If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution is a fascinating book that invites the attention of all activists around the world. Building off his work, I suggest refinements that make it even more important.
Bevins asks a crucial question—with so many protests in the 2010-20 decade, during which he claims saw more people protesting than any in history—why haven’t we seen significant/revolutionary changes? He then tries to answer it by using his position as an international journalist to travel to ten different countries where such protests took place, to talk with activists and others on the ground, and then seek to answer his crucial question.
The ten countries are mostly “developing” countries—Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine—and Russia. They are located in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, as well as Eastern Europe/Russia. He also provides some information on Libya and Syria. One of the interesting things about this collection are these are not countries for which we’ve had a lot of prior reporting on in English, so the combination is invaluable for simply bringing developments in these countries together in one place.
Bevins works on several levels herein. There is the broad overall question. But he seriously examines protests in countries like Brazil, Hong Kong, Turkey, and Ukraine, seeking to understand each situation. His material on Brazil is especially insightful as he lived and worked there for 13 years (and currently lives there) and he really seems to understand the country on its own terms. Perhaps most interesting is his focus on protests in June 2013, initially focusing opposition to bus fare price hikes, to development of a situation three years hence where Dilma Rousseff of the leftist Workers’ Party had won the presidency and then was impeached, and ultimately replaced by Jair Bolsonaro—one of the most reactionary politicians in the world—who was elected to the presidency of Brazil.
His material on other countries is good, but he’s dependent on finding good sources who well understand their particular country and who can convey this in-depth in English to him as reporter, although he speaks English, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
He then tries to analyze what happened in each of these countries and generalize across the “developing world.” There are hints within on the importance of both the mainstream and social media in understanding this; obviously, he thinks these are new phenomena not well understood. He eventually pulls his thinking together more coherently by the end of the book.
His penultimate chapter—“Reconstructing the Past”—is where he tries to bring his findings together in a coherent fashion. As he writes, “Many people who spoke with me know very well that things can go terribly wrong regardless of intention….” It is this hard-headed realism that I find useful.
As he argues, activists must consider what happens after the protest, and especially with the greater the success of the protest:
The idea is that if you blow a hole in the center of the political system, taking power away from those who have it, then someone else is going to enter the empty space and take it. Unclaimed political power exerts an irresistible gravitational pull on anyone who might want it, and at every moment in recorded history, someone has wanted it. (Shifting to language of a theatrical performance) If you want to knock the main players off the stage, you should be paying attention to who is going to take their place. These might be local or foreign actors. If it is not going to be you, then you had better like the people who are waiting in the wings.
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 protest—did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums. There’s a good reason we so often call them “explosions.” 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 the mass protest decade, street explosions created revolutionary situations, often on accident. But a protest is very poorly equipped to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, and that particular kind of protest is especially bad at it. … a diffuse group of individuals come out to the streets for very different reasons cannot simply take power themselves, at least not as an entire diffuse group of individuals (p. 263-64).
Accordingly, although he doesn’t explicitly make the point, mobilization is not sufficient; we must build organizations from the ground up to make it possible to achieve the social change we seek. (See my recent “Building Organizations from the Ground-up”.)
He particularly focuses on bottom-up mobilization and its processes; and he places them in the context of Leninism and “horizontalization.” I find this useful to an extent; I detail below. However, he clearly is trying to generalize his findings across a number of countries with different histories, cultures, etc., which adds importance to his reporting.
The thing that I see him doing that is positive is that he takes the side of the ordinary people in these accounts; he looks at their respective societies primarily from the bottom up; he doesn’t focus on the elites or the governing politicians, although he’s obviously aware of them and interacts with them to limited extents. We know so much about the oppressors that it’s good to hear from people and especially activists who are trying so hard to make things better. If one uses the concept of globalization from below—which opposes globalization from above—then we see a myriad of similar processes taking place in a wide range of countries in the Global South, which is often ignored by many in the Global North.
