Turkey, the price of neoliberalism / Turkey / Areas / Homepage – Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

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Istanbul - Francesco Brusa

Istanbul – Ph. Francesco Brusa


Tax-free zones where workers are denied trade union protection, authoritarian trends, experiences of resistance that emerge in the suburbs of large cities. Turkish development in an interview with researcher Luca Manunza

In the book Geografie dell’Informe (Ombre Corte, 2016), researcher Luca Manunza describes the socio-economic reality of three important Mediterranean ports: Tangiers, Naples, and Istanbul. Seemingly distant contexts, they share many features in fact: logics of commercial delocalisation, rapid and often violent urban changes, and the development of informal networks and relationships. Convinced that these dynamics play a fundamental role in Turkey’s current “authoritarian drift”, we talked with the author.

In your book, you describe how Istanbul has become, in the last ten years, one of the main “productive hubs” of the Mediterranean. What are the dynamics that led the city to take on this role?

When Erdoğan took power in the early 2000s, there was a double push in terms of government actions and of the development of the country in general. The former mayor of Istanbul belongs in fact to a political stream straddling neoliberal economic thought with a Westward orientation, and social conceptions rooted instead in the initially moderate Islamic community. Over the years, this has allowed him to attract huge international capital.

What instruments did he use for that? First of all, the creation of numerous tax-free zones, which prove to be a fundamental element and which, at least up until a couple of years ago, have been constantly expanding, especially around Istanbul. Then, the “sale” of the territory and its hyper-specialised labour force, especially in the manufacturing and service sectors. Here, Erdoğan started to sell cheap labour abroad, offering investors in Turkey a whole number of tax reliefs, that in some cases reach 50% or employ mechanisms similar to those in place in the Moroccan area of Tangier, so the Turkish government sold entire productive sectors, new or divested from previous factories and local companies, at no cost for 10-20 years. In addition, Istanbul “opened up to the world” as the European capital of culture and it was a candidate for the Olympics, thus becoming one of the world’s major tourism hubs. The Atatürk Airport welcomes almost five million visitors every month, the Sabiha Gökçen hosts low-cost airlines, while a third airport is being built…

What are the repercussions for workers?

It has been ten years of hyper-development. Many international brands operate in Istanbul, including Italian ones. It just takes a look at the website of the Chamber of Commerce to realise the number and type of companies that have offices in Turkey.

The point is that, in Erdoğan’s Turkey, corporations can do anything they want. Take the case of the tanneries of Solofra, in Campania (which used to be among the most important tanneries in Europe): after being shut down because of a major environmental scandal, almost all of them moved to the Istanbul area. We know how polluting these companies are and how dangerous they are to the health of those who work there. Occasionally, cases also break out in Turkey, which may even reach the European Court, but in the end there are never significant consequences. Or take even a minor international brand as Philipp Pline: a polo comes out of Turkish factories at 1.20 Euros, to be sold on the Dubai market at 250.

In the area near Atatürk Airport, there are entire neighbourhoods populated by gigantic 10-storey factory complexes, with a different level of production on each floor. You will never find the tag of a specific brand on the outside wall, but there are many brands inside these buildings. They produce lines of clothing that are then transported around the world, both by airlines and through road transport, which remains absolutely capillary. Here, therefore, all the raw material that enters the tax-free zone leaves without further processing, and above all without any taxation, ready to be transported to the European, Middle Eastern, and Chinese markets.

Real factory neighbourhoods…

There is an impressive contiguity between life, work, and commerce there. Whole groups of people are relocated from the city centre to the periphery, in these public housing neighbourhoods owned by the public agency TOKI (not far apart from the famous towers that are seen in the suburbs of Istanbul). Here, people literally live in front of their workplace. There are houses, 10-storey compounds, small factories flanked by huge sheds (a sort of hangars where goods are stored and packed), directly connected to the motorway networks that lead the cargoes to the landing and departure lanes of the Atatürk airport. It feels like being back to the early 1930s, a situation similar to those described in Jack London’s books…

There is therefore a huge ancillary sector that has been developing since 2006 and that is still proceeding at very high speed, in parallel to the emptying of the historic areas, in spite of the great proclamations and agreements with UNESCO.

What space is there for rights? How do unions react to such a situation?

The trade union question is really at a critical point. The grassroots textile union DISK, the most important trade union in Turkey and a “conflict” organisation affiliated to the Communist Party, has a very broad constituency: on May 1st in Istanbul, it manages to bring to the streets a million and a half people. Yet, it is not able to be present in all the factories, indeed it is present only in few cases. This is because it can achieve almost nothing in terms of labour rights; it has no bargaining power by now. On the one hand, they cannot negotiate with the government; on the other hand, they do not have interlocutors among the international clients.

