Chris Hedges: Why Mass Movements Fail

The wave of global popular protests that erupted in 2010 and lasted a decade were extinguished, meaning new tactics and strategies are required, as Vincent Bevins explains in his book If We Burn.

Protest (Assemby Required) – by Mr. Fish.

By Chris Hedges
Original to ScheerPost

There was a decade of popular uprisings from 2010 until the global pandemic in 2020. These uprisings shook the foundations of the global order. They denounced corporate domination, austerity cuts and demanded economic justice and civil rights. 

There were nationwide protests in the United States centered around the 59-day Occupy encampments. There were popular eruptions in Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Chile and during South Korea’s Candlelight Light Revolution.

Discredited politicians were driven from office in Greece, Spain, Ukraine, South Korea, Egypt, Chile and Tunisia. Reform, or at least the promise of it, dominated public discourse. It seemed to herald a new era.

Then the backlash. The aspirations of the popular movements were crushed. State control and social inequality expanded. There was no significant change. In most cases, things got worse. The far-right emerged triumphant. 

What happened?

How did a decade of mass protests that seemed to herald democratic openness, an end to state repression, a weakening of the domination of global corporations and financial institutions and an era of freedom sputter to an ignominious failure?

What went wrong? How did the hated bankers and politicians maintain or regain control? What are the effective tools to rid ourselves of corporate domination?

Vincent Bevins in his new book If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution chronicles how things failed on several fronts.

The “techno-optimists” who preached that new digital media was a revolutionary and democratizing force did not foresee that authoritarian governments, corporations and internal security services could harness these digital platforms and turn them into engines of wholesale surveillance, censorship and vehicles for propaganda and disinformation.

The social media platforms that made popular protests possible were turned against us.

Over a million people thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo, demanding the removal of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, Feb. 9. 2011. (Jonathan Rashad, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Many mass movements, because they failed to implement hierarchical, disciplined, and coherent organizational structures, were unable to defend themselves. In the few cases when organized movements achieved power, as in Greece and Honduras, the international financiers and corporations conspired to ruthlessly wrest power back.

In most cases, the ruling class swiftly filled the power vacuums created by these protests. They offered new brands to repackage the old system. This is the reason the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign of Barack Obama was named Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year. It won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.

It beat out runners-up Apple and The professionals knew. Brand Obama was a marketer’s dream.

Too often the protests resembled flash mobs, with people pouring into public spaces and creating a media spectacle, rather than engaging in a sustained, organized and prolonged disruption of power. 

Guy Debord captures the futility of these spectacles/protests in his book Society of the Spectacle, noting that the age of the spectacle means those entranced by its images are “molded to its laws.” 

[Related: Who Determines What’s ‘Disinformation’? and Chris Hedges: Society of Spectacle]

Anarchists and antifascists, such as those in the black bloc, often smashed windows, threw rocks at police and overturned or burned cars. Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism were justified in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection.” 

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This “riot porn” delighted the media, many of those who engaged in it and, not coincidentally, the ruling class which used it to justify further repression and demonize protest movements.

An absence of political theory led activists to use popular culture, such as the film V for Vendetta, as reference points. The far more effective and crippling tools of grassroots educational campaigns, strikes and boycotts were often ignored or sidelined.

As Karl Marx understood, “Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented.”

If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution,  is a brilliant and masterfully reported dissection of the rise of global popular movements, the self-defeating mistakes they made, the strategies the corporate and ruling elites employed to retain power and crush the aspirations of a frustrated population, as well as an exploration of the tactics popular movements must employ to successfully fight back.

“In the mass protest decade, street explosions created revolutionary situations, often on accident,” Bevins writes. “But a protest is very poorly equipped to take advantage of a revolutionary situation, and that particular kind of protest is especially bad at it.”

The seasoned activists who Bevins interviews echo this point.

“Organize,” Hossam Bahgat, the Egyptian human rights campaigner, tells Bevin in the book. “Create an organized movement. And don’t be afraid of representation. We thought representation was elitism, but actually it is the essence of democracy.”

Ukrainian leftist Artem Tidva agrees.

“I used to be more anarchist,” Tidva says in the book. “Back then everyone wanted to do an assembly; whenever there was a protest, always an assembly. But I think any revolution with no organized labor party will just give more power to economic elites, who are already very well-organized.”

Book cover design by Paul Rand. (Flickr, Crossett Library, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The historian, Crane Brinton, in his book The Anatomy of Revolution writes that revolutions have discernable preconditions. He cites discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. 

Revolutions always begin, he writes, by making impossible demands that if the government met, would mean the end of the old configurations of power.

