In the protest movements that have emerged since the financial crisis, from Occupy in the US to the Arab Spring, social media has gained new significance as a method of communication, both between activists and as a means of bringing the message to the rest of the world. The protests which took hold in Turkey last year were no exception – but how has the situation developed since then, and how have the authorities responded?
Ayşegül Oğuz: The publishing house Agora has published your Turkish translation of Paolo Gerboudo’s book “Tweets and the Streets.” Why is it so important to understand Twitter? How did you become interested in Twitter and Facebook?
Osman Akinhay: I became aware of the importance of Twitter in January 2011, with the Tahrir uprising. However, what really drew my attention to the use of Twitter by the social opposition were lawsuits such as the one filed against the KCK (Kurdish Communities Union), where citizen journalists shared news and photos from inside courtrooms. There Twitter and Facebook provided alternative media channels.
Twitter has an instantaneous and extensive character, whereas Facebook leaves a longer trace. Facebook has played a significant role in the Egyptian uprising. In the Spanish Indignados movement, however, Twitter was more prominent. In the Occupy Wall Street protests in the USA, where the headquarters of both Facebook and Twitter are located, these two channels had a very limited effect. In fact, Paolo Gerboudo observes that it was only after the Occupy movement received press and TV coverage that it drew attention from the social media.
How does the Gezi uprising compare with Occupy Wall Street in terms of the relation with social media?
The revolt in Egypt was an explosion. Indignados was similar, but with important differences. The movement in Madrid was based on reclaiming a central square and organizing demonstrations around it. As such, Indignados and Gezi are more similar in nature, whereas Occupy has fewer parallels with Turkey. I observed that the Spanish and American movements were based mainly on the organization of protests. In these countries, law and order and the regime were not challenged. In Turkey, however, the government perceived Gezi as a threat to the regime. In Turkey, the resistance was more destructive than in Spain or the USA.
One year on, is the Gezi movement still going strong?
The history of social struggles teaches us that revolts are like rare flowers in history. They rarely bloom; but when they do, they take everyone by surprise and have a strong effect on people’s minds. Their impact can only be assessed in hindsight. As long as the revolt does not spark a revolution, the government initiates a period of restoration, trying to muzzle and control the movement. We are not at that stage yet; although there is a certain retreat, the Gezi spirit is still there. Gezi is the strongest grassroots uprising in the history of the Turkish republic. I was witnessed to the period before the military coup of September 12, 1980; however, I never saw such a spontaneous rebellion. That’s what I felt strongly on the night of May 31, 2013.
What is the difference, in your view, among leftist movements, protest movements and social movements?
There might be analytical differences, but I don’t consider them to be very important. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, Fukuyama declared the ultimate victory of capitalism with theses about “The End of History.” Later on, the so-called anti-globalization movement rose to prominence in the West, starting from Seattle. This wave continued roughly until the occupation of Iraq, when it reached its zenith in the anti-war movement. After the war broke out, we saw the movement die off. In 2005, the suburban revolts in France signaled our entry into a new century.
In terms of social movements, the difference with the pre-1990 period was huge. It might be suggested that there was a certain continuity between the anti-globalization movement and the protests of current day, but Paolo Gerboudo claims in his book that Seattle, Genoa and the other social forums or the anti-G7 protests were more vertical in nature. The post-2011 demos, he suggests, are more horizontally organized. Social media has of course played a role here. Changes in communication technology also change the medium of communication. Nowadays social media pretty much assumes the role attributed to the newspaper Iskra by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in early 1900s.
The instruments of revolt and dissent of the 20th century differ significantly from those of the 21st century. In the 20st century, there were constitutive uprisings. The goal was revolution, and one recognized the presence of the so-called socialist system even if one was critical of it. You believed in the possibility of a revolution and the advent of socialism. And you fought for this cause with resolve.
What was the driving force? The proletarian movement. What was its basis? The idea that the working class had the force to lay down tools and stop production on national and international scales. After 1990, the most important counter-revolutionary act by capitalism was the establishment of a regime of flexible and precarious work. This regime of work and production hits the leftist movement in two ways.
