Istanbul and the coming neo-cosmopolitanism

In global cities like Istanbul, the discontents and beneficiaries of globalisation rub shoulders discordantly.

Crowds run from a police charge in Istanbul's formerly multicultural Karakoy district, once the Ottoman Empire's banking hub, during the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 [Iason Athanasiadis/Al Jazeera]

Two articles that appeared on the same day last month illuminated wildly differing aspects of daily life in contemporary Istanbul. The first appeared in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet titled Beaten, exploited and locked in a room, and described how the police discovered a man, referred to as TM, one of the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flooding the city, locked up in a textile factory by his Turkish employers in between shifts. When he dared to request a pay-raise, he was beaten.

On the same day, the Wall Street Journal ran a beautifully-photographed feature titled The Discreet Charm of Istanbul, about a Turkish businesswoman, Asli Tunca, and her Belgian husband, Carl Vercauteren, who purchased a 19th century, five-story, 7,000sqr ft building with a garden in Istanbul’s posh Beyoglu district and renovated it. The lady of the house called the house Hazz, Ottoman for “Enchantment”. The article concluded with Vercauteren saying that, “If there’s a place on earth where God lives, it’s Istanbul. The whole city has an energy and rich contrasts.”

After his cruel ordeal, TM would struggle to agree with the first part of Vercauteren‘s quote, but he might sympathise with his conclusion. TM and the Vercauterens inhabit the same city, yet they live in different worlds. Already an urban behemoth of 14 million, Istanbul continues its vertiginous ascent towards reclaiming its former cosmopolitan status.

In The Cities We Lost, I argued that the port cities of Eastern Mediterranean possessed a vanished cosmopolitanism that enriched the entire Middle East region, because they imparted to their diverse ethnic and religious groups the skills of coexistence, cultural flexibility and negotiation. The cultured and historical communities living in these melting pots mutually enriched each other through cross-pollination.The end of the cosmopolitan period and its replacement by stifling, monocultural nationalisms resulted in these cities being subsumed into the new nation-states that replaced the Ottoman Empire. As a result, they lost their unique ethnic blends and the region as a whole became poorer.

Today, we are on the threshold of a new cosmopolitan age, but one much crueler than the 19th century’s. We are riding a globalising technological revolution that is fostering greater inequality and resentment while ushering in no-holds-barred neoliberalism.

Today, we are on the threshold of a new cosmopolitan age, but one much crueler than the 19th century’s. We are riding a globalising technological revolution that is fostering greater inequality and resentment while ushering in no-holds-barred neoliberalism.

For the first time in history, the Internet has created a global commons, a universal platform that fuels a winner-take-all economy while shearing away the myriad local replications of services that previously acted as an anchor for the world’s middle classes. A few global chains are piggybacking on the Internet to dominate their fields: Amazon is dislodging local bookshops, Netflix displacing cinemas, and The New York Times is becoming the world’s newspaper of record at the expense of countless national, regional and local rivals. As a result, we’re witnessing an exponential contraction as the majority lose purchasing power and shift downwards while the profits of the one percent accelerate away.

As technology spreads, it fuels extreme wealth alongside Dickensian poverty, and nowhere illustrates this more dramatically than the world’s megacities. Logically, Eastern Mediterranean’s once-cosmopolitan ports might re-emerge as hotspots of opportunity and privilege. But in the age of winner-take-all globalisation, rather than a string of self-reinforcing hubs, Istanbul is the only city booming, and largely through catering to new elites.

Neoliberal city

Among the Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches of one of the world’s most fabled cities, there now looms a new Dubai-style skyline of steel office blocks and luxury residences, betraying the arrival of Russian, Central Asian, Iranian and Gulf capital. The same poor that emigrated from the Anatolian hinterland into the neighbourhoods of the Ottoman Empire’s banished mercantile ethnic and religious minorities, are now in turn being pushed out by real estate developers anxious to gear their urban regenerations towards foreign investment and global image rather than their citizens’ needs.

