Berkeley Talks transcript: Why so many recent uprisings have backfired
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
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Daniel Aldana Cohen: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Matrix, the other one. This is where the mind really gets blown, you know, that Keanu Reeves stuff. So I’m really, really thrilled that we have Vincent Bevins here to talk about If We Burn. I’m going to say a little bit more about Vincent in a second.
Just the basic format here. I’m going to introduce Vincent. He’s going to give a talk for about 40 minutes. I will use my moderator’s privilege to ask a question or two. We’ll get some questions from you all. And then we’ll have a little bit of time for just kind of milling about, if folks want to meet Vincent.
We, unfortunately, have not yet overthrown capitalism. So there are books for sale. There are five hard copies. I will handle the transaction. We’re not going to sell Vincent here during his talk. So there are five copies here. If you’d like to get a copy, get it signed by Vincent. And we also have flyers with the QR code that will take you, not to Amazon, but to the publisher’s website, if you want more info or want to buy that way. And I’ll note Vincent is not like some of us, is not a professor. And so these things matter.
All right. So Vincent Bevins is a brilliant, brilliant thinker and writer. He’s an award-winning journalist and a correspondent. He covered South East Asia for the Washington Post, reporting from across the entire region, paying special attention to the legacy of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia. He’s also served as a Brazil correspondent for the LA Times covering a bunch of South America. And before that, he worked for the Financial Times in London. And this gives a little bit of a sense of the geographic scope of this extraordinary book.
Vincent’s first book was the award-winning The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that shaped our world. This is a book that I have bought for many people, including for a very good friend of mine on July 4, Independence Day, this year as a kind of ironic gift that went over really well. So just a really, really amazing world-shaping book, The Jakarta Method. And I think this book is also going to be a reference for years to come and extremely important for people thinking about and working on radical social change.
Let me just other note quickly as well that Vincent has written for a number of other publications, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Economist, the Guardian, Foreign Policy, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and many more. Vincent also grew up in California, if you want to talk about that. But just to step back, once again, it’s really, really, really an honor and a delight to host Vincent Bevins here. Thrilled to hear what you got to say. I read the book. So I feel spoiled. And I’m really excited to hear this version of your talk. So without further ado, Vincent Bevins.
Vincent Bevins: Yeah. Thank you so much for that introduction, for putting this together. This book came out two weeks ago. I must have been running around the country doing bookstore quick talks. And this is my attempt to put together some version of the book talk that can be delivered in an academic context. Obviously, I’m not a professor. I don’t know how to deliver academic talks. But I put together very, very crude slides. Please forgive the graphics. This is the second time in my life I ever made slides.
But I’m going to try to talk about the book in a way that can introduce what it tries to do, and also some of the things that emerge out of it that I think could be relevant here at Berkeley. It’s really good to be back. I went here like 15 to 20 years ago. So it’s really great to be back. Yeah. Please put up with me being bad at lecturing and PowerPoint.
So this book is really a work of history written by a journalist. It’s a book of history that focuses on the entire world from 2010 to 2020. Obviously, you can’t really cover everything that happens in the world over the course of 10 years. So like most works of history, it picks a particular set of concerns, a particular set of questions around which to organize what to include, with which the answers that it tries to provide a question ... sorry, it is revolved around a certain question. It tries to provide answers to that question.
Now, this book acts as if the most important thing to happen in the 2010s is an eruption of mass protests around the world. So everything indicates that from 2010 to 2020, more people participated in mass protests than at any other point in human history. These protests were often experienced as euphoric victory at the moment of the eruption. But then, after a lot of the foreign journalists like me have left, and we look at what actually happened, the outcome was very different than what was originally expected or indeed hoped for.
So the question that really drives this history around which it is built is, how is it that so many mass protests led to the opposite of what they asked for? And to construct a history around that question, I carried out 225, 250 interviews in 12 countries, with people that either put the movements together, or responded to them in the government, or lived through these eruptions around the world.
And so the answer to the question is really the history itself, right. This book is not structured as an argument. It’s not me saying, this is what happened. I think the only answer to that question is really in the events themselves. But to try to give a talk around that approach to history, I want to explain how I did approach that history, and what sort of comes out of that approach.
So the first thing, very, very quickly. If you go back to the history of protest in general, or the ways that human beings have responded to injustice over the centuries, it becomes very clear. And if you look at the work of Charles Tilly, American sociologist, that in the moments when people experience injustice or believe that they should respond to elites that are abusing them, people respond with what they already know, what they already know how to do, even if this is not the thing that would work the best, right?
So “in moments of rebellion, people turn to what is familiar, even if something unfamiliar might work much better.” And the language he uses is repertoire of contention. And that word repertoire is fittingly theatrical and musical. There’s a set of things that people know how to do, whether or not they’ve already happened in a given country, or they’ve seen them somewhere else. And they, sort of, improvise in the moments in which they’re trying to respond to injustice.
And there’s another concept he has, which is the invisible elbow, which is that unlike the theory of history, which the Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, that history is not driven forward so much by rational intentional planning, but by what you do in response to unexpected difficulties or unexpected opportunities. And he has this, I’m not getting into. It’s a long metaphor, where you like bang open the door with your elbow.
And then this is another book that is really important for framing how I approach this history. So back in the era of the Russian Revolution, Lenin said that there are decades when nothing happens. And there are weeks when decades happen. But in the era of social media, things quicken even more than that. Things move at such a rapid pace that often decisions are made in a split instance.
And then social media allows for a real flattening of space and time, which allows for, I believe, the transfer of solidarity across countries, which is quite inspiring. But also allows for people to see something else that happened somewhere else in another part of the world, and to adopt it to local circumstances very, very quickly.
Now, another thing to understand about protest, before I get to the actual events of the book, is the role of mediation. So if you look at the history of protest, there is no protest without media. Before there was mass media, people didn’t do protests, because it didn’t make sense to do so. If you think back to an era before newspapers, before the ability to reproduce images or words about a particular event, it would not make sense to convene in the center of a square or in front of a capital, if the only people that would ever see or hear about it were the people that were literally looking at it as it happened.
And so this is a book by Todd Gitlin, from Students for a Democratic Society (shows slide of the book cover of The Whole World is Watching), in which he recalls how unexpectedly that organization was overcome by the power of media, how much it provided a opportunity and challenge that the SDS at the time in the early half of the ’60s was unprepared for. And it ended up overwhelming the movement.
Now, this is Globo, which is the oligarchic and very important media conglomerate in Brazil. Brazil is the main narrative of the book, because of my personal experience as a correspondent based in Sao Paulo from 2010 to 2016. Globo ends up mattering quite a lot in the story.
