Mass Protest Hasn’t Won the Change We Need. What Comes Next?

Reporter Vincent Bevins on his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and The Missing Revolution.

Maximillian Alvarez

A woman cries during a vigil following a demonstration against anti-Asian racism in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on March 21, 2021. ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

The decade from 2010 to 2020 was one that saw more people around the world participating in protests than at any other point in human history. And yet, looking back, the results of so many of these mass protests, the societal changes that followed, were the opposite of what protestors were demanding. In his new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, award-winning journalist and foreign correspondent Vincent Bevins asks: Why? In this special episode, recorded at The Real News Network studio in Baltimore, Max spoke with Bevins about his new book and about his own working life as a journalist covering people’s uprisings around the world. 

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Vincent Bevins: My name is Vincent Bevins and I’m a journalist and I’m the author of If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and The Missing Revolution, which comes out this October with Public Affairs. Before that, I wrote a book called The Jakarta Method, which came out in 2020. And before that, I’ve served as foreign correspondent primarily around the world since about 2008 for publications like The Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and The Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

My name is Maximilian Alvarez and I am beyond excited, because as you guys heard, we got my man, Vincent Bevins here in Baltimore. We are sitting right now in the Real News Network studio. Vince is beginning the book tour for his incredible new book, which he mentioned at the top, which is titled, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and The Missing Revolution. If you have been living under a rock and haven’t come across Vincent’s work, including The Jakarta Method and this book, you need to correct that yesterday. I promise you, if you listen to this show, you are going to learn a hell of a lot from Vincent’s work.

It’s really going to shake you to your core, but I think in a good and necessary way, because the work that he does is not only vital for us to understand the moment that we’re in and the long road of repression that created the sort of conditions in which we are living and organizing today, not only in the US but around the world. But I do truly believe that there are a lot of points of intersection in the work that Vincent does and the work that we do here and the movements that we cover every week on this show.

And in fact, his new book, If We Burn, forces a really important but tough conversation that I think we all need to have. Looking back, particularly, on the past decade, particularly between 2010 and 2020, taking stock of just the incredible amount of social upheaval and people’s rebellions that have taken place in that time and sort of asking the very open and honest question of: How successful were these movements? What change have they actually brought about in us and the societies that we live in? How have the establishment, the police, the military, the powers that be responded to these mass demonstrations of humanity rising up and crying for better and fighting for better? How has the establishment responded to those?

What Vincent lays out in this book is an incredibly sobering answer to that question, and I want to dig into this book and to Vincent’s work itself, which we’re going to do in a second. But just to sort of set the table here, I want to read y’all a little passage from the introduction to Vincent’s new book. And as always, when we do these special episodes of the show, when we’re focusing on books and stuff like that, the goal here is not to try to condense and summarize this massive important book into a one-hour conversation. The point is to interest y’all enough that you go out, buy it, and read it yourself, and then reach out to us and let us know what you think.

So to get that process started, I wanted to read from the intro here where Vincent writes, In the past decade, from 2010 to 2020, around the world, humanity witnessed the explosion of mass protests that heralded profound changes. They were experienced as euphoric victory for their participants and met with adulation and optimism in the international press. But years later, after most of the foreign reporters were gone, we see that the uprisings proceeded, if not necessarily caused, outcomes that were very different from the goals of the movements. Nowhere did things turn out as planned. In far too many cases, things got much worse according to the standards articulated by the streets themselves.

Indeed, it might even be possible to tell the story of that decade as the story of mass protests and their unexpected consequences. At the risk of appearing over ambitious, this book will attempt to do just that. What happens if we try to write the story of the world from 2010 to 2020, guided by one puzzling question, how is it possible that so many mass protests apparently led to the opposite of what they asked for?”

All right, so again, if you don’t want to go buy the book and read it with that intro alone, you need to check your pulse, but we are going to dig into this book in more depth with Vincent now. But before we get there, man, I told you before we recorded, on the show, we really love to get to know more about the backstories of the working people that we talk to. And you even start this book with yourself as a journalist on the ground in the midst of all this. So I wanted to do a condensed version of the Working People standard format here and start by getting to know a little more about you, your backstory, and your path into doing this work, writing The Jakarta Method, writing If We Burn, being a foreign correspondent, how did you end up where you ended up?

Vincent Bevins: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I would love to and thanks so much for having me and for that introduction. I’m really grateful for you pointing to that particular bit of the book, which I think is really the thing that kept me up at night for now 10 years since the scene that you just described. The opening scene of the book where I’m in Sao Paulo as a foreign correspondent and has really preoccupied me for the last four years when I worked on this book basically full time. But before all of that, I grew up in Southern California. I went to University in Northern California. I was always interested in reading and writing and politics and history and political economy, but I believed that I was going to become an academic. As an undergraduate, I was the kind of a graduate that thought the thing to do was to keep going. I thought I was going to do a PhD in political philosophy, but I also-

Maximillian Alvarez: Same. Not the political philosophy part.

Vincent Bevins: You thought you were going to be an academic.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, yeah, I tried. They kindly booted me out.

