Political representation and its discontents: the Turkish protests

The counting of “votes” is the final ceremony of a long process.”

– Antonio Gramsci

While the entire world was watching the protests in Turkey, CNN Turk only showed a documentary on penguins. Naturally this ‘mistake’ was not the result of a lack of interest, but fear of Turkish officials of their own people. This attitude can be compared to an ill patient who, when the infection is spreading, refuses to talk about it, hoping the disease will fade away because of the deadly silence. The point however is that this never works. Protests grew incessantly and in no time Turkey was the center of attention of the whole world.

When the problem became too big to ignore, the Turkish government answered with teargas and police violence. The question is whether this can be deemed a legitimate act or not. Can a government harm its own people for the protection of the government?

Political representation: a logical analysis

The typical line of defense is the following:

(1) If someone is elected, he is a legitimate political representative.

(2) The Erdogan government is elected.

(3) Therefore, the Erdogan government is a legitimate political representative.

ErdoganAs we can all see, this is a perfect syllogism. We can’t just deny the conclusion without having to show the falsity of one of the premises. We will not question (2). To undermine (2) we would need to show irregularities in the Turkish elections of 2011. There is no reason to think the AK party of Prime Minister Erdogan cheated, so we will not imagine a multitude of conspiracy theories. This means that we will have to examine (1) in order to check the legitimacy of the Turkish teargas. In fact, most critics point to this claim, but in an obfuscated way. They claim that a political representative is legitimate when he is both elected and upholds fundamental norms of human rights and the rule of law. As a result, this leads to discussions such as whether or not the police used teargas as a weapon of defense or attack, which is the main point of a lawsuit the Turkish Association of Doctors started against their government. The question is whether teargas was used by the elected government in conformity with human rights to protect people, or against the rights of the protestors. The main problem with this approach is that it leads to an irresolvable antinomy. Democracy, in the form of elections, and human rights become potentially opposing principles. You either uphold the will of the majority or you defend the rights of the individual against the majority. Instead of human rights being the highest expression of democracy, they become a blocking force. The Turkish people is split into a community of citizens and a collection of isolated individuals. While the individual should recognize himself in the community in which he partakes and vice versa, the tension becomes irresolvable.

I will leave the question where this separation comes from aside. Instead we will focus on an alternative perspective on legitimate representation that can evade the mentioned antinomy. We can do this by criticizing (1) from a different angle. The premise equates legitimate political representation with being elected. When however a NGO like Greenpeace claims to represent the interests of the global environment, we find this a perfectly intelligible claim. Did the animals and the trees vote for Greenpeace? Of course not, and still we call it a legitimate political representative of the environment. The equation does not fit with our daily use of the term ‘legitimate representation’. As a result, we should investigate how to redefine political representation.

The representative claim

Michael Saward, a British political scientist, has done that in his article “The representative claim”. He argues for a new theory of representation. Representation is not simply a people with an already fixed identity, giving authority to a representative, also with an already fixed identity, via elections. Rather, it is making a series of claims that constitute the identities of the people involved and that can either be accepted or not. Making a representative claim involves “A maker of representations (M) who puts forward a subject (S) which stands for an object (O) which is related to a referent (R) and is offered to an audience (A).” This is an overwhelming amount of densely formulated information, but we can unpack this black box. Let us take the following example: Barack Obama claims that he can change global warming with the help of the American people. In this case there is a maker (Barack Obama) who puts forward a Subject (Obama himself with the help of his fellow Americans), which stands for an Object (global warming as it is portrayed by Obama) which is related to a Referent (the particular observable effects of global warming) and is offered to an Audience (the American people). So Obama is portraying himself as someone who can address the problems of global warming to the American people in order to get their support.

Saward’s theory of representations is broader than the classical one based on elections. For instance, the Greenpeace-example offers no difficulties. Greenpeace puts forward itself as a defender of the global environment to the global community in order to receive, for instance, funding and financial support. A positive effect is that representation becomes a dynamic reality. When a representative claim is made, the Audience can always refuse or subvert it. When Obama says:” Yes, we can.” The American people can reply (after finding out about the spying activities of the NSA):” Yes, we scan.” This means that the role of the people in representation is broader than simply ticking a box in a voting booth every few years. Elections are only momentary snapshots of the reactions of the public to the multiplicity of representative claims made by politicians.

This means that we can substitute the debate between democratic elections and human rights for a discussion between the representative claims of Erdogan and his government and the counterclaims of the Turkish protesters. This perspective is also closer to the real worries of especially the student protesters in Istanbul. They did not simply fight against the stricter regulations of alcohol or the building of a shopping center in the Gezi Park, but most importantly against the discourse of representative claims made by Erdogan. The latter portrayed the Turkish youth as decadent westernized individualists who had forgotten the “true Turkish values”. The youth replies by claiming that they do not wish to be framed in that way. The Object of Erdogan’s representative claim does not feel right for his Audience.

What about violence?

gezi-park-protestsMichael Saward however forgot one thing in his article. He presupposes that a counterclaim from the audience is answered by a new representative claim by the maker. If the protesters don’t accept the claims of Erdogan, he will make new claims that are accepted. Looking back at the police actions, we can see that this is far too optimistic. A more thorough way to silence counterclaims is to silence the Audience through violence. In this way we can ask the question whether Erdogan can really be seen as a representative at all? If representation is the dynamic relation of claims and counterclaims, then using violence to silence counterclaims destroys the relation itself. Political power presupposes the freedom of the people subjected to power, but violence is the action that uses everything in its force to deny this freedom. The victim of violence is no longer a political subject, but an object. As a result, the real question of the use of teargas in the protests is not whether it was used in conformity with human rights to protect citizens or not, but whether it was used to give people the opportunity to make counterclaims or, on the contrary, to silence them. I can see no situation in which tear gas can be used to let people speak. If becoming a subject or citizen means having the freedom to challenge the powers that be, then teargas is the active denial of citizenship. “Sapere aude, or dare to use your own reason!“- That is the motto of Enlightenment.”

Further reading

Michael Saward, The representative claim.


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