And then of course, we have social media, which everybody knows has something to do with this mass protest decade. Now I think often the role of social media can be overstated in this decade. The cases that I choose to analyze in this book are the cases in which so many people come to the streets that a particular government is either overthrown or fundamentally destabilized.
And I think for that to happen, you have to have multiple causality. You have to have a lot of things happening at the same time. And social media is one of the things that, I think, gets you over that line. But that doesn’t mean that we are ... that is about social media that these protests are a result of social media.
Now, as I said, people respond to injustice with what they know, even if other things might not work. What I think is important to understand about the 2010s is that a particular repertoire of contention, a particular approach to injustice, a particular way to respond to perceived abuses becomes hegemonic, if not indeed seeming as the only natural way to respond to injustice.
This is the Indymedia logo. I don’t know if anybody from my generation remembers the importance of this website in the Seattle protests. The early internet indeed itself grew out of Indymedia in many ways. But the point I want to make is that the particular repertoire that I think that ends up becoming really dominant in many of the cases that I look at is the apparently spontaneous and leaderless, horizontally structured, digitally coordinated mass protest in public squares or public spaces that were said to prefigure the world they sought to bring about.
Now, each one of these elements comes from somewhere. And in the book, I try to explain where they come from. But for the purposes of this talk, all that is important is that they all are things that emerge historically and ideologically. They are not the only ways to respond. This is ... they don’t necessarily go together. But they seem like they must in the mass protest decade, what I call the mass protest decade. And they shape the outcomes of, I believe, of the actual protests.
So the actual story begins in 2010, because I chose to start it in 2010, because I decided to make it a story of this decade. But initially, you have a protest in Egypt built around, or responding to the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in the interior of the country. You have other groups, more concrete actors, organizational forces in that country acting in a way which is more or less normal in the North African context. They end up overthrowing an autocratic leader of that country. But that inspires an Egyptian movement, which leads to this.
And now this is the image of Tahrir Square, which really serves as an inspiring signal to the world of what is possible in the beginning of the decade. The important things to say about this at this moment are that, one, the people that organized the actions against police brutality, which ended up becoming this, did not expect to be able to take Tahrir Square. They did not expect to be in a position to take the capital.
Two, it was actually built out of anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine organizing. Once this happened, they were quite shocked to find the world portray them as sort of pro-Western, whereas in their minds, democracy in the Egyptian context would mean opposition to U.S. imperialism, opposition to Israel and Saudi Arabia. But what happens is that on Jan. 25, 2011, so many people show up to this protest against police brutality that they’re able to actually get to the square.
On Jan. 28, what happens is they go to war essentially with the police. The police battle them. There’s a violent battle encounter with the police. The police lose. At this point, this mass of individuals, little more than a Facebook group a few days prior, is in a position to do anything. They could take the centers of power. They could seize the television stations, broadcast a revolutionary message. What do they do? They take the square. Why? That’s because that’s what they knew how to do. That’s what they had been doing for 10 years in pro-Palestine rallies and in anti-Iraq war rallies. And they take the square.
And this image (shows slide of thousands of Egyptians in the square) that is often broadcast to people like me and everyone else in the world by outlets like CNN, is indeed a horizontally structured prefigurative, and very, very inspiring scene, right. Egyptians of every type — communists, lesbians, Islamists, every single time, old people, young people, rich people, poor people are all breaking bread together in the square and saying, we want democracy, or we want the dictator.
The dictator eventually falls. But the dictator falls how exactly? Well, the military seizes power and promises they’re going to put on elections. But this is an incredibly powerful signal, so much that around the world, people try to replicate the Tahrir model, including in the United States in conditions where the economic and political structures are very, very different, right. So in Madrid, in Greece, in Chile, and then in Occupy Wall Street, you have the intentional replication of the Tahrir model. And again, these are situations where the national political and economic circumstances are really, really different.
In the U.S. context, you probably wouldn’t want the military to seize power, no matter how much you didn’t like Barack Obama at the time, or how much you thought you didn’t like the bank bailout, right? I think that Occupy Wall Street ends up having a positive outcome for the United States, at least according to the standards that would have been articulated by Occupy Wall Street, precisely because it doesn’t really become a mass protest event, because it actually just serves as a way to get out a particular message to the country.
People hear a message for the first time. And it sounds good. And it transforms politics in the United States. But around the whole world, you get the reproduction of this tactic. Then what actually happens in the rest of the world? You get the imperial response. NATO uses protests around the Arab world as a pretext to launch a regime change operation in Libya, destroying the country.
In Bahrain, where there is a classic example of monarchical, autocratic injustice, there is a Sunni minority monarchy that represses the Shia majority. What happens to that protest movement is Bahrain is invaded by Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, of course, and just simply crushes it, and nothing...
At this point, everyone that’s watching, not only in the Arab world, but around the world realizes, oh, If you want to, you can just crush it, as long as you are willing to pay the price to your reputation, if indeed there is any, because if you’re Bahrain, no one’s really paying attention, because you’re a U.S. ally. You can just crush it. And people look to what happens to Gaddafi in Libya. You know, Assad in Syria looks to what happens to Gaddafi in Libya and decides, I’d rather crush this uprising than suffer the same fate as Gaddafi.
Then in Egypt itself, this happens a little bit slower. What actually happens is that the military, who said they’re going to put on fair elections, actually, sort of, does. Mohamed Morrissey wins. But behind the scenes, reactionary Gulf monarchies start to organize a new protest movement, which can be used as a pretext for a military coup, installing the pro-Saudi Sisi dictatorship that takes over in June 2013, and is still running Egypt to this day. So if you’re paying attention to what happens at the end of the so-called Arab Spring, this is what you get. You get imperial backlash from NATO, from Saudi Arabia, and then reactionary monarchies in the Gulf.
But nevertheless, in 2013 you have wave two of this mass protest explosion, starting in Turkey in Gezi Park, then moving to Brazil, where I’m based, as a foreign correspondent, in Sao Paulo, and then in Ukraine going into 2014. And a couple of things end up becoming interesting commonalities across these three countries. The reason I have football ultras here in Turkey is that in all three countries, Turkey, Brazil, and Ukraine, the far right shows up. They were not the people that put together the initial explosion. But they show up. In all three countries football ultras matter.
Now, randomly, weirdly, strangely, whether or not the football ultras in your country happen to be left wing or far right ends up really mattering for the outcome of these explosions. Because if you think about it, right, like, the deep assumptions at the beginning of the 2010s is like, well, if everybody comes to the streets, that’s the people. But really, it’s this particular set of people always. And if we’re talking about street battles with the cops, these kind of guys do the best.
Now in Turkey the Besiktas and Fenerbahce fans like take their banners. And they put anarchist As and hammer and sickle slogans into their banners. In Ukraine, the far right ... or, sorry, the football ultras are far right nationalist, if not actual Nazis.
