The extraordinary protests currently underway in Turkey provide an opportunity to revisit a recent debate about the relationship between symbolic and real campaigns.
The argument began with Helen Razer’s much-discussed Crikey piece entitled ‘The Left has lost its way through symbolism and stupidity’. Her article spurred a series of responses at Overland: in particular, an article by Elizabeth O’Shea, to which Guy Rundle later replied.
Readers can trace the ins and outs of the argument themselves but the core contention of Razer and Rundle involved a distinction between material and symbolic struggles, with the key example being the campaign for same sex marriage in Australia.
‘The “Left”,’ wrote Razer, ‘now hungers for symbols of cultural identity and spurns the idea of class. Or, indeed, of material conditions. Nowhere, for mine, is this more starkly drawn than in plaintive chalk on sidewalks as queer activism gives up its campaign for mental health reform and supplants it with the symbolic fight for an equality that already exists in law.’
Rundle reiterated the point. ‘[It]is not,’ he suggested, ‘that politics around symbolic or one off-cultural moments distracts from other, more material, struggles, but that it actually supplants them: the more you engage in argy-bargy about a rainbow street crossing or a dumb misogynist article by a curmudgeonly Age grandee, the more you seal off material questions, whether of class, gender or other divisions.
There’s clearly something in this.
Certainly, the Left’s struggled to shake off the baleful influence of an identity politics that fought its battles almost entirely on the terrain of representation, with arguments over the precise ranking of various kinds of oppression taking precedence over any kind of strategic thinking or structural change. It’s quite clearly the case that, for many, the celebration of symbolic victories such as Kevin Rudd’s Apology or the election of Barack Obama provides a substitute for engaging with far more fraught issues, such as the NT Intervention or the drone massacres in Pakistan and elsewhere.
At the same time, there’s an equally longstanding tradition of reasserting the primacy of class by denouncing culture, a temptation particularly strong in an Australian Left that has often been quite workerist. In this second tendency, one dismisses anything outside the realm of the immediately industrial as innately bourgeois, on the basis that real proletarians do not care about art or the environment or sexual oppression or anything much else other than the amount of coins jangling in their pockets.
Paradoxically, this sort of idealisation of the class often rests on an identification of workers with a certain kind of culture: specifically the mores of Anglo-Saxon blue collar labourers. You can see how a version of the argument evolves into the silly ‘anti-elitist’ line currently peddled by Nick Cater, where any billionaire can pose as an enemy of the elites by explaining how he prefers VB over chardonnay.
Interestingly, when you look back on labour history, both in Australia and elsewhere, it’s notable the extent to which the symbolic and the real become entangled, so much so that the distinction between them loses all real meaning. I remember being struck by this a decade or so ago when researching the now mostly forgotten struggle for the right to fly the red flag in Australia after Billy Hughes banned the emblem in 1915. At his trial for flag flying (the first of many brushes with the law, ultimately culminating in stint in Pentridge), the poet Richard Long explained to the judge that he’d displayed a scarlet ensign because ‘the emblem meant more to him than anything else’.
In the midst of the most brutal war in human history, and on the cusp of the Russian revolution, the decision by activists to accept gaol purely over a symbol (the Left could, after all, have simply adopted a different kind of flag) might seem perverse – except, of course, the symbolic confrontation took on a material force, precisely because of the context in which it played out.
That’s all by way of introducing the remarkable events in Turkey.
Google, of course, allows us all to become instant experts on subjects about which we know very little, a temptation that I am trying here to avoid. But let’s cite Richard Seymour’s widely circulated précis of recent Turkish history.
The [Justice and Development party (AKP) of Tayyip Erdogan] represents a peculiar type of conservative populism. Its bedrock, enriched immensely in the last decade, is the conservative Muslim bourgeoisie that first emerged as a result of Turgut Özal’s economic policies in the 1980s. But, while denying it is a religious party, it has used the politics of piety to gain a popular base and to strengthen the urban rightwing.
It has spent more than a decade in government building up its authority. The privatisation process has led to accelerated inequality, accompanied by repression. But it has also attracted floods of international investment, leading to growth rates of close to 5% a year. This has enabled the regime to pay off the last of its IMF loans, so that it was even in a position to offer the IMF $5bn to help with the Eurozone crisis in 2012.
In the meantime, the AKP has gradually consolidated its support within the state apparatus and media, and no longer needs its liberal backers. The Turkish military leadership has been compelled to accept the Islamists, having suffered a significant loss of power relative to other branches of the state such as the police and judiciary. While the erosion of the military’s power should be a gain for democracy, journalists have also ended up in jail on charges of plotting coup d’etats.
Many commentators have noted that Gezi Park, the site of the protest, represents the sole remaining piece of greenery in a city reshaped by corporate planners in the interests of the wealthy. In that sense, then, the initial defence of trees slated for removal might be seen as a ‘material’ campaign, a protest with a clear and immediate aim. Yet, quite evidently, a few weeks ago, no-one would have predicted that a small park would pose an existential crisis for the Turkish regime. Indeed, in a country undergoing a full-scale neoliberal assault on state owned assets, and where the military’s given to bloody repression, one could have forgiven leftists for arguing that there were other, more important issues, that a mobilisation to save trees would draw only a small number of greenies and thus would not be worth prioritising.
Now, however, it’s quite clear that Gezi Park has become a symbol, a lightning rod for all manner of previously disparate grievances.
Also writing in the Guardian, Luke Harding puts it like this:
What started last week as a small protest against Erdogan’s plans to demolish the park has morphed into something much bigger: a non-political mass movement, driven by popular outrage at brutal police tactics. Erdogan has abrasively dismissed his opponents as looters, marauders and bums. On Tuesday his deputy Bulent Arinc struck a more emollient tone, apologising for earlier police violence. He also offered to meet their leaders.
But in reality, the thousands who gathered spontaneously again in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, next to the park, do not have an ideology or party political identity. They are non-led. What they share is a keen sense of grievance against Erdogan personally. They accuse him of, among other things, bad ruling habits and developing increasingly pharaoh-like tendencies.
It’s in that way that the Turkish developments illuminate the debate we have been having.
In one sense, the Gezi Park phenomenon confirms Razer and Rundle’s insistence of the limits of symbolism, since, quite obviously, for the movement to go forward, the activists involved will need to sort out the complex array of competing tendencies currently subsumed into a general opposition to the regime. For that task, there’s no substitute for an understanding of how different material interests manifest themselves in politics – or, to put it another way, for political theory.
At the same time, the quite unexpected explosion around the park also illustrates that radical politics always manifests itself through peculiar combinations of forces and slogans, that uprisings never simply begin with the oppressed rallying to the most straightforward articulation of their oppression. That’s the sense of Marx’s famous comment that every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes: not that ideas don’t matter but that it’s when the struggles are actually underway that you can most effectively clarify programmatic issues.
If the same-sex marriage campaign consisted only of rainbow crossings, then the Razer-Rundle critique would be valid. But, of course, it doesn’t. Actually, SSM has already mobilised considerable numbers of young people against the churches and the leaders of both political parties. No, Gezi Park, it’s not. But surely the events of the last week illustrate why the Left needs to support any issue that brings ordinary people into conflict with their leaders, because it’s impossible to predict just how events will develop.