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What does Gezi Park tell us about same-sex marriage?

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I am concerned by what seems to be a naive analysis of Turkish and by the way eastern Mediterranean politics. The cleavages in Turkey are deep and cannot be summarized through the gaze of the Anglo liberal left. They have little to do with economy in comparison to certain historical modern tensions. In its most primal there is the modern dichotomy of Erdogan vs Khamalists – clearly very few seemed to have noticed the Ataturk posters and flags in Gezi,. Then there are the divisions between the liberal/left/elite urbane and the aspiring peasants. Mr Erdogan’s policies have brought in many people from the villages into Istanbul – who have done well in comparison to the past. Importantly Mr Erdogan ahs been the first leader of Turkey since 1921 that has recognized ethnic and religious minorities, examine the opening of the Orthodox Haki seminary, and the Pontian Sumala Monastery after 88 years of closure. In fact minorities have had more freedom under Erdogan than at any period of a secularized Turkey or since 1921, It was between 1913 and 1921 that over 1million Armenians were massacred and 1.2 million Greeks, or were driven out of Constantinople (Istanbul)and Smyrni (Ismir). This is a cultural. economic conflict between a ‘modern’ Islamic party which has been asserting itself in Middle East and Near East politics forgetting their traditional rivals the Greeks and Greek Cypriots, and a traditional amalgam of Khamalists, Nationalists, some fascist Grey Wolves, liberals and leftists on the other.
    Your analysis misses some critical aspects, 1. Obama’s miscalculation in over asserting support for Erdogan, 2 Greece’s and Cyprus’ natural proclivity to align as Mediterranean with Israel a nation that reflects their cultural, political and historical circumstance, mainly as nations built by Diaspora . It is Greece, Cyprus and Israel which now conduct joint military exercises and are searching for gas under the Aegean – whereas up until 10 years ago it was Turkey was Israel’s closest friend.
    The standard left/right, liberal/social dichotomies are irrelevant in this region. In conclusion, Is Tin Poli simply means To The City, the city being once Constantinople.

  2. A reply:

    Conflating Helen Razer’s argument and mine is a distortion, since Helen,, as I understand her, was exhorting people on the left to become more involved in some important but also rather dull and quantitative questions, such as gendered poverty etc, and to spurn symbolic politics.

    My argument was that symbolic politics was more real than economic/material politics for a sub-class – culture/knowledge/policy producers – who comprise close to 100% of the left’s social base, and the pool from which left activists now come.

    Thus exhorting people to read Keynes etc wasn’t going to work. For most, the physical/material economy has become a black box, whereas symbolic action was what they were immersed in their working and leisure lives, and thus became their default field of action in the world.

    Against Lizzie and Jeff I suggested that believing that such politics would flow on into something we would recognise as materialist left/socialist was an error based on the old marxist base/superstructure model, which no longer applied in a transformed economy based as much on intellectual/cultural-material production as physical-material production.

    My argument – substantially in agreement with Razer in this respect – was that stuff about rainbow street crossings and microspats about this or that dumb op-ed piece actually slaked off political energy gave an illusion of action, which forestalled any greater reflection on the left about why it coulodnt get its chosen agenda more to the fore.

    The SSM issue was different, since it is undoubtably a major cause. But I suggested that no great advance could be read off it, as passionate support for it could come as much from a neoliberal argument that choice = freedom, as from a more collective notion of social equality. Passionate SSM activists were as likely to support neoliberal notions of employment law etc as they were to move on from SSM to a critical take on class inequality and power. Jeff argues that the SSM issue has acted as a recruiter on the ground for new left activists. Well, we’ll see if that holds. But even if it does, the SSM campaign, in my argument hasn’t necessarily moved the political sphere leftwards in any sense beyond the left-liberalism/cultural leftism that I believe is crowding out a more material leftism.

    Finally, I suggested that it was not impossible that there were vested political/social/psychological interests at play in looking for signs of a revival of a more militant politics – rather than face the grimmer possibility of a virtual extinction of a materialist left, withered away in part, due to its failure to retheeorise the material base, and the base-superstructure-ideology apparatus.

    That was an argument about advanced western societies, and especially about the strange resources/coffee/film festival bubble society-economy of australia.

    For the life of me, I can’t see how this debate can be clarified by roping in the relatively distinctive situation like Turkey. This can only be useful to one side or the other by doing such abstract violence to the particularity that any new perspective that might come from it gets crushed out in the process.

    Reading Turkish blogs (in English) and talking to a couple of Turkish and Kurdish acquantainces, the generally agreed situation seems to be this: there had been a campaign to save Gezi Park running for months, that the park is of great importance as a green space in the overbuilt centre of the Western side of Istanbul, and that outrage at its destruction was doubled by the sheer-bloodymindedness of Erdogan, who is demolishing it in part because it was created by Ataturk after he demolished the old Ottoman barracks (a replica of which will be rebuilt).

    This is part of Erdogan’s strategy to essentially disappear the Ataturkist period, and create historical continuity with the Ottomans. His muscle-flexing with regard to Syria and Israel can be understood as part of this, as can his concerted neoliberalisation of the economy – he wants Turkey to be an economically booming key regional power, with dominance within the region as far as NATO goes.

    Part of this project is to diminish the specialness of Istanbul. Even though it was the Ottoman capital, it was a separate, quasi-European city until the 1920s. The demolition and rebuilding of innercity neighbourhoods is in service to that – not actually to the wealthy, per se, since it is the relatively well-heeled who’ve been able to afford boutique old-style flats in the centre, while young homebuyers are forced to the drab outskirts. Erdogan wants Istanbul – a city full of bars, clubs, every possible entertainment – to be filled with conservative rural Turks coming into the city, and to thus change its resistant cosmpolitan character.

