Truth to Power is a regular series of conversations with writers about the promises and pitfalls of movements for social justice. From the roots of racial capitalism to the psychic toll of poverty, from resource wars to popular uprisings, the interviews in this column focus on how to write about the myriad causes of oppression and the organized desire for a better world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Rithika Ramamurthy: The central idea of your book, If We Burn, is that between 2010 and 2020, more people protested for justice than ever in human history—but most didn’t get what they wanted. By diving into 10 disruptive mass protest moments over the past decade, you show that much of the repertoire and strategy from Tunisia to Hong Kong tended toward riots without plans. Can you talk broadly about the mismatch between desires and outcomes?
Vincent Bevins: The book takes as its starting point something for which I think there’s ample evidence: there is quite a lot of energy and desire around the world to change the global system that we inhabit. There are quite a lot of people willing to take risks, take action, and work to try to create a better world. If the question is not of desire, energy, or will, then perhaps the question is about tactics. The book is about a particular repertoire of contention, or the way people responded to injustice or tried to build a better world in the 2010s.
Building a book or history of a decade around a particular type of response to injustice—acting as if mass protest was the most important thing that happened in the 2010s—is valuable if we believe that a mismatch between tactics and goals is something that can be changed….That’s a lot easier to fix than if people didn’t care, didn’t want to change the world, or weren’t willing to take risks. So, a tactical question is the central conceit of this work of history, one which hopes that this is something that can be learned from.
In the 2010s, a particular response to injustice becomes hegemonic. It seems as if the natural way to respond to abuses committed by governments or elites is the apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, leaderless, horizontally organized mass protest. Often, they are said to “prefigure” the society they wish to bring about. What I try to establish is: just like anything else that humans do, every single one of the ingredients in this tactical recipe comes from somewhere else. It has ideological and historical precedents you can trace. When injustice occurs, people—as US sociologist Charles Tilly told us long ago—don’t necessarily do what would be most effective. They do something they already know about, something they’ve seen elsewhere.
This type of response to injustice becomes a driver of history in the 2010s. If it were just the case that it didn’t work—if people protested and nothing happened—that would not be such an interesting story. But the strange thing about the 2010s is that at least in the beginning, there is apparent victory. In the cases I choose to analyze, this repertoire of contention successfully dislodges or destabilizes existing governments. The problem is what comes next.
RR: Let’s talk about media. You make it clear that media—newspapers, photographs, television, socials—has a direct relationship to the visibility, legibility, successes or failures, and the very existence of protest. Can you talk a bit more about that relationship, and perhaps a bit about what the political economy of media in the past decade had to do with it?
VB: There is no protest as we understand it without the existence of mass media. Historically—if we think to a time before photography, newspapers, or the possibility of any given act being represented to a much larger group of people—it did not make a lot of sense to demonstrate to the entire nation.
Media has now been a big part of our lives for hundreds of years. Benedict Anderson famously argued that the entire idea of a nation would not have existed without media. Establishing a relationship to media is also necessary for the existence of protest. This doesn’t imply that we can just snap our fingers and wish our way out of a mediated world. We live in a world of representation, and we will be mediated and represented whether we like it or not.
This becomes very important in what I call the mass protest decade, not only because the way that media covers protests affects the way people elsewhere understand what’s happening, but it also reconfigures the concrete nature of the movement in the streets. In other words, the representation does not just change the way that other people understand a protest, it also changes the thing itself.
If a movement cannot speak for itself, someone will end up speaking for it.
During the June 2013 protests in Brazil, the media switched its position—from “this is a group of punks and anarchists, we need to clear up the streets and the police need to crack down on them,” to “this police repression is abominable, and these protests are defending the right of freedom of expression”—in the span of 12 hours. When the media starts to change its story, it starts describing the protest in different ways than the original organizers. This means the people that come to the protest as a result of the media reaction to the police crackdown come with a different set of ideas as to what the protest is really about. These people eventually enter into conflict with the original organizers, because of this strange chasm that has been created by the media. There are two groups of people that are in the same streets, at the same protests, but with diametrically opposed ideas of what it’s about. Most of the book is a history built around one strange phenomenon: the mass protest that gets so big it becomes something else.
