Between 2010 and 2020, a wave of protests erupted around the world. In some cases, these movements strengthened socialist forces. In others, they opened the door to the Right. Vincent Bevins spoke to Jacobin to explain the causes of this divergence.
Demonstrators on an army truck in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 29, 2011. (Ramy Raoof / Wikimedia Commons)
The last decade was marked by a series of explosive protest movements from the Middle East to Latin America, Asia, and Europe. After two decades in which liberals insisted that we were living through the “end of history,” these events showed that the demands of the popular classes could not be silenced. However, the legacy of these uprisings has been deeply ambiguous.
In some nations, they projected leftist governments to power or built strong institutions. In others, this wave of protests not only crested but opened up space for the far right. What explains this difference, and what lessons does a decade of success and failure offer to the Left in the Anglophone world and beyond?
For the Jacobin podcast the Dig, Vincent Bevins spoke with Daniel Denvir about these issues, which he discusses at length in his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.
The Trials of Movement Structure
You write that the past decade saw larger numbers of people participating in more mass protests than any time in human history, all over the world. But you focus on ten particular countries outside of Western Europe and the United States.
Often those mass protest movements failed to win desired changes. In fact, they often led to reactionary forces taking power; they led to outcomes precisely the opposite of what initial protest organizers wanted.
Can you lay out the scope of this gigantic wave of global protests that you write about, and what became of it? Can we tell the history of the last decade, in significant part, as a decade of mass protests often giving way to a resurgent right wing?
Yes, I think so. That is basically the idea driving the entire project. This is an attempt to tell the story of that decade globally in one book, which requires taking a very wide lens and requires excluding and selecting, but all works of history require the choice of a particular focus. I think it makes as much sense as anything else to choose, as the focus for the story of this decade, unexpectedly large protests of a particular type and the unexpected consequences of those street explosions.
I selected mass protest events that get so large that they either disrupt fundamentally or dislodge an existing government. What I find is that when this happens, it’s not only the case that this doesn’t work out exactly as planned, or that some of the gains were only part of the total desires at the moment — because that’s quite normal. You can’t expect to get everything all at once; even in the most successful uprisings or revolutions in history, you expect things to take longer than the initial dreams of the moment might envision.
But this story is constructed around the question: How is it that so many of these mass protests led to the opposite of what they asked for — that not only did they move slowly, or were dislodged, or were stillborn, but that you got the opposite of what the people on the street seemed to be asking for in the first place? It is a story of the decade constructed around that question, with the long-term, ultimate goal of learning from what happened and looking forward to a future in which we may actually change the world in the ways that are desired, or at least understand what has happened to us since 2010.
You identify a common protest script that movements all over the world took up, whether consciously or unconsciously. First, street protests prompt police repression, which then leads to favorable news coverage or attention on social media, which kick-starts a virtuous cycle of more people coming into the streets, more repression, and then a crescendo of international press attention. Then, ideally, this strategy results in an autocratic or undesirable government being forced to resign as historic numbers of people fill the streets. How widespread did this protest repertoire become?
Right. Again, I select the cases that get so big that they indeed disrupt existing governments, and this tends to be the dynamic that you see.
Often, this is not planned. In the cases of both Tunisia and Egypt, which really kick off what I call “the mass protest decade,” the original people that got onto the streets and started agitating for changes did not envision things getting so big, and they did not envision the removal of the leaders of those North African autocracies.
To answer the question of how widespread this repertoire becomes, I think it becomes globally relevant. In the 2010s, a particular response to injustice and perceived injustice becomes hegemonic — indeed, sometimes becoming natural-seeming as the only real way, the automatic or truly legitimate way, to respond to injustice. This is a repertoire of tactics that comes together historically. This is the apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized mass protests, which are often called “leaderless,” especially in the early stages — though if you look closely, leaders somehow always assert themselves.
This is something that, after the explosion in Egypt especially, is copied and reproduced around the world. The dynamic often relies upon some kind of repression from state forces, which cause things to get bigger than initially expected. This creates opportunities, which are often not envisioned by the people at the beginning of the protest cycle.
The unexpected opportunity that this particular type of uprising creates is one that is often very difficult for this style of protest to take advantage of. And this is something we see reproduced throughout the decade, often with tragic consequences.
You write that this common organizational form, which reached its peak during the 2010s, was “an inversion of Leninism.” What is Leninism, as you define it? Vladimir Lenin described himself as in a “desperate struggle against spontaneity.” What did Lenin mean by spontaneity, and why did he believe it to be a principal internal threat to revolutionary socialist politics?
It’s important to separate a couple of things. Lenin was a thinker who cast his gaze on all kinds of different issues, so Leninism has both ideological and organizational content.
The unexpected opportunity that this particular type of uprising creates is one that is often very difficult for this style of protest to take advantage of. And this is something we see reproduced throughout the decade, often with tragic consequences.
The political project of Lenin was to seize the state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would oversee a transition to a socialist state and ultimately the establishment of communism. In this conception, the dictatorship doesn’t mean a worse thing than what we have; in his conception, the proletarian dictatorship will be more democratic than the existing bourgeois dictatorship.
But all of that is not as relevant to the organizational philosophy of Leninism. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, Leninism as an organizational approach was adopted by a wide range of different movements that did not share this particular political project.
What Is to Be Done? is a fundamental explication of both of these, I think, but I also want to separate that from what the New Left believes to be Leninism. Because what we’re often dealing with, in the formation of certain approaches in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, is a group of people — especially in the North Atlantic, especially students — in some of the richest societies in the world, in the post-McCarthyist milieu, who are trying to avoid what they understand to be the mistakes of the Bolshevik Revolution. They’re trying to avoid what they understand to be the ways in which the Soviet Union reproduced the party form as the government itself and failed to actually transition to what was supposed to be transitioned to.
These elements they’re looking at are Leninism’s calls for a tightly disciplined, hierarchically organized, professional revolutionary movement, which has a bloody-minded focus on the ends rather than the means. It’s going to do what it takes to take state power. It practices something called democratic centralism, which is not so complicated, and not so Leninist. It’s not the first time in history this has been employed, but it’s certainly associated with him by these movements. It is that, ideally, democratically everyone in the organization comes up with a line, but once the party line is decided, everyone works together to implement it, even if they hadn’t voted for that particular thing.
This is something that is rejected very forcefully by horizontalist movements in the beginning of the twenty-first century. They insist on full consensus. The New Left is responding to [the Leninist organizational] form in the 1960s, by trying to create a movement that is not focused single-mindedly on ends but also wants to pay close attention to the means of political actors. They want to be more democratic now; they want to be as democratic now as they hope that a future society will be.
This is often called prefiguration. This is not something they invent, but something that becomes central to New Left practice. They are suspicious of hierarchy and structure; they do not fully reject it in the ways that many movements in the alter-globalization movement do, but they are suspicious of it.
To answer your question on spontaneity: Lenin himself said that an entirely spontaneous movement will end up reproducing the dominant ideology in a given society, because the dominant class has the means at its disposal to propagate and reproduce the dominant ideology. So a revolutionary movement must know in advance what its revolutionary theory is; it must be united around a particular vision of society, a particular theory of revolutionary change, or it will simply reproduce the society that it is acting against.
I think one of the big tragedies of your book is that it’s often the reactionary right who are better Leninists than the left forces committed to horizontalism. It reminds me of a tweet that my friend Ted Fertik made last year after the Dobbs decision, where he wrote, “Leonard Leo is the Lenin of the American right, and the Federalist Society is the most successful Leninist project in the history of the United States.”
This is why I make the separation between the full political content of Lenin’s project and the organizational approach that Lenin comes up with. In the book, you have certain commentators referring to right-wing forces that appear in the mass protest decade — like football hooligans or indeed neo-Nazi formations in Ukraine — acting in a “neo-Leninist” manner, when their entire project is about the rejection of his political legacy. Now we’re at the most bare-bones description of what Leninism means.
There is a book that you perhaps remember from coming up in the same ideological milieu that I did: Change the World Without Taking Power by John Holloway. This was a book that influenced some of the horizontalists in Brazil. You’re not going to find a lot of right-wing movements in the last twenty years that believed in changing the world without taking power — they were always like, “Let’s get power.”
You’re not going to find a lot of right-wing movements in the last twenty years that believed in changing the world without taking power — they were always like, ‘Let’s get power.’
Rodrigo Nunes makes some brilliant reflections after years of paying close attention to and being around this Brazilian movement since the very beginning. Taking power can lead to horrible repression; organization and discipline and effective collective action can lead to trauma. But the Left, he argues, suffered from the trauma of the twentieth century so deeply that it rejected all of the things that actually work, just because they could be used to ultimately create something horrible.
He comes to the conclusion that just because something works does not mean it must be rejected. If you reject the tools that allow you to take power and try to change society in a purposeful way, you’re abdicating responsibility to those who will.
I’d also point to a number of New Left–era formations that were rather Leninist, like the Black Panther Party or the various party-type formations that made up the New Communist Movement. Indeed, it was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the prototypical horizontalist New Left organization, that gave way to groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party. Maybe that was, in significant part, a reaction to the anti-Leninism around them.
Can we maybe see throughout history a push and pull on the Left between Leninism and anti-Leninism? What we’re still looking for, I guess, is the correct synthesis.
That’s not exactly wrong. The Black Panther Party was a Marxist-Leninist party. I think there’s a clip on YouTube of Fred Hampton denouncing the excessively adventurous or excessively structureless elements of the New Left at the end of the 1960s.
There’s this internal debate: Is it more important to have a long-term, well-structured, and strategic organization? Or is it more important to have fully democratic and horizontal practices right now? Your structure can, of course, end up being an authoritarian, or even cultlike, tiny groupuscule.
Democratic centralism without the democracy.
Yeah. There’s a famous essay that comes up in the ’70s called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman. It insists that when you pretend that you do not have leaders, that you do not have structure, some kind of a structure ultimately arises. And it is often a structure that you do not choose; you often get leaders who are not accountable to the members of the organization, because they have not been selected in a transparent and systematic way. So what you want is a structure.
There are people who may insist that a horizontal movement is the only the way forward. But what many people I interviewed over the four years in which I worked on this book end up coming around to is that you do want an organization that can act in the long term, that is properly democratic — that chooses who does what, that is fully democratic, and yet can be structured and flexible.
It’s definitely the horizonalist model from the ’60s generation that’s carried on through the anti-globalization or alter-globalization movement of the late ’90s and early aughts, which is the moment when I first got involved in the Left. That movement, as you write, was even more anarchist-inflected than its predecessors. It used the weapon of mass protest in particular to target international economic organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the G8.
But the WTO protests in Seattle were really the one time the method truly worked. They were mass protests, unlike anything we’d seen in a generation, essentially shutting down the WTO Ministerial Conference. Soon thereafter, though, it became clear that the strategy might be futile, because the magic of Seattle couldn’t be replicated. The police were ready for it, and they would not be taken by surprise again.
So this critique emerged within the movement that it was becoming just about the tactic, about “summit hopping.” But for many others in the movement, the failure of the strategy didn’t really matter. You quote the late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, in a piece for the New Left Review, saying:
This is a movement about reinventing democracy. 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.
Why and how, for that movement in that moment, did means become more important than ends? Specifically, what about that moment in history accounts for this intense anarchist renaissance that you and I came of age swimming in?
I absolutely came of age swimming in it — I think that watching the Seattle protests on the just-founded Indymedia was the way that I discovered the internet. This was very much something that I watched closely. The deep assumptions, which are ultimately sort-of anarchist or libertarian, were so widespread at the time, especially in the United States, that I didn’t even realize that I held them: the rejection of all kinds of structures that employed any discipline whatsoever as somehow authoritarian.
WTO protesters in Seattle, Washington, November 29, 1999. (Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons)
The thing at the time was these autonomous affinity groups that would come together through spokescouncils, with representatives of these autonomous affinity groups working off of various models of consensus.
Yeah, consensus, and the idea that the swarm of people, if it got big enough, would necessarily lead to progress of whatever sort that you envision. In Brazil, this particular group that was really born out of Indymedia Brazil had this deep assumption that, if you just cause a big-enough revolt, if you get all the people on the streets, that’s going to work out for us, and we don’t have to think about exactly how it will.
To answer the question of how this school of thought becomes so influential: David Graeber says in that essay himself, the Cold War is over. So war is over, which is a jump that he makes conceptually. He admits, everybody knows that anarchist tactics and formations don’t do really well in war, because war is a time of states. Militaries are hierarchically organized; militaries require some kind of internal command structure. This is more than he says explicitly, but I think this is the argument that motivates what he’s saying here: we’re not in war now. So this is a time anarchist-style organizational forms can return.
