Taksim and Tiananmen: Some Thoughts on Popular Protest
I don’t know a great deal about Turkey, so I’ve been relying on accounts that I’ve been informed are reliable in order to stay abreast of the events spiralling out of the protest at Gezi Park. Well written analyses include this, this and this. Paul Mason continues his reports from the barricades, making some interesting (and potentially quite worrying) parallels to the Paris Commune. A consensus on a first-draft analysis seems to have emerged: the mass protests have been driven by the secular, urban middle class frustrated at the high-handedness of a provincial, neoliberal, moderate Islamist party that has governed for a decade in a majoritarian fashion. Without the alternation of power and with effective opposition to speak on their behalf due to a fragmented , people have taken to the streets. This, at least, seems to be the emerging picture provided by those who actually know about the context. At the time of writing, AKP politicians seem to moving towards a conciliatory stance but protests continue.
The events have a special resonance (not noted by the media) seeing as yesterday just past was the 24th anniversary of the massacre of protesters in Beijing (a harrowing eyewitness account recommended by Jamie bloodandtreasure argues that very little of the massacre actually took place in Tiananmen Square). Maybe I’m just unusual in making a connection between the two events – however imperfect, Turkey is a democracy and however heavy handed the Turkish police may be, the tanks and automatic weapons haven’t been turned on protesters. But recalling Tiananmen in the context of Taksim Square highlights the common playbook of popular revolutions: capture of a public square by a vanguard of young educated activists, the brokering of bridges between these activists and the urban working class, and the physical interposition of the bodies of the protesters in the way of violence directed at them by the security forces, thus weakening the regime’s legitimacy. This alliance between socio-economic classes (and the social aspect is important here, protesters are often able to enlist support from sections of the working class not only due to the economic location of the latter but because of their embeddedness in urban communities with whom protesters may establish links) remains central to popular protest and the process of democratisation even today. It’s therefore pretty significant that at least one major union has thrown its support behind the protests. For all the overheated blather about social media, disruptive technology, globalisation, network society (anyone remember when Castells was the theoretical bees knees?), the multitude and so on, the classic lexicon of political sociology remains relevant. Events in Turkey readily suggest an old fashioned analysis in terms of urban-rural/secular-religious political cleavages, class, power elites and the ‘mobilisation of bias’ by the state (although I admit that critical geography might have a fair bit to say about the politics of urban space in the context of the current saga).
A corollary of this is that supposedly obsolescent strategies of political organisation aimed at building mass democratic movements on the basis of broad commonalities between large numbers of disenfranchised actors, implied by quaint notions like ‘the labour movement’, might actually have some life in them. So, in addition to startling photos of photogenic women in fashionable clothes leaping over teargas cannisters, the protests in Turkey provide plenty to reflect upon regarding power, protest and political contention.