Now what happens in Brazil? Now this is like the real narrative of the book, because I lived through it. In June 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre, a group of leftists and anarchists, puts together a set of protests demanding a lower price of transportation in Brazil. In the long term, they want to make all public transportation free in the country. But what they are organizing against is the reduction of a $0.20 increase in June.
Now, the first four protests cause some problems on the streets. They end up shutting down some major streets. So what happens is Brazil’s mainstream media asks the military police— the military police in Brazil are a legacy of the U.S.-backed dictatorship — to crack down and repress the protesters.
Now, if Brazil’s media, if the members of Brazil’s media came from the sections of Brazil’s population that usually experience repression at the hands of the military police, they probably should have known how this was going to go. But the country was shocked by the level of violence and repression unleashed by the Brazilian military police. And it was so widespread, and so violent that it hit people like me. It hit me. But more famously, it hit Juliana Vallone and other journalists in Brazil’s mainstream media.
And this is what causes Brazil’s mainstream media to flip from saying, this is a bad group of punks and anarchists who are causing trouble on the streets to, this is a glorious uprising in defense of the right to uprise, rise up in defense of something. It became a protest for protest’s sake. And as this happens, the media, trying to explain why it is a good thing that there’s a protest, whereas when one day earlier, they were saying we need to crush these kids’ heads, they supply a new set of reasons, a new set of things that this is actually about.
Now the people that join the protests after this day go there with a different set of ideas about what is actually happening on the streets. And they enter into, first, verbal, but then ultimately, violent conflict with the original protesters. Fast forward one week later, and a lot happens in that one week. Like I remember like hour-by-hour discussions online. Like this is really the thickened history. This really matters. Like so much happens in that week.
But one week later, the new arrivals on the street that we would now recognize as the beginning of a far-right movement in Brazil violently expelled the original punk, anarchist, left-wing groups that had actually organized the thing in that sort of pressure cooker cauldron of social forces. On the streets of June 2013, various movements are born, which end up helping to remove elected president Dilma Rousseff, put Lula in jail, and eventually elect Jair Bolsonaro. So that’s a long story you can trace on its own.
But what’s important is that the mediation in this moment doesn’t just change how the world understands the event. It changes what is actually happening on the streets concretely, who goes, and for what reasons, because it must always be so. Like how are you ever going to hear about a protest? It’s going to be through the media. Like you’re not going to actually have seen it yourself, unless you were there on day one.
And again, the global media now, the global media having invented the Arab Spring, the term in the first place, it was a U.S. academic and foreign policy that came up with the Arab Spring. Global media starts to ask, was this the Brazilian spring? But this makes no sense in the Brazilian context. There is a popularly elected social democratic president with like 70% approval ratings.
The Egyptian solution in this context would mean a military coup. And ultimately, you do get a coup of a certain kind in Brazil three years later building out of this. But this strange idea that this is actually a revolutionary situation, just because the protest looks visually similar to what’s happened in Egypt is a real problem. And as I think ends up shaping the outcome, because the way we cover it, people like me, shape the actual explosion on the streets.
Now we could do ... I could talk for a very, very long time about the very controversial and complex Maidan uprising from 2013 to 2014. But we see a set of characteristics that are repeating themselves. You see elements here that we’ve seen already. And we’re going to see later.
First the explosion is unplanned, right? At the very beginning, there’s only a few dozen, maybe 100 people, sort of, pro-Western liberals often working, funded by certain NGOs from the West. This is not a problem. I interview the people. They explain why they get this funding. But they don’t expect this small movement in favor of association agreement with the European Union to explode into something that really threatens the president of Ukraine.
And then, of course, outside mediation is fundamental to shaping perceptions and indeed, what actually happens on the street. So if you’re watching Russian-language media, you get a different idea of what’s happening than if you’re watching Ukrainian-language media, or if you’re watching English-language media. And the way that Russian-language media describes what’s happening shapes the reaction in Eastern Ukraine. The way that English-language media describes what’s happening shapes the response of governments in the West.
And then there’s, again, there’s this flattening of different phases of the event into one thing. Because what you really have is three movements in Ukraine. You have the initial moving of movements of the pro-Western liberals. And then you have a crackdown, which leads to quite a lot of normal people entering the square that are all there because of a response to police brutality, even though the original European Association agreement was not that popular. Only about 40% of Ukrainians actually thought it was good.
And then after this big surge of regular people, you have a moment in which 50% of the country supports the uprising. A lot of people do not. And then violent elements end up helping to shape the particular outcome of Ukraine. Of course, just like you had in the so-called Arab Spring, just like you started to see in Brazil after 2013, you have outside actors realizing that they can or should respond to what’s happening and getting involved with things on the ground.
And the actual power vacuum which was created by the uprising is taken advantage of by existing elites. It’s not the people that rush into the square and say, we want the end of an oligarchic economy. It’s not the people that rush into the square and say, we want police brutality to end. It’s other politicians that are waiting in the wings. And they rush in. And they make it about what they want it to make it about, which is not taking away their own money, unsurprisingly.
And then in Hong Kong, just very quickly, you see one of the beginnings of a process which happens throughout the decade, which is the reproduction of a tactic, not only in a context which is entirely different, but after the original thing did not even work. So the Occupy Hong Kong in 2014 is a copy of Occupy Wall Street, which is a copy of Tahrir Square, which is inspired by Tunisia in 2010. But by 2014, it’s already clear back in Hong Kong, or back in Egypt that it didn’t work. You have a dictatorship, which is more violent and more oppressive than the original Mubarak regime.
Now, I’m skipping ahead to the second half of the decade. And a couple of things happen in the English-speaking world, and then in Indonesia, where I am, where people start to realize like, oh, anybody can use social media. Like anyone can do a protest. At the beginning of the decade, I don’t know if everyone here will remember it. Often find that young people find it hard to believe. I even find it hard to believe, even though I lived through it. There was this widespread idea in the 2010s that anything that happened because of social media was inherently and necessarily progressive.
After the election of Trump, a lot of liberals in the United States flipped entirely to believing the exact opposite, that rather than something that would make the world more democratic, and liberal, and American, the internet was something that would allow foreign powers to infiltrate the U.S. democracy and make it more Russian, or make it just bad.
So I bring this up just because I’m in Indonesia. I get to Indonesia after leaving Brazil, right after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, which is made possible partially because of a group that pretends to be like the original protesters of the 2013 June movement. This group called MBL intentionally copies the name MPL, trying to steal the thunder of the original anarchist and punk movement in Brazil. They do essentially steal the thunder to the point where now if you ask people about MPL, they think you’re talking about MBL.
