Been reading some interesting (and challenging) reflections on protest movements recently, so the next two days will cover what I’ve learned. First up a Guardian ‘long read’ from Vincent Bevins, a journo, on ‘Why did the Street Movements of the 2010s fail’. The piece is based on his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.
Although it’s written with verve, I wasn’t blown away by the piece – a bit meandering and too many generalizations, even by my standards. But the central argument, based on interviews with more than 200 participants in street movements across 12 countries, is worth taking seriously.
The set up: ‘In the decade from 2010 to 2020, humanity witnessed an explosion of mass protests that seemed to herald profound changes. These protests started in Tunisia and erupted across the Arab world, before huge demonstrations also rocked countries like Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine and Hong Kong. By the end of the decade, protests were roiling Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, Australia, France, Indonesia, much of Latin America, India, Lebanon and Haiti. During these 10 years, more people took part in street demonstrations than at any other point in human history.
Many of these protests were experienced as a euphoric victory by their participants and met with optimism in the international press. But years later, after most of the foreign reporters have gone, we can now see how the uprisings preceded – if not necessarily caused – outcomes that were very different from the goals of the protesters. Nowhere did things turn out as planned. In many cases, things got much worse.’
Strengths and Weaknesses: ‘The particular repertoire of contention that became very common from 2010 to 2020 – apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organised, leaderless mass protests – did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums. But it was much less successful when it came to filling them. And there was always some force ready to step in. In Egypt, it was the military. In Bahrain, it was Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Turkey it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In Hong Kong it was Beijing.
There was one kind of response that kept coming up [in his interviews, when he asked “If you could speak to a teenager somewhere around the world right now, someone who might be fighting to change history in some kind of political struggle, what would you tell them? What lessons did you learn?”]. I think Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist, put it best, or at least, the most directly: “Organise. Create an organised movement. And don’t be afraid of representation,” he told me without hesitation, in his office in Giza. “We thought representation was elitism, but actually it is the essence of democracy.”
I heard answers like this over and over, confirming research compiled by scholars. As early as 1975, the sociologist William Gamson found that movements succeed more often when they deploy hierarchical forms of organisation. In a wide-ranging 2022 study, the political scientist Mark Beissinger found that loose uprisings of the type seen in Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014 tend to increase inequality and ethnic tensions, while they do not consolidate democracy or end corruption.
Not everyone I met had come round to favouring “verticalism” and hierarchy, and insisting that representation matters. Some people stayed in the same place. Mayara Vivian, [a Brazilian protester], remains mostly true to the ideals she adopted as a young punk. But in the years I spent doing interviews, not one person told me that they had become more horizontalist, or more anarchist, or more in favour of spontaneity and structurelessness. Everyone who moved did so in the same direction, closer to a classically “Leninist” view on how to organise political movements.’
And what’s happened to those activists since?
‘For some of them, the horrible comedown, the plunge into depression that came after things did not work out, was something like a hangover. You can get yourself all messed up on revolutionary elan, just like you can drink to excess or lose yourself in drugs. It warps your senses and causes you to make poor decisions. It isn’t real, and you’re going to pay for it later.
Then there was another interpretation, just as common. It is the most real thing that one can ever feel. It is not an illusion at all; it is a stunning, momentary glimpse of the way that life is really supposed to be. It is how we can feel every single day in a world when artificial distinctions and narrowly self-interested activities melt away. When our society truly is participatory, when we are truly forging history in every movement and acting in love and harmony with our fellow human beings, we will be able to feel this way all the time.’
Next up, activist guru Srjda Popovic and colleagues on what tactics work best in non-violent protest movements.