The other thing that Bevins does—with a critical understanding of his role as an international journalist writing for outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post—is consider the role of the media in ways I’ve not seen previously done. For one thing, he notes that most international journalists from the US and Western Europe—whose organizations try to dominate global media—are generally from upper middle class backgrounds and have gone to elite or “prestigious” universities and colleges; and they bring all of their background into their reporting. They often seek those similar to them to interview, in addition to government or corporate officials.
Through this, media institutions try to “frame” what they report from their perspective; in other words, they try to create “meaning” for a given situation. Quite often, because of their extensive resources, quality of writing, global reputation, etc., these media outlets try to provide the dominant meaning of a situation, which then tends to proscribe what opinions are then “acceptable” within the public sphere and what are not. [This is why “alternative media” of the left is so critically important in efforts to broaden the discussion and/or undermine the dominant projection of meaning.]
He doesn’t make the specific point, but the role of the New York Times in regard to the Russian invasion and subsequent war in Ukraine perfectly illustrates mainstream media’s impact: the Times refused to detail and discuss the role of the United States government in precipitating Russia’s invasion, making Vladimir Putin the only evil actor, and ignoring the key roles of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama and their respective administrations, each equally guilty. (Trump had a different dynamic.) I could go on.
And, of course, the role of the “Western” (read imperial) media in condemning Hamas’ attack on poor, victim Israel, yet ignoring Israel’s vicious aggressive attack on Gaza, is certainly worth noting. The hegemonic idea of Israel as victim was almost complete in the mainstream media, and they tried to denigrate anyone who argued otherwise; for example, I’ve not seen any reporting that Hamas’ attack delegitimized the Israeli policy since at least 1948 of trying to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Palestinians—strongly supported by the US government—and illuminated its failure.
Bevins tries to add scholarly legitimacy by placing all of his excellent work under the rubric of Charles Tilly’s term, “contentious politics.” That really doesn’t give us much; to this author, it’s basically a given being that it focuses primarily on the street, not the ballot box or legislatures.
But he doesn’t go further than that, which I think would have helped do what he appeared to be seeking: there’s no understanding of imperialism, and how that has affected each country. In other words, each of these countries was mis-used/oppressed/fucked over by imperial countries, with their raw materials, natural resources, and sometimes people being stolen from them and taken to the imperial country to help the imperial country develop; at the same time, there was no concern about the impact of those in the colonized country, whether economically, politically, militarily, diplomatically, culturally and/or personally. Nor was there any consideration that the post-colonial social structure and political system was at least initially initiated by the respective colonial power so as to continue to benefit “outsiders,” both of the old colonial order or the new post-colonial elites, the latter often chosen by colonial officials themselves So, none of these formerly colonized countries developed like the imperial countries, which seems implicitly Bevins’ understanding.
In fact, later in the book, Bevins suggests that these countries all want to be at a standard of living comparable to those in the “West,” without understanding the imperial countries got there by theft and robbery of the formerly colonized countries. Without understanding the processes of imperialism and how they developed, Bevins cannot understand fully how these countries got to the point at which they are.
Along with this, he provides little to no understanding of US operations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was intended to do legally and above board what the CIA used to do (and still does somewhat) surreptitiously, along with the AFL-CIO’s international operations. This is not nitpicking: one of the things that is striking, and he flags it, is the similarities in the developments in the countries he examines, to a greater or lesser extent. He assumes that the results are the processes of developing mobilizations, which he details; I don’t know, but fear that it is more than this; and enough evidence exists to require exploration of this possibility to a much greater extent.
I mentioned above that he focuses on bottom-up mobilization and its processes; and he places them in the context of “Leninism” and “horizontalization.” There are a couple of problems with this. Regarding Leninism, he specifically refers to the Leninist form of organization, and not necessarily to the politics of Lenin; a nice consideration for readers who might not have noticed this distinction. However, I think the Leninist form of organization—based on democratic centralism—has been all-but-discredited in countries except, perhaps, those under direct colonial domination, such as Palestine, or dictatorship such as in Egypt, and I’m not sure it is uncritically accepted in these places. It seems certainly rejected by people in countries where some form of democracy currently exists. Bevins doesn’t address this rejection.
