From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

Istanbul’s first squat is more than an experiment: it is a counter-hegemonic intervention that challenges the neoliberal dogma of growth at all costs.

In “Occupy the Squares, Squat the Buildings”, a paper written shortly after the eviction of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, Miguel Martínez and Ángela García show how two movements — the mass popular occupation of Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol, and that of Madrid’s squatted and self-managed social centers — interacted to reinforce one another through shared resources, shared physical spaces, shared logistics and people, and of course shared (but by no means homogeneous) ideas and practices. Horizontality has been the organizational modus operandi of these movements, advancing a staunchly anti-neoliberal, if not outright anti-capitalist critique of Spain’s deteriorating economic and political status quo. This is a status quo primarily characterized by heinous and growing wealth inequality, desperate unemployment, savage austerity, opportunistic privatizations and deeply embedded political corruption.

The opening of Istanbul’s first squatted and self-managed social center, appropriately named Don Kişot (Quixote) shortly after the eviction of Gezi Park, has key parallels with the Spanish experience. The inquisitiveness of one of forty odd police officers during a first visit to Kadiköy’s first squatted and self-managed social center, is revealing: does this have something to do with Gezi Park? The answer, of course, is yes — it has a lot to do with the predominantly anti-authoritarian uprising against the AKP government. The critical yet pragmatic anti-neoliberal or anti-capitalist strand of protest that was so apparent during the Gezi Park occupation has resurfaced in this once empty building, which now houses autonomous community projects of all shapes and kinds.

Aside from the varied community of locals (young and old), those from Istanbul and further afar have worked to produce art installations and exhibitions, political conferences and educational forums, children’s days and, among other activities, concerts (the likes of Babzula having played there in November). However, between Don Kişot and the occupation of Gezi Park, there is one particularly striking difference. One sees here no Turkish flags: the nationalistic fervor that so defined the Gezi uprising is notably absent from this space. Likewise one finds absolutely no reference to political parties, no matter how far left, no matter how revolutionary.

In the context of a city, indeed a country undergoing truly monumental urban and rural transformation — of real estate “development” characterized by mass evictions as well as large scale effectively forced rural to urban migration — Don Kişot represents more than just a relatively small experiment in creative collective experience. This squatted and self-managed social center embodies a logic that binds Turkey’s rural struggles and city movements. By housing counter-hegemonic discourse and culture, it is subtly but surely challenging the government’s economic trajectory of growth at all costs. Like Gezi, it is a cultural, political and economic counter-intervention that reclaims physical space not on behalf of any particular group, but for the ancient and progressive notion of a popular “commons”.

The immediate benefits of this space are for those who choose to use and enjoy it. The future benefits will arise from the gradual yet concerted spread of counter-hegemonic culture, the dissemination of alternative ideas and information, proving that other forms of growth in Istanbul and Turkey are not just possible, but desirable.

Dissecting Turkey’s Growth Miracle

Since its election during the economic crisis in 2002, Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice & Development party (AKP) has won much praise for reforms that have led to rapid economic growth. In truth, this is a complex story (financialization and neoliberalization of the Turkish economy having begun with World Bank and IMF-imposed reforms in the 1980s), but two things are obvious and certain.

First, in ten years the AKP has permitted the rapid and tremendous expansion of a cheap consumer credit market — credit cards — that have fueled high levels of consumer activity in the domestic market. It is impossible not to notice that everyone is changing their cars, changing their phones, changing their homes. Hence one of the major factors of growth has been a tremendous spike in private debt fed by foreign lending. The alarmingly high level of private debt will soon need to be paid back to foreign private banks, with associate interest. This form of “growth” comes in stark contrast to productivity increases or technological innovations. It is, as they say, funny money.

Second, the aggressive real estate-based growth strategy, which, as in Spain, has allowed financial sector actors to make huge exploitative profits at the expense of poor urban (and rural) inhabitants, directly and indirectly causing rising rents, gentrification, and state evictions (of up to 10,000 inhabitants), is another major driving force behind the AKP’s so-called growth miracle. AKP reforms since 2002 have worked very swiftly to dramatically increase the amount of “unearned income” as derived from property speculation and rent-seeking. Istanbul’s Gecekondu neighborhoods, or informal settlements, have progressively been slated for demolition, the land privatized and sold to developers.

What has been termed a “neoliberal urban regime” is commonly instigated by central governments that remove regulations on domestic and foreign investment in land, allowing large often short-term, high-risk capital flows to feed growing real estate and building markets. Extraordinary financial incentives like tax cuts are provided to private capital, alongside police troops to enforce controversial development plans that provoke civil opposition from local populations. Local and municipal governments play their role by deferring to the visions of property developers in their town and planning codes, often bending over backwards (and under tables) to facilitate the “new”, “modern”, “elite” and “exclusive” urban landscapes. Profit margins on luxury housing dwarf those of good-quality, low-income housing.

Predictably, therefore, luxury housing and easy revenue generating projects, such as shopping malls and convention centers, become the natural and preferred product of mostly private sector-driven development. Transferring effective control of a city’s urban landscape to private developers, who have absolutely no connection to — or knowledge of — the social realities of the places where they are developing, and who proceed with absolutely no consultation with the people who live in these areas (often developing at their expense, i.e., mass evictions), has contributed much to the AKP’s purported GDP growth.

