Global struggle for the commons: how Gezi Park set off the uprising in Turkey


By Elisabetta Cangelossi,  PhD in Social Sciences.

The last half decade has seen the persistence of social protests in various forms, including civil disobedience and mass demonstrations. From the Occupy movement across the Western world, to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa; from riots in European capitals, to the current protests in Istanbul. At the heart of these uprisings is a global struggle – a struggle between the people and profit, for the protection of the planet’s precious land, water, energy, and resources and the care for culture and social interactions: a struggle for the global commons.

The debate about the commons became increasingly relevant during the last 5 years in Europe, among social movements and academia, although it is still somehow marginal. It is also quite controversial because a shared definition of what “commons” are does not exist at the juridical nor at the political or economic level. It is an interesting case of interaction between grassroots movement, political institutions and academia, but the grassroots movements offer defintively the most interesting experiences and analyses.

Notwithstanding a wider diffusion in European countries some interesting examples come from the Mediterranean area: a connection exists between the protests in Turkey and the debate on the commons. Indeed Gezi Park at Taksim was listed in a Mapping of the Commons of Istanbul and the protest itself makes explicit reference since the very beginning to the idea of protecting a common good. Although it is dealing with a wider range of topics (such as freedom of expression and democracy), it keeps being related to the debate about the commons. Indeed as some slogans recently circulating on the web utter “it is not about park” but about a different a world, with an alternative political and economical approach. The debate about the commons is definitely consistent in this framework.

In order to deal with this topic an introduction about the debate itself is necessary, given the fact that it is probably quite unknown and unfamiliar  to the public at large.

Indeed at a first sight the concept “common” appears as an  unambiguous noun related to the idea of “usual” or “shared” but  it is much more than that. Moreover it is a transdisciplinary topic: it is related to different fields such as city shaping (that is the case of the so called “urban commons”), natural resources (“ natural commons”) and eventually the web (“digital commons”). Because of these different possibilities many disciplines can be involved in the study of such a topic: generally speaking the most concerned scholars are jurists, social scientists and economists.

The  idea of “commons” entered the academic and political discourse at the end of the sixties with  a  famous article by G. Hardin[1] entitled “The tragedy of the commons”. This article became the turning point for criticisms against common land use: it provided useful supporting elements for the idea of private property as the only possible solution to avoid wasting resources.

The most eminent opposition to this theory are E. Ostrom’s researches which demonstrated how concrete experiences of common-pool resources can be functional when the role of both the state and the market is limited or  absent[2].

Among Ostrom’s most important works is “Governing the Commons”, published in 1990, which had a consistent value for the Nobel Prize in Economics she obtained in 2009.  Later on this essay became a landmark in the literature about the commons. It was translated only in 2006[3] and 2010[4] , respectively in Italian and in French. This partially explains why the topic is still somehow new in many contexts.

Ostrom’s studies not only demonstrate that a management of resources as commons is possible and can represent a valid alternative both to the public and the private option, but  they also point out the interdisciplinary features of the topic. The analysis is based on empirical cases and aims to explain existing situations and alternative solutions where the role of the state and of the market[5] are marginal or marginalized. In the aftermath, much more recently, further discourses and debates have been developed dealing with possible processes of transformation of a private or of a public good in a common, or mechanisms of recognition of such a condition for  goods which are traditionally considered either public or private.

In fact during the last ten years the topic gained attention in numerous countries and in different contexts reaching both the legal and the political arena.

Legally speaking no legislation, for the time being, provides juridical recognition to the commons as a legal category nor offers norms aiming to protect them. The most relevant attempt so far to introduce the commons in a National Juridical System has been done in Italy in 2007 by the Commissione Rodotà. Despite the fact that it didn’t produce any substantial juridical consequence, it provided a legal definition of the commons. Thus this category of goods was connected to the enjoyment of fundamental rights, additionally the idea of responsibility towards future generations was introduced.

At the European level the debate is gaining relevance as two projects of the Social Cohesion Division of the Council of Europe demonstrates: a publication where the importance of a legal recognition of the commons has been presented as a tool to fight poverty and socio-economic injustice (“Living in Dignity in the 21st Century. Poverty and Inequality in Societies of Human Rights”) and a mapping of grassroots alternatives to economic crisis where “commons” are an important topic (“Responding together”).

Enhancing the concept of caring and protecting the commons as a tool against poverty can be considered as an innovation, although perfectly consistent with the topic itself. In fact the original field where commons were discussed (economy and natural resources)  is far from any discourse about rights, poverty or crises.

