The 2010s bore witness to a decade of massive global protests, from the seismic events of the Arab Spring to the birth of Occupy Wall Street and the fervor of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. But what tangible accomplishments emerged from these impassioned movements?
This week on Deconstructed, Ryan Grim is joined by Vincent Bevins, a veteran foreign correspondent and author of “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.” Bevins and Grim discuss the Arab Spring and the mass anti-austerity demonstrations in Brazil, and scrutinize the unsettling reality that, in numerous instances across various nations, conditions either stagnated or took a more repressive turn. Bevins details how more organized and, oftentimes, more authoritarian forces — ranging from organized groups to governments — were adept at harnessing the unrest, co-opting it, and ruthlessly quashing these burgeoning movements.
Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
Now, the decade from 2010 to 2020 saw more people surge into the streets to engage in mass protest than any decade in human history, and I suspect that stat remains true even if you adjust it for the growing size of the population. There were so many, it’s hard to remember them all, from the Arab Spring in 2011, to mass protests in Brazil and Chile, to the Maidan in Ukraine, Occupy Wall Street, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the Candlelight Movement in Korea, Gezi Park in Turkey, the George Floyd protests in the United States. And, if we want to keep going, the recent mass protests in Israel against the takeover of the judiciary.
But if we look back on them with a clear eye, something terrifying starts to come into focus. In many of those cases, at best, things remained basically the same afterwards. In others, the result was the precise opposite of what protesters originally wanted.
Vincent Bevins, a veteran foreign correspondent, has written a new book called “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.” I thought his last book, The Jakarta Method, published in 2020, was a true masterpiece, and so, there was no chance I was going to miss whatever he wrote next. And, in my opinion, If We Burn is just as good, if not even better, But it’s a much different book and, in many ways, it’s a difficult one, because it asks uncomfortable questions about the movements that have been the real heroes of our era, and it asks those questions sympathetically to those who were most involved in all of those mass protest movements.
The book is also uncomfortable in the way it forces us to look closely at the Maidan Uprising in Ukraine and the ability of the far-right to co-opt it, the details of which take on a new tragic hue amidst this ongoing war. But if we don’t have these uncomfortable conversations, we’ll all be stuck in the same doom loop of outrage, protest, and reaction.
I’m excited to be joined today by the author of the new book, “If We Burn,” Vincent Bevins. Vincent, welcome to Deconstructed.
Vincent Bevins: Thank you so much for having me.
RG: Let’s start with the Free Fare Movement in Brazil. And, first, the question of how you actually wound up down there in the first place. You say you kind of accidentally became a journalist, which is the same way it happened to me, so I was intrigued to read that line.
So, how did you stumble your way into this terrible profession?
VB: Yeah. I didn’t study journalism; I thought that I was going to do something in academia. I was in Venezuela in 2007, thinking I was going to go back to grad school, and I sort of fell into local English language journalism in Caracas because it was the only way that I could find to pay for food and rent while I was living out there, and I just kind of stuck in it.
I ended up going back to London, moving to London after Venezuela in 2008. And then got an internship at the Financial Times, which was the paper that sent me to São Paulo in 2010. And when I went out to São Paulo in 2010, the story was a very different one than the one that I ended up covering. It was about the rise of a new economic powerhouse in South America, it was about shifts in global relations. It was about Lula’s government sort of unquestionably having achieved popularity and economic growth.
And then, as I got there, things start to fall apart, really, in 2013, with the eruption of this mass protest that becomes the main narrative of the book.
RG: And you start the book drawing a line back to Students for a Democratic Society through Seattle, and the anti-globalization movement — or what they like to call the alter-globalization movement — and then through to the way that that ethos, that kind of anarchist-fueled horizontal ethos fueled the rest of these protests throughout the 2010s. Can you set that up a little bit for people?
VB: Yeah, absolutely. Especially as it relates to the Free Fare Movement, which was a group in Brazil formed in 2005 dedicated, ultimately, to the full decommodification of public transportation. So, their goal in the long term was to ask the government to make all transportation free.
But they were a group of leftists and anarchists that arose out of the anti-globalization and alter-globalization movement. A lot of them had worked for Indymedia Brazil. Their ideological and organizational antecedents were in the global explosions around the Seattle protests in 1999.
And this group, not only the free fare movement, but a lot of the associated organizations linked through Indymedia, or sympathy for the Zapatistas back in the late 90s and the early 2000s, had a particular organizational and philosophical ethos, and an approach to political change and to responses to perceived political injustice that was very, very different than what we would have seen in the first half of the 20th century. It was one that was based on a rejection of the legacy of the Soviet Union, which started, really, as you, as you mentioned, with Students for Democratic Society in the United States, especially in the 1960s.
These were a set of philosophical and moral approaches to political change, which really became hegemonic, I think, by the 2010s, and they came to appear to be the natural, if not the only, way to respond to injustice. The natural response was the mass protest, getting as many people as you could into the streets, in a way which was horizontally organized, digitally coordinated, apparently leaderless. And, you know, these are all things that we took for granted; if not morally privileged, then at least the way these things were going to go in the 2010s.
But I think you can only really get to that point by looking at the long organizational and intellectual history of movements like the Free Fare Movement, and the transformation of ideas, especially in English-speaking North America from, let’s say, 1965 to 1999 and then into the 2010s.
