Crowds and Slogans in Turkey

By Matthew Chovanec |

On the night of July 15, 2016, the street swallowed up a military coup in Turkey. Called to flood public spaces and to put their bodies in the way of tanks, a mob of men took to the streets and quickly overwhelmed the inertia of a takeover. What had been inaugurated menacingly before midnight with low-flying jets, was reduced by the early morning to no more than a pile of young soldiers shielding themselves from a live-broadcast lynching. A strange reversal took place as the coup fell apart. The ominous soldiers standing on the bridge turned out to be a few scared kids, gaining our sympathy as they stared terrified into cameras, while the ordinary citizens surrounding them became a hostile mass of bodies in the background. But hidden among the seemingly random snapshots of violence in the scenes of the coup coming apart –  the man stripped to his waist and lashing a group of cowed soldiers with a belt, the jumble of men dancing on top of a tank, the soldiers being ripped at by a crowd of hands – were small signs which belied the anonymity of the mob.

Snapping a selfie on the morning after the failed coup, July 15, 2016

In one picture from that morning, as several men stood smiling victoriously on top of a tank, they all made an identical hand gesture. With the thumb touching the middle and ring finger while the pinkie and pointer finger were held up to resemble ears, the gesture resembled a wolf. This was a clear visual queue for the right. This is the symbol for the Grey Wolves, a neo-fascist organization which uses a mythology of a pure Turkic nation originating in Central Asia  to promote Turkish supremacy, militarism, and a defense of the indivisibility of the Turkish nation. The organization emerged in the 1960s, and continues to hold symbolic weight even now that its most sacred object, the army, was being flogged by its own adherents on live television.

Although the Grey Wolves are officially a small organization, only commanding 3.6 of the electorate in 2014, their use of right-wing symbolism and slogans aligns them with the imagination of a much larger right. The grey wolf hand gesture has a long history in the country. This was the same hand gesture flashed on the streets of Istanbul in the months before the last real coup, all the way back in 1980. Back then, it was civil unrest and street fighting which brought on the coup rather than brought it down. Major cities like Istanbul and Ankara were rocked by battles between left-wing and right-wing groups, divvying up neighborhoods into gangs that hunted one another’s members down at night.

This street violence was ordered by a strict political semiotics. Leftist neighborhoods had walls whose slogans railed against imperialism while right-wing neighborhoods praised the nation and its soldiers. The left had its martyrs, the right had its totems. A crowd could be identified based on the color of its flags or the rhythm of its chanting. Individuals were even easier to place: Leftists by their bushy upkept moustaches while the grey wolves had them tightly trimmed, or bent down in a visual reminder of the crescent moon. Being caught in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong moustache could prove fatal.

Despite the 36 years of intervening history since the coup in 1980 — a coup which sought to smash a politically polarized landscape with a mix of martial law and neoliberalism — these symbols have retained their ability to index political crowds. The protests at Gezi, for example, showed an amazing nostalgia for Turkey’s leftist archive, with the image of the famous leftist icon Deniz Gezmiş on the walls around Taksim along with the poetic slogans of long-dead poets and writers. While this street art consciously linked the Gezi protests to the street movements of the 60s and 70s, it was also being instantaneously recorded for social media, circulated and riffed on at the speed of a meme. New generations on the right have also had no problem adopting their totems to contemporary contexts. Whether celebrating the victory of their soccer team in a match or their own majoritarian rule in an election, you will be sure to see recognize their cars, decked out with howling wolf decals or crescent moons or Atatürk’s signature, as they go honking up and down the major avenues of the city. The same goes for the images on their facebook profiles and on the tattooes on their bodies. Even the army seemed to be conjuring up the spirits of the past to their service on the night of the coup, choosing to broadcast the news of their coup on the same public newschannel on which they had announced martial law three decades ago; However, back in 1980, TRT was the only means of mass communication available. But ironically, despite having all of the political coherence afforded by a chain-of-command and actual uniforms, it was the army who was unable to wield nostalgia and bring the crowd in line. The coup plotters didn’t seem to understand the fact that the army is everyone else’s empty signifier.


Imagining Communities with Slogans and Symbols

Right wing dudes (you can tell by the moustaches) stand in front of right wing slogans graffitied on a wall in the late ’70s – “Islam is Ascension. The flag is our cause. Those who stray from the holy path are vile.”