In the age of the “end of history,” belief in Old Left structures was never at a lower point. There was this widespread rejection, especially in the United States — after the end of the Cold War, after the decades-long consequences of McCarthyism — of whatever it was that clearly didn’t work out over there. And there was a huge amount of optimism around this new tool that was being built, and everybody was getting onto for the first time, which was the internet.
You have the seeming forward march of progress, especially in the liberal conception. Because if you are in the United States, things are working out for your little corner of the planet in the twentieth century. You have the resurgence of the possibility for anarchist organizational forms, according to Graeber, because we’re no longer in war. And then you have this techno-optimism, which is itself deeply informed by anarchist and libertarian assumptions. If you look back at the people who were putting the internet together, they were often anarchists or libertarians.
If you look back at the optimism around the internet, and especially when these mass protests start to explode in the 2010s, everybody thinks it’s going to go their way. This includes people who have very contradictory ideas of what their way is supposed to be. Everybody kind of thinks, if you get a big-enough thing together, if you dislodge whatever it is, then the thing that replaces it will be — in the teleological conception of history — a step toward progress, a step toward where we’re going to get.
Newspapers like the New York Times and the mainstream media — which ends up shaping a lot of the mass protest decade by the way that they cover it — believe that we’re heading toward a world in which everybody is kind of the United States’ B leagues. There’s the real United States, and there’s a bunch of satellite United Stateses; everyone has the American model. Some people got there quicker, some people took more time. This is an assumption deeply embedded in modernization theory.
This [comes about] through the way that we understood the fall of the Berlin Wall — not what actually happened to the people that lived in the former Soviet Union, because that becomes a big problem ten to fifteen years later when we realize what actually happened to all of the peoples in Eastern Europe.
A world-historic drop in life expectancy in Russia, for example.
The absolute devastation and decimation of political and economic structures that almost everyone in places like Ukraine lived through, while we in the Western media tended to give ourselves a huge pat on the back for liberating East Germany and ushering all of the Communist world into this shining liberal future. Branko Milanovic points out only 10 percent or less of the peoples of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact countries actually got the prosperity and democracy that we promised to them.
But this was a moment of real triumphalism in the West. All you have to do is [get] people in the streets, you knock over the bad guy, and then you just basically join West Germany — forgetting of course, that West Germany was one of the richest and most powerful countries in human history. It expended quite a lot of resources to integrate East Germany.
The Berlin Wall story doesn’t really hold for Kazakhstan; it doesn’t really hold for Russia, which lives through decimating poverty and social collapse. But the most dominant voices, which coincidentally were in the country that was profiting off the construction of a new internet, believed that everything was going to go our way.
Lessons From Brazil, 2013
Your most fully developed case study is a 2013 mass protest against transit-fare hikes in São Paulo, which became the largest protest in Brazilian history. Organizers in the small, anarchist-oriented Movimento Passe Livre, or MPL — the Free Fare Movement ——lost control of the protests.
It’s a wild story. Radical neoliberals took advantage of the protests’ meaning being up for grabs, and founded an organization with the intentionally similar name “MBL,” or Movement for a Free Brazil. Ultimately, those protests started by the radical left, the anarchist ultraleft, delegitimized the Workers’ Party (PT) government of Dilma Rousseff, paving the way for Lula da Silva’s imprisonment and then Jair Bolsonaro’s victory.
How did this happen? These protesters saw themselves as opposed to Lula from the left, but they never imagined that something like Bolsonaro could happen. How did this movement started by the far left set a series of events into motion that ended in one of history’s most cartoonishly far-right presidencies?
You’re right that they never imagined something like Bolsonaro happening to their country; they never even imagined that the center right would win. When it became clear in 2014 that the traditional, more neoliberal party in Brazilian politics could win the election, this was shocking to them. It led them to line up to vote for Dilma Rousseff.
They lost control of the streets for reasons that we just sketched out, in the deep assumptions that were held by a lot of people in the alter-globalization movement. They planned to lose control over the streets — they hoped to lose control of the streets. They hoped to inspire an uprising, a popular revolt that was out of their control.
Fare-hike protest organizers in Brazil planned to lose control over the streets — they hoped to lose control of the streets. They hoped to inspire an uprising, a popular revolt that was out of their control.
Because it was a group founded in 2005, a lot of the people in the Movimento Passe Livre had links to Indymedia Brazil. They grew out of the anarcho-punk world, which had a lot of overlap with the alter-globalization movement.
Years later, they said, from 2005 to 2013, all we wanted was to cause a massive popular revolt. We succeeded, and it was awful. We thought that getting everybody in the streets after we provided the initial spark would somehow go our way, would somehow provide more bottom-up pressure on the PT — which they opposed but did not want to see replaced by the Right.
It did not go that way at all. To tell this story, I put myself into it, because I am at the fourth protest that they hold in June 2013, the one that is cracked down upon in such a way that a huge explosion follows. This is reflected across the decade; this is not unique to Brazil, but this particular transformation is especially weird, and it has a lot to do with the Brazilian media.
On the morning of June 13, 2013, the Brazilian media, which like a lot of media in the world leans to the right and is essentially owned by oligarchs, is demanding that the military police crack down on this movement. The center-right media are saying, alright, enough of this. These kids who have been protesting for much of the month to demand a reversal of the rise in bus fare fees — this is getting out of hand, they’re shutting down traffic, get out there, clean this up.
If the owners of and writers for Brazil’s media had been from the populations that usually suffer the repression of the military police, they should have known how this was going to go. Because Brazil’s military police do what they do and they repressed in the way that they repress. This repression hit people like me; it hit me specifically, but I wasn’t one of the ones that famously went viral and caused the media to flip and entirely change their position.
The crackdown hit members of the Brazilian media. It hit “respectable,” “innocent” members of Brazil’s white middle class. Images of this repression went viral — images of the injuries sustained by Brazilian journalists, including for the most establishment outlets, went viral. So, from that Thursday to the following Monday, Brazil’s media goes from saying, “We need to crack down on these punks and anarchists” to “This is a patriotic uprising. This is a patriotic outpouring of support for the idea of protest itself.”
I spent a couple years speaking with both the original organizers of the protest, the MPL, and Fernando Haddad, who was the mayor at the time. I don’t think that this was through some conspiracy in Brazil’s mainstream media to resignify what’s going on in the streets. But because the media decides to support it, it has to supply reasoning, which lines up with their deep ideological assumptions.
The original protesters, the MPL, were demanding free public transportation for everyone all the time. They want the full decommodification of transportation in Brazil. This is not the kind of thing that Brazil’s media is going to supply as the real reason for the protest.
As an aside, a critical feature of the rise of this new form of protest in the mid-twentieth century is its relationship to televisual media.
This is something I spent a little bit of time on, watching movements like SDS in the twentieth century realize how much power media could have to spread their message, the multiplication effect that mass media coverage could have on a protest movement. It sounds silly and obvious, because we all grew up in such a mediatized world, but before media — before photography and newspapers — it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to protest in the first place.
So over these four days, the media supply their own reasons for why this is a good thing, instead of something we need to crack down on. Then the next big protest is huge, much bigger than anyone had expected. People I know who have been covering this since the beginning are sort of overcome with this euphoric feeling of, “We did it, it’s happening, the people are with us.” We marched across São Paulo for hours, and the movement filled all the main thoroughfares and highways, and we’re just marching and marching and marching.
But what you start to see on the streets is new people, the people that hear about the protest over these days, who certainly were not there at the beginning, probably have never been to a protest of this kind in their lives. They have a very different set of ideas about what’s going on. I recount one scene in which some of the original punks and anarchists have encounters with people who show up, more middle class, whiter — big, bulky guys — and they’re wearing Brazilian soccer jerseys.
Which ends up becoming the uniform of the Bolsonarista, right.
Now you would identify these people as proto-Bolsonaristas. This is the uniform that becomes a very obvious marker of someone who is a supporter of the extreme right president.
But in this first moment, the punks are trying to call in rather than call out this strange nationalist turn in the movement. The punks are saying, “Hey, guys, that’s kind of dangerous, because a protest that is in support of vague nationalism can easily be transformed into fascism.” They’re trying to give a lesson to these new protesters, like, “No, don’t wave the Brazilian flag, hold up a sign in support of the original demands. Because if this becomes about everything, that’s very dangerous.” And these new bulky guys are like, “Fuck you. I’m not here to take a lesson from some left-wing punks. Get the fuck out of here.”
Protesters in Brazil, June 16, 2013. (Tânia Rêgo / Agencia Brazil via Wikimedia Commons)
Ultimately, what you see by the end of that week, by June 20 and 21, is the violent expulsion of some of the many left-wing parties that formed the core of the first few protests by this new sort of proto-Bolsonarista right. The MPL doesn’t know what to do — as I said, it always thought that a huge popular explosion would go its way.
The Turkish sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has a great line, in which she looks back on the mass protest decade, and she’s riffing on this slogan from the ’60s: “What if they had a war and nobody showed up?” She asked: “What if we had a protest and everybody showed up?” What if literally everybody in the country was invited to come out for their own reasons and bring their own sets of grievances and bring their own interpretation as to what it is?
At that point, you end up just reproducing the existing society, which is something that Lenin warned would happen if there was a fully “spontaneous” protest. So, because this is central São Paulo, because this is a part of the country that is not the natural working-class base of a militant left-wing movement in Brazil, you start to get petty-bourgeois, reactionary understandings of what this protest is all about.
The MPL not only did not see this coming. Its particular organizational form made it very difficult for it to deal with this, because it never believed in leading something. It did not want to impose its vision on the explosion.
You write that these forms of mass protests are fundamentally illegible. Dilma Rousseff found herself watching TV news with the volume off, studying images of protesters and the signs they were carrying to try to figure out what it was that the people wanted.
This is a very strange situation, because the MPL and Rousseff and Haddad don’t know how to respond to what’s happening. At the very beginning, the MPL had decided in advance that, if the PT comes to us and tries to negotiate, that’s not what we’re going to bet on. We’re going to bet on a mass revolt.
The mass revolt comes. And you get Dilma Rousseff, who is somebody who came out of resistance to the dictatorship, someone who spent her life struggling against repressive states, somebody who was tortured by the US-backed military regime — somebody who, about as much as anybody else in South America, would like to expand the welfare state and expand cheap public transportation for the masses — her instinct is to give the people what they want.
She’s trying to figure out: “How I can find out what these people are asking for and give it to them? Because I’m a pro-protest president; I’m not going to be somebody who’s against popular uprisings”. So she sits in the presidential palace watching TV, and she turns off the volume because she doesn’t want to be influenced by how global news is interpreting what’s happening on the streets. Yet she’s still limited to what they choose to record and retransmit.
The Brazilian philosopher Rodrigo Nunes, whose conclusions are quite influential on the conclusion of my book, says anybody who starts a sentence about June 2013 in Brazil and says, “June 2013 was . . .” is already wrong. There is a contradictory set of narratives that comes out of what happens in June 2013, and they’re all kind of right.
I spent the summer interviewing the most prominent representatives of the Bolsonarista movement in Brasília, and they will tell you that their movement was born in the streets in June 2013. That’s when they realized that they could get out and protest and take their country back. Members of the MPL, or other members of the antiauthoritarian or left opposition to the PT, will say that June 2013 was really about an increased welfare state, about improving public services for regular people. It was about showing that the people wanted more. The PT will say — not all of the PT, but some people in the PT — will say that June 2013 was the beginning of a moment that ultimately resulted in a coup.
These three interpretations are all right. They’re all equally sustainable with facts. You can equally claim that it was the beginning of the Bolsonarista moment, just as you can claim that it was about better public services.
This is a conclusion that many of the interviewees come to at the end of the mass protest decade: that this type of explosion, this particular type of response to injustice — the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, horizontally organized, digitally coordinated mass protest — is so fundamentally illegible that it relies upon some outside force to impose meaning upon it. It can never fully speak for itself, so someone else ends up speaking for it.
You paraphrase Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented.” You can choose to oppose representation, but nonetheless, ultimately, a movement will be represented. And if you give up the power to represent yourselves, it’s likely it will be your enemies doing the representation.
The MPL does not know what to do, because of its deep commitment to horizontalism, as it is swarmed with scores of Brazilian citizens who want to join. By the way, this happened to SDS after some “success” it had in the ’60s. The MPL doesn’t know exactly how to integrate all these people.
This particular type of response to injustice — the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, horizontally organized, digitally coordinated mass protest — is so fundamentally illegible that it relies upon some outside force to impose meaning upon it.
