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Wednesday 5 June 2013

Guest post: The new ‘age of insurrections’ is far from over!

Thoughts on the political significance of the Turkish movement

By Panagiotis Sotiris [1]

It is still early to fully appreciate the consequences of the popular uprising in Turkey. However, one thing is for sure: we are still at a very particular historical conjuncture, marked not just by protest and contention, but also by movements of impressive magnitude and an almost insurrectionary character.

From December 2008 in Greece, that extraordinary “postcard from the future”, to the Arab Spring, the Indignados Movement, the prolonged struggle of the Greek people against austerity, the Occupy movement in North America, the student revolts in Britain, Canada and Chile and the current Turkish protests, we have been witnessing movements that are not only massive but also go beyond simply articulating grievances and demands. These are movements that, one way or the other, demand radical social and political change. That is why they do not take the form of traditional protests, nor do they engage in pressure politics. Rather, they opt for new and highly original forms of almost insurrectionary practices that not only make manifest a deep discontent with contemporary neoliberal capitalist societies, but also attempt to turn their alternative visions of democracy and justice into practice.

This can explain the particular significance of mass rallies and demonstrations. It is not just a show of force, in the sense of political pressure that enters into a calculation of political cost and benefit. Nor is it simply about rioting in the sense of turning discontent into performative or even ritualistic street violence. It is rather about reclaiming public space and transforming it from a space of consumption and accumulation into a political space of social experimentation. This can account for how these movements manage to combine the extensive use of new media as a new public sphere with the very importance of the street and the square as a space where concrete practices and relations emerge. Contrary to the supposedly post-modern tendency towards virtual communities digitally connecting fragmented individuals, as expressed in various cybespace trends, but also in the whole concept of a potential ‘on-line ‘democracy’ and ‘consultation’, nothing can beat the appeal and the power of people meeting in the street, joining forces, creating communities of struggle and resistance.

Mainstream media tend to describe such movements in cultural, religious and psychological terms. From the recurring themes of anomie and lack of civility, to the misrepresentation of these movements as simple demands for ‘western’ values and consumption practices, what is missing it the linkage between such movements and the current extremely aggressive combination of extreme neoliberalism and state authoritarianism that is becoming the norm in most countries. In some cases such as the Greek movement, the student revolts, the Occupy and Indignados movements, this connection is more than evident, but in movements as the one developing in Turkey, it must also be stressed.

In the case of Turkey it has been exactly the combination of aggressive neoliberalism with a particular Islamic form of conservatism and state authoritarianism (especially against the Left and the Trade Unions) that triggered the movement, despite the the ruling AKP Party’s investment in a combination of consumerism, traditional values and a form of  neo-Ottoman nationalism. The continuous attacks against unions and left-wing student groups but also the handling of the consequences of the Turkish government’s siding with the US in the the Syria crisis (which included a violent crackdown on protests against these policies) also exemplify this authoritarian turn. In light of the above, the particular significance of the Gezi Park protests went beyond mere environmental concerns: they were protests against the new neoliberal developmental paradigm, endorsed by the AKP government that is willing to sacrifice the environment and public space in the name of growth and investment. At the same time, as it has been the case especially in Greece, police violence and brutality acted as a metonymy for all forms of grievances, thus making evident the inherent authoritarian and undemocratic core of neoliberalism.

The demand for democracy, exemplified in the demand for unpopular governments to resign under the pressure of the street and protests instead of waiting for parliamentary procedures, is also important. In a way it gives back to democracy its real meaning. Not the meaning of parliamentary representation and consultation, but that of actual and effective popular sovereignty in the sense of the subaltern classes entering into the political scene and imposing their collective will. That is why, in all these movements, demands for real democracy combine political and social demands and an aspiration to beyond aggressive capitalist attempts at dealing with a structural crisis by putting its costs on the shoulders of working people

The importance of youth in all these movements should not lead us to treat them as student or youth movements. Rather, youth who are at the epicentre of the current capitalist attempt to change the balance of forces in favour of capital, and are being treated in some cases as a ‘lost generation’, and almost always as the generation that will receive the full blow of capitalist restructuring, act like the vanguard of more generalized and deeper forms of discontent. This has to do with the particular quality of youth as potential labour power. Contemporary youth are more educated, more skilled and at the same time face precarization and the consequences of the economic crisis. However, they have the communication skills to make their discontent more evident than ever and are in a position to create networks of struggle and solidarity, thus making themselves more than instrumental for the creation of new public spaces, both real and virtual.

The political significance of such movements cannot be thought of only in terms of their immediate consequences. It must also be thought in relation the fact that such movements are also learning processes. People learn in movements: they learn how to do things collectively, they learn how to discuss alternative, they are more ready to listen about alternatives, especially in such intense and all-encompassing movements that go beyond sectoral demands. That is why these movements are also productive sites of knowledge and potentially counterhegemonic projects.

These movements are not simply aggregates of citizens. Despite their hostility in some cases to traditional ‘classist’ vocabulary (opting instead for a more popular-democratic discourse), these movements represent broad coalitions of the forces of labour and other subaltern classes, they represent all those social strata that depend – one way or another - upon selling their labour power in order to live. This is the meaning of all the references to the people (or even to the ‘nation’ in some cases), as opposed to an attempt by mainstream media and analysts to downplay this class aspect.

Such movements pose a huge challenge for the Left. The dynamics of these movements go beyond traditional parliamentary alternatives. At the same time most tendencies within the Left bear the marks of an entire era of defeat and crisis. What is needed is the ability to transform such movements from short-lived explosive dynamics to potential “historical blocs” (Gramsci), namely combinations between social forces, new forms of political organization and new social configurations as alternative narratives that do not simply repeat historical left-wing projects, but actually attempt to think how to move beyond neoliberal capitalism. This translates into the need to rethink Left-wing parties and fronts not just as political organizations or programs but as processes that bring together the different collectivities, sensitivities and tendencies emerging from the movement and create laboratories of potential (counter)hegemonic projects. That is how we can move from the current ‘age of insurrections’ to a new ‘age of revolutions’.

[1] Panagiotis Sotiris teaches social theory, social and political philosophy at the Department of Sociology of the University of the Aegean. He can be reached at psot (at) 

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