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Counterpower

By Tim Gee

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The more I read the more convinced I became that successful campaign is an unfinished revolution and that a revolution is the result of a series of successful campaigns.

When governments, corporations or other ruling institutions yield power, it is not through the goodness of their hearts. It is to save face when the people themselves have already claimed power.

The classic definition of power – associated with the theorist Robert Dahl – is ‘the ability of A to get B to do something that B would not otherwise have done’.  Counterpower turns traditional notions of power in their heads. Counterpower is the ability of B to remove the power of A.

In the hands of the few, power can be called oppression, repression, exploitation or authoritarianism – the ability to do a lot at the expense of the many.  Meanwhile, movements for freedom, emancipation, liberation, human rights and democracy have a common idea at heart. That idea is Counterpower. 

Politicians bemoan people’s lance of interest in politics. When they do so, they are usually bemoaning the lack of people supporting their politics. Because when a real political movement rises to challenge a government, that government will do everything it can to hold the people concerned back. Governments will try discrediting the movement, smearing it, co-opting it, dividing and ruling it, or – if all else fails – crushing it.

Those who dominate a society have a whole range of tools available to then to keep certain issues off the agenda.  They can deny there is a problem; they can concede that this is a problem but declare that the maintenance of the problematic situation is necessary in context of a bigger ‘demon’; or, most insidious of all, they can declare that something is already being done about a certain problem while actually doing the exact opposite.

Yet despite these important reforms, the battle for gender equality had still not been won…Even by 2011 only 30% of MPs in the British parliament were female.  Across the world, women only constitute 20% of parliamentarians.  Meanwhile, studies show a link between the arrangements of global trade along neoliberal lines and the further impoverishment of women.   

Neither has the redistribution of political opportunity for men and woman fully translated into the redistribution of economic opportunity, as rich elites have found other ways of maintaining their power – including ownership of the media, promulgation of rightwing ideologies and the co-opting of the institutions of the centre left.

As early as 1918, Sylvia Pankhurst declared that, were a Labour government to be elected, it ‘would be swept along in the wake of capitalist policy’.  Her prediction proved prescient long into the future. Following the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, every mainstream political party in Britain signed up to capitalism’s most extreme manifestation. 

After centuries of struggle for the redistribution of power within the state, campaigners at the turn of the millennium faced and new challenge.  As Joel Bakean’s documentary film The Corporation puts it: ‘150 years ago the business corporation was a relatively insignificant institution.  Today it is all-pervasive.  Like the church, the monarchy and the Communist Party in other times, the corporation is today’s dominant institution.

Whether feudal, capitalist or communist, elites have promoted the view that change had stopped happening as a shroud to disguise the over-concentration of power. Neoliberals in the US in the 1990s such as Francis Fukuyama claimed that the world had already reached ‘the end of history’.  Some declared the Soviet Union a utopia.  As has been quoted, as far back as 1794, Judge Braxfield declared that ‘the British constitution is the best that ever was since the creation of the world and that it is not possible to make it better’. But it is always possible to make things better.  Every time elites abuse power, people use Counterpower to challenge them.