Revolutions That Weren’t?

how do we start to make sense of the radical social movements from the first decades of the twenty-first century?

Occupy Wall Street poster by Will Brown for Adbusters, 2011.

Freedom isn’t free / No, there’s a hefty f-ckn’ fee.

— Team America World Police, written by Trey Parker

While flourishes of radical agitation such as the protests against the Israeli war in Gaza continue to appear of late, authoritarianism is on the rise in the 2020s. We certainly seem, perhaps, to be in a new historical moment. The geopolitical influence of the United States is waning. Climate change intensifies. The Covid-19 pandemic still affects contemporary life. There remains the feeling of stalemate everywhere, but the stalemate itself, which at first suggests a stubborn continuity, which is to say a lack of change, might oddly itself be the engine of historical change. Lenin famously remarked, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” but in the twenty-first century, it’s hard to tell on what timeline we move, exactly.

As the 2020s unfold, the slow-motion spin of events has got me thinking about the explosion of protest that took place from the early 2000s through the middle of the 2010s. How might we begin to understand the Color Revolutions, Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other outbreaks of agitation from the first decades of the twenty-first century? What was this worldwide outbreak of popular protest? It was left-wing, to be sure, but just as often it was amorphously ideological. One might even include more reactionary popular protests within it: the Tea Party Movement, the Yellow Vests Protests, the Movimento Vem pra Rua in Brazil.

These movements were all influenced by a palpable frustration with neoliberal policies that sacrificed everyday people’s lives for the profits of the global finance sector, yet they were almost all shaped by new technologies of social media that arose within the neoliberal global arrangement. With their algorithmic capacities to amplify voices from below and foster communities beyond official channels, social media platforms seemed revolutionary, yet they were almost all co-opted, if they were ever anything more than commercial forms within neoliberalism in the first place. Their intent was always to sell advertising by intensifying controversy and extremism. Fairly quickly, they were appropriated by state power to spread disinformation systematically. They even quickly shifted from extremism to exterminationism, as in the ways Facebook sparked genocide in the Rohingya massacres in Myanmar. Overall, both the social movements—at least the grassroots ones on the left—and the technologies that they harnessed to try to organize themselves seemed to exhaust themselves. If they did not fragment, they flowed one click and one like after another right back into the very forces they sought to oppose, resist, or perhaps overthrow.

Almost all the social uprisings of the early 2000s could also be said to have taken shape within the US War on Terror. Here an intriguing possibility for further investigation appears: how did the War on Terror’s emphasis on spreading, if by paradoxical force, freedom, openness, and democracy relate to the social protests of the time period? The War on Terror found neoconservatives in the United States able to incorporate centrist-liberal (neoliberal) and isolationist right-wing elements into a militarized and political assertion of the idea that one could enforce new forms of democracy and impose new types of freedom on peoples around the world. Antiterrorism and counter-insurgency, the neoconservative project claimed, would generate liberal democracy. If Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis after the conclusion of the Cold War did not prove true by 9/11, then neoconservatives would make it so: liberal democracy would flourish at the point of a gun (eventually at the bottom of a drone).

It proved to be an odd and tragic endeavor, parodied most effectively by the absurdist, sardonic 2004 film Team America: World Police, written by the makers of the television cartoon series South Park. One might think of this film as the early-2000s Dr. Strangelove. “Freedom isn’t free,” a group of surreal American freedom fighter puppets sing, pausing for a montage of patriotic reflection before returning to blowing things up and killing people around the world, “No, there’s a hefty f-ckin’ fee/ And if you don’t throw in your buck ‘o five / Who will?”

This intense interest in freedom is what, we might hypothesize, tied together the War on Terror and the various leftwing social movements and protests that arose within its defining imperial stretching around the world after 9/11. Radical movements sought out the possibilities of freedom. In doing so, they took decidedly anarchistic turns in their politics, partly in reaction to the failures of socialism and communism in the twentieth century and partly because freedom was the hinge upon which the confluence of neoliberalism and neoconservatism turned.

While the early twenty-first century protest movements were most certainly and seriously engaged with anarchistic political theories, concepts, and tactics, as the uprisings played out in the streets they typically became less concerned with clear programs of change or concrete calls for reform, even anarchistic ones. Instead, they leaned into the production of momentary feelings of freedom, openness, and possibility. Syndicalism as strategy gave way to the fleeting satisfactions of spontaneity. Improvisation’s potential gave way to impossible demands. This is something the film documentarian Adam Curtis noticed with chilling but incisive awareness in his film All Watched Over By Machines of Living Grace), a study of the lurking libertarianism found within the combination of ecology and technology that gave rise to the influential Californian Ideology.

The feeling of freedom, of throwing off some kind of constraint, linked the many diverse protest movements of the early twenty-first century. They all displayed more an urge to discover ends in the means rather than develop means for an end. Occupy Wall Street was indicative of this larger sensibility, with its refusal to put forward demands and its effort at prefigurative politics, but so too were the Color Revolutions and even, to a lesser extent, Arab Spring.

It would seem that the “multitude,” heroes of 1990s and early 2000s political theory and cultural studies (see Negri and Hardt’s Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire) could reach for freedom, but then what? When met, inevitably, with backlash and repression, they fragmented or dissipated. Meanwhile, democracy stood in the balance, an elusive goal that was not quite the same as freedom, but somehow became enfolded within the giant, hopeful, troubling, still unfinished mess of early twenty-first century unrest.