Turkey is Occupy not Spring

The #Taksim protests in #Turkey should IMHO be read as part of #Occupy, not as analogous to the #Arab_Spring. The same is true of the protests in Brazil: Occupy not Spring. Discourses that link Istanbul to the Arab Spring are not good for any of the parties involved, and that includes "us" (or at least "me", an Englishman in Northern California).

What is being protested in Turkey is democratic deficit, the overreach of elected politicians, attacks on the freedom of expression, police and state brutality, the injustice at the heart of the form of capitalism being practiced, and a lack of due process. These are failures of the state to do what it promises. A similar set of accusations might be made by the protestors in Brazil. This is criticism analagous to the Occupy movement; analagous and equally justified.

What happened in the Arab world in 2011 (and is still happening today) is qualitatively and quantitatively of a different order. People who lived in failed and failing states that had denied them any freedom to control their own destinies for generations decided, one after another (both one state after another and one person after another) that the end had come, and had to come. Muhammad Bouazizi burnt himself to death, hundreds of thousands risked their lives (and thousands died), and the institution of the Arab President for Life (who manipulates both the neo-liberal means of production and his international relations with the goal of passing on the regime to his son) came to an end in Tunisia and Egypt.

The problem with conflating the Arab Spring and the protests in Turkey and Brazil is that it conflates revolution with protest. This is not to disparage protest (without the Chartists where would I be?), nor to defend the justice of the systems protested (Old Sarum anyone?) but rather to draw attention to the fact that calling the protests in Turkey and Brazil revolutions elides the existence of functional democracies in those two countries. It also conveniently lumps Turkey and Brazil into a non-white, non-Western, non-democratic world where revolutions might needed to get where France (1789) and America (1783) are today. Calling Turkey and Brazil part of Occupy forces a more uncomfortable comparison between the state of their democracies (and the health of their capitalisms) and the state of ours.

The stakes are high. While Tunisia and Egypt struggle unglamorously out of presidency-for-life, Syrians are dying, and killing, in their thousands. We in the West (me, some of my colleagues, my elected officials) are playing with and talking about possibilities that might affect the course of the suffering in Syria. And the words we use to talk about both killing and freeing our fellow human beings matter more than ever. When the wrong discourses become established, people get hurt. This is the argument (among others) made in Priya Satia's great recent book on the era of Gertrude Bell, Lawrence of Arabia, and aerial bombing of civilians in Iraq by the British occupation.

If Turkey and Brazil start getting rhetorically muddled up with the Arab Spring, and Occupy gets muddled up with real bloody revolutions, some basic truths will get elided: we (caveats apply as above) need to support the state through democratic improvement in Turkey and Brazil (it deserves to be called a state)—and we need to support those fighting to get out from under genuine dictatorships. Support may perhaps need only be as extensive (and as expensive: blood and dollars) as giving them the right names.

An alternative (less paranoid) reason for the attraction of the Arab Spring branding may be the fact that it succeeded? Real power crumbled in the face of millions on the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, while the legacy of Occupy back in the West is more contestable (and hey, the housing market is on the up, no?).

This article by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Michael D. Kennedy is a good example of how using the Occupy lens helps reading of Brazil, and this article by Connor Adams Sheets and Thomas Halleck gives good detail on how the Occupy branding can apply everywhere. Funnily enough, while surfing the evidence for this conclusion, I came across the same argument (Turkey is Occupy) being made - by the Turkish president Abdullah Gul! Whom of course Erdogan seeks to replace with himself in what appears to be a Putin-eqsue attempt to morph into an Arab President for Life.

A final danger of assimilating Turkey and Brazil to the Arab Spring is the liminality it implicates. Thousands of innocent people died achieving freedom through the exercise of their agency in the Arab world —this is not happening in Turkey and Brazil, nor should it be contemplated there, even by vocabulary-driven accident. Gul's equivocation and fence-sitting in the face of increasing authoritarianism is not an edifying spectacle, but it is the sort of imperfect leadership that tolerates and is tolerable (an even less liminal example: Angela Merkel's response to the Euro crisis). In short, the response to the killers of Ian Tomlinson should not be the same as the response to Bashar al-Asad. And our responses are often driven by the words we use...

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