“A Counterrevolution Always Comes”

Vincent Bevins on the lessons that the global mass protests of the 2010s hold for our moment.

Alex Press
March 6, 2024

A mass protest in Egypt's Tahrir Square, January 2012.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Over the past few months, major cities around the world have seen waves of mass protests in solidarity with Palestinians facing Israel’s genocidal assault in the Gaza Strip as well as increasing Israeli violence in the West Bank. Week after week, demonstrators have come together to constitute one of the most significant anti-war movements of our time.

These actions recall another moment that was profoundly shaped by mass protests. Starting with the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, apparently spontaneous, social media-fueled, horizontally organized (leaderless, or “leaderful”) popular rebellions emerged in public squares and streets around the world—from Egypt to Ukraine to Hong Kong. Many of these actions became so large that they brought entire regimes to their knees. Ultimately, though, many of the revolutionary opportunities created by these protests led to breakthroughs for reactionaries. In his 2023 book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, journalist Vincent Bevins, who lived through one such uprising in Brazil, analyzes this era of raucous mass revolts, drawing on hundreds of interviews with protest participants to understand the spectacular rise and dramatic fall of the 2010s rebellions.

I spoke to Bevins about the global rise of horizontalist movements in the 2010s, the factors that determined the protests’ success and failure, and their bearing on the current wave of pro-Palestine mobilizations. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Press: Amid Israel’s assault on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, we’re seeing some of the largest mass protests of our lifetimes. How do these actions compare to the worldwide protests that happened between 2010 and 2020? What remains consistent between the two and what is distinct?

Vincent Bevins: It’s true that we’ve seen a huge outpouring of humanity onto the streets in the past few months, but so far the protests have not gotten big enough to either overthrow or fundamentally destabilize a government, which is what happened in the 2010s protests I cover in my book—from the so-called Arab Spring to the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) protests in Brazil.

Instead, today’s really large pro-Palestine and ceasefire protests follow a much more familiar script wherein they send a very loud message to the relevant decision-makers—in this case, leaders in Israel and the United States—which the decision-makers can then heed or ignore. In this sense today’s protests have reminded me more of Iraq War-era actions, which made it very clear to [then-US President] George W. Bush and [then-British Prime Minister] Tony Blair that people opposed the invasion—and then they made it clear that they didn’t care too much.

AP: In your book, you show that these massive 2010s protests, which actually threatened regimes, still often either “failed” or led to the rise of the protestors’ political opposites: the far right. How and why does this pattern recur in different places throughout the decade?

VB: I think that some were partial successes, but the overall balance is not good. In the dozen or so countries that I look at in my book, a very particular response to injustice or elite abuse became hegemonic in the 2010s: the apparently spontaneous and leaderless, horizontally organized, and digitally coordinated mass protest that happens in public squares and spaces.

Now, what happens in many cases is that this particular repertoire of contention is far more successful than expected at putting people on the streets. In fact, so many people enter the streets that the protests suddenly become something else: They generate revolutionary situations, which either send leaders packing or scare existing governments so much that they’re willing to concede some kind of demand to the streets in order to make things go back to normal.

But while these types of protests are unexpectedly good at generating political crises, they have so far turned out to be very poorly suited to taking advantage of the revolutionary opportunities that arise. A mass of individuals who take to the streets for different reasons, and with different understandings of what the protest movement is, are not able to enter a power vacuum, or form a revolutionary government, or even elaborate, in a way that a labor union would, what concessions would make them all go home—precisely because there isn’t a shared goal that all participants agree upon.

So in cases from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain to Turkey to Brazil to Ukraine to Hong Kong to South Korea to Chile, mass protests ended up creating a power vacuum that they could not exploit, at least not as protests. As a result, others who were ready and willing to take advantage of the process of destabilization came to the fore. Sometimes these were national elites; sometimes this was an imperialist counterattack; sometimes these were people on the right, even when the protests originally had left-wing goals. In this decade at least, the limited victories came when the group or individual that stepped forward shared many of the goals of the people on the streets.

AP: How does the horizontalism or “leaderlessness” of the 2010s protests affect the pattern you’re describing: short- or medium-term success, but often long-term failure, i.e., getting the opposite of what they wanted?

