If We Burn

learning from the mass protest decade

Tuesday, May 07, 2024 by Douglas Rogers

Crowds of protestors marching across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan Island

In the decades since scientists sounded the alarm on climate change, it’s become clear that fossil elites will not stop causing planet-scale destruction until they’re overpowered by mass movements. This is easier said than done.

In If We Burn: the Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, Vincent Bevins considers the wave of huge popular mobilisations which swept the world during the 2010s. By interviewing activists and organisers from Brazil to Egypt to Ukraine, he offers some invaluable insights into the ways that people fight for better worlds – and sometimes, tragically, end up with worse ones.

The combination of well-executed interviews and deft narrative history makes this book enormously engaging on its own merits: the twists and turns of quasi-revolutionary moments in Tahrir Square, Gezi Park and Hong Kong could rival any thriller. At the same time, Bevins’s thoughtful portrayal of activists’ voices and struggles offers a profound sense of shared human struggle. As a flightless Scot, I’ve rarely felt such a sense of connection, bordering on kinship, to global allies as when reading this.

It's testament to Bevins’s craft that his analysis is scarcely less engaging than his narrative. Synthesising interviews with 250 activists and organisers, and also drawing on a range of movement theorists, his primary thesis is that a global tendency towards ‘horizontalism’ (a mistrust of representation, leaders, hierarchies, maybe even structures) has allowed social movements to grow rapidly, but at the fatal price of being easily co opted.

One of the many things I found interesting about Bevins’s account was that it made virtually no mention of the mainly European and American climate mobilisations in 2018-19. He gives good reasons for this (the most humbling is simply that his interest is in movements which gain so much momentum as to threaten and/or unseat governments). On the other hand, it seems important to consider how the lessons of If We Burn map onto climate movements in general and Extinction Rebellion in particular – not least in a context of surging mobilisation around Palestine.

I spoke to Vincent to see what Extinction Rebellion and other climate activists could learn from his findings.

You can listen to our conversation as a podcast here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Douglas Rogers (D)

So your book is called If We Burn: the Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution. Could you tell me what it's about?

Vincent Bevins (V)

Yes, the book attempts to be a history of the world from 2010 to 2020. Of course it is not possible to actually tell the history of the world over the course of ten years. So like any work of history, it chooses what to include and exclude, and it's focused based on a set of concerns.

So this work of history is one that is told, and put together through interviews, as if the most important thing to happen in that decade were the protests that get so large that it either fundamentally destabilises, or indeed overthrows, an existing government. And that story, that history is built around one troubling question, which is: how is it that so many of these mass protest movements, these mass protests in the 2010s, apparently led to the opposite of what they were asking for?


You had about a dozen case studies where you're looking at specific moments where protests became so large that they reached this kind of regime threatening size. Could you describe one of them to give a flavour?


The case that takes up the most space in the book, partially because I lived through it and partially because I think it takes longer to unravel and longer for the consequences to become clear, is the Brazilian case. So very briefly:

In June 2013, a group called the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) began organising a set of demonstrations against a fare hike in Sao Paulo, largest city in South America – and this is something that they've been doing for eight years. But what happened on June 13th, 2013 is that the media and the ruling class of Brazil had gotten tired of these raucous, prefigurative and very disruptive protests. The media called for a police crackdown.

That crackdown came. And that crackdown hit not only the original leftists and anarchists and punks that were really so central to putting the movement together, it also hit people like me. It hit journalists in the mainstream media. It hit quote unquote ‘innocent civilians’, it hit the kind of person violence against which shocks mainstream media and political sentiment in Brazil.

So very quickly the mainstream media that had called for a crackdown on the protests of June 2013 flipped their position and began to praise the protest. But of course they could not praise them for the same reason, you know, their justifications or their praise could not reproduce the discourse of the actual MPL itself, because MPL believed in energetic direct action with the goal of decommodifying all public transportation in Brazil. This was not a project or a tactical approach that Brazil's mainstream media shared, so as they flipped from saying ‘we need to crack down on these punks and anarchists and get them off the streets’ to: ‘this is a great patriotic uprising and defence of the right to rise up in defence of something’ - they supply their own reasons as to why it was possible to praise this uprising.

