Trademarks and the Clash of Civilizations: Authentic versus Counterfeit

xurban_collective,   September 2006.
Published in "GOING PUBLIC '06: ATLANTE MEDITERRANEO", Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 2006


One of the most controversial buildings in İstanbul is no doubt the Gökkafes (Süzer Plaza / Ritz Carlton Hotel), which is located close to Taksim, just blocks away from İstanbul University’s Taşkışla Campus and Dolmabahçe Palace. The building was designed by the Turkish architect Doruk Pamir and built by the developer Süzer Group. From the very start, construction drew a huge opposition from both the local government and the public because of its unpleasant, dominating presence in İstanbul's cityscape. The entire process of construction was an immense controversy. Back in 1983, Süzer Holding got its first permit to build an 8-story hotel in the site where the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit put a legal restriction to eliminate any possible construction in 1908. But with documented (illegal) changes in the land registers, the restrictions disappeared. In order to bypass the local resistance, the neo-liberal government changed the building codes and eventually the development company obtained the permit to build a 135 meters high giant building in the midst of an historical district. Although there was a legal battle between the activists and the developer, since Turkish legal system is working extremely slow, without having the case finalized the company finished the construction and created a fait accompli.  When the ‘prestigious’ Ritz Carlton filled up the space with high-class furniture, the occupation is finalized.


When in July 2006 The NY Times ran the article on counterfeit US dollars*, the blame was on the government of North Korea. Depending on circumstantial evidence, the authors claimed that this rogue state (a member of the axis of evil) was able to produce millions of dollars in "supernotes", a term used in reference to the perfection of the counterfeit banknotes. It was only possible for the facilities of an official state mint to obtain the printing techniques, the paper and the very special ink (supplied by a Swiss company exclusively for the treasuries). In the article, the building in Pyongyang is pinpointed in detail in close proximity to the presidential offices, perhaps connected via the underground tunnels, a future target for precision US bombing campaign. As interesting as the news is, we would not want to rule out the possibility that this was a smear campaign coming from a respected source of corporate media.

Meanwhile almost a month later and in the wake of the ceasefire in Lebanon, the Hezbullah officials -in a swift and efficient response- was seen on television counting brand new 100 dollar bills to be paid to southern Lebanese in compensation for their damaged property. Everybody knew that they were obtaining the missiles from Iran via Syria, but neither us nor anybody else claimed that the bundles of US dollars came from the far end of the mentioned axis. After all, the gesture was more important: Misery and suffering was made up for by the 'supersign', the number one trademark in the world. The world got the message and Hezbullah planned the photo-op carefully. For us familiar with İstanbul's markets, the scheme of  fakes did not ring a lot of bells as we are already used to swimming through the faked brands of the merchandise, their signs on our chest a mere suggestion. When it comes to counterfeit banknotes we can as well, with a stretch of reasoning, assert them to be in the same order as the fake commodity and faked trademarks. After all, the value that the banknote designates in its authentic image circulates among the global exchanges and markets in a nominally assigned system of ‘exchange value’ (sic), today more so independent of labor and production.  The original sin, to follow Karl Polanyi's "The Great Transformation", resides in the designation of money itself as a 'fictitious commodity' along with labor (life) and land (nature) within a 'self regulating market.'


As we recently struggled to make sense of the grand idea of  'justice' through illegal gold mining operations -with cyanide- in Bergama, Turkey, (http://www.xurban.net/scope/deprived) we kept swinging in between modes of legitimacy controlled, mediated and distributed by the state, and of the actions of multinationals. We thought that the deals to run the mining operation in defiance of the majority of inhabitants was perfectly mafioso. Only this time omerta, the code of silence, was transformed into a campaign of disinformation, an extreme exposure to communication. When we came back to İstanbul with a truckload of soil from Bergama as a bounty of our dig into the situation, we once more recognized that the territory of the metropolis was already contaminated. In this vein, the ritzy trademarks (i.e. Carlton) by themselves bless the piece of property they stick on and authenticate themselves, again, in purely illegal terms.  How is one then to discern the basis of legality and of the decency of law? Should we in any case, as Foucault suggests,** give up on the view that  power is concentrated in the hands of few and look into the outer reaches where it is diffused in various networks within the society? Does not the issue of ‘rights’ in a juridical context indicate instances where it is invested by institutions and thus render certain ‘rights’ legitimate (i.e. of multinationals) within an apparently legal frame in exclusion of society and ethics at large?


It is no wonder that in the realm of the rhetoric (ie. by Virilio and Baudrillard) of extreme phenomena, the ultimate argumentation draws its references and quotes from Byzantium’s (istanbul) iconoclasts. If God has disappeared behind images, behind the extreme proliferation of images, the heavens he resides must have been directly above the Golden Horn. The city is no stranger to the dens where copies of likenesses have been churned out from time immemorial and today is no exception. When the Orthodox Church invested itself with the authority to abolish images of likeness, it was protecting the sole trademark in its custody, to keep its sacred aura not tampered with. As of now, with equal religious fervor, the global brands wage a fierce and futile war for almost the same reasons while similes and fakes abolish the exchange value of commodity and its enchanted image. (Meanwhile, when truth is considered to have disappeared behind the image on the screen, even rhetorically, we must be weary of the claim for it is not the “desert of the real” we see looking from this side of the world. It is no simulation when thousands of bodies are mutilated off-screen, in Iraq, in Palestine and recently in Lebanon.)


