On a cold evening in early February 2011, a small group of activists spilled out of a squat in a Georgian townhouse on Bloomsbury Square. The building – recently purchased by a presenter on Antiques Roadshow – was then home to a loose collective running the Really Free School (RFS), a ramshackle series of political talks, film screenings and discussions. It was a natural hub for students radicalised by recent protests and the burgeoning anti-austerity movement. That night, attention was locked on the revolution that seemed to be underway in Egypt, which we followed spottily on our primitive Twitter feeds. Activists linked hands in a human chain across the portico of the British Museum, inspired by images of people lining up around the Egyptian Museum on the north side of Tahrir Square, to protect it from looting. The chant went up: ‘Yasqut, yasqut Hosni Mubarak!’ A couple of activists with decent smartphones filmed and took photographs; perplexed security guards were the only audience. After twenty minutes or so we returned to the townhouse to share photos on the RFS blog and, naturally, on Twitter (#solidarity).
It’s hard to imagine this tiny action happening in quite the same way today. Some of the RFS slogans are timeless (‘unemployment for all, not just the rich!’), but the earnest feeling of connection with distant comrades fostered by early social media has long vanished, along with the idea that social media should serve primarily as an adjunct to real events. The RFS’s hostility to representation – its blog posts were usually tagged #AJAB, ‘all journalists are bastards’ – was unexceptional, though its implicit hope in alternative technologies now looks misguided. Squatting is dead. Protesters’ motives would now be rapidly picked over. (British Museum? Bit colonial. Yikes.) Political sensibilities have shifted from post-Situationist counterculture to Ken Loach’s glum realism. Most important, any sense of a global wave of change, rising from the crisis of 2008, cresting in the squares of international capitals, has long since ebbed away.
In 2011 Time made the ‘protester’ its person of the year. It cited the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, but was particularly impressed by the arrival of digital revolutionaries. ‘America’s great 21st-century contribution to fomenting freedom abroad,’ it claimed, ‘was not imposing it militarily but enabling it technologically, as an epiphenomenon of globalisation.’ The wave of global protest was easy to praise, partly because the ‘networked’ youth whose role was magnified in Anglo-American reporting were so familiar, seemingly interchangeable with students at Columbia or UCL. It is certainly true, and striking, that protesters across the globe shared techniques and tactics, and understood themselves to be part of interrelated movements: ‘Love is over, Turkey is here!’ demonstrators in São Paulo chanted in 2013, invoking the Gezi Park protests as the tear gas spread.
Other features of the protests made them palatable to the mainstream. According to the sociologist Asef Bayat, when Arab protesters did have clear political demands (which they didn’t always), they were less likely to be ‘socialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist’ as in previous uprisings, and more likely to be concerned with ‘human rights, political accountability and legal reform’. These were substantial demands, but not ones that troubled teleologists in DC, who could interpret the protests as aiding an eventual transition to liberal democracy, the natural destiny for humanity. Hillary Clinton promoted internet freedom as akin to support for Soviet dissidents; a former national security adviser to George W. Bush floated awarding Twitter the Nobel Peace Prize.
The cycle of protest that started in Britain in late 2010 was unusually contentious, and self-consciously part of this global wave. It included student demonstrations against rises in tuition fees, mass marches against austerity accompanied by occupations of tax-dodging shops, and a homegrown version of Occupy Wall Street on the steps of St Paul’s. (The urban riots of August 2011 were related but distinct, originating as a response to a police killing.) Compared with the protests Vincent Bevins discusses in If We Burn, this British activism was low-level stuff. Bevins is interested in explosive movements (the word is often used), ones that toppled leaders or destabilised states. Based on more than two hundred interviews in a dozen countries, his book is a refreshing look at the 2010s as seen from outside the Global North. Drawing on Bevins’s work as a foreign correspondent for the LA Times in Brazil – where he was a witness to the 2013 uprising – the book also follows the tragic aftermath of Tahrir, and makes forays to Hong Kong, Ukraine, South Korea and Indonesia. (Bevins’s first book, The Jakarta Method, documented the US-supported massacre of communists in Indonesia and its global imitations.) If We Burn is animated by a simple question: why, when so many of the protests of the 2010s appeared to succeed, is the position in their countries now the very opposite of what the protesters were demanding?
