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Global Letdown

The Mass Disappointment of a Decade of Mass Protest

The demonstrations of the last decade were vast and explosive—and surprisingly ineffective.

Protests in Tunis in 2011, sparked by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi

Though his name wouldn’t ring a bell to most in this country, Mohamed Bouazizi was, without question, among the most influential individuals of our century thus far. The millions he unintentionally inspired teetered and toppled governments beginning with his own; in doing so, they rattled the global order and altered the course of politics even here in the United States, where many who never learned his name nonetheless know of him—the Tunisian produce vendor who, bullied one time too many by local police, went into the street just shy of noon on a mid-December day in 2010, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and lit the world on fire.

That, at any rate, is how most popular accounts of the origins of the “Arab Spring” go. Even in the early days of the uprisings, that phrase seemed to understate the significance of what had begun in Tunisia. The wave of protests that Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked would reach far beyond the Middle East in a matter of weeks—the following February, the Canadian magazine Adbusters would reference the protests in Tunisia and the subsequent demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in its fateful call for “A MILLION MAN MARCH ON WALL STREET”—and temporally, that “spring” of technologically facilitated mass action has lasted more than 12 years and counting now.

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution
by Vincent Bevins
PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $30.00

In Tunisia itself, protests have continued. While the de facto dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of the country and his office less than a month after Bouazizi’s death, the nation’s political tumults in the time since have both fueled and been fueled by the public’s still potent sociopolitical and economic discontent. In 2021, Kais Saied, the country’s sixth president since 2011, dismissed Parliament and began ruling by decree in response to demonstrations against his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic; throughout this year, Tunisians have been taking to the streets yet again to protest Saied’s further consolidation of power in the time since. “In two years,” Samira Chaouachi, vice president of Tunisia’s Parliament, lamented in July, “he has destroyed all the institutions and democratic gains of the revolution.”

While the revolution is still commemorated each year in Tunisia, the optimism that took hold of the country in the wake of Ben Ali’s fall has withered. And in his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, the journalist Vincent Bevins writes that Mohamed Bouazizi’s name is not only remembered but cursed in the very town that had once given him a hero’s burial. “Most people hate him,” a teen flatly informs Bevins near Bouazizi’s grave. Another local assessed Bouazizi more kindly, but with regret for all he had wrought. “I knew him,” he said. “He was a nice guy. But this revolution did not benefit the Tunisian people. Tunisia did not take one step forwards. It moved backwards.”

Of the 10 places that Bevins examines in his account of the most disruptive mass protest movements of the last decade or so—Bahrain, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Hong Kong, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Yemen—the same might be said of six more of them, Bevins contends. Repression has arguably deepened in Bahrain, Egypt, and Hong Kong. Brazil and Turkey both saw right-wing authoritarians come to power. And the events following the ouster of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 led to an ongoing civil war that has killed nearly 400,000 people thus far and produced what remains one of the world’s most acute humanitarian crises—at last count by the United Nations Population Fund, some 21.6 million Yemenis are thought to need basic aid and assistance of some kind today.

The age of mass protest ushered in by the Arab Spring is hardly over, but that record of failures, setbacks, and cataclysms has been dispiriting even to many of the agitators and demonstrators who shaped the movements in question and whom Bevins has spent the last 10 years or so following and interviewing in search of answers. “The point was not just to notice that the mass protest decade hasn’t really worked out,” he muses toward the end of the book. “The idea was to understand why.” Fortunately, he comes away from his globe-trotting search with critical lessons for activists both here and abroad. Setting the world afire, it turns out, is easier than one might expect. Tending to the flames is harder.