VB: “Horizontalism” is the intentional rejection of all hierarchy in social movements. While the idea has a long history, some of this impulse can be traced back to the US in the early 1960s, when a new generation of students tried not to replicate the structures and mistakes associated with the Soviet Union. But horizontalism really took final shape during the “anti-globalization” era and in the wake of the Argentine crisis in 2001. Activists worldwide were inspired by neighborhood assemblies formed there after all representative structures had collapsed.

In its final and most pronounced form, horizontalism means not just no leaders, but also no division of labor within the group, and no imposition of anyone’s will on any other individual—that is, all decisions being made by consensus. Some people in the 2010s protests really believed in these ideals. In Brazil, for example, the MPL was so committed to horizontalism that some of the movement’s members now say they turned it into a dogma. Yet other 2010s protests were horizontally structured in practice without necessarily having much ideological commitment to horizontalism. For example, in Egypt, a lot of people would have loved to have stronger left-wing parties, traditional revolutionary organizations, organized working-class power in the form of unions, civil society groups, and so on, involved in the 2011 protests, but they simply could not due to the decimation of North African civil societies under dictatorship and decades of neoliberalism. In such cases, you see the emergence of protests which are concretely horizontal, rather than self-consciously horizontalist.

As I have mentioned, this horizontality did have advantages when it came to creating massive, and even revolutionary, protests, because everyone was invited to the square and the streets no matter what their idea of a better future for Egypt or Brazil or Chile might be. But the same horizontality made the protests vulnerable to misrepresentation and hijacking after they scaled up so quickly. In Brazil, for example, a group of US-funded right-wing radicals formed a copycat group meant to take advantage of the uprising. In the long term, it worked—they helped lead a new movement to impeach Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff and helped elect the extreme-right Jair Bolsonaro.

AP: One of the key ways you show the protests being co-opted is by the media—specifically, Western media that is owned by oligarchs and beholden to US interests. Can you give us an example of how this co-optation operated in the gaps left by protestors’ disorganization?

VB: The protests’ apparent structurelessness, and the fact that they were profoundly different from movements led by traditional formations like parties or unions, allowed global media to impose its own meaning onto the uprisings. Just this morning, I was talking with some friends in Egypt who are still traumatized by the realization that what they believed to be very obviously an anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist democratic uprising was rendered as its opposite. The people who put together January 2011 in Cairo came together through years of pro-Palestine organizing and opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, but then guys from American TV showed up and acted as if they wanted to become junior partners with the West.

What is interesting is that this type of protest explosion usually relied on some positive media feedback loop—whether the mediation is done through Twitter, Al Jazeera, or The New York Times—because you could only get that many people aware and supportive of a protest that fast with pictures and posts. But along the way, spokespersons or “leaders” were selected by major networks, or by social media algorithms. And when the people with big media microphones were against you, they found it absurdly easy to find the stupidest thing done by the most irresponsible, ideologically confused person—or even by an agent provocateur—and say, “this is what the movement is,” especially if there was no one to say, “no it’s not.”

AP: In the book, you make this point by paraphrasing Marx and noting that those who can’t represent themselves will be represented, and movements that can’t or won’t speak for themselves will be spoken for.

VB: Exactly. In interviews, protest participants often described coming to this horrifying realization. They saw that they had worked for years to create a movement without spokespersons, and then CNN just picked one. Some groups had prepared for this possibility. For example, Brazil’s MPL, for as much as they did not believe in a leadership structure or imposing discipline on anybody else, worked really hard and hammered out well-considered strategies for dealing with the media. They intentionally provoked coverage, gave the media the images it loved to run, and always viewed news outlets as a potentially reactionary force. But even so, they were soon overwhelmed by the size of the thing they had created, and incapable of quickly scaling up or changing strategy due to their horizontalist principles.

By the end of the decade, what many organizers told me they had learned from these experiences was that they needed to pay more attention to exactly who was in control of the media, how this media was likely to represent protests based on its own interests, and how best to make use of the media given these realities—when to court positive coverage, for instance, and when to be okay with those big outlets starting to oppose you.

Another lesson that became clear from the 2010s protests was that the more you are in a position to say with a coherent voice, “This is what we’re doing,” the better off you are. We can see some of the current Palestine protests doing this in ways that many of my interviewees would approve of based on their 2010s experiences. Take the Jewish Voice for Peace action at Grand Central Station. It was very clearly not fully “spontaneous.” People showed up in the same black T-shirt that said “Jews for Ceasefire” or “Jewish Voice for Peace.” The message was clear: This is not a random mass of persons demonstrating with a multitude of reasons and aims; this is Jews asking for a ceasefire. The action was planned in such a way to make it as legible as possible during the process of inevitable mediation. It made it harder for the media to lie about what was going on.

