Perhaps it was not quite a revolution but the last decade or so – from 2010 to 2022 – has seen an upsurge of mass movements, revolts, and some might even say, a revolutions. It all began in Tunisia moving across the Arab world. But revolts also appeared in Turkey, Ukraine, and even in an otherwise docile Hong Kong.
Towards the end of those dozen years, revolts had appeared in Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, Australia, France, Indonesia, Latin America, India, Lebanon, and Haiti. All in all, during those ten to twelve years, more protesters went onto the streets than at any other time in recent history.
Like in any revolt or revolution – from the French Revolution to the recent street protests in Iran – many where euphoric about a looming victory. Yet in many cases, only a few years after the recent protests, these uprisings were preceded by something very different from what the original protest had set in motion.
The sad irony is that nowhere in the last decade did the actual looming victory came about. Worse, life got much ghastlier as the counterrevolution enforced its – mostly authoritarian – regimes, relentlessly. This might be something that one could have actually predicted, given the long history of social protests, revolts, and revolutions.
From Germany’s peasant wars of 1525 and the Paris Commune – via the often forgotten Indonesia killings – to Chile in 1973 and the recent decade, the counterrevolution hits back with a vengeance. What followed were often brutal dictatorships, mass executions, torture, killings – the full trimmings of its ghastly and gruesome repertoire.
Brazil, for example, is no exception to this. In 2013, a growing protest movement was met by the military police shooting at people. Police brutality led to more rallies, organized by Movimento Passe Livre, a group of anarchists demanding cheaper public transport. Millions took to the streets challenging the established elite with demands for better schools and healthcare, less corruption, and less police violence.
The movement was not in opposition to Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Yet, only a few years later, the country was ruled by Jair Bolsonaro – one of the most rightwing leaders in the world.
As a consequence, public services disintegrated while poverty rose. Bolsonaro’s state officials even boasted about killing Brazilians. In the end, Brazil got the precise opposite of what people wanted in 2013. Worse, this became a pattern for what happened during the last decade.
The story is repeated in Hong Kong and its umbrella movement. It was modeled on the short-lived Occupy Wall Street and it wanted to repeat the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. This, in turn, was shaped in Tunisia.
Virtually all of these protests have features that are common across the many different locations. It is a story of a decade of global mass protests and its (un)expected consequences – the rise of the authoritarian counterrevolution. But why did these mass protests lead to a reversed outcome of what protesters had originally wanted?
One of the reasons for the victory of the counterrevolution might lie in the setup of the protest movement. Most, if not all, featured the so-called leaderless revolution. It is based on a ground-level, grassroots, and democratically organized structure. These movements were horizontally organized. And they were spontaneous movements. The key idea of these movements is that it needs to be based and structured in such a way that it reflects a future society, the protest, and the revolt it seeks to bring about.
Much of this reflects the organizing principle of, for example, Students for a Democratic Society. It is a spontaneous semi-anarchistic movement. The SDS did not even have a press office to engage with mainstream (read: corporate) media which dominates the airwaves – than as today.
The SDS’s loose and leaderless structure made it difficult to decide who was supposed to speak for the movement. Soon, rifts emerged. Worse, the SDS’s sudden fame created an even bigger problem. It was flooded with new members. All this – and more – led to its demise.
Most obviously, the SDS and similar movements were part of what became known as the new left. It was radically different from the traditional working class – the old left – with links to the communist movements and, in some cases, even to the Bolshevik revolution.
The old left relied on a political party. Inevitably, it faced the Michelsian dilemma – the establishment of a ruling party elite. On such a well-organized party, Bolshevik leader Lenin argued – when facing violent repressions from the old regime – the movement does not need participatory democracy. Instead, it needs a small, hierarchically-organized vanguard elite of professional revolutionaries. Only they can capture state power and push the revolution forward.
Yet, the new left and the recent protest movements pursued a different model – by adopting horizontalism. It argues that a movement needs to be guided by a horizontal base-level participatory rather than top-down and vertical – decision-making processes with virtually no hierarchies. It rejects the traditional political representation of The Power Elite (read: politicians, CEOs, bankers, etc.) as well as Lenin’s revolutionary elite – both claim to act on behalf of the people.
