Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Counterpower: A reservoir of hope

Counterpower: Making Change Happen, by Tim Gee, reviewed by Ed Lewis

April 13, 2012
2 min read

Counterpower has two principal aims: to give a general account of why social movements succeed or fail; and to illustrate this through an historical exploration of successful movements. It is natural to have high hopes for such a book, since for any activist or campaigner nothing is more tantalising than the prospect of uncovering the secrets of social change. However, while Counterpower serves as an accessible guide to some of the movements from which we can draw inspiration and optimism, its theoretical endeavours are much less convincing.

Tim Gee opens with the ‘bold claim’ that ‘counterpower’ is the ‘single idea’ that explains the fate of social movements. Gee identifies ‘power’ as a capacity of elites. Counterpower is its inversion – a capacity of ordinary people that negates the ‘power over’ of elites and has been wielded throughout history in the struggle for justice.

Really, then, counterpower is a form of power, distinguished from conventional power in terms of who possesses it. But the insight that movements must develop and exercise their own power – ‘power from below’ – will strike anyone interested in radical social transformation as closer to a truism than a path-breaking insight.

Gee’s analysis also leaves many crucial questions unaddressed. He repeatedly urges that movements ‘use’ counterpower. But to ‘use’ it we have to first develop it. This requires an understanding of how to build radical consciousness in a given set of social conditions and the organisational forms best suited to doing so. On issues such as these, the schema developed in Counterpower offers little help.

Despite these shortcomings, for those seeking an introduction to social movement history told from the perspective of activists, Counterpower is worth reading. The stories Gee tells – of the struggle for Indian independence, the movement against the Vietnam war, the ousting of Mubarak and several others – are told in short, readable chapters, punctuated with some striking detail. The lessons to be drawn from these stories are diverse and multifarious, but above all, as Gee emphasises, they provide a crucial reservoir of hope for a better future. 

Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.

Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu

Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke