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Book Review: Counterpower, by Tim Gee

Book Review: Counterpower, by Tim Gee Posted on 9 October 20111 Comment

We are a generation facing failed economic policies, high expenses without the means to pay for them, a lack of employment opportunities that mirrors the Great Depression, and a government that will do anything in its power to silence our complaints. None stand to support us; we are struggling together, but alone. Over the last year, we have been collecting, building movements of resistance, mounting huge campaigns that have brought thousands into forms of direct action. But keeping the momentum going is tiring, and we often need something to inspire us to keep going; stories, anecdotes, history – all of these to bring us hope. And that is why Tim Gee’s Counterpower is an important read.

Counterpower is a collection of histories, anecdotes and records of social resistance movements. From the beginning to the end, Tim details small and large resistance movements, from how India gained Independence to the most recent Egyptian “Revolution”. Not all of them are successful, and some are just a a hundred words long. The book provides a great introduction to social resistance movements, and coupled with Tim’s personal anecdotes – it’s light but informative reading.

Plus if you’re looking for something not so introductory, Tim’s book is a great starting point. For every tale told, there is a clear link to where that information can be found. For example, one of my favourite tales is actually quite accessible online:

“During the First World War, landlords in Glasgow decided to introduce massive ret increases in response to the influx of women moving to the city… [The women] resolved to pay only their rent and not the increase… They set up a number of sound signals to summon protesters at a moment’s notice, and then squeezed into narrow passageways to blockade the bailiffs’ path… Shortly afterwards, the Rent Restriction Act was passed, fixing rents throughout the UK at their pre-war level.” (pp 28 – 29; or sourced here)

Where Counterpower falls down, however is in its argument. Tim is not only seeking to provide a history of creating change, but also to explain the methodology of how it is achieved. His argument follows the well-trodden path of categorising these methods into what he calls “Idea Counterpower” (hegemony), “Economic Counterpower,” and “Physical Counterpower” (direct action). Though he tries to weave each of his narratives into this overly simplistic analysis, it is clear that this method doesn’t always fit. Often Tim is guilty of just boxing the methods of social resistance used rather than successfully trying to understand the actions’ historical relevance.

Tim clearly researched for this book: reading autobiographies of those involved, thumbing through Gene Sharp’s various publications (as Tim is a Quaker), and investigating personal narratives found online. But there was a distinct lack of analytical depth in the text than comes out quite clearly if you’re a student of social change – or an experienced activist. Power is a complex issue that has not been won over just by a single act of direct action; change happens at pivotal points where there are weaknesses, gaps and the crux of imbalance.

For example, Tim does not explain that India received its freedom at a point where ordinary non-Indian Britons were no longer interested in maintaining an outpost in the East. Or that the power of that win perpetuated an imbalance of power in South Asia, where external pressures played an equal part in liberation movements (such as violent protest in the North and the ideological creation of Pakistan). Tim takes each historical reckon as it is, and without significant analysis. A letter from Clement Attlee stating that civil disobedience is what makes India ungovernable may be a way of justifying the action without admitting political or economic failure.

Excluding its analytical flaws, I learned a vast amount of information from Counterpower and I enjoyed the diversity of different social movements Tim Gee explored. The book provides an excellent history of social resistance movements. Equally it’s an easy read and a page-turner.

Overall, I recommend that if you haven’t read a hundred histories of social resistance movements already, give Counterpower a go. It’s fun, informative and necessary for a spot of inspiration. Just don’t pay too much attention to the analysis.

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