RG: I saw my young self in a lot of these, because my politics were forged in the 1990s, because that’s when I was, basically, in college, a young man at the time. And there was this very robust kind of rejection of communism after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of, in some corners, explicit anarchism, but elsewhere, like you write, just horizontalism, a hostility to hierarchy.
You talk about A-something in 2020 down in Brazil; I was at A16 in Washington D.C., which was the follow up to the Seattle protests. And they’re, like you said, no leaders, nobody speaks for anybody, a giant umbrella coalition. Everybody’s equal, and they’re just going to mass in the streets and take on power and express their outrage. In the U.S., that kind of got shut down by 9/11, and it transformed into an antiwar movement, which was also unsuccessful, obviously, because the war happened.
But you then see that — and I hesitate to call it an ideology, because it’s a tactic — but it also is its own ideology. The means are supposed to be the ends, you know? You’re building the revolution as you go.
And so, you have this Free Fare Movement in Brazil, let’s stick with them for a second. So, by 2013, you’ve got Dilma Rousseff in power. You were kind of in the jungle when this breaks out, and then you come back to Sao Paulo. A very tiny group of people is launching a campaign against a 20-cent increase in bus fare.
VB: I think you’re right that there’s not an ideology, necessarily, to this set of tactics and philosophies, but this group does have an ideology: they’re explicitly and fully committed to horizontalism as an organizing principle. And they do what they’ve basically been doing since 2005, which is that, every time the government is going to raise the price of transportation, they organize protests, hoping that this will cause enough of a mess for the government, that the government will be forced to back down.
Now, this did happen. This had worked a couple times previously in Brazil. They had learned from other ways that sparking a mass revolt in Brazil, getting more people to join in, in an apparently horizontal, leaderless, and structureless way, had forced the government to back down.
So, I come back to my place in downtown Sao Paulo in June 2013, and I attend what I think is the fourth of the protests that they’ve organized in that month, with the attempt to do exactly that. But things change and take a quite strange direction, not only for the group, but for the media and the government. Because after the first three protests that they have staged — inviting punks and anybody who else they can to shut down streets, which end in fights with cops — by the day of the fourth protest, which is on June 13th, 2013, the media — respectable, mainstream, somehow slightly center-left-but-also-center-right media — have had enough of this.
They call upon the military police — and Brazil’s police, our military police, which is the legacy of the U.S.-backed dictatorship — they call on these cops to crack down on this movement, “we’ve had enough of this.” But what happens on June 13th, 2013, and you see this happen across the mass decade, is that the cops do their job so well, they do specifically what they’re trained to do, that it shocks society.
The crackdown that is asked for by the Brazilian ruling class and by major mainstream media hits people like me. It hits journalists, it hits regular middle class white Brazilians that are seen as not the type of people that are supposed to be repressed in Brazil, and this shocks the very media that had called for the protest earlier that day.
And over the next few days you get a real shift in coverage of what is supposed to be happening, what is happening on the streets. And this tiny little group of 30 dedicated left anarchists who have been organizing and meeting and planning for months on how to do this, find themselves sort of at the front of a movement which consists of millions of people pouring into the streets, sort of all for their own reasons, all based on what they understand the movement to be, based on what the media has told them that it is.
And now, this is a group that doesn’t want to be at the front of anything. They don’t believe in leadership, they don’t believe in rising to the occasion and negotiating on behalf of the masses. That’s not what they think. They think that you cause a popular revolt, and then that is going to get you what you want.
It doesn’t go that way. And I spent years doing interviews for the book, and most of the interviews that I did were with members of this group, and also with members of the Brazilian Workers party who were on the other side of this strange conflagration that they both found themselves in. And, yeah, they admitted to me … Well, they didn’t admit. They have spent many years thinking about this and realizing, well, causing a huge popular revolt didn’t actually work out the way that we hoped it would. It turns out that, when millions of people pour into the streets, that doesn’t necessarily end well for the causes that you believe in.
RG: And I just recently interviewed Naomi Klein about her book, her new book Doppelganger, and she writes about the right-wing mirror world, and the right-wing kind of shadow lands that have risen up in contradiction, but also, in some ways, in a curious relationship with the left. And as I was reading your book, I was seeing that unfold, actually, in Brazil, because then you have a right-wing organization that pretends to be leaderless, takes almost the same acronym, but actually does have leaders. Pretends, just like this group, to be apolitical and a-party, but is very partisan and has clear aims. And, spoiler: we wind up with Bolsonaro.
VB: And those guys in power, in office, with him. Yeah.
RG: Let’s leave that hanging, for now, and jump over to the Arab Spring, where you had very similar dynamics. And in Turkey, as you reported, there was even a call-and-response between the protesters in Turkey and the protesters in Brazil, all supporting each other.
So, Arab Spring kicks off. Does it take on the same kind of leaderless, autonomous approach that you saw elsewhere?
VB: Yes. And I would say that the distinction is that in the uprisings in North Africa and the Arab world, the movements tend to be horizontal rather than horizontalist. And this is a sort of slightly annoyingly theoretical distinction, but often what you got in places like Egypt was de facto horizontality, not because the main actors or a huge amount of people in the streets believed ideologically in the rejection of hierarchy and leadership like the Free Fare Movement did in Brazil, but that civil society had been so crushed by decades of dictatorship there was just only inchoate and half-formed organizations.
The organization which was strongest and most real in Egypt, for example, was probably the Muslim Brotherhood, but that was not who we in the international press chose to believe was really at the front of what was going on in the square. In Tahrir Square, we looked to a lot of elements which were de facto horizontal, and told ourselves that that was a good thing by necessity, because it meant that, of course, they would be pushing history in the right direction.
