LeftEast Summer Convergence 2016

Narrative Report

Sept. 20, 2016

The Peoples' Movements Summer Convergence this July in Istanbul took place under uniquely arresting circumstances: amidst an unsuccessful military coup and its immediate aftermath. While we had chosen Istanbul as the site of our convergence in part out of recognition of the city's centrality to current conflicts and in solidarity with Turkey's deeply embattled leftist community, none of us could have guessed just how germane our plan for discussion would be to current events.

15th July: [a surprising] Welcome

The armed rebellion by elements of the Turkish armed forces broke out in the early evening of July 15, the first night of our convergence. The next day, our first formal discussion session started only two hours behind schedule. We remained in Istanbul throughout the tense period in which government forces put down the insurrection and the state took its first steps toward consolidating power. Participants even continued joining us from abroad over the following days, as our ongoing discussion of the violence of the contemporary neoliberal order unfolded.

Our convergence thus started off on an unusual footing, once the general introductions on Friday afternoon were complete, and warplanes began flying ominously low in the sky above our dormitory on the Bogazici campus. The first intensive discussion of our event happened during the night and into the morning on Saturday, and once we had gotten some sleep, carried over into breakfast before the first panel: it concerned the coup attempt itself and what it would mean for the Left. Poring over newspapers from our different countries late on Friday night and analyzing Hurriyet, the only English-language Turkish daily available to us the next day, gave us a context for discussing divergent yet comparable narratives of nationhood, legitimacy and security, which in part framed the panel we held early that afternoon.

16th July: Thinking at the Intersection of Periphery, Violence, and People’s Movements

Our formal discussions began with a documentary screening on the refugee crisis by two short films made by one of the participants who has gone along the Balkan route. It was followed and contextualized further by an overview of racial and religious dimensions of early republican Turkish nationhood, and the reflections on the institutional history of solidarity between Left-wing groups in the Balkan and the Anatolian regions. We examined the past and future of direct linkages among leftists in our territories, asking how such links can come into being without the mediation of the western metropole. This question formed a good background to the lively debate that ensued over the paradigm of decoloniality, as lucidly presented by some of our Romanian participants in the ensuing session. We debated the prospect of delinking from an ideological world system held together by the "core" and reconnecting to regional particulars in order to construct a more locally compelling anti-capitalism in thought and practice. Some participants voiced concerns about potential conservative cooptation of the decolonial paradigm and brought up examples of putatively anti-colonial rhetoric employed by the ultra-right movements across the region, which combine it with ethno nationalism. In response, decoloniality's defenders distinguished their viewpoint from reflexive anti-westernism of the kind that merely inverts the valuation between East and West while keeping capitalist social relations intact.

The session was interrupted by a text message from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling all loyal "children of the Turkish nation" out into the streets to "lay claim to their democracy." This would be another hallmark of our days in Istanbul: the state mobilizing crowds of flag-waving supporters to cement Erdogan's hold on public space and call for vengeance. The groups we occasionally dodged while on our way to film screenings and meetings with feminists and a center for Syrian refugees materialized the menace to which most of our discussion was directed: "national unity" acting to stamp out all resistance to a no-holds-barred capitalism with conservative cultural underpinnings. That evening we had a meeting scheduled for an Alevite neighborhood, but we had to cancel going there - while the community was ready to receive us, we realized that in times in which they would be vulnerable to attacks by the right, the presence of some forty visitors would have been overbearing in the distressful time to come. Luckily, this was the only event in our program that the attempted coup d'etat made us reschedule, and it gave us time to explore the neighborhood intersection between XYZ neighborhoods on the bosphorous, while watching cars of government supporters with national and ultranationalistic (grey wolf) flags drive around in frenzy.

