EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Gezi Resistance: Re-claiming Democracy

A prominent political theorist, Judith Shklar, once said that the rule of law has become “a self-congratulatory rhetorical device” [1] used by the politicians, who try to legitimize whatever they do just by uttering the word “the rule of law.” I think we can say the same thing for democracy as well. In Turkey, every political party aims for democracy. Even the military suspended democratic politics with the claim of saving it. The Gezi protests are accepted as an instance of democratic politics, and Erdogan sees himself as the gatekeeper of democratic politics allowing no one in. What I am trying to do here is to provide a perspective from which we can analyze the AKP (the Justice and Development Party) and its relation to democracy on the one hand, and the impact of the Gezi, on the other. In doing this, I will draw on three thinkers and their ideas of democracy, namely Carl Schmitt, Claude Lefort and Jacques Ranciere.

In his book, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Carl Schmitt defines the nineteenth century as “the triumphal march of democracy.” [2] Schmitt makes this definition not because European states were established democracies, but because every ideology, whether liberal, socialist, or conservative, made alliances with democracy. Each political position, no matter its ultimate political aspirations, pursued its cause in the form of a democratic resistance. Everyone appeared as democratic. Schmitt states:

Thus democracy appeared to have the self-evidence of an irresistible advancing and expanding force. So long as it was essentially a polemical concept (that is, the negation of established monarchy), democratic convictions could be joined to and reconciled with various other political aspirations. But to the extent that it was realized, democracy was seen to serve many masters and not in any way to have a substantial, clear goal. As its most important opponent, the monarchical principle, disappeared, democracy itself lost its substantive precision and shared the fate of every polemical concept. [3]

Here I want to make use of the idea of a polemical concept for analytical purposes. It seems possible to demarcate two moments in Schmitt’s idea of democracy as a polemical concept. In the first moment, democracy is seen as a negation. As long as it negates the established monarchies, any ideology can make an alliance with democracy. And democracy acquires its substance as being “not monarchical.” In the second moment, which Schmitt describes as “the fate of all polemical concepts,” when there are no monarchies left to negate, the question of substance becomes problematic.

I propose to think of the AKP with reference to these two moments to demarcate two phases in the AKP tenure as the party in power. The first phase is the polemical phase and the second is the ruling phase. In the polemical phase, the AKP is understood as the political actor negating the authoritarian Kemalist establishment, which has been defined with exclusionary politics, monolithic national identity, assimilation of differences, authoritative secularism, and extra-political control over democratic politics. The AKP, just by negating the establishment, has been thought of as the negative of all these features. The AKP has acquired its democratic identity through the polemical relation it had with the Kemalist regime.

The backbone of this phase is a binary opposition, which defines the polemical relation. The AKP has been evaluated, and has presented itself, within the binary oppositions of military tutelage versus civilian politics, elites versus the people, authoritarianism versus democracy, center versus periphery, and appointed versus elected. The more the AKP has successfully translated its policies, decisions, and actions into these binary oppositions and associated itself with civilian politics/people/democracy/periphery/elected, the more it has associated any opposition to it with military/elite/authoritarianism/center/appointed.

Starting from Abdullah Gul’s presidency (2007) to the last electoral victory (2011) the AKP took over all the institutions and mechanisms put in place by the Kemalist regime to establish tutelage over the civilian actors. And this brought the polemical stage to an end. In the ruling phase, the polemical relation of the first stage ceased to exist. This means that the AKP could no longer justify its commitment to democratic rights and liberties based on its struggle against the Kemalist tutelage. All the binary oppositions the AKP had used to identify itself as the only representative of the people against the elites and as a democratic actor against the undemocratic establishment lost their justificatory force. As the military tutelage lost its power and the Kemalist establishment lost its veto powers, the AKP lost the polemical ground upon which it justified its policies and transformations as democratic.

In this phase, after enjoying the benefits of democracy during its polemical phase, the AKP has to face the costs democracy imposes on its own power. In its ruling phase, the AKP has two options: disestablishment of the mechanisms and institutions of tutelage and setting up the institutional conditions for the maintenance and regeneration of democratic politics, or appropriating them to establish its own undemocratic control. The AKP has chosen the second option.

In the ruling phase, in order to delegitimize and depoliticize any opposition against itself, the AKP has reproduced and kept the binary opposition of the polemical phase alive as a rhetorical device. To reproduce the polemical relation and the binary opposition without the existence of the party that has been negated, the AKP needs a worst-case scenario, a nightmare, if you will, that society can refer to and thereby accept the current order of things. That is to say, the society should suffer from severe paranoia. Kemalists and nationalists had based their rule and control on the fear of theocratic rule and separatism. The AKP has reproduced the social paranoia with the fear of military intervention.

By reducing the multiplicity of political life to a dualism between being pro-AKP, i.e., defending democracy and the people, and being against-AKP, i.e., defending authoritarianism and tutelage, the AKP has been re-presenting any opposition as an instance of the Kemalist authoritarian reflex. This helps the AKP in deflecting attention away from the fact that it has preserved the exclusions, suppressions, injustices and authoritarian resonances in the political system. According to the AKP, their source is always somewhere or someone else. The AKP also has concealed its own political tradition’s contribution to the authoritarian reflexes and histories of suppression that it claims to struggle against.