Now, Tunisia is an interesting one, because Tunisia, the first revolution, which really inspires Egypt and the rest of them, there are tightly organized and disciplined organizations which play a big role in actually getting that movement over the line and getting the protests from the distant city of Sidi Bouzid to the capital of Tunis. A Marxist-Leninist party that had long celebrated Enver Hoxha’s Albania was important in the very beginning, a very large union with radicals in the mid-levels of the organization, really important in getting things over the line. Civil society organizations were important in getting things over the line.
But in a case like Egypt, you did see horizontality rather than horizontalism. And I think that did really end up having a lot to do with the final result.
RG: And you see, over and over, in every case that you write about, organization kind of defeating non-organization. And so, after, remarkably, the street protests lead to Mubarak being overthrown, with the army basically stepping in and pushing him aside with millions of people in the street, the only actual organized force at that point is the Muslim Brotherhood.
VB: And the army itself.
RG: And the army itself, of course, which will become relevant in a moment.
So, in the coming elections, the left is split between two different candidates, both of whom seem like pretty good options. And, because they’re split, Muslim Brotherhood makes it into the runoff with, basically, an army establishment-backed candidate, with the left splitting something like 40 or 50 percent — maybe 40 percent — of the vote.
And so, they have nobody. The streets outside of the Muslim Brotherhood have nobody in the runoff. People rally behind the Muslim Brotherhood, but things quickly go south. And, again, you see the mirror world. You see the military adopting the precise same characteristics, and the same tactics.
So, talk a little bit about how the new protest movement surges against the Muslim Brotherhood.
VB: Yeah. So, this is one, I think that’s quite an interesting reading of it, especially in relationship to Naomi Klein’s new book, because these, you do get in both Egypt at this moment that you’re discussing, and then in Brazil, two years later, the kind of like, trick mirror appropriation of the original revolutionary energies, and what everybody believes to be popular grassroots youth-led digital revolution to carry out precisely the opposite of what the original organizers were aiming for.
So, what you do is, after you get Morsi elected, as you say, the two quote-unquote “progressive” [candidates], the two candidates that could have been said to represent the dreams of the secular and progressive revolutionaries, they get more votes than they would have. If combined, they would have gotten enough votes to get into the second round, but they weren’t combined, they weren’t organized enough to plan this kind of stuff. This was the first probably-legitimate election in history, that gets thrown together very quickly.
So, Morsi’s in power, and you get a new group called Tamarod, or rebellion — I’m not going to try to pronounce the Arabic — which is collecting signatures to call for the resignation of Morsi. Now, again, this is presented to people, and many people believe that it is a grassroots, youth-led, revolutionary response to a bad government. A lot of people sign this petition.
RG: And many authentic revolutionaries are involved.
RG: Like, genuinely and earnestly.
VB: Yes. Some of the people that are at the front of it were involved in 2011, and then a lot of the people that were on the streets and risked their lives and fought to overthrow Mubarak get involved in what is a new protest movement, which starts to arise in June, 2013; coincidentally the same month as the events in Brazil. But then these protests, rather than facing down with the police, rather than ending in bouts of raucous contention with existing elites, they’re supported by the elites. They take place and it’s more like a parade, it’s more like a big nationalist ritual, it’s more like, everybody’s supporting this, except for the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi himself.
After this demonstration, which ends up being larger than the ones in 2011, immediately there’s just a military coup. There’s a military coup, Sisi takes over, it turns out that a lot of this had been organized behind the scenes, and it turns out that Gulf monarchies had been funding this Tamarod Rebellion petition drive with the goal of installing a regime in Egypt that would be amenable to Saudi-led hegemony in the Arab world.
And this is exactly what happens, and this is basically where we are, still, in Egypt, ten years later. The Sisi coup takes place, cracks down in a much more … I don’t want to say “confident,” because it seems like Sisi never really understands exactly what the revolution was, or how to maintain his grip on power, but he is unabashed and unashamed about simply cracking down and crushing any revolutionary contention. There is a horrifying massacre of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which happens right after he takes power.
And then, it’s like, no, no more of that. I’ve seized power, I’m going to be a worse dictator than the last person, and I’m just not going to put up with any opposition to this regime. And, as you said, there was this clever trick, there was this mirror world version of 2011 because, I mean, hopefully some young people pick up this book, but it’s hard to remember now … Even though I remember it, it’s probably hard to imagine for young people that, back in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, the idea was that anything that the internet caused to happen was necessarily a good thing. Like, anything that was digitally organized, anything that was based on a viral post was going to be pushing history towards its final glorious conclusion.
And so, yeah, there was this pose. Well, yeah, we’re doing grassroots digital organizing against this new bad. Because of course Morsi was making all kinds of mistakes, there were all kinds of things to be upset with Morsi about, but it was not what it appeared to be.
RG: And you also, I think, very usefully bring Libya into the question, and helped me to understand how tyrants and presidents started to understand how they needed to respond to protest movements and how they needed to think about protest movements, all of them being influenced by Vladimir Putin. It seemed like he was calling all of them. Every time that there was a protest, he would call them and say: Look, this is the U.S., the U.S. is doing this to you, this is orchestrated, they’re going to throw you out. And sometimes he was correct.