When I asked people what they think they learned from the decade, most protesters, activists, and revolutionaries of the 2010s came to the conclusion that this particular form of response to injustice—the spontaneous, leaderless, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized mass protest—is especially vulnerable to misrepresentation. It can be hijacked by interpretations imposed from the outside or lied about by the media. If a movement cannot speak for itself, someone will end up speaking for it. Many people said that looking back, this form of protest relies to a problematic extent on the media.
On the other side of this is that people like me, foreign correspondents—those working for the largest, best-funded outlets in global English-language corporate media—were handed a world-historical task that we did not deserve. We were often asked quickly, on deadline, and with very little resources to explain what was going on. So, not only is this form of protest particularly vulnerable to mediation and its inherent weaknesses, but also the existing global media apparatus fails when being asked to interpret this political phenomenon.
This has a lot to do with the political economy of media. Not only does the capitalist system privilege the richest nations when it comes to shaping the global order, but the outlets staffed with Global North, English-speaking people are often the ones with the biggest megaphones. They’re usually the ones playing the strange role of mediating, interpreting, and reconfiguring the state of the mass protest in the streets. When foreign correspondents or talking heads gazed upon Tahrir Square in 2011 and saw something complex and fundamentally incomprehensible to them, they saw what they wanted to see, grasped for things that already existed in their ideological toolboxes, and picked elements that would confirm their biases.
RR: One of your key points is that there was kind of a copy-paste of tactics and strategies between extremely distinct political situations. Media makes that possible, but so does the privileging of structurelessness in movement building in the past 10 years. Can you talk more about the idea of structurelessness and its consequences?
VB: There were material and ideological reasons for putative structurelessness across the mass protest decade of the 2010s. Some people believed in the rejection of hierarchy, representation, and structure, but quite a lot of others wanted organizations that could push for particular outcomes—but these didn’t exist. Even though many people who put together the movements that ultimately became the 2011 uprisings in Tahrir Square would have loved to have a revolutionary party, autonomous working-class organizations, or structure in general—they just didn’t. Left wing and civil society organizations had been concretely decimated under global neoliberalism and decades of the Mubarak dictatorship. But because the media saw what it wanted to see, apparent leaderlessness and lack of organization in Tahrir Square was seen as a good thing by certain parts of the global media.
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There are people who really believe in horizontalist formations and the rejection of representation and hierarchy. But between those that did and those that didn’t, nobody I spoke to came out of the decade wishing that the movements had been more structureless. Everyone that changed their ideology or moved in some way along this general spectrum that I’ve created—between total structurelessness and total bloody-minded organization—did so in the same direction.
Many of the organizations that were important for mass politics in the first half of the 20th century had been decimated by the end of it, so some people said, “We can turn this into a good thing; we can take the decimation of representative structures and lean into it.” Others didn’t like that decimation or the structurelessness of the uprisings that followed. But that’s what they were faced with, given real conditions.
But who do NGOs really represent, in the sense of political representation? Who do they answer to? Is it the citizens that they are tasked with helping, or their donors?
RR: You mention NGOs here and there throughout the book as a social safety net system that has stepped into the vacuum where states have been starved by neoliberal austerity. What role do you feel that nonprofit organizations play in bolstering or barricading movement building?
VB: On the one hand, my investigation of mass protests in the 2010s demonstrates that NGOs are quite effective organizations for getting things done. In many moments over this decade, well-trained NGO activists played a very important role in either getting protests off the ground or taking advantage of the power vacuums created by protest movements. A small group of people who have studied history, are well-organized, and have relatively clear goals and decent funding can punch above its weight.
But who do NGOs really represent, in the sense of political representation? Who do they answer to? Is it the citizens that they are tasked with helping, or their donors? I think it’s clear that it’s the donors. If, for example, an NGO is tasked with feeding the homeless in San Francisco, it is not the homeless in San Francisco that are allowed to decide whether the NGO will get their next round of funding.
When it comes to democratic representation—as imperfect as representative democracy is—it is at least true in theory that the recipients, for example, of the National Health Service in Britain have control over continuing to fund it or voting to get rid of it. Given the concrete set of economic and political relations in the global system right now, NGOs end up filling a role that could be filled by other organizations. They do good work. But when push comes to shove, the people they actually represent are more often rich elites than citizens.
