“Counterpower” by Tim Gee — Pt 1: Activists, improve your campaigns with Counterpower”

No 379 Posted by fw, December 24, 2011

In a previous post, I wrote:

There’s much talk these days – particularly from the left — about the need to build “a social movement”. Different groups espouse different demands, so we have, for example, calls for a social justice movement, human rights movement, environmental movement, eco-socialist movement, workers movement, and more. But beyond calling for “a movement” advocates seem uncertain how best to translate their noble words into effective campaigning, which, after all, is the essence of movement-building. 

In an effort to help ardent activists to translate their noble words into effective campaigning and movement-building, this is the first in a series of posts of selected highlights and main ideas from Tim Gee’s powerful new book, Counterpower: Making Change Happen. (To read my initial post on Gee’s book, click on Can past social movements inform current campaigns? Absolutely, says Tim Gee in “Counterpower: Making Change Happen”).

To kick off this series, I begin with Gee’s Introduction. As he does with each chapter in his book, he begins with a quote:

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”Oscar Wilde

Gee traces the roots of his Counterpower book project to April 2009, shortly after the G20 Summit in London, which drew more than 35,000 protesters from 20 countries, who took to the streets, marching under the banner Put People First.  Inspired by events, Tim embarked on a project to “delve into the archives of history to understand better what makes a campaign successful” – a project that took him two years to complete.

One thing that struck Tim “was how almost every major campaigning movement of the past seemed to have the same debates that we are still having today” –

  • Do demonstrations make a difference?
  • How important is the sympathy of the mainstream media?
  • Does law-breaking help or hinder campaigning?
  • Is violence ever justified?

But two epiphanies in particular struck Gee the most:

  • first, that all successful campaigns followed four stages of development – Consciousness, Coordination, Confrontation, and Consolidation; and
  • second, that “the resistance of the oppressed is a major driver of history” — the title of Gee’s book derives from this second “Aha!” moment: Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

In his literature review, Gee discovered that the concept of Counterpower “remains underdeveloped”. By examining different types of Counterpower people can use, Gee made conceptual clarification a primary goal of his book. He conceptualized three types of Counterpower:

  • Idea Counterpower – “can be exercised by challenging accepted truths, refusing to obey and finding new channels of communication”;
  • Economic Counterpower – “exercised through strikes, boycotts, democratic regulation and ethical consumption”; and
  • Physical Counterpower – “can occasionally mean literally fighting back, or, alternatively, non-violently placing our bodies in the way of injustice.”

Significantly, Gee notes: “Many of the most successful movements for transformational change have used all three kinds of Counterpower, while many of those that have fallen by the wayside have used only one or two.” (As an aside, I suggest there are at least three other types of Counterpower worth mentioning — Legal, Moral, and Creative Arts (with their powerful emotional appeal)).

To illustrate a Power–Counterpower clash, Gee envisages the struggle taking place on a seesaw. On one end is the Power Target (PT), on the other is the Campaign Counterpower (CC). The PT might use its Economic Power to pay or fire people; its Idea Power to promote values of natural or legal authority; and its Physical Power to use security guards or police. The CC, in opposition, uses the same power types to counter, undermine or neutralize PT’s power and tip the balance in its favour.

Moving from the seesaw model to the real world events, Gee draws on past campaigns to reveal “a steady evolution of strategy and tactics showing, for example, how the sophisticated methods of the Arab Spring are based on ideas that have been adapted and honed by revolutionaries across the centuries.” For example, activists from the Arab Spring campaign travelled to Serbia to learn from rebels there who brought down Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbians, in turn, were influenced by the work of Gene Sharp, a US scholar who dedicated his life to learning and transmitting the lessons of Walesa, ML King, and Gandhi. And Gandhi, of course, was a follower of Trotsky, Trotsky a follower of Marx, and Marx a student of successive French revolutions.

It’s much too early to predict with certainty the outcomes of ongoing protest campaigns in North Africa, the Middle East, Egypt, Wisconsin, Britain and the outbreak of Occupy Movements. But, as Tim Gee puts it: “What is known, however, is that change can happen and does happen. But it rarely happens without Counterpower.

In his concluding comments, Gee revisits the purpose of his book:

“I hope to get to the root of how change happens, with the intention of providing a way for campaigners today to learn from the movements that constitute our heritage.”

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing
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