Counter Power: Making Change Happen
Tim Gee, New Internationalist Publications, £9.99, 228 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1780260327
Does social campaigning work? And if so, how? It is tempting to suggest that there has never been a more pressing need to answer this question, but reading Tim Gee’s book shows that this probably isn’t true. Now its austerity, last decade globalisation and climate change, before that deregulation and privatisation, before that Thatcherite assault on the state and so on backwards. And those are only the core economic campaigns to which everything from gay rights to justice for Palestinian can be added.
Still, any consideration of how it is possible to challenge vested power interests is to be welcomed, and *Counter Power is an engaging, informative and thought-provoking read. The premise is simple – by looking at the processes of social change achieved through protest and campaigning movements the book aims to identify what are the characteristics and strategies which appear best able to achieve success. The sweep is impressive, from the 19th century Chartist movement (and indeed some examples before) through to current events in the Arab world. But there are a number of main focusses – the Indian independence movement, South African anti-apartheid, universal suffrage in Britain, anti-Vietnam protests, anti-corporate protests, Egypt, the Miner’s Strike and so on.
For me the real strength in this book is simply the level of detail and the scope. It is very helpful to have a detailed examination of a range of social movements and revolutions brought together in one place like this. So while I knew most of the story of Indian independence I came to realise that my understanding of the suffrage movement was more limited. And while I was (just) around for both the Miner’s strike of the mid-1980s and the dying days of apartheid, I realise I had a much better understanding of the history of the former than the latter.
For me the real strength in this book is simply the level of detail and the scope.
What Gee is trying to do is to break down each of these historical movements into its phases and to typify the tactics and approaches used in each phase. He looks at the interplay (or plain in-fighting) of different groups pursuing or advocating different strategies to achieve the same end. And he examines the nature and intention of the responses. Again, what I found most interesting was the way the ‘geometry’ of many of the campaigns were set out, explaining the shapes and patterns which inevitably get simplified in the retelling. A case in point is the careful dissection of the battle for decolonisation in India which has come to be synonymous with Gandhi; but of course, without understanding the earlier battles it isn’t really possible to understand how we get a Gandhi in the first place.
Gee’s thesis is fairly simple: there are three broad types of power which calls ‘ideas power’ (catching the imagination and challenging existing beliefs etc), ‘economic power’ (anything which affects profits etc) and ‘physical power’ (both violent and non-violent). Traditionally, he sees the main state and establishment actors as holding ‘power’ and identifies those challenging that power are utilising ‘counter power’. In my view this is one of two weaknesses of the book. I find the concept of ‘power’ and ‘counter power’ as different types of power not entirely convincing. Naturally there is a very big difference between the resources available to each side and certainly the usual pattern is a ‘defensive’ and an ‘offensive’ deployment of power (the state defends the status quo, the protesters challenge it), but it is not obvious to me that ‘ideas’ power is fundamentally different if it is wielded by the state or by the protester. Equally, I am not sure that many strong ideas contained in the book benefit from quite such a rigid categorisation of the three types of power – does a UK Uncut protest aim at ‘economic counterpower’ or ‘ideas counterpower’ or something slightly more complex than either?
Personally I tend to favour a more complex understanding of the impact of power; not so much a battle between two sides using three weapons but a much more complex interplay of different strands of power being exerted. So in the case of the current ‘slave labour’ workfare argument, it is not obvious that this was ever a battle between Tesco and the Tories on one side and social campaigners on the other. The concept of ‘discourse’ may be a little old-fashioned now (or perhaps it is just over-used), but the idea of many slightly different power gambits interacting and conflicting with each other from the level of the individual (Cameron in his permanent struggle to be both ‘Bullingdon traditionalist’ and ‘modern man’ all at once) to big movements (a Tea Party movement which simultaneously believes ‘Jews have too much power’ but that support for Israel is non-negotiable) may give us a more sophisticated tool for understanding why change happens.
The other slight weakness is a tendency to make conclusions retrospectively. A particular example is the Indian struggle; the length of the struggle means that many people fighting the cause at the end probably knew less about its origins than someone who reads this book. It is not clear that all the different phases can be considered linear steps to eventual success. To be honest, in many ways much of the history looks more like failures from which people started again rather than steps forward on which the movement built. And so to conclude at the end of the book when asking ‘what is the right time to escalate?’ it seems unsafe to pick specific examples and conclude that “history has proved their timing was right”. Without knowing what would have happened if escalation happened earlier, or later, or in different ways, it is perhaps unhelpful to conclude that this was the ‘right path to success’.
But it would be churlish to be too critical. For me what is important about this book is not that it forms a ‘schematic for successful protest’ but that it poses these complex questions next to a richly-researched, detailed and well-referenced exploration of the history of protest. It will certainly be reflected in the many (probably unresolved) strategic arguments to come.
New Parties of the Left – Experiences from Europe
Daniel Bensaid and others: Resistance Books £7, 204 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0902869516
This book analyses the new left parties formed from 1986 to 2011 in European countries. It is not an academic tome, rather an attempt to draw lessons from their struggle to create a viable left alternative to former social democratic parties which have fully embraced neoliberal policies.
Seven chapters on France, Denmark, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain are written by founding or leading members of the parties concerned.
An introductory chapter provides an overview of the phenomenon of New Parties, which in a wider context includes the formation of PT in Brazil in 1980. It lists parties created in 12 countries and details their foundation dates, electoral results and membership. Consideration is given to the effect of different electoral systems on their electoral success and how each party’s historical roots e.g. Communism, Trotskyism, Maoism, has influenced their development.
Lest it be thought these parties are peripheral to current concerns, five of them (Die Linke in Germany, the Italian P.R.C., the Portuguese Left Bloc, the United Left in Spain and Red Green Alliance in Denmark) have each achieved electoral votes between six and 14 per cent and significant numbers of parliamentarians elected.
The country-specific chapters all contain a history of their genesis and describe the main internal debates and how the party evolved and grew or otherwise following these. They each also provide an assessment of their future prospects. Given there have been elections over the past year since these were written, we have a useful ‘reality check’ on these predictions.
The chapter on the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark I found particularly interesting for Scottish readers. Written in January 2011 it predicts the next Danish election could result in “a government of two reformist workers parties needing the support of the RGA to have a majority”. This was the actual outcome in September when the RGA got 6.7 per cent of the vote and 12 MPs. The RGA has had MPs in each parliament since 1994, with a previous high of six MPs (just like the SSP). The article describes how its internal structures work including parliamentary oversight, how it has grown to 5,500 (SSP peaked at 4,000) whilst remaining rooted in communities and trade unions. Given there were frequent discussions between the RGA and the SSP/Solidarity, the contrast to the present Scottish situation is sharp. The chapters describing the train-wreck of the Italian PRC and Respect in England provide different lessons.
For those like me who have only occasionally had contact with each of these parties, this book gives a perspective for our own attempts at regrouping the left.
The book is published in collaboration with the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam and is part of a series analysing political developments across the world. A planned second edition will include chapters on Greece and other countries.