THR Web Features   /   December 20, 2023

Presentation and Power

What became of politics in the Long 2010s.

Mark Dunbar

( Signs at the site of an Occupy DC protest, 2011, Shutterstock.)

Reviewed Here

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution
Vincent Bevins
New York: PublicAffairs, 2023.

The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession
Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger
New York: Verso Books, 2023.

I “joined” the Occupy movement in my junior year of college. It was my first taste of political activism. Since turning eighteen and having my first real job (security guard), I'd been vaguely socialist. Before then I’d been vaguely right-wing. I was nervous during the first meeting. I didn’t look the part—six-four, athletic-ish, Nike shorts and Under Armour hoodie—and, worse, I knew I didn’t. I didn’t know the lingo. I didn’t know the etiquette. I didn’t know anything. I just knew I didn't like following orders from people who weren’t accountable to me.

The meeting was packed. It was conducted (we wouldn’t want to say “led,” would we?) by a guy who looked the part—short, skinny, long hair. The first red flag was when we were advised (not told, of course) to use spirit fingers rather than clap. The second red flag was when we voted to divide between town and campus groups—the town group would focus on housing, the campus group on student debt. In the campus group, all the ideas for what we should do were theatrical—hold up a banner during a football game, project student debt numbers on the side of a bank. That didn’t interest me. I was there for power, not presentation. But I stuck around for numerical strength, until, one night, after police removed us from occupying the political science building, a fellow Occupier accused me of being an undercover cop. In her defense, I did look that part.

This was during the Long 2010s (2009-2022), a decade during which there occurred more mass protests than any decade in history. The protests were against the usual suspects: capitalism, racism, imperialism, greed, corruption. Two new books, Vincent Bevins’s If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution and The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession by Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger, are about these protests and why they seemed to summon more of what they protested against—more greed, more racism, more corruption. They take different approaches. The Populist Moment is an academic investigation into the electoral failures of left-wing candidates in Europe and the United States (Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Greece’s Syriza party), while If We Burn is a journalistic account of street protests in the Third World (Brazil, Indonesia, Chile) as well as Turkey and Ukraine. 

While the electoral and protest approaches are different, they yielded the same result. The protests and protest candidates failed because they lacked organizational structures and concrete policies. Protestors couldn’t make demands because they shunned the formal structures of decision-making that could have led to change; protest candidates couldn’t advance concrete policies because they had no confidence those policies would be electorally sustainable. In other words, where there was a will there was no way, and where there was a way there was no will. Still, the shell of failure can contain kernels of success. Bernie Sanders, for example, didn’t become president—he wasn't the Democratic nominee—but he was a viable candidate. And the skill and knowledge acquired during that time (campaign discipline, policy formation, ideological communication) did not disappear overnight. We see these qualities now in the ambition and vibrancy of the labor movement, which has recently won big victories in the film and auto industries, among other places.

Of course, failure can be character-defining. And political failure can define one’s political character, leading to despair or conversion—in many cases, either to establishment hack or useful idiot for fascism. A lot of dixie-whistling has been done about the latter conversion path (proof of the so-called “horseshoe” theory of politics), but such conversions say less about political ideologies than individual personalities. A politics of hope will attract the hopeless, but hope defeated can push the hopeless into despair. And there will be plenty of despair merchants down there waiting for them. Likewise, those who want to wave a banner that the angry can rally around (and it was Augustine who said anger was the beautiful child of hope) will wave whatever banner is most attractive to the angry—whether it leads to better wages or to the burning of books. Finally, there are the careerists. Of course, some ideologies are more likely to attract careerists, just as others are more likely to attract sadists. But those who, after the failure of the Long 2010s, drifted into nihilistic cynicism or started playing footsie with fascism (or, more likely, both) didn’t undergo a political conversion; they succumbed to cowardice. Courage being Augustine’s second beautiful child of hope.

Both If We Burn and The Populist Moment blame similar culprits. Borriello and Jäger blame the general atomization of society (the decline of participation in civic organizations, labor unions, and political parties). Jäger has written elsewhere about how we live in an age in which everything is political but there are few genuine political outlets, a strange set of circumstances that explains how, without genuine political outlets, our politics has become vague, and the vaguer the politics the greater the fear of those politics being transgressed. (Without firm political foundations or boundaries, every compromise can feel like a capitulation, every encroachment an invasion.) Bevins blames the ideological plague of “horizontalism” and “spontaneity”—the anarchic impulse for a structureless, leaderless movement. But, as Bevin points out, the decline of formal structures or formal leadership doesn’t entail an absence of structure and leadership. It creates conditions for informal structure and informal leadership.

In my own Occupy experience, even though we were technically structureless and leaderless, it was always the same people conducting the meetings, and they were also the first to oppose formalizing anything. I doubt this was done cynically. In fact, I’m sure it wasn’t. I think they just wanted to attract as many people as possible and, to their minds, they felt a movement that required no obligations and made no particular demands on one’s conscience was the best way of doing that. All that was asked of participants was their presence and a vague desire for change. That should have been a third red flag because a vague desire for change invites quite a bit of nonsense. I remember one night walking from the general meeting to a more selective meeting for those of us willing to engage in direct action (in this case, preventing a Goldman Sachs banker from speaking on campus), when one of the other participants started talking to me about the evils of the Federal Reserve (the libertarian boogeyman) and how it was devaluing the dollar (not a bad thing for us debtors). What’s the old Marxist joke? The only thing worse than being exploited by capital is not being exploited by capital? If easy credit replacing wage growth was bad, wait until there was no wage growth and no easy credit.

Bevins sees the structureless, leaderless ethos as a product of the Sixties and the New Left. Authoritarian structures, so that generation tended to believe, couldn’t bring about democratic changes. A false dichotomy, to be sure. Never mind that “authoritarian structures” have, can, and hopefully will continue to bring about democratic changes. It doesn’t escape Bevins that this anarchic impulse was probably just a coping mechanism for the general atomization Barriello and Jäger write about. The structures were destroyed, good riddance anyway. Nor does the fact that this impulse mirrors the very society it was ostensibly protesting against. “At the end of the day,” retrospectively concluded one protestor Bevins interviewed, “horizontalism is a reflection of individualism.”

Both If We Burn and The Populist Moment are “This Is What’s Wrong” books rather than “This Is How To Fix It” books and, therefore, ironically, suffer a bit from the vague desire for change that they chagrin. Bevins, to his credit, ends his book lambasting the unseriousness of long-decade protestors—particularly white, Western ones—who, after failing, didn’t suffer the same fate as their Third World compatriots. (“There's no more agreeable position,” said Evelyn Waugh, “than that of dissident from a stable society.”) Western protestors found refuge in academia and the nonprofit world, while their compatriots were thrown in prison or murdered. And Bevins seems aware that that’s his situation as well. What print media outlet nowadays isn’t sustained by some largesse in one form or another? Nonetheless, the general thesis of both If We Burn and The Populist Moment is correct. What’s needed is courage and competency. Less obscure knowledge of French cinematic history, more concrete knowledge of QuickBooks and how a warehouse functions; fewer heads in the clouds, more feet on the ground. Otherwise one should admit not an interest in power but in presentation—that one’s vague desire for change is more a homely rebelliousness than a radical conviction.