Most critiques of contemporary mass protest focus on the roles that technology and social media in particular have played in pulling demonstrations together. Facebook and Twitter brought thousands to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, yes, but also, as prominent critics like sociologist Zeynep Tufekci have argued, those same mechanisms may have ensured that the movements they sparked wouldn’t endure for long. Digital coordination, Bevins writes, allows for “the existence of big protests that come together very quickly—so quickly, perhaps, that no one knows each other, people are trying to realize contradictory goals, and after the initial energy fades, nothing remains.” The initial energies social media loosed in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere were real and explosive—governments did shake, and regimes did fall. The question at the heart of the mass protest decade isn’t why social media–driven uprisings failed to change conditions where they happened, but why the changes forced by those uprisings—even at their most potent and least ephemeral—were either limited in scope or reversed, remarkably often, by leaders worse than the ones activists did manage to topple.

To the extent that social media dynamics provide some answers, they have less to do with slacktivism and the shallowness of much of the political engagement on the platforms than with the concrete and rather predictable patterns of real-world action the platforms catalyzed. Throughout the book, Bevins traces a particular repertoire of tactics that reappeared again and again across the globe after those initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Calls would be issued on social media to march and occupy public spaces en masse. Just about everywhere, demonstrators planned for confrontations with the police and the destruction of property rather than boycotts and strikes. And outrage about the inevitable crackdowns from state authorities—as captured by harrowing pictures and videos posted to social media—would be harnessed to bring about still larger and louder demonstrations.

In seven of the 10 places that Bevins studies—Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, and Chile—viral images of state repression intensified the protests. Whether violence took the form of police brutality or a crackdown, “the crucial spark consisted of visible repression against a particular type of citizen, against someone who was not supposed to be hurt, or be murdered.” In Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014, for instance, it was brutality against students that brought the masses into the streets, Bevins explains; in Turkey, many were incensed into action by the pepper-spraying of a woman in an instantly iconic red dress.

“Social media firms made it much easier to scale up the size of horizontal mass gatherings,” Bevins writes, “and their services also made it very likely that citizens would see disturbing imagery of states abusing their power.” But as reliably appalling as police crackdowns against mass demonstrations are, Bevins contends that their role in inspiring further action prevented the movements he surveyed from developing conceptual roots as deep as the problems they hoped to confront—outrage at the state’s violence rarely yielded to coherent shared analyses of the social, economic, and political conditions upholding the state. “It is far from clear that the most visible and affecting power dynamics are the most important ones in a complex society,” he writes. Instances of overt state repression may be indicative of what ails a society more broadly, but movements galvanized by them, Bevins suggests, often wind up ideologically underdeveloped, easy to appease, or vulnerable to capture.

In Brazil in the spring of 2013, for instance, demonstrations in support of free public transit rapidly ballooned into a seemingly all-encompassing and functionally leaderless protest movement, after images of a violent military police crackdown against protesters went viral. Eventually, more than one million people nationwide took to the streets in opposition to what had been a popular left-leaning government. Not long after the protests began to swell, a YouTube video in support of them—purportedly from the collective Anonymous—also picked up traction on social media. “There was a man in that V for Vendetta mask sitting at a desk,” Bevins writes. “There were some static visual effects, as if the group had infiltrated your computer. Then you hear a male voice, distorted by another cheap video editing tool.”

The Tunisian army barricaded the Parliament building amid a constitutional crisis in 2021.

The voice issued a call for demonstrators to focus on potentially unifying demands “with no ideological or religious content” and listed “5 causas” worthy of their attention, including the designation of congressional corruption as a “heinous crime,” investigations into the mishandling of World Cup projects, and opposition to a constitutional amendment establishing the police’s sole jurisdiction on criminal investigations. “Notably,” Bevins observes, “none of these demands would lead to concrete, direct benefits for regular people—they were all judicial adjustments or dealt with elite politics—and did not address economic justice at all.”