To create a two-tier system, with the original members going to all the meetings, but then a different mass base that doesn’t need to be there for all of the intense, fourteen-hour meetings that go on every day — that would be a Leninist deviation. That would be the reproduction of hierarchy, the avoiding of which was the entire point of forming a horizontal movement in the first place.
However, if you just let in thousands of people but everyone has an equal vote, then what is the MPL? How do you maintain the original values if everyone that saw something cool on TV and wants to join the MPL now has equal say over what it is?
So the MPL is neither ideologically disposed nor organizationally prepared to rise to the occasion and say, “What’s happening now in the streets is really this,” as the Black Panther Party probably would have insisted on doing. They fight among themselves, and they come to the conclusion that they’re not going to do any more protests for a while.
This is a huge debate in Brazilian society from June 2013 until now. Everyone has their own interpretation as to what should have been done with this huge mass of energy that had been unleashed, and there are endless fights over who could have taken advantage of it.
But ultimately, what happens is that there is a group, which is funded by the Atlas Network — what other scholars have called “the neoliberal Comintern,” based in Washington, DC — this huge network of right-leaning, free-market libertarian think tanks. One member of this group had trained with the Koch brothers in the United States, and in the heat of June 2013, these kids formed something called “the MBL.” “The MBL” is chosen intentionally to appear so similar to “MPL” that it can contest the meaning of what’s happening in the streets. The Movimento Brasil Livre is formed in this moment.
A year later, as the Dilma Rousseff government falters in her second term, the MBL returned to the streets, insisting that it is the kind of thing that the MPL really was: a grassroots, spontaneous, youth-led, digitally coordinated protest movement. But it has a very different set of goals, and it has no reservations about doing the things that are required to win. And it ultimately becomes very close to the forces in Congress that impeach Dilma Rousseff and carry out what a lot of the Left would now consider a parliamentary coup.
You write, “It appeared to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, that the people on the streets in June 2013 were simply asking for more. But just a few years later, the country would be ruled by the most radically right-wing leader in the world, a man who openly called for a turn to dictatorship and mass violence.”
Does the fact that the right wing ultimately seized control over the protests’ meaning necessarily mean that Lula and Dilma were wrong in this assessment? Or is it possible that raised expectations were “objectively” why people were in the streets — but those objective conditions are one thing, while how people subjectively understood their experience, why people understood themselves and others to be in the streets, turned out to be another thing? Are you navigating a distinction between the objective conditions that bring people into the streets and how those movements are ultimately subjectively articulated and understood?
That’s an important distinction. I think that the answer to your first question is no, there’s no reason to believe that Lula and Dilma were wrong. That interpretation was entirely reasonable; it can be sustained with any type of analysis that is possible.
To explain the background, Lula ends his second term with incredibly high approval ratings, and Dilma has very high approval ratings at the beginning of 2013. By any accounts, it is an incredibly successful left-of-center government.
But if you look carefully at the type of success that it has achieved, the inclusion of the previously excluded masses of Brazilian citizens happened often through increased consumption power, rather than increased public services. If you look at the rise of incomes, the expansion of credit, the classic Lula success story is a family that can either buy their first nice refrigerator and washing machine or take their first plane rather than a bus across the country to visit their family.
This is the way that many people on the Left, including the PT, see it. “We have improved things inside the home. Now it’s time to improve them outside the home. This is the logical next step.”
Indeed, if you look at the history of revolutionary uprisings, it does not tend to be in the moments of the most intense immiseration that you see people rushing into the streets. Often in moments of intense immiseration, people have other concerns. People are trying to survive rather than coming to the streets and asking for more.
So you can claim, objectively, what the people are doing is asking for more. And then you can do a scientific analysis; you can do a careful study of what types of governments provide more of this type of thing to the citizens and come to the conclusion, this means a deepening of the social democratic project. This is absolutely the left reading.
The MBL is acting very cynically in many ways; it is trying to trick people. But it also believes the best way to help to lower the cost of transportation is free markets and more competition. It also believes that the best way to respond to a desire for more is by destroying the Brazilian state.
The objective interpretation, again, is imposed upon the explosion by people like you and me, or political elites or social scientists. Whereas what people believe themselves to be in the streets for is the thing that is going to lead to the outcome of the next election, or lead to support or opposition to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 or the imprisonment of Lula in 2018.
The Black Panther Party had this particular reading of riots: “proto-political” was the word that Huey Newton used, saying that they’re doing this for the right reasons, but we need to develop a better strategy for achieving what we want to achieve. In the case of this Brazilian explosion, the bid to define the best way to get what the people clearly want, [to satisfy] the desire that clearly exists for something, is lost by the Left and won by the Right. It is ultimately supporters of the Lava Jato anti-corruption crusade and supporters of an insurgent right, which becomes far more right-wing than is initially expected, who win this battle for the imposition of meaning.
Organizing in the Age of Capitalist Triumphalism
You write about the “Arab Spring”: “There was an elective affinity between media coverage and revolutionary elements with a liberal, pro-Western orientation, and indeed the very term ‘Arab Spring’ was coined by an American political scientist writing in Foreign Policy.” The storyline ended up being that “the contradictions of the Arab exception were finally working themselves out, and history was finally pushing these countries into the liberal democratic quarter.”
So you wouldn’t know from watching the news that economic concerns were a primary motive bringing people into the streets. How did these protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Algeria, and elsewhere come to have this liberal- and Western-oriented meaning? What role did the media play in making these movements such liberal ones?
This is a fundamental disconnect that you see reproduced over and over. I look at twelve countries in this book, and then I ultimately decided ten fulfilled the conditions for inclusion, and they’re all outside of the traditional First World. Doing careful empirical work of what brings people to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, you find that concerns were economic; you find that this can be read “objectively” as a reaction to the neoliberal policy package imposed upon the countries since the 1990s. You find that people want better material conditions.
What these protests really are is protesters saying, we want to live like you — we want to have the wealth and comfort that the people in the Global North have. But there’s a strange confusion, because some of the top commentators in the major English-speaking media in the traditional First World don’t really understand how different material conditions are, in the very difficult road to get from Global South to Global North conditions. So, rather than “We want as much money as you,” they read it as, “We want a system like yours.” Because the media actually believe that if they adopt a system like ours, that just automatically happens.
Doing careful empirical work of what brings people to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, you find that concerns were economic; you find that this can be read ‘objectively’ as a reaction to the neoliberal policy package imposed upon the countries since the 1990s.
This is what was believed to be the case when neoliberalism was imposed upon North Africa. The thinking was, that would necessarily lead to democracy. This was the dominant thinking around China too, in the ’90s: if it’s doing capitalism, that means that it’s going to end up with liberal democracy, just like America. If you’re doing free-market liberalism, that means you’re doing liberal democracy — this slippage happens all the time.
If you want to compare Tunisia and Egypt, in Tunisia, you have more groups that are able to act as organized forces and claim with a coherent voice what they want. But when you come to the explosion of Tahrir Square, again, every type of Egyptian is invited into the center of the capital to push for the removal of this autocratic government.
This creates scenes of great beauty. The degree to which this is inspiring and beautiful has a lot to do with what happens in the rest of the mass protest decade. This is undeniably a powerful and moving scene of every type of Egyptian working together, for their own reasons, to call for a better future.
The version of the future that they envision starts with the end of Hosni Mubarak’s government. Yet when you want to define what precisely this square wants — when you want to define exactly what it is that they’re asking for — an outlet like CNN, for example, is not going to invite onto the air a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the most organized group in the square. It’s not going to invite on young, marginalized youth who are risking their lives but are very important for fighting the police. Because for various reasons, both careerist and ideological, they want to create the media content that is going to do well, but they also believe deep down in these liberal teleological assumptions.
They’re going to invite people onto TV who share the broad ideals of the CNN audience. The claim that is made is that this is our version of the fall of the Berlin Wall; this is a moment for democracy. This is another slippage that happens: democracy is often employed as synonymous with the desire to become like the First World materially, even though the way that you get there is less important for the people in the square than “We want to live better.”
Ultimately, this narrative takes off outside of Egypt. I spent years interviewing people who were there at the very beginning, who lived through this transformation. A lot of the people who had been fighting and struggling and risking their lives for years to try to put together the beginnings of the Egyptian revolutionary movement watched in horror as certain leaders were elevated by a particular tweet that went viral or were selected by some big US outlet as the spokesperson for a movement — which was supposed to be spokesperson-less, which was supposed to be leaderless. This is the inevitable outcome, I think, of this particular type of explosion.
You cite Asef Bayat writing about the Arab Spring:
The Arab revolutions lacked the kind of radicalism and political and economic outlook that marked most other twentieth-century revolutions. Unlike the revolutions of the 1970s that espoused a powerful socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and social justice impulse, Arab revolutionaries were preoccupied more with the broad issues of human rights and police accountability, and legal reform. The prevailing voices, secular and Islamist alike, took free-market property relations and neoliberal rationality for granted.
There’s the imposition of a new ideological orientation here, the establishment of a new hegemony that we’ve been discussing. But is the flip side of this the systematic destruction of the organized left across the Arab world and across so much of the world? The destruction of the Left by right-wing, US-backed dictatorships, and also just authoritarian neoliberalism more generally, is that important context here? Is a key factor that dooms so many of these revolutions that they were not riding high on accumulated popular organization and confidence, but instead emerged in a popular organizational vacuum — that they emerged from this context of historic mass and proletarian disorganization?
I think that’s absolutely right. In the case of the uprisings in North Africa, this is especially true.
Protesters march on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, January 14, 2011. (VOA Photo / L. Bryant via Wikimedia Commons)
In Brazil, whereas the MPL was horizontalist — it believed morally and philosophically in horizontality — a lot of the uprisings in North Africa were concretely horizontal. Not because they believed that this was the best way to be, but because decades of the destruction of civil society, decades of the destruction of the possibility for organizational preparation, meant that when the moment came, the organizations were too small and disconnected to assert their will.
Many of the organizers who put together what ultimately exploded into January 25 and January 28 believed deeply in organization. They were trying to build organizations. They were trying to build working-class power, they were relying on labor action, they believed in the kinds of things that a lot of the people in the Old Left believed in. But the uprising came too quickly.
And like in any moment in human history, there’s elective affinity between certain ideological contents and material reality. This comes up not only in the 1990s, after the absolute decimation of the Left in the United States, so that it makes sense that certain more anarcho-libertarian strains of thought rise to the top. When, for historical, material reasons, Tahrir Square does not have a structured party at the center that can say, “We are leading this revolutionary uprising in this direction,” that horizontality is interpreted by global commentators and some people in the square as a virtue rather than a problem.
Is If We Burn a sequel of sorts to The Jakarta Method? Like, the world that the Jakarta method made is what made these protests the way they are.
That’s half correct. If you locate, as I do, a particular set of ideological and organizational assumptions as having their origin in a moment of peak anti-communism in the world’s most powerful country, the United States, and if you see the diffusion of these assumptions, as many people in the Global South ultimately do, as a result of US-led globalization, then I think it is an indirect sequel. Not only because it takes place temporally just after The Jakarta Method — that book ends with the end of the Cold War, and this book begins with the post–Cold War global order. But perhaps also because, in my conception of world history, violent anti-communism shaped so many things that it could not not shape organizational and philosophical approaches to revolution.
Yeah, and more concretely, by dismantling the organizations that were left-nationalist, communist, whatever — the sorts of organizations that were the dominant form, as Bayat points out, in the Arab world throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, but also the Third World as a whole.
Absolutely. If you look at the places where there is more success, where things work out a little better in the long term than they do in other places — or indeed at first in Tunisia, which is the initial success that inspires so many others — you do still have some remnants of civil society organizations, you do have a militant left-wing party that plays some role in the beginning of the of the uprising, you do have a large, relatively autonomous, and relatively radical union structure that plays a big role in the initial success of the movement.
Now, ten years later, things fall apart. I think that’s for different reasons. But if you look at the few cases where there are indeed successes in this book — in South Korea, unions play a very important role. In Brazil, the PT ultimately comes back and succeeds at wresting control of the country from this extreme right movement.
It is an old organization, which was born in pre-neoliberal Brazil, that held on just barely throughout the decades. The Workers’ Party, which for decades was dedicated to creating a mass base and deep roots in society, ultimately is able to vanquish the extreme right in Brazil.
Protest and New Media
One key thing that distinguished the 2010s was the emergence of social media. In addition to TV and newspapers, we suddenly had YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. You write:
For Western media, the US government, and a wide range of civil society groups around the world, there was a near-universal agreement that technology in general, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter specifically, were going to make the world a better place, more free and democratic. It was a dominant ideology that seemed to become confirmed by events like the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. It was propagated from and reflected in the very highest echelons of the US national security state. The Bush administration State Department started training movements around the world in so-called digital tools. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s head of digital strategy once said, “The Che Guevara of the twenty-first century is the network.”
