18/10/2011

The Left in Turkey: What's Going On Elsewhere

The general manager of the school recently probed me on my choice of facebook link - a Guardian article about the Occupy Wall Street and other global anti-globalisation-and-stuff movements:

Ömer: What do you think about anti-capitalism protests? Where is it going? Pazar, 20:24 · BeğenBeğenmekten Vazgeç
Liam Murray: this is happening in new york, washington, rome and athens, but i think it isalso the effect of the arab spring too. in the west, this is the latest product of twenty years of greed at the top level of society and increasing poverty at the bottom level. this time protest has more success because it is not from one particular ideology and there is no leader. should be interesting to see what happens! 18 saat önce · BeğenBeğenmekten Vazgeç · 1 kişi


Another friend, just off-the-boat and tying to get familiar with political trends here, wondered if anything like this had been going on in Turkey. Protests for various causes are ceaseless, mostly come to naught as they do in any country, hence my wariness of getting too excited about the latest American protest movement - although I was equally skeptical about the Tea Party and the 'internet revolution', so I've been proven wrong before.

The Americans in Istanbul are convinced information is being suppressed by a media betrothed with business interests. A quick scan of American news sites seems to hint at this, even the Huffington is failing expectations.
In Turkey, the religious press are mentioning it briefly as blowback from Tahrir Square, whilst Vatan bizarrely seemed too busy drawing parallels between the protesters' demands and the Ottoman taxation system to make any in-depth analysis, whilst this piece itself was seemingly good enough for centre-left daily Radikal to copy and paste it onto their own site. Little wonder no-one has a clue what's going on. Who even cares.

However, it is those friends amongst the Turkish left who have taken the least notice regarding proceedings, almost less than they did the Arab Spring and the Greek riots - both leaderless, populist movements reminiscent of the leftist anti-parliamentary opposition riots of the 60s, and both on the very borders of Turkey!

Anti-Globalisation in Turkey


Nationalism and socialism both being powerful political forces in Turkey to this day (anyone who contends with the current government directs criticism through either one ideology), Turkey can afford to be quite smug about itself for having staved off whole-sale free market liberalism for so long, especially having sat at the gates of the European Union (and what's more, Greece) for so long, only to have come out of the crises as regional winners.
It is the lack of smugness though, that is most admirable. This stems from various factors, part-humility, part-sympathy and, I suspect, part-learned anxiety; economic and political winds have a habit of blowing eastwards, and Turkey has never been so far from turmoil. People are really not used to this.
Globalisation, the blurring of national boundaries and lessening of state power are taught as anathema from a young age here. Semi-spiritual “Social Science classes” are required by the curriculum for promoting national ideology, plus “National Defence classes” are taught by professional soldiers who enter schools. However, this does not translate as anti-capitalism, as a threatening borderless ideology, and certainly doesn't mean that such movements draw a wide and varied crowd, at least in our day and age.

The Alienation of the Left

Socialism in Turkey certainly retains a very inward-looking, national flavour, and more disappointing than that, hasn't moved on from the 1950s, has failed to join up with liberal thought, pluralism, environmentalism or non-essentialist feminism and has failed to broaden its scope and adapt its ideology. In fairness, with all the coups, state-sanctioned killings and wholesale massacres it hasn't really been given the chance to blossom on what would otherwise be fertile ground.

On 1st May this year I walked alongside many groups flying the flag of the left on the march to Taxim Square, site of CIA/MIT massacre on leftist activists in the 1970s. I didn't make it all the way to though. Why bother, after all; the crowd formed an alphabet soup of twenty leftist groups worthy of a Monty Python homage. According to former members of the ODP, these groups care for nothing but turn-out figures, and often coerce friends and acquaintances to appear once a week at meetings for the purpose of boasting higher numbers than other leftist groups. They meet and dissect Marx (no-one could dispute the great leader) and in effect, continue to fossilise their ideology by dragging it further to the fringes of modern political discourse, keeping it under lock and key in the university like a teenage boy worried radio might start to like the band he discovered. "Your not even a real fan," is the message to the masses.

Luckily the May protest didn't turn into a street battle. It has only been a year since demonstrations became permissible in Taksim Square – the vibrant heart of Istanbul. Although this was announced as one of the government's democratic reforms, it also demonstrates a consensus among leaders on just how little a threat the radical left actually represents to the system. The left seem little aware of this in the excitement of being allowed out without a curfew, and still think marching with flags and Che Guevara t-shirts is worth it without connecting with the public at large.
The anarchy that ensues in protests around the country, particularly last week in Ankara where the various groups with interchangeable uniforms, facial hair and flags continue to alienate the public who rightly perceive them to be rebels without a cause. This gives the police a certain amount of sympathy, and mandate to abuse, which in turn, only gives the left something to complain about, forming a convenient distraction to any deep thought about how socialism can answer the problems of the 21st century.

Without the Soviet realpolitikal threat, all governments - Turkey just one of many - have got used to not having to take socialism too seriously. It has meant that cuts can be made, union rights can be curtailed and the cream of society can get away with tax evasion, fraud and bribery on a national scale - something they were fine doing as long as the money seemed to trickled down enough. This lack of taking the alternative too seriously may even be the cause of my natural ambivalence.

This recent bout of movements has been a little in the way of inspiration from Egypt, joined with a more general western reaction to marketisation being pushed to its limits by the economic slump. I think it will take more than a few tents to make permanent changes in the system, but I have been proven wrong before.

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