Nevertheless, the video took the protest movement by storm; almost immediately, 5 CAUSAS could be seen on signs carried by demonstrators around the country. And before long, in an attempt to placate them, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made what seemed like an overt nod to the causes with her “Five Pacts”—a slate of proposals that included the “heinous crime” designation and the shutting down of the planned constitutional amendment named in the video. Congress quickly acted upon both ideas. Bevins managed to find the person responsible for the 5 causas video—a man who went only by Mario and who had never actually linked up with Anonymous. He’d simply donned a V for Vendetta mask and hit “record.” “What about the five causes?” Bevins asked. “How did the group decide on those? ‘Oh, no one decided,’ he responded. He had simply made them up. He pieced the ‘causes’ together from stuff he had read on Facebook and came up with a list. Five seemed like a good number.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the protests in Brazil began to dissipate not long after Rousseff and other officials offered the pacts and other moderate concessions—though the vague populist energies that fueled them would be captured, again and again, in later protests surrounding the political crises that toppled Rousseff and eventually led to the election of far-right demagogue Jair Bolsonaro. The causas episode captures well what gradually emerges as Bevins’s central theme. There is both power and peril in leaderless mass action. And the leaderlessness that spontaneous, social media–driven protest lends itself to was adopted as an outright virtue too readily in too many places, Bevins argues, thanks to an intellectual lineage that stretches back to the New Left movements in the United States, France, and elsewhere in the late 1960s.

The organizational approach of America’s Students for a Democratic Society, which had positioned itself against the centralized, authoritarian politics of Soviet communism, for instance, “dictated that they should adopt organizational forms now that they would like to see in the world they wanted to create,” Bevins writes. “The name given to this was ‘prefigurative politics’—what you are doing now will prefigure, or show a glimpse of, the world you want to live in tomorrow.” And the anti-authoritarian activists in the New Left movements trained themselves to create new spaces for prefiguration through a now familiar set of tactics. The now legendary anti-establishment protests that swept France in May 1968 featured the deployment of techniques like “escalation-provocation,” Bevins explains, “in which committed militants would fight cops or fascists and invite spectacular repression” and the sympathies of observers ahead of more peaceful demonstrations. Another frequently used technique was “the occupation,” the practice of taking over important buildings and areas, which was “used in Paris as it was in California” to give rise to “new forms of life ... behind the barricades and in occupied spaces.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the spirit and tactics of the New Left would be revived, despite a rather mixed record of success, by the alter-globalization movement against the new world trade order of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and would be promoted by influential figures like the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. “This is a movement about reinventing democracy,” he wrote in a 2002 essay:

It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations.

Those ideas spread globally among activists and groups that would spring into action with renewed energy in the wake of the Arab Spring. During Occupy Wall Street in the United States, Graeber himself would rise to prominence as one of the movement’s key organizers and theorists. But the politics of leaderlessness and prefiguration have long had radical critics, here and abroad. More than half a century ago now, as Bevins notes, the feminist activist Jo Freeman laid out a basic but still potent critique in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” which might just as well have been called “The Illusion of Structurelessness.” Even in putatively leaderless organizations and movements, she argued, leaders—powerful cliques and charismatic figures—are sure to emerge, and perhaps without the transparency, accountability, and democratic feedback that would be available to activists under more hierarchical conditions. When no one is in charge, put more simply, the odds are alarmingly high that some random in a V for Vendetta mask will step up to the plate.

And the concept of prefiguration, for its part, freights radical movements—sometimes for better, often for worse—with deep obligations beyond the already difficult tasks of winning and securing power, holding themselves to standards that state actors and other powerful opponents don’t have to meet. Graeber, Bevins writes, acknowledged specifically that leaderlessness and anti-hierarchical organizational structures would be poorly suited to revolutionary movements in wartime. “But the problem, at least in the mass protest decade, is that if you are actually successful, someone is going to declare war on you,” Bevins writes. “This might be political warfare, or it might be literal, violent war. If you score any kind of political victory, there is likely going to be someone who feels they will lose, and these people usually go on the attack—and have no philosophical objections to using hierarchy, formal organization, and ‘authoritarian’ internal command structures.”