Vincent Bevins: I was offered a bridge onto that burning building that I did not take because, I mean, it would’ve been a great experience, but there wouldn’t have been a job at the end for me. At the end of it, political philosophy, whatever, eight years later after that PhD is finished. What happened was I thought, okay, I’m going to get my Spanish and my German in tiptop shape. So before I start this PhD, I went to live in Berlin for a bit, worked there at a pizza restaurant that I was hired to help set up — strangely because I had that experience back in Oakland and Berkeley. And then in Venezuela, I arrived looking for any kind of work, anything that I … I had written a little bit about the political situation in Venezuela. I knew that politics was happening there, but all I really cared about was just finding some way to work in Caracas and live in Spanish every day so that I could go back and be an academic afterwards.

I wasn’t looking at journalism. I didn’t think I was going to be a journalist. I wasn’t one of the kids that was like, I love newspapers. I love the news. But something that popped up, and this is the origin story of many foreign correspondents, is that while I was out there, there was an English language newspaper at the time, it was called The Daily Journal, has a long history in Venezuela that was desperate to get people to fill out some of their special edition that they were doing. I knew somebody that knew somebody that worked there. They asked me if I would write some things. I was like, I never thought about that.’ I wanted to work purely in Spanish, but I could write these things in English. I liked it. It became a way to work and make money in Venezuela at the time.

Not long afterwards, I realized through interactions with other foreign correspondents that I could pitch articles to international newspapers. That sort of worked and I realized, okay, these are coming out now, whereas my possible PhD would come out in eight years, so this is cool. I’m actually sort of somehow involved in what’s going on here. But I do do a master’s, a nine-month master’s in London. After that, I go straight to The Financial Times. And two years later, when Brazil is really booming, when at the end of Lula’s second term, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the head of the workers’ party, former metal worker and union leader, is ending his second term with insanely high approval ratings up to 88% at some point. The economy is booming. Brazil’s really stepping onto the world stage.

At The Financial Times, the opportunity comes up to add a second person to their coverage down there, and I say, Okay, great. I’m going.’ I do that and I’m in Brazil for six years, eventually switching to the LA Times, after six years of that, which is … Being a Brazil correspondent is still probably the core experience of my working life. Then when I get to Indonesia to start covering Southeast Asia for the Washington Post, I realized that you really can’t tell this story without looking at the mass murder of 1965. And I wrote my first book. And I enjoyed writing that book so much that I decided to write another. But I do think — this comes up in the second book — not only because I happened to be there, so I can’t tell the story honestly without putting myself in it, but I do think that the conditions under which foreign correspondents operate have gotten worse, and they were always very, very imperfect.

As I write in the book, foreign correspondents have always had a tendency to reproduce colonial dynamics. The tendencies, the changes in the industry and the subjective conditions that individual reporters face have made that dynamic, I think, much worse and we’re at a moment of dangerously thin and poorly motivated coverage of global affairs, which is another reason I wanted to put myself into the book. So I could, not launch an attack, but to engage in some sort of productive criticism of my industry.

Foreign correspondents have always had a tendency to reproduce colonial dynamics.

Maximillian Alvarez: I want to do my best, like Larry King here, and ask if we could expand on that just a bit. Because it is a really, I think, important analytical intervention that a lot of people just don’t think about how the world of foreign correspondents can reinscribe networks of imperial power, but also what that means in the sort of broader political economy of journalism, which as we know, is shit, it’s not great. And this is something that I think about all the time here as the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network.

For example, for two years now, we’ve all been talking about the war in Ukraine and here at The Real News in the, I think, preliminary six, seven months of the war, we were covering it as much as we possibly could from as many angles as we possibly could. But I’ll be honest, I started to get increasingly uncomfortable, not just here, but with the English-speaking media in the ways that they were covering it, including left and progressive media where people obviously had very strong opinions about the war, what was happening, and we’re all interested, we all want to know what’s happening. But what struck me as someone who was dumb enough to get two degrees in Russian was like, no one speaks Ukrainian or Russian here.

Vincent Bevins: No one’s doing any reading or reporting. People are just looking at the internet and then-

Maximillian Alvarez: They’re just looking at the internet and responding to it.

Vincent Bevins: And coming up with their opinions about what they read on the internet and then putting them back on the internet.

Maximillian Alvarez: Exactly. I was like, that’s not journalism. I don’t want to not cover this story, but this is weird.

Vincent Bevins: The industry … tragically, it is economically rational to act that way in the current media environment. In the current media environment, doing the work is a bad idea, economically. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, if you want to get the most engagement for your hours of labor, it makes more sense to come up with a really spicy take on whatever you read on the internet that morning than to learn Russian, spend a decade getting to know all the different types of Ukrainians, the complexity of political opinion in that country, and then coming back with a nuanced analysis … When you have worsening conditions for journalism in general, but especially international journalism, because that’s what I know best, the consequence is that the victims are not just people like me. Who cares about people like me? The consequence is a real distortion of the production of knowledge and a distorted view of the world that we have because the less and less people that we have to dedicate real time to actual reporting and with the sort of job stability that allow them to think, Okay, what is really true?” rather than, What is it that I can say that will help my career in the short term?”

