Challenging Power with Counterpower

By Tim Hardy

It is easy to get disheartened when you are demanding change and those who profit from the status quo are doing all they can to prevent it. Campaigns can drag on for years with no apparent progress. The media either ignores or mocks and lies. The world feels full of nay-sayers each spouting the gospel of common sense telling us that things are how they are and that change is impossible.

Then the breakthrough happens.

Tim Gee’s Counterpower is a newly published compendium of radical history. It tells the stories of various campaigns that may be unfamiliar to many of those standing up to the injustices of government today. An awareness of the arc traced by previous struggles, their highs and lows, their successes and failures, helps keep morale high when things look bleak and gives us examples to follow when the next step is not clear.

Tim’s book provides an accessible yet comprehensive introduction to these campaigns including the movement for women’s suffrage, Gandhi’s quest for Indian independence and the fight to end apartheid. There has never been a better time to be able to see the conflicts in which we are engaged in the context of a wider set of struggles for values we now take as self-evidently desirable.

“To make a mighty river takes many small streams,” Peter Tatchell reminded us on Sunday evening at an event sponsored by New Internationalist to launch the book. I was honoured to be one small stream and shared a brief anecdote about challenging the police tactic of kettling before a series of amazing speakers took to the stage to inspire with a series of tales of courage, determination and wit in the face of adversity. These were filmed and will soon be available online.

At a time when the newspapers and television channels owned by a rich elite are actively fanning hostility toward the Occupations taking place around the world, creating and repeating lies to discredit those in the movement as they have done with so many other recent protests, it is worth remembering that this is something those in power always do.

Counterpower includes for example the story of how the BBC “inadvertently” edited film from the picket line during the miners’ strike so that a vicious police assault on unarmed strikers looked as if it had been initiated by those picketing. Then as now, the supposedly impartial news channel showed itself to be deeply loyal to those who held their purse strings. This formed part of a systematic campaign of disinformation designed to discredit the targets of Thatcher’s hatred of organised labour. The Sun planned to run with a cover photo of the president of the National Union of Miners headlined “Mine Fuhrer”. However, print workers refused to follow orders and the cover of the paper that finally hit the stands read “Members of the Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline in our story. The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the story without either.” Such moments of resistance in dark times give us hope.

Real social change is always driven by popular protest not by elected officials. The vote for women, the end of slavery, equal rights for all irrespective of race – each was the result of people refusing to accept that there was no alternative and being willing to act unreasonably and to break unjust laws because they felt a moral imperative to do so.

On Sunday night, Tim pointed out that we must not see change as something that belongs to the past. Those who pretend that we have reached the end of history encourage us to accept past law-breaking as a once but no longer necessary step to create our current perfect system. They acknowledge that it was right then; they pretend it can no longer be justified. This is an important lesson to remember today in the face of increasingly politicised policing where the forces of the state are actively encouraged to overstep the mark and break the law themselves to protect the interests of those with wealth and power.

It takes courage to stand up for what is right in the face of threats of beatings or worse and the possibility of unjust detention and imprisonment. Tales of the bravery shown by others in the face of far more violent opposition is deeply inspiring.

Counterpower is a beautifully written, highly readable and necessary piece of scholarship. The analysis is the weakest part of the book and might have been more strongly developed as Nishma Doshi points out in a comprehensive review at the Topsoil  –  but by bringing together these stories in one, easily accessible place, Tim has enabled a conversation about effective campaigning that we all need whether or not we agree about what leads to success.

We live in a time of turmoil where the failures of free-market capitalism are being used as an excuse to turn the clock back a century or more and discard the slow progress we had begun to make towards a more equitable society in which all may enjoy lives of dignity, a society that was slowly beginning to accept that the destruction of the environment for immediate profit is to steal the future from the generations to come. Thousands of people are standing up around the world and saying that enough is enough. We will not pay for the crisis of the rich.

I recommend Counterpower to anyone involved in protest movements and campaigns who wants to learn more about the tradition in which they find themselves and is looking for ideas for ways in which to make our demands for change more effective.

At such a time of growing chaos, this book is a much-needed and inspiring reminder that we are not alone in taking this difficult but necessary path to a better world.