Tim Gee launched his book ‘Counterpower’ at the Library last week. Bernadette Hyland was in the audience, and has sent us her thoughts on the book and the subjects it tackles:
Interview with Tim Gee – author of “Counterpower: making change happen”. New Internationalist, ISBN 978-1-78026-032-7 £9.99.
The last time the Tories were in power the left (roughly trade unions, the socialist wing of the Labour Party, left and community groups) responded to their agenda of destroying unions, local authorities and the welfare state. This time round, instead of opposing Tory cuts to local government services, Labour councils are paying off thousands of public sector workers. Opposition from public sector unions is muted and largely confined to symbolic mass marches with no follow-up. There are vigorous local campaigns but no mass national campaign against the undermining of the welfare state. In fact most of the imaginative actions against the government has come through the non-aligned groups such as the Occupy campaigns and the Uncut movement, groups which organise on a non-hierachical basis and with little formal structures. You could not get much further from the more traditional trade union organisation.
Recently things have started to change. Len McCluskey, head of the Unite trade union, addressed the Occupy London group, for instance. And perhaps more significantly last week the Occupy Bristol protestors moved their camp to the picket line of the Communication Workers’ Union outside the Capita site in Bristol. Two very different groups in terms of their organising and structure but with a common aim of opposing large corporations which are making vast profits (in this case through administering the TV license contract) whilst cutting the wages of their workers. It will be interesting to see how these campaigners from such different cultures work together and learn from each other.
Tim Gee’s new book “Counterpower: Making Change Happen” was written to educate and inform activists in campaigns such as the Occupy movement about how to challenge the power of elites and to show how change can be effected. He uses the term “counterpower” to highlight how social change can come about by the actions of the most oppressed in society. His stated aim is to provide a primer “which would inform people about the history of campaigns and how that knowledge can inform and educate people to get involved in present campaigns.”
Tim is probably fairly typical of some of the activists who are involved in the Occupy/climate change campaigns. He comes from a middle-class family, studied political science at Edinburgh University and now works for an NGO. “I came from a family that discussed political ideas at the dinner table. I got involved with the Section 28 campaign and met up with Peter Tatchell. We won the campaign and it showed me how campaigns can be successful.”
His involvement with a variety of campaigns from the wars in Afghanistan to Dale Farm has educated him not only in terms of how the state will use all its force to take on opposition but also how activists need to understand this and constantly change their tactics, pursue new actions and work together. He decided to write a book to, as he says, “get to the root of how change happens, with the intention of providing a way for campaigners today to learn from the movements that constitute our heritage.”
Unlike most historians Tim happily lines up with the oppressed in society. He has raided the archives of the Working Class Movement Library to produce an informed analysis of how people have won and lost struggles in the past and how these lessons can be taken and used by new generations of activists. He provides histories of many struggles from the liberation struggles in India and Vietnam to the campaign for the vote in England, the Miners’ Strike 1984-5 to the more recent global justice campaign.
I think trying to cover so many complex struggles in one book has led to the dilution of these histories and to some unproven conclusions. An example of this is his short chapter on “How the Vietnam War was Stopped” which looks at the anti-Vietnam war movement in the USA. Clearly it was influential but it didn’t stop the war on its own. The war came to an end for many complicated economic and political reasons of which the anti-war movement was part.
Tim has written an interesting and insightful book. But it is written for a specific group of people who are not irritated by the constant use of “counterpower” terminology, and relate to and are familiar with political theorists such as Gene Sharp, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. As a trade unionist I would have preferred more personal histories of political activists and campaigns. What are also missing are any ideas about what kind of society we are all campaigning for. Perhaps the Bristol alliance may answer some of these questions.
Bernadette Hyland 22/11/2011