RR: Five days after your book was released, Israel began its ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip. Millions of people have gathered worldwide in unprecedented solidarity with Palestine, mass arrests and repressive crackdowns in institutions have followed. Could you talk more about this moment emerging from the movement’s long-repressed infrastructure and the unifying demand for a ceasefire?
VB: Speaking as broadly and generally as possible, a clear demand is better than a diffuse set of demands that can be misinterpreted. But the other side of that equation is that real costs must be imposed on the people making the decisions. I marched for a ceasefire last Saturday, and I would march again this Saturday. I think there’s value in being counted as one of many people in the world that clearly desire an end to the killing in Gaza. But the point at which the people in power feel compelled to meet a clear demand, rather than just being convinced that we’re right, is when real costs are imposed on the people not giving in to a movement. In the short term, what matters to the current Israeli government is support from the United States more than the people of the world.
In the book, I mention that boycotts and strikes are better at imposing costs on existing elites than demonstrations unless the latter gets so big that the economy no longer operates. There is value in the fundamentally communicative act of a protest; there is value in showing the world all the people who are willing to take the risk. But that can be ignored if Israel and Washington decide, “We know that you’re quite passionate about this, but this is the field of incentives that we face.” Governments have to care about all kinds of things. A message from a particularly noisy set of the population is often going to be less urgent than threats to the bottom line: GDP growth, reelection, economic shutdown, or carrying out policies.
There are cases in the book where things get so untenable for decision-makers that they give in—but tragically, they can’t figure out what they are supposed to give up because there’s no clear demand. In the case of Gaza, we have the inverse. We have a very clear demand, but we don’t have decision-makers feeling that the things they care about will be disrupted.
The possibility of reelection is one of the only things the United States government really cares about. But even if people are telling Biden that he’s going to lose an election if he doesn’t change course, he can understand that there is a real desire for him to do something, but it may still not present him with a concrete set of obstacles or consequences. I’ve learned from writing both of my books that most governments—even the ones that carry out horrifying, unimaginable atrocities—anyone that can run a country and stay in power for more than a few months is fairly rational. They are responding to a wide set of incentives, and they choose what to prioritize. Any US president, when faced with the credible threat that a given path is going to cost them electorally, has to consider their interest and strategy.
People ask: what’s the answer to why revolution doesn’t happen?
But my understanding is that political scientists who spend a lot of time thinking about electoral strategy in the US context have come to the conclusion that foreign policy is, unfortunately, not a huge driver of voting patterns. [Our] government is doing things which affects hundreds of countries across the world, and it’s very difficult to ask the citizens of the United States to keep up with these activities. Part of my job as a professional journalist is to make sure it’s easier for people to understand the importance of global politics and foreign policy, and the degree to which the ways that they interact with their government—which is, at least, theoretically responsive and represents us—actually matters to the outcomes of people that are being killed right now.
RR: Your book is written as gripping narrative nonfiction, telling the events of the past decade through your eyes and the characters who made history happen in what reads almost like a political thriller. How did you choose and develop this way of writing as a way to represent history, and how does this shape its politics?
VB: Before they read this book, people often think that it will be a new argument or theory which fills a niche in the market of ideas—as if I’m saying, “Here’s one weird trick for doing revolution” and trying to find supporting evidence for my take. People ask: what’s the answer to why revolution doesn’t happen?
The answer is not a very satisfying one to give in an interview. I really tried to build the history of the world around the question of mass protest. I spent four years meeting everybody that could help me put this story together. The answer is the story. I would have had an entirely different “answer” if I had not spent four years traveling and speaking to 250 other smart people around the world, collecting their stories and interviews, deciding how their stories relate to the larger narrative that we know to be true.
Journalists get to cheat. We don’t have to come up with moving scenes, happy reflections, or even wise analysis on the historical events like the mass protest movement. I decided to make [the] book a narrative history, to use real events in nonfiction propelled by plot, tension, and even suspense to some extent—even though everyone knows how it was going to end. Putting together a book like this is quite hard, but if you do it, you have assembled something out of other people’s experiences.
The thing that made writing this book possible in this way is not a particular skill set or commitment….I had the resources and privilege, and I was lucky enough to spend time to do it.