Knowledge for the Present Moment

Image by Ian Hutchinson.

Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger | The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession | Verso Books | September 2023 | 224 Pages

Vincent Bevins | If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution |Wildfire| 336 pages| October 2023

Anna Kornbluh|Immediacy, or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism |Verso Books |January 2024 |240pp


On November 4, 2023, 100,000 people flooded the streets of Washington D.C. to protest the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Hundreds of thousands more have participated in the ongoing rallies and actions since. These mass actions are almost unprecedented, but for the ones that had millions more in the streets in June 2020 after the live-streamed execution of George Floyd. While the works reviewed here do not explicitly address the mass protests in the U.S. during the 2020s, they offer a valuable foundation for analyzing them. I try to illuminate the tacit implications for the protests here, and then briefly cover a few overt lessons.

Arthur Borriello and Anton Jager’s book is a study of the left-populist movements that flowered (and then largely withered away) in certain Western countries viz. Podemos in Spain, Melenchon in France, the Corbyn movement in Britain, the Sanders campaign in the US, and Syriza in Greece. Although the rise to prominence of the various movements is studied in detail, with their disparate national characteristics (and with a studied and conspicuous decision not to accept the populist epithet as a necessarily pejorative one), they identify various shared characteristics of the moment. Their common historical and economic determinants are clear and well-studied — the retreat of the welfare state, the decline in union participation, the total failure of the neoliberal governing class to create and redistribute prosperity, the draining of social life engendered by globalization, the increasing prominence of a technocratic (and “anti-political”) dominant class. Their major explanatory argument for the failure of the Left per se, however, is seen as being its lack of mediation. Specifically, left-populism’s spectacular rise and fall has been distinguished by (and can be explained by) its lack of the distinct historical form of the left-wing mass-membership political party. Parties like the PCF or the old Labour Party consisted of a particular structure that included vast community networks like pensioners meetings, social clubs, discussion groups, and most importantly, a codified, hierarchical, internal organizational structure. This was opposed, as they describe it, by the broadly ‘horizontalist’, voluntarist, digital formations of the ‘populist’ left.[1]

Jager and Borriello understand this phenomenon through several routes — firstly, theoretically, they analyze the shift in the subject of left-wing political analysis from being the working-class to being the vastly more diffuse entity of the “people”. It is a tradition (to which, largely being in the Indian left, I was blissfully unaware) of thinkers characterized as post-Marxist (they cite Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau) – showing too, how left political actors were self-consciously drawing on some of these thinkers. They also detail how social media and digital organizing both caused and exacerbated these trends. The non-traditional organizational form led both to the concentration of power (such as it was) in the hands of a centralized leadership (‘hyperleaderism’), and the inability of this leadership to either correctly ascertain the feelings of or direct mass movements at opportune moments. The movements’ dependence on digital outreach led both to their rapid successes (speed being the internet’s operative contribution) and their subsequent inability to hold on to or deepen organizational structure and eventually, state power. As they put it, unlike the life-long and wide-ranging structures of the Old Left, “The internet is the ideal exit option for a general “exit society”—allowing people to make their “voice” heard, in Albert Hirschman’s sense, while always keeping open the possibility for citizens to drop out and check out.”

Vincent Bevins’ book If We Burn provides a useful companion to Jager and Borriello’s volume (as has been noted in reviews elsewhere). The former’s focus on countries of the developing world provides an expansion across space (the book covers Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Chile) in largely the same temporal period as the latter. Given Bevins’ first-person narrative and journalistic background, as well as that the protests he covers are often less centered around electoral outcomes than they are in the West, the book reads with a somewhat more furious pace, and with more first-person input than Jager and Borriello’s. Interestingly too, although Sanders and Corbyn occasionally acknowledged each other, and Podemos and Syriza haltingly made overtures to the other across the Aegean, Bevins’ work details just how much more the symbolism, imagery, slogans, and even strategies used in vastly disparate countries from Turkey to Brazil overlapped with and influenced each other — again, nothing really beats the speed of dissemination achievable by the internet.