Anyways, the coup happens in Brazil, parliamentary coup, I think it’s proper to call it. And I get to Indonesia. And essentially you have the reproduction of this tactic of the mass — apparently spontaneous, apparently leaderless — protests in the public square being put on by an Islamist group that basically wants to imprison the governor for being Chinese.
Basically, there is a popularly elected Chinese governor of Jakarta. And they use fake news manipulation of a quote on a video on Facebook to claim that he’s committed blasphemy. And then they do the same thing that everybody else is doing. They all wear the same ... they all wear a color. They go to the square.
And it just starts to become ... sorry. I went the wrong way (with his slides). So I told you I don’t know what I was doing. How are we doing?
Yeah. So it just starts to become clear that like social media, this particular tactic, the mass protest in public spaces or public squares is a tool. Anybody can use it. It can be used for anything. It’s not necessarily progressive. Direct action of a certain type doesn’t necessarily lead to an outcome dictated by which action you’re using. So yeah, I include this because I’m there.
Now rushing to the end of the decade. Because in 2019, really as the pandemic arrives, there is another worldwide explosion of protests in many, many countries. It would be impossible to cover them all right now. But there’s two cases that I look at that end very, very differently in 2019. And the reason I include them is they both build on cases that came up earlier in the decade.
Now, in Hong Kong, you have a movement, which in the middle of the year, puts quite a lot of people, perhaps like half of adults on the streets in favor of the rejection of an extradition bill. I think it’s mostly about autonomy from Beijing. But like, there is a really popular movement on the streets, which rejects this particular extradition bill.
But as things go on longer and longer in the year, there is a radicalization of tactics. And a lot of Hong Kong protesters told me that there was a virtuous or unvirtuous cycle of media attention, where the movement would do things that seem to be represented in a positive way by global media. And they got further away from the actual base of regular Hong Kongers that were on the streets in June.
And what happens at the end of the year is because this question of who’s representing the movement in which particular way really matters. Certain things happen at the end of the year, where if you want to back in mainland China, if you want to point to this or that thing that the Hong Kong protesters did and say, that’s really what it is, you could just do it. And there’s no one to say, no, it’s not.
And just like on Fox News, you could pick the small amount of Hong Kongers that wave the American flag and say, this is a movement that is in support of America. And then that would became the truth for the viewers of Fox News. And there was nobody that could say that it wasn’t. And ultimately, what happens is Beijing just waits it out, waits for everything to calm down, and then imposes their own vision of an acceleration towards a unification with the Chinese system.
Now in Chile, you have a very strange case, where once more in 2019, you have protests led by young left-leaning, like, often anarcho punk kids in protest of the rise in metro fares. So the idea is to keep down the price of transportation once more. This once more leads to a police crackdown, which once more leads to a huge upsurge of support in the general population. And you have the Estallido Social, which is happening throughout the end of 2019 in Chile in really like making things very difficult for the people in power.
It matters. This is a theme in the book. But just skip past it. Mostly, it matters that union activity really makes it difficult for Chilean capitalism to proceed. But there is now, again, a huge amount of people in the streets, a huge amount of people, sort of, making it difficult for Chilean society to carry on as usual. But no one knows what to do.
What happens is Borich, who was part of the 2011 generation of protesters, who put students on the streets back in 2011 in protest of the neoliberal education system in Chile, he and other politicians come up with a deal behind the scenes in Congress and say, OK, we’re coming up with a peace accord. The peace accord says that the people on the streets are asking for a new constitution. And we’ll give it to them.
Now, the people on the streets say, actually, this is an authoritarian imposition of meaning onto us. The streets do not ask for this. You’re saying that’s what we asked for. We didn’t. You are, in a top-down manner, imposing meaning onto the street explosion. I think that they’re right. But I think that must always be the case with this particular type of explosion. There was never going to be a way in which the Estallidos spoke with a unified voice and said, this is what we want. We will demobilize if we get it. And so strangely enough, this kind of imposition gets enough people to leave the streets.
Now, a lot of the original anarchists, and leftists, and like seasoned street fighters that started the thing hate Borich for doing this. And this is a clip that goes viral on social media in Chile. They threw beer on his face. Like one of the interviewees in the book says that he is canceled. Like the left is like, Borich has betrayed us. We want nothing to do with him.
A lot of those same people one year later told me that they were glad that he did it, because it was the closest thing to a kind of representation that could be imposed on the square, considering all the options. And it was clear he understood well enough sort of what the streets was about to come up with a solution that was relatively satisfying to a group of people. Of course, he becomes the president, doesn’t pass the new constitution.
So in one way, he wins personally. The movement has not restructured Chilean society in the way that it hoped for, of course. But as I say in the book, like, if you’re a student protester in 2011, the best you can really hope for is becoming president.
Then, once you have power, then you’ve got to get to work. If you fail, that’s on you But he was somebody that managed to ride this wave to power. So very quickly to summarize. Again, the answer there’s no answer. It’s not an argument. The book is a history. I’m looking forward to hearing what people bring to it themselves and come away with, come away from it with.
But one thing that I think is ... one helpful way to think about what happens in this decade is that this very specific repertoire of contention proved incredibly effective, more effective than expected at getting people on the streets. This was so successful. And the success, this unexpected success, put so many people on the streets that you actually generated a revolutionary situation. A protest accidentally created the conditions for either a revolution or radical reform.
But a protest, as I said, something which is always about mediation and communication, and this particular type of protest, which is really about a bunch of individuals bringing their own causes to the streets without often knowing each other is very poorly suited to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. So in a situation where either you can, in the case of Egypt, become the new government, because there’s no one left.
The police ran away. They took off their uniforms. And they fled into the night. Or in other cases, where the existing government structures, the politicians, dictator, military are so scared that they’re willing to give up a lot to the streets in order to hold on to power. Both those situations require someone to elaborate what is wanted, or at least or to stand in for the larger movement to represent it.
Now, back in the era of more functional representative politics, there would have been already pre-existing democratic structures to decide who can stand in for this movement, who can articulate what it wants. I trace these tactics back to the split between Black civil rights organizations in ’50s and ’60s, which would have had mechanisms for deciding who’s in charge, and who’s allowed to speak. And then there’s a true representative process.
But this type of horizontally structured protest was either ideologically opposed to, or simply concretely incapable of taking advantage of the situation in a way which require representing the mass of individuals on the streets. So in this moment, you create a power vacuum. You either unseat the existing government, or there is a loss of power, a, sort of ... the government’s off balance.
If you want to understand what actually happens in many, many cases, you look at who rushes into that power vacuum. And that can be existing elites, economic elites, military elites, a regional imperialist power, a global, the United States, the world’s largest imperialist power. And that tends to be a good way to understand what happens.