Naturally all of this occurs in tandem with the sweeping privatization of public buildings housing hospitals, schools, train stations, ports, factories and utilities. Reported figures for the entire period from 1983 to 2001 show that the Turkish state gained $5 billion as revenue from privatization deals. These are dwarfed by figures from during the AKP period: from 2002 to 2010 privatization deals have delivered in the order of $42 billion — 5 times more in less than half the time period. (These figures come from interviews with urban sociologists at Boğaziçi Üniversitesi, Istanbul).

The contemporary Turkish experience closely mirrors that of both Russia and China, in that vast amounts of state-owned land and assets are being sold off en masse behind closed doors, creating a new landed gentry. (Exposing who is behind these “networks of dispossession” has been the project of some innovative data visualizers). In Turkey, the instrument for this monumental state sell-off is the now extremely powerful state-institution known by its acronym TOKI (State Mass Housing Administration). It is an institution that can be seen, more than anything else, as the Prime Minister’s private land broker. TOKI answers directly and only to the Prime Ministry, is exempt from parliamentary oversight and from auditing by Sayistay (the state auditor that audits state institutions), and has furthermore gained the power over decisions on land planning and zoning.

Concerning land privatization deals, no one outside the Prime Ministry or TOKI can say with certainty how they are done, how much money they are generating, and how the funds are being spent, or where they are going. Such clandestine behavior provokes one assumption: the monumental, fire-sale price sell-off of state-owned land to the government’s inner circle of business contacts through sweetheart deals, meaning that even if there is a change of government, the country’s assets (that is: the previously common wealth of the country itself) will still be in the now private hands of an AKP supporting landed-gentry. They came, they plundered, and any new government will be compelled to use the police to enforce the private property rights of this new asset class.

That is, of course, unless any new government is not delikanlı (brave-hearted) enough to investigate and/or annul any or all of the privatization deals found to amount to effective theft from the Turkish people, and begin the problematic course of re-instating the vestiges of the Turkish social state. This unlikely scenario would obviously come too late for the many tens of thousands of people evicted from their homes with minimum compensation, in order to make way for high-rise luxury mega developments and shopping malls. Not to mention the population at large, many of whom expect — and all of whom deserve — that the state act in their collective interest to satisfy fundamental social and economic rights to housing, healthcare and education.

It is hard to argue against the re-appropriation of this privatized land, acquired under such dubious and blatantly undemocratic circumstances. Authoritarian neoliberalism is still one part authoritarian, as even free-market ideologues must concede (in consideration of their natural pre-disposition to valuing civil and political over economic and social rights). Private capital itself, however, is obviously immune, insulated from, and unaffected by discussions over rights; unless of course it is the right to private property. Its sole role and purpose is to reproduce itself. The AKP has been bending over backwards to allow it to do exactly that, and the economic and social (not to mention civil and political) costs to Turkish society have been incommensurable.

Growing Autonomy and Self-Management

The direct reclaiming of vacant buildings for community use — be they private or state-owned — is a tradition with a long history in Europe. The Spanish movimiento okupa de los centros sociales y autogestionados (squatters’ movement for self-managed social centers) is today one of the strongest. It is the result of failed neoliberal reforms permitting rapid growth in the Spanish property market, a subsequent burst property bubble, and literally millions of empty buildings.

Add to these physical conditions a strong history and tradition of anarchist and autonomous political organizing whose historical beginnings are with libertarian guerrilla-fighters, those who occupied the empty buildings that belonged to the fascists during the dictatorship. These ateneos did not just use the buildings for shelter or for guerilla-related activities, but also for political talks, cultural activities, theaters, libraries and so on. So-called second generation squats or social centers evolved from the “hardcore”, typically punk squat scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. Squatted and self-managed social centers today often purport to be less socially exclusive, undeniably more open spaces. Their purpose is to facilitate free and autonomous social, political and economic activity. Translated, the Spanish Autogestión incorporates both the terms self-management and self-organization.

The ways that squatted and self-managed social centers function provide some stark contrasts to the economic growth trumpeted by neoliberal governing elites. Firstly, in contrast to the destructively repetitive production and consumption cycle of consumer materialism (itself sustained by private debt ultimately repayable to private lenders), these spaces practice and promote the creative reuse and recycling of materials, as well as the sharing and barter of goods, skills and talents. Entertainment and culture are free and open-sourced, not passively consumed but rather generated through participatory practice. Secondly, how these centers, this land, is managed and organized is decided on by those who actually use it. Attendance, furthermore, is open and public. Horizontal, consensus decision-making forums and meetings promote a sense of neighborhood and user solidarity, a more communitarian outlook that is often also at pains to respect individual autonomy and perspectives.

This form of open yet localized spatial governance stands in stark contrast to the extreme concentration of power wielded by a clandestine elite, whose unpopular decisions affecting the lives of millions are necessarily enforced by the threat and excessive use of police violence. During the last ten years of AKP rule the police force has more than doubled. One can expect the amount of squatted and self-managed social centers will continue to grow too.

Christopher Patz is a lawyer, freelance journalist and filmmaker based between Istanbul and Melbourne. See below for the trailer of his upcoming documentary Sultan Inc. – Resistance United. His documentary Okupación on the various squats and self-managed social centers in Madrid can be watched here.

Some squats in Madrid:
Groups (social centres, collectives, squats) in Madrid:
Events in Madrid:

Groups (social centres, collectives, squats) in Turkey:
Events in Turkey:

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