International capital operates on the abstract, with no direct reference to the actual production, land or other resources. However, it needs concrete safe conditions for smooth local operations. With the help of local partners, such as political parties, national corporations and their mass mediatic extensions, a neo-liberal omnipresent ‘truth set’ is imposed on the local political agenda. In Turkey, like in most of the world, this structural change started to take place in the beginning of the 80’s, just after the military coup of 12 September 1980. A neo-conservative government came to power in 1983. Decades after, we now see that the catastrophic hegemony of neo-liberal discourses does not, in  appearance,  leave any other options as the invasion of public domain is finalized.

Therefore, for us it is no coincidence that, today, both the conservatives (read this as islamists and nationalists), and liberals (especially in North American, as well as in European sense, like the social democrats) have something in common. They simply believe that unrestricted capital had to flow in, in order to have a healthy economy. However, in order to sustain the capital flow, they cooperate with the multinationals at the expense of the remnants of ‘common good’, which in fact probably never existed as such.

Let’s keep it short! New economies need fresh capital. And capital does not like competition. In order to eliminate legal or illegal competition, state apparatus steps in and pushes the limits of law in favor of the foreign investment. However, for the sake of the clean trademarks of the multinationals, the process needs to be legal, monumental and all at once. As in the case of the Ritzy extension in İstanbul, dirty work, like some legal details are overcome by local partners like Süzer Group and the famous local architect Mr. Doruk Pamir. In fact, within the rules of the new economy, architects and designers play important role to sustain the clean outlook for the global brands. Power is unleashed through consent, with the best of intentions making the cultured and educated an accomplice along its way in the name of a common good. The techno-elite is only too happy to contribute creative means to the politics of exclusion.

Vendors of the faked brand merchandise, on the other hand, use temporary strategies. When ’imitated’ goods hit the streets, a battle of different order starts. Since the new laws prohibit the counterfeit products, in order to eliminate the encounters with the legal forces, street vendors can only operate by moving quickly from one place to another. When they are caught, the only option is to bribe or their goods can be confiscated. No matter what happens, where it happens, be it in New York or in Istanbul,  the city becomes somewhat free floating trade zone of these goods. For instance, Africans sell the Rolexes inside small suitcases. Levi’s, Lee, Cartier, Pierre Cardin, Lacoste and everything else find their place next to the ‘authentic’ Turkish or Chinese or Malaysian non-branded products. In fact either trademarked or for the no-brand-name, the price range is always the same since they come from same factories, and are produced by the same labor power.


Our aim here is not to support and applaud a counterfeit strategy as opposed to the forceful authentication -via legal means. What we are trying to show, in fact, is that both the authentic and the counterfeit work within the same semantic framework. Gucci, Cartier, Lacoste, as trademarks, are as authentic as signs that appear on all faked merchandise, not less but nothing more. In the physical realm, obviously, their labor intensive production, as much as their overproduction with or without the authentic logo, are an effect of the outsourcing in Turkey and elsewhere in the third world.  But as ‘indexes’ in circulation, they can both be claimed as being equally illegitimate considering their appropriation of space, their exploitation of labor force, and their dissemination and penetration into an already saturated marketplace.


Intellectual property is today either so precious not to be left at the mercy of capitalists and their corporate lawyers, or better, it is extremely vital so that for its ultimate protection, it should be made into public property for the well-being of the commons.  Hence, instead of accepting it under the category of private property, the outcome of immaterial labor should be viewed as belonging to public at large, on which the battle is waged against the neo-liberal agenda. The effort to protect the identity of the brand names against fakes under the banner of ‘the rights of intellectual property’ is a pretense.

Similarly, to construct the concept of ‘civilizations’ on a cultural divide that presupposes selected views of the world and life within totalized camps, and to claim that what we experience today is  a clash of civilizations is to completely obscure the facts.  The global all-out war we witness today integrates conflicts of varied magnitudes and localities which are not indexed under 'civilizations', 'nations' and geographic locations. Just as even when our experiences point to a class struggle on the global scale, the basis of hegemony and power should be considered to be of a different order since the end of modern times. Never have we felt so strongly that our very being is under arrest and subsequently made into willing subjects in diffusion of power and domination throughout the society of spectacle and consumption.  At the very root of citizenry –East and West- lie the overwhelmed subject, whose most modest expressions of dissent is immediately exorcised and liquefied in a discrete (and sometimes brutal) manner. Today, the military-industrial complex, aided by its local allies as political and institutional bodies represent the ‘civil’ and 'civilized' world of conduct and action, while the unregulated global market of commodity, labor and annexed land reigns in tandem. The clash surfaces when the hegemonic interests conflict, when there are obstacles to global exploitation of resources. The ‘citizen’ at the Latin root of the civilized realm (as opposed to the barbarian) is an average assumed identity, whose virtual rights of birth have been regulated within a given disposition of power and domination. This is why justice can no longer be an affair of a sole nation-state, why the multitude should be aiming at the global citizenship and at freedom on the global scale.


* "No Ordinary Counterfeit" 23 July 2006; Sunday Magazine, New York Times.

** Michel Foucault. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures 1975-1976. Picador: New York, 2003.