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Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters
A Turkish riot policeman above attacks protesters with tear gas in an attempt to prevent them from gathering at Gezi Park, the last green area in İstanbul Taksim Square. Police officer’s rage is understandable, for in Taksim Gezi Park, we witness angry protesters who have turned Turkey upside down. What Gezi revolt suggests is that the people of Turkey are no longer determined by the climate of fear but determine the conditions that determine them. Thus Gezi Park signals the arrival of an era in which the politics of hope extinguishes the politics of fear. It shows the interaction between revolt and courage that is at war with visible reality (Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule). Gezi revolt, therefore, represents a movement in which the stability and the certainty of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule became yesterday’s bad memory. Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul’s entertainment district known for its restaurants, shops and cafes, makes a powerful setting for struggle.
But in Taksim Gezi Park, no one looks entertained. Rather the conservative imperative to “obey” ceases to exist and is replaced by genuinely angry and determined human beings who do not protest just against the cutting down of trees in Taksim Gezi Park and the redevelopment of it into a shopping mall, or the imposition of religious-conservative values such as restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol, the morning-after pill and abortion, or Erdogan’s religion-based foreign policy that caused bombings in Reyhanlı near the Syrian border, or the killing of 34 innocent Kurdish civilians in Uludere after a Turkish military air strike, but against Erdoğan himself. They put the authoritarianism of Erdoğan in the dock. As the revolts have made clear, authoritarian policies and a fear of police and state power are insufficient answers to the question of how to govern a pluralistic society. Everyone knows that Gezi revolt and its slogan “This is just the beginning, our struggle will continue!” against Erdoğan tells the truth, the truth of a repressive rule coming to an end. The slogan reflects, in other words, a radical shift, a radical critique that focuses on the internal dynamics of the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP, for the phrase focuses attention on the disrespect, the immoderateness, the lawlessness and the religious and authoritarian policies that characterise Erdoğan’s rule.
The Gezi revolt has received considerable attention from international press as well as academic journals and blogs. Society & Space open site has also published commentaries that provide a background for June revolts in Turkey. For instance, Mustafa Dikeç argues that Gezi revolt is “the spatialization of resentment that has been growing over the years” because of Erdoğan’s authoritarian governance. Mark Purcell sees in Gezi revolt “a strong resonance with democracy” in which there are “multiple desires, agendas, forces, and people.” Drawing on Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air, Marijn Nieuwenhuis argues that “the ongoing struggle over Gezi Park and other spaces around Turkey (and beyond) are no longer primarily being fought on the ground. They are instead increasingly taking place in the air.” Timur Hammond also explores “some of the geopolitical and historical imaginaries woven into the government response to the protests.” In what follows, however, I take a different route, arguing that Gezi revolt is closely related to the idea of event, which enables a passage between the virtual and the actual. I suggest that Gezi revolt enables us to see the world and time within the perspective of virtuality rather than a linear, determinist time.
The AKP has been quite successful in bringing together neoliberalism and authoritarian conservatism, creating a regime of governance characterized by market-driven relations and motivated by (Sunni) Islamic ethics and principles. In this sense Gezi revolt is not only against “state-led Islamisation” but against “state-led-neoliberalism and ever-increasing repression” of AKP government as well (see Dikeç). What we see in Taksim Gezi Park, however, is the end of AKP’s repressive neoliberal and conservative order, which is going out of joint. Indeed, in a naive expectation of an “advanced democracy” and a “just justice”, what the people of Turkey get instead is authoritarian urban neoliberal conservatism, a network of cruel and militarized police state that has come to define Turkish politics in contemporary times. In brief, it is AKP’s dividing and marginalizing authoritarian governance which has clearly emerged as the name of the problem. What we see in Gezi revolt instead is nothing other than radical critique which is inseparable from direct democracy.
In this sense, Gezi revolt is a turning point in Turkish history, a year of revolutionary becoming. Specifically, what made the revolts in Turkey unexpected is the fact that they occurred at the hands of the people of Turkey, who demanded freedom and justice. What we could and should learn from Gezi revolt is that the people of Turkey aren’t powerless, indifferent, depotentialized; they have a choice. The event is not far away. Central, then, to Gezi revolt is the idea of event, which enables an opening to the virtual within the actual. Gezi revolt has demonstrated that history is a theater, a virtual potentiality where human actors can produce new events. In short, the event occurs between us, the people of Turkey, who have been silent for a long time—“people, who are present in the world but absent from its meaning and decisions about its future” (Badiou, 2012: 56). Thus Gezi revolt has illustrated how the notion of people is an invitation to the commitment to the event. The people of Turkey are no longer silent and fearful. It is Erdogan’s repressive and antisecularist rule and the surveillance state that are afraid of the people now.
How should we read the sign of this process? Quoting the French historian Andre Monglond, Benjamin (1999: 482) writes, “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly” (see also Žižek, 2012). Gezi revolt is such a sign from the future, referring to a dialectical image in the Benjaminian sense rather than making a vulgar historical claim that revolution has already fully actualized. Hence, “we should turn around the usual historicist perspective of understanding an event out of its context and genesis” (Žižek, 2012: 128). Revolutionary events cannot be understood in this way: instead of analyzing them from the usual historicist perspective, we should affirm the interaction between the actual and the virtual, an interaction which enables us to see Gezi revolt as a sign from an utopian future “which lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential” (Žižek, 2012: 128). Referring to a Proustian dimension, Deleuze (1989: 39) argues that “people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one they have in space.” The magical word in this respect is in place which is here, whose time is not the chronological empty time but the now-time, the time of the emancipated future, the future of revolution. After all, revolution is an ongoing process. What matters, therefore, is the interaction between signs from the future and “the radical openness of the future”, for it contains unpredictable and contingent potentialities. In short, revolutionary signs from the future should be seen as signs from a future full of potentiality, which will become actualized if we remain open to that future and read these sings as guides (Žižek, 2012: 128).
