People on the streets crashing into a palace or the House of the People, then managing to transform ideas of participation, effect structural shifts in the meaning of democracy and accelerate travel times of pieces on the chess board of history, are as much truth, as fantasy.
The French Revolution, 1848, the Russian Revolution in 1917 the 1968 street in France and even the so-called ‘colour’ revolutions in Europe have got enough scrutiny from historians and political scientists to have sharpened our sense of when we must pay attention to people gathering at street corners.
But it is our immediate past, the intense street protests we have witnessed across the globe, in this millennium, be it the ‘Arab Spring’, protests in Chile, Spain, Sudan, Indonesia, Greece or Occupy Wall Street, which remain a black box.
There have been few attempts to look at the full spectrum of protests unfolding across continents. Though studies, among others, like The Power of the Street: Evidence from Egypt’s Arab Spring by Daron Acemoglu, Tarek A. Hassan and Ahmed Tahoun and Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas – The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest are highly informative accounts but studies are often focussed on one, not looking at the many demonstrations that simultaneously burst forth between 2010 and 2020.
Journalist and author Vincent Bevins, in his landmark new book, If We Burn, manages to draw our attention to street mobilisations which left us energised and exhausted, but also left a revolution-sized hole at the end of it.
Theorists and chroniclers who followed the ‘movements’ with interest and hope of course would have noticed the “missing revolution” left behind in the aftermath. But Bevins finds the “missing revolution” reason enough to go behind the fizz and the fury and ask difficult questions about why so little changed, if there was so much fervour, heat and noise.
Starting in the period after World War II and the decolonisation that followed, Bevins focusses on new means of communication that offered a new way of articulating politics, they were careful to stay away from the framework of the ‘old left’, proud to call themselves the ‘new Left’. This was seen as horizontalist, non-hierarchical and more representative. This was a sharp contrast to what they saw as the old way of trying to usher in revolutions and change. A mix of the use of news media, staging demonstrations in the heart of the city, getting together the right kind of pamphlets and allowing those gathered to work their magic – rather than think through change with a vanguard at the helm of rallying masses.
Bevins is a journalist and says at the outset that he is not a historian. But having “carried out over two hundred interviews in twelve countries, speaking with the people who created the street movements, many of the politicians who had to deal with them, and a lot of the people whose lives were affected” gives him considerable command over what was happening in the early years of the 21st century. He writes, “our conversations varied widely, but I attempted to orient them all around a few apparently naive, almost intentionally stupid questions: What led to the protest explosion? What were its goals? Were they achieved? If they weren’t achieved, why not?”
The author acknowledges his debt to the frameworks of 1789 and 1917 which “have served as reference points for so much revolutionary practice, it is important to trace the ways that intellectual history on the left has shaped contemporary protest, even if the desires expressed in recent episodes have fallen all over the political spectrum.”
The book throws up enough for readers to attempt an answer to the central question of why these eruptions on the street often had exactly the opposite effect as that intended by those at the barricades. Ask any tourist trying to look for the remains of Tahrir Square in Cairo or those making enquiries of the fruit seller more than a decade on in Tunisia, whose immolation led to events that spread like wildfire across the region. The Arab Spring was anything but, in hindsight.
The central debate remains that of how much spontaneity and horizontalism can stand-in for discipline, pre-planning and a sense of what is to follow after the fall (should a fall be effected, in the first place).
If We Burn achieves its very difficult aim – quite like what Naomi Klein’s landmark No Logo did as the last millennium closed – of getting a grip over events spread across the globe with solid reportage. Like No Logo offered a brush with the disconcerting truth of what was happening with labour and big capital as the new economic order was turning into a global beast in the nineties, this book is essential reading. It has a reporter’s attention to detail as events were unfolding, combined with reflections from several protagonists, makers of movements and those impacted, people the author spoke to, long after the tide had subsided.
Disappointingly, India is excluded from the ambit of research, despite having experienced its own share of significant street turmoil over ‘corruption’ in 2011 and then in 2019-20 over questions of citizenship, then over the food economy. But the instances studied here offer many parallels to our situation.
There is a case that even in 2023, we are too close to the slogans and the marches on the street to be able to judge what has only just gone by. Many would say, it is anything but over, eg., 1800 A.D. would not have been the best time to pass judgement on what events at the Bastille in 1789 were to mean for the world. Perhaps more time should be allowed to go by before we judge.
But If We Burn is more than a first draft of history. It offers unsettling propositions about the present we find ourselves in, and the prospects for change, and not.