It’s remarkable because that optimism has since really curdled. There’s Trump’s election, Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya; you write about the Islamist anti-communist attacks on the Jakarta governor Ahok. There’s this long litany of horrific events that the very onetime liberal social media techno-optimists now attribute overwhelmingly — I would say, to a problematic extent — to social media disinformation.
It flips entirely. Younger people would not only not remember this optimism, but would be entirely shocked to hear that ten or fifteen years ago, the liberal establishment believed to a fault that social media would be good for their version of progress: for freedom, for democracy, for transparency, for American power on the world stage. It would just make everything better necessarily because it would be an extension of voice to people around the world.
Young people would be entirely shocked to hear that ten or fifteen years ago, the liberal establishment believed to a fault that social media would be good for their version of progress: for freedom, for democracy, for transparency, for American power on the world stage.
Now if you’re speaking with a mainstream liberal commentator, or basically anyone to the left of center in the United States, and you describe a movement of young men swarming the capital of a given country because of something they saw on the internet, the assumption is going to be immediately, “This could be a big problem,” rather than thinking, “This is history with a capital ‘H,’ this is Napoleon on the horse, ushering in progress.” The contemporary liberal is going to think, this is a real red flag. Whether it was generated by Russia or conspiracy theories or whatever, what viral post has made these men lose their minds and storm the capital?
Whereas anything that was happening because of virality ten, fifteen, years ago was seen as necessarily good. I think there’s a convenient overlap with the fact that the state that was most proclaiming and believing in this was also the country whose GDP was about to be boosted to a huge extent by oligarchic control over the internet, by a set of social media firms based in California.
This was absolutely widespread. Evgeny Morozov was one of the few people that pushed back, and people screamed at him, like, “How dare you? You’re just trying to shit on the arrival of global freedom and liberalism.”
Social media was deeply important for probably all of the cases that you look at. In Brazil, the protest movement’s shift toward being a reactionary win against the PT was shaped in part by a new set of demands articulated by a guy claiming to represent the hacker collective Anonymous, who showed up on YouTube wearing a V for Vendetta mask. Then those five causes became, implicitly, the official demands.
They became one of many things that you would see on the streets, absolutely.
And then in Hong Kong, protests or demands emerged in various ways from platforms like Telegram. Should we analyze what was going on with social media at the time, not just as a communications tool, but also as a tool for mystifying how decisions are made, mystifying forms of highly undemocratic decision-making, so that they appear as the most democratic forms of decision-making known to man?
There’s an entirely false idea that the internet provides a type of horizontality that is necessarily democratic. It doesn’t, because algorithms created by for-profit, advertising-driven firms are deciding what moves to the top of a given timeline or to the top of the internet — based not on what people like the most or what people agree with, but based on what is most likely to keep people engaged to their phones for the longest period of time, so they can be sold products by other for-profit firms.
Not only is the apparent horizontality entirely false, but this is the same problem of horizontalism when it comes into the real world. Who’s getting to vote? Who was actually in these Telegram groups that Hong Kong protesters were using to decide on tactics, if you’re letting everybody in and having equal votes?
Where you’re drawing this line as to who’s making a particular post go viral is something that nobody’s paying attention to. No one really knows; bots can influence it very easily.
Initially, it appears as, “We’ve solved democracy because everybody can vote immediately on their computers, and that outcome will be truly democratic.” It’s kind of like deciding policy based on Twitter polls. You can have a poll on Twitter immediately; you don’t even know who’s voted for it. You’re voting on the future of, let’s say, Ukraine on Twitter, but how many of the people are Ukrainian? How many of the people are bots?
This mystification and this demystification happens in a very tragic way. People realize, “Oh no, that wasn’t right at all. We got carried away by a particularly affecting post.” Again, the algorithms choose which posts are most affecting. When the dust clears, that wasn’t actually the most important thing, or this was just one guy that made a really good viral video, claiming to be from a group, which isn’t a real group.
In seven of the ten cases you analyze, “The explosion was facilitated by viral images of state repression.” In other words, social media intersected with images of police brutality, and you make an important observation here that “it is far from clear that the most visible and affecting power dynamics are the most important ones in a complex society. They may be the tip of the iceberg, or just the intermittent interventions needed to reproduce more generalized injustice.”
This is not to say that police brutality or police repression more generally are not very valid things to protest against. But I think you’re getting at something important. What is it that you’re arguing here about the relationship between the intermediation of reality through our phones and the way that police repression shapes these sorts of mass protests? Are you arguing that there’s a trap where protesters can fetishize the forces of repression and in doing so miss the system that those forces of repression are being deployed to protect and reproduce?
I hope that it’s not a trap. I hope it’s the first step to understanding the true nature of a repressive system. And it’s not just social media that makes these images go viral. It’s a combination of social media and traditional media that makes people see the fundamental violence at the heart of so many systems around the world that they probably wouldn’t have seen beforehand.
It’s a combination of social media and traditional media that makes people see the fundamental violence at the heart of so many systems around the world that they probably wouldn’t have seen beforehand.
Lucas Vegetable, one of the original organizers of the MPL, spent the rest of the decade reflecting on their errors and what really happened. He said, “In June 2013, the cops did what they were supposed to do. Their job is the repression of a certain class, so that a certain capitalist system could be reproduced.” For most of human history, you probably weren’t going to see that happen on your own. Indeed, a lot of the explosions that caused the Black Panther Party to take shape in the twentieth century in the United States have to do with the shocking reality of police brutality being revealed in a way that cannot be ignored.
But also, as Lucas and I discussed, in almost every state that exists on the planet at the moment, if you want to, you can get a cop to beat you up. Almost every state that I can think of, in the final instance, [relies on] the violent repression of people who get out of line. So, to a greater extent than any other in human history, it was very likely, because of the existence of this particular configuration of social media firms and the particular media environment that we had, that everybody was going to see the most egregious cases of this type of repression.
Having the worst and most horrifying examples of this repression become visible to everyone at the same time, is incredibly powerful for getting people engaged and motivated. Because this is a truly horrible thing that needs to be combated. But it’s not necessarily true that every response will be equally efficient at creating a world in which less of this happens.
So I hope that it’s not a trap. I hope it’s the first step. It is a revelation of the violence at the heart of the system, which can lead to a contemplation of what it is that that violence is reproducing — which system it is that that violence is required to maintain.
The repertoires and philosophies that shaped these mass protest movements, you argue, moved from the Global North to the Global South due to the fact that “intellectual production happens in a way that reflects the hierarchical nature of the global economy.”
Where do you most see the signs of this? Was it in the form of the mass protest, or was it more in, as you put it, “ideological state mega-apparatuses promoting the more mainstream ideas of democracy or liberalism”? Or was it instead more concrete things like the fact that protesters in Thailand, Myanmar, and Hong Kong all picked up the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Is your argument, in part, that the protest repertoire of the mass protest decade was itself an index of sorts of Western cultural hegemony?
I think it is a complex interaction of everything you just described. When we’re talking about the nature of the global system and the nature of US-led capitalist hegemony, it is sort of everywhere, but in different ways and to greater or lesser extents, depending on what we’re talking about.
You see not only a louder megaphone given to the particular types of interpreters of events that have a particular set of ideological assumptions. In Egypt and in Brazil, the people who decide what is happening on the streets, and then actually reshape concretely what is happening on the streets, tend to share a set of ideological assumptions shaped by a deep US liberalism. You also see more attention given to certain styles of political culture, certain political philosophies, if they tend to be from the legacy of Paris 1968 and punk rock and US political culture.
A friend of mine, Piero Locatelli, who’s one of the journalists who got attacked on June 13 and whose virality spurred the media to change their position — he’s being funny and self-deprecating — he looked back on Brazilian political culture, especially musical subcultures. And he said, “A lot of my generation was inspired by the Zapatistas in Mexico. But how did we find out about the Zapatistas in the first place? From Rage Against the Machine.” So you have this strange situation where a movement in southern Mexico gets to another country in Latin America, because it is spoken about by a set of musicians from the United States.
You really did see the universalization of a particular US approach to not only the economy, not only capitalism, but deep ideological assumptions. This was something that many people told me that they wish they had been more attentive to as they came up with their repertoire of tactics.
People from Egypt to Hong Kong told me, “We wish that ideological assumptions born in the United States had not been so prevalent here. In the case of Hong Kong especially, we wish we had not turned to Hollywood for certain slogans and approaches to conflict. We wish we had paid more attention to the history of revolutions in the Global South.”
Growing up in hyperindividualized, atomized, suburban California in my case, the stuff that gets to you first tends to be the stuff that is reflected through pop culture. Hopefully it’s a bridge to a larger body of thought rather than a bridge off a cliff. But you cannot interpret anything without paying attention to the particular nature of US-led capitalist hegemony.
Anti-Politics and Right-Wing Co-optation
It seems like the problem you’re identifying in your book isn’t just that the leaders of particular movements rejected the idea of leadership and hierarchy as inherently undemocratic, though that is part of it. It’s also, I think, that these movements came about during a moment where we have, throughout the entire neoliberal period, experienced what you describe as a generalized crisis of representation. What is this crisis of representation that you describe? What brought it about, and how does that context help explain why these movements took the form that they did?
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that when we talk about the ingredients in this recipe that identify the fact that these mass explosions tend to be horizontally structured, there is an ideological and material reason for that structure. There are the groups, such as the MPL in Brazil, that believe in self-conscious horizontalism; they believe that this is the best way to organize. But then you also get movements in many other countries. Egypt is an example where you have something more like concrete horizontality, where many of the original organizers would have loved to create revolutionary parties, working-class organizations.
They believed in structure and organization, but it was the concrete decimation of Egyptian society under decades of neoliberalism that left them without these organizations. The decimation was carried out by economic policies, but also autocratic government in North Africa.
And even when it comes to horizontalism, this intentional approach to organization — that comes from a concrete experience in 2001 of the absolute decimation of all of the structures that traditionally represented people in Argentine society. And so I interviewed some of the people who took part in the famous assemblies that sprang up after the total collapse of the state in 2001 in Argentina. And they say, “Well, you know, everything that we had that used to work just had gone away.”
The Egyptian revolutionaries would have loved to have representative structures.
The state was gone. Unions and firms could not respond to the crisis in any way that was coherent or helpful. The parties were at a loss. And so across the board during the neoliberal era even the ideological approach to horizontality comes out of the decimation of the older union or party or even state structures. And it’s pretty widely recognized that there’s some kind of crisis of representation. The simplest way to describe this is to say that the people who are in charge are more responsive to economic elites than to the people that vote for them. And this is uncontroversial in political science.
If you look at what actually motivates political actors, even in democracies, representative democracies, like the United States, where we do not have the representation that we are supposed to have: here it is very accurate to believe that this system was not working. And one approach, the approach that was more intentionally or more self-consciously ideological, sought to reject this very imperfect representation rather than try to rebuild it. Again, back to the Egyptian revolutionaries: they would have loved to have representative structures. Often they had simply been decimated by the Mubarak regime.
You invoked the term “anti-politics,” which was first coined, I think, in 1990 by anthropologist James Ferguson. What is anti-politics, as you would define it, and what does it have to do with that crisis of representation?
What I mean by anti-politics is fairly simple. It’s an opposition to politics as such, to politics as a human practice. So in the case of the MPL, they are not aligned with any party. They’re never going to join a party. They’re not doing party politics, but they’re not against the existence of politics. They are not against the fact that politics is happening. But there’s a slippage that happens in June 2013, in the streets and afterward. And they notice this, and they’re quite horrified by it, that what to them was staying outside of party politics is understood by people who entered the streets as a full rejection of politics in general.
So this anti-political attitude, I think, can be useful in understanding the rise of the “man on the street” common sense that says, “They’re all bums, they’re all clowns. Throw them out.” And this is a kind of widespread attitude that, again, political scientists trace very carefully. I cite a book that concentrates primarily on the UK in the period around Brexit. But I think it’s pretty easy to think of cases where just presenting yourself as not part of the existing political system means that somehow you’re better than the existing political system. I think in Brazil there’s the election of a clown, literally a clown, who says, you know, “My being a clown means that I’m less of a clown than the clowns in Congress.”