    That has processed with only minimal challenge for years now, because the AKP has cleverly been piecemeal and gradual in its strategy. The Gezi park demolition proved one rallying point; the second rallying point was the heavy police crackdown, which then provoked the widespread uprising spreading across the city, the country and beyond.

    The Turkish public over the past five years especially has faced a hybrid situation – an elected government, which has cracked down on alleged plots of yet another coup by the military ‘deep state’, but has also used that to cast a net far and way for journalists and activists of a national-secular bent. It has forged a new deal with the Kurds, allowing for cultural rights, and a peace process with the PKK – while also crushing Kurdish factions who reject the pretty lame deal being offered (the crackdown often done with complicity by moderate Kurds). It has opened up a sclerotic closed economy that was held, in places, in a state of quasi-feudal torpor masquerading as nationalist corporatism, in a manner that is clearly progressive and cannot be fully subsumed under the idea of neoliberalism, though that process has also occurred.

    At the same time, especially in the past few years it has reached into everyday life with cultural bullying nagging and soft power, to enforce a conservative and essentially bumpkin vision of life on cosmopolitan western Turkey, in the name of the larger conservative rural body. In Istanbul until recently you could get a drink, a dance or more at 5a.m. In a central city like Konya, population one million+, two shops sell beer, there is one bar, and you won’t see an uncovered woman save a backpacker or two.

    Erdogan doesnt need to enforce his bumpkin values – women should stay at home, have three kids, abortion and caesarian section (!) access being restricted, alcohol sales curtailed etc, kissing couples being harassed by AKP goons – in the east. It’s all aimed at the Western part. Yet at the same time that’s where all the economic dynamism is – and it’s quite possible that the process has got out of control (witness the deputy PM’s undermining of Erdogan on the issue of the police. It suggests the possibility that Erdogan has reached his Thatcher moment, so arrogant and out of touch with party and people as to be vulnerable; on the other hand it might be good cop bad cop). Erdogan is in some ways more comprable to Mike Huckabee or Tony Abbott than he is to Mubarak – a fusspot reactionary bothered by ‘decadence’.

    So why haven’t these encroachments issued in broader protest before? Part of it is simply the ‘boiling frog’ problem. But part of it is also the contradictory politics of Turkey. For decades left and progressive groups had been aligned against the Ataturkist military, the deep state and NATO entanglement – while having sympathy towards the republican, nationalist strands of Ataturkism. They aimed to maintain a democratic system and take power as leftists and socialists. By the time that the deep state had lost the capacity to easily stage a coup, leftism had faded and Islamic politics had become that of the masses. So full resistance has always been muted – until journalists began being arrested and jailed en masse.

    So, the first and most important question is – shouldnt one be a bit wary of reading off some lesson about the mix of symbolic and material politics in the West, from such a complex and other society, neither Western nor Eastern, both modern and developing, with a unique intersection of forces, classes and ideologies? Of course any particular situation can be read off to a general structure, but I question whether jumping between Gezi Park and the Sydney rainbow crossing can be usefully done without being self-serving. Very little that the protestors are ranging themselves against seems symbolic., since it all reaches into the conduct of everyday life. Sudden restrictions on buying a drink or kissing in the street – in Istanbul one of the most sensual, sensuous cities in the world – are utterly material. They only become symbolic and epiphenomenal if you apply a base-superstructure model, which doesn’t factor in new ways of thinking about material power – biopolitics, governmentality etc.

    But if one is to try and make such links, then surely the physical-spatial-material nature of the core events – the defence of the park and the protests against police violence – indicate that a very material politics needs to be at the heart of it. To see the protestors as Luke Harding does, and as Jeff quotes, as non-led, an Occupyesque-multitude, is as inaccurate as calling this a Turkish spring and tying it to the Arab spring. Clearly many young people have come out drawn by social media etc, but also through micro- and affinity-groupings – uni classes etc. But there have also been sub-groups – leftist football team supporters groups, Kurdish groups, Alevis, anarchists, trade union branches,, etc etc. To presume that Turkish society is as atomised as the West is an error. Luke Harding is a conventional left-liberal journalist, not much use as an incisive source on anything.

    So I really don’t see much useful analogy between here – where we’re debating whether or not the SSM issue maps onto more material-leftist struggles, or whether it installs a contradictory process of sealed-off symbolic politics as a substitute. There’s no question of the materiality of just about evrything going on in Turkey at the moment. Everything they are struggling for, from the commons of a park, the right to protest, free speech, and free everyday life, is recognisably material and leftist. No contradictions arise.

    Good first hand reports on the situation can be found at:

    http://kamilpasha.com/

    http://bianet.org/english

    http://www.whatishappeninginistanbul.com/

  3. Well done Guy Rundle! at least you know something about Turkey and especially Erdogan’s Ottomanist values. He is keen to establish a milet, and to look to the east as the new Islamic super power. He had no interest in EU entry as the previous military secularists. I also agree with your notion of symbolism.

  4. So will Jeff Sparrow be supporting the director of the melbourne underground film festival Richard Wolstonecroft next time he clashes with authority over censorship? Jeff decried that Richard was amazingly a fascist. Gotta support people when they clash with our leaders as you say. But what if they are not a comrade??

  5. i should add that my remark about the SSM campaign and recruitment of activists was literal, not snarky. Should it have generated activists who last the distance then one dimension of my argument will have been disproven. If the reverse, that dimension won’t necessarily have been proven, but the evidence for it will be stronger

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