But most importantly, despotic regimes always first collapse internally. Once sections of the ruling apparatus — police, security services, judiciary, media, government bureaucrats — will no longer attack, arrest, jail or shoot demonstrators, once they no longer obey orders, the old, discredited regime becomes paralyzed and terminal.

But these internal forms of control during the decade of protests rarely wavered. They may, as in Egypt, turn on the figureheads of the old regime, but they also worked to undermine popular movements and populist leaders. They sabotaged efforts to wrest power from global corporations and oligarchs. They prevented or removed populists from office. 

The vicious campaign waged against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters when he headed the Labour Party during the 2017 and 2019 U.K. general elections, for example, was orchestrated by members within his own party, corporations, the conservative opposition, celebrity commentators, a mainstream press that amplified the smears and character assassination, members of the British military and the nation’s security services.

Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, publicly warned that the Labour leader was a “present danger to our country.”

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Disciplined political organizations are not, in and of themselves, sufficient, as Greece’s left-wing Syriza government proved. If the leadership of an anti-establishment party is not willing to break free from the existing power structures they will be co-opted or crushed when their demands are rejected by the reigning centers of power.

Anti-austerity protesters in front of the Greek Parliament in 2011. (Kotsolis, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2015, “the Syriza leadership was convinced that if it rejected a new bailout, European lenders would buckle in the face of generalized financial and political unrest,” Costas Lapavitsas, a former Syriza MP and a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, observed in 2016.

“Well-meaning critics repeatedly pointed out that the euro had a rigid set of institutions with their own internal logic that would simply reject demands to abandon austerity and write off debt,” Lapivistas explained. “Moreover, the European Central Bank stood ready to restrict the provision of liquidity to the Greek banks, throttling the economy — and the Syriza government with it.” 

That is precisely what happened. 

“Conditions in the country became increasingly desperate as the government soaked up liquidity reserves, the banks went dry, and the economy barely ticked over,” Lapivistas wrote. “Syriza is the first example of a government of the left that has not simply failed to deliver on its promises but also adopted the programme of the opposition, wholesale.”

Having failed to obtain any compromises from the Troika — European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF — Syriza “adopted a harsh policy of budget surpluses, raised taxes and sold off Greek banks to speculative funds, privatized airports and ports, and is about to slash pensions. The new bailout has condemned a Greece mired in recession to long-term decline as growth prospects are poor, the educated youth is emigrating and national debt weighs heavily,” he wrote.

“Syriza failed not because austerity is invincible, nor because radical change is impossible, but because, disastrously, it was unwilling and unprepared to put up a direct challenge to the euro,” Lapavitsas noted. “Radical change and the abandonment of austerity in Europe require direct confrontation with the monetary union itself.” 

The Iranian American sociologist, Asef Bayat, who Bevins notes lived through both the Iranian Revolution in 1979 in Tehran and the 2011 uprising in Egypt, distinguishes between subjective and objective conditions for the Arab Spring uprisings that erupted in 2010. The protestors may have opposed neoliberal policies, but they also were shaped, he argues, by neoliberal “subjectivity.”

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, in the early morning of November 2012. (Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

“The Arab revolutions lacked the kind of radicalism — in political and economic outlook — that marked most other twentieth-century revolutions,” Bayat writes in his book Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring.

“Unlike the revolutions of the 1970s that espoused a powerful socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and social justice impulse, Arab revolutionaries were preoccupied more with the broad issues of human rights, political accountability, and legal reform. The prevailing voices, secular and Islamist alike, took free market, property relations, and neoliberal rationality for granted — an uncritical worldview that would pay only lip service to the genuine concerns of the masses for social justice and distribution.”

As Bevins writes, a “generation of individuals raised to view everything as if it were a business enterprise was de-radicalized, came to view this global order as ‘natural,’ and became unable to imagine what it takes to carry out a true revolution.”

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, died in October 2011 during the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park. To my dismay, several of those in the encampment wanted to hold a memorial in his memory.

Wall Street, March 2012. (Michael Fleshman, Flickr, Michael Fleshman, Flickr,CC BY-SA 2.0)

The popular uprisings, Bevins writes, “did a very good job of blowing holes in social structures and creating political vacuums.” But the power vacuums were swiftly filled in Egypt by the military. In Bahrain, by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council and in Kiev, by a “different set of oligarchs, and well-organized militant nationalists.” In Turkey it was eventually filled by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Hong Kong it was Beijing.

“The horizontally structured, digitally coordinated, leaderless mass protest is fundamentally illegible,” Bevins writes. 