Donald Trump is, I think, an expression of anti-political sentiment. Emmanuel Macron is an expression of anti-political sentiment. He’s like, “Oh, screw all the really old parties. I’m going to make France into a start-up.” Volodymyr Zelensky, I think, is an expression of anti-politics. His entire television show was about a regular guy who gets made president, and that therefore makes him better than the political establishment. And then, you know, he is literally a comedian who gets elected because he’s outside of politics.
And the so-called no labels . . .
Yeah. Exactly. Or, you know, “I’m beyond Left and Right, let’s leave that in the past.” In Brazil, this was a very common trope in 2014 and 2015, because for a while in Brazil, nobody ever admitted to being on the Right. So this was the thing that Bolsonaro brought back in a big way, that you’re allowed to say you’re on the Right, but from like 2012 to 2015, if anyone was like, “Oh, I don’t believe in Left or Right,” that was like a code for, they’re probably on the Right. Because at the extreme end of anti-politics (and this is where this slippage happens once more in Brazil), this a-party stance slips into anti-politics, which slips into, in the case of Bolsonaro, a wholesale rejection of democracy and an embrace of authoritarianism.
Because anti-politics is always still politics. Politics doesn’t go away for a lot of these reasons. You’re describing that the slippage of the pretext of anti-politics is rather often toward right-wing politics.
Yes. I remember this growing up. I mean, I think we Californians were sort of the canary in the coal mine, for better or worse, often for worse. The state is ahead of certain kinds of developments. So Arnold Schwarzenegger was like the was the first time that I remember this really happening, that everyone was like, “Hahaha, fuck all of them. Let’s put in an actor and that will be our way of saying fuck you to the system.” And this is something that happens throughout the 2010s. As a very general rule, every time that the people have been given the opportunity to say fuck you to the system, they’ve usually taken it. So if you present in a referendum form: one of the options on the ballot is “fuck you” and the other one is “I like you,” people will vote for “fuck you.” And the anti-political sentiment, I think, is pretty widespread. And again, the core crisis is real. It is not wrong to think that the system is not as representative as it should be, but the outright rejection of it is often taken advantage of. Often the people who are best positioned to take advantage of this are on the Right.
Why in Brazil — and probably elsewhere too — were anti-corruption populist politics such a particularly good vehicle for right-wing anti-politics as a whole? Is it that anti-corruption in particular allows for the framing of a political agenda as nonpolitical, and thus that the political faction that’s pursuing the “anti-corruption campaign” is not a faction, but instead presents itself as representing the entirety of the people?
Yeah, I think that’s right. The perfect vehicle for supplying a reason for why the protests are good, in the anti-political conception of Brazilian society in 2013, was anti-corruption. This was because being against corruption is tautological. Everyone’s against corruption. It’s in the word. It’s bad. You can launch a defense; you can carry out informed studies of the political economy of capitalist societies and note that there’s often collusion between the business elite and the state, and that in every successful case of capitalist development, there is some kind of collusion between the most important capitalist actors in the state, so that could be a launch of a defense of “corruption.” But it’s not a defense of corruption, because it’s in the word that it’s bad, right?
It is not wrong to think that the system is not as representative as it should be, but the outright rejection of it is often taken advantage of. Often the people who are best positioned to take advantage of this are on the Right.
This gets back to the critique that has been launched against these protests in general: that they’re against everything that’s bad, and for everything that’s good. And just to give a sense of the ridiculousness of the ultimate outgrowth of this sort of attitude: Sergio Moro, the main judge in the Lava Jato crusade — which has been now shown to be quite corrupt itself, and shown to have worked behind the scenes with the US government as it imprisoned Lula — becomes justice minister in the Bolsonaro government, and one of his flagship projects is the anti-crime law.
All laws are anti-crime. There could not be a more obvious move to try to carry out commonsense politics. And so in in Brazil in 2013, everybody knew in 2011, 2012 that corruption is a problem. But before the explosion of June 2013, only 5 percent of respondents in surveys said that it was the main problem facing the country.
This rose a lot in the month of June 2013 and afterward. But then later, as these right-wing forces that were born on the streets that month took a leadership role in the new protest movement against Dilma, this overlapped with an upsurge in support for the Lava Jato anti-corruption crusade, not only among middle-class and right-leaning sectors of Brazilian society, but especially among the major media in Brazil and around the world.
And of course, this is the problem with any anti-politics and anything that presents itself as being above or beyond categories of Left and Right. The more we learned about Sergio Moro and the other people in the Lava Jato crusade, the more we learned that they were breaking the law in order to go after one party, and especially one man more than anybody else in Brazilian society. They were just right-wing guys. These were guys on the extreme right. They personally were motivated by extreme-right beliefs.
They were also motivated by sort of a deep, deep belief that whatever happened in the United States, that the United States was just a great example of how to run a justice system. But once the dust cleared and Lula ends up in jail and Bolsonaro is elected, they emerge and say, “Oh, no, actually, yeah, we’re going to join the Bolsonarista movement.” That’s who we are. And this was suspected the whole time by the Left. But anti-corruption, like anti-politics, allows you to present yourself to society as above all of that, whereas everything exists concretely in relationship to the system of any given country or indeed the planet.
Yeah. When what you’re talking about sounds like common sense to most people— Gramsci talks about this a lot — that’s hegemonic politics.
Absolutely. It’s commonsense politics. It’s, you know, “They’re all clowns. Throw them out. We’re against crime. Let’s pass a law against crime. I’m anti-corruption.” Of course. Everyone’s anti-corruption. But what type of actions do you take to stamp out corruption? And in the case of Sergio Moro, he had based his campaign on an Italian anti-corruption campaign, “Mani pulite,” or “clean hands.” And then if you go back and read his writings on “clean hands” in Italy, everybody knows that it didn’t quite work. But another part of his plans for launching an anti-corruption campaign in Brazil is getting the media on side. You can’t do it without getting the media on side. And he absolutely does. Not only the major Brazilian media that is owned by oligarchs and powerful families in the country, but most of the mainstream English-language media around the world.
Choices in the Heat of Protest
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there were these huge mass protests, initially led by the secular left. But then they were joined by the masses— masses that included, notably, the Muslim Brotherhood. And ultimately the movement, as people who’ve observed this history know, resulted in free elections, in which the more secular or left Egyptians split their vote, leading to the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi being elected. This in turn led to Islamist overreach, and then to the military, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, taking advantage of secularist opposition to the Brotherhood to launch a coup, all of which led to this just brutal massacre of a thousand Brotherhood members. And today, I think quite clearly, we have the most authoritarian government in Egyptian history — which is saying something. There are so many lessons that you draw from this experience, but a major one is that the secularist movement was relatively leaderless and inchoate, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood was organized. So too, of course, was the military.
You argue that politics does not allow for a vacuum, that if you blow up the system, that the power will be seized by those best organized to do so. This is a key argument of your book. How did that play out in Egypt, and how did what happened in Egypt compare to what played out elsewhere throughout the so-called Arab Spring?
Yeah. So you’re absolutely right. The Muslim Brotherhood is older than the Egyptian Republic. The Muslim Brotherhood was formed before the establishment of Egypt as the state that we now recognize it as. This was a real organization, and I think importantly, is one of the organizations that played a role in the type of neoliberal “civil society” that was allowed to flourish in North Africa. The group often played the role of sort of the NGO, civil-society actor that you might find analogues for elsewhere around the world. So the Muslim Brotherhood was a coherent group. It was organized. It understood what it wanted. And it had real members. It had real power in the streets.
Huge crowds in Tahrir Square demanding Hosni Mubarak to step down, February 9, 2011. (Jonathan Rashad / Wikimedia Commons)
Now, the original planners of January 25 were often people who really did believe in a revolutionary project — people who had been involved in coordinating a wave of wildcat strikes outside of Cairo in the years before came together. And indeed, the tactic of taking Tahrir Square in the first place — this particular element of the Egyptian repertoire — came together as a result of years of organizing in support of Palestine. So a lot of the people who came up in the 2000s as activists understood activism as synonymous with or overlapping in very strong ways with support for Palestine. And when far more people join what is initially a protest movement, but then it quickly becomes a more revolutionary situation than they expected, there are all kinds of other people who are involved. The Muslim Brotherhood joins later than the original organizers, but it does join this revolutionary movement.
And when ultimately Tahrir Square is “successful” at forcing the end of the Mubarak government, what actually happens is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military, takes power and says, “We’re going to put on elections. We’re in charge. But don’t worry, because we’re going to put on elections. We want democracy. You want democracy, we’re going to have democracy.”
Now, a couple things happen among the more secular and progressive elements of Egyptian society, which, if you look at the first round results in 2012, could be a majority. You could have imagined them coming together in such a way to elect a secular and progressive leader. Hamdeen Sabahi, who I interviewed very quickly for this book, said that he was inspired to a large extent most by Lula, out of all of the global leaders on the scene in the years up to 2012, but in in the period between 2011 and 2012, you have a couple of things that happen for Egypt’s original, more secular and progressive revolutionaries.
Some of them don’t trust or don’t believe in the election that’s about to come. So some of them say, “Well, the point is not elections. The point is the Square is the revolution. Participating in elections put on by SCAF is a betrayal of the original ideals.” Now, this probably was an opinion held by a small minority of Egyptians, but there’s an elective affinity between global coverage of Tahrir Square and this particular type of attitude. This gets reproduced quite a lot by people like me.
This idea that, “No, no, no, we’re not about taking over the state, the revolution is here.” But then you also just have this very limited amount of time to coordinate electoral strategy for the first time ever that maybe there will be a free and fair election, or maybe some people are very suspicious that SCAF is going to put on a free and fair election. And so this opens up space for the two candidates who could have expressed support for the original slogan, “Bread, freedom, social justice,” that defines some of the early days of the revolution.
These two candidates are split in the first round, and then you get Morsi taking over. Then under Morsi’s obviously very imperfect rule, reactionary Gulf monarchies, who would stand to lose if there were truly a democracy in Egypt, act behind the scenes to fund an incipient protest movement that presents itself to the world as kind of the same thing as the 2011 protest movement, but results in massive, massive demonstrations in 2013. And this ultimately allows for the Sisi coup, which establishes a dictatorship that is even worse than Mubarak. The new government immediately massacres civilians in Rabaa Square, and then nothing happens. The international community doesn’t do anything. There’s no way to launch another 2011 against police brutality. You can’t just summon that tactic at will. This goes back to 1968 and to things that André Gorz says in his essay on Paris, which is that it’s very difficult to put together a surprise uprising more than once in a generation.
And that’s something that the anti-globalization movement struggled to learn after Seattle.
Yes, earlier you spoke about this dynamic of moving from a successful disruption to “summit hopping.” What I find different and more interesting about the Egyptian case compared to, say, Libya, where the initial discontent with the Gaddafi government, which is, of course, real and based on legitimate concerns about Gaddafi, is simply used as an excuse for regime change. NATO, in the case of Libya, decides to use what is happening on the ground as an opportunity to launch a regime-change operation, apparently thinking this will work out well in some way for them or the Libyan people instead of destroying the country. It’s different than the case of Syria, where you really have different sectors of society with different ideas of what a post-Assad world would look like. Most importantly, key members of the national security apparatus in Syria decide to stick with Assad, which means that it quickly becomes a war rather than the type of mass protest explosion that I look at most carefully in this book.
And so the Egyptian case is, I think, really fascinating, because you can imagine a lot of different ways that if the protests were constituted slightly differently, or if things had gone very slightly differently, you could really imagine a totally different outcome, which is harder in some of the other cases in the so-called Arab Spring. Egypt is a really fascinating case to trace from the beginning to the middle to the end, because I think there was so much opportunity and so much to be learned. And not only that, because the very inspiring scenes in Tahrir Square in 2011 become so important in defining what happens in the rest of the decade.
You write, “They chose to stay in Tahrir Square, the default destination for many in the crowd. It was an empty piece of land, and its conquest offered no strategic value except for visibility. This had not been planned, and some participants soon questioned why it happened. Would it not have made more sense to actually charge the halls of power and take control? Should a revolutionary movement not seize the television and radio stations so it can stop the regime from broadcasting its propaganda? It was all there for the taking. But if they did that, who would have been in charge of deciding what to do with them?” This is a really fascinating example of this larger point you make in your book, which is that protests are not very good at making actual revolutions, because protests are, you write, “communicative events aimed at existing elites.” You write, “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. If you believe that you can forge a better society, if you are willing to run the risk of trying, then you should enter the vacuum yourself.”
But a diffuse group of individuals who come out to the streets for very different reasons cannot simply take power themselves, at least not as an entire group of individuals. Once someone goes in there and takes power in the name of the masses, you are talking about a type of vanguard, a particular ideological project, and a minority of people who dare to try to represent the rest of the population.