So then, again, taking this as a rubric for understanding what happens, you can ... it starts to become clear that this particular type of contention, this particular type of mass protest explosion, tends to work best if it is happy with whoever's going to fill that vacuum. So pro-systemic movements, which are happy to let what is in the air in the global system rush into that vacuum do very well. But counter-systemic movements, which want to restructure the global system, which are really going to make problems for elites, either nationally or globally, are going to have a hard time, because there’s going to be a counter revolution. Revolution always leads to counter revolution.
And the fact that things like Tahrir were interpreted as if they were the Berlin Wall, I think, matters quite a bit. Because the Berlin Wall, at least in the case of East Germany, if you interpreted the Berlin Wall protests as, we want liberalism, we want capitalism, that is what they got, because West Germany just came in and filled the vacuum. Now, in the rest of the former Communist world, things went very, very differently very, very poorly, which matters to the story in Ukraine, and many other places.
But the point that I come away with, again, being wildly over-simplistic, is that pro-systemic movements do OK with this kind of movement. When you properly want to restructure the system or make real problems for powerful forces, the counterattack is going to come. And you’re going to be poorly suited to withstand the counterattack.
Now, that’s basically the end of the talk. Here, all I’m saying is that this book was structured around, as I said, 200-250 interviews that I did with people around the world. The reason they sat down with me, the whole point of this project, the reason that they would give me my their time and talk through moments which were very traumatic was that they wanted to learn from what happened. They wanted to align tactics with goals, if indeed, the problem is really just that there’s a slippage between tactics and goals than what appears to be a pessimistic book becomes an optimistic one.
So these are just some works (gestures to slides of four book covers). Professor Cihan Tuğal here at Berkeley. He’s one of many thinkers around the world that come to similar conclusions about how to fix this mismatch of tactics and goals. And to be wildly simplistic: The idea is to organize proper ... create proper organizations that allow for the proper exercise of collective action before there’s an explosion. Build in the off-season. Build real structures that can allow human beings that want to reshape the world in the same way to act together in the moment of the uprising, because it’s very difficult to put together an organization in the uprising.
So I’m grateful to thinkers like this, including to you all here at Berkeley, for the work that they’ve done, thinking through these questions. And I’m grateful too for the invitation here to speak today, and to all of you for coming. So thank you very much.
Daniel Aldana Cohen: OK. Thank you so much for that deeply unsettling talk.
Oh, that you ended on the correct note. We need to spend more time together, especially post-pandemic. So here we are. And especially as war crimes proliferate around the world, including right now, it’s good to be together talking about radical politics.
One thing I failed to do earlier to offer huge thanks to the Matrix here at Berkeley for hosting and putting on this talk, to Eva Seto, and the rest of the staff here. So thank you. And the spatial climate collaborative for hosting this event, which is something that I run. So thank you to myself. But it’s also supported by many.
I’m going to ask one question. Not the question ... Yes. Actually. And then I’m going to open it up. And we’ll take a couple of questions at a time. We’ll have a bit of a conversation. And then we’ll deformalize. And folks can come get books. I’m going to pass around these flyers that have links to the publisher’s website. Do you mind grabbing that?
Yeah. Just pass them around.
So one of the contradictions you bring up in the book that really resonated with me is that it seemed like this kind of movement, that wasn’t well-organized. But it was a more horizontal list, but poorly set up to take advantage of these moments. But that was the kind of movement that was really able to take off.
And at the time, there were, like, what you call like normal organizations, or in the book, Leninist organizations that were functioning, but at had no ability to blow up. So like, I went to Wall Street marches before Occupy Wall Street. Two thousand people came. Half of them were selling Trotskyist newspapers. It was always a good time. But obviously, it did not have the ability on its own to grow.
And in Brazil, as you mentioned, like the Workers’ Party, the housing movement. There are a lot of big protests in Sao Paulo before the big ones. But they didn’t ... they seemed to have a ceiling, which was pretty low. So I wonder if you could just speak a bit about this, like, I guess, paradox between the kind of movement that can blow up seems to be the kind of movement that can’t take advantage of blowing up.
And is that because of social media, which you talk about is that just that the organized left has been in a long creative decline, but could rebound and just learn from what happened last decade and do better. Like maybe just speak a little bit about that weird paradox, where existing well-organized movements just couldn’t explode. And the ones that could explode, couldn’t take advantage.
Vincent Bevins: Yeah. Let me get back with this thing. I want to turn it off and on. Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. And in the book, I try to distinguish between two types of things that make concrete horizontality in the streets happen. I try to distinguish between the self-conscious, the ideological belief that this kind of a structure of protest, or indeed of social movements is the right or the best way to organize things.
And in the case of Brazil, the MPL believed this. A lot of what made the PT and the MST organized, either the political party that was running Brazil at the time, or a left-wing social ... A lot of what made them so frustrated with MPL is that they believed that there really were mechanisms that allowed for a social movement to make claims on the state and operate in an effective way. But they believed actually that this was the best way to organize.
In other situations, in other cases around the world, Egypt is one that I’ll bring up, because there was a picture on the screen of Tahrir Square. It was not that there was a self-conscious belief in horizontal totalism. There was concrete horizontality, which emerged as a result of decades of the neoliberal decimation of social structures in Egypt.
A lot of the original people that put on the Jan. 25 and Jan. 28 uprisings would have loved to have powerful unions, and political parties, and revolutionary organizations. They were putting together the best of what they could in the years between 2005 and 2011. They were just very, very weak and ended up not having as much of an influence on the outcome, as they would have liked.
So, like in most moments in history, there’s a confluence of material and ideological factors, which makes certain things happen. And I think social media is one of the material factors. Social media makes it slightly easier to get people on the streets all at once. Zeynep Tufekci, she's a Turkish sociologist, talks at length about how much work was really put into putting or getting the Black civil rights movement protests together, how it took years of actual organizing, which meant that everybody knew each other. They had an idea of what they were all doing.
Social media allows people to all see the same viral post, and be out there the next day, often with their own understanding of what makes this possible. So depending on where we are, it could be more or less ideological, or more or less material that causes these uprisings to be unstructured. But then looking forward, and looking at the way that these people look at the future, I’m thinking specifically of Brazilian philosopher, Rodrigo Nunez, we cannot wish ourselves back into a different technological or social space.
We do live in a social space in which concrete structures, concrete working-class organizations have been decimated. We do live in a world in which people do everything based on what they see on social media. Like literally, even if you read the news afterwards, that’s how you get all of the information.
So he does not discount the need for, at the very least, the existence of this type of unexpected mass mobilization in the future. But he argues for what he calls an ecology of organizations, ecology of movements. Basically, the idea is this thing is probably going to keep happening the better ... the more organization you have now, the better you’re going to be prepared for it.
