Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee — Pt 2: How Idea Counterpower helps movements win

No 380 Posted by fw, December 27, 2011

Just to recap – This series, based on Tim Gee’s Counterpower: Making Change Happen, really began with a review of his book. The review led to a purchase. And a cursory skim of the contents convinced me the book warranted this series. Part 1 presented a selection of highlights and main ideas from the Introduction, focusing on what prompted Gee to write the book, the four stages of development of successful populist campaigns, the three types of Counterpower that people can use to remove or neutralize the power of elites — Idea Counterpower, Economic Counterpower, and Physical Counterpower — and how Counterpower strategies and tactics have evolved over time.

Following the series’ format, this post, Part 2, encapsulates highlights and main ideas of Idea Counterpower, excerpted from Chapter 1, How Counterpower helps movements win.

Idea Counterpower

Gee introduces the Chapter with this quotation —

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”Martin Luther King Jr

Those with power rarely yield it voluntarily. But the lesson from the past is that “for every aspect of power wielded by the “haves”, the “have-nots” can wield more.Counterpower, the ability of the powerless to remove or neutralize the power of the powerful, is the game-changer.

Here are a few examples of past Counterpower successes –

  • The working class won the extension of the ballot
  • Disenfranchised women achieved universal adult suffrage
  • Organized labor won workplace rights and universal public services
  • Among others, Americans, Irish, Indigenous peoples, and Africans won independence from colonial rule
  • Subjugated peoples have won their freedom from puppet dictatorships

Given that well-organized populist campaigns can win concessions from, and even overthrow, oppressive powerful regimes, Gee raises two incisive questions, which his book seeks to answer:

  • How can we win more campaigns? 
  • And why do we not win more often?

His quest for answers begins with an analysis of the nature of power:

  • power of control by the few over the many; and 
  • Counterpower of the many to resist the control by the few.

Corporate and government elites have a hidden advantage in the sense that their position of power is accepted by law-abiding citizens as the social norm. But over and above this, powerful elites exercise ‘idea power’, ‘economic power’, and ‘physical power’, which activists must confront with Counterpower.

The power of elites can be transformed into Counterpower though well-organized, popular resistance. Gee boldly claims:

If we can find ways to use these to undermine the power of the haves, then we are more powerful than they could possibly imagine.

To find these “ways”, he looks to the past to find examples of how these three types of power and Counterpower have been used.

Idea Counterpower

According to Gee, powerful elites manufacture a façade of “philosophical legitimacy” to normalize their worldview. In response to elitist worldviews, past social movements have commonly employed their own innovative brand of Idea Counterpower. The most effective populist campaigns don’t just inform, they inspire.

Gee draws from history to provide these examples of Idea Counterpower —

  • In the struggle for the abolition of the slave trade, U.S. and British abolitionists printed an iconic image of a chained slave on his knees on consumer goods designed for radically chic white consumers: the iconic image was captioned — “Am I not a man and a brother?” Now that’s effective communication — powerful image + a few well-chosen words + targeted audience.
  • In Things Fall Apart, the most widely read book in modern African literature, Nigeria novelist Chinua Achebe explains colonization from an African perspective, which derides the colonists’ portrayal of Igbo culture. The book won global praise, inspired Africans, and challenged European misconceptions of Africa as a land of savages.
  • Music is another vehicle for the transmission of Counterpower messages.  For example, “The Singing Revolutions” of 1980’s democracy campaigns in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania served as a “powerful statement of national identify and belonging.”
  • Changing the consciousness of the world with media mind-bombs. Greenpeace cofounder Bob Hunter’s innovative contribution to Idea Counterpower was “to produce media-friendly images capable not only of drawing attention to certain issues and events, but of changing the consciousness of the world.”
  • Burmese activists devised a clever way to elude the repressive military regime’s media censorship. They submitted to the state-controlled Myanmar Times a phony ad from a phony travel agency named ‘Ewhsnahtrellik’. The nonsensical ad read: “Feel Relaxed, Enjoy Everything, Dance On Minutes”. But by stringing together the first letter of each word readers got the message – FREEDOM. And reversing the letters of the travel agency’s name yields “Killer Than Shwe”, the name of a leading military general. Ingenious use of Idea Counterpower.

Gee emphasizes —

Idea Counterpower means so much more than simply talking to people. Yet too often, campaigns use only the most pedestrian tactics.

In the next sentence, he segues into Economic Counterpower, which will be the focus of Part 3:

Even those that go beyond the conventional methods still often restrict themselves to Idea Counterpower alone. . . . Other forms of Counterpower are needed to force recalcitrant targets to change. One such option is Economic Counterpower.

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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