And so, in Libya, you have kind of a sectarian uprising that rolls off of the Arab Spring that, as you point out in the book, Gaddafi would have been easily able [to] suppress as he had for decades. He had just recently given up his weapons of mass destruction and started to normalize relationship with the West. Which, you know, side note, is another lesson that people learned, which is don’t give up weapons of mass destruction because then, within a year, you’re dying.
So, instead of what would have happened, which is just, this uprising, this sectarian uprising gets suppressed, the French come in, NATO comes in, the U.S. comes in. Launches a no-fly zone.
VB: Which means lots of flying.
RG: Turns out it means lots — as you point out — it means lots of flying and lots of bombing.
VB: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: How does Libya then influence how future and current leaders at the time think about protest movements?
VB: Libya is a big lesson, both for the original revolutionaries in the so-called Arab Spring and for lots of other leaders around the world, especially Vladimir Putin. Because what happens … And I mean, we should be very clear that lots of people in Libya had good reasons to be upset with Gaddafi, there were legitimate sources for the protests that began against him. But what, essentially, you get is a NATO regime change operation. What you get is NATO bombing the country until Gaddafi is overthrown, horrifyingly murdered on the internet for everyone to see.
RG: Sodomized with a knife or a bayonet or something, with the video uploaded to everyone.
VB: This is one of the moments when we started to see what the internet could really be, or maybe truly, really is, at least if it’s dominated by the particular tech companies that now dominate it. You know, Hillary Clinton saying, laughing, and saying, you know, “We came, we saw, he died.”
For those in the progressive or revolutionary movements that had powered the years of 2010 and 2011, this is a lesson that’s like, OK, well, larger and more powerful forces will take advantage of these uprisings in ways that suit their interests. This was also especially true in Bahrain, when Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC simply invaded to crush a movement that had very real reasons to be upset with their government. But people like Putin say, oh, OK, the U.S. is not accepting the post-Cold War global order that we believed that we could exist within. I’m not a Moscow expert, but reporting behind the scenes indicates that it was the NATO regime change operation in Libya that led Vladimir Putin to decide to come back to the presidency. He was doing the switch-off, back and forth, with Medvedev at the time.
And other leaders around the world, other authoritarians, would-be authoritarians, perhaps in Syria, come to the conclusion that, you know, just don’t put up with protests. Like, you have to either crush them, or I’m going to end up sodomized on YouTube for the whole world to see. And this was a horrifying lesson for both those who believed in the apparently spontaneous mass uprising, and for those living under all of the other leaders around the world that were learning their own lessons from it.
RG: At the same time, Turkey sees the Gezi Park Uprising, mass protests, as you could call it, and it follows a similar trajectory. Small, kind of an obscure not-in-my-backyard issue kicks the thing off. I think they were going to like, chop down some trees in the park.
VB: It was a very small park which was never that beloved by the people of Istanbul, but there was a small group of Environmentalist activists that were trying to defend this park. Yeah.
RG: So they stood in front of the bulldozers. Then a bunch of people fell down the steps, getting kind of pushed.
VB: Yeah. There’s a police crackdown which shocks the country, at least the part of the country that is watching this unfold on social media, and you get an explosion of sympathy, especially from the middle class and more secular elements of Istanbul society.
RG: And so, then Erdogan eventually capitulates and says, alright, let’s talk. What are your demands? Let’s negotiate here. And you have kind of old lefty folks that you call the big brothers of the movement, who say, look, this is this is our moment, you have to negotiate while you’re still in the streets. If you agree to negotiate and everybody goes home, then they’re just going to walk away from you. We have to seize this opportunity.
The younger people in the park say, who do you think you are?
RG: You don’t represent us.
VB: “You don’t represent us,” that’s the slogan of the decade. Yeah.
RG: And so, basically nobody goes. Talk about how Gezi Park kind of unfolds from there.
VB: Yeah. So then it ends up, Erdogan chooses his own set of representatives.
RG: And they were too fake, right? And then he picked a new bunch?
VB: Right, there were some … There were actors, then he picked a new bunch. But this was a fundamental problem because, I mean, in many, many of these mass protest events or uprisings, it had not been planned at all that this was really going to happen. I mean, they hoped, at best, to maybe stop this park from being destroyed, or to make their point that they wanted to keep some public spaces in central Istanbul.
And this is, I think, a real theme of the book, [how] you get — perhaps not in Turkey, because I don’t think they were in a position to overthrow an Erdogan — but what you have is a protest which causes a situation which offers much more opportunities than a protest can really take advantage of. When you generate these huge uprisings, you sometimes generate revolutionary situations. But a protest, at least the particular type of protest that became hegemonic in the 2010s, has a very hard time taking advantage of a revolutionary situation.
Either it needs to turn to the government and say, OK, you’re in trouble. We know that you’re against the wall. Give us A, B, C, and D, and we’ll go home. You know, maybe you ask for E also, thinking you can’t get it, but that’s a future goal, that’s a big thing you want down the road. But if the government gives you A, B, and C, then you have a win, you go home, and then you can build back better, keep the movement together to fight another day.
Or, if maybe you really are at the point of overthrowing the government, then you need to pick somebody to go in and be the new government. And when you have, essentially, hundreds of thousands of millions of people in the streets, all for their own reasons, which might even vary from morning to night, from one day to the next, it’s very difficult to either choose what to negotiate over, or to take over the government when the guy in power flees.
