Power and Counterpower

Tim Gee writes on the strength within protest – our Counterpower

Anti-arms protesters outside parliament on DSEI Day of Action - 13 September 2011
Anti-arms protesters outside parliament on DSEI Day of Action – 13 September 2011 (credit CAAT)

I started my life as a campaigner because I was horrified at the arms trade. As a teenager I joined the minibuses to London to join the DSEI protests. At university I helped organise against BAE Systems on campus and even got rid of them, for a year at least.

Since then I’ve spent every moment I can campaigning against climate change and cuts, for human rights in Burma, with travellers at Dale Farm and so on. But a couple of years ago I decided to take a bit of time out to read up on the campaigns that constitute our heritage to try and get closer to understanding why some campaigns seem to be so successful while others go awry.

Lessons from the past

My first stop was the Working Class Movement Library in Salford a monument to campaigns gone by, stuffed with banners and badges and handwritten minutes, and biographies and pamphlets and so on collectively telling a rather different version of history to that which is fed to us through Hollywood films and school textbooks. I then compared this testimony to the ample literature on power and social change to try and analyse the reasons for the success or otherwise of the stories I was looking at.

One set of explanations that seemed to resonate drew on the work of Gene Sharp , a one-time staffer at Peace News, whose writings on non-violent social change have been used by movements across the world, including Burma, Serbia and most recently Egypt. In his most famous pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy he advises movements to seek to identify the Achilles Heel of the system it is challenging. By choosing violent means, he argues, we choose the one arena in which states almost always have superiority.

So what are the central pillars that any regime needs in order to maintain its rule? The power theorists are surprisingly consistent on this. Power can be exerted through ideas, through economics, or through physical force.

The meaning of Counterpower

But power from below –  Counterpower – is different from the power of regimes. To paraphrase a famous Gandhian maxim, even the most powerful cannot rule without the co-operation of the ruled. We have the power to resist the ideas of elites and to propose other ones. We have the power to resist the flow of capital to elites. And we have the power to refuse to follow the dictates of the coercive arms of the state.

So how can this apply to the war machine? In a way, it is the arms trade. Oppressive regimes would not be able to maintain their Physical Power so easily without the easy flow of tanks and guns. But what is the Achilles Heel of the arms trade itself?

This is exactly the question I posed at the CAAT’s National Gathering in October 2011, provoking a swathe of creative responses. Arms manufacturers exert their Idea Power with their adverts, the way they play to “national interests” and the way they persuade us that the industry is necessary to protect jobs. This links to their Economic Power their constant threat to government to make workers redundant if their special interests arent adhered to.

And of course theres the Physical Power exerted by the companies. Anyone who has ever sought to protest on or near-to a weapons site will be familiar with the way that private security and police are used to protect the interests of the war-profiteers.

But for every aspect of power wielded by arms companies, we, theoretically have more. We can use our Idea Counterpower to rebut their propaganda, reveal their murky practices to the media, subvertise their adverts and occasionally take them to court. We have the Physical Counterpower to blockade their factories and arms fairs and physically stop them from doing their deals. These tactics are the bread-and-butter of the arms trade movement.

But what of Economic Counterpower? Certainly renewed efforts to stem the flow of bright graduates into the companies is a form of Economic Counterpower. Workers are after all a form of capital. Similarly the efforts to remove BAE systems from pension funds is a form of Economic Counterpower.

Workers’ resistance

Perhaps the most powerful form of resistance however would come from the workers themselves. There is precedent in Australia for workers to refuse to build on certain patches of green land. Directly related to the arms trade there is precedent for shipping workers to refuse to deliver arms to Zimbabwe. And of course in the UK there is the famous precedent of the Lucas Plan, when workers put forward a proposal to transform their factory from the production of weapons to more socially useful things.

Of course alongside this we need to maintain our petitions and lobbies and demonstrations and so-on. But policy making isnt some process whereby wise politicians and civil servants choose the most utilitarian option from an objective list. Political decisions of their essence reflect the balance of power in society.

But from the examples above we can see that on every front the arms trade movement has tactics at its disposal which could disarm the worlds most deadly industry. But there are few examples of transformational change happening without hard work over years and decades. History shows us that by keeping chipping away at the pillars that maintain the power of unjust rulers, we can force them to give concessions in order to stop the whole edifice from crumbling to the ground.

Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen, New Internationalist, £9.99

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