And so what you saw was over the next few days, tens and then hundreds of thousands of Brazilians rush into the streets – apparently behind this original set of protests organised by the MPL. And this is experienced by many of the people, many of the original organisers, many of these sympathisers of the MPL, and even, I think by me, as a moment of euphoric victory. Like, Oh my God, it's happened. The people are finally rising up in defence of better public services, and in opposition to police brutality.

But it becomes quite clear that the people rushing into the streets were not necessarily rushing into the streets behind the MPL, so much as chronologically after, and this distinction becomes very important throughout the mass protest decade. And so they come into the streets with a new set of ideas as to what the whole thing is about. They have different political orientations than the original organisers, and the MPL does not only not believe in leading the popular revolt (they believe that their job was to spark one and then sort of step off the stage): even their attempts to maintain the focus on the original goal, which was to overthrow the bus fare rise and to keep their focus on public transportation. These concerns are swept aside by the wave of humanity that comes to the streets.

After the crackdown… I mean a lot more happens. But to summarise: in the weeks following the crackdown, new arrivals – some of whom we could now recognise as the beginnings of a far right in Brazil - sometimes I call them proto-Bolsonaristas because these are the people that later end up becoming the foot soldiers for the extreme right movement that puts support in Jair Bolsonaro – so these new arrivals enter into initially verbal but ultimately violent conflict with the original organisers and end up actually expelling many of the original leftists from the streets.

And in this strange ball of energy and strange sort of pressure cooker of an unplanned super mass revolt, other movements are born, one of which is a group of young libertarians and free market activists, funded by think tanks in the United States or trained by the Koch brothers. And this group, I think correctly recognises that the meaning of the streets is up for contestation and they step onto the scene pretending to be the thing that the MPL actually is. They pretend to be an autonomous grassroots leaderless, digitally coordinated idealistic youth movement, and they even create a name which is an intentional copy of MPL, they create the MBL which is the Movimento Brazil Livre rather than MPL. And this group over the years that follows plays a much larger role in shaping the political outcomes in Brazil than the MPL does. They lead a new protest movement to remove democratically elected left of centre President Dilma Rousseff and then they campaigned for Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 and then entered government with him in 2019.

So that was at least my personal experience in which over the years that I lived in this strange process by which things get worse and then even worse than and even worse than that, from 2013 to 2019 in Brazil. It seemed that at one point, after the crackdown of June 13th that I experienced personally, the Brazilian people were asking for one thing – and then 5-6 years later they got the exact opposite. Now I don't think that the protest directly caused that reversal. But they certainly unleash some forces which became important parts of the reversal.

So the Brazilian case is, as I say, the longest because I lived through it and I believed, I hoped that I was best placed to provide the kind of close, intimate recounting of a phenomenon where the devil really is in the details and how as with a lot of the mass protest movements that I described in this book, things really change from one morning to one evening and then they really change from one week to another. And a lot of that is erased or flattened by retrospective analysis just sort of trying to say, ‘oh, this is all about this event, this social condition and this is all about this demand’. So in the Brazilian case, I sort of spread it out over the entire book so that we could really trace how things change from day-to-day and from year to year.


So speaking of that tracing, you've already touched on this a little bit… to give an idea of the arc of the book: you extrapolate out from the Brazilian example and the dozen-ish other examples to trace a sort of general pattern which you're identifying as being remarkably global and having certain features in common and leading to certain outcomes in common. Could you outline what that pattern is?


Yes. So all of the cases that I choose to analyse, as I said, comprise a protest movement that gets so large that it either overthrows or fundamentally destabilises an existing government. So these 10 to 13 cases that I look at share many characteristics for two reasons (maybe three, let’s see how it goes).

One is that there is intentional reproduction of tactics, so a lot of what happens in the 2010s can be seen as a response to the apparent success of the Tahrir Square occupation in early 2011. So after Tahrir Square, you see many, many other movements around the world sort of not only being inspired by what happened in Egypt, but sort of copying and pasting a tactical approach.

But also I think there were global ideological and material conditions that made a certain type of action easiest compared to the historical alternatives, that made a certain type of response to injustice both ready to hand and tactically and morally privileged. So one way I summarised the phenomenon we are analysing here is to say that in the 2010s, one particular response to injustice or perceived injustice becomes hegemonic, often even appearing as the only or the ‘natural’ way to respond to government abuse, to respond to elites when they are abusing their power, abusing citizens. And that is the apparently spontaneous, leaderless, digitally coordinated, horizontally organised mass protest in public squares or public spaces.

