The uprising in Turkey has stirred the doldrums of the American left because it reminds us of ourselves. But if we’re jittery, it’s as much from excitement as anxiety.
The headline Monday morning was “Turkish protestors in full control of Istanbul Gezi Park,” and the images coming out of occupied Gezi Park lent themselves to sympathy and reverie. I could see myself walking around the tents, leafing through a Pamuk novel among the paving-stone slabs of their makeshift library. I could believe that it was me blinking tear gas out of my eyes as I ate water melon on a picnic blanket, defiantly oblivious in the eye of the storm.
Then, abruptly, the peace was broken yesterday by the invading riot police, carrying out Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s promise that “even patience has an end.” If it makes me nervous, it’s because I’ve read about how the Paris Commune ended, or how the uprising in Syria was answered: with a demonstration of state power that cut down any nascent idealism about having entered a new age of democracy.
There is a second way in which Occupy Gezi could end, though, and what it lacks in horror, it compensates for with brutal disappointment. The kind of disappointment that could affect the sex life of an entire generation. Notwithstanding some major victories, this is what Occupy Wall Street’s winter looked like: it fragmented into a billion disingenuous memes and sound bites, little jokes and hashtags that diffused into Wall Street itself. What I mean is that in the spring of 2012, instead of retaking the financial districts once the snow had thawed, we were singing bye-bye Miss American Pie and drinking $1 longnecks at Occupy Bar 1, whose logo, incidentally, is the fist of revolution, gripping a Budweiser. “Giving a break to the 99% with 99 cent Bud products.” Sadly, I’m not making this up.
As much as I hope everyone now regrouping in Gezi Park and elsewhere in Turkey after yesterday’s clearance makes it through the next chapter unharmed, I would never wish the second fate on them either. Neoliberalism tends to mash dissent into a particular mold that it can accommodate. The young and restless wear themselves out—it is their bodies and property, after all, that make up the detritus of revolt—and then things go back to normal. The economy might even get a boost from the media boom and the potential for event-themed consumerism.
Every time there’s a protest, we get a headline (like this one on Turkey) that attributes its success to the new Apple device or some American social media conglomerate.
And then there’s the opportunistic branding that inevitably ensues outside the encampments: Make fist of revolt, insert product.
What looks like support is sometimes just more cultural hegemony.
Nevertheless, the protests in Turkey are inspiring because they are resisting this mold. Sure, there are plenty examples of the hegemony of capitalism infiltrating the Turkish revolt: YouTube videos making light of events and vying for hits, for example; or live-stream videos using Apple brand filters to hue Istanbul in nostalgic green; or Guy Fawkes masks straight out of Hollywood; memes that follow the rules of neoliberalism…
But hopefully Occupy Gezi, unlike Occupy Wall Street, has transcended it’s capitalist context. After all, things are pretty serious in Istanbul. It remains to be seen how successful the revolt will be, but at the very least, Erdogan’s agenda of national gentrification is doomed: Turkey will never be the apolitical tourist brochure he had hoped it would be.
If I have one prayer besides safety for Turkish protestors, however, it’s that they can recognize neoliberal bait when they see it, which offers cheap narratives and controlled release in exchange for participation.