Campaigning tactics: is it all as simple as power vs counter power?


indexAfter reading Tim Gee’s Counterpower, I was left asking myself if the notion of counterpower/power to a campaigner was so straight forward. I decided to compare Gee’s concept of power/counterpower, with the ideas of power from other theorists to see whether or not different concepts of power can limit counterpower tactics.

counterpower_cover_pressBut firstly what is exactly is Counterpower?

Counter Power is a concept that according to Gee, “explains why social movements succeed or fail”. A bold claim, but one made by an experienced campaigner.

Gee sees Counterpower as the power of the ‘have-nots’ in opposition to every aspect of power held by the ‘haves’. He divides the power of the ‘haves’ into three types: ideas, physical and economic. Gee maintains that if a movement can challenge these three aspects of power then those in power will agree to what they must in order to maintain their rule- and thats how you win a campaign.

  • Idea power – haves: the ability to persuade us of their right to rule. Have nots : challenging common held truths, norms and values.
  • Physical power – haves: the ability to punish us if we do not obey. Have nots: Nonviolent and violent direction action and acts of resistance.
  • Economic power– haves: the ability to extract land, labour and capital from us. Have nots: the refusal to work or the refusal to pay and building of alternative economic power bases e.g unions etc.

Beyond these categories of Counterpower Gee refers to power in a sense of quantity. It’s about the ‘have nots’ wielding more power then the ‘haves’ to create social change. It draws back to the traditional notion of power, in which A makes B do something that B would otherwise not do, so the ‘haves’ wielding power to control the ‘have nots’. To place power in the hands of the ‘have nots’, Gee argues that a ’bargaining chip is needed and this can only be achieved through Counterpower’ (p38). He also states that the common alternative to Counterpower is simply to accept power as it is.

So is power a concept you can measure within it’s self, would having more power be better and what would more power mean? Is power the play off between A vs B, a matter of who has the most amount of power. Does A dominate B because A has more power, or is it more about the type of power A has? Perhaps it’s beyond both A and B, maybe power is about a whole structure of knowledge and understanding that formulate A and B’s standpoints, and even creates the notion of A and B at all. Seeing power in this way may allow the notion of power to be spread beyond, ideas, economic and physical notions.

Castells-communication-space-power-media-Meetville-Quotes-86176Castells: The power of Communication

We can understand in today’s technological era that use of ‘global digital communication networks are a fundamental source of power in modern society’. Seeing an interactions as communications possessing power within itself is a bit of an abstract idea, but one that provides a better analysis of the actors involved. Castells states that there is no deterministic control of the power structure by any one group and that “whoever has enough money, including political leaders, will have a better chance of operating the switch in its favour” (p. 52). So in Castells’ view your focus to achieve social change would be to try to influence/change the communication structures that are used by powerful actors. To be effective in this you would need to understand why is the media powerful? Peter Braham’s explains the power of the media as the ability of mass media to influence the political agenda, and shape our concept of reality. As Carr states, think of the mass media’s role as a modern day church.

So in comparison Gee may see Counterpower in communications as the ‘haves’ vs ‘have nots’,or for example Rupert Murdoch vs activists. However the suggestion here is to not see Rupert Murdoch as holder of power (haves), but to rather see Murdoch as someone who establishes the space where power is decided through his ownership of media networks. Seeing power through communications in this way opens up a tactic, which is not discussed in Gee’s work and is hard to conceive with his notion of Counterpower. That is the building of autonomous communication networks to challenge the power of the media industry. It’s doesn’t need to be about, this company or that individual possessing power in a form media; it’s about harnessing that power that exists within communications. Communication networks are starting to play a huge role in social movements, such as the protests in Egypt (2011), and Hong Kong (2014) . Power will always exist through communications, so to focus on just targeting individuals or corporations, distracts from tapping into power of communications and trying to occupy more of that space where power is decided.

So if power exists beyond individuals and institutions…what about everywhere?


Foucault: Power is everywhere

No discussion about power can take place without the ideas of Foucault being discussed. Foucault saw power as; dispersed rather then concentrated, expressed and acted out rather then possessed, and as more wandering then forceful. Individuals or institutions do not hold power, rather their actions may contribute to the operation of power, but it is not power itself.

“Power is everywhere: not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. … Power is not an institution, nor a structure, nor a possession. It is the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society.” (Foucault History of Sexuality p.93)

In short, Foucault sees power as a thing or a capacity that people have. Power is a relation which exists when it is exercised. Resistance therefore can be encountered at every point, in attempts to evade, subvert or contest strategies of power.

To see power as everywhere, means that resistance can be channeled everywhere by using any means. For me, this conception of power, although abstract, opens campaigners minds to thinking outside of the box in regards to resistance strategies and techniques.

negrihardt_s_0Hardt and Negri: Understanding power through an International framework

Hardt and Negri analyse power on an international level by arguing that sovereignty has become supranational and no longer based within nation-states. Instead they suggest that a new global ‘Empire’ has emerged based around international institutions, treaties, capital flows, military interventions, media, and even NGOs. Using Hardt and Negri theory it’s important to not just view the structure of power within states, but to look at the relations of power on an global level. Using a political example, the uprising in Syria can be seen beyond the notion of the regime’s power vs the power of the people. International factors have played a vital role in this power struggle( which started as a protest for greater freedoms), in the form of Russia’s support of Assad and western unwillingness to intervene. 