You can see, when you look at that dynamic, that internal subjective dynamic, which I sketch out a little in the book, you could see why it becomes a real problem that resources are drying up for international journalism. And another dynamic that I think, and this was already kind of bad in 2010 … it was already the case that it tends to be middle class or higher men from the first world that are running around the rest of the planet interpreting and explaining the world’s events. But at least when I started 15 years ago, and this was more true 25 years ago, and it was more true 40 years ago, you could kind of do it as a job. Now in 2023, as a rule, the only people that can really run around doing this are people that are born into quite a lot of money and can go out there knowing that maybe this is not going to lead to any kind of an income whatsoever.

And again, who cares about those people? But what we lose is all of the working class people, all the people from the global south that could be doing that job too, bringing their own perspectives, but would never make that decision because they have to make money, because they have a family and they have to pay the bills. And so I like to pay attention, as you say, to the politics of media, political economy of media, not because the press corps of the liberal mainstream media in DC and New York need anyone’s tears. Or that we need to be held up in the way that the media loves to act that we do. It’s because you get a distorted view of the world if you have shrinking resources and increasingly oligarch-owned outlets, and you create a situation in which people from diverse backgrounds, and indeed diverse geographic locations, can be part of this very important job, which is the production of knowledge about the world.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

Maximillian Alvarez: No, I think that’s beautifully put. I’m over here nodding like an idiot. But again, this directly concerns all of us, everyone listening to this. The people that we interview on this show, the first thing that came to mind was like you said, there’s nuance here. For God’s sake, we can have a little bit of nuance here because I remember trying to inject that nuance earlier this year while reporting on the labor struggles that we’ve been seeing in the media industry. So when Tucker Carlson was fired from Fox News, Don Lemon was fired from CNN, no one shed a tear over those two. Those guys are fine, and also they both fucking suck, pardon my French. But people look at them as kind of a cipher for the whole of the media industry. But you can have a reality where people like Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson, the most visible members of the corporate media, the media elite, whatever the hell you want to call them, they exist in the same ecosystem as striking journalists at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette who have been on strike for literally almost exactly a year now.

They walked out of the job in October of last year. We’ve interviewed folks from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. There are five unions involved across that paper’s production. They’ve been holding the line this entire time, they’ve been producing a strike paper for free. But what those journalists have told us repeatedly is, Our paper is owned by this kind of elite, rich family. They are the oligarchic owners who have a very different vision for this institution, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which has a storied legacy that goes back 200 years, does produce vital journalism so that people in and around the region can better know what life is like in that region.’ And these workers are out there covering the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just across the border. They’re covering Starbucks workers in Pittsburgh, SAG AFTRA members striking in Pittsburgh. Not even just labor stories, but a bunch of vital stories that the public needs to know and at a level that the kind of deep attention and journalistic rigor that those folks can provide.

So those two things can exist at once, but if we just say, well, Mainstream media is all the same. We got to get rid of all of them. Just subscribe to your favorite Substack.’ We’re not taking full account of what is going to actually be lost, and what, in fact, we have been losing basically the past half century.

Vincent Bevins: I think most of it’s lost.

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s gone.

Vincent Bevins: There’s enough to keep your attention. There’s The New York Times, which is putting out a huge amount of content every day. But the decimation of the local journalism, which at the risk of sounding a little bit provocative, local coverage of local politics is necessary for democracy to exist. You can’t have, in the long term, democracy without people covering City Hall.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah.

Vincent Bevins: And that has been decimated by changing industry conditions in the last couple of decades. And it seems like the solution is either going to be, let oligarchs buy a couple big name outlets, everyone can subscribe to the really, really famous papers in New York and DC, keep those going somehow or another, and then we just let everything else die. That’s a problem for the workers that are striking, the workers that are losing their jobs in places around the country. And it’s a problem for the body politic.

Maximillian Alvarez: The body politic, right? The last thing I’ll say on it, because I want to steer this towards the book itself, but I could talk to you for three hours about this. But again, take any example, take the labor coverage that we do. Every paper in the 20th century, not every, but most papers used to have a labor reporter, they used to have a labor beat. That doesn’t exist anymore. They’re like four full-time labor reporters in the country, and Steven Greenhouse only has so many more years left.

And so you’ve got a bunch of freelancers, independent outlets like us trying to cover that gap, and there’s no possible way we can do that. And so what that means is that more and more shitty bosses are going to feel like no one’s watching them, no one’s holding them accountable. And even if a story comes out about them, there isn’t enough sustained attention on what they’re doing for them to feel threatened enough to change their ways of doing things. Same applies to the police reporting that we do. This is a standard example. When you don’t have criminal justice reporters who have job stability and are able to invest the time that it takes to fact find and report on police misconduct, police shootings of citizens, and violations of people’s civil rights, what you get instead is outlets just regurgitating-

Vincent Bevins: Running police press releases.

Maximillian Alvarez: Police press releases. And so then you get this sort of shadow reality that the police themselves are able to create, and the media becomes this sort of propaganda arm of it, pumping this distorted reality back through the air vents of our culture. And that’s a really, really big problem. But this also does connect directly to where you start your book. And we’re going to kind of finish our conversation, sort of talking about this, [the role of] journalists like you, like me, but also thinking about the broader media ecosystem. What role has that played in representing, and even misrepresenting, the social movements of the past 13 years, the impact they were having, the sustainability of those movements, so on and so forth. So I want us to end up there, but let’s go back to Sao Paulo for a second.