It’s not a guarantee of success. But if there’s another explosion, but then also some idea, to some extent to the possible extent that there are real organizations that are willing to ideologically make the bid to represent the larger movement to say, we think it’s about this. And then they win the assent of the people that is going to put us in a better situation, going forward, than the one in the last decade.
But you can’t ... yeah, the concrete decimation of organized structures is something you can’t just snap your fingers and make go away. All you can do is build the best ones you can. And know that they will be interacting with very imperfect social media firms in a very individualized and atomized society that we all find ourselves in.
Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thank you. And I just have to note to understand more about the decimation of these movements. You need to read Vincent’s first book, The Jakarta Method. It’s very clever what he’s doing here. It’s all connected.
All right. So let’s open it up. Do you want to put up your hand? And I will just try to do three at a time. OK. We’ll start here. I see a hand back there, and then over here. Go ahead. Hello.
Audience 1: (Question not recorded)
Vincent Bevins: Yeah, both really good questions. So the criterion for inclusion in this book is mass protests that get so large that they fundamentally destabilize or overthrow an existing government. According to that criterion from 2010 to 2020, all of the countries are either in the traditional Global South or at the very least, outside of the traditional first-world. So South Korea is in there. Ukraine are in there, they’re not. They’re in a special case.
Now at the same time, I also made up that criterion myself. I could have ... I could have done whatever I wanted. Why did I structure it that way? One, that is just my experience as a journalist. But two, I do think there is something about the way that Brazil is a more normal country. I mean, this book is ideally written for a global reader about the global system. I think that Brazil and Egypt are more normal countries than the United States. And I go into this in the conclusion.
The United States is the most powerful country in the world. There can never be an imperialist power that takes advantage of a power vacuum in the United States, because there’s no country that’s more powerful than the United States. In the case of Western Europe, which I do talk about briefly, I talk about Occupy Wall Street when governments in Western Europe decide to repress their populations using violence, like every state in the entire world, does they are not viewed by the global media as sort of crossing some line and ... asking for or justifying a regime change operation.
As I say in the case of Spain and Greece, no matter how big protests got in Europe, NATO is not going to invade itself. NATO is not going to bomb itself like it did in Libya. And also, just in the case of what happens in the United States in 2020, which I think is really quite relevant. I just wasn’t here. So I figured the best way for my book to interact with what everybody lived through here from 2014, starting 2014 Ferguson, right, to 2020 with the George Floyd uprising was, I think, to come with their own experiences of what happened and have that in the back of your mind, interacting with what’s in the book.
And I’ve been grateful to hear that some people said that is indeed what happened. And then yes, independent media. So media Midia Ninja does come up. I think they come out like right after June 2013. I think that the ... Yeah, I think that they sort of emerged from that cauldron. And they’re one of many, many organizations that are born in that moment. And so to the extent that journalism is going to exist, I think it’s going to be dominated mostly by large corporate outlets like the ones that I work for.
This is going to be something, again, you can’t snap your fingers and wish your way out of it. But the more that there is, given the recognition that any kind of an uprising or proper social struggle will also have the media as a terrain of struggle, understanding that, I think, it becomes clear that the more tools you have at your disposal to put out a message to cover things, from your perspective, to try to tell the truth above, and around, or below what’s happening from the mainstream outlets, which are going to have their own particular ideological assumptions. This really matters.
And so yeah. So independent media is another thing, is another one of the structures, I think, that can be built as part of this learning process, looking back on the 2010s.
Audience 2: (Question not recorded)
Vincent Bevins: Yeah. So I think that what you’ve just described is possible. But the inverse is also possible. So it can be the case that protests get a lot of people in the streets. They expend a lot of energy, then nothing happens. And that makes them disillusioned or that causes them to demobilize.
The exact opposite can happen. A protest can be the beginning of a movement, because people get out there. They realize what it really needs to be done. They meet other people. They realize how, at the same time that they realize how long the path is to real change, they can see the path. And then there’s a lot of experiences of people getting together in a big protest movement, and then building on that. So it can go really either way.
And again, like, that’s kind of a point that I try to make throughout the book. Like, anything can go either way. Like, a protest can be used by ... Yeah, it’s a tool. A protest can be used — and this relates to your second question. In 2019, there was a coup in Bolivia. That coup was preceded by protests. Like, in the ideological framework of the early 2010s, that would have been very strange, because all protests were good.
But if you look at the history of Latin America going back to the coup in 1964 in Brazil, or in 1973 in Chile, the U.S.-backed coup that removed Salvador Allende and installed the Pinochet regime, there was always protests before. Like, they got the middle class and reactionary elements on the streets of protest. And then the military would use that as an excuse to do what they were going to do, which was to seize power. And this is what happened in 2019.
You can have protests in the future. And this is something that I like beg, in the conclusion, journalists like me to pay attention to. Like who is actually in the streets? What are they actually asking for? What would actually happen if they win?
Because often, journalists like me from major corporate outlets around the world, the only thing they pay attention to is, like is the government good or bad? And if it’s an enemy of the United States, then protests are always good. And if it’s an ally of the United States, then protests are always bad.
But like, the concrete configuration matters. And like this particular type of protest, I didn’t really mention this in the original talk ... no, I did a little bit, requires, I think relies too much on people like me to interpret a very discrete set of moments and provide a neat explanation. But given that people like me will do a very bad job of answering that question, everyone just needs to be as aware as possible of that dynamic, that a protest can go either way. It can have different elements. It can change from one day to the next. It can go upwards or downwards. It can mobilize people. It can inspire people. Or it can do the exact opposite.
Audience 3: (Question not recorded)
Vincent Bevins: So in the book, I look at ... I recount 13 mass protest events. But then I ultimately decide that three of them aren’t really mass protest events. And so there’s 10. Seven of them go backwards. And three of them are either somehow victories or a mixed bag. As a rule, the more powerful and autonomous of a labor movement you had, the more likely it was for things to go well.
Now the original Tunisian revolution, which inspired so much of the rest of the so-called Arab Spring, would not have happened without the UGTT, which was a large and well-organized labor movement, which had some autonomy from the Tunisian state, unlike the Egyptian labor union, which did not have autonomy. It was totally subsumed into the post-Nasserist social structure.
The UGTT had a large radical element in the mid-level of the union structure. So there was like Tunisia is quite intertwined intellectually with France. There was a lot of Maoist that had been in Paris in the mid-level of the UGTT. And also, there was other concrete like, even, like, lawyers organizations, proper civil society organizations, which made Tunisia initially an actually successful revolution in the way which almost no other North African or Middle Eastern case was.
South Korea, the Candlelight revolution, which is very briefly in the book, which is like a clear success, labor plays a huge role. And then in Chile, labor action in the ports plays a huge role in actually making the government need to do something. Because a government in a capitalist economy can tolerate people walking back and forth for six months. That’s not a problem. If the economy grinds to a halt, then they have to do something about it. So as a very, very broad rubric for understanding who’s the most successful, the more powerful, and organized, and genuinely autonomous working-class movements you had, the better things went.