Political symbols and slogans as seen in Gezi and in the image of the howling wolf are making a comeback, often at the expense of institutional forms of political membership. They are especially better than traditional state institutions, or even the threat of state violence, in affecting crowds. And crowds are increasingly what is replacing citizenry. President Erdoğan called into CNNTürk shortly after it became clear that a coup was taking place, and called on his supporters to join him in the squares. Before the age of social media, no one could have dreamed of so quickly mustering such a powerful popular mobilization.  Whereas the army had issued a statement calling on all citizens to remain indoors on public television, seemingly oblivious to three decades of radical changes in the distribution of media and information, Erdoğan used CNNTürk, perhaps the most technologically adroit of the variety of new private channel to call on his people to flood the streets and to literally put their bodies in front of tanks. From there, the call could be instantly distributed over social networks, mobile technology, and in one more nod to nostalgia, over the loudspeakers of mosques. Once the streets begin to fill with people Erdoğan could have read these symbols in the crowd himself and be comforted in the knowledge that, unlike the so-called marauders (çapulcu) in Gezi Park, this mob was his.

Seeming to have the power to create political realities through mere words, Erdoğan was also able to name those beyond the coup.  He referred to the plotters as a rogue element, a parallel group of plotters whose loyalty was to their leader in Pennsylvania. This was in reference to Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement and its ranks of followers who have taken up positions within various branches of the Turkish state. This was an important rhetorical move which scapegoated a political boogeyman within the army, leaving the institution of the army itself entitled to veneration for ideological purposes (In dissociating what an army does from what it symbolizes, conservatives in Turkey and the United States are equally guilty of cognitive dissonance). National mythologies do not seem to suffer from the erosion of actual state power, and in many cases their persuasive allure seems to grow once freed from the bodies of those institutions they represent. You are far more likely to find a crowd clinging to patriotic fetish objects like the constitution here in the U.S., or Atatürk in Turkey, than in soberly evaluating what either may have actually said. This is due in large part to an increased speed of political imagination when compared with institutional realities. How can the ideological state apparatus ever hope to compete with the speed of the internet?

General Kenan Evren reads the coup announcement on public television, September 10, 1980.

The scene of traditional state power on its knees before a crowd in t-shirts, of a president riffing on FaceTime being more persuasive and legitimate than the solemnly read declaration of a military council: these were signs that other imaginary communities are out-imagining the nation-state. Whether it takes the form of sectarian rivalries (Sunnis versus the more heterodox Alevis) or the allegiance to brand-new transnational religious sects (Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement), the brotherhood of hooliganism and nebulous anarchism offered by a soccer club (Beşiktaş fans) or the chance to join in the debates of a now truly global left (Occupy Wall Street said Zuccotti Park was their Tahrir Square, then the call came to ‘Occupy’ Gezi), competing forms of belonging are challenging the hegemony of nationalism, eroding the faith in institutions which is needed for the functioning of a state. And with the withering of its cultural hegemony, the state itself is not far behind.


The Rise of Failed States

We have seen this in case after case in the Middle East since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. The loss of the traditional imagined community was one of the first casualties. The U.S. military was just as guilty as Turkey’s of 20th century thinking when it believed Iraq, now free from the mix of Ba’athist state terror and its absurd commitment to the manufacture of national myth, could be held together by an altruistic commitment to federalism. Iraqis are more likely to be united in their love of a contestant for Arab Idol than in a belief in their nation. It is a similar situation in other Arab states. One of the few victories of the Arab Spring was in disbanding states of any last vestige of ideological pretense. Now, any propaganda efforts by the Egyptian military are instantly revealed in their patent ridiculousness. The most recent meeting of the Arab League, the once regional stage for sermonizing on Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, was missing two-thirds of its members. Nobody is even pretending anymore.

Taking a look at the fragile state index for 2016 one can easily see why the term “failed state” has overtaken “developing” or “Global South” as the new prefered pejorative term for nation-states outside of the West. On this map, Turkey represents the last fragile state going into Europe, with a solid band of insecurity, insurgency, and civil war stretches across the entire Islamic world from Libya to Pakistan. But that does not mean fortress Europe will be able to keep the growing disorder at arms length on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. As Iason Athanasiadis writes in his piece on the swansong of the nation-state, Greece is quickly being undermined as a state by the European Union itself. In April of this year, the EU made an agreement with Turkey to keep Syrian refugees which left Greece in the middle as the unintentional dumping-ground for these victims of the war in Syria. But the violations of Greece’s sovereignty went far beyond that.

“For a while now, conventional nation-states in the East Mediterranean have been splintering. They are turning into the kind of chaotic territories contested by trade blocs and corporations that hint at a future where land is divided between highly-regulated ‘civilised’ zones and no-man’s-land wildernesses [. . .].

