To form the core narrative of my second book, I rely primarily on hundreds of interviews, carried out in twelve countries, with militants, revolutionaries, politicians, and regular people who lived through explosive uprisings that sought to transform the global system. But to get a sense of what happened from 2010 to 2020, the decade with the most numerous protests in human history, I also read as much as I could over four years, seeking out the work of scholars and participants who had reflected on what went wrong.
If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution is a work of history built around a vexing question: how is it that so many uprisings apparently led to the opposite of what they asked for? As I read widely guided by this same concern, I was struck to find that brilliant thinkers in disparate parts of the world had often arrived at similar places, though they took very different (national, political, economical, philosophical) routes to get there.
For my understanding of the revolts in the Arab world, I am deeply indebted to Lineages of Revolt, by Adam Hanieh, and Revolution without Revolutionaries, by Aasef Bayat. Contra the shallow readings offered by the anglophone press during the so-called “Arab Spring,” Hanieh maps out the political economy of North Africa before the uprisings, making clear that neoliberal policy once more required repression, rather than leading inexorably to democracy, as North Atlantic commentators loved to tell ourselves. Bayat was present both in Iran 1979 and Egypt 2011, and he explores the nature of neoliberal subjectivity to explain just how much had changed in revolutionary practice in the intervening decades. See this great review of his new book.
In Brazil, where I have lived primarily since 2010, I relied on two essential books by philosopher Rodrigo Nunes, and one now-classic ground-breaking study written by political scientist Camila Rocha. In Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal, Nunes reflects on the organizational forms that became hegemonic in the long 2010s by de-and-re-constructing the very concept of organization itself. In Menos Marx, Mais Mises, Rocha traces how well-funded right-wing organizations with roots in the US got themselves organized enough to be in a position to take advantage of the unexpected chaos in the country erupting in June 2013. And then in Do Transe à Vertigem, Nunes pieces together what Bolsonarismo actually is, pointing to both social media influencers and the “entrepreneurship of the self” as essential to the formation of a violently anti-democratic movement.
I think that Turkish sociologist Cihan Tuğal and Rodrigo Nunes would be struck by just how much they end up agreeing upon, after living through two protest explosions (in the same month) in two very different imperfect democracies. The Fall of the Turkish Model was fundamental to my understanding of both Gezi Park and the so-called “Arab Spring” itself. Things turned out very differently in Chile, where I frequently returned to Social Movements in Chile: Organization, Trajectories and Political Consequences, edited by Sofia Donoso and Marisa von Bulow, and this issue of Radical Americas, featuring the work of Tanya Harmer among many others.
And then there is Ukraine, the country whose endlessly complex mass protest explosion still haunts the globe. Arguably, Euromaidan is not over—certainly, the war that began shortly afterwards tragically continues to claim lives every single day, and certainly, few people have been capable (if they even tried) of understanding the 2013-2014 uprising in its full complexity. It would be amazing to see Volodymyr Ishchenko put his work on Euromaidan into a book someday (which would be in very productive dialogue with the works of Hanieh, Bayat, Nunes, Rocha and Tuğal), but for now I have been deeply struck by the thoughtfulness and rigor of his articles on the subject. “Insufficiently Diverse: The Problem of Nonviolent Leverage and Radicalization of Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising, 2013– 2014,” provides an elegant answer to the much-propagandized question of far-right involvement in Euromaidan (and coincidentally, the same one that dozens of interviews in Kyiv in 2021 pointed me toward), while “How Maidan Revolutions Reproduce and Intensify the Post- Soviet Crisis of Political Representation” (written with Oleg Zhuravlev) tackles the question of why these types of uprising, in general, cannot deliver what they ask for. His recent work on the Ukrainian Communist Party is also hugely valuable. On the origins of the war itself, Ishchenko pointed me toward Ukraine’s Unnamed War: Before the Russian Invasion of 2022 by Dominique Arel and Jesse Driscoll. For a longer, more nationalist history of the country, I turned to The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy.
Finally, the “mass protest decade” ends in the People’s Republic of China, more specifically Hong Kong, as a virus begins to engulf the planet and stop countless street movements in their tracks. For background reading on 2019 in Hong Kong I relied on three very different books: Vigil, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Hong Kong in Revolt, by Au-Loong Yu, and After Autonomy, by Daniel Vukovich.