Secondly, I think he makes the concept of “horizontalism” somewhat of a caricature; he sees it as unstructured—more than once he refers to Jo Freeman’s classic article “The Tyranny of Stucturelessness”—and basically refers it to “anarchism.” The idea he’s trying to get at, in my opinion, is the idea of people wanting mass empowerment, with no one automatically having more power than anyone else.
Now, certainly, this can be “unstructured”—as he shows—but there is another approach that he never considers: what might be called “structured horizontalism” based on affinity groups and spokes council-type of organization as was developed mainly in the 1980s by the California non-violent direct action movement. This was utilized (somewhat) successfully against nuclear power plants as well as against the stationing of MX nuclear-armed missiles in California, and developed to its greatest extent in the streets of Seattle in 1999 in stopping the World Trade Organization meetings. This approach is built on personal involvement, democratic participation, and a defined process of leadership and decision-making; to my knowledge, this has yet to be fully explicated, but my (limited) involvement suggest it deserves to be forthrightly explored. Bevins shows no awareness of these processes.
Joined with this unnuanced view of structureless is his unnuanced view of decision-making processes; he claims—and he may be right—that all of these protest movements from below chose to require 100% consensus before moving forward or making any collective decision. This seems incredibly self-limiting.
I hope this is an oversight on his part, and that organizations adopted some form of modified consensus. Don’t get me wrong: I believe total consensus is desirable, but I’ve never seen it work within the confines of regular people’s lives; most people don’t have the time to debate so long that a total consensus emerges, so oftentimes, an organization is paralyzed by this requirement.
In other words, I’d argue the superiority of a “modified consensus” process, where decisions are placed into two different categories—critical and non-critical—with different levels of “consensus” required for each. For example, while total consensus is desirable, non-critical issues could be addressed by a 50% +1 voting system so the organization doesn’t get bogged down in non-essential issues. Likewise, critical issues should require a “supermajority” of 67 or 70 or 75% of those present so that only a large majority can make decisions on crucial issues; this, in turn, prevents games being played to get that 50% +1 level, and reduce splitting of an organization over relatively minor points. Doing this would allow even critical issues to be resolved although requiring a significantly higher level of agreement than a simple majority.
At the same time, Bevins doesn’t understand—at least in the book—the fact that the US is an Empire, and that the United States is the homeland of it; thus, money expanded on the military and/or shipping arms to subordinate states to help protect them from their citizens—i.e., to maintain the Empire—is money taken away from Americans either directly from not being spent on items such as health care, education, climate mitigation, infrastructure maintenance, etc., or indirectly by expenditures beyond a balanced budget and thus going to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest yearly to rich individuals and countries who buy US bonds (while our national debt has exploded by over $32 trillion since 1981).
In other words, I argue it important to at least recognize the potential of mass actions in the United States (and other imperial countries) as they will or will not effect the ability of each subordinate country to change its relationship to the Empire. Yet, I argue they must be considered.
While the right has done (unfortunately) a magnificent job in demonizing the left over the years, and especially the terms “socialism” and “communism,” the reality of increasing impoverishment and economic inequality, reduced opportunity for younger people in general, and increasingly recognized bankruptcy of the established political system, offers the left (however defined) an increasing opportunity to reach out to “ordinary” Americans in ways they’ve been unable to utilize in the post-World War II period (post-1945). Whether the left can take advantage of this opening in the US remains to be seen, but it certainly suggests that shifting attention from a national to a global level (as Bevins implies) needs to address questions of building global solidarity between those in the imperial and formerly colonized countries in ways that supports organization from below around the world wherever it can be established.
In short, I think Vincent Bevins has written an extremely important book that should be widely and critically read, especially by activists as well as scholars. There is a lot of extremely important description and analysis to be processed, while arguing he could have gone further. Nonetheless, I think he’s to be congratulated for a major accomplishment!
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