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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why Haven’t the Protest Movements of Our Time Succeeded?

Vincent Bevins’ new book looks back over recent uprisings of our time and reviews what they accomplished—and what they didn’t.

In the decade from 2010 to 2020, there were mass uprisings around the world, at least 900 of which drew more than 10,000 participants. From New York City’s Occupy Wall Street protest of inequality to Brazil’s mass protests against inequality, corruption, and fare hikes to Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising and Turkey’s anti-authoritarian movement, it felt like the world, or parts of it, were on the cusp of real change. In his outstanding new book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, journalist Vincent Bevins writes that although some of these eruptions were “experienced as euphoric victory” by participants and “met with adulation and optimism in the international press,” it has become clear several years later that they had “preceded—if not necessarily caused—outcomes that were very different” from their stated goals. Egypt’s 2011 mass uprising in Tahrir Square managed to topple the country’s entrenched autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak—but culminated, in recent years, in “a climate of repression unlike anything else” Bevins says he has experienced in his career. Brazil went from hosting raucous anti-austerity protests in 2013 to, five years later, electing as president the viciously racist, anti-woman, pro-torture, violence-inciting reactionary Jair Bolsonaro. (Leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was narrowly re-elected in 2022 after having survived a political climate in which Bolsonaro’s political opponents and hundreds of indigenous people were killed.) If We Burn poses an urgent and provocative question: why is it that so many mass protests led to the opposite of what the protesters were demanding?

Bevins analyzes movements and struggles in over a dozen countries not only from the last decade but from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Ten major uprisings constitute the book’s main focus: Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Chile. Absent from If We Burn is an analysis of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd—notable given the historic levels of participation in the U.S. I suspect Bevins would put them in the same category as Occupy and the 2011 protests in Spain and Greece, which he considers different in function and outcome from the uprisings he covers. It’s also possible that he wasn’t interested in writing more about a country as amply covered by journalists as the United States.

Bevins has worked as a foreign correspondent and is best known for his acclaimed first book, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. He has cemented his reputation for dogged and thorough reporting by conducting over 200 interviews in more than 10 countries for If We Burn. One of the most striking conclusions to emerge from this reporting is that, even when historic numbers of people take to the streets in protest, “failure is an option.” Committed actors and righteous causes can and do lose badly. Considering the outcomes “from the perspective of what the mass protests asked for,” he concludes that “seven of these countries experienced something even worse than failure. Things went backward.”

Chile’s 2011-2013 protests, for instance, were primarily driven by students demanding a free and equal education system. But they also included environmentalists protesting a planned hydro-electric plant in Patagonia, striking copper miners, gay rights activists, precarious transport workers, and farmers angered by the Chilean peso’s impact on exports. Years later, despite the largest protests since the fall of Pinochet, Bevins writes, “no major victories were imminent.” In 2019 and 2020, Chilean students again took to the streets en masse, enraged by the rising cost of living, low wages and pensions, and stark inequality in education and healthcare. As of 2022, according to Bevins, “[Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s leftist] government has struggled to make real the dreams of the estallido social—mirroring the historical experience of most social democratic governments in the Global South—but they got into office, and so they got their shot. It is entirely possible that the Boric government will fail, or provoke an effective right-wing backlash.” If Bevins’ leftist inclinations are clear, so is his desire for an honest reckoning with the failures and limitations of the movements with which he sympathizes. In contrast to the revolutionary hopes of many who join them, he writes, the power of mass protests is limited; “you cannot do much better than win power, and get to work.”

One of Bevins’ central points is that just as societies are not destined to improve merely as a result of access to new technology and that technology’s capacity to organize and grow mass movements, revolutions are not destined to succeed simply because millions of people join them. One reason the 2010-2020 wave of protests (mostly) failed, in Bevins’ view, is that they suffered from the “tyranny of structurelessness,” a phrase coined by American feminist Jo Freeman around 1970. 

The kind of mass protest Bevins takes as his subject is horizontal, leaderless, sometimes consensus-based in operation, and often sparked and fueled by social media. (Horizontalism is an anti-hierarchical form of organization that rejects the empowerment of individual leaders through representative democracy.) This model, and the difficulty of translating political theory into effective action, will be familiar to anyone who participated in Occupy Wall Street. As Occupy veteran Jonathan Smucker wrote in his 2017 book Hegemony How-To, the movement’s “hyper-democratic process” was both an important aspect of Occupy and the world it aspired to create and a crippling one. Occupy meetings, Smucker noted, were “not functional forums for actual decision-making.” Similarly, participants in São Paulo’s 2013 Free Fare Movement, Bevins writes, had meetings that would last for hours “because everything had to be decided by consensus.” Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish sociologist, noticed that the language employed in Turkey’s 2013 uprising was nearly identical to that used in 2011 in Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. Bevins quotes Tufekci: “If I squinted and ignored that the language was Turkish, … I felt that it could have been in almost any twenty-first-century protest square: organized through Twitter, filled with tear gas, leaderless, networked, euphoric, and fragile.” Those qualities made the era’s protests difficult to sustain. 