The stories about each of the countries described are riveting and are worth reading for narrative excitement alone. The upshot, however, overlaps almost completely with the first book. The Left, having taken a beating in almost all the revolts and uprisings it played no small part in leading and/or originating, was failed by its lack of organization and structure. Bevins himself is explicit about this, as are the participants in his story. In an interview with Jacobin about the book, he is clear that the major characteristic of the left-wing movements in the book is their rejection of Leninism, and he more than implicitly (albeit just shy of explicitly) upholds the Leninist model of organizing based on a “tightly disciplined, hierarchically organized, professional revolutionary movement, which has a bloody-minded focus on the ends rather than the means.”

I’ll highlight only a few of the common failings of the new social movements that the author covers.

The first is that representation matters — representation here is not the identitarian notion that we have come to associate with the phrase, but with the idea that a movement must select both people and ideas that represent their interests and theories to a wider public, and to organs of power. As Bevins paraphrases Marx, “Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented”. He identifies the source of this abhorrence of representation as being part of the “anti-political” reaction to the neoliberal model of technocratic governance, where people have increasingly seen elected political representatives as having diminishing contact and interaction with their actual political base. The ‘horizontalism’ that sprung up as a response to this promoted ideas of consensus decision making (based on the whole body of the organization), leaderlessness, and an overt reliance on spontaneity. However, when it came to negotiating with power, planning actions, making media statements, and being able to characterize the movement as a whole, this model, Bevins argues, is found to be rather lacking when compared to its Leninist predecessors. The advent of digital media now allows others (whether sympathetic or not) to choose what policies, people, and slogans define the movement, rather than the other way around.

The second, related, point is one that Bevins draws from Jo Freeman’s 1972 essay called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. This is the idea that not only does a movement based on consensus and horizontalism develop outward-facing problems, but, internally, it often devolves into possessing an unaccountable leadership and/or a membership with increasingly divergent (and hence irreconcilable) political views. As Bevins details, from the Arab Spring to Brazil to Ukraine, various disparate groups often took to the streets to express both their specific and generalized grievances, but without a self-consciously Organized Left, this often resulted in co-optation or eventual takeover by better organized Right-wing forces.

The third is that there is no such thing as a political void, and if there is, it is only fleetingly ephemeral. The mass-protests and movements of the 2010s (as too in the Jäger and Borriello book) failed to recognize that if you do not have a strict plan in place for the day after, so to speak, the extant political vacuum will not last very long, and those with more experience and means will step in (as was the case with Egypt and the military, or the Troika vis-a-vis the Syriza government).

While sidestepping the seemingly endless debate about whether to characterize the right-wing populist backlash of the 2010s as ‘fascist’ or not, there are a few key issues that most interlocutors identify as being different now than in the 1930s — first, the experience of total war, and the second, the presence and looming takeover of the state by working-class parties. These books tackle the second question indirectly and ingeniously — perhaps the national variants of right-wing authoritarianism can also be understood based on their disparate responses to the new populist Left. One of the ways we can understand how “each country gets the fascism it deserves”, as Aijaz Ahmad put it, is by understanding how each country’s Left responded to the crisis.

Although the last book in the trio reviewed here is a work of cultural criticism in the Jamesonian tradition, Anna Kornbluh’s Immediacy has clear and apparent overlaps with the arguments made in the other two. The work focuses on what the author sees as the contemporary tendency to abjure any form of mediation between the (content) creator and the audience. She goes through the literary trend of “auto-fiction”, “autotheory”, the predominant form of video production — TikTok, and various other forms of cultural output. Kornbluh explicitly posits the dominance of immediacy as being created by the neoliberal model now employed in cultural production (things like the individualization of consumption, the necessity of promising authenticity in a fragmented world, the ephemerality of fame and the ensuing transformation of content itself).

The commonality in their arguments, however, runs deeper. Kornbluh’s argument is that what is missing in this cultural moment is mediation — that is, the priority of the “active process of relating” and the task of constructing shared languages of meaning rather than the instantaneous transfer of information. The driving motivation is to share one’s authentic experience with another, without the mediating of a common or social experience. As she writes herself regarding “anti-politics”, “antipolitics renounces the mediation of organization … {and} absolutizes a transhistorical, dematerialized ether of abjection while infinitely dispersing resistances that thwart amalgamation.”

