By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”Oct. 6, 2023)
Guest Column by Chris Hedges
There was a decade of popular uprisings from 2010 until the global pandemic in 2020. These uprisings shook the foundations of the global order. They denounced corporate domination, austerity cuts and demanded economic justice and civil rights. The Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter mass demonstrations following the execution of George Floyd in 2020 are cases.
There were also popular eruptions in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Chile and during South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution. Discredited politicians were driven from office in Greece, Spain, Ukraine, South Korea, Egypt, Chile and Tunisia. Reform, or at least the promise of it, dominated public discourse. It seemed to herald a new era.
Then the backlash. The aspirations of the popular movements were crushed. State control and social inequality expanded. There was no significant change. In most cases, things got worse. The far-right emerged triumphant.
What happened? How did a decade of mass protests that seemed to herald democratic openness, an end to state repression, a weakening of the domination of global corporations and financial institutions and an era of freedom sputter to an ignominious failure? What went wrong? How did the hated bankers and politicians maintain or regain control? What are the effective tools to rid ourselves of corporate domination?
Vincent Bevins, in his new book ‘If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution’, chronicles how we failed on several fronts.
The “techno-optimists” who preached that new digital media was a revolutionary and democratising force did not foresee that authoritarian governments, corporations and internal security services could harness these digital platforms and turn them into engines of wholesale surveillance, censorship and vehicles for propaganda and disinformation. The social media platforms that made popular protests possible were turned against us.
Many mass movements, because they failed to implement hierarchical, disciplined, and coherent organisational structures, were unable to defend themselves. In the few cases when organised movements achieved power, as in Greece and Honduras, the international financiers and corporations conspired to ruthlessly wrest power back. In most cases, the ruling class swiftly filled the power vacuums created by these protests. They offered new brands to repackage the old system.
Too often, the protests resembled flash mobs, with people pouring into public spaces and creating a media spectacle rather than engaging in a sustained, organised and prolonged disruption of power. This ‘riot porn’ delighted the media, many of those who engaged in it and, not coincidentally, the ruling class, which used it to justify further repression and demonise protest movements. The far more effective and crippling tools of grassroots educational campaigns, strikes and boycotts were often ignored or sidelined.
As Karl Marx understood, ‘Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented.’
In If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, Vincent Bevins dissects the rise of global popular movements, the self-defeating mistakes they made, the strategies the corporate and ruling elites employed to retain power and crush the aspirations of a frustrated population, as well as an exploration of the tactics popular movements must employ to successfully fight back.
“In the mass protest decade, street explosions created revolutionary situations, often on accident,” Bevins writes. “But a protest is very poorly equipped to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, and that particular kind of protest is especially bad at it.”
“Organise, create an organised movement. And don’t be afraid of representation. Many thought representation was elitism, but actually, it is the essence of democracy.”
The historian Crane Brinton, in his book “The Anatomy of Revolution”, writes that revolutions have discernible preconditions. He cites discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Revolutions always begin, he writes, by making impossible demands that if the government met, would mean the end of the old configurations of power. But most importantly, despotic regimes always first collapse internally. Once sections of the ruling apparatus – police, security services, judiciary, media, government bureaucrats — will no longer attack, arrest, jail or shoot demonstrators, once they no longer obey orders, the old, discredited regime becomes paralysed and terminal.
Disciplined political organisations are not, in and of themselves, sufficient, as Greece’s left-wing Syriza government proved. If the leadership of an anti-establishment party is not willing to break free from the existing power structures they will be co-opted or crushed when their demands are rejected by the reigning centres of power.
The protestors may have opposed neoliberal policies, but they also were shaped, he argues, by neoliberal subjectivity.
Unlike the revolutions of the 1970s that espoused a powerful socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and social justice impulse, Arab revolutionaries were preoccupied more with the broad issues of human rights, political accountability, and legal reform. The prevailing voices, secular and Islamist alike, took free market, property relations, and neoliberal rationality for granted — an uncritical worldview that would pay only lip service to the genuine concerns of the masses for social justice and distribution.”
As Bevins writes, a “generation of individuals raised to view everything as if it were a business enterprise was de-radicalised, came to view this global order as “natural”, and became unable to imagine what it takes to carry out a true revolution.’
The popular uprisings, Bevins writes, ‘did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums.’ But the power vacuums were swiftly filled in by the military or different sets of oligarchs.
“The horizontally structured, digitally coordinated, leaderless mass protest is fundamentally illegible”, In order to understand what might happen after any given protest explosion, you must not only pay attention to who is waiting in the wings to fill a power vacuum. You have to pay attention to who has the power to define the uprising itself.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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