A class analytic approach to the Gezi Park events: challenging the 'middle class' myth.

Author:Gurcan, Efe Can


The by now well known Gezi Park protests were sparked on 31 May 2013, as an instance of collective action of an unprecedented intensity in the history of modern Turkey. The events at the park soon turned into a nationwide cycle of protests in reaction to the demolition of a public park (Gezi Park) at the heart of Istanbul. Before first light that Friday morning, the park was raided by the police in order to end the occupation of the space by a few hundred environmentalists, who were objecting to its destruction to make way for a grandiose municipal urban renewal project. As the day came to a close, streets and squares throughout the country were taken over by a spontaneous collectivity that brought together hundreds of thousands of people, comprised of various groups opposing what they identified as the increasing authoritarianism and conservatism of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). A humble urban park was thus elevated into the stronghold and emblem of resistance against the socially interventionist rule of the government, and most of all, to the paternalism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Gurcan & Peker 2014, 2015).

The sudden and unprompted nature of the protests took specialists on Turkey by surprise, as did its unforeseen scale and resourcefulness. On the morning of 27 May 2013, earthmovers had started demolishing the park, which at that point was just one of the AKP's many urban renewal projects, undertaken without significant popular reaction. Tweets and Facebook posts on the same day served to raise consciousness and call people to action. The next day, more and more people, mostly young, began to convene in the park with tents, books, musical instruments and protest signs, launching an unlikely festival surrounded by bulldozers and police forces. It was on 28 May that the emblematic image of the 'lady in red' being ruthlessly tear-gassed in the face by a police officer gained national and international coverage. On 29 May, the PM spoke at the opening ceremony of Istanbul's third bridge, yet another urban renewal project imposed in a top-down manner: 'Do whatever you want in Gezi Park. We have made our decision' (Sabah News 2013a). Taking their cue from the PM, the police began burning tents in the morning of 30 May. As the weekend approached, police violence triggered higher and higher levels of popular participation to support Gezi Park, causing nationwide anger and agitation. On the evening of 31 May, finally, the streets and public spaces were filled by the masses (Gurcan & Peker 2014, 2015).

In the course of the following few weeks, more than 2.5 million people, who were stigmatised as 'a handful of marauders' by Erdogan, assembled in 79 cities. What came to be known as 'disproportionate' police violence inflicted more than 7,500 injuries and 5 deaths (Al Jazeera 2013; Deutsche Welle 2013; Hurriyet Daily News 2013a 2013b; Today's Zaman 2013). In addition to the deaths, 6 people were severely injured, 106 suffered from head injuries, and 11 people lost an eye (Turkish Medical Association 2013). In total, 3,000 tons of pressurized water were shot at the protesters haphazardly by the police, along with 150,000 gas bombs (Haber7News 2013a). All in all, 13.5 million tweets were shared using some combination of the supportive tags #direngeziparki, #occupygezi, #direnankara, #direntaksim and #direngezi (CNN-TURK 2013) ('diren' means 'resist' in Turkish).

A class analytic lens to assess the extent of presence and domination of classes and class fractions is particularly illuminating in analysing the nature and orientation of social mobilisation (Borras Jr, Edelman & Kay 2008: 25). This is one of the reasons why the class configuration of the Gezi Park vents occupied the forefront of discussions in both leftist and mainstream media. Mainstream accounts contended to brand the Gezi Park vents as an uprising of 'middle classes' concerned almost exclusively with secularism. Paul Mason from the BBC portrayed the Gezi events as the revolt of secular middle classes', albeit with the participation of a minority of urban poor youth (Mason 2013). The Economist echoed that by stating that 'the young middle class ... chafes against the religious conservatism of the prime minister' (Economist 2013). In a similar manner, Anthony Faiola and Paula Moura of the Washington Post spoke of 'the summer of middle-class discontent' in response to 'the encroaching power of Islam' (Faiola & Moura 2013). Bill Keller of the New York Times joined the chorus to call the protesters the 'educated haves who are in some ways the principal beneficiaries of the regimes they now reject' (Keller 2013); and Bohn and Bayrasli in the Wall Street Journal depicted the protesters as 'the 'white' secular elite' that eat 'gourmet pizza, and who are against the "'Black Turks" a more pious lower class' (Bohn & Bayrasli 2013).