“You cannot gaze upon it or ask it questions and come up with a coherent interpretation based on evidence. You can assemble facts, absolutely — millions of them. You are just not going to be able to use them to construct an authoritative reading. This means that the significance of these events will be imposed upon them from the outside. In order to understand what might happen after any given protest explosion, you must not only pay attention to who is waiting in the wings to fill a power vacuum. You have to pay attention to who has the power to define the uprising itself.”

In short, we must pit organized power against organized power. This is a truth revolutionary tacticians such as Vladimir Lenin, who saw anarchist violence as counterproductive, understood. The lack of hierarchical structures in recent mass movements, done to prevent a leadership cult and make sure all voices are heard, while noble in its aspirations, make movements easy prey. By the time Zuccotti Park had hundreds of people attending General Assemblies, for example, the diffusion of voices and opinions meant paralysis. 

“Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement,” Lenin writes.

Revolutions require skilled organizers, self-discipline, an alternative ideological vision, revolutionary art and education. They require sustained disruptions of power, and most importantly leaders who represent the movement.

Revolutions are long, difficult projects that take years to make, slowly and often imperceptibly eating away at the foundations of power. The successful revolutions of the past, along with their theorists, should be our guide, not the ephemeral images that entrance us on mass media. 

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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26 comments for “Chris Hedges: Why Mass Movements Fail

  1. Tom Laney
    October 6, 2023 at 08:48

    IMHO every American Labor Revolution failed because these uprisings were taken over by “Vanguard” Academic/Intellectual Orbital Leftists.

    I am most interested in Polish Solidarnosc. THEY rose by ignoring the academics. THEY organized in the factories and workers chipped in to send their brothers and sisters on the road. Polish worker bicycled and hitchhiked across Poland convening discussions with Polish Workers to strategized on strikes for the common good. And THEY brought down a corrupt Leninist production system and government for almost 10 years! They failed when they invited the Vanguard Peeps back in and opposed workers’ strikes. Took about 10 years for the Orbital Left to wreck it.

  2. DH Fabian
    October 5, 2023 at 22:14

    As pointed out so many times through the years, there is no movement, and no chance of a movement, because Democrats so powerfully split apart the masses who were inclined to organize and “rise up.” We are middle class vs. poor, workers vs. those left jobless, liberals vs. the left, further split by race and politics. We really don’t all “stand in solidarity” to protect the advantages of the better off. Accept that.

    • Tom Laney
      October 6, 2023 at 08:56

      There is a strike movement now. It is being contained by the Labor Porkchoppers. There is a Rank and File Revolt and Solidarnosc=like organizing being repped by Mack Truck worker Will Lehman, a Trot but also a solid Rank & Filer. The Rank and File is under attack by “reformer” Corporatist Shawn Fain, and the Orbital Left (OL) in the UAW. The OL also supports Biden’s WWIII. So we have the Solidarity Movement being attacked by elitist, Leninist anti-democracy intellectuals. Again.

  3. Dave
    October 5, 2023 at 00:03

    The anarchists of Rojava are still operating due to a lack of hierarchal organization which disempowers the people in supporting a leader to provide direction.

    The founder of Kurdish anarchism abandoned efforts to work in a Marxist model due to several design flaws.

    The direct democracy model creates buy in and succeeds when communities and regions organize with it.

    Since neighborhoods take care of security, there is no monopoly on violence that states try to maintain at all costs.

    All hierarchal group that adds security underneath the top decision makers creates a turnkey govt which gives the power of state violence to each succeeding leader.

    Yes, hierarchal systems can have staying power as people in power have a vested interest and responsibility to keep things going.

    But non hierarchal groups can empower people to be responsible for certain areas which provides a foot hood in crisis.

  4. October 4, 2023 at 18:49

    Brilliant analysis: I refer to such statements as: ‘Techno-optimism’; They turned social media platforms against us’; ‘neoliberal subjectivity’; critique of anarchist theory is welcome; plus the Marx and Lenin quotations: ‘Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented’; ‘Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement’. A study of Marxist theory and history, including how Stalinism emerged, is the only way forward for any movement. It has to be reconstituted, albeit relevant to the present circumstances, and must include parliamentary representation, as well as an independent movement that is international, transparent and democratic. That said, I still think democratic centralism is a good idea. I’m also reminded of what Marx says in his 11 theses: That it is ‘essential to educate the educator”. This article by Chris Hedges helps us to get back on the right track. Many thanks!

