Book review: Counterpower – making change happen

Article published: Monday, December 19th 2011

From the Arab uprisings to Occupy, 2011 has been a year of global unrest. Activist Tim Gee’s book Counterpower: making change happen was written to review the past history of these struggles against oppression with an eye to uncovering the secrets of their success, or lack of it.

The last time the Conservatives were in power the ‘left’ – in the form of trade unions, the socialist wing of Labour Party and leftist community groups – responded to their agenda of destroying unions, local authorities and the welfare state. This time round, instead of opposing Tory cuts to local government services, Labour councils are laying off thousands of public sector workers.

Opposition from public sector unions has been muted up till now and largely confined to symbolic mass marches with no follow-up. There are vigorous local campaigns but no popular national campaign against the undermining of the welfare state, and most of the imaginative actions against the government have come through non-aligned groups such as Occupy and UKUncut, both organised on an ostensibly non-hierarchical basis and with little formal structure.

You could not get much further from the more traditional trade union organisation. But recently things have started to change. Len McCluskey, head of the Unite trade union, addressed Occupy London while, more significantly, Occupy Bristol protestors moved their camp to the picket line of PCS civil servants outside the Capita site in Bristol. Two very different groups in terms of their organisation and structure, but with a common aim of opposing large corporations which are making vast profits while cutting the wages of their workers.

Tim Gee’s new book Counterpower was written to educate and inform activists in these campaigns about how to challenge the power of elites and to show how change can be affected. Tim himself is probably fairly typical of some of the activists that are involved in Occupy and the climate movement before that. He comes from a middle-class family, studied political science at Edinburgh University and now works for an international development organisation: “I came from a family that discussed political ideas at the dinner table. I got involved with the Section 28 campaign and met up with Peter Tatchell. We won the campaign and it showed me how campaigns can be successful.”

Unlike most historians Tim happily lines up with the oppressed in society. He raided the archives of Salford’s Working Class Movement Library in researching Counterpower, and says he “sees things in class terms….the struggle between the haves and have-nots”, believing the “anti-cuts campaign” to be “already more widespread and more militant than any campaign of the recent past”.

For Tim, his political education can about through involvement with a variety of campaigns, from opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to resisting the evictions at Dale Farm. As he explained, his experiences taught him not only how the state uses its force to take on opposition, but also the need for activists to understand this and constantly change their tactics, pursue new actions and work together. He wrote Counterpower “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.”

To undermine and even overthrow the state’s control of “mind, money and muscle” Tim argues “ideas counterpower”, “economic counterpower” and “physical counterpower” can develop alternative ideas of how society can be run and challenge the state’s wealth and physical power. In exploring this idea Tim’s book covers a wide variety of movements from the liberation struggles in India and Vietnam to the anti-poll tax campaign.

For the latter, Tim argues “the central tactic was economic counterpower [in terms of] refusing to pay – but this was only effective alongside the ideas counterpower of building public support and the physical counterpower to repel bailiffs.” Unfortunately however, this treatment often leads to the dilution of these histories and to some unproven conclusions.

By way of example, his short chapter on the Vietnam War focuses on the anti-war movement of the US. Clearly when the conscripted soldiers refused to fight and even left the country this was a blow to the United States government. But many other people, largely working-class and often black or Hispanic, did support the war and fight in the army, and the anti-war movement did not bring an end to the war on its own. Counterpower would have benefitted from a more thorough treatment of the complex economic and political movements of the era of which the anti-war movement was only a part.

Tim concludes by reflecting on the growing anti-cuts movement, particularly the TUC March for the Alternative in London last spring, which he does not see as an end in itself. “They are better 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 with every form of counterpower available to them.”

Maybe so, but a major issue for all left wing activists and trade unionists remains how people can become active in these campaigns. Unlike Tim and myself most do not come from a political family. If young people are not getting jobs then they are unlikely to stand much chance of being a union member. Over the last few years it has been students and to a lesser extent graduates who have been at the forefront of campaigns – student fees, UK Uncut and so on. The riots over the summer across the cities of England were an outburst by largely unemployed young men without any distinct political message or organisation.

As the global crisis deepens activists, whether from non-hierarchical organisations such as Tim or from the trade union movement such as myself are going to have to engage which each other and perhaps forge a new language to listen to and reflect the needs of the growing dispossessed of this country.

Tim has written an interesting and insightful book about how and why some campaigns can be and are successful. But it is written for a specific group of people who are not irritated by the constant use of “Counterpower” terminology and are familiar with political authors such as Gene Sharp, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. It is important to understand theory but we all need to relate to those who are not already engaged in any movement.

As a trade unionist representative and political campaigner I would have preferred more personal histories of political activists and campaigns which would be useful in encouraging some of the younger people I come across to join a union or campaign. And in focusing on simply countering power, Tim isn’t the only activist who seems to be lacking in ideas of what kind of society we are all campaigning for and it is always easier to know what we are against rather than analyse what we want. Cooperation between Occupy Bristol and the local unions may be the beginning of that dialogue – but only history will show this.

Bernadette Hyland

Counterpower: making change happen is published by New Internationalist and is available for £9.99

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