Why Our Popular Mass Movements Fail

The wave of global popular protests that erupted in 2010 and lasted a decade were extinguished. This means new tactics and new strategies, as Vincent Bevins explains in his book “If We Burn.”

Protest (Assemby Required) – by Mr. Fish

There was a decade of popular uprisings from 2010 until the global pandemic in 2020. These uprisings shook the foundations of the global order. They denounced corporate domination, austerity cuts and demanded economic justice and civil rights. There were nationwide protests in the United States centered around the 59-day Occupy encampments. There were popular eruptions in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Chile and during South Korea’s Candlelight Light Revolution. Discredited politicians were driven from office in Greece, Spain, Ukraine, South Korea, Egypt, Chile and Tunisia. Reform, or at least the promise of it, dominated public discourse. It seemed to herald a new era.

Then the backlash. The aspirations of the popular movements were crushed. State control and social inequality expanded. There was no significant change. In most cases, things got worse. The far-right emerged triumphant.

What happened? How did a decade of mass protests that seemed to herald democratic openness, an end to state repression, a weakening of the domination of global corporations and financial institutions and an era of freedom sputter to an ignominious failure? What went wrong? How did the hated bankers and politicians maintain or regain control? What are the effective tools to rid ourselves of corporate domination?

Vincent Bevins in his new book“If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution” chronicles how we failed on several fronts.

The “techno-optimists” who preached that new digital media was a revolutionary and democratizing force did not foresee that authoritarian governments, corporations and internal security services could harness these digital platforms and turn them into engines of wholesale surveillance, censorship and vehicles for propaganda and disinformation. The social media platforms that made popular protests possible were turned against us.

Many mass movements, because they failed to implement hierarchical, disciplined, and coherent organizational structures, were unable to defend themselves. In the few cases when organized movements achieved power, as in Greece and Honduras, the international financiers and corporations conspired to ruthlessly wrest power back. In most cases, the ruling class swiftly filled the power vacuums created by these protests. They offered new brands to repackage the old system. This is the reason the 2008 Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year. It won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference. It beat out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. The professionals knew. Brand Obama was a marketer’s dream.

Too often the protests resembled flash mobs, with people pouring into public spaces and creating a media spectacle, rather than engaging in a sustained, organized and prolonged disruption of power. Guy Debord captures the futility of these spectacles/protests in his book “Society of the Spectacle,” noting that the age of the spectacle means those entranced by its images are “molded to its laws.” Anarchists and antifascists, such as those in the black bloc, often smashed windows, threw rocks at police and overturned or burned cars. Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism were justified in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection.” This “riot porn” delighted the media, many of those who engaged in it and, not coincidentally, the ruling class which used it to justify further repression and demonize protest movements. An absence of political theory led activists to use popular culture, such as the film “V for Vendetta,” as reference points. The far more effective and crippling tools of grassroots educational campaigns, strikes and boycotts were often ignored or sidelined.

As Karl Marx understood, “Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented.”

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution,” is a brilliant and masterfully reported dissection of the rise of global popular movements, the self-defeating mistakes they made, the strategies the corporate and ruling elites employed to retain power and crush the aspirations of a frustrated population, as well as an exploration of the tactics popular movements must employ to successfully fight back.

“In the mass protest decade, street explosions created revolutionary situations, often on accident,” Bevins writes. “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.”

The seasoned activists who Bevins interviews echo this point.

“Organize,” Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian human rights campaigner, tells Bevin in the book. “Create an organized movement. And don’t be afraid of representation. We thought representation was elitism, but actually it is the essence of democracy.”

Ukrainian leftist Artem Tidva agrees.

“I used to be more anarchist,” Tidva says in the book. “Back then everyone wanted to do an assembly; whenever there was a protest, always an assembly. But I think any revolution with no organized labor party will just give more power to economic elites, who are already very well-organized.”

The historian, Crane Brinton, in his book “The Anatomy of Revolution” writes that revolutions have discernable preconditions. He cites discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Revolutions always begin, he writes, by making impossible demands that if the government met, would mean the end of the old configurations of power. But most importantly, despotic regimes always first collapse internally. Once sections of the ruling apparatus — police, security services, judiciary, media, government bureaucrats — will no longer attack, arrest, jail or shoot demonstrators, once they no longer obey orders, the old, discredited regime becomes paralyzed and terminal.

But these internal forms of control during the decade of protests rarely wavered. They may, as in Egypt, turn on the figureheads of the old regime, but they also worked to undermine popular movements and populist leaders. They sabotaged efforts to wrest power from global corporations and oligarchs. They prevented or removed populists from office. The vicious campaign waged against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters when he headed the Labour Party during the 2017 and 2019 U.K. general elections, for example, was orchestrated by members within his own partycorporations, the conservative opposition, celebrity commentators, a mainstream press that amplified the smears and character assassination, members of the British military, and the nation’s security services. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, publicly warned that the Labour leader was a “present danger to our country.”