“In the first two weeks of April, China snapped up the country’s main port in a bargain basement deal; troops from the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia reportedly entered Greek territory to shoot tear gas and plastic bullets at refugees seeking to escape Greece; Turkish fighter-jets repeatedly invaded Greek airspace; and a Belgian artist appointed to head the country’s primary art festival pleaded unfamiliarity with the local culture and revealed an all-Belgian line-up instead.” [1]

If, as Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council argues, the world is moving toward a “durable disorder” more like the Middle Ages, “characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances”, then the building of political order will seem to increasingly rely on learning to use symbols and slogans. [2] We can no longer expect to rely on notions of political belonging which are organized around territoriality or stable institutions. As we saw in Turkey a few weeks ago, interpellating a crowd with symbols seems far more important than organizing them in institutions — especially as our institutions are being stripped bare while our identities are the objects of ever more finely tuned marketing. Without the hegemonic ability of a state to control subject formation, it will be an open market for sloganeering. What people think a flag symbolizes, or which historical figure they put on a t-shirt, what identities they ascribe to and which clickbait they are drawn to aren’t just the stupid epiphenomenon of a culture war, but the currency of an emerging political ethos of cyber-tribalism.


Interpellating Subjects with Slogans

The Turkish military once played the classic Althusserian role of constructing Turkish subjects through indoctrination and subjugation carried out under compulsory military service. Young Turkish men of previous generations can all account for the transformational experience of living in barracks with other Mehmetçik’s (Turkish GI Joes) from across the country, constructing an imagined community through drudgery and class-fraternization. Now all a young Turk has to do is log onto Facebook and they can meet just as many co-religionists or Beşiktaş football fans in five minutes. No one could hope to create a comprehensive map of affinity spaces.  As we saw from the failed coup from last month, in a crowd, this process of interpellation takes place even faster. Slogans perform the work of recruiting subjects far more efficiently than the cumbersome process of habit-formation in institutions.

This shift can be better understood by looking at Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s reworking of Althusser’s theory of interpellation. Basing his argument on Lenin’s short “On Slogans” pamphlet, Lecercle claims that subjects are formed not through institutions, but by language. [3] Lenin’s pamphlet was not meant to be an abstract theory of slogans, but instead addressed the efficacy of using “all power to the Soviets” at the precise historical conjuncture of July 1917 in Petrograd.  Nevertheless, Lecercle is able to distill some important lessons which add up to a tentative ‘Marxist theory of language.’ Language is not defined merely in its ability to describe the state of the world, but principally its illocutionary power: its ability to shape events and create subjects.

“Language is not only a battlefield and one of the instruments of the class struggle, but also the site and instrument of the transformation of individuals into subjects,”  Lecercle writes. In this sense, language reflects, but also modifies the rapport de forces. Lecercle claims that the relationship between language and the conjuncture is one of reflexive circularity: language is able to name the conjuncture and in turn the conjuncture allows that language to make sense.  Lecercle points specifically to slogans as the form which exemplifies the illocutionary effect of language; through its ability to issue commands and direct people, it has a direct influence on material life. Using Lenin’s article, Lecercle identifies three ways in which slogans exert force. First of all, they identify the moment of the conjecture. They are relevant to a precise moment and political situation and speak to it directly. Secondly, the right slogan will name the task for that moment. Thirdly, a slogan is effective in that it condenses and embodies the concrete analysis of the concrete situation (Lecercle 2007).

Taking the case of Erdoğan’s call to his supporters to take to the streets, we can judge the illocutionary effect of his now famous FaceTime speech. The entire political fate of the country was suspended in the air as the crowd decided to whom it would respond. At the historical conjuncture of a yet-to-be-interpellated crowd deciding the fate of a military coup, Erdoğan knew the stakes well enough to call out to the crowd as quickly as possible, sobeit if he had to do it in front of a shower curtain and on his iPhone. In just under five minutes the Turkish president was able to identify the moment as an existential threat to the power of his conservative movement (this is the work of a minority, of a “parallel” movement), named the task of his supports (I invite our people to the squares), and did it all using concise slogans he seemed to be conjuring out of thin air.

Milli iradenin üzerinde bir güç söz konusu değildir
There can be no question of any power over the will of the people

Pensilvanya’dan yönetilecek bir ülke değildir
This is not a country which will be governed from Pennsylvania

Bu tanklar bunların tankları değildir, bu milletin tankları değildir. Bu tankların önünde durmasını da biliriz.
These are not their tanks, not these people’s tanks. We know how to stand in front of these tanks.