First, the movement is deprived of the physical force which allows it to affect economic and social life in a country. In France, large factories such as the 6500-strong Renault factory are split up; it becomes harder to stage strikes that stop daily life such as the Kavel and Neta strikes of early 1960s in Turkey. What is the result? Think of the Turkish Airlines strike, which had the ability to affect 4500 employees. When this total is divided into sub-contracting firms of sixty to hundred people and some of the work is outsourced, the workers’ joint force, solidarity and ability to stop daily life by laying down their tools are eradicated. We have recently witnessed numerous strikes such as those at Tari?, Çapa and Kazova; however, these struggles do not seem to spread their energy and experiences to other workplaces to constitute a “working class.”
In the current system, we do not witness united workers toppling the government, but rather each worker becoming a wolf to fellow workers. Across the whole world, the number of poor people rises, but the divisions amongst them get larger as the ideologies, slogans and mottos which used to unite them morally, politically and economically lose strength.
Precarious and flexible working conditions now concern all workers, including white-collar employees…
Indeed. Let’s connect this to Gezi. It was frequently said, “Why didn’t the working class come to Gezi Park?” One reason was that Taksim is far from their workplaces; it took hours to arrive. White-collar employees, however, came in huge numbers. Aside from the physical distance, the difference in employment regimes played a role here. Blue-collar employees still have a bond with their employer and enjoy a degree of job security. The precarious whitecollar employees, however, even if they are paid 8000 TL (approximately 2700 Euro or 3,800 USD) a month, feel less secure than blue-collar employees with a salary of 1200 TL (417 Euro or 570 USD). The debates on the unification of the radical left in the run-up to the March 30, 2014 local elections once again revealed the weakness of radical left in Turkey. The objective factor underlying this problem is the employment regime, which shapes the mindset of workers and leads to an absence of common slogans.
One noteworthy piece of graffiti in Gezi read “I couldn’t find a slogan”…
Gezi produced a plethora of slogans. It also offered a recipe of unification for the radical left. The park forums which mushroomed after the Gezi revolt are a great opportunity for the Turkish leftist movement. Early in the morning, on June 15, 2013, there was talk in Gezi Park about an imminent police crackdown. Most left-wing political groups suggested that the protesters needed to abandon the park. They feared possible rout, plunder, and even deaths. When the Taksim Solidarity group announced its decision to abandon the park that evening, it was booed by the demonstrators. At the same time, seven or eight assemblies convened inside Gezi Park, and after long discussions decided that the park would not be evacuated. That decision went against what left-wing groups and Taksim Solidarity wanted. But it turned out to be correct, in my view, as we had the chance to resist for a few more days.
The government’s brutality was revealed further. Armed forces were deployed in Mecidiyeköy1, which exposed the true stance of the government on the issue of military oversight. After the police attack on Gezi Park, those assemblies gave birth to park forums in neighborhoods. The forums are spontaneous grassroots organizations which resemble the soviets of 1905 or the workers’ councils in Italy.
The forums epitomize the Gezi uprising, and offer a channel for the unification of the radical left. According to data obtained from the police, two and a half million people joined the Gezi revolt. At most 30 thousand of them voted for HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, and other socialist parties at the local elections, whereas the rest voted mainly for CHP, the Republican People’s Party. Nevertheless the left’s potential area of influence corresponds to the masses mobilized during Gezi.
Forums lay the groundwork for horizontal organization, isn’t it?
Horizontal and vertical, in fact. Let’s think of similar cases the world over. The legitimacy of the October Revolution came from the soviets, which were the people’s assemblies. An announcement by the Abbasaa Park Forum, for instance, enjoys more legitimacy than those by leftist groups such as Halkevleri (People’s Houses) or the ÖDP (Freedom and Solidarity Party). It has particular appeal and legitimacy in the eyes of the two and a half million who took to the streets during the Gezi revolt, since it allows them to participate in political action as individuals. In his book, Paolo Gerboudo suggests that the social media creates empathy between people with very diverse economic or social positions and in distant physical locations. That empathy allows people to come together; however, empathy does have its limits.
The writer repeatedly underlines the connection between online activism and off-line activism on the field.
We see that empathy can bring people together up to a certain degree, but demonstrations have their own dynamics. The founders of Facebook or Twitter could not have imagined how these channels would be used in Tahrir. Actually, they simply wanted to make money by helping people socialize. However, this new technological medium gave people another means of communication. We will see in time how the relations between Facebook, Twitter and the government evolve. I don’t expect them to side with the protesters, though.