The twin issues of mediation and representation, whether conceived of in the cultural and political sphere, redound on the concerns expressed in the first two works on political movements. Even notwithstanding the Hegelian influence on the cultural critique she employs and on Lenin’s thought (and no Marxist would deny the necessity of an all-encompassing social theory), there is overlap even in the particulars. The book focuses (like the other two) on questions of the largely detrimental repercussions of digital technology and social media on our modes of communicating with each other. What Kornbluh’s work provides too, more than analogy, is an even more critical view on social media’s tendency, in its current form, to highlight particular notions of the self and of self-expression.

She also helps illuminate what the others left only to be inferred, namely, the centering of individuality and individualism in these unmediated experiences, and the conscious and psychological dimension that motivates (and demotivates) the participants in the movements that the other books describe. Furthermore, it highlights that the transformation of left movements (at least for the more sanguine outcomes preferred by the first two sets of authors) will necessitate a different kind of social consciousness than the current model.


So where does this leave us with regards to the protests in New York? An analysis of this sort of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) rallies of 2020 is long overdue, and perhaps now is the opportune moment. The eventual collapse of the Build Back Better plan and Biden’s unlikely (or at the very least, extremely difficult) re-election campaign provide some sort of denouement to the events of 2020.

Bevins encapsulates the modus operandi of the protest movements of the 2010s like this;

1. Protests and crackdowns lead to favorable media (social and traditional) coverage

2. Media coverage leads more people to protest

3. Repeat, until almost everyone is protesting

4. ????

5. A better society.

Given the non-existence of an American organized left (and as Jager and Borriello highlight, the total dissolution and collapse of the Sanders movement into the Democratic fold), the above hardly looks unfamiliar to those of us who’ve participated in any of the massive rallies of the last 4 years.

This isn’t to discount the significance of the movement, which dwarfed the Civil Rights era in sheer numbers and continuous daily mobilizations. Even if only momentarily, the protests shook the political establishment and caused serious divisions, with James Mattis and a slew of other former defense officials openly pointing out that the military can refuse unconstitutional orders from then-President Trump.

There were also significant direct social and economic impacts. There was a brief but very real uptick in jobs created and employment opportunities for Black Americans, but whether this will be temporary or be able even to withstand the anti-diversity backlash (propounded all the way down from the Supreme Court’s decision to ban affirmative action) will be seen. Symbolic achievements seem to have fared better still, with statues continuing to be toppled, TV episodes with blackface scrubbed from the web, and better casting and slightly less racist marketing strategies in the media.

Perhaps most significantly, it’s clear that the movement, and the overall environment of political instability, resulted in the momentary leftward lurch of the Democratic Party hierarchy, which made its first effort in a generation to pass pathbreaking social legislation in the form of the Build Back Better initiative.

The movement, however, was objectively a failure. The effect on policing, the supposed central concern of the movement, has been unambiguous. Police budgets increased, locally and federally, and the only smaller symbolic win has been that police jobs are now perhaps being seen as slightly less desirable. Likewise, the deep deficiencies of the Democratic Party made the failure of Build Back Better a near-certainty without continued mass pressure.

This appraisal reflects only what the authors of the books have discussed before. Tens of millions of people took to the streets, but with no organic or structural links to remain organized, nothing to either reel people in or control the narrative, the aforementioned vagaries of digital media and organizing meant mass pressure could not be sustained. People found out about rallies via posts on social media, and dropped out when momentum faltered. The movement sputtered into non-existence, and for many of the participants, a rapid depoliticization and atrophy ensued until the next upsurge.

The authors of these works (and Lenin, of course) have provided us with ample material to analyze the vast American protests of the last few years, as well as those of the current moment. The work itself, however, remains to be done.


The author would like to thank E. Forrest Blanton, Chris Cappello, and Patrick Cleary for their comments and suggestions.


1. The historian Donald Sassoon’s magisterial book, One Hundred Years of Socialism, presented two critical lessons from the study of the European Left over the 20th century that are especially relevant to this analysis. The first lesson is that the majority of social change has occurred via the means of political change. The second, following from the first, is that political transformation has generally been effected through the medium of a political party.

Madhav TR is a PhD student at the Department of Economics at The New School for Social Research, New York.