The statistics speak for themselves: As inflation rises and the Turkish currency’s buying power drops, more than 70 percent of Turkish families live on less than $1,000 a month and nearly 20 percent of those live at or below the Turkish Statistics Institute’s definition of poverty. Since the majority are monolingual, monocultural and low-skilled, it is little surprise that they instinctively hew to Turkey’s populist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party they just overwhelmingly endorsed in the March 30 local elections despite a slew of economic, political and sex scandals aimed against it by political rivals.

Aside from building roads, electrifying villages and raising incomes more than his predecessors, Erdogan provides his supporters with the illusory comfort that the market’s harsh logic won’t crush their dreams and that his party’s model of welfare handouts mixed with religious charity will shield them from globalisation. Ironically, he has implemented neoliberal policies and presided over an explosion in consumerism fuelled by credit card debt targeting that same demographic of AKP supporters. A large part of Turkey’s economic growth has been revealed as artifice.

Ranged against them is the demographic that dominated Gezi Park: Middle to upper class, liberal, and more likely to be multilingual and open to the world. They feel that Erdogan’s dogged religious nationalism and appeal to the working class forms a glass ceiling constraining their prospects. This tension, also expressed under other rubrics, pre-existed the regional plutocrats and millions of tourists who have been raising cost-of-living prices further, or the hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian refugees who are renting, squatting or begging in Istanbul.

In the same way that landowner aristocrats gave way to industrialists in the 19th century, highly-skilled “creatives” and those capable of harnessing technology to yield profit will form the well-remunerated elites of our century. In the meantime, poorly-educated monolingual monoculturals will suffer, as increasingly fiscally-strained states fail to uphold their side of the Arab, Greek and Turkish Eastern Mediterranean’s traditional social pact of offering loyalty to the nation state in return for a job for life, or at least subsidised foodstuffs. Some nation-states will raise prices and parcel out services to private companies, others will succumb to market pressures and collapse as with Syria, Libya and Egypt.

Disruptive technologies

Nineteenth century cosmopolitanism, and the cities it created, were predicated on a capitalism turbo-charged by emerging technologies such as the instant communication provided by the telegraph and the abolition of distance that the Industrial Revolution’s trains, coal-powered barges and factories enabled.

These allowed for the emergence of port cities that harnessed new technologies and built trade ties that turned them into self-sustaining bubbles disconnected from their hinterlands. The same capitalists who exploited those hinterlands for raw material to trade on the international market generated profits and built fortunes. But two world wars, the collapse of empires, and the emergence of nation-states and nationalism, resulted in these cities withering and homogenising.

Now, equally disruptive technologies such as 3D printers, automation, the arrival of domestic robots and the Internet of Things (highly interconnected smart devices) are rendering millions of factory workers redundant in the process known as technological displacement.

After a century of neglect, Istanbul is becoming a vortex of opportunity, tipped by decade’s end to be Europe’s largest city. But much more so than during the century of nation states, it may end up becoming a dystopian place of great inequality, as novelist Orhan Pamuk sketched out in a recent article. Istanbul’s pressure cooker environment could result in the development of new forms of popular resistance, similar to Gezi Park and the simmering insurrection of the months since then, in reaction to the dominance of capital and the invisible walls of segregation it throws up.

Big losers

The tensions are already happening: Last week’s poll triumph was a byproduct of Turkey’s unprecedented social polarisation. Such is the distance and demonisation between the two sides that commentator Tekin Ozlap felt it necessary to go to Erdogan’s electoral rally to discover who his voters are. He concluded that “they are those who came from ‘afar'”.

“The people in jobs that don’t require a CV, those who live in Istanbul and see the sea once a year… who don’t look at the Internet, don’t know Twitter-mwitter. Tired legs, calloused palms. Those who lift flags and obey. They are shorter than me because they aren’t well-fed. They come by bus because most don’t have a car. Almost all have a need for the aid shared out by the local chapter of the party. They are the people we despise, saying ‘They sell their vote for a packet of macaroni’.”

Ozlap described a class who increasingly sense the walls closing in around them, and who subconsciously fear that they lack the era’s necessary survival skills. In the East Mediterranean, 21st century neoliberal Istanbul might become the first battlefield on which they make a stand.

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and filmmaker based between Istanbul, Cairo and Tripoli, Libya.