Power is a verb

Power is central to community organising. Shifting power comes from listening to the real issues of citizens, reflecting on them and acting together to change the causes of those concerns. This week I have been reading Tim Gee’s new book Counterpower: Making Change Happen. Tim is an activist and so his book is a vibrant and arresting read. His central thesis is that power comes in three flavours or varieties: idea power, economic power and physical power. All three are exerted to prevent social change and a shift in power balances. His title hints at the second half of the thesis, that each form of power can be resisted by a form of Counterpower: idea counterpower, economic counterpower and physical counterpower. He tells the story of historic and more contemporary struggles for justice that illustrate the way in which he suggests successful campaigns use all three forms of counterpower to achieve their ends. His analysis provides some valuable food for thought for those engaged today in struggles for social, environmental or economic justice as well as reminding us all of the achievements of the recent and more distant past.

‘Power over’ is not the only power

Tim Gee’s book deals mostly with large social movements like the struggle against apartheid or global G8 summit demonstrations. Whilst the analysis holds water for more prosaic and less prominent battles, the hero-worship that infects too much of activist literature is repeated here. Counterpower does not deal extensively with other forms of power that I think are equally important for social change. Tim Gee tends to tackle power (and counterpower) as though it was only ‘power over’ and seems to be less interested in ‘power with’ or ‘power within’. These ideas offer ordinary citizens a real sense of their part in social change – the importance of solidarity and of a sense of personal agency. ‘Power over’ is important of course but I feel Tim has overplayed its centrality.

Power as performance

His analysis is thought-provoking and well argued. One problem with proposing a strong and clear message about a complex issue such as power is that you can appear to systematise  power and powerholding. In practice, most ‘power over’ is not structured and organised but highly contingent. People and institutions that are powerful exercise that power in a specific context and at a specific time. Often one change in the circumstances and their power is enhanced or reduced. Power to be felt by the powerful or those they dominate must be in motion, it must be enacted. Such power is acted out not held inert.

Alinsky and power

And of course – following Tim Gee’s analysis – this is so for counterpower too. Alinsky had much to say about power in his writings. Famously, the first of his Rules for Radicals reads ‘Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have’. In this rule, Alinsky picks up the importance of idea counterpower, the role that impression and threat plays in power-play. He also said that ‘The action is in the reaction’, suggesting that when counterpower is used effectively is brings a reaction from power which is always the more important element. He dealt with both Major Richard Daley and with gangster Al Capone in Chicago – the Machine of the city’s dominant Democratic Party and the Mob respectively. He knew real power from his time working with the 1930s street gangs and from confronting the City authorities and big business interests in his 1960s campaigns in Woodlawn and Rochester.

Luck and Leadership

Every leader knows that fate deals them a particular hand. The skill and achievement in leadership lies in turning the impact of luck or chance to advantage. Any manager knows that the right action can turn given circumstances into power. And power is needed to do good. In this sense, power is neutral; it can be used for good or ill but whatever you motivation, power must be achieved and held on to so you can fulfill your purpose. In human society, we have many different interests and so as a result, different parties see what they regard as good for them in different actions. What counts as good action is always contended.

A leader who is inactive loses power. It seeps away when it is not used and exercised. So often, different groups in the community spend too long debating the action they should take, deciding what to do or how to do it. Their grasp on counterpower loosens each hour that they are not in action. Taking action is a key function of leadership and it turns your leadership into the fate or luck of another. For community organisers, the ‘Habit of Action’ – as Michael Gecan calls it – is a fundamental pattern of behaviour; nothing can be achieved unless we use our power well.


Tim Gee (2011) Counterpower: Making Change Happen New Internationalist

Just Associates (2006) Making Change Happen: Power Available from www.justassociates.org

Saul D. Alinsky (1989) Rules for Radicals Vintage

Michael Gecan (2004) Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action

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2 Responses to Power is a verb

  1. Andy Gregg says:

    Just as power is a verb so is community, though sadly it is seldom seen as such. See my blog at http://www.communityconfusions.blogspot.com

  2. nick beddow says:

    Really interesting Mark – my response is not aimed at your thoughts but a more general unease about Alinskyite concepts of power. Please forgive me if I start to come across as John Cleese’s Roman Centurion correcting Brian’s Latin in “The Life Of Brian”, but if power is a verb, then so is fascism. I think that such a one- dimensional idea of power–as- action reflects the oppressive machismo at the cold heart of Mr Alinsky, and will lead us all into domination games and will feed the dog-eat-dog ideology which keeps capitalism, patriarchy and racism on top of all.
    If we ignore the other power dimensions which dominate us differentially, any counter-response to the current power institutions will itself be unequal and create a dominant group of white, heterosexual males within the so-called counter-culture; those social groups who are currently dominated by the current power set-up will face similar barriers in making themselves equal players in any counter-response, unless much more attention is paid to how power operates. Power is not just institutional power rooted in wealth and violence; it is also rooted in information-knowledge power and cultural power which defines many social groups as outside the norm and inferior. Our internalised ideas about power are rooted in our socialisation, which, if unchallenged, makes patriarchy invisible to its male beneficiaries while remaining very apparent to women, and makes racism invisible to many white people ..and so on. Power as divide-and-rule.
    I believe that power has to be seen as much more than a verb. It has to be understood as the contemporary outcome of a very dynamic set of processes: some aspects of power are very durable because they are based on historical advantages and myths which seek to justify hierarchical oppression as if it was given to us by Olympus or Nature (adulthood over childhood, male domination, heterosexuality, being white etc) . And socialisation by the prevailing beneficiaries keeps us all down by obscuring the connections between these oppressions and hiding the ultimate beneficiary behind a smokescreen of one-against-all.
    Paolo Freire offers us all a way to transcend these mind-forged manacles by recognising that the dominant culture is alien to the experience and culture of the dispossessed; what matters is to develop the dialogue within oppressed social groups so that they recognise their own view of reality is rooted in their experiences, knowledge and collective interests, and not to absorb the culture of the powerful (which will merely lead them to see themselves through the eyes of power and reduce their self-esteem and belief in social change). But the key is dialogue within the group which leads them to clear-sighted action against the root causes of their conditions; it is not just listening to the dispossessed and then manoeuvring them into a so-called “correct understanding”. This is why Freire transcends the current Left and Right – the answers will be found by the dispossessed themselves, in connection with each other and taking action together. Any external agent (whether it is a Community Organiser or a Community Development worker) has to be a facilitator of this dialogue, not its hub. And has to be a challenger of bias towards any other social groups who might be excluded by the counter-culture.

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