Vincent Bevins: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: So again, taking you, a working journalist in Sao Paulo at the beginning of what would become a very intense decade of social struggle around the world. Why did you start there? And walk me through there to this book coming together? Because like you said, there was a needle in your brain that you couldn’t get out. So walk me through that path.

When you don’t have criminal justice reporters who have job stability and are able to invest the time that it takes to fact find and report on police misconduct, police shootings of citizens, and violations of people’s civil rights, what you get instead is outlets just regurgitating police press releases.

Vincent Bevins: It is all related actually to the question of media representation and the consequences of that dynamic on, not only the interpretation of what happens on the streets, but indeed what happens on the streets. The concrete configuration of forces are shaped themselves by media representation. And this is something that happened in a very strange way in June 2013, very close to my house in downtown Sao Paulo. I, indeed, was there, but it just came to me, sort of like history with a capital H, came knocking on all of our doors and things took a turn that were very, very bizarre. And I think that I, and almost everybody else in the country, spent the next decade trying to figure out how to understand. There was a proliferation of possible interpretations, and I think that’s a characteristic of the particular type of protest that we saw in this decade.

And we can get into what that was later, if you like. But what happened is I got back from the jungle when I was talking with indigenous people that were under attack in the interior of Brazil, and then I attended the fourth protest put on by the Movimento Passe Livre, MPL, or the Free Fare Movement, which was a group in Brazil founded in 2005, that has always pushed for the full decommodification of public transportation. All buses should be free. Everything’s free. They were punks and leftists and anarchists, and they had been on the streets trying to agitate for the city government of Sao Paulo to overturn a price rise in the bus fare.

Now, the government of Brazil at the time, and indeed, the government of Sao Paulo, were from the Workers’ Party, the left of center party that had been very popular and was fully committed to the expansion of social democracy as much as possible in the country. On the morning of June 13th, 2013, Brazil’s major outlets, one of which I was working inside of and not exactly for, called for the military police. And the military police in Brazil are the legacy of the US-backed dictatorship. Cops are military cops. The mainstream media called for the military police to crack down on these kids. The voices that mattered the most in Brazil were saying, We’ve had enough of these. We need to get these punks and anarchists off the streets. Enough is enough. They’re causing a ruckus, repress these people.’

Now the repression that does come comes in the way that these white and rich Brazilians should have known that it would come if they had the experience of police repression that most Brazilians do. But the cops in Brazil did what they always do, they repressed the streets and that repression hit people like me and people that worked for those outlets. The repression did not just hit the skinny punks and the Black and brown people that they always repress. That repression was so swift and so complete that it hit journalists and it hit people from the respectable white middle classes in Brazil that were considered un-repressible by the dominant media forces.

And so from the fourth to the fifth protest, the media flips. They go from saying, we need to crack down on these punks to, actually, what is happening now is a glorious, patriotic uprising, in defense of the right of self-expression itself. This is a protest for protesting. And not because of some conspiracy just in the way you described. It’s not that strapped reporters try to become police propagandists, but they’re trying to figure out what to put out. And the dominant media in Brazil, because of their deep ideological assumptions, their own belief systems, they have to say what this new big explosion that they’ve now flipped into supporting is about. And they supply interpretations that are more center right and liberal and more conservative and more, and so they tell the country-

Maximillian Alvarez: This is like the [Kendall] Jenner, Join the Conversation” kind of protest?

Vincent Bevins: Yeah. People come out with every single type of sign that you can imagine because they’ve been told by the media, because media representation is essential to the existence of protests in the first place. You’re never going to go out there if you can’t reach people that can’t physically see with your own eyes, right? Human beings can only see what’s in front of their face. So since the beginning, protest has always relied on media representation. So with mass media telling the country X is going to happen, we have this type of a protest that we support that is patriotic and more sort of one size fits all answer to everything, in favor of everything that’s good and against everything that’s bad. The fifth protest brings people onto the streets that are trying to join a protest that doesn’t actually exist.

They show up trying to join a protest movement, which is actually in conflict with the people that were there one week before. And this ends up ending in battles on the streets. And ultimately, and I witnessed this too, they cracked down on me too, but I wasn’t one of the famous cases that went viral that made everything flip. Ultimately, just a week later, what we could now identify as the beginning of the far right Bolsonarista movement, conservative thuggish street forces actually violently expel the original leftist parties from the streets just a week later. And the question of media representation, I think, is essential to seeing how that happens. And then things kind of die down. But now, if you talk to the Bolsonarista movement, they will tell you, Oh yeah, we were born in the streets in June, 2013.’

If you talk to the original leftists and anarchists, and I spent a lot of the last four years doing hundreds of interviews with the organizers of these movements, and especially them, they will tell you, Well, it was really about bringing down bus fares and expansion of the welfare state and public services for poor people.’ The media will have a different interpretation. The media might say, Oh no, it was about standing up for self-expression.’ The PT, the Workers’ Party, might say this was the moment which created the conditions that ultimately led to a parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of Lula, and the election of Bolsonaro.

