Istanbul 2013: Class Contradictions in an Unreflexive Middle Class Revolt?

During the summer of 2013, Gezi Park, in the Taksim district of Istanbul, was the epicenter of a series of urban protests that quickly spread across Turkey. Clashes against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s restrictive policies were marked by both violent police reactions and broad-based support inclusive of many of Turkey’s social groups. Yet, for Cihan Tugal, associate professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, the upper-middle class interests that sparked the protests represent a contradiction to the spirit of the protests in general.

Tugal spoke on April 24 in an event co-sponsored by the Turkey Studies Research Cluster of the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the departments of History and Religious Studies, the Graduate Group in Cultural Studies, the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program, and the Program in Critical Theory. He outlined his views on last summer’s protests, noting most significantly that despite the appearance of broad popular support, structural contradictions in the movement may have only broadened the gulf between lower- and middle-classes.

Tugal explained how an Erdogan initiative to bulldoze Gezi Park to make room for an upscale mall would have destroyed one of the last green areas in an already overbuilt city; initially, then, this gave a “quasi-environmentalist” edge to the protest. Focusing on the role that Istanbul’s professional classes played in initiating and participating in the revolt, Tugal pondered the irony of well-heeled office workers gathering at an upscale mall after work in order to socialize and protest the construction of another mall.

Calling it a result of the “aestheticization” of the revolt, Tugal explained that for many, the protest was a form of entertainment, something to do after work on your way to the bar.

Despite being the primary beneficiaries of neo-liberal policies, the professional sector wanted to protect their spaces from government takeover. Yet Erdogan´s government has long been taking over green areas and squatter sites to build more luxury housing and shopping malls.

For Tugal, the concerns of a growing police state and unregulated urban development only materialized when the trees in Gezi Park and the interests of “respectable” activists were being threatened. For example, there were no such protests in the 90s when ethnic and religious minorities were being targeted by an authoritarian regime.

As the protest grew and spread to other cities around Turkey, the socio-economic profile of the protestors quickly broadened, the middle- and professional classes were joined by sectarian minorities, and the list of reasons for protest lengthened.

Yet, because of a mixed culture of protest, Tugal argues, the anti-authoritarianism seen in an otherwise “unreflexive middle class revolt” was nevertheless non-egalitarian. While in Turkey, Tugal observed both anti-neoliberal revolt and contempt for the lower classes, thought to be responsible for electing Erdogan and his AKP party.

Ultimately, Tugal feels that Turkey is on the brink of an urban ecological disaster, where not only green areas, but neighborhoods of the poor and working classes are being displaced to make way for projects that benefit the upper classes.

Middle class revolt, he says, cannot lead to alternative institutions that have broad appeal; they just increase the distance between middle and working classes and provoke a retrenchment of the ruling party.