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I think and write a lot about democracy, but I find relating this work to contemporary events like the those in Turkey to be a real challenge. I do not want to colonize the events by interpreting them as nothing more than confirmation of theoretical arguments I have made previously. But I also want to say that it is possible to see in those events—at times, and here and there—a strong resonance with democracy as I understand it. To do that, I begin by affirming that there are multiple desires, agendas, forces, and people involved in shaping the events in Turkey. These desires interrelate in complex ways, and so it is not possible to characterize these events generally, to reduce them to one guiding logic, like religion or ethnicity or environmentalism or authoritarianism. As a result I will not make statements like "everyone thinks the protests are about X, but really they are about Y." That's imperious. Such events are unavoidably about X and Y, they are always the result of a tangled mass of desires and actors. This is true in Turkey just as it was true in Egypt and Tunisia and Spain and Greece and Occupy and so on. So I will not offer any comprehensive statements that try to characterize the political soul of the events. I think the only thing I can do honestly is to pick out some political desires that I think are at work in Turkey, desires that are of particular interest to me because they resonate with a larger project that I believe in: to nurture and spread a political vision and practice of democracy. And so I write not so much to enlighten you about what's going on in Turkey, but to present a vision of politics that I hope you'll find compelling, maybe even to the point you'll join me in spreading the word.
Democracy means that people manage their affairs for themselves. Its etymology bears this out: people (dêmos) retain for themselves their own power (kratos) to create new things in the world. The dêmos acts together to make decisions for themselves. In democracy, people do not yield their power to an entity outside themselves. This means that members of a political community do not yield political control to a party or to a State. It means that participants in an economy do not yield control over money to banks, or control over production to those who own the means of that production. It means workers do not yield control over their struggle to unions. What yielding control in this way does is to produce oligarchy, a community in which a few rule the many. All States are oligarchies, whether they be liberal-democratic, autocratic, or otherwise, because they set aside a few State officials to rule the rest.
But the objection comes rapidly: surely we don't want a life in which everyone together makes every decision for themselves. It would be overwhelming, inefficient, exhausting. This objection is not wrong. And so we must think of democracy not as an end state that we hope to reach one day. It is not a stable polity at the end of history. It is, rather, a horizon. It is not a community called “democracy” but a process of becoming democratic. We should think of democracy as a perpetual struggle to increasingly retain for ourselves the power and responsibility of making decisions. This is just what Lefebvre is saying when he writes that “democracy is nothing other than the struggle for democracy”(2009: 61).
So, a perpetual struggle to become democratic. Such a struggle necessarily implies also a process of popular activation, of people becoming awake and alive and engaged in the world. Again, we should not imagine here an end-state in which everyone is fully activated. It is rather a struggle we could call becoming active, a struggle to progressively take onto our own shoulders the work of governing our affairs ourselves. Taking the perspective of becoming active helps obviate one of the classic objections to democracy, one that goes all the way back to Plato, which is that people are incompetent, they are not capable of managing their affairs for themselves. Becoming active suggests that people are neither fundamentally capable nor incapable of democracy. Rather it is a question of their practicing democracy, a question of whether or not they have had the opportunity to gain the experience and skills necessary to govern themselves. In this way, democracy is a matter also of growing up, a matter of becoming adult, of acquiring, through extensive practice, the competence and confidence that comes with managing oneself.
Of course democracy is never a solitary enterprise. When people become democratic, active, and adult, they must always do so in common, in a community with others. And so it is critical to understand what a properly democratic community is like. Clearly that question is too enormous to fully address here, but let me just say briefly that I conceptualize democratic community, with Deleuze and Guattari (1987), as a rhizomatic network. That is, democratic communities bring together a multitude of individuals who connect horizontally with multiple peers. They do not rely on a few vital connections to hierarchical superiors (as in an arboreal system), rather they they establish many inessential, superficial connections with equals. Each connection is inessential and impermanent. Flexibility and adaptability are the key to thriving, and so effective members of such networks tend to be promiscuous in their connections. For Deleuze and Guattari, a rhizomatic network is also a-centered or distributed, which means each peer has roughly the same number of connections as all the others. No one part of the network occupies a more central position than any other. Or rather, such centers of coordination do emerge, but they should not be permanent. When centrality emerges and operates for a time, it should always fall back into the distributed rhizomatic network.
One last thing: we can think this vision of democracy spatially through Lefebvre's work. In The Urban Revolution (2003) he argues that the struggle to manage our own affairs for ourselves, what he calls the struggle for autogestion, must necessarily involve struggle by urban inhabitants to manage the production of urban space. The city we inhabit today, the neoliberal city, is a classic oligarchy in which an elite few state experts and corporate managers manage urban space for everyone else. Democracy, for Lefebvre, necessarily involves a struggle by the inhabitants and users of space to move beyond this urban oligarchy, beyond the city of capitalism and the State, and toward an urban democracy in which inhabitants produce and manage urban space for themselves.