All four of those interpretations, I think, for being as wildly contradictory as they are, are all right. They’re all possible. It’s possible to find facts to support all of those different explanations. And so this kind of an intensely troubling process is one that me and a lot of my friends went through in Brazil. How is it that the whole country stood up asking for X and got the opposite? How is it that Bolsonaro comes out of a movement to lower the price of the commute for working people in the country?

And so this was on my mind for the rest of the decade, as it was for almost everybody I know in Brazil. And so every time that something like this bubbled up around the world, I was paying close attention thinking, Well, I wonder if it kind of is going to go the way that this did.’ It never was the exact same outcome, but I found that certain dynamics started to repeat themselves. And one of the most important dynamics that repeated itself, coming back to my own profession, was the inability of my class to appreciate the complexity of what was happening on the streets and the way that that had consequences for, not only how the world understands what happened, but for indeed, what happened on the streets.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, let’s kind of keep tugging on that thread. Because again, we’re not going to be able to compile all the different parts of the world that you look at in this book, but just to sort of fill out a bit that composite picture for folks, I think it’s just another part of the ways that the media shapes this conversation is because we’ve just been careening farther and farther into the gullet of a hyper-mediated 21st century reality where the news cycle moves at a split second. We are ever more addicted to our phones social media, COVID-19, when it was kind of like a forced evolution in human society where people, even if they were maybe more resistant to social media or watching the news, were kind of forced into a position where their connection to the outside world was mediated through these things. And I think we’ve been seeing the sort of ripple effects of the political after effects of that.

Vincent Bevins: I think it was an acceleration of a lot of unhealthy dynamics.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, very much so. But I say that to say, because of that, one of the other symptoms of this era that we’re living in is just like a constant fatigue and a constant sense that the bad news just keeps piling up. And it does, but that makes it hard to sort of look back even 10, 12, 13 years ago and sort of realize that actually a lot has happened in a relatively short amount of time. So we not only have Sao Paulo, but we have, take your pick. Here in the United States, we got Ferguson, we got Occupy, we had Minneapolis and the George Floyd uprisings. And in fact, we’ve been covering something that directly proves Vincent’s thesis of, if you guys remember here on this show, we did an episode about why the fight to stop Cop City in Atlanta is a labor issue. And Kamau Franklin rightly told us that it’s like Cop City is the establishment’s response to the George Floyd protests.

They were caught on the back foot. They did not expect that many people to hit the streets. This is their answer for how to deal with it later. But we could also talk about the Women’s March. These are not all the same thing, but, again, a lot of protest has happened, and it’s important to sort of look back and ask like, well, what were the results of that? And if we look across the world, in India, one of the most massive worker protests in human history took place, and now we got a fucking fascist far-right government in Narendra Modi. So yeah, it does seem like it’s coming up more and more that hope comes from the streets, but then that gets kind of turned into increasingly reactionary crackdowns on people. So I guess just fill out a little more of the scope of what you want to cover in this book.

Vincent Bevins: And indeed, I think it’s important that the hundreds of interviews I did would not have been possible if, that these people that I spoke to in 12 countries around the world starting in Tunisia, then Egypt, and Bahrain, and Turkey, and Ukraine, and Hong Kong, these people would not have wanted to sit down with me, waste their time and rehash some of the most difficult moments of their lives if the whole point was not to recognize that. There is a clear and widespread desire to improve our global system, but for whatever reason, the tactics adopted, the particular repertoire of contention, the particular way we went about it was a mismatch for what we were trying to get done. So what we can do now is get together and learn from what that mismatch was, try to fix that mismatch, and then get together and build a better world to learn from this and improve. Because in one way, the hard parts really already out of the way.

If you have the desire, you can see that people want to improve the world. People are willing to risk their lives. People are willing to stand up and ask for it, but all you have to do is just tinker with the tactics, tinker with the approach. Well, then that’s great. Then we get together and then this is worth doing. The whole point is to look forward with these people. And with that ultimate goal, what we did is look back on a decade, which started in 2010, and which erupted first in Tunisia. But then as you mentioned, this wildfire spreads very quickly across the world and just never really goes out. I think it’s still not out. But we can look at the decade as one in which a particular type of response to injustice and government abuse became hegemonic, if not, indeed, seeming the only natural way to respond. But there is no such thing as a natural political project.

There is no way humans don’t respond to things with, there is no magical force which makes humans do the right thing in response to a problem. You have to build on centuries of ideological and political and historical formation to explain how a certain approach became dominant. And I do that in the book, but I don’t want to go deep into that history, but I take apart all of these constituent elements and explain where they came from.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to parenthetically qualify that, you trace in the first chapter, it’s just like how and why did mass protest emerge as the seeming vehicle to achieve social change.

Vincent Bevins: Exactly. And by the 2010s, it was not just mass protest, it was a particular type. It was the apparently leaderless, horizontally organized, digitally coordinated mass protest in public squares or public spaces. And for whatever reasons, and these reasons emerge in the history that we tell in the book, in the story. I think if you pick up the book, you’ll see that it really is kind of a history rather than a set of arguments. But these reasons emerge in that story. This turned out to be a poor fit for the conditions that these very protest movements created. In many ways, this particular repertoire of contention, this particular recipe was far better than anyone expected it, putting people on the streets and either destabilizing or indeed overthrowing existing governments, but very, very poorly suited to deal with the situation created by all those people on the streets.

