Building Counterpower

by Tim Gee, Ed Lewis

Tim Gee is an activist, a blogger and a campaigns trainer. His first book Counterpower: Making Change Happen is published today. It looks at the strategies and tactics that have contributed to the success (or otherwise) of some of the most prominent movements for change, from India’s Independence Movement to the Arab Spring. He discussed the ideas in the book with NLP's Ed Lewis. 

Your book centres on the concept of 'Counterpower' - what is this and why is it important?

Almost all social movements, whether reformist or revolutionary talk about the need to build power. But what this means varies from person to person – and in some cases is little more than rhetoric.

Counterpower is a rejection of the view that effective campaigners must simply engage with power as it is, seize power, or form alliances with the powerful. Instead it is an argument for the perpetual redistribution of power from the haves to the have-nots.

The classic definition of power – associated with the theorist Robert Dahl – is ‘the ability for A to get B to do something that B would not otherwise have done’. Counterpower turns that notion of power on its head. Counterpower is the ability of B to remove the power of A.

You argue that Counterpower is key to the success of movements. This could be seen as obvious, since any successful movement will need to gather some power or influence. In urging that movements use Counterpower, are you saying anything that isn't already known?

Counterpower isn’t a new idea but it is distinct from other approaches, in that it is not only about building power and influence, but also undermining the power of illegitimate elites.

Unfortunately a large proportion of campaigns are premised upon the false belief that if only we design good ideas and communicate them to those in power they will take notice. But policy-making is not a process whereby wise elites find the best solution for the most people. Government policy is principally a reflection of the balance of power in society.

Another approach (especially on parts of the left) is to advocate seizing power, either through elections or the revolutionary overthrow of governments. In my view, Counterpower is about working for change, but accepting that as soon as there is a new status quo, the role of the movement is to redistribute power further, by challenging the new regime where power imbalances remain. This guards against the re-concentration of power with new elites, as has happened in so many revolutionary situations before.

Other people argue that the only way for gains to be made is to make backroom deals with the already-powerful. It is true that speaking to those in power can be a useful thing for campaigners to do. But it is severely limited without Counterpower. No matter who negotiators are talking to, a ‘bargaining chip’ is needed. Without it, the change that can be won is at best microscopic – and could be counterproductive if it serves to lend legitimacy to the very power structures that the movement is challenging. At worst, it leads to a small minority of the movement gaining disproportionate power and becoming a mouthpiece for the system that they initially sought to change. Some movements specifically guard against this possibility by refusing to allow individuals to speak on their behalf. Governing elites are then left with only two options: devoting substantial resources to repressing the opposition or submitting to a critical mass of demands.

The main focus of your book is on successful movements from the past. Which struggles do you think contemporary activists would benefit most from learning about and why?

At the recent Occupy London Assembly someone said that you learn more in a day of struggle than a decade of discussions. I don’t know if the ratio is exactly right but the sentiment definitely is. There is no replacement for getting involved. There is a remarkable amount that links campaigns through the ages but strategies and tactics are evolving all the time.

With so many movements to choose from for the book I decided to focus on the movements most frequently evoked at campaign rallies. It was immediately clear that even in the most easily accessible autobiographies – take King or Mandela for example - a very different account was given to those that sanitise and co-opt the stories of such struggles to justify the status quo. So whilst I think we can learn from every movement, we need to make special efforts not to unquestioningly swallow the versions of history that are sometimes served to us by those whose desire is to keep things as they are.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the merits of demonstrations as against more militant, direct action. Do you agree with some that the powerful can always ignore 'A to B marches' and that only actions which cause disruption and impose social costs on elites - i.e. through taking direct action - can be effective?

Almost every successful mass movement used public demonstrations. But almost no successful mass movements used demonstrations alone.

Demonstrations can be great for influencing public opinion, as evidenced by three of the biggest demonstrations of the last decade in the UK - the anti-war march on 15 February 2003, the Make Poverty History march on 2 July 2005 and the ‘March for the Alternative’ on 26 March 2011. Every one of these processions was followed by marked swings in public opinion. Disillusion with the Iraq War passed 50 per cent three days after the February 2003 march. Concern for global poverty peaked in July 2005. The Conservatives fell 10 points behind in the polls in early April 2011, just days after the mass march against their program.

The problem comes when campaign strategists confuse winning arguments with winning campaigns. Demonstrations are useful in helping us to win public debates, but they become truly effective when they are seen as a demonstration of intent – a warning that if the powers that be do not cede power, the people will claim it for themselves. Of course, on occasion, the very fact that people have organized means that they win some concessions. The community organiser Saul Alinsky has an explanation for this when he advises in Rules for Radicals that ‘the threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself’.