In the preface to the Turkish edition, the author asks the following question: “Is social media activism already a thing of the past in this world where everything immediately turns obsolete?” What would your answer be?
The world changes very rapidly. As Milan Kundera asks in his novel Slowness, where will we stop or move in such a rapid world? How will we determine our speed? Of course everything quickly becomes obsolete. If you don’t go online for two hours, you see that the public agenda in Turkey has changed radically. Very popular in Turkey, Facebook is not a thing of the past and people continue to use it in new ways. Maybe new technological media will appear and gain more popularity. However, online empathy will continue.
How do today’s youngsters compare to those of your generation in terms of curiosity, learning, ambition and organization?
No historical period is like another. The only common denominator is capitalism. I spent my youth in the 1970s, and new generations rose in the 1980s and 1990s which experienced a different youth due to the depoliticization imposed by the fascist junta of 1980. First of all, the high school education system received a huge blow. In the 1970s, we witnessed the last aftershocks of the worldwide revolutionary wave. The Cuba revolution and 1968 were still recent events. Revolutions erupted in Africa. The education system and social life were very different back then.
However, the new generation managed to organize the June uprising. In the preface to my book Gezi Ruhu (The Spirit of Gezi), I write: “It is not us but the young generation who organized this uprising. We simply had the chance to witness it from the best location – its very center.” However, the level of their awareness is another question. Can we compare them with us? These are relative issues. They are brave young people, and their activism is no weaker. Concepts are important here. We say “activism” now, whereas back then we used the word “militancy.” Arundhati Roy says that activism is a civil society-centered concept, describing those who stage demos on the weekend but mind their own business on week days. I believe that today’s youth is a generation of revolt. Social opposition is on the rise across the world and will eventually find its own model of organization.
Do you go on Twitter frequently?
I don’t read newspapers, instead I go on Twitter and find the links to news stories worth reading. Sometimes I don’t even click on the links. It can be enough to see some people mention an issue or voice a criticism. On the other hand, since Twitter takes up too much of our time and provokes the desire to learn about everything, it makes it harder for us to focus on a specific content and delve deeper.
One striking aspect of the Gezi uprising was humorous slogans.
I was in jail in the 1980s and early 1990s, but in the 1970s and even in the early years of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (founded in 1996) politics were a somber affair. Humor and militancy did not go together. The humor magazine G?rg?r was very popular, but humor had not made headway into our daily political discourse. Recently I saw the following slogan written on the Taksim Emergency Hospital: “Rebellion, revolution, freedom! Wtf, I ran out of wall to write on.” We could not, or rather would not even imagine such a graffito. Turkey’s 1968 was a mainly urban movement, centered in Istanbul and Ankara.
In the 1970s, social dissent spread across the country and became rural. Those cultural codes shaped our lives. Had Deniz Gezmi? not been listening to Rodrigo, even classical music would be deemed illegitimate. The left gradually turned into a peasants’ movement, and the social composition of political inmates and the Kurdish movement reinforced this tendency. We had to wait for ÖDP for a return to urban culture. ÖDP’s claim to be “the party of love and revolution” signaled the return of social dissidence to the city. The Gezi uprising also added an urban hue to the opposition.
What is your conception of a 21st century revolution?
Since the concepts of proletarian revolution and proletarian internationalism are becoming obsolete as concepts and perspectives, the world lacks utopias nowadays. This is accompanied by an absence of political objectives. In the last century the antagonism was between labor and capital, whereas in this century it also includes the conflict between human and nature. As such, the emancipation of humanity will be a result of both political and ecological struggles. The youth of this century will eventually craft its own organization, utopia and path to emancipation.
Do you have any favorite tweets?
I remember one tweet in response to Elif Şafak, criticizing the famous author for her commercialized ways (“Ticari saa çek” in Turkish)! There are numerous great tweets. On certain evenings, we organize Twitter parties, much like pajama parties. As a book publisher, I confess that I spend more time with my iPhone than with words printed on paper!
This interview with Osman Akinhay, conducted by Ayşegül Oğuz, was originally published by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Turkey in their quarterly publication ‘Perspectives’.