And so you start in Tunisia and you end, I end the decade at the beginning of 2020 because it helps to, well, I also started in 2019, it helped to bracket what I was doing. And you see across that decade, not only the contagion of the energy, but often the copying and pasting of tactics that were developed in one, very, very different national historical political circumstances. And indeed, the copying and pasting of those tactics after they had already been proven to fail in the first place. But people like me had stopped paying attention. People like me, as you mentioned in that first quote, the former reporters had shown up for the moment of glorious, euphoric victory and then all packed up and went somewhere else, and the whole world stopped paying attention. So the internet allowed us to take inspiration from each other, but also to copy things that were not necessarily the best suited to any given situation.

And the goal, the idea is that in 10 years, you can look back on this and say, Oh, well, that planted the seed for what eventually grew into real victory.’ But in order for that to be true 10 years from now, the next 10 years have to consist of learning those lessons and rebuilding and building better.

Maximillian Alvarez: I think that, again, it’s such a necessary point, but it’s a deeply uncomfortable one, especially for those of us who consider ourselves, if not activists, people who feel interpolated by what you just said. We consider ourselves in that camp of the great mass that wants things to change, and that really means that and that experiences the injustices, the compounding and intersecting injustices of a global hegemonic economic system that is just sucking all of the resources out of our societies, killing the planet, perpetuating endless war, yada, yada, yada. It makes sense that a lot of us would want that to change, the systemic oppression that we face day in, day out. And it does feel like, and did feel like, because I’m thinking now just hearing you talk, I’m thinking about all the different people that I’ve spoken to over the years who were in these sites of struggle.

One that just came to mind right now was 2011, the Wisconsin Uprising, because there’s so much about that moment that was historic, and there’re so many parts of the tactics that you mentioned that still have a certain glow about them in the lore of the movement. Like the fact that folks in Tahrir Square were ordering pizzas for people occupying the state capitol in Madison, that is a very cool thing to have happened. And when I talked to people in Wisconsin, I was there reporting basically what is the state of public sector workers and unions in the state 10 years after Act 10? They still remember that with fondness. And they’re like, That really inspired us and made us feel like something was changing, like we were part of a global change.’ But then again, the Bevins effect comes in and it’s just like, well, what happened afterwards?

Scott Walker still ramped through Act 10, took a battering ram to public sector workers in unions. A couple years later, Wisconsin, in many ways, the birthplace of the progressive movement in this country and one of the staples of the labor movement in this country, became a right-to-work state. So we lost, right? We had the most historic mass protest in the state’s history where people, farmers, students, teachers, public sector workers of all kinds were occupying the state capitol. They took hold of it. It was like when Zapata and Villa in their forces converged on Mexico City in 1914, and then they left. And then the piece of shit comes in afterwards. So I guess what I’m saying is just like your book and this history forces us to kind of consider, it’s just like it’s okay to be inspired by those moments of solidarity without overselling their effectiveness in the struggle that we’re ultimately trying to win. And so far, we’re not.

Vincent Bevins: Yeah. And when we’re talking about acts of solidarity, I don’t think it is overselling to say that the demonstration of solidarity from Egypt to the US to Brazil, Turkey, to let’s say, Indonesia, the demonstration of solidarity is something I think that you don’t have to question at all. There’s nothing about that that needs to be checked. That is one of the things that the internet brings that is, I think, great and positive, is that you can exchange gestures of goodwill and solidarity across space and time instantly.

Now, the more difficult issue is when tactics get translated across space and time when, as I said, either conditions are very, very different. So I think that maybe almost every tactic that I can think of, there’s probably a time and a place for, but there are also many times and places when a particular tactic is not going to work, and that requires intense study, like the careful analysis of the conditions that you’re up against.

And then again, this strange thing that happens in the 2010s when you get the transfer of tactics that actually didn’t even work in the different and original place where they were developed. And so one way you can trace this, and this works well and accidentally not so well across the decade, is that Tunisia inspires Tahrir Square. Tahrir Square is really blasted to the whole world. This is a really inspiring spectacle, for good reason, of people working together and rising up. But then you get the Tahrir Square model adopted in Western Europe and India and Occupy Wall Street. So Adbusters magazine says, we need to do Tahrir Square in Manhattan. And we don’t have to go too deep into this, but I do think that Occupy Wall Street works. Occupy Wall Street gets a lot done and does plant the seeds for something good that grows out of it later, kind of precisely because it does not become a mass protest movement, because it doesn’t actually shut down Manhattan in the way that Tahrir shut down Egypt.

To bring the Brazilian example into this, what would’ve happened if 10 million people just joined Occupy Wall Street? Then what would happen? But ironically, I think that Occupy Wall Street, even though it’s the importation of a model from a very different place, it ends up working because it provides a microphone for ideas that people have never heard before. And that plants the seeds for all kinds of people that get involved in politics over the rest of the decade. But then you go to Hong Kong in 2014. In Hong Kong 2014, they’re copying Occupy Wall Street, which is a copy of Tunisia, and this is after the el-Sisi coup has already taken place in Egypt. This is after the original Tahrir model. Doesn’t even work in the place that it seemed so inspiring initially, but it just continues to get recycled throughout the decade in ways which I think are understandable.