The Brazilian case is exemplary. Bevins follows the story of the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), a small group of young, non-party radicals in São Paulo who protested against a 20 cent rise in the city bus fare. Some were middle-class students; others – like Mayara, a strong voice in the book – came from anarcho-punk subcultures and had service jobs in bars or restaurants. They were a tight-knit group of strict horizontalists, who conducted mind-warpingly long meetings to reach group consensus. Majoritarianism of any kind was automatically suspect; members rotated through spokesperson positions, regardless of aptitude, to avoid power accruing to any individual. But however unworldly this organisational philosophy might seem, they were also canny campaigners, understanding precisely which actions would attract what kind of media attention. Their ultimate goal was not just to keep bus fares down, but to decommodify public transport entirely.
It didn’t work out like that. Roadblocks and street protests at first drew an irritated response from the press, which urged a crackdown. The crackdown produced police brutality, including – crucially – against mainstream journalists. The press turned, denouncing violence against decent citizens. The next protest attracted hundreds of thousands of ordinary Paulistanos, even if it skewed to the middle classes. The MPL were elated; Bevins quotes a photographer colleague, usually of a mordant disposition: ‘I don’t think I have ever seen anything more beautiful in my life.’ Many of Bevins’s subjects remark on the political sublimity of the crowd.
The expansion of the protests had drawbacks. Bevins describes an encounter between young MPL punks and some newcomers who arrived in Brazilian football kit chanting patriotic slogans. The newcomers weren’t keen on being lectured on the dangers of empty nationalism. Grievances and placards multiplied: some called the governing Workers’ Party (PT) crooks, others demanded obscure legal or human rights reforms. The MPL remained focused on the bus fare, and eventually – after the protests kept growing – São Paulo’s mayor conceded. But they had all been ouflanked. ‘Não é pelos 20 centavos,’ one popular slogan read: ‘It’s not about twenty cents.’ Two million people were on the streets across Brazil, but the MPL, along with other left-wing movements, found itself pushed out. ‘Sem partido!’ the newcomers shouted at anyone bearing any discernible political colours: ‘Without party!’
Bevins is sharp on the way right-wing TV channels and shadily funded free-market think tanks sought to shape the reception of this ‘fundamentally illegible eruption of contention’. And he’s clear that he is engaged in a similar work of interpretation. He describes a discursive and political coup, in which the protests served to empower Lava Jato – Car Wash – an anti-corruption investigation that had itself been politically suborned and corrupted. This in turn became the thin pretext for the impeachment of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, and her replacement by her deputy, Michel Temer, who oversaw a constitutional amendment to cap public spending and removed protections for the Amazon. Temer’s successor, Jair Bolsonaro, dedicated his vote impeaching Dilma to the colonel who had tortured her during the dictatorship. Another line from Bolsonaro’s speech became his presidential campaign slogan: ‘Brazil above everything, God above all.’
There are Brazilian idiosyncrasies to this story: few of the other protest movements in Bevins’s book were conducted under, or against, left-wing governments, and the PT politicians Bevins speaks to are still palpably frustrated about the opposition they faced. But, overall, the same pattern applies in other places: activists provoke a ‘leaderless’ uprising and organised reactionary forces exploit it for their own ends. Often activists behave as though the right form of change will emerge spontaneously, that it is somehow latent in their action. Lucas Monteiro, a member of the MPL, makes a lament echoed across countries and across the decade: having planned only for their protest to succeed, ‘we had absolutely no plan for what came after.’ Alas, political power abhors a vacuum. Among many of those Bevins interviewed, there is now a painful recognition of the need for political skill and tenacity – ‘the long and slow drilling of hard boards’, in Weber’s phrase – and a pining for Gramsci’s strategist-party, the ‘modern prince’. Bevins agrees that the absence of representative organisations capable of producing leaders and strategy was a crucial factor in the defeat of these groups.