    • Maria soledad calef
      October 5, 2023 at 12:32

      La teoria revolutionaria no es un dogma. Es una guia para la accion. The revolutionary theory is not a dogma, but a guide to the action. And our leaders were unable to apply and forward theory to Occupy WS, that by the same token, it was infested by CIA as well as was the Arab spring, and, there many opportunism. There were, many natural, and decent and representatives leaders, but, they were absent of the theory and practice thinker leaders. More, there was not a platform that could keep the mass together because the lack of truly revolutionary Marxist revolutionary theory that would keep people strong in the movement and escalate to the more national level. More, leaders were disconnected from the people, thinking that they are above the people, and they resist to be among people themselves, many want compromise with the local government. In Occupy Columbia, ( SC) many participants received jobs! others leaders do not want we hurt our local government in our speech, and finally many were ( are ) receiving grants from government. So how we could fight against the oppressor in Occupy Colombia, by that occupy WS movement time?

  5. Onlooker
    October 4, 2023 at 17:27

    Without discussing the broader issues, just one correction:
    > “Anarchists and antifascists, such as those in the black bloc,..”

    I know for a fact. from personal knowledge, of a few instances where the supposed black-bloc rioters/vandals were actually policemen in disguise (and have no doubt that the same was true in plenty of other cases).

    • J Anthony
      October 5, 2023 at 06:40

      Agent-provocateurs, yes. This is the tried-and-true tactic of sabotaging legitimate protests and/or movements. It is not always easy to spot these bastards, but you can count on some showing up during any grass-roots strike, protest, rally, etc. that grows larger than they would care to have it…

      • Maria soledad calef
        October 5, 2023 at 12:40

        Yes, CIA use many undercovers, who were acting as provocateurs , and sabotage the movement. We need to be aware of that our government is using tremendous financial resources on recruiting at people at home as well as abroad. Also, be aware about there are many organizations acting as “progressive”, but they are receiving grants from government, and many have been members of the peace corp.

  6. Ira Weisberg
    October 4, 2023 at 08:53

    Hedges argues in favor of the building of a disciplined revolutionary organization that, at least in part adopts some or many aspects of Leninism. And yet, he himself refuses to join such an organization himself. Is it perhaps because he he is unwilling to subject himself to that kind of discipline? To accept the authority of such an organization would require breaking with his own religious based individuality and advocacy of symbolic acts of civil disobedience which he has advocated for most of his post New York Times career. Hey Chris, it’s time to put up or shut up. Set an example for your many readers and admirers.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      October 4, 2023 at 15:52

      Thank you, Ira. You’re correct.

  7. J Anthony
    October 4, 2023 at 08:06

    How to break free from the existing power structures, as Hedges points out here, is the trick and it is the most difficult one. We are all trapped and born dependent on these structures, more or less, so rebelling against them while at the same time trying to create new and better systems is the main challenge. Cooperation, discipline, perseverance, and sacrifice are required. It’s like herding cats, I guess. But no revolutionary movement can avoid co-option unless they’re willing to stay-the-course and possibly die for the cause.

    • WillD
      October 4, 2023 at 22:52

      As long as resistance is divided, existing power structures survive because the pressure isn’t enough to topple them. They can play each side off against the others. It is the division, the conflict, the confusion that they sow amongst us – to keep us that way. Keep us divided and weakened. Hence the disinformation, censorship and shock tactics (such as the pandemic).

      Historically, ‘enemies’, as in different causes, only came together to fight the single common enemy as a last resort when they felt all would be lost unless they did so. Up until that point they remained separate, preferring to fight for their own cause against other causes as well as the common one.

      We need to find ways of allying with the many different, and often opposing causes, to fight the common enemy. Sooner rather than later. The longer we leave it the harder it will be.

      At this point, the collective west is descending into darker and darker places, but the Global South (Majority) seems to be going the other way. It may be that as the west implodes upon itself, and those existing power structures also collapse – that they won’t go down without some desperate moves.

  8. firstpersoninfinite
    October 4, 2023 at 00:42

    Well done, Chris Hedges. Thank you for reminding us of the reality of revolution, not the media frenzy of failed revolutions. Every spark has been reduced to spectacle, every human feeling made into an algorithm waiting to be processed that it might refurbish the great machine of Capitalism. The old parliamentary forms have been emptied of meaning, the strong men rise up in ever-descending circles of influence. We need to start now if we want to escape this growing capitulation to authoritarianism, and cap this global Capitalism madness quickly overtaking us. You are right: it really isn’t about luck in the moment, but in what is needed strategically in overcoming the powers we face. The nihilism they offer us is not the only choice. This really is a fight to the finish. Collectivism is needed at all intervals.