The theory of change outlined in Counterpower builds on the work of Gene Sharp, whose studies have been turned in to action by liberation movements from Serbia to Egypt with considerable success. In his most influential pamphlet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, he calls upon movements to identify the ‘Achilles heel’ of the government it is challenging and thereby to undermine the regime’s sources of power.

To maintain their dominance, elites need people to accept their ideas, they need a flow of finance and they need instruments of coercion to enforce their will. Demonstrations can help turn opinion against a ruling elite. But it is by undermining the flow of finance and the physical ability to enact laws that a movement really begins to show its might. In the book I call these three categories of resistance ‘Idea Counterpower’, ‘Economic Counterpower’ and ‘Physical Counterpower’. If we use all three we improve our chance of success.  

You have been involved in anti-cuts activism in the UK. Despite a high level of activity the government has been able to force through a large swathe of destructive reforms. What do you think are the prospects for the anti-cuts movement and are there any ways in which anti-cuts activism could be more successful if it operated differently?

The anti-cuts movement is still in its early phase, but it is steadily growing and escalating. It is likely that the emphasis on tax justice has already seen some success if informal reports of companies contacting HMRC in order to avoid being targeted by protesters are to be believed. But ultimately while we may win a few policy and practice changes along the way, the real issue is that too much power lies in the hands of too few people. There is little hope of reversing the cuts while the current government remains in power, and there is only marginal hope that a Labour government would plough a substantially different course. The challenge then is to make the cuts un-implementable by any government – whether Red, Yellow or Blue.

We don’t need to look far in to history to see examples of resistance we can learn from. Indeed we only need look back to the last time that a neo-liberal Conservative government was in charge, and the campaign against the Poll Tax. We can learn from that movement’s sheer scale of ambition and their diversity of tactics. Take the non-payment campaign for example – an example of Economic Counterpower. Thousands of people risked being sentenced. Some employees refused to collect the tax. There was also Physical Counterpower – not just riots but instances of people joining together in solidarity to resist bailiffs from entering houses. Finally the Idea Counterpower of argument against the tax was in part what led to Thatcher being forced to stand down and the un-implementable poll tax plans being abandoned.

We can learn that of course we need to keep using our Idea Counterpower by keeping finding creative ways to make the case that the cuts are unnecessary, unfair, and won’t fulfil their stated objective anyway. But are we willing to move from protest to resistance? Are we willing to use our Physical Counterpower by getting in the way of evictions on a mass scale? Are we willing to use our Economic Counterpower as workers to refuse to carry out unjust demands? Are we willing disregard the laws of an illegitimate government on such a scale that thousands of us at a time risk arrest? These are the questions that I think each of us needs to ask ourselves if we are to effectively resist the unconscionable cuts being inflicted upon the country’s most vulnerable people.

The climate justice movement, with which you have also been involved, is at a low ebb. Are there lessons from history which this movement could draw on positively or does the historically unique nature of the problem of climate change mean that environmentalists are, to a large extent, operating in uncharted territory?

Of course every campaign is different but there are also parallels that can be drawn. An interesting one is the campaign against the transatlantic slave trade which, like the climate change movement also called for a (at least partially) different economic model in order to defend people’s basic rights.

What people often omit to mention that the Slavery Abolition Act was not possible to pass until after the Reform Act of 1832. In other words – the social movements of the time had to win a wider redistribution of power (in this case the extension of the vote), before they could achieve their campaign related to the slave trade. The famous freed slave Obadiah Equiano did not only oppose the slave trade, but was also a member of the London Corresponding Society who agitated for the vote. In this and other ways, two movements (with some notable personal exceptions) worked together and assisted each other to make progress. 

There is a parallel that can be drawn with the movements against climate change and cuts. In the contemporary case too, a wider transformation of power in society is necessary to address both issues. Today the corporation is the dominant institution in society, and corporate power will have to be weakened in order for campaigns against cuts or against climate change to succeed. As such the two movements must not work in silos but together, in a mutually constitutive way. Although I think it is unlikely to happen, the great error would be if climate change was allowed to fall off the agenda altogether. There are some solutions to the cuts which would not benefit the environment and could lead us to a place where we have a slightly better welfare system but no planet to use it on. Therefore the climate justice struggle must go on, and is very much doing so, with a new focus on fuel poverty.

Every successful movement has moments that seem difficult. And every successful movement has been told at some point or other that they will never succeed. But we know from history that change can happen and change does happen. Indeed history itself is a process of oppression and resistance. In that process of resistance we are able to build beautiful and creative spaces which are much more democratic than a government could ever be. That is Counterpower at its best.

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First published: 20 October, 2011

Category: Activism, Vision/Strategy

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