Associations of power

It’s doesn’t have to be about power itself but the association of power. Those who are powerful are not those who ‘hold’ power but those who are able to enrol, convince and enlist others into associations on terms which allow these initial actors to ‘represent’ all the others: (Law and Whittaker 1988: 179). This view of power suggests that If power ‘lies’ anywhere, it is in the resources used to strengthen the bonds . We need to analyse how these resources are defined and linked and how actors impose definitions and linkages upon others to have a greater understanding of who holds power.


Power is an extremely complex concept and one of the most problematic. Power is theorised in almost all aspects of human study; politics, sociology, international relations etc, and in these studies, what constitutes power is fiercely debated. It is the ubiquitous nature known of power which caused me to question Gee’s simplicity.

However Gee’s book contains many excellent tactics and methods in order to build an effective campaign. Where Gee fails for me is his philosophical approach to power which is a bit too simplified, and designed to support his theory on how campaigns can win. By perceiving power as existing in three forms (ideas, economic and physical), the methods of resistance are mirrored and therefore limited. If Foucault is right in his perception of power as everywhere, then only seeing power in some forms will limit the scope of power and make it more difficult to alter power relations.In order for campaigning for social change to be successful, our perception on the world around us must evolve. Campaigners need to think outside of the box, and find new ways to achieve meaningful and lasting change.


Digital activism – Who are Anonymous?


Who Are Anonymous

Last night the Frontline Club hosted a discussion with Gabriella Coleman about her new book ‘Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy’. Her book focuses on the study of Anonymous, which began six years ago, before the group had become as notorious as it is today. During this time, Anonymous has gone from a group of so-called internet trolls to activists to even having an influence on geopolitical matters. How did this happen and who are Anonymous?

How did this happen?

Anonymous started in Coleman’s words as  group that was a mixture of a protest ensemble and Internet trolls, who used internet harassment tactics against those they opposed. During their campaign against the Church of Scientology the group in Coleman’s view,  went through a radical shift from a digital to a physical presence.

In 2008 the church of Scientology tried to legally remove a highly publicised interview of Tom Cruise discussing Scientology. Anonymous acted against this act of Internet censorship by leaking the interview, attacking Scientology websites and releasing their message to Scientology and call to action videos on YouTube. These videos were according to Coleman originally meant to be a joke, however it started a debate that resulted in a series of global non-violent protests outside centers of the Church of Scientology. This action became their first taste of activism and step into real world protests that changed the group. Activism started to become important.

In 2011 at the time of the Arab spring, a group of Anonymous hackers ventured into the geopolitical in support of wiki leaks by;  developing a counter script to detect when Tunisian activists password’s were being hacked, attacking the Tunisian government’s website and helping to get activist’s footage outside Tunisia. Other targets of Anonymous hacktivism have included, U.S and Israeli governmental agencies and corporations such as PayPal, Visa and Sony.


Coleman’s book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy.

Who are the individuals of  Anonymous?

Coleman describes the members of Anonymous as ‘diverse in every sense other than gender’, with the hacking element of the group being completely male. The option to remain anonymous enables anyone who is interested to join, so you end up with what Coleman refers to as a ‘motley crew of members’. High profile members whose identities have been exposed include a 16-year-old British-Iraqi boy known as T-Flow and his splinter cell leader, turned FBI informant Sabu.

Colman outlines the general nature of Anonymous as:

  • Anti institutional
  • Unpredictable but not random
  • Anonymous is not unanimous
  • Break off cells exist such as Lulzsec and AntiSec
  • Large portion of the group embrace activism, however old guard are against it
  • There have been government informers within the group (Sabu)
  • There is a consensus that small teams are better to get things done
  • The group lacks an overall good control mechanism
  • They use a small range of symbols-masks, headless suits.

What is the Anonymous code of conduct?

  • Protecting freedom of speech
  • To not attack the media
  • No unitary position
  • Strong ethics for anonymity
  • No visible leadership
  • Requiring some sort of group consensus for operations.

Are Anonymous activist?

Anonymous as a group have been called a hacktivist collective, but are they an activist group? Anonymous tend to falter at being a collective, and this is part of their weakness, they are a large and diverse group that possess many different ideologies. An activist group needs a set of values and objectives for individuals to join, as there is self legitimacy in joining something that is consistent. For anyone who chooses to join Anonymous will they know what they are representing, what goals they are working towards? Anonymous appears on occasion, to react out of  vengeance rather then taking a lead. The attacks on Paypal and Visa were in response towards their block on wiki leaks funding, and attacks on sony were part of ‘Operation Payback’. The combination of anonymity and a lack of collective goals, makes it difficult to comprehend the group let alone define them. An activist essentially needs to be someone who is acting for something, anonymous don’t quite have their ‘something’ yet. They act when they disagree with someones’ conduct, but they do not have a conduct of their own. Inconsistency is their weakness, power is their anonymity. At this present time it is difficult to define anonymous as activists, you can define what they do, hack, but it’s hard to define what they are.

Ending notes

Gabriella Coleman’s six-year study of Anonymous provides insight into a group that has gone from internet trolling to having an geopolitical influence. It’s also important to note that Anonymous exists in a time where individual anonymity and freedom of speech are under threat. Despite all their actions, Anonymous as an entity is not powerful in comparison to the institutions it seeks to dismantle. Ultimately their power lies in their ability to remain anonymous.

Click here to watch Gabriella Coleman’s complete interview at the FrontLine club.