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An Open Letter to the New York Times

The Battle for the Turkish Commons

by E. AHMET TONAK

“Revolutions happen in the flesh.” What a perceptive observation! Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the rest of Michael Kimmelman’s article (“In Istanbul’s Heart, Leader’s Obsession, Perhaps Achilles’ Heel,” The New York Times, June 8, 2013).

Describing Taksim Square, and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s intentions, as “Taksim Square is a mess of buses and crowds, a tangle of plazas, streets, shops and taxi horns… Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is determined to clean it up and make it into a pedestrian zone, with a new mall, mosque and tunnels for traffic to move underground” makes the public reaction seem quite irrational. Yet, even the person interviewed by Kimmelman objected to the subtle charge of irrationality, noting that “the government wants to sanitize this place without consulting the people.”  And indeed, that lies at the heart of the matter: this is a reaction to the current government’s notion of democracy which calls for no public participation and no consultation with the people.

Though the article briefly touches upon the comprehensive nature of Istanbul’s urban transformation above and beyond what is happening at Taksim, it misses the broader economic context. In so doing, it creates the impression that the recent developments are due almost exclusively to Erdoğan’s vision and incorrect political choices (or perhaps design).  Stated differently, it suggests that the recent problems were caused by errors in leadership, as suggested by Kimmelman’s description of Erdoğan’s goal as “a scripted public realm” formulated after presenting various urban projects similar to the one at Taksim.  Yet, as several interviewees cited by Kimmelman pointed out, the issue is not whether or not public space is scripted.  Rather, it is the very attempt at grabbing what was public —in today’s parlance, the commons— and handing it over to the private sector, one more act of privatization.  The latter, as is well known, has been canonical of neoliberal economic policies throughout the last 40 years.

In short, the İstanbul revolt can only be fully understood by linking Prime Minister Erdoğan’s very limited (almost outdated) notion of democracy with the political economy of urban transformation.

E. Ahmet Tonak, Ph.D., is a Professor of Economics at İstanbul Bilgi University.