In some of the more utopian strains of antiauthoritarian thought, the riot is supposed to become the new society, but this has not worked out so far. This is such an important argument. How should movements determine whether their goal is reform or revolution? Or perhaps even if a movement’s ultimate goal is revolution, that still leaves the question of how to successfully make one. How can a movement strategically assess if revolution is not immediately possible, how to win reforms and orchestrate retreats in such a way that over time, at some point, revolution might be possible? How should organizations think about this important insight of yours? And what sort of organizations do we need to even have the capacity to undertake this sort of strategic analysis and decision-making in the first place?
I would argue that the type of organization you need is one that is capable of careful and constant analysis of the concrete configurations of power, that undertakes serious intellectual work at all times as to what is possible and what can be achieved and the best way to achieve it, but that also is capable of shifting tactics very quickly as circumstances change. And again, this is something that this particular type of protest, this particular repertoire of contention, was not good at. Changing tactics is very, very difficult.
The type of organization you need is one that is capable of careful and constant analysis of the concrete configurations of power, that undertakes serious intellectual work at all times as to what is possible.
In the case of the Brazilian uprising, the case of the Egyptian uprising, and in many of the uprisings that we saw across the mass protest decade, you need some kind of a preexisting decision-making system that can act very, very quickly. And just to get back to the Egyptian case: I spoke, you know, with several of the people who were planning the January 25 protest that brought more people onto the streets than expected and then ultimately grew into the January 28 uprising that essentially beat the police in a street battle and allowed them to do whatever they wanted. But that opportunity is very short lived. And the people who had been planning the January 25 protest, one of them told to me, he said, well, “What do we do when we take the square?” And everybody laughed in the meeting because they were like, “That’s ridiculous. We’re not actually going to be able to take the square. We’re going to try to get there. We’re going to go to battle with the cops and we’re going to lose.” So they had not planned for this, not because they were ideologically committed to never thinking about strategy. They just were far more successful than they hoped.
But the American sociologist Charles Tilly, whom I draw upon for this language that I keep using, “repertoire of contention,” he makes a couple of points which are quite interesting. One of them is that in moments of opportunity, in moments when human beings respond to injustice, they tend to do stuff that they already know how to do, that they’ve done before, that they’ve seen somewhere else. And that’s not necessarily the right thing. It’s just the way that human beings act when opportunities present themselves. We draw on stuff we already know. And often in these moments, especially in these key revolutionary situations, these moments last an hour, sixteen hours, sometimes five minutes. And so, having studied very carefully previously everything that could be possible and everything that could be done is important, as is the ability to quickly change tack.
Now, horizontality, whether intentional and horizontalist or just concrete horizontality, has a very hard time changing tactics. In five minutes, it’s very difficult to establish consensus or just to get the message out to all of the different individuals on the streets who we need to decide what to do. And then everyone comes to a decision as to what to actually do quickly enough to take advantage of these situations. This was a real problem for the MPL in Brazil. They had tortuous fourteen-hour, sixteen-hour meetings over the key days of June 2013. They were already exhausted, injured, overstretched, and yet they were trying to establish consensus as to what to do with this opportunity that had presented to them.
And Tilly has this this essay called “The Invisible Elbow” (as opposed to the Invisible Hand). He argues that history is pushed forward by what happens as a response to unexpected setbacks. This is a strange image, but what he’s talking about is when you’re, say, coming back from the grocery store and you start to attempt to get into the door but you can’t, and then you start to drop your bags and then your reflexes will just kick in and you’ll sort of knock open the door with your elbow and grab the bag.
That will always be something that your body has learned how to do previously. It’ll be muscle memory. And he argues that history is pushed forward by the muscle memory that is employed when plans go wrong. So an organization like the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) — I spent lot of the summer in Brazil dealing with them — has both. They have a set of schools across the country, they have a publishing house, they have a sector in their hierarchical but very democratic organization dedicated to the full-time study of Brazilian conditions and the history of land reform and the history of social movements. But they also have been able to — and their response to Bolsonaro’s government was an example of this — as an organization quickly change tactics based on changing circumstances. So that is the much easier said than done answer to your final question, which was what kind of organizations can decide on whether or not reform or revolution is possible, and then take advantage of the unexpected opportunities and the inevitable failures that will present themselves to you over the course of struggle.
Figures in the in the West, liberals and really all sorts of people, have long idealized the Maidan protesters as representing this deep, fundamentally united Ukrainian people fighting for a liberal Western vision of freedom against the despotic Eastern other, Russia. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin frames things as precisely the inverse. What actually happened in the streets of Kyiv, and how does that reality and the ways it was then obfuscated help us understand the entire nightmare that’s taken place since?
Yeah, that’s a good way to frame the question. And the answer is complicated. I think we have to do the complicated answer to actually make sense of what happens. First, I would say that it’s not necessarily the far right that is the most organized, but I would say that it has a particular type of organization, and its particular skill set meant that it was in a position to punch well above its weight. I think that’s the important distinction to make. If you look at polling before Maidan and after Maidan, it is absolutely not the case that the far right had much support among society, but it was able to play a much larger role than it should have. Arguably, it should have played almost none — or, I would have loved for it to have played none. But it played a much, much larger role than its small degree of support in Ukrainian society would have dictated because of the ways in which it was organized beforehand.
The far right played a much, much larger role in Maidan than its small degree of support in Ukrainian society would have dictated because of the ways in which it was organized beforehand.
The far right was good at the particular types of battles that emerge on the streets in Ukraine. And one thing that I found that was interesting in my approach to Ukraine . . . As with everything else in the book, if it has any value at all, it’s putting these events next to each other and seeing what appears to be the same and what appears to be different. And what I found interesting is that in the three uprisings in 2013, the far right shows up in all of them. The far right shows up in Gezi Park, but ends up not playing that much of a role. The far right shows up in Brazil and plays a different, more long-term role, and the far right shows up in Ukraine. But the particular combination of forces and the particular type of street situation that you have in Kyiv means that it ends up playing some role in shaping the outcome of Maidan.
And that’s because of the role of organized violence on the streets of Kyiv?
It’s because of the ways in which the far right succeeds at taking advantage of the particular type of opportunities presented by a long-term occupation of public space in front of the capital, especially one in which a political solution does not seem clear. Because society in Ukraine was divided before Maidan and was divided during Maidan. But I find the best way to approach this is to go in chronological order, because again, there is a tendency on all sides — and I think it’s understandable what happens, because of social media — to flatten space and time and to view each one of these protests as like one thing.
Whereas as we I think we discussed, the beginning of 2013 in Brazil is way different than the end of 2013. Indeed, the morning of one day is different than the afternoon of one day. So to start with Ukraine: the first thing that I will say is that absolutely everyone in Ukraine got a very, very bad deal from 1989 to 2013. They were absolutely failed by elites in what was left of the post-Soviet political establishment. Almost everybody had a great reason to be very upset with the state of things economically and politically in Ukraine in 2013, but there’s three different movements. I mean, again, there’s more than three movements, there’s thousands of movements, but there’s three general ways to divide the movements with Maidan.
At the very beginning, it is a set of Western-facing liberals. Again, all of this is a total generalization, but at the beginning you have a small group of Western-facing liberals, often working for civil-society groups funded by the West. And this is not conspiratorial; they admit to it. We talked about the problems and opportunities offered by Western support, but it is just the case that a lot of the dozens or perhaps hundreds of people who show up in the very beginning are Western facing or have some kind of relationship to Western-backed “civil society.” And initially this is about support for an association agreement with the European Union. Now, again, there’s a kind of a flattening that says that this is what it’s all about in the long term. But at this point in the very beginning, only I think 39 percent of Ukrainians in November 2013 actually want this particular association agreement with the European Union. All Ukrainians would be happy to join the First World in the sense of being rich and being actually invited into the West, but this particular European association agreement was not that attractive to that many people. One of the main characters in my Maidan section, he considered it to be a neoliberal set of reforms. He was not so excited about it.
So at the very beginning you had a very specific issue, and this is the same thing you had in Gezi Park. You have one very specific issue that does not motivate the entire country, really, but there are dedicated activists who believe in it who are on the streets. Then you have the crackdown. And once more, as in many other places, the crackdown leads to an outpouring of sympathy for the square. I have the numbers in the book, but I think it’s something like 70 percent of Ukrainians, at the very least, say that they are against the particular way that security forces cracked down on the students in Maidan. And you have an outpouring of support, but then you have a strange situation where a lot of people are in the square making demands upon the Yanukovych government. But what’s going to happen next? Often this flattening happens where globally this is interpreted as if it’s the same kind of thing as Egypt, as if the people are rising up to overthrow the president. But Yanukovych has been elected. Yanukovych has a base of support. And again, these people, often just like voters in the United States, understand that they’re voting for a deeply, deeply imperfect, if not reprehensible political movement, but they just prefer it to the other one. And this is the dynamic that drives a lot of voting in Ukraine before 2013.
Because there are concrete divides in society that are classed and regionalized and all sorts of things?
Absolutely. And crucially, understandings of Ukrainian history become important. There are real mutually exclusive understandings of what Ukrainian history was, depending on where you are — not even where you are geographically, but just who you are. And so in this particular type of situation, organized, preexisting far-right groups end up playing a larger role than they should. Not because that was planned. I mean, they had been planning, they had been planning for a long time for the necessity of a revolution and for pushing for a redirection of Ukrainian society. They had believed in organizing and violence for a long time. So they end up playing a role, especially in the situation where at the peak of Maidan about 50 percent of Ukraine supports it. But I think you can only understand the very particular outcome based on the ways in which they do punch a little bit above their weight, not representing anything close to the a large percentage of Ukrainian society, but being a tiny section of Ukrainian society that plays some kind of a role in what happens in the square.
Line of protesters at Dynamivska Street in Kyiv during the Euromaidan protests, January 20, 2014. (Mstyslav Chernov / Unframe via Wikimedia Commons)
And then the this all relates to the question of representation that is so important not only to Brazil, but also to Egypt. Depending on which TV show you watch, you might get told that it is a liberal movement, depending on if you’re reading English-language media, or depending on which Ukrainian television station you’re watching, or if you’re watching Russian media, you will get a different idea of what is happening.
And the final outcome, the final very tragic outcome, I think, can only be understood as partially a result of the fact that Russian media takes the existing fa-right presence and exaggerates it. And many people, in the east of Ukraine especially, act based on what they have been told about what’s happening in the square, just like everybody else in the world acts based on what they’re being told about what’s happening in the square. This exaggeration happens in Russia. And then ultimately, the Russian infiltration of the anti-Maidan movement after the transfer of power is all part of the story.
So I think to tell the story of Maidan, it’s just as with every other case in the book. I like to go chronologically, pay attention to evolution and who ends up winning unexpected battles, who ends up taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, whether or not they were planned for or not, and the way that the fundamentally illegible (or at the very least, very, very complex) street explosion is represented to different people in the world in different ways.
So, yeah, the question of mediation really matters in Maidan, not only the way that it’s represented to people in the east of Ukraine, but also to the people of west Ukraine, and to people around the world, to people in the English-speaking world. Ultimately, of course, the way that the United States signals its preferences at the end of Maidan really mattered to the ultimate outcome of the uprising.
This matters, just like the power that the far right is able to establish relative to its actual support in society. All of these things end up mattering to the very specific outcome that you get in February 2014. But I think the best way to look at it is to disaggregate all these different elements, because they are different than the first people on the streets or the mass of sort of regular people and what they thought they wanted to achieve. Because often if you actually ask these people in the middle what they thought they wanted to achieve, it was something like economic justice, something like de-oligarchization. A lot of these people are ultimately very disappointed with the way it goes.
If you fast-forward to 2020, there’s another poll that’s done after Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, after you can no longer do a survey in the Donbas region, in which only 40 percent of Ukrainians say that they would redo Maidan if they could. And I think that the best way to tell that story is to see all of these different elements arising as reactions to each other, just as that is the only way that I think you could tell the Brazil story, the Egyptian story, the Chilean story, or the Hong Kong story.
Limits to Power in Chile and Hong Kong
Chilean president Gabriel Boric is, I think, perhaps the hero of your story. As you tell it, the mass uprisings of the 2019 “Estallido Social” (or “Social Explosion”) sent the political system into crisis, and Boric, a member of Congress at the time, stepped into this breach and negotiated an exit on behalf of the movement, a deal to respond to the mass protest by convening a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to replace the old constitution that was put in place by Pinochet. And Boric, you write, had the credibility to do this because he, like other top leaders of the 2011 student movement, really legendary leaders in Chile like Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson, they had gone into the Communist Party or Frente Amplio, left-wing party politics. They had become representatives. Yet even still, many in the streets at the time thought Boric had sold the movement out and that he had no right to represent them at all. But you write that Boric making that move was essential, and you contrast his action favorably against what happened with Hong Kong’s horizontalist mass movement, how that all ultimately played out. Why? Why was Boric stepping into that void, that representational void, so essential? And what does the experience of Hong Kong show about the risk of not doing so?
