Taksim and the Left

The small park in Taksim Square in the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul is one of the few green spaces left in the city center. On May 28, a handful of Turkish environmentalists started a peaceful protest against a redevelopment plan for the park that would replace the greenery with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks, a shopping mall, and apartments. But heavy-handed police repression launched a massive civic movement that has spread to the entire country.

The redevelopment plan for the park triggered a huge protest against what a large segment of the Turkish public, particularly young people, considers paternalistic and authoritarian political leadership. The movement’s rapid growth was fueled by widespread opposition to what many regard as official efforts to regiment lifestyles, as well as by frustration over perceived economic inequities.

Indeed, though environmentalists and secular youth spearheaded the protest movement, it became remarkably diverse and inclusive almost overnight. Pious Muslims – particularly those who believe that Turkey’s urban development has created too much rent-seeking and too many easy fortunes – joined the demonstrations as well, as did some far-left groups.

Some of the protests became violent. Overall, however, the movement has remained peaceful and even joyous. Moreover, important figures in or close to the ruling Justice and Development Party expressed their willingness to hold a dialogue with the protesters. President Abdullah Gül, in particular, played a calming, statesmanlike role.

A striking feature of the protests has been the distance that the demonstrators have put between themselves and existing political parties, including the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest force in the center-left secular opposition. In this sense, the Taksim “sit-in” resembles protests elsewhere, particularly in the advanced democracies, from the “Occupy Wall Street” movement to the protests in Spain and Italy.

To be sure, there are country-specific features to such protests – including, in Turkey’s case, the reaction against lifestyle paternalism. But social democrats must understand why the protests developed quite independently of existing, organized, center-left politics. Without such realism, the center left in Europe and the emerging world cannot regain political momentum.

Rising youth unemployment and cuts in pensions and social expenditures come at a time when many large multinational corporations legally avoid taxes by shifting their profits to favorable jurisdictions.

Modern production systems, in which information technology plays an increasingly crucial role, are totally different from the large factory floors that characterized the birth of trade unionism and social democracy. The way much of GDP is now produced has made it significantly harder for the left to organize in traditional ways. That has weakened center-left parties.

Yet information technology and global social media have empowered people to overcome social fragmentation along occupational, residential, and national lines. On some recent days, posts about Taksim Square have reportedly occupied a huge part of the entire world’s “Tweet space.”

In this corner of cyberspace, there is, of course, everything under the sun, including calls for the worst sort of sectarianism. Nonetheless, what dominates is a desire for individual freedom, an acceptance of diversity, great concern for the environment, and a refusal to be “organized” from above. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP’s reformist leader, quickly recognized these dynamics: “The demonstrators don’t want us on the front lines,” he said, “and we have much to learn from these events.”

And yet, while civil society can be a trigger, sooner or later democratic politics has to drive the process of change. Whether in New York, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Istanbul, or New Delhi, a feeling of unease and a desire for change has emerged in societies that are becoming increasingly unequal, and in which politics and business mix in non-transparent ways. Rising youth unemployment and cuts in pensions and social expenditures come at a time when many large multinational corporations legally avoid taxes by shifting their profits to favorable jurisdictions. In the eurozone, stock prices are soaring, while joblessness is at a record-high 12.2%.

The democratic opposition can address the flaws of the existing order only if it recognizes the need for very different forms of mobilization from those of the past. It must recognize a strong popular desire for individual autonomy, more leadership positions for women and the young, and greater support for individual enterprise (along with reforms of social insurance that make it cost-effective and truly inclusive).

Finally, the environment, climate change, and global solidarity will be defining themes of the twenty-first century. Acting on their own, nation-states can successfully address neither tax avoidance nor carbon emissions. The renewed patriotism seen in many places  – a response to the unfairness and dislocation that globalization can generate – must be reconciled with human solidarity, respect for diversity, and the ability to work across national borders. The success of Germany’s Green Party reflects the focus that it has placed on many of these issues.

The events that started in Taksim Square are specific to Turkey, but they mirror aspirations that are universal. The same can be said for the challenge facing the democratic left.