Now one thing that I want to do in the book is to show that each one of those ingredients in that recipe comes from somewhere. They all have sort of historical and ideological and material histories that we can trace and I try to do that very quickly; but more important than where I locate these, the genesis of each particular one is to make the point that they all came from somewhere: this was not indeed the only way, historically has not been the only way, to respond to injustice. And it has its particular strengths and its particular weaknesses.

All of these elements may have been more or less present in some cases than others. In some cases, for example in the Brazilian case, the Movimento Passe Livre was explicitly – and now many of the members would say dogmatically – horizontalist. They put into their founding charter that they were a horizontal and autonomous group. In other cases, this is something that either existed concretely that came about in reality instead of being an intentional and ideological component of the organisers. But this is the package that I think becomes incredibly successful in the 2010s at putting people onto the streets, at destabilising or overthrowing existing governments and creating opportunities. But in many, many cases, at least historically, in this decade, it turns out to be poorly suited to taking advantage of the opportunities that are generated.


So yeah, I loved your book, loved what was beneath that outline. And I found it kind of both refreshing and humbling that in a book where the title describes mass protest in the 2010s, Extinction Rebellion (XR) doesn't come up at all.

So how do you relate to XR? Needless to say we're not quite revolutionaries like those in Brazil - we, I and I think even within the kind of global north left we occupy a sometimes quite equivocal position – so I’m interested as to what are your conceptions of XR.


My understanding of it in 2019 was that it was a radical ecological movement aimed at using disruption to push for a greener future. That was my understanding at the time, and there hasn’t been much that’s changed. If I've learned a little bit more about this, it's you know because people have told me about particular ideological and tactical approaches, but the broad picture that I had then is, is that ‘oh yeah, this is a radical group pushing for a less destructive set of practices in the global economy’. So I didn't engage deeply with it, but my initial reaction was of default sympathy.


OK, so, since then it hasn't loomed too large for you, strategically or conceptually.


Well, when I write a book like this I spend so much time trying to really understand, read everything good that's been written about the movements that I analyse closely, and really reconstruct the story that I want to tell about the 10 to 13 cases that I'm going to include and so I spend so much time doing that that I end up trying not to speak off the cuff about the about movements that I know nothing about, nothing comparatively. I haven't done anything like the deep dive into XR that I did elsewhere.


OK, interesting, a relatively fresh audience: in that case I can run some precepts by you and see how they land! Because since conception I think one of the things I’ve found interesting about XR is that I think it's quite self-consciously a sort of ‘designed’ movement maybe unlike some of your more spontaneous examples… it was more of a project by nerds who had identified previous problems, and who at least hopefully have solutions.

So as a first example and probably as one of more important ones: XR was very informed by Occupy that had gone before in London, and there were explicit efforts to integrate some of the lessons and shortcomings and strengths that had been encountered there. One of the main ones is this question of organising models and horizontalism/horizontality versus whatever else. And I think there was still a lot ambient – I think there is still a lot ambient – scepticism of verticality, so the attempt was to integrate both into a sort of hybrid – which was not innovated by XR, but was an existing framework called either Holacracy or Sociocracy. Have you come across either concept or generally this sort of effort to hybridise the vertical into the horizontal?


Yeah. I've heard the words sociocracy and of course I'm familiar with many, many attempts to sort of synthesise or sublate the contradiction between verticality and horizontality. But yeah, why don't you explain what it has meant for XR.


Well, it depends who you ask… as in, [in the UK] it was quite contested, it was messy the way it was implemented. Maybe unsurprisingly, you know, I’m sure we can all sympathise that these movements are innately messy. So we scaled very quickly in the style of a spontaneous horizontalist movement: we were able to scale and be agile and stuff, but we were able to retain – for a time – the benefits also of being able to coordinate and be cohesive. And basically we ran into limits around mid-2019: the tensions between those organising models and also the problem you identified several times in your book, of a lot of people joining our movement because of what they thought they were joining…




And so yeah. I think, we encountered some sort of decisive difficulties in running that model which have subsequently in the past like three years, maybe been folded back in and it’s possible that sociocracy is still running well now, although then there's problems with… Yeah, it's a long story. But so: do you have much faith in those models working? Insofar as it's a running theme throughout your book, I think one way of reading your book’s thesis is basically just we need to ‘do Leninism’. Like, to really boil it down: you're making this kind of riposte to the horizontalist consensus.


