Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Government response to protests in Turkey: class war from above

By Cihan Tugal

In one of his vitriolic reactions to the revolts in Taksim Square, the Turkish Prime Minister rhetorically asked: “When did the feet become the head?” He had characterized the protesters as looters from the beginning. He ultimately depicted them as an underclass striving to wrest power from the rulers.

There are, in fact, revolutionary left-wing groups among the protesters. Moreover, in the first week of the revolts throughout Turkey, a handful of low- income neighborhoods and towns also joined in the protests.

However, the Taksim resistance started out as a middle-class movement against the commodification of urban space; shortly turned into a multi-class revolt against authoritarianism; but eventually, middle-class actors and demands for democracy (and, fleetingly, the right to urban space) remained in the center. Why does the Prime Minister insist on seeing a revolutionary threat in a predominantly middle-class revolt?

The Turkish regime’s insistence on portraying the protesters as uncultured “vandals” is in line with its decade-old strategy. Turkey’s new regime is based on an aggressive class for from above in the absence of a class war from below. In this effort, it has counted on fluctuating support from Turkish liberal intellectuals, Western regimes, and other transnational powers.

The new Turkish regime is also based on non-elite support. (The Prime Minister – who has repeated his warnings about the danger of “the feet becoming the head” several times throughout the years – is himself from a modest background.) The AKP government has pursued free market policies (which have spurred growth as well as inequality and unemployment) combined with means-tested benefits. It was mostly ethnic and sectarian majorities who benefited from these programs; they were also honored by the government’s emphasis on the country’s Turkish-Sunni heritage, as well as its imperial ambitions. As a result, despite its massive privatization, financialization, and de-unionization initiatives, the regime can count on popular classes.

This popularly supported (and in that sense “democratic”) upper-class authoritarianism could only be weakened by outside shocks, such as defeat in war, global financial collapse, or the like. Even the financial crisis of 2008, however, disturbed the regime’s hegemony only slightly. It was only a global revolutionary wave (that linked protests in the US, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil) that threatened to throw the Turkish regime off-track.

The three wars in Turkey: a basic rights revolt, identity politics, and class war

The mood, as well as the tactics, of the global middle-class revolt of 2011 arrived belatedly in Turkey. Perhaps due to the time lag, it was immediately misconstrued overseas. The mainstream international media’s reflexes were in full swing in the first day of the protests. Newspapers looked at a democratic uprising in plain daylight, and all they saw was cultural identity politics. Certainly, Turkey was always home to a culture war for centuries. What the commentators failed to see was how this war was being eclipsed by another.

In the initial days of the protest, some secular nationalists (the protagonists of the culture wars) attempted to take over the Taksim Square. They miserably failed. The demands and press releases of the Taksim Square leaders all focused on issues of destructive urban renewal, police violence and the right to assembly.

Despite the presence of many socialists among the Taksim Square leaders, the course of the struggle attests to a quite modest middle-class fight for basic rights. But perhaps, the spread of similar movements throughout the globe in the last two years (and the rulers’ aggressive responses to them) points out that the current world order has become unable to meet middle-class demands.

Hence, despite its best intentions, middle-class mobilization (whether in the shape of Occupy, Tahrir or Taksim) has become a fatal threat. From the third day or so of the protests in Turkey, the regime has been trying to divide the protesters into “innocent environmentalists” and enemies of the state, looters, “marginal types.” It seems, however, that middle-class innocence is no longer possible. This impossibility is pushing the new regime to an excessively aggressive stance.

Identity politics, the favorite framework of the international media, does capture the mood in the rich neighborhoods. Several of the richest localities in Istanbul have participated in the protests. The slogans in these neighborhoods usually focus on the Islamicization project of the current government. To the extent that they strive to preserve their secular lifestyle, these elite protests could be seen as a part of a desire for democracy. However, the line between democratic defense and status defense (against the rising pious bourgeoisie) is quite thin in these chic spots. Although this elite struggle has not consolidated around distinct demands yet, the secular wing of the upper class could abuse middle-class mobilization in its turf wars against the pious upper class.

Is there any reason to think that the feet really desire to become the head in Turkey? Is the regime’s class war from above matched by a war from below? Revolutionary working-class demands, such as an end to exploitation and the overthrow of capitalism, have been voiced only passingly in Taksim. The likely popular bases for these demands (informal and formal working-class neighborhoods) have participated weakly, even though two of the three protesters who have lost their lives were workers. A class war from below is next to non-existent.

Given the balance of forces in Turkey, it is quite unlikely for wider sectors of the working class to mobilize in support of the Taksim revolt. Yet, without their support, it is impossible for the middle class to achieve its demands (as it is faced with an uncompromising regime and its inflexible, pious upper class).

No magic wand (say, EU membership) can bring freedom to Turkey. A full democracy (including basic rights, such as the right to urban space) would be possible only through a sustained coalition of the middle and working classes. The Taksim revolt might not have the capacity to build such a coalition, but it can certainly be a beginning.