President Erdogan saves his regime (and probably his life) by dispelling rumors and commanding his faithful via FaceTime on CNNTurk on the night of July 15, 2016

In the first slogan, Erdoğan quickly dispels any of the ambiguity that the crowd may feel towards resisting the military by reminding them of the sovereignty of democratically elected governments using one of his favorite cliches: the national will. It is as if the slogan confirms to listeners “there is no power in the institution of the military, it is the empty signifier which holds the power.” Then he uses a succinct metonym to name the enemy and deride their motives. Rather than recognizing the claims of the coup plotters, who dubbed themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” Erdoğan identifies those behind the coup as the supporters of Fethullah Gülen, currently in exile in Pennsylvania. The third quote is the most remarkable. The last sentence “we know how to stand in front of these tanks” is simultaneously interpellating and illocutionary. The we implied here, that same we who holds the legitimacy of the national will, the we to which Erdoğan includes himself, is constituted by the very act of standing in front of tanks.

The invocation of this ‘we’ was an incredible example of the ability of language to shape events and create subjects. With a few good slogans Erdoğan created a political situation on the ground which literally changed the course of history. It is quite reasonable to ask if the coup would have still failed without his intervention. His command of the crowd also proved to be an embarrassing détournement of the Turkish left’s sentimental attachment to public spaces. Until now, it has always been the left who has flexed its own sense of collective power by filling Taksim square with red flags. But whereas the Gezi protests in 2013 grew incrementally as a response to government repression, remaining incredulous of their victimization, Erdoğan’s followers were told concisely the political situation and what they were supposed to do about it. Recognizing the political power of language and symbols over institutions and arguments should serve as an important lesson for the left which, judging from the paucity of examples given above, seems to have a lot to learn again when it comes to sloganeering.


The Left and Crowds

Unfortunately, the left in Turkey continues to lag behind. In an effort to combat the deep sense of demoralization and fear stemming from the intense round of purges being carried out in response to the coup, a hundred thousand people from a wide spectrum of the left came to Taksim Square on July 24 to show their opposition to both the coup and to the government repression which has followed. However, unlike other recent attempts by the left to show up in force which have been quickly shut down, this time the protesters actually benefited from Erdoğan’s call for Turks to continue their show of force and to “stay in the street.” As some noted, it was a moment of urgent strategic possibility for the left to take back the streets if only they could seize it. Unfortunately, the protest on July 24 was organized by Turkey’s oldest political party, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). And their age showed, as they flexed about as much an ability to affect the crowd as the “Peace at Home Council”. An anonymous participant, writing in Gerçek magazine, bemoaned the lack of imagination in the slogans in the crowd that day. “Years pass, the age changes, places change, political sides change, but the Turkish left always has the same slogans.” [4] The slogans in the crowd included:

Faşizme Karşı Omuz Omuza
Shoulder to Shoulder Against Fascism

Milli Mutabakat
National Consensus

Faşizme geçit yok!
Fascism Shall not Pass!

For its part, the CHP wrote a manifesto which included the slogan ‘darbeye de darbecilere de diktaya da karşıyız’ (We are against both the coup/coup plotters and dictatorship); a slogan which neither names a subject nor a political task. In the slogans above, the only subject mentioned at all is fascism, and only in reference to what it will not do. While the slogans of the left may be second to none in their ability to use perlocutionary symbolism, the street art at Gezi was bursting with intertextuality and paronomasia, they are sorely missing illocutionary power. The left cannot not merely preach to its members in the crowd, it must convert them as well.

At the risk of facing complete irrelevance, the left in Turkey (and elsewhere) must be conscious of the fact that just as forms of institutional organization, economic processes, and cultural hegemony formation have all changed dramatically over the last decades, so too have forms of political protest. In his new book Riot.Strike.Riot, Joshua Clover claims that the former are the structural determinants of the latter. As labor has become increasingly fractured, precarious and unavailable, the scene of class struggle is moving away from the factory floor to the city streets.

Regardless of perspective, riots have achieved an intransigent social centrality. Labor struggles have in the main been diminished to ragged defensive actions, while the riot features increasingly as the central figure of political antagonism, a specter leaping from insurrectionary debates to anxious governmental studies to glossy magazine covers. [5]

Political protest is following capital from the sites of production back into the sites of the consumption and realization of value. We can piggyback onto this structural homology and say that this is equally true for the production of political subjectivities: no longer developed in the classroom or barracks but invented and circulated out in public spaces. That is what makes the task of sloganeering all the more important. What is at stake is not only knowing where to address the crowd, but in determining to which name they will respond.



[1] Athanasiadis, Iason. “Greece and the Swansong of the Nation-state.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

[2] McFate, Sean. “The Return of the Mercenary.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 31 July 2016.

[3] Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. “Lenin the Just, or Marxism Unrecycled.” Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. N. pag. Print.

[4] “Faşizme Karşı Kiminle Omuz Omuza?” Gerçek Gazetesi. N.p., 25 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

[5] Clover, Joshua. “Beyond Strike and Riot: The Commune as a Form-of-life.” ROAR Magazine. N.p., 20 June 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

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