  9. Afdal
    October 3, 2023 at 20:15

    Honestly shocked to hear Hedges say something nice about Lenin for once.

    • Em
      October 4, 2023 at 09:48

      Surprise! Surprise!
      Was Lenin, the person, infallible, in your view?
      Is anyone?

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      October 4, 2023 at 15:53


  10. ray Peterson
    October 3, 2023 at 20:05

    Thanks Chris, There could be no better endorsement for a Cornel West
    for president. Trump or Biden or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are all
    “part of the problem” and only the humanist democracy committed
    West is an alternative (Margaret Thatcher be damned).
    But this is grassroots democracy in action. Serious alternative
    writers have to write of his values and life (“The Cornel West Reader”),
    and activists have to do the organization of power, finances will be
    from individuals, as with the failed stabbed in the back Bernie
    Sanders’ campaign.
    It’s a Cornel West presidency for 2024 or we all fall off the cliff.

    • Em
      October 4, 2023 at 14:24

      Is this now only wishful thinking!

      At this point in the selection process, I agree with your insights, yet is it fair to brand RFK Jr., as “part of the problem” simply because of the name he bears?

      As he has now made clear, the democratic party of his uncle no longer exists.
      With his campaign manger being Dennis Kucinich, who long ago broke from the party establishment, one must still have hope that there are honorable and unselfish persons who will wrest control from those dark forces in the clandestine swamp of the so-called United States today; before it is too late for all of us.

      Cornel West’s campaign manager was formerly Jill Stein of the Green Party, before Dr. West made his decision to switch to Peter Daou, erstwhile an insider aide to Hillary Clinton, who is now running his Presidential campaign.
      Dr. West saw ‘something’ in this guy which he sees as beneficial to his party’s overall candidacy. If this leopard can be seen to change his spots, by one as erudite as Dr. West, why not RFK Jr?

      RFK Jr. himself has never actually run for high political office?
      Isn’t the process of democracy all about prospective candidates being given equal opportunity to formally present themselves to the public, to either be freely chosen or dis-carded, by all of the people?

      The bias of privately owned mainstream media must have NO part in the selection process.

      In this plutocratic society, the corporate moneyed interests do not have the public’s interests at heart!

      • ray Peterson
        October 4, 2023 at 16:23

        Oh Em, not at all. His father was the hope of we
        in 1968 after his California win. No, no, the son
        is a far cry from his father, and as being “part of the
        problem” give a read to N. Solomon in “Common
        Dreams” for the dreary details. ray peterson

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      October 4, 2023 at 15:54

      Wrong. It is socialist revolution or we all die in the earthquake.

  11. Drew Hunkins
    October 3, 2023 at 18:16

    The only way real anti-war and econ populism (Med4All, strong unions, fed jobs program, raise in min wage) is going to succeed is by fusing it with the nativism and its anti-immigrant sentiment. Sorry folks, but it’s the truth. I know it can be a hard pill to swallow. Cesar Chavez was on the correct side of this, Bernie was too (before he sold out to the Soros liberals), and so was large sectors of the labor movement.

    The borders have to be vigorously protected, and even serious limits on Legal immigration must be put in place. U.S. citizenship must hold value.

    The illegal immigrants must be treated humanely at the border, but they can’t come here.

    It’s easy for cushy liberal minded folks to have an open-borders mindset, but it’s the U.S. working class and poor CITIZENSD 0f all colors and ethnicities (Blacks, Chicanos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, and of course white folks) who pay the brunt with high housing costs, low wages, and deteriorating social services.

    Now, anytime the above is outlined the ghost of HITLER! is raised and fascism. This is misleading fearmongering, people need to see beyond it.

    • Rafael
      October 4, 2023 at 14:34

      your advice is not only a bitter pill, it’s a poison pill. Cesar Chavez changed his position, and as I recall he openly admitted his error.

    • Lois Gagnon
      October 4, 2023 at 20:54

      As long as the US is interfering in countries to our south using repression and death squads to prevent the people from electing socialist governments that raise their living standards, there will be refugees from the horrible living conditions that we create in their home countries on our border.

      • Drew Hunkins
        October 4, 2023 at 23:24

        True. But poor and working class U.S. citizens shouldn’t have to pay the costs for Washington’s destructive empire. Plus, once we ensure the American working class of a solid and secure living they can then move to reign in the imperialists in our midst.

        We first strengthen the domestic state in the interests of the mass of U.S. citizenry then we dismantle the exploitative war machine.

        • DH Fabian
          October 5, 2023 at 22:06

          How do the poor pay for anything? Pay with what?

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