And so, what’s going on with unions right now in the U.S. is a good example of how this actually works, because when a union says, we’re going on strike, but we’ll go back to work if A, B, C, that has to be a credible promise, right? And millions of people in the streets can’t credibly promise to Erdogan, “we’ll go home and be happy if we get A, B, C.” Because, you know, maybe the big brothers did get to go sit down with Erdogan, and maybe they do extract some great things that are really going to be good for progressive, secular elements in Istanbul, in Turkey.
But there’s no way that they can promise to Erdogan that they’re going to go back to the square and anybody’s going to go home. All of the kids just might say, “screw you, we’re going to stay here until…” And then come up with their own E, F, G, and H.
And this is a dynamic which … You can understand why it wasn’t planned for. You can understand why this particular set of opportunities was not one that the protest organizers did not prepare for, because they didn’t expect that many people to join, they didn’t expect the crackdown that was going to go viral and send millions of people out into the streets.
But the inability to deal with that unique and time-limited opportunity, I think, is a source of great tragedy in what I call the mass protest decade.
RG: And so, Erdogan just gets fed up.
VB: Clears it!
RG: Sends his goons in and just clears the park. He’s like, fine, fine, go home. Get out.
VB: And then what? What are you going to do? You’re going to try to organize another apparently spontaneous outpouring of people to do the exact same thing? This is a problem that they had in Egypt. You know, every time that the government led by the military in the period between 2011 and the election of Morsi, every time the government did something that was a reason to be quite upset, they’re like, the only arrow in their quiver was like, let’s try to do another Tahrir Square, let’s try to redo what happened in January, 2011, and it’s just very difficult to reproduce those conditions. You have to take advantage of them, or you have to have structures that can act in a permanent way upon the state, or whatever other elites that you’re trying to influence or overthrow.
RG: So let’s talk about the uprising in Ukraine for a bit. Can you set up for people who don’t remember? Like, how did we get to Maidan?
VB: Yeah. I think the most important thing to establish right off the bat for people outside of the post-Soviet world is that, after the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, Ukrainians got a horrible deal. I mean, Ukraine experienced, what is it? Fifteen years or so of horrible political leadership, absolutely atrocious economic decline.
Regular Ukrainians had every reason to be upset with not just the particular government that was in power in 2013 — Viktor Yanukovych, who was in the executive at the time — but just in general with the state of post-Soviet affairs. Things were very, very bad.
But what ends up acting as the spark for the Euromaidan uprising is an association agreement with the European Union. And this makes a lot more sense when put in the context of all of the other events in the book, but that’s not really, really what it is. What it is is the crackdown on the protesters that leads to an outpouring of support in the center of the capital of Ukraine.
So, you have an explosive combination of a lot of people who rightfully believe that their system has been sort of a joke for a long time. But, also, half of the country have voted for this man. He won. In the imperfect democracy that they had, he had won the election.
And then there was the idea, sort of dangled in front of at least some of the parts of Ukraine, that we could maybe be more integrated into Europe, and this is something that really inspired a lot of people, but not everybody, because a lot of people believe this deal was not good. I mean, notably, I think only 39 percent of Ukrainians in November 2013 actually really cared about, wanted this association agreement with the E.U.
But when there’s the crackdown on the initial protests, there is widening support for whatever it is that’s happening in the capital. And then that question of what is happening in the capital, I think, changes from week to week, until you get into 2014.
RG: And then you have this moment where the trick mirror world presents itself in real time, you know? Whereas in Brazil and Egypt, there was at least some kind of temporal gap. You’ve got the uprising, and then the kind of reverse mirror version of the uprising later.
In the Maidan, you tell this amazing story about a group of socialists and lefties who decide that they are going to put aside some of their earlier reservations about this, and they’re going to participate in this, and they’re going to form, what? They called it a “hundreds,” which is sort of like a self-defense group.
RG: And so, they show up, and it’s the right sector. You can argue whether or not all of them are neo-Nazis, or just, like, white supremacists. But these are radical violent right, and calling themselves “right sector,” both because they’re on the right part of the square, but also that they are as far right as you can imagine.
And so, they show up, and they ask this guy, alright, we want to register our group, and he tells them, come back two days later, come back unarmed.
So, take it from there.
VB: Yeah. And then they get threatened violently, and said, there’s no leftists, you know, there’s not going to be any of you leftists, gay, anarchists, antifa losers, trash, in our militant self-defense groups.
They are presented with the opportunity of being beaten up by C14, which is a, I think it’s safe to call, a neo-Nazi group.
RG: You said in a Bellingcat story, saying, it’s OK to call them neo-Nazi.
RG: C14 stands for the 14 racist words, whatever they are. Like, “I live for the defense of the white race.”
VB: Right. And so, they are presented with either running away from C14 or getting beaten up by them, when they had been, at least officially, trying to join the self-defense groups in Maidan.
And so, from the very beginning, the official left … Like, the capital L, old school left, the KPU, the Ukrainian Communist Party was against Maidan. The uprising was largely the more nationalist and more liberal elements of the country. Like, Ukraine by 2013 had a polarization which would be very familiar to people in the United States. It was one half of the country that tended to be in the square. The big institutional capital L left was against Maidan.
But there were some elements — like the people that I spoke to in this story that you’re mentioning — on the anarchist left, the antiauthoritarian left, the more feminist left, people that lived in the capital and thought, OK, let’s get involved. Maybe we don’t agree with everything that’s happening, maybe this is a right-leaning movement, maybe this is a movement for the adoption of a neoliberal trade agreement, which we don’t even actually love, but we should get involved and try to make this as sort of antiracist and progressive as possible. And they are violently expelled.