In Gezi revolt, masses seized the moment and were seized by the moment. As such, the space of the event iss not reducible to the empirical space. For this reason, one should never underestimate the political power of place because it can become a space of critique, dissensus and collective resistance to build new, potential worlds. Gezi revolt has demonstrated that people can clearly use places to house political energy. While the free movement of capital exists as an invisible abstraction, occupying a place is exceedingly concrete, a visible presence at “the spaces of hope.” The politics of hope, it seems, finds “shelter nowhere but in the tents pitched on public squares” (Bauman, 2012: 14). Instead of the market, or competition, the protesters depend upon cooperation; instead of reckless individuality, they rely upon collective solidarity. In this sense, Gezi revolt is an indication of how places are common grounds; they haunt the imaginations of people who can build a consciousness toward existence. The place is intimately connected to the event:
In the stride of an event, the People is made of those who know how to solve the problems brought about by the event. Thus, in the takeover of a square: food, sleeping arrangements, watchmen, banners, prayers, defensive actions, so that in the place where it all happens, the place that is the symbol, is kept for the safeguarded for the people, at any price. Problems that, at the level of the hundreds of thousands of risen people mobilized from everywhere, seemed insoluble, all the more that in this place the State has virtually disappeared (Badiou, 2011).
In Taksim Gezi Park, time was experienced intensively: in the tent city some kind of elemental process took place where the living fabric of life was transformed into the experimental commune. In other words, Gezi revolt has transformed the place into a virtual center in which new potentialities emerged. Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and police brutality against peaceful protesters in Gezi Park has united many factions of Turkey—socialists, communists, Alevis, unions, Kemalists, Kurds, and members of the gay and transgender communities despite political, sectarian, ethnic and social differences. There was incessant political debate. Gezi Park has created an immense impetus for the intentional acting of a political subjectivity. Everything was shared, from space to beds and food. Developing a culture of dissent and confrontation, the protesters shared ideas/thoughts, avidly discussing them, mobilizing a life around an idea. As a result, Gezi Park became microcosm of debate, a profusion of ideas, a site of encounters.
Concomitantly, the protesters not only struggle against Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule, but also against the dirty tricks used by the police and the media. Mobilizing the repressive state apparatus of the police, Erdoğan and his allies do everything to savage the protesters, smear the opponents, and manipulate, channel and repress the protesters’ tremendous energy. Despite all these difficulties, the demonstrating masses’ appeal must be understood at the level of determination and courage, which are keys to a transformed relationship with the world, a world of becoming. What we’ve learned from the Gezi revolt is that the repressive and neoliberal policies of the AKP government is not the only alternative—in short the realization that there is an alternative. Before Occupy Gezi Park, one couldn’t even imagine an alternative to Erdoğan and the AKP. But the Gezi revolt has shown that we can now at least imagine new political possibilities. That is to say, it has finally managed to break the 11-year stronghold of neoliberal authoritarian conservatism that has been placed on the people’s thoughts and imagination.
The Gezi revolt and the alternative political possibilities it has revealed may yet prove to be a catalyst for radical structural change. That is not the point. The Gezi revolt is a turning point in modern Turkish history, not because it succeeded in putting Erdogan’s and the AKP’s overbearing personality at the center of debate, which so recently seemed the only game in town, but also because it has illustrated how courage can rekindle hope in the possibility of the event. Occupying a park day and night, surrounded by crowds shaking the ground with a joy of togetherness and friendship, is a change, already happening and shared.
The Gezi revolt caused the people of Turkey to think politics might be possible. That realization should deepen and enrich us. Thus we should begin to imagine and experiment with what is possible, since the virtual bears no relationship with the existing order. After all, freedom is valuable in so far as it can mean experimenting with the link between what exists and what happens. Of course nothing in the long run is only going to be changed by just occupying space. And we still do not know where the Gezi revolt will lead Turkey, for we are dealing here not with a determinate event which cannot be explained by economic and political causality, but the event as a process that is still going on. For the Gezi revolt to succeed in the long term, the creative dimensions of politics need to be put to work, rather than translated into power’s language. Only in this way can social change be effected without falling back upon meaningless destruction and the revolts have the potential on Erdoğan’s repressive government.
The loss of Gezi Park has inadvertently led to other creative events, which makes it impossible for the AKP to contain or repress. The duran adam (‘standing man’) protest and park forums--an unprecedented exercise in direct democracy--for instance, constitute a living alternative to the repressive and religious policies of the AKP government. Thus hope is always alive as these forums and other creative acts could develop into a major revolutionary movement in Turkey. Though the revolts are still in their infancy, the people of Turkey have the opportunity to embrace and make them their own. For five weeks now, Turkey’s political system has already been shaken by park forums and the acts of hundreds of thousands of participants simply demanding freedom, justice and equality. Thus the Gezi revolt has already created a new Turkey and unprecedented solidarity amongst the people of Turkey. They know very well that they have nothing to lose, but a more democratic and equal future to gain. Taksim Gezi Park may have been evicted, but the spirit of Occupy Gezi continues to live in the hearts and lives of the people of Turkey.
I am grateful to Mehmet Barış Kuymulu and the editors of Society and Space for their comments on an earlier version.