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This is just the beginning

'Counterpower: Making Change Happen' author Tim Gee reflects on his UK tour and Gandhi's social movement maxim.

I haven’t seen a lot of my house recently. For most of the last four months I’ve been on the road (or rather the rails) visiting different towns and cities to run workshops and seminars looking at the methods adopted by movements for change. I tend to begin by asking people to shout out the tactics they see as central to why the movement succeeded in ousting Mubarak in Egypt. The differences in the responses have been remarkable.

For a group of students in Manchester, social media was the deciding factor. At a national conference of community organisers the first suggestion was that the relationships between different social groups was most important. A sociologist in Leeds named the economic conditions that helped determine the shape of the struggle, while a group of trade unionists in London named the threat of a general strike. Every Occupy Camp I visited quickly named the occupation of Tahrir Square before any other tactic. A number of activists in Bristol named the importance of physical resistance to the police on the streets while a Quaker in Hastings pointed to the role of spiritual consciousness for a number of activists.

They are all, of course, right. It is also only natural for us to identify with people in other contexts with whom we share something in common. I am no different. As someone who works as an activist trainer, I am fascinated by the preparation that preceded the revolt in Egypt that led to all of those tactics being deployed – by some reports as many as 15,000 people received mass action training in the 3 years before the uprising.

But what time is right for what support? There are countless stages models of social movements to give guidance, but the one that applies best to the cases I have studied isn’t really a model at all – it is the maxim usually attributed to Gandhi: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’. Despite its applicability it is not without its flaws. For a start, not all movements win. But more importantly, it is somewhat passive – what about the actions of the movement when the power elite are ignoring, laughing at and fighting the movement?

Yet insert the logical actions of the movement between the predictable succession of actions by power elites and an ordering begins to emerge. When they ignore you, the movement must work to raise the consciousness of the masses. When they laugh at you, the movement must coordinate to show its strength. When they fight you, the movement must confront likewise, while conscientising and coordinating. And when you win, the movement must consolidate gains and start the cycle again.

When populations actively withdraw their consent from oppressive systems in sufficient number to have an effect, it rarely comes from nowhere. It represents the third act of a longer narrative. It is the stage that the government is fighting the people, and movement is faced with the decision to make or break, fight or flee. Central to success at this stage is the recognition that any regime is propped up only by the power of ideas, finance and physical force. If these pillars can be seriously challenged, concessions can be won, or on occasion, regimes can collapse altogether.

The story of the struggle in Egypt fits these stages well. Consciousness-raising began in the 2000s with rising prices and protests against Mubarak’s perceived unaccountability on matters of foreign policy. On the blogsphere, in cafes, in the slums, in universities and in nascent political organisations, the dissent began to be felt. The Coordination Stage began as new anti-war and independent trade unions formed. And it was following the pre-emptive confrontation of a brutally repressed strike in 2008 that the April 6 Youth Movement was formed and engaged in their project of training and preparation. The story of the Confrontation Stage that began in earnest on 25 January 2011 has been told many times and has claimed the scalp of a president once thought as unshakable. The Consolidation Stage will be the most difficult as the movement struggles to keep the gains and prevent new unaccountable elites from taking hold.

So where are we in our global movement against the 1%? My view is that the struggle is still at the early stages. The financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity crisis of the present are both making people question the status quo which once lay unquestioned. Mass marches, new organisations and occasional strikes are all present. In the shape of the Occupy movement - and the debate it has set off - a new process of co-learning and discussion has emerged. And so the time has arrived to move to the second stage – to build the networked infrastructure that a mass movement will need to if it is to reach the third stage of seriously challenging the interests of the power elite. It can be done. But only in the most naive reports is it quick or easy.

But there is reason for hope. As the responses given to my opening question show, the ingredients that fuelled the Egyptian rebellion are not exclusive to the Middle East. Thanks to our globalized economy, they are present across the world. In Britain the escalation began in 2010 when students occupied the ruling Conservative Party’s offices. And the first line of the first text of the first person to reach the roof remains true today: this is just the beginning.    

Tim Gee is the author of ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’, New Internationalist, 2011 [www.newint.org/counterpower ] .    

Topics: People Power