RG: Which, to go back to your theoretical underpinning, is, again, organization beating out lack of organization. You described the right sector and the C14 as neo-Leninist. You know, they would have hated Lenin himself, but they formed a kind of Leninist vanguard. And they fought for power. They took it.
VB: These groups, the radical nationalist groups that either assembled on Maidan or organized within Maidan were absolutely not horizontally organized, post-ideological … Everything goes, we’re all in it for whatever we want to be in it for. These were tightly organized groups that have been planning for quite a long time, that violence was necessary, that Ukraine needed to be a more pure nation. They had been hoping for the moment to be properly revolutionary, but in the far-right sense.
And this is something that comes up across the decade. It is the groups that are already organized, disciplined. ideologically coherent and prepared before the explosion comes that tends to win out. So, Russia and Vladimir Putin — in ways which end up being quite catastrophic — exaggerate the importance of the far right in Maidan in 2013. But they are there.
And this sort of looking at the entire decade, as I do in this book, helps to understand what really happens. Which is that there’s a very small group of people, not popular with Ukrainians, that punch above their weight because they are so tightly disciplined and organized, before the ruckus comes, before history with a capital H comes knocking and offers opportunity for the exact type of violence that they’ve been waiting for
RG: So, while the unorganized left is punching way below its weight, the organized right is punching way above its weight. The guy who orchestrated that, threatened a beatdown of the left, becomes what the head of security then in the government when they take over. You write about how, when Zelensky then runs for office, he points to Bolsonaro as a model for how he intends to govern. So, let’s go back to Brazil.
You have this Free Fare Movement, which starts to fizzle, yet takes a huge chunk out of Dilma Rousseff. You write that she never really recovered from the protests, from months of protests, or weeks of protests in the streets, even though none of the demands and none of the complaints actually had anything to do with the federal government.
VB: This is … I mean, this is it. This is, like, a real mystery. I mean, these experiences are really formative for not only me as a journalist covering Brazil at the time, but I think almost everybody that lived through it.
Like, there was just this huge explosion, of the type that had been planned for very precisely, and hoped for by the antiauthoritarian left, for essentially a decade. But what it ends up doing is just allowing for the right to enter the streets. And then Dilma, who is a leader that the Free Fare Movement did not love, they didn’t want her out of power. They preferred her to all of the other existing options in the Brazilian political system. They ended up voting for her in 2014. She loses 30 percentage points in a matter of weeks.
Now, this is a real puzzle because, as you say, with her actual governance, precisely nothing happened. The bus fare rise was coordinated by the mayor of Sao Paulo at the time. She actually tried to delay it. The police crackdown — police in Brazil are governed at the state level, so it was a right-of-center politician in Sao Paulo that would have been responsible for that crackdown — Dilma herself, the executive, didn’t do anything. She tried … And this was, I thought, a quite interesting detail I got behind-the-scenes. I interviewed her afterwards about other things, but this was a detail that I got later in the reporting for this book. She would spend her days sitting in a room by herself, watching the protests on TV. And she would turn off the volume because she didn’t want to be influenced by what the journalists were saying was happening on the streets. She was just, like, carefully studying the screen, trying to figure out, OK, what are these people asking for? Because I want to give it to them. But there was no answer. Like, they were asking for everything. They were asking for nothing. They were asking for all kinds of things that could not be delivered upon.
Because she is somebody that came up as a dissident and really wanted public transportation to be cheaper and more accessible in Brazil. She was tortured by the military. She’s no fan of the military police.
She struggles to find a way to respond to the streets, comes up with some stuff, a lot of the most important of which is rejected by the rest of the political establishment. Three weeks later, the dust settles, and she’s lost 30 percent of her approval rating.
Now, why? Well, I don’t know. A theory is that there was just this big explosion of negative media, both social and traditional coverage of Brazil. Everybody was invited into the streets to think about and talk about all the things that they didn’t, and ask for something better. Which is, I think, a great thing in general for citizens of a democracy to be engaged in, critique and planning for improvements.
But she just turns around and says, well, what happened? And I think, to this day, a lot of people in that government, and perhaps her herself, are kind of asking, what happened?
RG: Yeah. And leaderless-ness then gets taken to almost satirical proportions. When a guy who says that he’s part of Anonymous — you know, they’ve faded a little bit, but at the time they were a very big deal, as a hacker collective, hacktivist collective — he does an Anonymous-looking video and says, here are the five demands. Like, if nobody’s going to articulate demands, these are the five things that we want.
Some of them are obscure, some of them are uncontroversial. None of them really hit at power structures, and zero of them go to anybody’s material benefit or economics. Because they’d already won, I think at that point, the 20-cent increase had been rolled back.
VB: Yeah. They got the 20 cents, and the Free Fare movement didn’t know what to do with that. They didn’t want to lead something new, so they just kind of went away.
RG: And so, then you went, you found this guy, you interviewed him. And it turns out, you’re like, how did you guys arrive at these demands? He’s like, there are no guys. It was just me. And found him on Facebook, basically.
VB: Yeah. “I turned on my camera, put on a mask and just put it on the internet.” It wasn’t that no one else was stepping up to supply what the demands were. Everyone was stepping up to supply what the demands were. And, for whatever reason, this particular video, maybe it hits the algorithm right, maybe, like, you know, it’s short and punchy. But this one goes viral, and this is one of the … You know, you see, you know?