This interaction between different aspects is probably a consequence of the interaction between the classical approach and informal grassroot practices. In fact the most recent debate on the commons has overtaken the classic economic distinction[6] switching to a more political approach where the idea of “commons” (rather than the idea of “common goods”) is used as a tool against privatization models and practices. In this context the  key concepts are access, responsibility and management.

The concepts above are indeed relevant for the project of « Mapping  the Commons » launched in Istanbul in 2012. This project and monitoring the transformation of these commons are consistent with the evolution and even transformation of the idea of commons. The key concepts of trust, responsibility, complexity and social interaction, firstly mentioned by E. Ostrom, are coherent with the current category of commons, which is somehow larger and more complex than it was during the 80s and the 90s.

The project aimed to identify the commons and place them on virtual map of the city aiming to protect these commons from exploitation and private interests. Both theoretical analysis and practical aspects interact in this process: the idea of common itself was dealt with in a first step. For this first analysis the theories elaborated by Hardt and Negri were mentioned as a theoretical background[7]. On this base some commons have been identified: different parameters have been used for this selection including the number of actors involved (size of the community, peculiarities of the group and interaction systems among them), kind of common (cultural or natural, new or traditional ) and eventually the level of conflict.  Other data such as the location and the history of each common are of course included in the mapping.

Several cultural spaces, water and riverbanks, woods, public squares  considered relevant for the debate are mentioned  by the activists. The complete list can be consulted through this link: http://mappingthecommons.wordpress.com/category/theory/.

Among them we find Gezi Park: indeed protecting the trees in the park, recognized as commons, against privatization and exploitation was the fuse of the protest. And it corresponds to an imagery that proposes an alternative economic and social model. The connection with the 15M and Occupy movement is therefore not strange because the debate about the commons is quite relevant for these two movements as well.

A few articles[8] underlined the connection between the ongoing protests in Turkey and the fight against the privatization of the commons privatization, moreover the presence of Gezi Park in the list of commons mapped in Istanbul confirm it. Furthermore several documents and texts mentioned that this is about a community fighting for its common resources. This is one of the reasons why people from different backgrounds join this movement[9].

The debate about the commons, moving from a strictly economic context to a wider political, social and legal arena, catalyzes actions aiming at  the construction of an alternative model.

In fact as for the case of Istanbul this renewed interest for the debate is maybe a consequence of the outbreak of privatization during the last fifteen years and of the worsening of the crisis (economic, social and political). Therefore mapping the commons is considered as a first manner to prevent their expropriation or an use that does not fit with the needs and the interests of the community.

The examples coming from Turkey as well as several other mapping experiments around Europe and the Mediterranean demonstrate how crucial this topic will probably be in the near future both in terms of controversies between opposite social and economic models and in terms of engagement of individuals. Commons seems to be at the heart of the creation of a future model where peoples’ rights are more important than neoliberal development strategies.

[1]     Hardin G., The Tragedy of the Commons, in Science, 162, 13 Dec., pp. 1243- ss. 1968

[2]     Ostrom E. Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge- New York, 1990

[3]     Ostrom E., Governare i beni collettivi, Marsilio, Venezia, 2006

[4]     Ostrom E., La gouvernance des biens communs : Pour une nouvelle approche des ressources naturelles ; Ed. De Boeck, 2010

[5]     Ostrom E., Neither market nor State: governance of common-pool resources in the twenty-first century , IFPRI Lecture Series, Lecture presented June 2 1994, International Food Policy research Institute, Washington DC, 1994

[6]     The  classic economic model  includes four categories:  private goods (rivalrous and excludable), public goods (non-rivalrous and non-excludable), common goods (rivalrous but non-excludable) and club goods (excludable  but non-rivalrous). Example of the latter category are cinemas, private parks or swimming pools. They represent kind of an opposite category to common goods, as public goods are the opposite of private ones.

[7]     In 2011 Hardt and Negri concluded the trilogy of Empire (2000) and Moltitude (2004) with a book entitled “Commonwealth” whose aim was to deal with new models of living in the era of globalization. In this context they argue for the idea of “common” as an alternative to the private and public models.

[8]     See for example: www.eldiario.es/turing/privatizacion-comunes-encendio-Primavera-Turca_0_139986455.html)

[9]     See for example:www.domusweb.it/content/domusweb/en/architecture/2013/06/1/gezi_park_occupation.html)