In this regard, an exemplary case is that of Ermenegildo Zegna, an Italian brand present in Turkey for twenty years. In 2012, a company affiliated with it in Tuzla, near Istanbul, fired some employees who carried out union activities. There were various protests, even strong ones, but nothing came out of them, no meetings with leaders “on the upper floors”. In fact, in Turkish factories there are managers who preside over the organisation of the production line, but who have no decision-making power over contracts with workers. Therefore, trade unions generally manage to maintain a core of militants, acting as anti-government movements and organise street protests. However, in terms of actual conquests of labour rights (contracts, recognition of some diseases, etc.), there are very few, almost none.

There are interesting experiences of different nature though. Kazova, for example, is perhaps the first and only self-managed factory in Turkey. In 2013, following heavy lay-offs, workers managed to subtract the premises and means of production from the owners of the plant, and now produce knitwear that is sold through a solidal network. A small experience, which has also gone through strong internal diatribes, but one of “real resistance”. Or the case of a historic Alevi-majority neighborhood, also near the airport. Almost all inhabitants are affiliated to the DHKPC group (a Marxist-Leninist party formed at the time of the coup in the 1980s) and have self-organised within their area, even in terms of basic welfare, working in the textile industry on behalf of third parties (today for one brand, tomorrow for another, and so on), and succeeding in obtaining a certain bargaining power towards their customers.

It would almost seem that a real opposition today can be possible precisely on this level, not even urban but – so to speak – “infra-urban”…

The last real coup in Turkey, that of the 1980s, came from the huge wave of migration that poured into the big cities from the Anatolian villages. These were people with a strong capacity for political interpretation and a propensity to fight for their rights, that created a situation of instability which led the powers-that-be to resort to the coup. Today, it is precisely these areas that Erdoğan cannot control that well, and it is precisely these areas that constitute potential “pockets of resistance” that could re-emerge in the cities and act as a counterweight to state power.

The liberal economic reforms we mentioned were accompanied by significant concessions in terms of freedom of organisation and expression. It was this context that allowed for the development of movements like that of Gezi Park, in which, among other things, some groups began to work on the concept of “commons”, with an attitude that perhaps might seem a bit naïve from the outside, but that was actually characterised by remarkable decision and firmness. Now, this is no longer feasible at a level of large centres or in the student and academic environments, which experience severe restrictions.

But, as I mentioned, this happens in other, more peripheral areas of the country, which are beyond central control and are reorganising. I am thinking of the northern Anatolian area, where the possibility of action granted to student associations, political movements, and small trade associations is currently higher than in the rest of the country. Or the whole area of Kurdistan: beyond the main centres that suffer hard attacks, there is a myriad of villages that have been running in complete autonomy for years now. These are very small communities, but they are becoming very interesting sites of experimentation in terms of democracy from below, associationism, etc. There is therefore a return to the “territories”: many activists decide to move from the city to these areas or shuttle, getting their political education through such experiences.

But, above all, these experiences are built by the lower-middle class. I believe that, at this moment, this makes resistance struggles more pragmatic and effective than the speeches that can be formulated in the academic or intellectual realms, where articulating dissident thought today seems difficult if not impossible anyway.

In the meantime, the government imposes restrictive laws and moves further and further away from Europe. In your book, you seem to trace very clearly this trajectory, which has its starting point in the economic crisis of 2001…

Bearing in mind that history is always a continuum, it is true that in 2001 there was a series of jumps and breaks compared to the previous period. There were events that pushed governments to elaborate ideologies, but above all practices, that we were not used to: new currency, a new “politics of fear”, different acts of violence and control (of the war in general), a different approach to telecommunications and privacy and, in parallel, economic relocation measures.

The millennium opened with a war effort in Afghanistan and with the re-emergence of the Iranian question. In such a context, it was inevitable for Turkey – almost a marginal actor before – to become a leading player, as any geopolitical action had somehow to pass through Turkish skies. Therefore, Erdoğan confronted these international policies. He did so with ruthlessness and decision, counting on the country’s strategic position and wealth of resources and on the awareness of having one of the most powerful armies in NATO.

However, I think we could single out another “jump” about ten years later, in 2010-11. After taking – so to speak – the best and worst of different countries, after taking on Western economic policies as well as international trends on tourism, culture, and urban development, Turkey decided to seek autonomy and “up the ante”. It would spend the millions received by UNESCO for restoration and conservation, and the day after put entire city neighbourhoods up for sale, it would ignore European rebukes on human rights, etc. And, above all, it signed trade agreements and bilateral pacts with the northern powers (Russia), looking more and more to the east for economic development (a very large part of the Turkish economy at this moment depends on the “reconstruction” of territories in conflict, like Iran, Iraq, and part of Syria).

It is as if the internal subsumption of the neoliberal discourse had reached a point where it no longer held sway, and has therefore turned into something stronger, into a real dictatorship that presents new and varied facets. From this point of view, we cannot ignore it, we must not treat Turkey as a country alien and far from us. Its current destiny questions the path of our Western democracies every day.

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