As long as it associates every opposition and challenge with the Kemalist establishment — with the voice of the elite or a privileged minority, alienated from the people — it successfully asserts itself as the “true” representative of the people. The AKP has made this claim through a majoritarian argument, as well as a populist one. It represents the people because it has the majority of the votes. On the other hand, the AKP is the people because it presents itself as the only party fighting against the “internal colonizers” (i.e. the Kemalists) of the society.

This claim has critical undemocratic consequences. Let me refer to Claude Lefort at this point. For Lefort, modern democracy overturned the basic premises of traditional society, especially the idea of the king as the visible embodiment of the body politics. Modernity is the emergence of a condition where no figure can embody society’s unity. The place of power still exists, yet as an “empty place.”[4] In a modern democracy, there is no body that can fill this empty place of power permanently. This emptiness and void is modern democracy’s peculiarity. Yet it also makes democracy risky. For Lefort, any usurpation of this empty place of power would lead, and has led, to totalitarianism. What is critical to democracy is the permanency of this emptiness.

On the other hand, the empty place of power is not empty. We have “the people” there. But this does not mean that the void is filled. “The people” carries the emptiness onto itself. There is a gap between the symbolic and the real. And because of this gap, no one can claim to embody the people. Not only who is to speak in the name of the people but also the boundary of the people should be permanently open to contestation.

Through the binary opposition between the AKP and everybody against it, the AKP has usurped the empty place of power by identifying itself with the people. It does not matter whether one is opposing the name of a bridge, destruction of a park, a law or a constitutional amendment, the AKP immediately labels the opposition as against the will or values of the people.

From this perspective of the AKP, I would like to emphasize the impacts of the Gezi Protests. As an event, the Gezi ruptured the contours of the political setting in Turkey by, among other things, resisting the binary opposition. In its immediate response, the AKP tried to assimilate the Gezi into the same duality by describing the Gezi as a call for another military intervention. But it did not work. We did not give the same paranoid reflex that we were supposed to give.

The Gezi has stopped the oscillation between conservative authoritarianism and the Kemalist one by performing a new form of opposition that the AKP could not denounce through the terms of the binary. The protesters opposed the AKP, for instance, for being a neo-liberal actor responsible for the destruction of what is common. Because of their plurality, their distance from the Kemalist and/or nationalist positions and their call for freedom for everybody, the Gezi protesters deprived the AKP of its main rhetorical device. And by doing this, they presented the main choice that the AKP has to make: to continue as an authoritarian party, or to accept democratic politics, even when it becomes a venue for opposition, resistance, and disruption. The AKP’s choice of violence as a response to democratic protests and its ongoing effort to criminalize everyone participating has shown that the AKP is insisting on its choice of authoritarianism.

In his book Dis-Agreement, Jacques Ranciere defines democracy as a process of politicization and political subjectivization. [5] It is a process through which a new political subject will emerge. Ranciere adds that the political act is an act of disagreement and dissensus. It ruptures the order of legitimacy and domination. It reveals a fundamental wrong both in the distribution of the sensible and in the hierarchical order of things, which allocates bodies to positions and places, and which decides who can speak and can be visible. Ranciere further argues that the political act is a peformative verification of equality. It is not a claim to be equal; it is the very enactment and manifestation of equality against the established hierarchies and inequalities.

One of the characteristics of the Gezi resistance is that those who now think of themselves as part of a collectivity and feel solidarity with one another did not exist before the political act. This novelty of the resistance enabled a new political language, a new political form and a new sense of collectivity, which is not based on the eradication of plurality. The most important feature of the Gezi is that the protesters staged equality during the occupation. Their equality expressed itself in the way they organized life in the park, in terms of the leaderless non-hierarchical organization of the resistance, and in terms of the way they made each other’s suffering as their own. The park became a stage and the political act of occupation became an act of mise en scene of equality. With this, the protesters reminded us of two fundamental values for democracy: equality and common things. [6] These are the two values that neoliberalism and conservatism want us to forget most.

The Gezi resistance revealed that the AKP’s claim of representation of the people is nothing but a usurpation, which has totalitarian consequences upon every sphere of life in Turkey. The protesters have re-claimed democracy and the demos, which have been kidnapped by the AKP for the last decade.


[1] Judith N. Shklar. “Political Theory and the Rule of Law” in The Rule of Law: Ideal or Ideology. ed. A. Hutchinson and P. Monohan (Toronto: Carswell, 1987), 1

[2] Carl Schmitt. The Crisis of the Parliamentary Democracy, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 22

[3] Ibid., 24

[4] Claude Lefort. Democracy and the Political Theory, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988)

[5] Jacques Ranciere. Dis-Agreement, (University of Minnesota Press, 1999)

[6] For the constitutive importance of public things for democracy, see Bonnie Honig, “The Politics of Public Things: Neoliberalism and the Routine of Privatization” NoFo, 10, 2013

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