AP: Your book discusses the role of organized labor in these mass revolts. Using examples like that of the Tunisian uprising, you show that a strong labor movement can help mass protests take advantage of the revolutionary opportunities they generate. Can you explain how this dynamic works?

VB: As a very general rule, the countries with organized working-class power—with real unions that could act autonomously—tended to do the best in terms of mass protest outcomes. Labor action really matters in the Chilean, Tunisian, and South Korean cases, and it’s not a coincidence that these are some of the cases that go relatively well compared to the others in my book.

To get specific, the mass protest decade starts in Tunisia, a small North African country which, like much of the rest of the Global South, has been brutally neoliberalized by an authoritarian government, acting under the auspices of international financial organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. So by 2010, the Tunisian population, especially in the interior of the country, has been suffering for a very long time. It is in this context that Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in central Tunisia, lights himself on fire in the center of his small town—an action that galvanizes an uprising that goes on to spread to the capital, and sends the dictator fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

Tunisia experts have, and will continue to, debate the exact package of causes that allowed Bouazizi’s self-immolation to become a national revolt. But it is certainly significant that his area had a deep history of labor action; in fact, there had just been a labor revolt in 2008 in the nearby Gafsa mining region, which was very important for galvanizing the existing working-class and left forces. It also matters that there were informal networks of unemployed people in the region who had long been used to rebellion. Then, there was the organized Marxist-Leninist party with dedicated cadres in the region, all of whom had long had a theory that a revolution is necessary in Tunisia, had trained for it, and had networks they could activate to join the rebellion.

And in the final case, to actually get things over the line for a national victory, you had a large labor union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which, unlike its Egyptian counterpart, had not been fully integrated into the government. The top of the UGTT worked very closely with the Tunisian government, but the mid-level members of the union were often quite radical and they still had some autonomy from the state, and the ability to act. Ultimately, they do act collectively to throw their weight against the government, as do professional groups like the lawyers’ association and other organizations that act as recognizable centers of power in Tunisian civil society.

AP: Many of the 2010s protest movements ended with unexpectedly powerful counterrevolutions that further decimated the left or made things worse from the perspective of the original organizers. Can you say more about why these counterattacks happened, what they looked like, and why protestors were rarely prepared for them?

VB: A counterrevolution always comes, if you actually start to win or if your enemies think you are winning. At the beginning of the 2010s, a lot of people had the assumption that if they raised enough awareness, if they proved very clearly that they were right, and if the people were on their side, then the people in power would have to respond positively. And that’s just simply not true, especially when you’re dealing with geopolitics.

For example in the case of Egypt, if you actually got a proper democracy that could act autonomously and in the interests of the Egyptian people, that would quickly start to challenge the particular set of power structures in place in the region: Saudi- and Israeli-led hegemony in the Middle East. A real Arab Spring would have challenged Washington’s partners in the region. Against racist narratives that you can’t have democracy in the region because of religion or the “Arab mind” or whatever, this is a much better explanation for why democracy has not flowered in the region. It has been crushed.

In the case of Libya, the imperial counterattack comes in the form of NATO bombing and destroying the country. In Bahrain, it is Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council that simply march over the bridge and put down the uprising. In Brazil, it is right-wing students with funding from the US and the backing of local elites, and a corrupt “anti-corruption” operation working with the FBI and Justice Department, that reshape national politics in the wake of 2013. But whether it was carried out by local elites or international imperialist forces, there was almost always a counterattack.

In retrospect, we can see that counterrevolutions are to be expected if you are actually trying to restructure power—elites wouldn’t be elites if they weren’t ready and willing to fight for their power. But during the 2010s protests, the scale of the reaction appeared as a shock to many participants. People assumed that being right, or raising awareness, was enough. But what they learned is that their enemies needed to be defeated rather than just embarrassed or proven wrong.

AP: Does that dynamic holds for the current wave of pro-Palestinian protests?

VB: Yes, I think so. Protests still do hugely important work in bringing people together and clarifying what is really going on, and as a personal matter I have been supporting and attending these actions for months. But to stop someone in power from doing something, you have to take their power away, or make it so it is no longer in their interest to do it.

Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and n+1, among other places.