If the tactics and habits of mind adopted internationally by the activists whom Bevins followed closely over the last decade, mostly in the Middle East and Latin America, have been poor fits for their respective movements, it seems potentially relevant, as he observes, that “repertoires and philosophical approaches” to protest “usually flowed from north to south, not the other way around.” “Several people told me they believed their movements had unconsciously taken on positions developed in the First World,” he writes, “that may not be so applicable in the Global South.”

One Egyptian revolutionary put it to me this way: “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 afterward. Out here in the real world, if a revolution fails, all your friends go to jail or end up dead.”

“I spent years doing interviews,” Bevins eventually concludes, “and not one person told me that they had become more horizontalist, or more anarchist, or more in favor of spontaneity and structurelessness.” Instead, the activists he spoke to, across disparate movements motivated and shaped by different grievances and conditions across the globe, offered up a loose consensus, more supportive of formal structures and leadership in mass movements—or of, at the very least, having a stable contingent of activists ready to represent them and articulate ideologically informed demands. “We thought representation was elitism,” one Egyptian activist told him, “but actually it is the essence of democracy.”

Bevins habitually labels that preference for structure “Leninism,” as though one has to be a student of the Russian Revolution to appreciate the utility of having someone lead or speak for a group. “Because the ruling class had a lot more means at its disposal to propagate its ideology,” he writes of Lenin’s thought, “the revolutionary movement would need to be guided by a coherent ideology of its own.”

Lenin aside, this is all rather commonsensical—or at least it ought to have been for the movements surveyed. Change is best pursued with a particular tactical or ideological direction in mind, clearly; without a designated leader or group of leaders to set that direction—a “vanguard,” if one prefers—one cannot predict the direction a movement will ultimately take, or what ideas and actors might prevail in the aftermath of a movement toppling the existing political order. Gains made are easily reversed. And, as was the case so disappointingly often over the last decade in protest, conditions can devolve to a point worse than the state of affairs that drove people into the streets in the first place.

“The particular repertoire of contention that became very common, almost appearing to be natural, from 2010 to 2020—apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized, leaderless mass protests—did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums,” Bevins writes. “There’s a reason we so often call them ‘explosions.’” But the movements that created those vacuums were only rarely prepared to fill them:

As a very simple rubric for understanding the outcome in each country, we just have to look at who was ready and waiting to rush in. In Egypt, it was the military. In Bahrain, it was Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, who literally marched in to fill in the gaps. In Kyiv, it was a different set of oligarchs, and well-organized militant nationalists found a little bit of space that they could occupy too. In Turkey it was ultimately Erdoğan himself, though he took up more space than a leader should in a democratic country that hopes to enjoy global prestige and the support of cultural elites in Istanbul. In Hong Kong it was Beijing. In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was not removed, not immediately; but to the extent that she lost influence in June 2013, that power did not fall to the anti-authoritarian left, as the Movimento Passe Livre would have liked.

Given the risk that the wrong people win out in the end, Bevins counsels sobriety. “If you cannot carry out a revolution and are not in a position to negotiate reforms, then perhaps it is acceptable to do nothing at all,” he cautions. “Better yet, to organize, analyze, and strategize—to put yourself in the best position for the next opportunity. Sometimes, the right action may be to wait. At the least, recent history suggests you should not try to effect maximum disruption at any moment that this appears possible.”

That’s an insight that might be applied as readily here as anywhere else. While we’ve seen more than our share of demonstrations in this country over the last decade, the movements behind them have had a mostly salutary but mostly diffuse impact on our politics. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter fundamentally altered debates about economic inequality and racial justice. The discursive shifts those movements brought about have manifested themselves in actual policy; those and other protest movements have moreover trained and elevated a generation of progressive leaders who have made an impact as both activists and practitioners of formal politics.

But the institutions underpinning our politics and our economy have survived the decade mostly unchanged and unscathed; in general, we have about as many reasons to hit the streets now as we did 10 years ago. And when we do, we ought to take more than mere inspiration from movements abroad—it’s their failures that we might learn the most from.