Much of this was kick-started during the late 1990s with an anti-globalization movement and its protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999. The anti-globalization movement was even more anti-authoritarian and an even more anti-top-down organizational structure than many other protest movements during the 20th century.
There were no leaders with special roles. Decisions were made by consensus. This was not Leninism – it was semi-anarchistic. The idea is that if a movement fights to build an anti-capitalist, new, better, and democratic society, such a movement needs to be a democratic movement from the start – just as Rosa Luxemburg once said.
One of the key messages from these movements is that history continues after the original explosion of protest, rallies, marches, and revolts. In other words, a revolution does not start and end with a single event. The counterrevolution might just wait, hide, and contemplate during the uprising, but at any moment, it can come back with the – by now to be expected – retaliation. This has been shown in the post-Commune Paris, Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and elsewhere.
The second lesson is that there is no such thing as a political vacuum when it comes to a revolt that threatens the established elite and capitalism. In other words, either the revolution wins or the counterrevolution wins with virtually no middle ground.
The idée fixe that a movement, a revolt, or a revolution can take out the center of a political-capitalist system and can remove those holding power, and someone is – magically – going to enter the vacuum, taking power, and moving into a post-capitalist society is wishful thinking at best.
In other words, a power that is not taken presents an irresistible offer to the counterrevolution that wants it – always and everywhere. Virtually at every moment in history, the counterrevolution has been ready to take power. This was more often than not, followed with the entire repertoire of massacres, killings, disappearances, etc. – often for years, if not decades, to come.
Undeterred or unaware of the historical consequence of a serious revolt that challenges the apparatus of corporate capitalism, it remained rather common – between 2010 and 2022 – these movements remained spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized, leaderless, base-level, and grassroots protests. On the upswing is the fact that these movements did a great job of challenging established structures of domination. Yet, they also created a political vacuum.
Yet, these movements were much less successful when it came to filling the vacuum. In other words, there was no force comparable to the Lenin’s revolutionary troops that took over the apparatus. Worse, there was always a counterrevolutionary force ready to step into the vacuum left behind:
- in Egypt, it was the military and el-Sisi;
- in Bahrain, it was Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council;
- in Turkey, it was Recep Tayyip Erdogan;
- in Hong Kong, it was Beijing;
- in Brazil, it was Rousseff and eventually, worse of all: Jair Bolsonaro.
From Egypt to Brazil, the protest movement’s non-hierarchical forms of organization favoring non-verticalism and believing that grassroots democracy matters followed.
These movements remained horizontalist – perhaps even semi-anarchist. They were in favor of spontaneity and something that can be called “structure-less-ness”. Virtually, no movement mutated into classical Leninism with a rigidly organized political structures formed as a fighting force.
Yet, despite all this, the protest movement of 2010-2022 did not entirely fail. They managed to achieve small victories. For example, South Korea’s candlelight revolution assured the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Chile’s estallido social put a protest generation into power. Yet, it failed to create a new constitution for Chile.
It is true that even when protests failed, many protesters believe to have planted the seed for something beyond the movement. Amongst their failure, they have convinced themselves that their battles have set something in motion which would then allow them to come back even stronger and perhaps even win the fight.
Yet, we should not mistake short-term protest tactics with long-term strategies. In the short-term, these movements had indeed put pressure on the ruling elites. There were protests, rallies, strikes, and boycotts.
Yet, all too often, these movements lacked an organized group to represent their cause and to organize the fight for victory. In no case did the movement manage to remove the existing elites while simultaneously establishing themselves as the new organizing power.
A revolution was either never achieved or wasted. There simply was no group prepared and organized enough to take the place of the old elite and to do a better job. What was lacking was a relatively small revolutionary group. By definition, such a group needs to be different compared with the rest of the movement. The question whether the movement gives the “revolutionary” minority permission to speak for them simply never arose.
Yet, the experience of the failed protests still created an intense – and in some cases – even life-changing collective euphoria. There was a collective feeling that the people and the movement could change things. Yet, these semi-revolutionaries were – reimagining rather than actually remaking – the world.
For many in the movement, the horrific counterrevolution that followed, pushed many into depression. Some got all messed up on their very own revolutionary energy, vitality, and verve. In the end, the not all too well-organized revolutionary force was not enough to topple reactionary regimes. Instead, the horizontal participatory-democratic movement created a vacuum that was quickly filled by the counterrevolution.
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