17th July: War, Displacement, and Neoliberal Violence

On the next day we heard a report from the Kurdish national movement which we then connected to presentations by activists who have worked in war-ridden (Ukraine) or post-war (former Yugoslav countries) contexts. While seemingly different in scope and stakes, all these struggles presented peoples arrested in big conflict between superpowers, in which local populations are vulnerable to arbitrary displays of power by brutal physical and 'soft' economic forces. We then connected the displacement and wars in the past with the ongoing work with migrants and refugees--indeed, considering the different valences of these two concepts--hoping to slip between the cracks of the international security regime. A presentation from a Romanian participant connected different migrant waves/generations in Europe - the way in which discourses on Romanian migrants in the past are situationally similar or different to those on Middle Eastern migrants in Europe.

This was the first evening in which we went to downtown Istanbul, where we were hosted by an activist space. Together with local activists we saw a film directed by one of those migrants himself, and considered briefly the aesthetics of solidarity, or what kinds of representations of refugees help position them as subjects of their own experience rather than mere objects of empathy, who can very easily become objects of aversion. We also watched documentary footage from different social movements in the recent history of Turkey from the 1970s up to the Gezi protests, and the way different groups reclaimed public spaces in the struggle for decent wages, for human rights, and against police brutality, that brought together workers from different ethnic groups together. Our visit to a Syrian community center highlighted issues of trust surrounding interactions between migrants under pressure and the political and humanitarian organizations--both leftist and mainstream-liberal--that claim to fight for their cause. Participants involved in migrant solidarity work in Eastern Europe benefited from the perspective of Syrians who have been caring for their own countrymen and -women for years.

18th July: Feminist Struggles at the Centre of War and Conservative-Neoliberalism

The third day of our convergence placed women front and center. An Istanbul colleague examined the extreme challenges that the urban war between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerrilla fighters poses to the traditional practices of womanhood and the ways in which women in the region have asserted themselves in this desperate situation. With the help of another Turkish feminist, we assessed the difficulties the women's movement has encountered in its attempts to bridge the gap between "lifestyles" heavily thematized in an era of much conflict between "secular" and "religious conservative" factions. Contributions from Georgia, Russia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia showed different strategies employed by women workers and artistic feminist collectives to bridge the gap between different struggles. On a visit to a feminist center in the evening we received a full debriefing on the plight of women in the "new Turkey" and the struggle feminist groups to work on issues of protection against domestic violence not only among the ethnic Turkish population, but also among minority and migrant women, who also need to both protect the negative image of their groups and men to the public, and thus remain extremely vulnerable and isolated in situations of domestic abuse.

19th July, Day 4: Forming People’s Movements

The fourth full day of the convergence, we tackled the question of the actually existing movements and strategies that we apply on the ground to sustain our groups in times of crisis, precarity, and displacement that many of us suffer though in vert different forms. With examples from artist and food sovereignty collectives and practices from Turkey and Hungary, Montenegro and Bosnia to kick-start the discussion, we went on to debate the challenge of creating sustainable structures outside the market economy. We spoke of ways productive and reproductive labour has been used in our movements. We tackled issues of symbolical (self-)representation of the past and present of the movements we feel aligned to - historically and in our own activism - and the difficulty not to feel our small victories as insignificant, and the defeats we suffer as overwhelming.

While this discussion and our debate on how to extend the new community and solidarity we created in Istanbul beyond the convergence in time and space, it was strange how our convergence coinciding with the collective trauma of the coup attempt put us in a position of actively doing something at the very moment of crisis. Rather than just being spectators - a condition that over the past few years has become increasingly debilitating - we now find ourselves in the quandary of how to translate sometimes microscopic or speculative action of transnational solidarity into something effective without committing either self-defeating acts of sacrifice or on the other hand empty rituals of self-congratulation that risk nothing and have no effect. We do not know—individually or collectively—how to square this circle. But we know our only chance is to keep on trying.

We would like to thank the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE), Columbia University’s Black Sea Networks Project, and individual members of the LeftEast editorial board, who all financially contributed to the travel expenses and dormitory costs of the participants.