A new verb for the 21st century

June 20, 2013

Protests over the demolition of a park in the Taksim Square area of central Istanbul have spiraled into a mass protest movement that is rocking Turkey to its core. Increasingly at the center of the discontent is the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). But demonstrators are also driven by simmering anger at the AKP's neoliberal agenda.

In this article written earlier in the month--before the assault on the Gezi Park occupation on June 15--T. Sabri Öncü, an economist and head of research at the Centre for Advanced Financial Research and Learning, Reserve Bank of India, explains the background to the uprising against Erdogan and the AKP.

WHEN TURKISH Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the protesters in the streets of Istanbul plunderers (çapulcu in Turkish) on June 2, he contributed a new verb to the English language. A video clip of the resistance--entitled "Everyday I'm Chapuling"--hit the Internet on June 4 with new lyrics written to the pop song "Everyday I'm Shufflin'."

And the new English verb was born: to chapul. Soon after, the word moved to the French language and found a place among such words as liberté, egalité and fraternité: chapulité.

The international media have been covering the events of the ongoing uprising that started on May 27 extensively. This article focuses on the reasons behind it as well as on potential outcomes.

Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002. A darling of Western governments and media until recently, it won three elections in a row, getting about 50 percent of the votes in the last election in 2011.

Now, the AKP has more than a 66 percent majority in the national assembly, which allows its leaders to pass any law they please; they have the entire police force, which allows them to arrest or suppress anyone they want; they have the entire justice system, which allows them to prosecute whomever they like; they control the Turkish military, which allows them to dream about regional hegemony, Ottoman-style. And they control all economic and financial institutions--from the Finance Ministry to the Central Bank--to shape the economy in their own image, irrespective of the needs of the population.

Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square at night
Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square at night (Burak Su)

The AKP has been presented by the Western media not only as a democratic model for the Muslim world, but also as an economic model for Europe during the ongoing global financial crisis. While the austerity-based economic model of the AKP has been nothing but a neoliberal, speculation- and finance-led growth model of development familiar to Indians, what their "Muslim democracy alla turca" means suddenly has become clear even to the Economist, although the Economist itself introduced the concept only two years ago with high praise.

THE OBVIOUS injustice and police brutality in Gezi Park was just the last drop in a long process of accumulation of discontent against this authoritarian government. Through their social policies, the AKP has been pushing for a conservative Islamic lifestyle, threatening in particular women and youth, and criminalizing and imprisoning oppositional groups ranging, from secularists to Kurds, socialists and trade unionists.

Through its economic policies, the AKP has been imposing its neoliberal agenda by increasingly commercializing public services, creating areas of rent for large corporations, and eroding the living standards and security of a significant proportion of working people.

Its growth model depends on cheap labor, speculative financial capital inflows and a high trade deficit. The share of industrial production is decreasing and becoming increasingly more dependent on the imports of intermediate and capital goods as well as energy. Agricultural production is about to go extinct, and even the well-liked Turkish kebabs are now grilled with imported meat from such faraway places as Argentina.

The AKP economic miracle of the past decade has risen on two pillars. First, pumping up consumption through excessive credit. Second, rent extraction through privatization of the commons, including land, public enterprises and natural resources. Neither of these strategies is sustainable, and the youth unemployment rate is above 20 percent.

Further, not only are households in debt up to their neck, but so is the corporate sector. Although the AKP takes pride in having paid the last installment of its debt to the IMF, Turkey has increasingly borrowed money by turning to international financial markets during the AKP's reign, shifting the foreign debt burden from the public to the private sector. The foreign debt of the private sector has reached such unforeseen levels that Turkish corporations are now vulnerable to currency shocks that may lead to collective bankruptcies.

Although the Western media present the uprising of May 27 as simply a rebellion against Turkey's lack of democracy, nothing could be farther from truth. No doubt this is a rebellion against the lack of democracy, voice and representation. But it is also a rebellion against rising inequality, unemployment and the private provision of basic needs as well as against the energy, ecological and food crises and climate change.

The people in the streets come from many walks of life, age groups (although youth are on the frontlines), religions, ethnicities and ideologies. There are anarchists in the streets, socialists, ecologists, nationalists, Kemalists, apolitical folks and even some AKP voters. Although the labor movement joined the protests with two strikes--the Confederation of Public Workers' Union on June 4 and 5 and the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Unions on June 5--there is no massive participation of the Kurdish movement yet.

So what will be the outcome of this uprising of such diversity with no set of concrete demands?

Perhaps Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in a letter to the protesters in Istanbul answered the question best: "Your great country stands at the gateway between east and west. Constantinople is legend in the history of civilization. Your resistance today may well be a turning point between all of us and a return to the dark ages."

Let us hope so.

First published at The Bullet.

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