So the method of the book is interpretative: I speak to 250 people in 12 countries. And it would be profoundly unfair to them, and dishonest to the reader, if I were to say: ‘Here's the responses that I think are right. Here's the type of thing that I want from you’. It is ortho journalism, so what I try to do to the best of my ability is summarise the most common answers.

Now: ‘we were too decentralised’, is probably the most common answer. This happens on the left and the right. This happens also among many, many people that would reject the vast majority of what quote unquote Leninism is. This includes people that are to the right of centre: in the book I choose all types of movements, ideologically they're all over the spectrum. But again, I don't think my interviewees come around to the conclusion that there is a perfect amount of centralisation or decentralisation. I think what emerges is that there are various organisational forms available to different movements and to different historical moments into different geographic geographical locations around the world and to fetishize either maximal centralisation or maximal decentralisation, or any particular shape of movement can be a distraction from choosing, what happens to be most suited to the challenge. And because the readers of the book hopefully are coming from very, very different geographical locations and the challenges at hand for them are very different, I think that that hopefully is left up to the reader to decide what they take away from it.

So I have been gratified to see the people in different countries say ‘Oh that reminds me of what I went through in my movement’. I've also been gratified to see that people do come to different questions, different conclusions about my conclusion.

So there's one paragraph in the book that got attention and was reproduced in that Guardian extract and in Press Review: Not everyone changed their opinions. But everybody that did move, that did change their opinions moved in the same direction. Everyone moved back closer to the quote unquote Leninist organisational approach. But then, immediately after what I say is that the fact that this particular set of practises came together in the first place, and the fact that they were counterposed to Leninism, that they emerged as a response to Leninism, a rejection of Lenin. And all of that is historically contingent.

So that itself is historically contingent: the idea that these things all go together on this side of the spectrum and on the opposite end of the spectrum is something like quote unquote, Leninism. All of that is historically contingent and there's no reason for it to be, for that spectrum to exist in that form.


One thing you mentioned that I find particularly striking is, yeah, the reaction to your book as almost its own sort of subject of interest. I’ve discussed it with a lot of friends and I find it intriguing how often I run into this kind of emotional attachment to the form you described. You mostly attribute the ascendance of horizontality to the failure of the Soviet Union and related 20th century ideas in the West. I'm curious if you have ideas beyond this as to why? Because it's not just a question of old people who were disillusioned when the Berlin Wall fell or whatever. The younger someone is, I think, the more likely they are to still, even after both the actual history of the 2010s and interpretations like yours, lean horizontalist. Do you have any further inklings as to why this kind of mindset is still so alluring?


So, you say there is an emotional feeling or an emotional attachment to the form that I described, right?


It seems to go deeper than just the history of a failed project to me.


So I will say that if I had not lived through Brazil, and if I had not interviewed all these people who have been through these eruptions in their respective countries, I myself would probably be more emotionally inclined to find a sort of very elegant theoretical synthesis that allows for the incorporation of everything, rather than come to a set of sort of like, in some cases a little bit, hopefully sensitive, but perhaps slightly crude conclusions. Because the people that I met around the world have seen what is on the other side of apparent success.

Some of the people that have lived through the other side of that apparent initial victory come down much more harshly on horizontalism than I do in the conclusion. They are often like really angry when the word comes up. One major interlocutor that I didn't even quote because I thought it would be like sort of too hard said “I've come to the conclusion horizontalism is evil”.

But OK, you ask if there's something more than just the failure in the Soviet Union? Absolutely, I think you're right. I think there's a number of things, and hopefully they all become clear by the end of the book, but some of them I put at the beginning and some I only hint to at the end.

