The recent protest demonstrations roiling Istanbul have something in common with the antirape protests in Delhi earlier this year, the antigovernment protests in Cairo in 2011, the various anticapitalist "Occupy" protests in the U.S. and Western Europe, and even some of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s -- they're all largely driven by the aspirations and interests of the bourgeoisie middle-class, whether they identify with that stratum of society or not.
Turkey, which has enjoyed an economic renaissance over the past decade, now boasts a robust and growing middle-class with unprecedented purchasing power and growing political influence. Indeed, over roughly the past dozen years, Turkey’s gross domestic product has almost quadrupled, a phenomenal transformation for a country that had long been derided as the “sick man of Europe.”
The per capital income, now at about $10,000, has tripled over the past decade, while Turkey continues to enjoy one of the highest rates of economic growth in Europe.
The Istanbul protests appear to be driven by opposition to both Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is probably the most powerful man in the Middle East now, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as to plans to redevelop a local park and turn it into a shopping center.
They're also concerned about a number of other schemes by the government to tear down existing neighborhoods for new construction projects.
While watching footage of the protests Istanbul’s central Taksim Square and Istiklal Street, I noticed how well-dressed and well-fed virtually all of the participants were – not to mention all the high-end clothing chains and various western style coffee shops proliferating the area.
Even the “icon” of the protest, the “Lady in Red,” who was hosed down by police, is a fetching young women in a lovely red dress, carrying a stylish white handbag (so much for the proletariat).
It would seem that Erdogan has created a monster – a large and booming middle class -- something the Turks have never really had before in their long history -- who want Western European and American-style freedoms.
“The AKP is the victim of its [own] success,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, a nonprofit foreign policy think tank, told Bloomberg.
“In the past decade, the party’s economic policies have made Turkey a majority middle-class society. Now this middle class wants individual rights and takes issue with the Turkish ruling party’s understanding of democracy.”
Cagaptay added, “The middle class that the AKP has built is telling the governing party, ‘Democracy is not just winning elections, it is also building consensus, so do not push projects down our throats. Talk to us and listen.’”
And that brings us to the problem: the protesters, in general, aren't the needy proletariat crying out for bread, jobs and justice – indeed, they already have the first two in abundance and are speedily gaining the third.
It's hard for me to sympathize with people who're filming their own protests, and themselves, with their spiffy new smartphones and tablets while guzzling Starbucks coffee. Even if they've legitimate grievances against the Ankara government, their message has been drowned out by what appears to be their narcissism, self-absorption and affluence.
A 26-year old protester named Karakaya spelled it out explicitly for the Australian newspaper: "For me, it was more of a hipster movement when it began, but even in the suburbs they are protesting, and that is really middle class.”
Earlier this year in India, in the wake of the horrific gang-rape of a young female medical student on a Delhi bus, which triggered a wave of protests around the country, some observers pointed to the middle-class nature of the demonstrators.
“The broader issues raised by the Delhi gang-rape have resonated strongly with India's burgeoning urban middle class,” wrote Danielle Rajendram, a research associate in the Lowy Institute's International Security Program.
“The victim was a young, educated, upwardly mobile, first-generation urban Indian – someone with whom India's middle class could closely identify. As a result, she has become synonymous with the ambitions and political frustrations of an entire emerging, aspirational class and generation.”
Although Turkey and India are vastly different countries, they have two important things in common – the urban, educated middle-class increasingly embrace liberal and secular politics, while the large, rural poor cling to conservative traditional views.
And it appears that the first group – the urban bourgeoisie – are the ones taking up placards and banners -- and Starbucks coffee and smartphones -- to the streets to express their voices loudly, while the rural poor generally remain silent.
Ronojoy Sen, visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, quoted a Delhi protester who reflected that: “While the awakening of the students and the educated youth has been rightly applauded, one has to ponder over the class dimension of the phenomenon and about the chasm that lies between India Gate [a prominent monument in Delhi] and the slum habitat.”
This points to a singularly unique and ironic element of modern democratic societies -- the people with the greatest grievances and who suffer the most, the poor and working classes, generally don't stage protests. It's, in fact, the spoiled middle classes who go out onto the streets, to express their various “outrages” – that is, the same people who've benefited the most from the policies enacted by the government that they're pretending to “oppose.”
On a more mundane level, the poor and working class really do not have the time to waste attending street demonstrations since they are dealing with the far more urgent matter of staying alive for another day.
This phenomena harkens back to a society dramatically different from Turkey or India – the U.S. of 40 years ago. During the Vietnam War period, observers noted that the anti-war protests were largely attended by middle-class students and other educated citizens, while the working classes, that is, those, who tend to do the bulk of fighting in wars, generally disdained the protesters an supported the government’s policies.
Ironically, those with almost nothing to risk and nothing to lose, do most of the protesting, at least, in public.
Virginia Mondale, an antiwar activist, who attended a demonstration in Washington in those days, wrote this about her fellow protesters: “My first impression of the marchers was one of solid middle-class stability -- lots of grey heads and… cloth coats. It could have been an academic gathering. Of course there was a sprinkling of noisy young people in much more ‘outré’ apparel.”
She could just as easily have been describing a scene in 2013 Delhi or Istanbul.