Like I said, everyone that I sit down with, I sit down sympathetically to understand what happened. But it’s also understandable why that didn’t exactly work out the way that we would’ve wanted. This kind of a mismatch is something that, oh, yeah, okay, so let’s sit down and think about what that was. And then often, the lesson that comes out of this is that the thing that you can have, the thing that you can do that will most make you likely to succeed when an explosion comes, if it does come, is to work in the off season to build when nothing, and it seems like nothing is happening, to build organizations, to build links with your fellow human beings that also want to change the world in the way that you do. Build properly collective and democratic organizations that are paying close attention to the situation on the ground, paying close attention to the opportunities, but that also can arise and respond to, or ideally, shift tactics as conditions change.

That tends to be those types of groups. If you want to come up with a very broad rubric, like I said, this is not a dense, so hopefully, it’s easy to read, but it’s a complex history and the answers are in the history. But if you want to come up with a very broad rubric as to see who wins and who fails, the people that are most organized before the ruckus erupts are the people that do best and the people that are already working collectively with their fellow human beings are the ones that tend to get the most of what they want out of the unexpected arrival of chaos in the streets.

Maximillian Alvarez: So I love that point, and I do want to reaffirm for people listening, Vincent is a great writer, very easy to read even if you are ingesting a shit-ton of information and background. So I guarantee you, guys, that if you’re titillated by this conversation, you will love the book and you should definitely go check it out. And we’ve kind of ended up where I wanted to end up. I know I only got you for a few more minutes here, but I want to focus on that, because again, this is a direct point of intersection with the area of labor struggle that we cover on this show every week.

But I guess before we get there, the one thing I wanted to say is, I suppose the comforting thing, if there can be comfort taken in, again, this very sobering but necessary analysis that you’re laying out, looking beyond just the initial spark of hope and inspiration and energy that you get being there on the ground in the streets, seeing people rise up, even if results of that rising up are kind of diametrically opposed to what people were saying they wanted to have happen, but it’s easy to get kind of sucked in by that moment of energy and you can feel the palpable potential of change when you’re there on the ground in a mass of people. It’s understandable.

But we, as journalists, we, as organizers, we as people who want to actually see those changes come about, come to fruition, I think one big takeaway from me from your book was how do we approach that in the work that we do, report on that honestly, accurately, not diminish it, still recognize that there is something powerful in people coming together there. There’s a reason we get inspired by that and assume that it’s going to lead to the kind of change we want to see. It’s not necessarily that that’s a bad thing, but we need to be more critical about the long … Looking at that moment of eruption in the longer historical timeline and we got to follow through and we need a ground game, like you said. We need stronger organization that we are building even in those, and especially in those moments when it feels like nothing’s happening.

And like I was saying the comforting part about that, because it can feel demoralizing to sort of recognize like, oh, shit, yeah, we’ve been fighting in the streets. We’ve been getting the opposite of what we want, in a way that in and of itself is not fundamentally a new problem for the left or for working people. In fact, a century ago, the leftists across Western Europe and the Western hemisphere were trying to figure out why can’t we do what the Bolsheviks did because we tried and it hasn’t worked, but it worked in Russia. So then you get Gramsci, you get Luxemburg, you get a whole host of people trying to figure out why the conditions in Western Europe made it less possible to sort of take hold of a centralized point of power like the Bolsheviks were able to do in Russia.

And so what do we do with that? If we don’t get the revolution that we want, if we tried and failed, so then what do we do? Then the strategic reevaluation begins, and that’s the point that we’re at now, it seems.

Vincent Bevins: And I think you’re right to point out this is not a new phenomenon. I think that my generation, especially in the US, people like me, but this was a generalized tendency in the early 2010s, is that we had forgotten the tried and true, ageless, historical truth that the future lasts a long time. If you want to change the world, you have to get together and really do it. You have to build a new one. And I think that my generation, growing up in the nineties with the so-called end of history, especially if you are like me, like I mentioned at the beginning, too many people like me end up being the foreign correspondents, especially if you’re a middle-class white man in the United States, you can look back upon 250 years of history when everything just got better on its own. And especially with the end of the Cold War and the liberal version of that story that was told to my generation, which turns out to leave out quite a bit, which I discuss in the book, and the creation of the internet.

My generation started to think they’re like, okay, with one weird trick, you can just create utopia. If we just do one riot the perfect way, then that’s it. That’s the real end of history, then we’re there. Social media plus energy plus goodwill, literally one mass explosion is just going to solve the problem that has been stalking mankind since we became mankind, which is how do we live best with one another? I’m not trying to-

Maximillian Alvarez: We’re working on it.

