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.