What I would say first is that I’m not sure he’s the hero of my story in the sense that I lift him up as such. But he wins at the very least. This, like most other claims in my book, is hopefully not my value judgment. But I think he is the winner of the Estallido Social. He becomes the president and whether or not he becomes a good president and carries through with the organization’s goals, that’s a separate issue, but he ends up becoming the recipient of power as a result of this very indirect and strange outcome of the uprising in Chile.
So what you have in Chile is, like in Brazil, a movement against a rise in the price of public transportation. This consists of trying to block the turnstiles or jump turnstiles, direct action tactics that lead to a crackdown, which leads to an outpouring of support for society, which leads to a large amount of people in the streets unsure exactly what to do. As in Argentina in 2001, you have the explosion of assemblies there called cabildos. And in Chile, in this moment, there’s a lot of fascinating and productive discussions in these cabildos. Often the feminist movement takes a leadership role in organizing the response to police repression. I spoke with a lot of Chilean feminists who really are important in shaping the outcome in Chile. But still, you do get to this moment where no one’s quite sure what’s supposed to happen next.
This has been going on for a while. The assemblies are happening. They’re not sure what to do with the decisions that are made in the assemblies and who to count, because the people who are coming tend to be — and this is a problem that goes all the way back to, you know, Plaza del Sol in Spain — people who have free time who are able to show up every day of the week, which means that there’s overrepresentation of people who don’t have jobs, because of the hours of the day in which you would have to show up.
So there is this explosion, this illegible movement. It’s unclear what’s going to happen next. And something else that’s very important in the final outcome in Chile is that there is labor action, which really puts pressure on the Pinera government. And again, this is a very important contrast with Brazil 2013. Luckily — perhaps it’s luck, perhaps it’s a combination of luck and preparation — this is not a center-left president. This is a right-leaning president whose destabilization is not likely to go bad for the Left. It’s likely to be good for existing center-left forces. But still, there’s this situation. Well, what now? What happens is behind closed doors, existing political representatives, the people who are in government elected to represent the Chilean people, come up with an “acuerdo por la paz,” like a peace accord basically. And the accord, the agreement that the politicians — not people from the streets — make, is to resolve this with a referendum on whether or not to replace the Pinochet constitution with a new one.
Something else that’s very important in the final outcome in Chile is that there is labor action, which really puts pressure on the Pinera government. This is a very important contrast with Brazil 2013.
Now, many people in the streets, especially on the anarchist left, especially some of the people who are actually fighting the hardest or were there at the beginning who made all this happen, they view this as a top-down imposition of meaning onto the streets, which in a sense it is. The streets did not come up with this peace accord. It was not the people as an apparently spontaneous, horizontally structured, digitally coordinated mass uprising who asked for this.
It was the representatives who said, “This is what you’re asking for, what we’re going to give you.” And so they’re not really wrong that this is an imposition, especially in the anarchist understanding of politics or the horizontalist rejection of representation. This is the government trying to make a bid to represent what is happening on the streets. But I think compared to all the other ways this could have gone, at the very least, you had people in bodies of power who understood more or less what this protest thing was all about, who had arisen from the 2011 protest movement. This imposition of meaning onto the streets was close enough that a lot of people went home. Not everyone went home. The last time I was in Chile, they were still doing little estallido protests. Every week I got water cannoned. And this was, I think, 2020 or 2021, so years later.
But it was smaller groups hanging out near Plaza Dignidad?
Exactly. It was still happening, but this imposition of meaning was accepted by enough people that it was kind of a resolution. And I think that the streets, if we take all of the other episodes in this decade as an example or as a guide, were never going to be able to speak in a unified voice and ask for something coherent that could be delivered by the existing government. So this imposition of meaning was close enough. And so a lot of people who in 2019 saw this imposition of meaning as an authoritarian act decided over the next year, by the time I interviewed them in 2021, that they were glad that he did it because they were on a path to approving a new constitution. Now that new constitution, at least in its first attempt, did not pass. So it’s very possible that a lot of those people would have gone back to their first interpretation of what happened and said, “Oh, actually, no, that was the wrong solution.”
And this is something that happens all the time with memory. Memory changes, like in Maidan. I spent the summer of 2021 in Ukraine. I interviewed them often after the Russian invasion, and their understanding of what happened back in 2014 was slightly different, because it was inflected through the final outcome. Often they were coming down more on the side of what they would have previously rejected as nationalist excesses. They were slightly more understanding of that position than they had been.
Because of the ways things had polarized since?
Yeah. History is always written, rewritten every day for the rest of all time. Every generation is reinterpreting the past in its own ways. In the case of Chile, the first attempt to change the constitution didn’t pass; it’s absolutely possible that the Boric government will be an absolute disaster. In Brazil, large parts of the Left are unhappy with the ways that Boric has acted in the international arena. But that’s all separate to the fact that considering all the different ways that the Estallido Social could have gone, considering all the ways that the other mass explosions in this book did go, at least he became the president. What he does after that is on him. It’s not really related to the dynamic that I’m analyzing in the book now in Hong Kong, which of course happens against a very different background, in a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that is very far from the actual center of decision-making power. As important as Hong Kong is for the economy of the PRC, how important it was for the economy of the PRC, how large it looms in the mind of Western observers of the PRC, it is quite a small part of the vast, vast swathes of humanity that are governed by the Communist Party of China. So, of course, this happens against a very different set of possibilities and circumstances.
Hong Kong should be analyzed, like Ukraine and everywhere else, in discrete moments, because there are moments when quite a lot of people come onto the streets in rejection of a particular extradition bill, or in combination with a rejection of an extradition bill and the rejection of the crackdown on the initial marches against the extradition bill. But often there’s this flattening that what happens at the end of 2019 is the same thing. But really, I think it’s important to separate all that out. What happens at the end of 2019 is not the same as what happens in those big marches, is not the same as what motivated those marches. But by the end of 2019, you really do have essentially groups of protesters that are trying to impose as much cost on the government as possible by shutting down Hong Kong, often with a very different political outlook than the mass marches that attracted so many people.
And Beijing is able just to wait it out. I mean, we don’t know exactly what Beijing was saying or thinking behind the scenes. But the weeks in which many people in the Hong Kong protest movement imposed costs in the form of disruption and destabilization in this small corner of the PRC — that was something that Beijing could just let happen.
Fishing for a revolutionary situation in a place where revolution is impossible. Longtime left-wing Hong Kong activist Au Loong Yu, whom I had on the podcast a few years ago, made the key point to you and on the podcast that Hong Kong people’s struggle will only be capable of sort of truly revolutionary aims if it’s united to struggles in the mainland. And you have to recalibrate based on that reality.
And Au Loong Yu says a couple of things that make a lot of sense. A lot of the Hong Kong protesters to whom I spoke said wistfully, tragically, in a tone of self-deprecation, “We wish we would have paid more attention to revolutionary history rather than Hollywood films and romantic ideas to understand how to carry out political change.” But what Yu says is that if you study very carefully the history of social movements and political struggles, the idea of revolution in one city doesn’t really exist. And there is a moment that he sees as quite tragic, where what is happening in Hong Kong can be read as basically an anti-China movement.
Yes. And this is something that is often forgotten in the Western media. There was never anything close to support for leaving the PRC [in Hong Kong]. The vast majority of respondents to surveys in Hong Kong always wanted to stay in in the PRC. Of course, in a better version of it, in a version that may have more autonomy, more democracy, depending on or indeed with more power from Beijing, that tendency very much exists also.
If you study very carefully the history of social movements and political struggles, the idea of revolution in one city doesn’t really exist.
You said a few minutes back that what Boric has done in office is another matter entirely. But I do want to ask about that, because in Chile, very tragically, very depressingly, the Left’s proposed constitution, the constitution to replace the dictatorship-era constitution with the most progressive constitution in the world, was decisively rejected by voters last year. What sort of failure was it, then? Could critics of the Chilean left’s electoral or representational turn say that this constitutional failure and the limits of Boric’s government all demonstrate the shortcomings of this alternative route for mass protest movements? Or if not, how should we think about that failure?
Yes, that kind of narrative is possible. I live in Brazil, and certain parts of the Brazilian left would come up with the narrative that, in contrast to the structures that allowed for the Lula victory in 2022, the existence, the victory, the particular type of victory, the particular type of left movement that exists in Chile has a harder time really connecting with the base in a long-term way, or achieving strategic victories. But these are fights that happen constantly between different movements within the Left.
But yes, this comes back again to the question of the extent to which Boric can be seen as a winner in this decade. This judgement has to be made relative to a very, very low bar. He just barely gets over the line against [José Antonio] Kast, who was essentially the Pinochet-defending candidate in the election that delivered him the presidency. So I think a few things can be said about the ultimate performance of Boric in Chilean politics. The movement that they put together in Congress was still quite young, relative to something like Brazil’s Workers’ Party.
Then, you can come up with a couple of ways to interpret the ultimate failure of the Constituent Assembly that is put together, that writes the new constitution. One is that the Left wrote a bad constitution. You could say that the Constitution had too much stuff or it was the wrong type of constitution or it wasn’t class based, then, you know, you can critique the content of the Constitution, and those critiques exist inside and outside of Chile. But then there’s also the very basic electoral question. I think that the voting process that picked the members of the Constituent Assembly was voluntary, whereas the final vote was mandatory.
So you had two different electorates in the two different moments of voting on this constitution. You had younger and more progressive voters picking the members of the Constituent Assembly. And I spent a few weeks wandering around and watching them write the Constitution. But then the final vote on it was a different set of voters entirely. This seems to me to have been not an ideological problem. This is like a real nuts-and-bolts electoral mismatch. This seems like a recipe for difficulties that could have been avoided.
Leftovers of the Decade
An overriding concern of your book is these dominant anarchist and horizontalist currents, which achieved a lot of power over protest movements in the early part of this century. But in the Latin American context in particular, this this was also a time when new party-based movements of the Left were winning power across the region in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and of course, Brazil, which we’ve been discussing a lot. These parties always rode a wave of popular protest and organization into government, and their governments were often radicalized as a result of these movements.
But those movements also came into conflict with the Left in power, leading to an often conflictive dynamic between the social-movement left and the Left in power in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil. In various ways, and in every one of these countries, these conflicts helped the Right take power. Does Latin America tell a somewhat particular story here, alongside this more general global story that you’re telling, a story that has lessons for both the social-movement and governing-party-based left that we all need to learn here in the United States and everywhere if we’re going to build the movements and parties that we need to win power and then to govern?
Well, yeah, I mean, I think that Latin America is a region with its own particular dynamics. And again, this is all very obvious stuff, but somehow we forgot it at the beginning of the decade, or at least certain people did. Every region is distinct, and those distinctions need to be understood very carefully. In Bolivia, you really have a set of union structures and a real party that comes together and remains stable and, even through a coup in 2019, is able to weather the repression and come back to power. Movement for Socialism (MAS) is a party that turns out to be quite resilient in the face of even quite severe reaction. The PT is a party that is able to come back after 2022, but I do think that the particularities of Latin America are interesting because unlike, you know, Indonesia — I was in Southeast Asia for many years, and it’s really hard to translate the political spectrum in many countries in Southeast Asia back into the terms of Western European languages — really a lot of things line up in Latin America.
All of the countries in South America that we’re discussing are, like the United States, Western European settler colonies with whites, in general, still at the top of a very clear racial hierarchy. There are quite a lot of similarities. There are a lot of ways in which Latin American politics are more legible to us. I think that can lead to benefits and danger. Sometimes we overestimate the similarities. But I think it is also the case that the United States is — this is a very, very broad story — becoming more like Latin America than it was ten years ago. There’s this essay, I think Alex Vitale wrote it, on “Brazilianization” that is quite relevant here.
A compelling essay.
It’s compelling. It’s credible. The collapse of whatever was left of welfare-state and social democratic institutions; extreme inequality being a path that we are sort of on. I think that makes Latin America especially interesting. But again, to answer one of the other questions embedded in your question is that overall, in the neoliberal era, what we’ve seen actually is the rise and destruction, as well as the constant cycling through, of parties that fail to establish long, firm resilience. So MAS and the PT are sort of exceptions against that larger narrative.