I do think that yes, in, you know, starting the second-half of the century in the 20th century in Western Europe and especially the United States any kind of association with the Soviet Union, as a result of not only McCarthyism but Hungary 1956, became something that many, many thinkers and activists wanted to avoid, for I think both ideological and material reasons; like it was either your career, your life could be destroyed if you were at all associated with official Marxist-Leninist doctrine. But then also by ‘58, that model there's something stale and uninspiring, unimpressive about what was actually happening in the Soviet Union. So yes, that absolutely happens. Then in 1989 to 1991, the actual thing falls apart. So that seems like pretty good proof to people that were already inclined to believe, so that that model was discredited, that there was nothing that was worth saving. And that everything about it needed to be reversed like there was kind of an undialectical simple inversion not among everybody, but some people thought, OK, let's just do the exact opposite of the thing that they did, and that's going to work.

But there are also real material forces that end up constituting a particular configuration of global neoliberal society, in that same ideological moment in the quote unquote, end of history that we can say is perhaps between 1990 and maybe 2011, whether it's Occupy or Tahrir Square.

In that same ideological epoch we are also being more individualised than ever; we are separated from any type of collective action with other human beings, we are separated from organisations, not only just formal, you know, capital organisations, we're often just like physically alone a lot. There's the illusion of connectedness, because we're all looking at each other's posts all the time. But we're really sitting alone and just sort of responding to what we see on screens, we are interpellated by society as individuals. This is something that comes up a lot in the literature on Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Nunes is a major interlocutor in the book. He talks about the idea of ‘neoliberalism from below’, the way in which the classic Bolsonarista subject views himself or herself – largely himself – as like an individual firm, like as an entrepreneur, or as like a ‘business of one’ rather than as a member of any given community.

So I think all these things, these ideological material factors, along with the concrete decimation of the organisations which would have been actual protagonists for social uprisings in the 20th century. Parties, unions, social movements, even like community organisations, civil, you know, neighbourhoods, all of the kind of things that would have been the natural protagonists in the 20th century.

All of this adds up to what I described at the beginning. Which is that a particular response to injustice is the most available. It is the one that appears possible and ready to hand when something horrible or horrifying happens, and it's not only that ‘Oh, I read that the history, you know, that the Soviet Union was bad and it didn't work anyway so we should do the opposite’, but also that I view myself as an individual. I believe that I, like everybody else, should be the leader of everything and I, you know, I've never really engaged in any kind of actual collective action, except for perhaps like on the football pitch, when I was younger, we all had to implement the strategy that the coach came up with. So I think that all of this made this, as I said, the easiest option – it appeared to be the easiest option available.


Yeah, I’ve heard you talk elsewhere about individualization and that kind of subjectivity angle. To me that feels in my own organising like an important way of thinking through it, especially – I remember a moment in the book just briefly mentioned the backstory of the mayor [of Sao Paolo] Haddad talking about ‘Marxist pizza parties’… and it's a tiny detail, and I think easily overlooked in the grand scope and historic movements of all you cover, but for some reason it's really stayed with me. Yeah, those spaces, as you say, we're not occupying the same physical spaces anymore. And yeah, just the general direction of society seems to lend itself to certain political forms.

If we can zoom in a little to look at tactics as opposed to strategy, you talk about protest as being a kind of fundamentally communicative action. And this is something I can relate to a lot. I was on the XR UK press team for a while, and so we would often sit back before actions were planned and or during and we would say ‘how much coverage is this getting’ – and then crucially afterwards everyone would always ask like ‘Oh well did this action succeed’? Look at the headlines. Are there enough of them or are there not? If that's not a sufficient model, which I assume it isn't, then what criteria would you suggest as alternatives to measuring an action’s impact as opposed to coverage?


No, I think that that is sufficient when you’re talking about protest. And so, sort of this strange phenomenon around which my book is built is what happens when a protest stops being a protest. What happens when there is the shift between the quantitative to the qualitative right, like a quantitative increase effects the qualitative transformation of the phenomenon. So the fact that the protest is a communicative action – there's no problem whatsoever. It's actually good. I think it's great to be aware of that as you evaluate the best strategies, evaluate who you're trying to communicate to, how you want to communicate, the force with which you want that message to land and so on.

What happens often in the book is that now there is a protest that so many people join that it becomes a revolutionary situation. And at that point… sometimes there's no one left to communicate to. I mean, this is a strange moment in some of the cases in the book that actually the protests continued acting like a protest when there was no longer anyone to protest. Like the government was gone, the government had jumped on a plane. And you know, the dictator had fled the country.