Disciplined political organizations are not, in and of themselves, sufficient, as Greece’s left-wing Syriza government proved. If the leadership of an anti-establishment party is not willing to break free from the existing power structures they will be co-opted or crushed when their demands are rejected by the reigning centers of power.

In 2015, “the Syriza leadership was convinced that if it rejected a new bailout, European lenders would buckle in the face of generalized financial and political unrest,” Costas Lapavitsas, a former Syriza MP and a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, observed in 2016.

“Well-meaning critics repeatedly pointed out that the euro had a rigid set of institutions with their own internal logic that would simply reject demands to abandon austerity and write off debt,” Lapivistas explained. “Moreover, the European Central Bank stood ready to restrict the provision of liquidity to the Greek banks, throttling the economy — and the Syriza government with it.”

That is precisely what happened.

“Conditions in the country became increasingly desperate as the government soaked up liquidity reserves, the banks went dry, and the economy barely ticked over,” Lapivistas wrote. “Syriza is the first example of a government of the left that has not simply failed to deliver on its promises but also adopted the programme of the opposition, wholesale.”

Having failed to obtain any compromises from the Troika — European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF — Syriza “adopted a harsh policy of budget surpluses, raised taxes and sold off Greek banks to speculative funds, privatized airports and ports, and is about to slash pensions. The new bailout has condemned a Greece mired in recession to long-term decline as growth prospects are poor, the educated youth is emigrating and national debt weighs heavily,” he wrote.

“Syriza failed not because austerity is invincible, nor because radical change is impossible, but because, disastrously, it was unwilling and unprepared to put up a direct challenge to the euro,” Lapavitsas noted. “Radical change and the abandonment of austerity in Europe require direct confrontation with the monetary union itself.”

The Iranian American sociologist, Asef Bayat, who Bevins notes lived through both the Iranian Revolution in 1979 in Tehran and the 2011 uprising in Egypt, distinguishes between subjective and objective conditions for the Arab Spring uprisings that erupted in 2010. The protestors may have opposed neoliberal policies, but they also were shaped, he argues, by neoliberal “subjectivity.”

“The Arab revolutions lacked the kind of radicalism — in political and economic outlook — that marked most other twentieth-century revolutions,” Bayat writes in his book “Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring.” “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, political accountability, and legal reform. The prevailing voices, secular and Islamist alike, took free market, property relations, and neoliberal rationality for granted – an uncritical worldview that would pay only lip service to the genuine concerns of the masses for social justice and distribution.”

As Bevins writes, a “generation of individuals raised to view everything as if it were a business enterprise was de-radicalized, came to view this global order as ‘natural,’ and became unable to imagine what it takes to carry out a true revolution.”

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, died in October 2011 during the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park. To my dismay, several of those in the encampment wanted to hold a memorial in his memory.

The popular uprisings, Bevins writes, “did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums.” But the power vacuums were swiftly filled in Egypt by the military. In Bahrain, by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council and in Kyiv, by a “different set of oligarchs, and well-organized militant nationalists.” In Turkey it was eventually filled by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Hong Kong it was Beijing.

“The horizontally structured, digitally coordinated, leaderless mass protest is fundamentally illegible,” Bevins writes. “You cannot gaze upon it or ask it questions and come up with a coherent interpretation based on evidence. You can assemble facts, absolutely — millions of them. You are just not going to be able to use them to construct an authoritative reading. This means that the significance of these events will be imposed upon them from the outside. In order to understand what might happen after any given protest explosion, you must not only pay attention to who is waiting in the wings to fill a power vacuum. You have to pay attention to who has the power to define the uprising itself.”

In short, we must pit organized power against organized power. This is a truth revolutionary tacticians such as Vladimir Lenin, who saw anarchist violence as counterproductive, understood. The lack of hierarchical structures in recent mass movements, done to prevent a leadership cult and make sure all voices are heard, while noble in its aspirations, make movements easy prey. By the time Zuccotti Park had hundreds of people attending General Assemblies, for example, the diffusion of voices and opinions meant paralysis.

“Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement,” Lenin writes.

Revolutions require skilled organizers, self-discipline, an alternative ideological vision, revolutionary art and education. They require sustained disruptions of power, and most importantly leaders who represent the movement. Revolutions are long, difficult projects that take years to make, slowly and often imperceptibly eating away at the foundations of power. The successful revolutions of the past, along with their theorists, should be our guide, not the ephemeral images that entrance us on mass media.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is the author of several books including the best sellers War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and his latest, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Originally published in TomDispatch.com


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