Vincent Bevins: Yeah, It wasn’t bad or insane or evil to be hyper-optimistic in the way that my generation probably was 10, 15 years ago, but it was wrong. It turned out to be not true at all, that the internet delivers liberation. I think that the internet could, the internet in the abstract, but the internet that we actually have, which is dominated by oligarchs, motivated by profit, and funded by advertising revenue and motivated by the need to keep us glued to our screens no matter what that takes, that is a very different internet than the internet that is possible. And I think that that should be something we should commit ourselves to in the long term, trying to create to win back the internet from elites. But I mean, yeah, so we had to relearn the lesson that everyone has ever learned in human history, which is that it’s quite hard to, history is long and the future is longer, and you have to do it. And that’s fine. It’s fine. Because if you can identify what you have to do, if you can identify that attempt one and attempt two is wrong, but if you can sort of build what attempt three is, I can think of no better way to spend the rest of my life than working hand-in-hand with other people to try to build a better planet. What else are you supposed to do on this Earth?

Maximillian Alvarez: As the great Samuel Beckett, put it, try again, fail again, fail better. And that’s where I wanted to end on because this has been a great conversation, man. I really appreciate you taking this much time to chat with me about it. And again, everyone should go read Vincent’s books, not just this new book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and The Missing Revolution, but his previous book, The Jakarta Method, both essential reads. But I guess just on that final point, when I said that this directly intersects with what we cover here on the show every week, we’re kind of seeing a version of this play right now. For the first time in the United Auto Workers history, the union is striking at all three of the big three automakers.

Now, the big debate right now, especially among the left and the labor folks is the UAW under new leadership led by reform President Shawn Fain is taking a novel approach to the strike called the standup strategy, where instead of calling all 146,000 UAW members working across the Big Three to the picket line at once, they began by calling three plants to start to strike two weeks ago. And then last Friday, they called more locals at two of the Big Three, GM and Stellantis. And so this is a strategy that people are trying to evaluate in real time because a lot of people are like, Well, why don’t you just hit them where it hurts with everyone all at once?’ Kind of operating on that same logic of, if we just get a mass of people out on the streets will win.

But literally, what I’ve been cautioning people about is, look, I don’t necessarily know if this strategy is going to work, but I know that the strategy of just get everyone out on the picket line at once without coordination, organization and sort of like a shared real, raw sense of what we’re fighting for, that hasn’t worked. That’s what the UAW did when they struck GM in 2019. They called all 40-plus thousand workers out to the picket line and they got fucked, right? And in this case, if they called all their members out to the picket line at once, the company knows how much money is in the UAW Strike Fund. They know how long they have to wait for that fund to run out. So it becomes a war of attrition at that point and you have no further cards to play. But if you do the standup strategy, you give yourself the ability to continually ramp up the pressure on the companies at the bargaining table. So all I’m saying is that at least labor is trying to figure it out and correct for its past missteps.

And that’s a good thing, and we should be involved in that conversation. If Vince’s book tells us anything, it’s like we shouldn’t just assume that getting as many people out onto the streets is going to lead to the change that we want. We have to actually be sober and critical and strategic about that. Or like when people say, Oh, is this going to be the one that leads to the general strike?’ And I would love to see a general strike. That would be great. It’s not going to happen unless we are organizing our asses off in between strikes every day, building that solidarity, helping folks at the massive amounts of nonunion workshops.

Only 10% of American workers belong to a union in this country right now. So if we want to build that organizational, institutional structure, if we want to actually have the staying power of a movement that can be strategic, that can maintain energy after the initial explosion of anger arises, then we’ll be that much more ready to capitalize on those moments when they come about. Am I reading that right? Is that kind of one of the big takeaways that we should be leaving people with here?

Vincent Bevins: I can’t speak to what the best strategy is for UAW, but I can definitely say that what arises out of the research for this book is that strategy is the right way forward, to think very carefully about what you can do in the medium and long term and what the effects of that are going to be. And as you say, the focus on building, the building, if you believe in an organized working class, you have to build up. So you have to get that number from 10 to 15, as high as you can. The more you can build now, the better that is in the long term.

And perhaps, that’s one way that I can try to bring this back to the initial part of the conversation when we were discussing media, critiquing the problems of journalism as it is. Just as with movements around the world that looked at a particular government that they had that was deeply imperfect. Just like any democracy, just like any representative government, I think that journalism needs to be constantly critiqued in order to function correct, as well as it can. Journalism needs to be relentlessly criticized at all times. But I think that as it implodes, just to simply cheer that implosion and hope that something better is going to come out of the rubble is very dangerous, because what will actually happen is oligarchs will enter that power vacuum.

So the thing to do, and again, this is not easy, just like it’s not easy to get union membership up in the country above 10%. You have to actually build the ecosystem that you want to see. Cheering as outlets, they may have different politics than you, journalism has always been deeply imperfect in the United States, but simply cheering the implosion of the industry and hoping that magically sort of the world historical spirit, or history with a capital H, is just going to create the democratic media that we deserve, that’s profoundly dangerous, because I think that tech oligarchs will just come in and just seize what is left and use it for their own purposes.

The lesson is to build. And why that might sound difficult, I think that the uplifting thing about that is that once you know what you need to do, getting together with people and building can be a great way to spend your life.

Additional information

Permanent links below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemu​si​carchive​.org)

  • Jules Taylor, Working People Theme Song
Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.