There was an actual power vacuum, and yet this communicative action continued because it was what people knew how to do, and there had been no plan for like setting up a revolutionary committee or a meeting of civil society organisations to plan for a transition. And I'm not faulting them for not planning for that because no one had seen coming the size of the explosion. In that moment, I think you need something different.


Interesting. If I can risk putting that, like, essentially revolutionary context into dialogue with what I'm more used to, which is the kind of global north climate movement debates of what do we do next week, what is this thing we've just done worth then… I think our banner tactic at the moment, speaking as the climate movement generally, is the sort of ‘art attack’ – the soup on a painting tactic. Which I enjoy how incongruous this sounds having heard about like, ‘oh, well, we didn't topple the regime’, etcetera. But I think there's a sort of productive tension there in that it's just such a different context here.

We're not talking about, I mean – and I realise these things can creep up on you, but – you know the day-to-day, week-to-week tactical level, strategic level we're operating on is this question of how can we get maximum coverage. It's these made for media actions, often, is the model and the discussion is often like well should they be as I asked. So yeah, just within the global North context. You know, it's an example of collective action. It's a tactic. We've tried other forms and this is one that's sort of emerged to the fore partly because it's so sort of media ready. Just generally how do you feel about the art attacks, the soup on paintings?


I'm going to give you a long answer. So how do we evaluate it? Right. So one thing that I said in an interview with Jewish currents, with Alex Press, we came to the conclusion: if someone in power is doing something and you want them to stop: raising awareness, being right, proving to the world that what they're doing is bad – is not enough. If people in power are doing something and you want them to stop, you either need to take their power away or make it so it's in their best interest to change. To change their actions, right?

So, in the short term, I think, maybe you might disagree, maybe people in your movement might disagree, but at least in the short term, I think states are going to be at the centre of whether or not the global economy transitions to a less destructive model or not. It is the existing set of states that comprise the global system. Is there whether we like it or not, and I think they're going to be there in crucial moments of a possible transition or non-transition into a less destructive economy.

So, you know, raising awareness, proving that something is bad, proving that another option is possible can all be important ingredients in a recipe that either takes power away from specific individuals or makes it so it is in their best interest to change. And this is another one that I think, there are some elements on the anglophone left that shrink away from this, which is much less common in in South America, for example: the idea that changing a politician's behaviour is a loss that somehow if you can take an existing set of state actors and put enough pressure on them that they have to come around to some of your demands, that reaping that victory and walking away with those wins is somehow a defeat. I think this is something that is sort of like vestigial and I sort of grew up with this idea also: near the ‘end of history’ in the United States, like in any way caring about or interacting with the existing state is to weaken or to compromise your movement. But historically, if you can force people in power to change their actions because you've put pressure on them from below, that's a win and there's no reason that you have to, like, commit suicide immediately after you get one win.

So soup on paintings - it really depends how it lands. It seems like the message that is transmitted to society is that there's a small group of young people that really, really want to stop and think about what's happening to the planet and really want you to stop and consider a shift away from a really destructive model, and I could see how that could be part of a larger set of practises and strategic orientation which gets more people involved in the movement or which gets politicians paying attention. Or which gets other solutions to appear more possible down the road. I could also see it annoying some people that you may need not necessarily to be on side because you never get them on side, but you know I don't care about annoying people compared to the destruction of the planet. When annoying somebody is effective – and sometimes annoying people is incredibly effective – sometimes being really annoying towards existing elites is how you get concessions from them and other times… so that's a long answer when really what I’m saying is it depends if it works. There is no ontologically progressive tactical form. There is nothing that you can do in any circumstance, and always it's good and there's nothing you can do in any circumstance, and it's always bad. It depends on its relation to a larger strategic orientation or to a larger project if it helps to either take someone’s power away or to make it in their interest to change their actions.


Speaking of world-systems, the Palestine movement has been happening recently. I was actually just involved in setting up an encampment in Edinburgh. So yeah, it's all going on. Do you feel like what you've been seeing suggests some lessons have been learned from the decade you cover?


