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Protest Public Transport BrazilPhoto by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images

Vincent Bevins’ new book explores why protest movements fail

The author of If We Burn, a new book on the political uprisings of the 2010s, discusses why so many of them led to the opposite of what their participants intended

The 2010s saw more mass protests than any other decade in human history. When several governments were toppled during the Arab Spring, it seemed to many commentators that we had entered a glorious new era of democracy and freedom, ushered in with the help of the internet. But as journalist Vincent Bevins writes in his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolutions, many of the countries in which these uprisings took place “experienced something even worse than failure. Things went backward.”

If We Burn follows the story of several activists across the course of the decade, which gives it a riveting, almost novelistic narrative, and humanises these historical events. Drawing on Bevins’ experience as a foreign correspondent in São Paulo, the sections about Brazil are especially compelling. In 2013, after a series of enormous public demonstrations, the left-wing ‘Movimento Passe Livre’ (Free Fare Movement) was successful in its campaign to reverse a recent increase in bus fares. But the feeling of triumph was short-lived. Extreme right-wing forces took advantage of the resulting chaos, harnessed some of the anti-establishment energy that had been unleashed, and managed to dislodge Brazil’s progressive government just three years later. Similar reversals of fortune played out across the world: mass protest movements would enjoy a brief flash of victory before things got even worse – by which point, the world’s attention had usually drifted elsewhere. 

While If We Burn touches on protest movements in the US and Western Europe, it is primarily focused on Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Chile, South Korea and Hong Kong. Across these different contexts, the dominant style of protest (or “contention”, as Bevins terms it) was ‘horizontalist’ – a form of organising which rejects hierarchies, leadership, and the idea that participants should be spoken for by anyone else. While this approach was motivated by some genuinely admirable ideals, If We Burn shows how it left protest movements vulnerable to misinterpretation by the media, co-option by conservative forces and, in some contexts, severe repression. As one Egyptian activist is quoted as saying, “In New York or Paris, if you do a horizontal, leaderless and post-ideological uprising, and it doesn’t work out, you just get a media or academic career afterwards. Out here in the real world, if a revolution fails, all your friends go to jail or end up dead.”

We spoke with Vincent Bevins about why the mass protest decade mostly ended in failure, and what lessons we can learn from the trajectory today.

While If We Burn is an account of why most of these movements didn’t work, it’s respectful towards the people who were involved and what they were trying to achieve. How did you strike that balance?

Vincent Bevins: The movements featured in the book did not all agree with one another; they were not all progressive and they each had different goals. But in the broadest sense, there wouldn’t have been a reason to write it if I wasn’t starting from a position of sympathy towards these young people, who risked their lives to change the world in a way they thought was appropriate at the time.

It is incredibly easy to say, ‘you did that wrong.’ What’s harder is to explain exactly why a particular action was taken, why it made sense at the time, and why it turned out to be a mismatch for the goals of a particular movement. Hopefully, by studying that carefully and talking to each other, these apparent short-term failures don’t become long-term failures, and instead become the beginning of a longer story which is ultimately a victory.

One of the takeaways from the book is that we can’t assume the same protest tactics will work in the same way in different contexts. But are there any broad lessons that young activists today can learn from the previous decade?

Vincent Bevins: One idea came up across the board, and it’s the easiest to adopt: the best time to get involved with other people who are committed to improving the world is always right now. When these explosions came across different countries, almost without fail, no one expected them to come – including the people who were trying to make them happen. And when they did come, it was almost always the people who were already organised that did best in the periods which followed. So there is no reason to wait for history with a capital ‘H’ to bring about the conditions that will magically fix your country. The best time to start is moments like these – moments when there’s relative calm, when it seems like there’s not a lot going on and nothing really inspiring is taking place in politics.

If We Burn shows that progressive movements can’t just burn things down, smash the system and hope that something better will arise from the ashes. Why is that a bad approach?

Vincent Bevins: We live in an incredibly complex and interconnected global system – the model in which you just need to kill the bad king and replace him with someone better is long gone. If you just smash things, then either you're going to live in a world that has been smashed up (a situation which, very tragically, Libyans are living through now) or somebody else is going to put things back together for you – and if you don’t like them more than the people currently in charge, you shouldn’t allow them to do that. Being constantly engaged in the process of trying to build a better world is the real essence of revolutionary activity. Tearing things down might be a small part of that, but only if you’re ready to create something better.

