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An Uprising Against Neoliberalism
The Standing Man of Turkey
by T. SABRI ÖNCÜ

On 16 June 2013, after describing the brutal events that took place in Istanbul on the evening of 15 June, which were covered extensively by the international media, Taksim Solidarity—the umbrella group that initiated the Taksim Gezi Park protest on 27 May—said on its website, “The government has committed a crime against humanity.”[1]

This description of the events of 15 June was correct in that what is going on in Turkey can no longer be described as only police brutality. A police force brainwashed for years and trained to hate anyone who does not think like it has been attacking innocent people to wound and kill since 31 May. Four have been killed so far, more than 7,500 have been wounded, and thousands have been detained, during which they have been tortured. Most of the injuries are serious, leaving many disabled or blind for the rest of their lives, and the whereabouts of many of the detainees are not known.

The police brutality has reached unforeseen levels since 15 June, and confrontations between the police and protestors have been going on in more than 60 cities around the country. In a statement right after the brutal police attack on Gezi Park on 15 June, Turkish European Union Minister Egemen Bagis said, “Unfortunately from now, the state will have to consider whoever is in Taksim as a member of a terrorist organisation.” Apparently, Bagis was serious, because even the medical doctors who are attending to the wounded in several districts of Istanbul are now called “terrorists in white shirts” and treated accordingly.

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi; AKP) took power in 2002. Since then, it has won three elections in a row, and it secured about 50% of the vote in the last election in 2011. The AKP now has a more than two-thirds majority in the national assembly, which allows the government to pass any law it desires. It controls the police force, which allows it to arrest or suppress anyone. It controls the justice system, which enables it to prosecute whoever it likes. It controls the military, which allows it to dream of regional hegemony, Ottoman style. Finally, the AKP controls all of the important economic and financial institutions—from the finance ministry to the central bank, which allows the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government to shape economic policies irrespective of the needs of the population.

Government Claims

In an article published at the Guardian on 16 June, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed that while the government views peaceful protests as part of a democratic system, it had to strike a balance between this principle and maintaining public order. And, in a statement on 17 June, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, “If the events spread, with the request of the governors, the military troops in the regions can also be deployed to ensure public order, following the police and gendarme.” Davutoglu described the happenings as follows.

The protests began as a peaceful environmental movement opposing a government plan for development. Unfortunately, violent extremist groups hijacked their democratic demands. No democratic government would allow any illegal or illegitimate group to undermine public order, attack the police and destroy public and private property. However, there have been some mistakes in the use of force against the protesters, and the government has expressed regret. Investigations into these incidents are under way, and those responsible are already being held accountable.

The people in the streets come from many walks of life, age groups, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ideologies. There are university and high school students, socialists, anarchists, ecologists, environmentalists, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, nationalists, Kemalists, apolitical folk, and even some voters of the AKP. Among the 118 members of Taksim Solidarity are the Unions of Turkish Physicians, Dentists and Pharmacists; many chambers of the Union of the Chambers of Architects and Engineers of Turkey; the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions; the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions; the two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party and the Independence and Democracy Party; and many small socialist parties such as the Freedom and Solidarity Party and the Party of Labour.[2] None of these chambers, unions, parties, or other organisations is illegal, except perhaps in the eyes of the governing neoliberal, neo-Ottomanist AKP.

Unlike Davutoglu’s claim, the ongoing Turkish uprising has nothing to do with some illegitimate groups trying to undermine public order, attack the police, and destroy public and private property. This is a spontaneous, civil and politically unaffiliated movement of diverse groups of people who are fighting for human dignity against an increasingly authoritarian party aiming to regulate social, economic, and private life as it pleases. The party is pushing for a conservative Islamic lifestyle, threatening in particular women and youth, and criminalising and imprisoning opposition groups ranging from seculars to Kurds, socialists, and trade unionists. Although the mainstream media argues that this is essentially a secular and amorphous middle-class movement, what connects these diverse groups is that the majority of their members need to sell their labour power to live. Therefore, although it is not possible to identify the movement with the industrial proletariat in a Marxian sense, there is little doubt that the majority of its members belong to a new proletariat that has been emerging since the early 1980s.

AKP’s Economic Model

In search of culprits for the ongoing uprising from below, the AKP has invented many conspiracy theories. The identified conspirators range from the international media to “terrorist” social media organisations such as Twitter and Facebook; a shadowy clique called the “interest rate lobby,” consisting of national and foreign financial institutions, that wants higher interest rates in Turkey; and even the “undemocratic” European Parliament jealous of the AKP’s economic miracle.[3]

Yet, the AKP has not presided over an economic miracle. Its austerity-based economic model has been nothing but the neoliberal speculation and finance-led growth model of development that has been around since the early days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and is familiar to Indians. Through its economic policies, the AKP has been imposing its neoliberal agenda by increasingly commercialising public services, creating areas of rent for large corporations, and eroding the living standards and security of a significant part of the working people.

