The 21st Century Left

If We Burn, by Vincent Bevins

Over Chinese noodles and cold beers in north Brooklyn, my friend Sam (not their real name) and I envisioned a possible American revolution.

Anti-austerity protest. London, July 2011.

It was the summer of 2011, and I had just returned from Egypt, where I was reporting on student activists and trade unionists struggling to build a post-dictatorship society.

Leftists from all over the world were looking to the so-called “Arab Spring” as a blueprint for broad-based political change.

“Why don’t we just occupy the New York Stock Exchange? What stops us?” I asked Sam, invoking the revolutionaries who took over Cairo’s Tahrir Square and deposed US-backed despot Hosni Mubarak.

“Nothing,” Sam replied.

We fantasised that the Tahrir Square energy could soon be here in the Mecca of Western capital.

After all, that same year, unionists in Wisconsin had taken over the state capital in response to anti-union legislation, a refreshing show of force for a historically weakened American labour movement.

It all seemed unattainable at the time, but that fall, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement popped off in New York City, spreading to the rest of the country.

As a labour journalist, I spent afternoons at the original OWS encampment in the Financial District and, at night, listened to police radio to monitor arrests.

Sam hitchhiked from encampment to encampment with guitar in hand.

We finally met again the following spring in Chicago when Sam participated in a guitar march led by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

The aughts had been a decade of disappointment for the left.

The anti-neoliberal movement that captured the world’s attention at the WTO convention in 1999 fizzled out. George W. Bush won two terms, and centre-left parties like the Democrats and Britain’s Labour inched increasingly to the right.

Antiwar protests did nothing to stop the US and UK-led invasion of Iraq. And the 2008 financial crisis brought us all – except for the bosses and their heirs – more economic misery.

And so the teens were welcomed as a time of left renewal.

From New York to Athens to Santiago, masses of people, untethered by the end-of-history ideology of the 1990s, agreed that inequality had not just resulted in a vast economic divide but that political power had been concentrated in the hands of the very few.

This also brought out public anger toward the police worldwide, now seen not as a general security apparatus but as the front-line army of capital in the class war.

It was particularly inspiring because the movements weren’t necessarily the outgrowth of hoary sectarian parties but the lumpen public and newer, younger movements that were difficult to categorise.

People were coming from their offices and classrooms to carry handmade signs and face the police.

The Arab Spring appeared to dissolve the usual boundaries that separated the middle-class student and the worker, the secular from the religious, the Christian from the Muslim.

In Greece, you didn’t have to be a KKE cadre or a rock-throwing anarchist to say “Oxi” to the Troika. Corporate media and politicians across the world had to take it all seriously. From the looks of it, the tide was beginning to turn for the anti-capitalist left.

Where did it all go wrong? How did Greece go from having a radical anti-austerity government to its most right-wing government since the end of the military dictatorship?

Fascism, thought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, is now a mainstream political force from the MAGA movement to Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland to the Israeli military killing tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The climate emergency is not an “if” or a “when” but a “right now”. OWS-inspired demands to regulate the financial sector gained little traction.

The Tories continue to ravage the British welfare state a decade after the launch of the Uncut movement. A libertarian sociopath now runs Argentina. French politics continue to be a struggle between the neoliberal centre and the far-right despite weathering the longest strikes since 1968, protesting pension reforms.

In Hong Kong, notwithstanding massive protests against a new law giving police sweeping new powers, “Hundreds of protestors, activists and former opposition lawmakers have been arrested since the law came into force,” the BBC said in 2022.

As for the Arab Spring, Libya and Syria have been devoured by civil war, and the Egyptian revolution gave way to the Egyptian counter-revolution.

The pandemic aside, the 2020s seem worse than the aughts. Did all that explosive anger of the teens account for nothing?

This is the subject American foreign correspondent and author of The Jakarta Method Vincent Bevins attempts to confront in his new book If We Burn.

Bevins takes us through a whirlwind history of the decimation of the old left and the creation of a more individualistic new left before diving into the street fights that captured the world’s attention in the millennium’s second decade.

If We Burn brings these events to life through the lives of Brazilian street punks and Turkish football ultras and Bevins’ own struggle in the precarious world of print journalism.

The reader can tell where the book is headed from the opening pages. One senses that the failure of these movements can be blamed on their leaderlessness and lack of organisation. Their spontaneity has all the means but no plan.

It would be unfair and simplistic to say Bevins favours cadre-based socialist organisations, not anarchists. Particularly given the way he gives real humanity to the street fighters we meet around the globe.

In Brazil, mainly, Bevins paints in great detail how the mainstream press and politicians cynically manipulated the fervour of Brazilian leftists for their own ends.

The late Marxist journalist and historian Mike Davis said in a 2018 interview:

“I have strong, if idiosyncratic opinions on all the traditional issues – for example, the necessity of an organisation of organisers (call it Leninism, if you want) but also the evils of bureaucracy and permanent leaderships (call it anarchism if you wish) – but I try to remind myself that such positions need to be constantly reassessed and calibrated to the conjuncture.”

This quote goes unsaid throughout Bevins’ storytelling.

If the contemporary left has become actionist, diffuse, short-sighted and prone to misrepresentation, it is precisely because the left is a victim of neoliberal hegemony.

With the destruction of organised labour, many young workers today are more likely to join the left not through the collective organisation at first but perhaps through the Internet.

That’s fine and good,  but we as a society have been atomised and forced into alienation over generations, and our organising reflects that – think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

And so it is the struggle for today’s anti-capitalist to organise under the conditions we have now, but also to build an organisation whose whole is worth more than the sum of its comrades. 2010-2020 are a part of that very struggle, Bevins shows.

Perhaps it’s best to look at the one success story of the decade Bevins finds: Chile.

While attempts to redraft the constitution have stalled, it is significant that one of the main protest leaders, the autonomist Gabriel Boric, has become the nation’s president, with other street leaders like the vocal communist Camila Vallejo in government as well.

In short, the left attained some kind of state power.

The glimmer of hope is that in the 2020s, the alienated left is having some success in putting itself back together again.

Donald Trump’s election in 2016 spawned the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, who have elected representatives at the state level who, along with the street-focused comrades, are pushing for workers’ rights, tenant protections and better health care.

The push to unionise giants like Amazon and Starbucks and the recent success of American auto workers against the big manufacturers shows that we are relearning that there is more power in controlling the workplace than creating a spectacle in the centre of town.

The anarchists, autonomists and new left movements that Bevins visits deserve much credit for reimagining how the people can confront authoritarianism and capital.

The lesson of If We Burn is not that they are wrong and the statists are right, but that in the spirit of Mike Davis, the hope for the future is to merge the hearts of the new left with the strategy and organisation of the old one. We need that now more than ever.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.