Why does power hate a city square? A square fields no army, commands no votes, has nowhere to go. It is just a space. Yet it is space that invites occupation, an occupation hostile to power. Hence Turkey’s president felt obliged yesterday to “recapture” Taksim Square in Istanbul. It had become an alternative seat of legitimacy, a place of defiance, an ugly gesture at his majesty. It took tanks, guns, gas and bulldozers, but cleared it had to be.
Squares are civic holy places. Their geometry echoes to the ghosts of past uprisings, and holds promise of more to come. Recep Tayyip Erdogan had only to gaze on the turmoil of Cairo’s Tahrir and recall Beijing’s Tiananmen, Tehran’s Azadi, Kiev’s Independence and Athens’s Syntagma. The very names must have called chaos to the colours and struck fear in the heart of power.
A square in a capital city is a congress of the wild, a drawing room of the dispossessed. There exhibitionists can rely on the ears and eyes of the world for their demagoguery. We are told that sophisticated politics has moved into the digital age of crowd-sourcers, pop-ups, flash mobs and Twitter feeds. Ever since American psephology declared the dawn of electronic democracy in the 1990s, we thought flesh and blood politics was dead.
Tell that to the broken heads of Tahrir, Tunis or Tripoli, or the victors of the streets of Orange Kiev and Milosevic’s Belgrade. In each case mobs took to the streets, armed not with apps or AK47s but weight of numbers, and those in power saw their time was up and fled.
Ask the rulers of any unsteady regime, such as Iran, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Bahrain. They do not tremble at Field Marshal Facebook or Brigadier Twitter. They fear les misérables, the squadrons of the square, the barricades, the Molotov cocktails, the smashed shops and nightly images of blood-soaked police and students. The internet can summon a crowd if it wants to be summoned, and later convey a simple message. But it is marching feet and crying voices that set the blood racing and create the event.
Nothing in cyberspace was going to stop Erdogan and his developer cronies flattening Taksim Square for condos and shopping malls on Gezi Park. Like many modern rulers (including in Britain) he is in hock to building interests who care little for trees and grass. But it took thousands of people lying in front of bulldozers to bring his desecration to world attention. It may not do the trick, but Erdogan has paid a high price for his party’s corruption, humiliated and stalled in his hope of joining the EU.
Internet politics has opened government to inspection and debate, but it means nothing if it does not lead to live action. Online is no substitute for live, which is why the entertainment business now gets the bulk of its revenue from live events. Online is certainly an important portal to experience, but it is not an experience itself. As every music promoter knows, “The money’s at the gate.”
Nor is there a substitute for politics in the flesh. If the ballot fails and the bullet is lacking, the way to reach a stubborn or corrupt leader remains where it has since Coriolanus — through the language of the street. Virtual politics is like virtual anything, a bluff, a proxy, a second best, unreal. The politics of real has not changed in centuries. It is the politics of the market place, the forum, the square.
All power dreads a square, as all squares love a crowd. To Elias Canetti crowds were multitudes of disparate emotions, furious, fighting, fleeing, baiting, killing, yearning, adoring. “To the crowd in its nakedness,” he said, “everything seems a Bastille.” To Freud they were creatures of irrational horror, “historical convulsions”. To the writer, James Surowiecki, they are capable of a collective wisdom denied to mere individuals.
The one thing I am sure of is that crowds are for ever. The idea that we might sit in eternal thrall to an electronic screen as enough contact with the rest of humanity must be daft. The idea that politics could ever be detached from congregation and assembly is equally so. Such congregation is not subtle politics. It is rather what happens when politics loses subtlety and drops into a collective subconscious. It does not default to a screen but to a street. Erdogan may clear Taksim to build his mall, as Thatcher cleared Trafalgar to get her poll tax. It did her no good. The square won.