“There is no reason to wait for history with a capital H to bring about the conditions that will magically fix your country. The best time to start is moments when there’s relative calm” – Vincent Bevins

The book is mostly focused on the Global South, or outside Western Europe and the US. Why is that?

Vincent Bevins: When deciding which protest and events to include, the criteria that I set was that they had to be so large that they fundamentally disrupted or dislodged the governing structure of the respective country – that didn’t happen anywhere in the first world. But I made up that criteria myself, for a few different reasons. First, most of the world’s population lives in the Global South, and places like Brazil or Turkey have more to say to a global audience. And as I say in the book, one of the most important dynamics of these mass protest movements was the way that powerful external actors became involved. The United States is unique in the sense that there is no more powerful country, which means that nowhere else can really learn from how a mass protest would play out there.

What role did the media play in the failure of these movements?

Vincent Bevins: On the one hand, there are all the classic critiques of mass media and its tendency to reproduce a narrative that is amenable to the ruling class. That was already a problem in 1999, but by 2010, it was combined with a corps of foreign correspondents who were understaffed, undereducated, and under pressure to create viral content. All of that meant that the people who were tasked with trying to understand and explain these protest explosions were not prepared to do so. Many journalists ended up seeing what they wanted to see, and telling their readers and viewers what they wanted to hear.

There was also a failure to stick around and pay attention to what happened afterwards, which was a fatal mistake. It meant that movements around the world continued to adopt tactics that had already failed in their original context, but no one was paying attention to that. The media would portray a glorious mass uprising on the streets of a particular country, but the long-term consequences were not given anywhere near the same attention.

You also argue these mass protests were particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation: ‘Movements that cannot speak for themselves will be spoken for’. Why is that?

Vincent Bevins: The particular type of protest that became dominant in the 2010s – digitally organised, apparently spontaneous and horizontally organised – ended up producing a phenomenon that was fundamentally illegible. A group of individuals coming to the street for their own reasons, without internal structures for deciding who might represent them, is going to produce a cacophony of narratives, and these will inevitably be interpreted from the outside. That proved to be a weakness. You don’t want to rely on somebody else to say what you’re doing, what you mean and what you want.

Do you think strikes and union action might replace mass protest as the most significant form of contention in the coming decade?

Vincent Bevins: There’s no reason to privilege mass protests as a response to political injustice, and the future might look quite different. Getting involved in union-organising is one of the ways that my generation in the US has learned the lessons of the mass protest decade, and I think it’s something a lot of the people I interviewed in my book would recommend. These are the types of entities that are capable of building working-class power and strategising in the long-term. Will unions end up acting in collaboration with more unplanned and chaotic street demonstrations over the next ten years? It’s entirely possible. And if those street actions do happen, then the more organisations you have on your side, the better you’re going to do.

The 2010s ended badly for the majority of the movements you’re writing about. What – or where – in the world gives you hope?

Vincent Bevins: When I wrote the book, Jair Bolsonaro was the president of Brazil, and it was very possible to tell the story of the mass protest decade as one which ended with a murderous far-right government returning to power in the largest country in Latin America. But then a broad coalition worked together, against all kinds of illegal activity, violence and threats, and succeeded in winning back power from the extreme right. Brazil is now getting together with as many countries as it can to exert influence over the global system and try to build a better future.

Your last book, The Jakarta Method, is partly about how the US sabotaged left-wing movements around the world during the Cold War era, often using extremely violent methods to do so. Do you think the decline of American power will present new opportunities for progressive politics in the Global South?

Vincent Bevins: Instability always offers more opportunities, but that can be change for the better or the worse. In the short term, I think we will see the opening up of space for different approaches that might not have been possible in the age of unquestioned American unipolarity. Will that result in the construction of a system that is better than the one that preceded it? Not necessarily. I think it’s clear that the US-led global order that took shape after 1945 is profoundly imperfect, and you can imagine many, many ways that things can be better. But you can also imagine ways that things could be worse.

The answer is the same no matter what, no matter how bleak things look or how optimistic we are. The thing to do is to analyse the present conditions and decide how we can act upon them to create the best possible future.

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