor and ethnic and religious minorities of these neighbourhoods “powerless” over their own destiny, and unable to imagine or construct alternative futures.

In their place, Istanbul now sees highly securitised condominiums, gentrified inner-city areas, gated cultural centres and an increasingly absurd number of shopping centres from which the urban poor are excluded, either economically or physically. Such enclaves have been transformed into sterile, controlled and watched spaces, only accessible to the rich, and free from any contamination by the dangerous underclasses. By excluding these politicised communities from participation in the Global City, Istanbul has been emptied of political content, and filled with a static, idealised, projection of a neoliberal utopia – a banal territory of elite consumerism, or in the words of J. G. Ballard: “a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.” The creation of these homogenous spaces – the desire to keep out the tragedy and guilt that comes with a visible underclass – thus involves a “narcissistic imprisonment” which obliterates “the emancipated aspect of the city, impromptu encounters with different people [and] the chance to enrich oneself with the appropriation of the ‘other’ worlds.”

The emancipated city

Insofar as we can define politics as the contestation of different interests, be they material or ideological, these involuntary and voluntary imprisonments and exclusions structure the present annihilation of politics as such. This resonates with the phenomena identified by others under the rubric of the dystopic condition – the closure from our imagination of any contestation or alternatives to a social reality over which we have very little control. Depoliticisation in the dystopic condition refers not to apathy, but cynicism. In the words of Frederic Jameson, this is a political consciousness that “knows everything about our own society, everything that is wrong with late capitalism, all the structural toxicities of the system, and yet declines indignation in a kind of impotent lucidity”. It instead remains hidden, trapped and bounded by the spatial enclaves created by the Global City.

The dynamics of enclosure undergirding the Global City therefore constitute the spatio-cultural element of Istanbul’s condition of political suspended animation prior to Gezi. But moreover, grasping this spatial component of the dystopic condition can also help us begin to understand the relevance of Gezi Park as the spark that set off a more general protest against the AKP and its distinctive brand of authoritarian neoliberalism.

It was in the ‘Gezi commune’ that the ideals of the ‘emancipated city’ were fleetingly realised – surprise, heterogeneity, contestation, and a subsequent political enrichment through encounters with those otherwise excluded or forgotten. It is not by accident that the spell of cynicism was broken by conscious attempts to reclaim the right to the city from capitalist appropriation. And it’s not by accident that the contestation took place in the streets of the city, rather than the ballot box.

Kerem Nişancıoğlu
18 December 2013