Are there particular lessons from the region that are maybe additional to the main lessons of your book? How the Left in power and the social-movement left, where there’s going to be kind of a natural, inevitable tension, how that tension can be maximally productive rather than leading to calamity at times?
Yeah, I think that there is a serious tension that is inevitable when you have social democratic movements in the Global South. I think that the best examples that we can look at throughout all of the history of the postwar, from 1945 to 2023, era of US-led capitalist hegemony demonstrate that there are very serious barriers to carrying out social reform. And even when social reform is possible, one must plan for the inevitable attempt to claw back power from existing elites, often in concert with international partners. I think that the best-ever cases of social democracy in the Global South (Bolivia, Lula) demonstrate just how difficult it is to hold on to power, and that again — this is back to the thing that I just keep harping on about throughout these conversations — when there is a power vacuum, it will tend to be those preexisting, reactionary (if not feudal), and internationally well-connected forces that will rush in the quickest, because they’ve been waiting for this. They were shocked and horrified to lose a small amount of privileges in the initial successes of a social democratic government.
If you look at how difficult it has been for any leader in the Global South since 1945 to stay in power and succeed, the only conclusion you can really come to is that the odds are stacked against them, that the system is fundamentally constructed in a way, in the Global South, that it is very difficult to carry out progressive social democratic reform.
I think a lot of times liberal, English-speaking media looks at the performance of this or that country in the Global South, this or that leader in Latin America or indeed Africa, Southeast Asia, throughout the world, outside of the rich North Atlantic. But by paying very, very close attention only to one particular leader, you can always find a mistake. You can always find, “Oh, well, they didn’t do this. They should have done this. Oh, corruption was a problem. Oh, they did not take advantage of the very particular opportunities.” But if you look at how difficult it has been for any leader in the Global South since 1945 to stay in power and succeed, I think the only conclusion you can really come to is that the odds are stacked against them, that the system is fundamentally constructed in a way, in the Global South, that it is very, very difficult to carry out progressive social democratic reform.
American power plays an important role in the story that you tell, alongside just the coercive power of the capitalist world system, as you were describing it. In Libya, NATO seized on mass protests to intervene, ensuring Gaddafi’s violent downfall. In Kyiv, the US energetically supported Maidan protesters. Meanwhile, the United States looked the other way when Saudis rolled into Bahrain to crush the popular uprising there. And then you tell a very interesting story about Brazil.
In 2013, at the time of the mass protests in São Paulo, Turkey was going through its Gezi Park uprising, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Dilma Rousseff to warn her that he suspected that what was happening in both countries was a foreign-backed destabilization campaign or a coup attempt. Vladimir Putin, obsessed with so-called color revolutions, called her to say much the same thing at the time. You write that Dilma disagreed, believing, as you write, that the protests were caused by raised expectations, “that once you deliver citizenship and some of its associated benefits to a previously oppressed population, they ask for even more.” But these days you write that Dilma thinks that Erdoğan and Putin were right, and as for Lula, that he believes that Lava Jato was backed by the FBI and the US State Department. What’s your overall analysis of the role that foreign intervention, particularly US intervention, both real and imagined, plays in all of this?
On the one hand, Putin-style color revolution rhetoric really flattens and distorts complex realities on the ground, and it’s become an all too convenient way for authoritarian leaders to delegitimize any sort of opposition. But on the other hand, the United States has intervened in so many countries for such a very long time, and the very inchoate nature of these sorts of mass protests, alongside all the other shortcomings and problems with their inchoate nature, also leaves them all the more vulnerable to external intervention and manipulation. So what’s your ultimate take?
So yeah, that’s a big and good question. I’ll start with the particularities and try to move out to the general. So Lula. It is documented now that Lava Jato worked with the FBI and the US State Department behind the scenes during the years in which they were breaking Brazilian laws and ultimately imprisoning him in a case that was ultimately judged to be conducted illegally by the Supreme Court. So it’s not that he says that he believes that Lava Jato was backed by the FBI and the US State Department. Lava Jato was working with the FBI and US State Department.
The sort of question mark was whether it was about what they believed to be an anti-corruption campaign or if it was motivated some other by some other geopolitical concerns. What Lula said is that he believes that the FBI and the US State Department were driven by a desire to crush Brazilian industry, to take out what we might call Brazilian national champions in the petroleum and construction industries: Odebrecht and Petrobras.
The claim that Lula made was that Lava Jato was directed with the intent of crushing the major Brazilian industries that were in competition with the United States, or would have allowed for Brazilian development in the long term. It’s not really controversial that the FBI and the State Department were in contact with Lava Jato behind the scenes.
Rousseff’s response is really interesting because at the time she says, “No, no, no, no, no” to Erdogan and to Putin. But her ultimate decision not to change her position on the BRICs, her commitment to it is what really causes US-Brazilian relations to deteriorate after the annexation of Crimea. The Obama administration really wants Dilma to change her orientation toward Russia, or at least publicly do so after the annexation of Crimea. She remains more committed to the BRICs than to that course, and that really leads to a deterioration of relations. And so with my first book, which is really about US-backed violence in the construction of the particular global system that we get at the end of the Cold War, specifically the mass murder of communists, that system serves as the backdrop for everything that happens in this book.
But the very specific nature of the global system, the very specific nature of the ways that imperialist intervention can be, and is, a fundamental part of that system, appears in different ways. Sometimes it’s more violently and unavoidably obvious. In the case of the Libyan intervention, sometimes it shapes things before the mass explosion, sometimes the so-called civil-society groups that are influential for getting things off the ground only exist in their particular format because of funding from outside.
But often, as you say, the real dynamic is that this particular form of contention creates opportunities for outside intervention, whether that comes from Saudi Arabia in the case of Bahrain, the United States in the case of Libya, or indeed the more subtle and ongoing process that we see in Brazil, where several things take place that are shaped by their relationship to the United States, Lava Jato being just one example.
And so the way that I hope to tell this story is one that is faithful to the way that things feel on the ground, where the particular violence that often can be employed to reinforce the global system appears over the horizon, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes in a very subtle way, sometimes very forcefully, and is very well placed to take advantage of the particular power vacuums created by this particular form of contention. So we can go through each one if you like. But I mean, in some of the cases, like South Korea or Chile, I don’t see any reason or any evidence to link it to that particular type of intervention. But this is something that many of the interviewees learned or they reflected upon looking back: this particular type of explosion was particularly vulnerable to co-optation or capture by outside forces that were very unapologetic and unashamed of rushing in to take advantage of that situation.
I think that it is an error to look back upon any moment in human history, but particularly one that offered so much unexpected opportunity, and say that this was the only way it could have gone.
I mean, Hillary Clinton provided the most famous example celebrating in Libya after Gaddafi’s killing by saying “we came, we saw, he died.” If you look to what Libya is now, that is quite a shocking statement. And if you look to what happened in Bahrain, this is really a moment that it becomes clear that if this kind of thing is allowed to happen, the ultimate dreams of the Arab Spring are going to be very difficult to realize.
But this is the larger background against which all of these events happen — the same system that I describe the establishment of by the end of my first book. But I try to go chronologically and show if this matters at the beginning, or if in the middle or at the end. Because I think at the end of the Cold War, the United States has a more subtle and wide-ranging set of tools at its disposal to reproduce the actual existing system in contrast to the swashbuckling days in the ’50s and ’60s when the CIA is just making comically stupid errors left and right.
You write that there are certain periods that are Lenin’s “weeks when decades happen,” and that these are moments when decisions really matter. You write that “things could have gone differently, that Bolsonaro and Sisi were not inevitable.” But given the patterns you’ve identified across so many different moments, where did you see the real decision-making points available? Didn’t the fact that so many of these movements lacked the sort of coherently structured organizations that are required to make these decisions, didn’t that mean that there were, by and large, no decisions to be made, and thus perhaps that everything was indeed inevitable, or at least that some of the stories you tell are more or less inevitable than others?
I think that it is true that in some cases there was no decision made, that ultimately the opportunity just passed because there was not an actual action or a course of action decided upon. And in that case, I think, I guess if you were to reconstruct the very unpredictable nature of the explosion of mass movements, it would have been possible to predict what would have come afterward, which is the assertion of preexisting ideological or political structures or the reassertion of existing elite power.
But I do think I want to avoid the tendency, and I guess this is a very, very easy thing to do: a sort of a reverse teleology, to act as if everything was always going to the way that it ultimately did and end up imposing this flattening of space and time that we, I think, fell victim to in 2011. So even if the final outcome, if you understand all of the elements, is understandable, and we do seek to understand how we got to the final outcome, I think that it is an error to look back upon any moment in human history, but particularly one that offered so much unexpected opportunity, and say that this was the only way it could have gone. And I think that mistake has been made fairly often in attributing to early parts of the movement the ultimate characteristics of its outcome I don’t think you have to do that. I think you can understand just how bad things went without saying that they’re all the same thing.
Your book covers mass protest movements in places that are all in the Global South, or at least outside Western Europe and the United States, outside of the traditional Global North. Why? Why did you decide against including US protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, though you do talk about Occupy or more recently the George Floyd movement of 2020, or in Europe, the Indignados movement in Spain or Syntagma Square in Greece. And then, I guess, even more importantly than why you didn’t include them, why did you choose to focus on these other parts of the world? More importantly, would your book’s analysis and conclusions hold if you if you did include these cases? Or was the dynamic in the Global North just different?
So I absolutely do think that there is a distinction that should be made between the Global North and the Global South in general. I think it’s important to understand the nature of the global system and the ways that every single country relates to the global system in a different way. The United States is quite a unique country in that it is really the hegemon. There is no country that is more powerful than it. So at the same time, yes, we must be aware of the ways that countries in the Global South have a different relationship to global power than those in the Global North.
Demonstrators during the George Floyd protests, Miami, Florida, June 7, 2020. (Mike Shaheen / Wikimedia Commons)
The answer as to why no countries in the traditional first world are included is a little bit more mundane. The criterion for inclusion in the book is that the mass protest got so large as to destabilize or to dislodge an existing government. Now, you could maybe argue that 2020 in the United States got close. Why did I end the decade on January 1, 2020, other than the very simple fact that it is ten years later than January 1, 2010? Because I wasn’t here, essentially; because I have not lived in the United States since 2006. I already started working on the book in 2019. I was already putting the proposal together at the end of that year, and I thought that wrapping it up in that sort of clean manner, with that sort of clean break of the pandemic at the end of the decade, would allow for me to speak most coherently about the subjects that I had an ability to investigate well in relationship to the rest of the English-speaking media, because in this, in the world of English-speaking publishing, I thought that I would be pretty poorly placed to come up with a book or even a chapter about George Floyd 2020.
However (and people have told me this), I expected that it might go this way: reading through the book, reading through what happens in 2011, and through the rest of the decade, this will rhyme, or remind readers, of things in the United States that did take place during the George Floyd uprising. I think a lot of that reflection that I hope will happen in each reader’s mind is productive. And I think that was a better way for that conversation to happen as a conversation with the experiences that each reader had.
So yes, I think the lessons, some of the lessons absolutely matter. And I think that when they don’t matter, I hope that’s clear— that my particular style of historical reconstruction makes it clear when the lessons seem to be important for the United States and when they don’t. I mean, one way that things are really different — and I state this kind of glibly in the book — in general in Western Europe, in countries that are considered to be allies and stable democracies by the global system, the United States, global media, no matter how large a protest gets, NATO is not going to bomb a Western ally.
The solution that is presented in Egypt or the solution that is imposed on Libya is not going to happen in Spain, in Greece. NATO is not going to bomb itself, right? The United States is the only country in the world without a nation more powerful than it. By definition, no country that is more powerful than the United States can take advantage of a vacuum that is created in the United States. So that is one way, I think, that the Global North needs to be separated from the Global South.
Often Global North countries are given the benefit of the doubt that, “Oh, you have security forces that are allowed to do their job, they’re allowed to repress, because every country that exists has security forces whose job it is to use violence to maintain the system as it exists, to reproduce the order in any given country.” And often first-world countries are given the benefit of the doubt by global media and the world’s largest military, which is the US military. France is allowed to sort out who’s breaking the law, whose head gets to get cracked in and who is allowed to protest peacefully. Whereas this kind of slippage into, “Oh, the people are asking for your removal, let’s just do it for you” is something that is more likely to happen the poorer your country is, and the more that the United States and its allies see you as a contending power or a threat to the “US -led global order.”
So that’s a long answer. But hopefully, that’s why it’s so important that this book is constructed as a history rather than an argument, because I think that going through the actual events and looking at the structure of the global system, it becomes clear what is different and what is the same across countries, and how that Global North/Global South divide really matters.Original post