If We Burn is subtitled ‘the mass protest decade and the missing revolution’. Bevins, in common with many of his interviewees, understands the post-2008 disarray as representing the ‘exhaustion of the global system’. But it is an exhaustion that has not been recovered from. After 1789 we are inclined to think of revolutions as progressive, as at least potentially engendering a transformation of social relations. More often in Bevins’s narrative the older sense of ‘revolution’ pertains: a cyclical mutation – or degeneration – of constitutional orders and their eventual return to the original position. This understanding of political change was summarised by Hobbes at the end of Behemoth: ‘I have seen in this revolution a circular motion of the sovereign power.’ This tradition of thought is deeply hostile to the multitude, but stresses that there is always another force eyeing the top spot. Typically, it sees mass politics as fraudulent theatre; the circle of real political agents always remains small. Bevins has little time for speculation on the ‘deep state’ or international activity, though he notes that the Gulf monarchies covertly funded the astroturf groups that rolled behind the military coup in Egypt. ‘We were played,’ says one activist from Tahrir.
In the history of the left, revolutions have been more often missing than not, or have arrived in forms alien or repulsive to those who most desired them. As Perry Anderson once remarked, the ‘hidden hallmark’ of Western Marxism is that ‘it is a product of defeat.’ The canon of revolutionary failures varies, but one might count 1914, 1919, 1926, 1956, 1968 and 1991. Each case offers difficult questions rather than clear lessons: how to produce systemic change in developed democracies; why people appear to vote against their best interests; how to respond to state violence and repression committed in your name; what to do when the basic parameters of class appear to change, or new identities acquire political significance; how to continue when you seem utterly defeated. The difficulty of such questions sometimes means that, rather than answers, we get self-consolatory defensive formations: fundamentalism and heresy-hunting, a redoubling of voluntarist commitment, apocalypticism, or a melancholic attachment to a lost past.
Some of Bevins’s interviewees wish they had read more history or revolutionary theory. It is certainly true that ideas conducive to the overthrow of social domination are unlikely to emerge organically from the dominant culture, even in its ‘woke’ guise. Revolutionary history also offers, pace Lenin, a sense of how few real laws of historical motion there are, how limited agency often is, how contingent, opportunistic and unpredictable change can be. William Morris’s words might resonate with Bevins’s Brazilian protesters: ‘Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.’
It is not an entirely depressing story. More than a decade on, we can recognise that the Occupy Wall Street generation has had a persistent influence on US politics. Few have drifted into reaction or quietism, and they have helped force issues of race and climate to the fore, while remaining conscious of the need to consider mass appeal and electoral strategy. This generation is responsible for the two Bernie Sanders campaigns, for revivifying the Democratic Socialists of America and for a highly visible increase in labour organising. The recent wave of car factory militancy comes from the shopfloor, but it also relies on the combative leadership and strategic cunning of the new United Autoworkers president, Shawn Fain, who frequently gives press conferences wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘Eat the Rich’. He achieved his position by challenging a less militant incumbent; his bid was strongly supported by UAW-unionised, post-Occupy, post-Bernie grad students.
Most of Bevins’s subjects wonder about making the transition to formal politics, though only Gabriel Boric – once a student protester and now president of Chile – has done so. Boric might yet justify that decision, but Chile’s recent referendum on a draft right-wing constitution (it was rejected, as was a progressive version in 2022) and the drop in his approval ratings demonstrate the difficulty of the task. Those who shift from being a member of the crowd to seeking votes are often accused of populism, a word of convenient vagueness which bears the taint that ‘democracy’ did for much of its conceptual history, threatening popular unreason, government by passion and paranoia, majoritarian tyranny and the triumph of the demagogue. In the hands of Cold War liberals, Richard Hofstadter chief among them, all of these disorders were understood as symptoms of populism. Worse still, populism had a latent propensity towards fascism or totalitarianism.
Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger know that, despite an enormous and growing literature, the meaning of populism remains hazy, and that its critics mostly treat it as a manipulative and ‘perverse political style’. The Populist Moment briskly rejects this, insisting that contemporary populism is a response to what’s understood to be oligarchical corruption, economic strictures and democratic deficit: ‘the flower of populism only blossoms when there is a perceived crisis of representation.’ Populism is a creature of disintegration and decline. Its left-wing representatives appeal, not always coherently, to both a historic working class and a more diffuse sense of ‘the people’.
Borriello and Jäger are academics, and theirs is a synoptic study rather than a social history, though they share with Bevins an interest in the reason large structural factors like the economy generate particular political responses. They are right to argue that automatically equating populism and nativism closes off other possible forms of political expression and offers xenophobes a convenient term with which to launder reputations. Most striking is their abrupt dismissal of the overheated debate about whether, or when, the Trump administration can be considered fascist. For them, fascism was a phenomenon of mass party organisation, dependent on widespread social violence carried out by organised paramilitary groups. They regard the differences between Trump’s rhetorical bombast and corruption and interwar conditions in Italy or Germany as ‘glaring’. But presumably no political formation – however reactionary – can meet these historical criteria, at least in the West (Modi’s BJP may be a different story). It’s hard not to wonder if this historicism serves to rob the term of its utility.
Their book isn’t concerned with the right, however, but with left-populist responses to the post-2008 world. The potted narratives offered are miserably familiar: Corbynism obliterated and subject to a thorough damnatio memoriae; Sanders running aground against the Democratic monolith; Syriza brought to heel by the Troika and Tsipras’s drift into inanity; Podemos’s internal bickering and eventual normalisation as a left-wing junior partner in a coalition government. In Spain and Greece – which seemed fertile terrain as a result of the insulation of Eurozone economic policy from democratic control – moribund social democratic parties have revived. (Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the most gaseous and personalised of these formations, can at least claim to have reordered and hegemonised France’s fissiparous radical left.) And yet, because so many of these movements have failed, we forget how volatile and uncertain things once were. As Jean-Claude Juncker, an architect of austerity, put it in a moment of candour: ‘We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.’
Spain’s Podemos remains the most interesting as well as the most self-consciously populist of the decade’s experiments. The party’s intense focus on Pablo Iglesias as leader, its avoidance of leftist symbolism and relentless repetition of its social analysis (‘the people’ against the oligarchic ‘caste’) were tactics drawn from the academic literature on populism (Iglesias was a political scientist). But Podemos also wanted to escape the left’s political dead ends, translating the energy of the Indignados anti-austerity movement into concrete change. ‘I have defeat tattooed in my DNA,’ Iglesias said in a 2014 debate. ‘It bothers me enormously to lose, I can’t stand it. And I’ve spent many years, with some friends, devoting almost all of our political activity to thinking about how we can win.’ A decade later, and after its spell as a junior coalition partner, victory – of a sort – seems to have diminished Podemos: the party has dissolved into a jumbled collection of left-wing groupings, and Iglesias has left politics.
The case studies are dispiriting. It’s true that right-wing populist victories have been narrow, just as left-populist failures have sometimes been tantalisingly close. The balance sheet is strikingly lopsided, although the conclusions to be drawn from this fact aren’t obvious. Left populists might believe it demonstrates a need to go harder, like a left-wing Trump or Farage. But the consistent failure of such a strategy might raise questions about whether the repertoire of the right is, in fact, equally available to the left. Despite the intermittent episodes of revolutionary rhetoric and press histrionics, left populists are essentially moderate when compared with their 20th-century predecessors, broadly at peace with the liberal democratic state and the institutions it superintends.