Audience 4: (Question inaudible)
Vincent Bevins: So I’ll do yours first, because I think the answer is simpler. Most people, no, do not have an answer. I found this with organizers of movements around ... because, like, many, many people that lived through 2013 in Brazil, every time something that happened somewhere else from 2013 to 2020, we would watch it very carefully, and think, oh, are they going to have their version of June 2013? How do they think this is going to end? And without calling out who they are, or which movements these were.
I did have conversations with major figures that were either organizing or representing some of these movements in other countries towards the end of the decade. And I was like, yeah, but how is it ... What do you think’s going to happen? And there wasn’t, there literally wasn’t an answer. The idea was just, kind of this deep, I think — and this is an assumption that I think that I held, too, until June 2013 — is that if everybody, if enough people come out, if everybody comes together behind a just cause, somehow this pushes history forward in like a mystical, or teleological, or religious sense.
Like, it just happens. Like, we’ve showed the government what we want. And either they already knew, or in the case of Brazil, they also wanted the same thing. But they were like, we already want ... why are we fighting? We actually all want the same thing. Or they knew, like, in the case of the Hong Kong in 2014, they demonstrate very clearly that there is a yellow movement that wants a particular system in Hong Kong. And they demonstrated that Western media will reproduce that movement positively. Beijing knew all that. They knew that very, very well for decades. That was the whole point of the yellow movement.
And then, in the case of Brazil, for example, just go back to my own experience, not only did people not have varying or non-existent answers as to how this was supposed to lead from one thing to the next, people like me in June 2013 were called upon, were handed this very strange task of going out into the streets, talking to 11 people, and then coming back and telling the world what the protests were about.
And what happened, and I recount this in the book, is very strange. Without any of us wanting to do this, we all came back with a different version, which flattered our own ideological predispositions. I had a particular idea, which lined up with my idea of what kind of things should be happening in Brazil. And everybody did this. And I think this is the Globo logo. They did this.
In the book, I speak to the leaders of the MPL (Movimento Passe Livre), the original punks and anarchists that organized the protests in June 2013, as well as Fernando Haddad, who’s the mayor at the time. And now he’s the finance minister of Brazil. No one thinks this happened in a conspiratorial way.
But Globo, the major, sort of, right-leaning oligarch-owned media outlet redefined what happened on the streets, not on purpose, just because they’re trying to come up with what is a good thing that a protest can be about. And they don’t come up with the decommodification of public transportation that the anarchists would have wanted. They come up with anti-corruption, which is like, again, means nothing. Everyone’s against corruption, right? It’s tautological. Everyone’s against corruption, right?
The specific type of anti-corruption that Brazil got was a group of extreme right drudges pretending to be apolitical that were working behind the scenes with the United States government and breaking all the laws. But initially, you could say anti-corruption. It’s like, oh, yeah, we’re all anti-corruption. I’m anti-corruption. I’m anti-crime. I’m anti-bad things, right? OK.
To come back to your question, I think, and this is me. I try not to speak personally, but sort of summarizing what comes out of a lot of conversations at the end of the book, I think that anyone can imagine a situation in which basically every single tactic is justified or legitimate — violence, destruction of property.
If you can imagine ... everyone can imagine like a situation in which something can be justified, and a situation in which a particular action, even if justified, is counterproductive, because it will be you’ll lose the information about it. You’ll lose the communications struggle. You’ll end up being portrayed as adventurist.
There’s quite good clip on YouTube of Fred Hampton from the Black Panther Party, in which is, of course, is a group which is not anti-violence, right? They are formed here in Oakland following around cops with guns. He denounces elements on the white new left for being adventurist. And it’s a really good three-minute clip on YouTube.
And he’s not saying violence is bad. He’s saying that the way you’re acting right now is going to hand our enemies a tool with which to crush us. You have to build. It has to be part of a larger strategy. It has to be submitted into a more concrete well-thought-out struggle that will lead somehow from A to B. So again, it’s a really, really easy and stupid answer. But like context and relationship to a larger theory of change, I think, is the only way to answer that question. Yes.
Audience 5: (Question not recorded)
Vincent Bevins: Yes.
Vincent Bevins: I’ll go backwards. Absolutely. This is the thing. In Jan. 6 and Jan. 8, I was texting Rodrigo Núñez as Jan. 8 happened. And I was like, oh, they’re having their eschatological moment, where they think that if just enough people entered the streets, that somehow God will come down from heaven and deliver the country to Jair Bolsonaro.
And also there’s quite an interesting way of understanding social media. There’s a generational reading of social media, which I find quite interesting. Which is that the reading is that from 2007 to 2015, millennials get on social media. But then from 2015 to 2023, boomers get on social media. And they just have different political goals. And they just use the same tools to try to end history by storming the capital of this or that country. And it doesn’t work out for anybody.
So a lot of people are asked after Jan. 8 in Brazil, how is this different? Because they stormed Congress in June 2013. Now his answer, he gave this answer a lot, is that the people in June 2013, they did storm Congress. But they actually still wanted the people inside to stay. I’m not sure if that’s really right.
I think that if you, like Mark Weisinger, his book at the very beginning, he establishes a statistical correlation between how close the protests are to the centers of power, and how likely they accidentally unseat them. I think that perhaps if Rio was still the capital of Brazil, you might have seen an actual coup, a violent coup in 2013.
But yeah, again, by June, again, I say this all the time. I’m going to say it again. Back in January, back in 2010, liberal media, especially liberal media in the United States, thought that anything that happened because of social media was good. By 2020 it was the ... 2020, it was the exact opposite. If you were to imagine now, just theoretically conjure the idea of lot of young men storming a Capitol because of a post they saw online, you would think this is probably a bad thing, rather than a good thing. A lot of red flags are going to be raised.
To answer your question, yeah, I didn’t get to this. But, again, this was a really, really common theme. I forget the number. But in seven or eight out of the of the cases that I look at, it wasn’t the first thing — and this is the thing that the media makes a big mistake — it wasn’t the first thing that got people on the streets. It was the crackdown.
So in the case of Euromaidan, as I said, only 40% of Ukrainians actually thought that the association agreement with the European Union was a good thing. Thirty-eight percent were against. It was not a great agreement. But it’s the crackdown that 70% of the country supports. And then this creates this whole new movement, which often is a huge ball of energy, which does not know where to go. So I found this was a very, very common, almost disappointingly simple explanation for a lot of the explosions, is that there’s a crackdown, there’s some kind of a government, which responds incorrectly, or there’s just because of social media.