So it is perhaps not hard to see how events in Turkey can be seen to resonate with this vision. Clearly the State and business interests have been pursuing a sweeping agenda of urban transformation in Turkey that involves both commercial and infrastructure development. The initial resistance to the redevelopment of Gezi Park was clearly inspired by a concern for physical and ecological outcomes like the loss of trees and open space. But we can also see in those actions a desire to no longer be excluded, a desire among inhabitants to participate in decisions that produce urban space. The attempt to site yet another shopping mall in place of one of the few remaining open and green spaces in the city made it apparent to many that those who live in and use the space of the city are not calling the shots. And it showed that those who are calling the shots have a different interest in the city than inhabitants do. So part of what we might choose to see in the struggle for Gezi Park, it seems to me, is a desire among inhabitants to no longer have Istanbul produced for them, but to produce it themselves. And the Erdogan government's unapologetically autocratic style helps here to awaken and energize this desire.
We can see something similar, I think, in the much-reported act of protesters cleaning the streets once they have been able to successfully seize and hold a space. Some have read this act as an attempt by protesters to show that they are not hooligans (as Erdogan claims), as an attempt to make clear that they are mature liberal-democratic citizens—responsible adults rather than misbehaving children. Certainly this is part of what is going on: it is a way for people to communicate to the oligarchs that the people are capable and should be trusted with making decisions.1 At the same time though, we could read this act as an expression of people's desire to begin the project of actually managing urban space for themselves. We might see it as people experimenting with autogestion, trying it out, seeing what its freedom and responsibility feels like, and testing themselves to see if they are up to the task. We might see it as not only the desire to demonstrate to the State that we are capable, but also a desire to show ourselves that we can do it. And as we do it, as we engage in acts of self-management like cleaning the streets, or distributing food, or arranging for medical care, all of which has been going on in Taksim Square—and went on also in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Athens, New York, etc.—we begin to realize that we are in fact capable, that what we perhaps thought was impossible is perfectly possible.
Along these lines we should also remember the popular assemblies in Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Zuccotti, and elsewhere that were a more explicit declaration by people that they wanted to manage their affairs for themselves. As the first declaration issued by the People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square in Athens put it:
For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us. We…have come to Syntagma Square…because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us. We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands. In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.
While similar assemblies may or may not become common in Turkey, there is very clearly much of the same dissatisfaction with government there, and in this case it is particularly focused on the figure of Erdogan. Much of this dissatisfaction flows from his penchant for autocratic majoritarianism, and so for those who oppose him there is certainly something like a classically Lockean desire for a better governmental structure to contain that majoritarianism, to make sure his electoral success does not augment his prerogative to the point of tyranny. This is of course the interpreation that the Western press relishes. And that Lockeanism no doubt exists. But again, we might also choose to see, in the mass of desires being articulated and enacted bodily in the streets of Turkish cities, a more basic desire among some participants to do things for themselves. A desire to cease relying on a father figure, on an expert, on an elected government; a desire to rely on themselves instead. A desire to take up the freedom and responsibility—and joy—of democracy.
One last point bears mentioning. Many have emphasized that the actions in Turkey have taken place mostly without union or party leadership, that large and diverse groups have been able to act, often effectively, without organized leaders. Much is made, for example, of the crowd in Gezi Park singing to drown out a speech by the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) (e.g. Cassano, 2013). For its part, the government claims the opposite, that the CHP is entirely behind the protests. Still others emphasize instead that the current explosion is the pay-off for years of patient and committed organizing by environmental, community, and labor activists. Here again, rather than argue over what is really going on, we can choose instead simply to pay attention to the fact that some people have created rhizomatic networks, at least to some degree. We can notice that there have been experiments, both intentional and not, with horizontal structures. We can observe that established unions and parties were once again not the driving force of the actions.2 We need to carefully examine what these experiments with rhizomatic community produced, what they felt like, what successes and failures they had, and what lessons they learned.
Again, I am not saying that the desires I have been drawing attention to in this article are more fundamental than other desires to understanding the events in Turkey. They may even be less important, more marginal, even unconscious. I am only claiming that the desires I have articulated are at work in Turkey. Some inhabitants do desire to manage urban space themselves and to connect with others in rhizomatic networks. Of course at the same time they also desire other things—secularism, liberal democracy, nationalism, political Islam, justice for ethnic minorities, respect for the LGBT community, etc. They may or may not desire those other things more than they desire democracy.3 And so my claim is only that the desire for democracy—real democracy—exists in the bodies and minds of people on the streets today in Turkey. I think that claim immediately proposes a certain political praxis: when we encounter something like the current situation in Turkey, we should be intentional about seeking the desire for democracy. We should learn to recognize it when we see it, pay careful attention to its texture, narrate it critically and yet supportively, augment its flow by connecting it with other such desires, allow it to flourish according to its own will, and help it proliferate everywhere. We find ourselves in an era when democratic desire seems to be sprouting, and exploding, in city after city, all over the world. We have no need for a vanguard to activate the people, no need to invent or bring to life the desire for democracy. It already exists; it is already everywhere. It is already growing according to its own inner drives. Our role, I think, the role of everyone, is to look for it, to know it when we see it, to sing it, and to help it grow on its own terms.
1 This was true in Tahrir Square as well: Mubarak never tired of claiming that Egyptians would descend into chaos without his firm hand, and protesters' caring for the square was a way to show Mubarak that he had underestimated them.
2 Unions were similarly late to the party in Spain, Greece, and the Occupy movement.
3 And of course those other desires can also, at times, interweave with or reinforce the desire for democracy.