The 'middle class' account was also used as a strategic tool of framing by government circles in Turkey, either to underline the AKP's political and economic successes in supposedly raising the expectations of middle classes, or to discredit the protesters as a well-off elite (with, it is argued, no respect for religion). The AKP's deputy chairman Suleyman Soylu, for instance, held that middle-class membership of the party in Turkey supposedly reached 43.5 million (59 per cent of the population) thanks to the economic growth achieved under the AKP government, which explains the middle-class influence in Turkish politics (Erandac 2013). The pro-government Anadolu Agency, similarly, linked the protests to Turkey's being an 'emergent power' and a 'regional force', but unlike Brazil, protests here 'are not based on social injustices' given their middle-class character (TGRTNews 2013). In order to discredit the protestors as privileged middle classes, the PM Erdogan himself referred to them as a whisky-sipping, Bosphorus-gazing elite: a minority 'upper-crust ... imposing their ways on the country' (BBC Turkish 2013; Star News 2013). He also insisted that they 'drank beer in mosques' or 'harassed women with headscarves' in order to highlight their 'irreligiousness', despite a lack of evidence for this (Hurriyet Daily News 2013c). Many pro-government intellectuals followed his lead by framing the protests as the secular 'white Turks' reclaiming their privileged status after the AKP had displaced their political domination in the last decade, although still helping them prosper economically (Haber 7 News 2013b; Sabah News 2013b).

An academic elaboration of these ideas came from the French sociologist Loic Wacquant, when he visited Turkey in January 2014 to give a talk on the Gezi Park protests at Bogazici University, Istanbul. Wacquant's argument is summarised in the following quote: 'In Gezi we saw a fraction of the Istanbul population, the new cultural bourgeoisie of intellectuals, urban professionals, the urban middle class rising to assert the rights of cultural capital ... We see bearers of cultural capital, the new cultural bourgeoisie of the city rising, and in a sense protesting this and wanting to propose a different use of the construction of the city' (cited in Goker 2014). Wacquant's geographic blindness, which reduces the scope of the Gezi Park protests to Istanbul--and even to the Park itself--neglecting the millions who took the streets across the country, is a central problem that distorts the rest of his analysis. Relatedly, his culturally defined designation of 'elite middle classes' remains indifferent to the disruptive nature of the protests. The counter-hegemonic expressions of the movement against neoliberal economic, political, and ideological domination in the country are consequently overlooked. Unsurprisingly, Wacquant's reasoning leads him to the conclusion that this 'new bourgeois' movement was utterly exclusionary vis-a-vis lower classes, to actively prevent their integration into the sphere of collective mobilisation. A quick look at the poor neighborhoods that actively fought the police for weeks, and the modest background of the protesters killed in Istanbul, Ankara, Hatay and Eskijehir suggests a very different empirical reality. Yet the deficiency of Wacquant's interpretation is theoretical as much as it is empirical. As Saracoglu (2014) notes, in addition to equating the Gezi Park protests to the park and to the demands of a 'cultural elite', Wacquant's automatic derivation of the movement's political scope and meaning from its members' assumed position in social stratification echoes rational choice determinism. As a result, the evident counter-hegemonic potentialities of the Gezi Park protests against neoliberal forces not only remain unexplained in Wacquant's perspective, but they are consciously ignored to the extent that they do not fit his culturalist framework.

The common denominator of all these 'middle class' references is their taking of the term as given without providing any definition for it, let alone offering tools for its empirical operationalisation. Such lack of elaboration is partly due to the journalistic and politically motivated nature of the abovementioned sources (except for Wacquant's), yet this makes the constant repetition of the term 'middle classes' an even more problematic truism for the analysis of the events. In consideration of the inadequate theoretical and empirical depth of class discussions around the Gezi Park events, this paper seeks to provide a Marxist framework of class analysis to make sense of the events in the context of the neoliberal transformation of class structures and ideologies in Turkey. We argue that instead of the so-called 'middle classes', it was an alliance of various wage-earning class fractions that was the catalyst for the Gezi Park events. This alliance was led by service-sector employees and the educated youth, and comprised white- and blue-collar workers.

Neoliberalism here appears as a key...

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