The AKP growth model depends on cheap labour, speculative financial capital inflows, and a high trade deficit. The share of industrial production is decreasing, and the country is becoming increasingly dependent on imports of intermediate and capital goods as well as energy. Agricultural production is weak, and meat production is virtually non-existent that even the well-liked Turkish kebabs are now grilled with meat imported from such faraway places as Argentina.

It is usually argued that the AKP significantly raised the national income and the prosperity of the Turkish population. This statement is correct only in the averages. Although there are minor improvements that can quickly reverse if the AKP economic miracle collapses, the income distribution is still skewed. And, the rich tail of income distribution is so fat that it can easily be called obese. If the Gini coefficient is any measure of income equality, India beats Turkey by far, .34 to .40 in 2010 respectively and the lower the Gini coefficient, the lower the income inequality. [4]

It is also argued that the AKP pushed reforms that made housing, education, and healthcare more accessible. True, the construction sector constitutes about 6% of the annual gross domestic product (GDP)—equalling the share of the manufacturing sector—and many cities around the country look like huge construction sites. Many of the new apartment buildings in gated communities with security guards are beyond the reach of the majority of working people, and many of those new apartments are sold on easy credit. The Housing Development Administration’s buildings are of a low quality and are usually made available to AKP supporters. A new shopping mall or another commercial building gets started almost every other day, and many shops in the new shopping malls sit empty with a slowdown in consumption. Debates have been going on about the possibility of a US or Spain-like credit-fuelled real estate bubble in Turkey, with proponents of the AKP denying the possibility.[5]

As for the increased access to education, a new private university pops up almost every other month, taking the quality of higher education further down and increasing the debt burden of families who want to provide their kids with a university education. Most graduates of these universities are not able to find well-paying jobs and the unemployment rate among the youth is above 20%. Further, healthcare is available to anyone who can pay for it, except that a majority of the hospitals are now private, the care they provide is expensive, and the quality of affordable care at the state hospitals is going down due to cost cutting and the increased work load of doctors, nurses, and other personnel.

The AKP economic miracle of the past decade stands on two pillars; first, on the fuelling of consumption through excessive credit. The driving force behind the country’s recent economic growth has been nothing but a spectacular rate of credit expansion, which reached 30% for households and 40% for businesses in 2011. Secondly, rent extraction through privatisation of the commons—from land to public enterprises, and spaces and buildings to natural resources – has been another pillar of the economy under AKP rule. Indeed, Gezi Park that triggered the ongoing rebellion is the latest example of attempted privatisation of the commons.

Neither of these strategies is sustainable. Further, not only are households in significant debt—with a debt to disposable income ratio of about 45% in 2011—but also the corporate sector.[6] Although the AKP takes pride in having paid the last installment of its debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Turkey has borrowed increasingly more in the international financial market during its reign, shifting the foreign debt burden from the public to the private sector.

While the total foreign debt stock of Turkey in 2002 was $130 billion with 67% owed by the public sector, the foreign debt stock in 2012 was $337 billion with 67% owed by the private sector. In addition, while only 13% of the total foreign debt stock was short term in 2002, the short-term debt constituted 30% of the total foreign debt stock in 2012. More importantly, 88% of the short-term debt belonged to the private sector, and 66% of it belonged to the private financial sector in 2012.

This effectively turned the Turkish private sector into a shadow bank, which borrows short term in rollover debt markets, leverages significantly, and invests in long-term and illiquid assets, making Turkish corporations in general, and Turkish private banks in particular, vulnerable to currency shocks that may lead to collective bankruptcies. The AKP economic miracle recalls the experiences of Mexico in 1994 and Argentina in 2000 where surging external debt produced short-lived bubbles of prosperity, followed by currency devaluations, and deep slumps.[7] No wonder Prime Minister Erdogan is worried about an imagined “interest rate lobby.”

As the economic miracle of the AKP evaporates, its ability to govern will vanish, and the uprising of 27 May will seem only a dress rehearsal. There has been relative calm in the streets of Istanbul for the last few days and Taksim Square was reopened to the public under heavy police surveillance on 17 June. By 6.30 pm on that day, a man had stood in the middle of Taksim Square for six hours, staring at the flags and a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the nearby Ataturk Cultural Centre. Shortly after it became clear that he was staging a protest to oppose the ongoing police brutality and oppression of human rights in Turkey, the hashtag #duranadam, or standing man, hit Twitter and became the number one trending topic worldwide.

Once again, it is kicking off everywhere, and there are now many standing men and women around the world. From Turkey to Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Brazil, people are in a struggle against neoliberal states for real democracy. The world will not be the same after the 27 May uprising in Turkey.

T Sabri Öncü  is a citizen of Turkey, living in Mumbai. He can be reached at: sabri.oncu@gmail.com.

Notes. 

[6] Financial Times, UK Edition, 11 Sept 2011.