Citizen Action Monitor

Can past social movements inform current campaigns? Absolutely, says Tim Gee in “Counterpower: Making Change Happen”

No 344 Posted by fw, November 25, 2011

“Counterpower’s mission is to map political movements and understand how change happens, to ‘delve into the archive of history and try to learn from movements past to understand better what makes a campaign successful.’ Tim Gee’s assiduously researched work covers a wide spectrum of notable events from recent history and reveals fascinating shared characteristics between them, no matter what the original cause. ‘What struck me was how almost every major campaigning movement of the past seemed to have the same debates that we are still having today,’ he muses. ‘Do demonstrations make a difference? How important is the sympathy of the mainstream media? Does law-breaking help or hinder campaigning?’”

A powerful endorsement from the keyboard of reviewer Mark Newton on Tim Gee’s new book, Counterpower: Making Change Happen. Selected excerpts from Newton’s review, published in the November 17, 2011 issue of the Ecologist, appear below with my added subheadings.

EXCERPTS FROM Mark Newton’s review of Counterpower: Making Change Happen by Tim Gee

People movements have ‘counterpower’ at their disposal, to offset the power elite groups have over people

Gee examines the notion of what power actually is, both in the linguistic and physical senses – in other words, how governments and elite groups exercise their power over people. In response, people and movements have ‘counterpower’ at their disposal, which Gee splits into three main categories: Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower, and Physical Counterpower.

Idea Counterpower — challenges what people have been told to believe by powerful elites

Idea Counterpower, Gee explains, challenges common thought, which is established by a ‘cabal of sycophants, conservatives and beneficiaries, who have woven together a veil of philosophical legitimacy.’’ What a culture believes is what it has been told to believe. So the notion of Idea Counterpower is the ‘promotion of an antithesis’, which is ‘not only about informing people of events, but also about inspiring a change in worldview.’

Economic Counterpower — removes or bypasses instruments of political and corporate economic power

Economic Counterpower therefore seeks to remove or bypass economic support for a particular institution of power. This can be anything from boycotting certain products, refusing to pay (Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax for example), forming co-operatives, or even simply striking and refusing to work, using the withdrawal of labour as a weapon.

Physical Counterpower — any and all forms of targetted direct action

Finally, Gee examines the notion of Physical Counterpower. This is perhaps the one that springs to mind first when we think of movements: people gathering to stand or sit in protest with barricades being erected to prevent access, as was seen at the road protests in the UK. Such images make good TV but they are part of an ancient right that has been exercised by citizens for millennia.

Gee uses his conceptual framework to analyze key political movements of the 20th century

Once this groundwork on the notion of power and counterpower is established, Gee applies his theory to the key political movements of the 20th century. From Indian independence to apartheid-era South Africa, the Vietnam War, the Arab Spring and the global justice movement: the different forms and guises of counterpower are showcased to full effect.

Then he translates lessons learned from the past into strategies for current and future campaigns

Gee turns the experiences gained in past campaigns into an interesting strategy for winning future ones, albeit in a theoretical way. History’s lessons are translated into philosophical justification for those engaging in modern day activism and as a result, Gee’s work is truly inspirational. It’s marvellously well researched and written in approachable style, while providing context for current issues. By focusing on ‘power’ – the entity that connects the dots between all movements that have campaigned for greater equality, democracy or peace – Gee has presented an incredible framework for understanding politics on the street. Counterpower is essential and exhilarating reading for anyone who wants to change the world.

About the authors –

  • Tim Gee

    Tim Gee works with campaigning organizations to support collective campaigns.Projects to date have included helping mobilize 35,000 people to the streets ahead of the London G20 summit, and World Day for the Eradication of Poverty in which more than 100 million people worldwide participated. He is active with the Climate Camp and numerous grassroots community campaigns. He has an MA in Politics from Edinburgh University, where he was also active in the student movement. Tim has contributed to several campaigning guides and manuals as well as delivering training sessions for activists.

  • Reviewer Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at, or you can find him on Twitter at

Rave comments from two Amazon UK readers –

  • Pattamya writes: Movements for change in Asia (eg Burma), Eastern Europe, and Africa are also covered, as is climate change and other contentious issues. Not just young activists, but anyone who really cares about social justice should read this book.
  • DanielH writes: This is an extremely accessible and well-written book and worth reading for anyone who wants to know how social change happens and how they can be a part of it.
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This entry was posted on November 25, 2011 by in evidence based counterpower, political action, social movements and tagged , , .
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