While sympathetic to the desire for anti-hierarchical formations, Bevins concludes that activists should not fear organization itself, which can be used “for good or for evil,” an insight he attributes to Rodrigo Nunes, a champion of the horizontalist phase of the Brazilian alter-globalization movement who has since embraced the view that “different types of organizational schema can, and should, interact with one another.” As Freeman argued, since leaders are bound to emerge in any organization or movement, it’s better to make it official and hold them accountable by implementing a democratic process to choose or remove them.

Antipathy toward structure, leadership, and bureaucratic mechanisms of any kind will limit and eventually doom a movement. Many supporters have applied this critique to Occupy. When I was writing my own book about the rise of a new U.S. left in the last eight years, one participant described her involvement with Occupy as “mostly…[an] experience where I learned a lot about what not to do.”

Bevins also sees specific, clearly articulated, democratically determined demands as key to realizing a movement’s objectives. The South Korean Candlelight Revolution can be “marked as a success,” he writes toward the end of the book, in large part because its goal—to oust then-President Park Geun-hye for her part in a corruption and bribery scandal—was “clear and achievable.” The U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s also achieved “limited successes,” Bevins implies, because its leaders articulated a clear and specific set of demands, such as the ability to exercise voting rights. In spite of this critique, Bevins does credit the “apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized” leaderless mass protests of the 2010s with “blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums.” Egypt’s revolution ousted Mubarak. The Tunisian Revolution forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power. What these uprisings achieved was meaningful, astonishing, and, in terms of achieving lasting change, tragically inadequate.

Another problem Bevins identifies is that even the most dedicated activists often had no coherent idea of what to do after drawing a critical mass of people into the streets, and no capacity to do it. He is careful to avoid blaming individuals for this collective myopia, particularly those who were young at the time—in part, he suggests, because they have already tortured themselves enough. “Mayara [of Brazil], and Hossam ‘3arabawy’ Bedouin [of Egypt], and Artem [of Ukraine], and many others told me that they have obsessively gone back over every little detail of certain days, wondering what could have gone differently,” he writes of some of the people he spoke with, adding, “Mahmoud Salem, the ‘Sandmonkey’ blogger [also of Egypt], told me that he never wants anyone to feel the guilt that he does, the knowledge that he asked teenage boys to risk their lives and watched them die, only for the entire movement to experience defeat.”

Bevins argues that for protests and movements to be effective, they must be clear and disciplined enough to define their goals from the outset so that journalists and media outlets can’t unilaterally do so for them. He also decries what he sees as the self-deluding and dangerous post-Cold War assumption that the West “won and would continue to win because it was superior. … From now on, things would keep getting better … and one had to simply accept the flow of history rather than fight against it.” History, he adds, “does not possess a supernatural, metaphysical quality that pushes it forward relentlessly,” a conclusion he attributes in part to Martin Luther King Jr., who denounced in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” the “strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.” Time, King added, is in fact “neutral,” and can be used either “destructively or constructively. … We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God.”

Despite his considerable skill, Bevins, as he often acknowledges, could not have written this book without the people he interviewed. If We Burn is a collective effort, a kaleidoscopic collage of human voices that reflects a dizzying array of experiences and perspectives. Its breadth can make it challenging to keep track of all of the different characters, settings, and events.

It helps that he cares enough about his subjects to do them justice. His memorable descriptions are among the book’s chief pleasures. It’s hard to forget the “rowdy and gregarious” Mayara, fan of the all-woman Brazilian punk band Menstruação Anarquika (Anarchic Menstruation), or Bahar, the “wry and impish scientist” who joined Turkey’s uprising to defend the scientific method and met a “‘fuck buddy’” in Taksim Square. This sort of detail enlivens the narrative and grants authority and dignity to the kinds of insightful but non-elite people whose views we rarely hear.

If We Burn amply demonstrates that not every mass protest is worthwhile, let alone world-changing, even when those who take part experience “intense, life-changing collective euphoria.” Intellectual, moral, and political commitment to a movement, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous, is not only compatible with but necessary to making lasting change. By the same token, being so committed to a cause that you are willing to die for it—or get others killed—will not, by itself, guarantee success. As some of Bevins’ subjects explain, it’s wrong to trade some people’s lives for the ego gratification of others. Or, in Bevins’ paraphrase, “If you want the feeling of mass ecstasy you should go to a music festival instead of encouraging vulnerable young people to go out and get killed.” Yet “just as common” among those he interviewed is the belief that such ecstasy is, in fact, “the most real thing that one can ever feel” and “a stunning, momentary glimpse of the way that life is really supposed to be.”

Bevins shows that we can, and must, analyze and learn from the failures of our most inspiring movements. The desire to believe that the causes and projects to which we have committed our time, and in some cases our lives, will one day be vindicated is beside the point. As Bevins concludes, “If you want to help people, if your goal is to confront the problems facing humanity, that means a focus on ends, and it means constructing a movement that can stand the test of time” while remaining democratic and accountable. We cannot trust mass protests, historic elections, or the passage of time to do it for us. History has no end. What matters is learning from our mistakes so we can improve human lives in the here and now.

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