Borriello and Jäger are most incisive when making the case for populism as ‘the operative term’ of modern politics, which is characterised by the atrophy of parties as mass organisations, the elevation of totemic individuals (‘hyperleaderism’) and new ad hoc organisational forms. Social media is both a symptom and an accelerant of these trends. The suggestion is that, whatever the failures of left populism, we should expect other movements to appear while these conditions obtain. This might not be good news. Hyperleaderism is a problem if the leader is flawed or compromised: replacement is tricky. Hollowed-out parties might be susceptible to surprise campaigns, but they are also easily controlled by internal oligarchies. Volatile electorates swell the ranks of an insurgency but just as rapidly lose interest. Social media drives everyone who uses it mad, as well as making them incapable of compromising or choosing priorities. Nostalgia for the life-encompassing institutions of the postwar parties is increasingly common on the left, so it’s worth recalling that they were often conformist, authoritarian and indulgent of mediocrity. Still, it’s hard not to sympathise with the old communist who, after leaving La France Insoumise, complained that the process entailed no inquiry about his dissatisfaction or probing of political difference. All he had to do was click ‘unsubscribe’.
When Trump was elected in 2016, Florian Philippot – then a member of the Front National, and often called a populist – declared: ‘Leur monde s’effondre. Le nôtre se construit’ (‘Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built’). But populists, whether on the right or the left, have not yet got the world they want. The decade that started with the Arab Spring ended with tawdry insurrectionists high on conspiracy theories storming the US Capitol. As Borriello and Jäger put it, everything is now political, and society increasingly resembles a ‘permanent Dreyfus Affair’. There is a rush to draw analogies with interwar Europe, but perhaps it would be better to understand what we’re going through as a general crisis affecting the traditional supports of democratic politics.
Populism has various paradoxes. Why does it so often produce a politics of personality? Why do the masses so often turn out to be Potemkin armies? If anti-corruption is such an important rallying principle, why do populist movements often elect crooks, and its politicians abandon their principles when in office? The Populist Moment suggests that one potential phase of populism was closed off by the pandemic response and the public-private bureaucracy’s return to legitimacy. Yet the factors that generate populist politics – a stubborn democratic deficit and an oligarchy that behaves with impunity – remain. The lessons that Bevins’s defeated protesters offer at the end of If We Burn bear repeating: plan for the day after; progress isn’t inevitable, and a better world doesn’t automatically emerge from protest; hierarchy isn’t an enemy; if you reject representation, someone else will represent you; cultural visibility and political power are separate things; power rushes to fill a void. Surprisingly, many of these interviewees are convinced that the past decade was just the beginning. That’s something the defeated often tell themselves, but in truth it’s hard to see world politics calming down. Some hanker after the old parties, but attempts to synthesise the best of both worlds – ‘networked Leninism’, in Rodrigo Nunes’s half-joking phrase – might be a better way.
The mass protest decade, or the decade of populism, offered ostensibly propitious conditions for left-wing politics: 2008 had discredited elite wisdom, prompted a huge legitimacy crisis and led to the obviously unjust suffering inflicted by austerity. But even propitious times yielded a bitter crop. Podemos’s slide began with its discomfort over the question of Catalan independence, and questions of sovereignty aren’t going away. Structural problems such as the climate emergency require state-level solutions, but also initiate spirals of volatility, and lend the politics of emergency a new allure. In Britain, adults under forty have seen no growth in real wages during their working lives. War has returned to Europe, and Western states are shredding their little remaining global credibility over Palestine. Joe Biden put it well in an apparently off-the-cuff remark at the end of a press conference with Boric – the ex-protester – in November last year: ‘There comes a time … where the world changes in a very short time … I think what happens in the next two, three years is going to determine what the world looks like for the next five or six decades.’ It’s a daunting thought.
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