Every state that exists that I know about right now, you can get a cop to beat you up. Like in the final instance, the reproduction of power relies on a guy with a stick or a gun to destroy the body of an individual, of a citizen. And if you go outside of whatever the rules of that particular society are, maybe the rules are a little bit more ... the lines are drawn wider in like Norway than they are in, like, California or in Brazil. But you can get it to happen.
And this is another strange thing that came up in Hong Kong. Because there was this cycle of media reproduction of what was happening. And it ended up becoming a lot about not only the movement to change the governance system in the special administrative region, but police brutality. But in 2012 or 2011, surveys in Hong Kong would have not indicated that police brutality was a big issue for regular people. Like it wasn’t like Egypt, or Oakland, or Los Angeles, or São Paulo, where everybody knew the cops were quite brutal.
But in the era of social media, that thing that happens in the final instance, at the extreme, at the far end of the reproduction of state power is now visible to everybody all at once, which previously, you would have to be walking by the guy that actually got beat up or killed by the cops.
So yeah, absolutely. This is something that I found was a huge mobilizer, in addition to all the other things, I think I said, multiple causality over-determination are fundamental to understanding how anything can get this big. So there’s economic factors, structural factors, ideological factors, and then media factors. And absolutely, that was one.
On the books that came out 10 years later about June 2013, what I find interesting about them is they all say different things, but they’re all still right. You get a set of contradictory narratives, really contradictory narratives, that are all based, in some sense, on fact. They’re all possible constructions of a truthful story based on existing evidence back to June 2013. So I spent a lot of the summer with Brazil’s MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), which is a very intentionally structured social movement.
But I also spent a lot of time in Congress talking to the most powerful voices in what is left of Bolsonarismo, the extreme right movement in Congress. And they will say, our movement was born in June 2013. June 2013 was the moment when regular conservative Brazilians came to the streets, realized that we could protest, realized that we could build a new movement. And we are a movement that arose from the pressure cooker, the inspiring uprising of June 2013.
Anti-authoritarian leftists will say June 2013 was about public services. It was demands for better public services that got regular people onto the streets. They got working-class Brazilians out in support of a movement that we created intentionally. That’s what happened in June 2013.
The PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores), not everyone in PT, there are varying narratives, will say June 2013 was the beginning of a process, which allowed for a coup that was carried out with the assistance of foreign powers and national elites.
Those three wildly different narratives, I think, are all correct. They’re all equally possible. Because this particular type of explosion ends up being, I think, fundamentally illegible. And you can find in the morass so many different stories that you end up having different narratives come out of it. And that doesn’t mean that the people that come up with those narratives are lying. It’s just that’s the way these things go, which I think you can understand why a lot of the participants and organizers come to the conclusion at the end of the decade that that’s a real weakness.
Audience 5: (Question inaudible)
Yeah. So no. It is precisely the fear of becoming authoritarian yourself, which leads to the initial questioning of hierarchical structures in the first half of the 1960s, especially in the U.S. And then certainly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea that taking power will mean that you will impose your will on other people.
And I try to, as much as possible, trace that from its inception in a sympathetic way. It makes a lot of sense why people were afraid of reproducing what they saw as the errors of the Soviet Union, or the errors of other left groups around the world. It all makes a lot of sense. That is exactly where it comes from.
And again, I’m just going to go to him (gestures to a slide off-camera), because he talks about this in his book. And I use it in the conclusion. He says that the left, some parts of the left are paralyzed by the trauma of the 20th century, paralyzed by what ultimately comes out of certain organizational structures, well-organized movements in the 20th century.
The conclusion that he comes to, after being a real part of the horizontalist anti-globalization movement in Brazil, is that organization is a tool. Organization works. And if you’re going to actually use the tools that work to restructure society, there’s a possibility you’re going to make society worse. Organization can be used for good or for evil. There is the possibility that you will become worse than what you are trying to battle. But if you do not use the tools that work, then you’re abdicating responsibility and letting somebody else figure it out. That’s the conclusion that he comes to.
So I try to establish historically where this questioning of structure and hierarchy comes from, because it comes from, I think, the concrete decimation of left structures in the Cold War, you know, McCarthyism, I think, matters quite a bit for why the early SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) sort of takes the conclusion that it does. In the second half of the ’60s, different groups comes to different conclusions. But there’s a story in the first half of the ’60s, which really rhymes with what happens in the 2010s.
And yeah, it’s all very understandable. That is where it comes from. That’s why I try to construct the book through interviews with people that had that approach. And then they took that approach into battle. And then this is what happens.
I try not to come in and say, this is what I think about any particular structure. This is not what I think about any particular ideological approach to social change. This is what these people thought. This is what happened. This is what they think now. Hopefully, I do it in such a way that it’s not about me. But it’s precisely because people like him believed that so deeply in 2005, 2008 that I find him so credible in 2023 to come to a different conclusion.
To answer your question quickly, yes, I believe that power is, what was the word you used, spatial and infrastructural. That there are different ways to go at power across space and time. That there are many ways that you can put real ... impose costs on elites that will require them to respond, or at least take notice. But I’m not exactly sure that the squares is one.
I mean, in Tahrir Square, if they wanted to, they could have just let those people live there. It doesn’t get in the way of anything. Like the government of Egypt could have just let those people stay there for six months, until they ... and this is what happened in a lot of other places, like a lot of other occupy-style movements, is that if they weren’t actually putting real pressure on the government, then they could just wait until people got tired, or cold, or had to go home.
So Tahrir served as a really important signal to the world, like a bat signal of what we’re doing, and what we want. But I think a lot of people would come to the conclusion that should be combined with the other things that you suggested, which is to put pressure on other power centers — the economy, political pressure, all kinds of things, strikes, boycotts, all kinds of things that you can think work alongside the, sort of, big communicative gesture of the square.
Daniel Aldana Cohen: OK. I’m going to make two observations before we close. Thank you so much.
The first observation is this is just such a great conversation to have. And I feel we’re like right in the nexus of organizing, reporting and social science. And it’s a really great and fun spot, really fills the room in a way that doing just one or the other doesn’t always do so. So really, really great.
And I think a sub-observation of that is, I think, what brings this together, is a big book that takes on a big burning question, and with really clear and simple language. I think anybody who reads George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which is a beautiful text, can recognize, I think, a huge amount of those ... that craft in the work that you’ve done here, Vincent. We’ve covered so many big ideas, but in a language that is super understandable. And for my fellow travelers in social science, taking note of that. So really, really incredible work.
The second observation is that Vincent’s handwriting is idiosyncratic, unique, very millennial. And if you’d like a piece of that handwriting, yourself, you only need to come up to me and get one of these books. And I think he will scrawl on it for you.
So huge thank you to the Matrix, to SC(2), for all of you for coming. And to Vincent, a round of applause for this.
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