Yes. So here’s the long answer once more. For most of the last six months – and just to be clear, I've been attending and supporting the Pro Palestine protest – for most of the last six months, I have been saying that they felt largely pre 2010s and post 2010s. Pre 2010s in the sense that they reminded me most of 2003 when I protested the war in Iraq. In the sense that a very clear message was delivered to elites, that message was received, and ignored. The protests remain communicative actions, quite effective communicative actions. Back in 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair got the message and chose to ignore it, this time Biden, Netanyahu, chose to ignore it.

In other ways, I was saying that they were post 2010s in some ways because they seemed to be less concerned with the elevation of spontaneity and horizontality than many protests in the 2010s. That they came to some of the same conclusions as some of the interlocutors in my book. For example, one of the more impressive, one of the most effective I think communicative actions of the early anti war movement was the Jewish Voices for Peace action at Grand Central Station. And I don't know how many people, hundreds, thousands of people, showed up and they were all wearing T-shirts that said ‘Jews for Ceasefire’.

This is like, if you want to do a close reading of what that is, that's a rejection of spontaneity because it can't be spontaneous that they made T-shirts. Right. This was a group that has known each other for, you know, sometimes decades. And they came together and they’re like, no, we know the media is going to lie about this. So we're going to make it impossible. They're going to say that we're anti-Semites, here to support Hamas. It's written on my chest: Jews for ceasefire. Right? So that seemed to be somewhat a move away from the elevation of spontaneity as an idea in itself.

And then also, then the other aspect of this is more I think a consequence of the particular case. The particular content of the movement because you know often in the 2010s it was said, often you know this phrase was reproduced as if this was like this really cool post modern phenomenon that the protests had a ‘floating signifier’. Which meant that they could be about everything and nothing, and from one morning to the next, they could be about this or that. It seemed that quite a lot of people in the last six months have been very intentional about saying ‘No, we want to end the massacre of Palestinians right now’. You can't show up and say this is about legalising weed, right.

But again, that's simplified with an anti war movement. Because when your government is helping another government to carry out crimes against humanity, it's very simple. It's very easy to you know, quote unquote, message discipline. It's very easy to come together and say we want you to stop that. Right? Whereas in June 2013 in Brazil, it was like well: why did this happen now? Like why even… you know, everyone maybe can bring their own complaints about society; whereas with an anti war movement, the protest form is very well suited because it's quite clear that if you're protesting the Vietnam War, the message is ‘stop the Vietnam War’. If you’re protesting Gaza the message is ‘stop helping Israel to massacre Palestinians’, right? So in those two senses, I thought it was somehow kind of quote unquote post 2010s.

But then the Colombia crackdown, the NYPD Columbia crackdown reproduced many elements that were for the first time very reminiscent of the phenomenon in my book. Now what elements are reminiscent? One's a crackdown on vulnerable like a special demographic of the citizenry, which shocks the population and leads to outpouring of solidarity protests, right, so that the NYPD crackdown leads to a spread of the reproduction of the encampment tactic because of the crackdown, because of the shock of the NYPD cracking down – I think everybody largely agrees unnecessarily – on students that are just trying to stop horrible war crimes from being committed.

Then you get again the attempt, the very active attempt, to pick off unsympathetic elements within the protest movement and use it to impose a representation on the larger group. So like you immediately saw right wing media entrepreneurs showing up and trying to find the craziest person in Manhattan. And saying oh look I found this guy this is what the protests are all about. And again, the response to that seems to be very post-2010s.

There's an article in the Atlantic. I don't know if you saw this article in the Atlantic, where it seems that what happened is journalists from the Atlantic went to the Colombia encampment and wanted to talk to everyone. And everyone in the encampment that he encountered said ‘We've appointed a media liaison. The person that we would like to speak with you today is this woman’. And he was really frustrated by this because I think that the Columbia students came to the conclusion, perhaps correctly, that he was there to find somebody to say something stupid, whereas they had decided in advance, and this is one of the lessons that comes up in the book, a movement that cannot speak for itself will be spoken for. They came up with the plan that like oh no, this woman is the woman that we’re gonna have speaking with the press today. She's the person that is the best at this, she's the person that we've decided on this job.

And to some of the most extreme some of the proponents of the most pronounced version of horizontalism of the 2010s this itself would have been seen as verticality. Because, oh, this person is speaking for everybody else, and everyone is supposed to do everything and so on. So the last few weeks have started to reproduce some of the phenomena of the 2010s in ways that generate both opportunities and challenges.