I think this is now more familiar to us, ten years later. But just one guy points a camera at himself, and then, within days, people are on the streets holding up the cinco causas, the five causes, or whatever. That’s all it is. It’s just one video that comes to stand in for, perhaps, what the people want.
And yeah, as you said, I found him, and he’s like, “yeah, I just made that up. I don’t know. I thought it was good.”
RG: Seemed reasonable.
RG: It seemed fun.
VB: It seemed good.
RG: Then Dilma wins reelection. She ekes out a fourth term.
VB: In 2014, yeah. Just barely.
RG: And, instantly, this copycat right-wing group starts demanding her impeachment.
When did they formulate a crime? Like, was that after the demand for the impeachment?
VB: No, no, no. They were ready to impeach before she even took office.
RG: But, I mean, the specific crime. Like, they eventually impeached her over this bookkeeping issue that does not even appear to be a crime.
RG: Did they come up with that way down the road?
VB: They picked that one. That was one that was accepted by a very notorious and very establishment politician in Congress.
RG: Who himself was on his way to jail, it looks like.
VB: Well, he was trying to make a deal. That’s why he said, “I’m going to impeach you unless you save my hide,” and Dilma said no. A lot of other Brazilian presidents probably would have made that deal. And then he started impeachment. Lots of groups had presented possible ways to impeach, and he grabbed this one, it seemed to have just enough of a thin legal basis to make it work.
And then the protest movement which, as you say, was born in the streets in June, 2013. While the Movimento Passe Livre, the MPL, was becoming very popular, and being seen as sort of the heroic young kids in front of the June 2013 movement, because that’s what they were … I mean, “heroic” is a value judgment, but they were the organizers.
These free-market libertarian right wing kids, who had often either been funded by U.S. libertarian groups, or worked with the Koch brothers in the United States, they found the Movimento Brasil Livre, which is MBL. So, MBL, MPL. To this day, like, during the time that I worked on this book, I would say, oh yeah, I’m doing a lot of interviews with the MPL. And then people just hear “MBL,” because that’s now the group that became so much more famous. They succeeded at stealing the thunder of the original group of leftists and anarchists that always rejected leadership and participation in the political establishment.
So, in Dilma Rousseff’s second term, this group becomes one of the leading movements to organize protests for impeachment. Again, putting themselves forward as, oh, you know, we’re young, we’re digitally organized. We’re a grassroots movement of the kids calling for a more free Brazil, when the whole time they were very well supported by traditional economic elites in the U.S., and indeed had formed in the specific way that they did because of support from the United States.
RG: And then lock up Lula on, basically, trumped up charges. So they force one of the main characters of your book to be the presidential candidate. And he loses by ten points to a guy who’d been on the fringes for decades, and who, you write, he dedicated his vote, his impeachment vote to the army official who tortured Delma. What you describe as this rupture in Brazilian politics and Brazilian society.
We’ve now seen a rollback of that. But the original kind of movement then ends with Bolsonaro in office, and the rain forest being savaged, and the MPL kind of in tatters and in tears, and getting blamed a lot. You write that a lot of people in Congress in the center-left … How common was it to say, this is all those 30 anarchists’ fault?
VB: The claims ranged, and they ranged from the reasonable to the outlandish. You know, this is basically what Haddad says, the current Minister of Finance of Brazil, one of the politicians I interview in the book. [He said] that, these were good kids, they wanted the right thing, but they unleashed a beast that they couldn’t control, and the beast ended up devouring them. Which is sort of what many of them say. Also, not all of them. They, to this day, remain very … They aren’t disciplined on messaging, they have their own opinions.
But then, other parts of the PT would say, oh, well, these people must have been agents of imperialism, these people must have been, somehow, wreckers. Or these people started what became the coup, these people are responsible for the coup.
And the original members spent years of — which is something that I encountered all across the twelve countries that I visited for this book — lived through years of trauma and self-doubt, and infighting. Like, well, what did we do wrong? On that particular day, what if we turned left instead of right? Like, what was wrong with what we did?
And so yeah, they were destroyed by this piece that they created, but also, they’re a huge part of the Brazilian political establishment trying to throw them into the dustbin of history.
RG: And so, to get to one of those uncomfortable questions, I want to quote your interview with Fernando Haddad, who was the presidential candidate, who Lula had hoisted, and then he loses. He says, “After 1999,” the year of those Seattle protests, “we saw the rise of a certain anti-state left with a kind of neo-anarchist charm, and that kept its distance from governments, and any instantiation of political representation in general. At the end of the day, horizontalism is a reflection of individualism.”
And it made me wonder if how enamored I was of anarchism and horizontalism at the time was actually just a mirror world version of the neoliberalism that had seeped so deeply into society at the time. Was I just so marinated in that soup that I didn’t understand that I was just putting a different gloss on this atomistic elevation of the individual over the community, and over the organization, and over a person rather than people?
As you look back at this over the last 15 years, what’s your takeaway on that?
VB: Well, I have a similar experience. Well, first of all, just to point out, it’s not a huge issue, but that second sentence, the one that is “horizontalism is a reflection of individualism.” I don’t think Fernando Haddad would disagree, but that one is actually Paolo Gerbaudo, an Italian scholar.
RG: My bad. Same paragraph. Poor reading.
VB: Maybe my bad! Because I put it in the same paragraph. But I don’t think Haddad would disagree, right there. I mean, Haddad had written earlier in his career about the deep psychological and subjective conditions of neoliberalism, himself.
