How do people make change in this world? Many of us may imagine countless masses marching through city streets, demonstrators pitching tents and occupying city squares for days, or police violently cracking down and engaging in pitched battles with black-clad protesters.
Unleashed by the awesome powers of social media to amplify images and news at an unprecedented speed and scale, ordinary people have started to take to the streets more and more, bringing cities to a halt and striking fear in the hearts of elites around the world. Yet once the protests die down, things often seem to get worse.
In his new book “If We Burn: The Decade of Mass Protest and the Missing Revolution,” journalist Vincent Bevins investigates the phenomenon of digitally-coordinated mass protests that has come to define the early 21st century. His book draws invaluable lessons from the success (and many failures) of the 2010s, what he calls the mass protest decade.
Bevins’ ambitious history of this time effortlessly glides among a diverse set of countries and regions — including Tunisia, Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, Ukraine, South Korea, Chile and Hong Kong — weaving together historical context, social theory and the firsthand experiences of sources he interviews. These stories from people who were present on the ground are the heart and soul of the book and a testament to Bevins’ skills in sourcing and research.
This impressive achievement should be hardly surprising for anyone who has followed Bevins’ prolific writings as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. His debut book, “The Jakarta Method,” explained to a mainstream audience how the CIA helped orchestrate Indonesia’s 1960s genocide of one million communists and exported that repression around the world.
“If We Burn” is an easy read, with short chapters to help break up complex concepts into bite-sized pieces. Its conversational prose is refreshing and accessible. Bevins synthesizes a variety of seemingly disparate ideas into a cohesive narrative, offering urgent insights to activists about how they can learn from the successes and failures of the first mass protest decade.
The people highlighted in the book go on a rollercoaster of emotions — excitement, disbelief, euphoria, consternation and disillusionment — as they navigate the various uprisings they were a part of. For almost all of the protests, they ended in heartbreak and failure. Sometimes, the outcomes were more ambiguous, delivering modest reforms and compromise deals.
Indeed, history doesn’t end after the bad guy is overthrown. Bevins’ empirical reading of the protest decade makes it clear that there is no such thing as the inevitable — everything is up for grabs; things can get better or they can get worse. There are a million unintended consequences to every mass protest.
Brazil is a perfect example of this. Bevins pays special attention to the 2013 mass protests, sparked by a 20 cent rise in bus fares in São Paulo, incorporating his own experiences as a journalist covering the events. The uprising snowballed to a massive scale and was soon co-opted by rightwing forces to permanently damage the approval ratings of center-left President Dilma Rousseff. This upheaval shocked the Brazilian Workers’ Party into separating itself from social movements on the streets, opening up an opportunity for the center right to impeach Rousseff in 2016. Then the far right capitalized on the political vacuum, throwing Rousseff’s predecessor Lula in jail and electing Jair Bolsonaro.
The whiplash is remarkable — a leftist organization’s actions spawned a mass protest movement that set off a series of events that contributed to the rise of a neofascist. Yet, this chain of events did not necessarily need to happen. Perhaps if activists had a more robust control of their own media narrative, or if they had struck a deal with the Workers’ Party, they would have been able to better control the unintended consequences. Or maybe that would have just made things worse. “If We Burn” is littered with a graveyard of these “what if” questions, the type of regrets and recriminations that live with you for the rest of your life.
But these failures also spark a burning determination and hope to learn from your mistakes. Mass protests, that get so massive they engulf a whole nation, create rifts in the existing political order. They are also fundamentally illegible because they contain millions of different people from various backgrounds and clashing worldviews, making it impossible to summarize their meanings. This tremendous opportunity to assign that meaning will be seized, be it by protest leaders, reactionaries or a foreign imperialist power.
In order to capitalize on the moral weight of the protests, Bevins writes that activists must have a clear vision of what to do after they win and how to cement their gains in the long term. The various protest leaders he interviewed appear to come to similar conclusions: they needed to be more organized and more proactive with disseminating their message and political analyses.
The book invites a critical reading of the dominant ideology of the early 21st century. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union left socialist movements around the world reeling, particularly in the Global South. Grappling with mistakes of the Second World, many progressives turned toward anarchist-leaning philosophies.
However, many of these ideas, which are often packaged as “horizontalism,” proved unhelpful during the decade of mass protests. Strict adherence to consensus-based decisions immobilized organizers at crucial moments, and a rejection of hierarchy made it impossible to effectively recruit the apolitical masses on the street.
Organizers must also be clear about their true capabilities, because the only two successful outcomes of a mass confrontation with the state will be reform or revolution. The decentralized movements of the 2010s were often unwilling to consider the former and unprepared to carry out the latter.
“If We Burn” limits its focus to the Global South, in part because the stakes are so much higher there than in the wealthy capitalist countries of the North. For example, many of the middle-class leaders of Occupy Wall Street could fall back on lucrative jobs in the media or academia. Activists in Egypt faced torture, jail, exile or worse after they lost.
This echoes one of the biggest self criticisms that activists shared with Bevins: That they looked too much toward the U.S. instead of drawing upon the rich intellectual tradition of revolutionaries from the Global South. In fact, the very title of the book originally came from a scene in the “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” that got turned into a meme and was spread throughout the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Surely slogans from a fantasy story shouldn’t be a rallying cry for a real-world political movement that has life-or-death consequences.
Frustration with the current order will likely continue to increase as global inequalities deepen, repressive governments innovate and methods of communication speed up. We’ll probably see many more protest decades.
“If We Burn” is an urgent and necessary intervention for world whose climate is on fire and whose people are more desperate than ever for social transformation. I hope activists choose to engage seriously with it. Bevins pulls off a masterclass in the type of scholarship that Karl Marx famously said we need more of: The point isn’t to merely interpret the world, but to change it.
“If We Burn” comes out on Oct. 2 from PublicAffairs. This article has been edited after publication.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.