You mentioned [Hannah Proctor’s] Burnout earlier; there’s also been Exhausted of the Earth floating around, which I'm sure you've come across and or read about. And I heard you in a different interview, talking about having some interviews which were too dark to feature in the book. I'm intrigued about the notes you don't play in the book as well. Like, burnout doesn't come across too strongly as a theme – there’s sort of some deft references – but that kind of emotional labour angle, is that something you were encountering a lot?


So there's a couple things that I looked at, but I don't really slam in the reader’s face. One is the depths of depression to which some of the interviewees fall. I think it's enough to sort of just say that this happens without really making the book about an investigation of those emotional states and what they mean and what they feel like, what they look like – that's another, that is and should be another great book and many other great books, it just wasn't what I was trying to get at. But not only was that not the main topic of the book, I felt that some of this stuff was actually far too horrible in person. Even if we were on the record. I kind of decided, yeah, you don't really, we don't really want that out there.

And then another thing that was kind of only hinted at was that I didn't want to slap the reader in the face with was how actually like, angrily and like how often violently, some of the interviewees now reject horizontalism. Often, just like I mentioned, the word will bring a flash of anger, or like a look of deep concern to the faces of some of the interviewees. Again, this is something that I didn’t lean on, doesn’t seem like a productive representation. I didn't choose the most sensational, ideological transformations. I chose the ones that were most representative of the largest number of interviews, and presented soberly and I think in a way that people really would stand behind later rather than like sort of flashes of anger.


I suppose the reason I ask is because although you say, and I think you're right in terms of writing a book that is readable and has a particular thesis, yeah, the emotional side is not the point. But nonetheless, I think there is an intriguing overlap where this sort of intellectual sense making does always involve, necessarily, a big emotional component, whether that is negative, or hopefully – I mean hopefully there are some positive interviews of people who are like, yeah, I was empowered or I don't know, people who look back on them somewhat fondly. I mean, do you have that side as well?


Oh, yeah, yeah. This is in the book, that some people still say that this it's still the best day of my life. Like even though I know how it ended and how horrible the long term consequences were. I had a glimpse of something that day that made me feel more alive than anything else in my entire existence, and I'll be reliving it for the rest of my life and trying to learn what it means for the rest of my life. So absolutely. That tension, between the power of the experience and the very difficult intellectual and cognitive work of making sense of it, is something that I encountered. Yeah, across the world.


As a last question: how are you feeling personally about the future and state of the world? Not necessarily in that order.



Again, we keep bringing up this phrase, ‘Whether we like it or not’. There are things that exist, whether we like it or not – and that is kind of the original practise of historical materialism, right, is not to be like ‘What do I wish the world was?’ It’s like well, what is it and how do we act upon it to make it as good as possible given the opportunities; and whether we like it or not, we are facing a set of very serious dangers. And perhaps some opportunities. It doesn't really matter if I wish that it was different - what matters is how we very seriously analyse what opportunities and dangers the given state of things offers.

Things are a lot worse than I thought they might have been, in 2011. Should I quote unquote give up hope? Hope of what? Hope of the thing that I thought that might have been possible 15 years ago? That doesn't matter because we're all going to be living together on this planet whether we like it or not. We're going to be interacting with the global economic and political system that exists whether we like it or not. The point is to see how we can live best with each other and how best to act upon those systems to make them as good as possible given the contradictions and opportunities inherent in them.

That's easy for me to say also – I know by global standards I lead an incredibly privileged life. But that's still my answer. I don't give in to despair at the state of the world because, like the state of the world, is the state of the world, and that's what we have to deal with.


Thank you – good luck with your future work.


Thanks very much. Thanks again for caring.

Over de Opstand

Extinction Rebellion is een gedecentraliseerde, internationale en politiek onpartijdige beweging die geweldloze directe actie en burgerlijke ongehoorzaamheid gebruikt om regeringen te overtuigen rechtvaardig te handelen in de klimaat- en ecologische noodsituatie. Onze beweging bestaat uit mensen van alle rangen en standen, die op verschillende manieren bijdragen met de tijd en energie die ze kunnen missen. De kans is groot dat we een lokale groep bij jou in de buurt hebben, en we zouden graag van je horen. ...of .