I mean, I had a very similar journey. I think that I learned how to use the internet watching the Seattle protests in 1999. Like, reading “No Logo” and hanging out on Indymedia were, like, my coming of age political events, you know? Growing up in California.
RG: That’s the Naomi Klein book, for the young people, and the very old people.
VB: Yeah, yeah. As I think I put in the book, I found out about it because the band Radiohead recommended it to me on their website.
And this moment of Indymedia and the 1999 Seattle protests, and the automatic assumption that the greater individual autonomy within a social movement, that meant more freedom, and that meant you were more likely to get what you wanted, and you were more likely to create the society that you were hoping for if you do get what you wanted.
I tried to go on this journey chronologically through the book, and try to explain where it came from, and why it made sense to sort of adopt those particular philosophical approaches. Why, in the United States, in the era of the Cold War, it made sense to perhaps try to find a way to do something better or different than the Soviet Union. Why it made sense to believe in the late 20th century, as David Graeber did, that more anarchist tactics could be effective, because we weren’t going to be in an age of political warfare.
And then, just to say, well, whether or not this is philosophically, ontologically, across space and time, a good or a bad approach, it proved a very poor match for the particular circumstances that arose in the mass protest decade. So, some people in the book … I mean, a lot of people in the book told me that they moved away from horizontalism, if not even back towards something closer to Leninism. But some people will remain in the same place. And it may be the case that this particular set of approaches, this particular utopian idea of individual centrality, may be the right thing for other situations.
But that’s why I insist on sort of … Not why I insist … That’s why I chose to write a history, rather than just try to say, this is what I think happened. Because I think in watching the events unfold, you can see just how the particular repertoire of contention, the particular approach to political change that we had assumed was the best one in the 2010s turned out not to be a perfect match.
Now, that also can be quite inspiring, because if there is indeed this huge amount of desire for change to the global system which I think the mass protest decade demonstrates, then all you have to do is sort of jiggle with that match, and find the right things that are the match. And learn from the story, learn from the mistakes, learn from the things that didn’t quite work out, and come up with a set of practices that are fit to task.
And that sort of motivates the entire project. It’s not about saying, well, here’s what I think was wrong. It’s saying, OK, well, this is how this came about, this is how it didn’t work out yet. And this is what 200 interviews have pointed to as better ways to try to improve our worlds going forward.
RG: My own accidental journalism career basically started in 2005 in Bolivia, covering the uprising that led Evo Morales to take power. And I found myself thinking of that while reading your book, because — and this is five years before your window — but this was a mass demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of Bolivians take to the street, they overthrow the president, and they effectively end up installing Evo Morales as president.
He oversaw some of the most rapid and sustained standard of living increases in the world in Bolivia over his terms. And one of his deputies is still in power there, even after a coup ousted them for a year.
VB: A coup that took place after mass protests.
RG: Yes, exactly. Mass protests appear to have been orchestrated in collusion with the National Security Council out of the U.S.
And so, the difference there, the reason that I think that MAS and Morales and the Bolivians were able to succeed — and I’m curious for your take on this — they were deeply organized. They had mining unions. They had cocalero grower unions. They had leaders, they were disciplined, and they had goals. And they implemented and executed on them. And so, there was no vacuum for anybody to fill.
VB: Exactly. No, I think I agree entirely with that assessment.
Early in the book, I think I kind of cheat a little bit, because I want to make Brazil central. I say Brazil’s workers party may have carried out the most significant social democratic project in the history of the Global South. And that only counts if you wait for population, right? I think if you count Bolivia on a per capita basis, it may be Bolivia is the real winner of that contest.
RG: It’s just incredible what happened in Bolivia under Morales.
VB: That’s precisely right. It used to be axiomatic, and it seems really obvious to think about that, you know, OK, when you have a situation that you want to take advantage of, if you are working collectively, if you’re working hand in hand with your fellow human beings, you’re going to be more effective, you know? If you have a football game, and everybody goes to the football game and sort of decides on their own play at the moment of the snap, you’re probably not going to do as well as a team that has been practicing and forming close bonds over years.
I think that’s precisely right. I think unions are a great example. I think what’s going on in the United States right now is an example of learning some of the lessons of the mass protest decade. Of going back and thinking, OK, well, maybe we didn’t snatch the presidency of the most powerful nation in human history. You know, that was … [That] might have worked.
But what we can do is, we can build working class power. And if you build working class power, slowly and carefully, you have a set of organizations, a set of human beings working hand in hand with each other, they can take advantage of whatever comes along. It may be the case that, right now, there’s a moment where we can get gains for working people. It might be the case that, in two years, a more organized working class in the United States can be fundamental to achieving broader political demands.
What is surprising is that we forgot that lesson in the first place. You know, wonderment at the internet, and digital utopianism, which was all wrapped up in a sort of techno-libertarianism, which I think has some odd overlapping points with the neo-anarchist thought, just sort of got us forgetting some basic lessons about what works.
RG: We talked about a lot of this book, but I can assure people there’s a lot more to it, and I encourage people to pick it up. But thank you for joining me and congrats on a terrific work.
VB: Thank you so much for having me, and for reading it so carefully. It’s been years working on it, I always never know if it’s actually going to make sense to anyone. So, hearing you recount it back to me has been quite fascinating. Yeah, thank you for that.
RG: That was Vincent Bevins. His new book is, “If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution.”
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