Why Power Checkmates are Vital

Published on 12th October 2010

A look at history and current affairs will reveal that there is a dynamic struggle and dilemna about pouvoir (established power) and contre pouvoir (counter power) in democratic states and statist states like China and Cuba. This is underlined by the continued struggle between the progressive forces and forces of hegemonic control. In the simplest parlance, the forces of hegemonic control are exemplified by the ruling elites in Western economies, pseudo-communist socialist states like Cuba and China and Venezuela, and progressives who seek to establish states where the highest ideals of freedom, human dignity are secured and guaranteed.

It seems that the most idealistic and noblest revolutionaries, once in power, become caricatures of the very objectional dictators or rulers (ruling class) they overthrew. Classic cases are Fidel Castro. Sixty years after, it is hard to argue that socialist Castro dictatorship is the best of all possible worlds, compared to the capitalist Batista dictatorship it overthrew. The same applies to Maoist China. Even Obama’s administration, to the dismay of many idealists, continues with many of the Bush policies especially with regard to war, corporate welfare and growing powers of the military -intelligence-industrial complex. This is not to say, that Castro, Obama or even Hugo Chavez are ill intentioned, but it just illustrates the real problem, which is not political persuasion, but being in power - pouvoir.

Although some may allude to the saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" or the more religiously oriented will add that earthly temporal power is tainted and corrupting, human beings are complex. Pouvoir is not something that can be discarded. There will always be a ruling power (pouvoir) in the affairs of nations and men. Anarchy is neither a natural nor a desirable human state.

The trappings and structure of power is the real challenge. In the US, for example, Congress folded in the aftermath of the 911 disaster and the executive usurped power.With or without the willful assent of Congress, unimaginable powers accrued to the Executive, including the waiving of miranda rights, the illegal arrest and detention of persons, denial of entrenched human and civil rights including the right to speedy and fair trial before a jury of one's peers and the use of torture on prisoners of war, detainees et cetera. In the Gambia for example, the willy nilly changing or ignoring of the Constitution; and the trend of the National Assembly and Judiciary to dance to the tune of the Presidency demonstrates this.

The real challenge is to establish a constant mechanism that is outside the control of the established power (pouvoir) to constantly guard and defend against over- reach by the established power.

In western liberal democracies, the myth that pouvoir is checked came crashing down post 911 and in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Against overwhelming evidence and public opposition, established power in the US, UK, and even Spain went to a war of choice in Iraq and resulting in millions of fatalities deaths and near bankrupting of their states in a financial and economically unsustainable military misadventure. Established power will seek to extend and perpetuate itself by all means at its disposal, sometimes even to the detriment of society and/or the State. Having failed in getting power to change the state, we have to look at means of changing the state without getting in power. In other words, the theoretical underpinning of the counter pouvoir strategy is to create a system whereby the authority and more specifically the over reach of the established powers can be checked, without actually taking power.The history of revolutions is strewn with tales of counter revolution.

Definition of Counter Pouvoir

It is an organization that is created to check established authority. This organization which may be social, political, economic or even religious does not take power or try to take power, but is a coalition of all those outside the established power system whose sole aim is to check against the overreach and excess of established power.

One of the most famous proponents of neo revolutionary theory of Counter Pouvoir was John Holloway in his famous book "Change the world without taking power." To him everyone can change the world through acts of resistance rooted in the everyday. He argued that trying to take institutional power in a classical sense led to a deadlock as it is only the substitution of one power domination by another. The aim is thus to try to create a mechanism that acts as a check on established power and empowers the society without taking and ruling the society.

Counter Arguments

Some classical revolutionaries have seen the counter pouvoir revolutionary theory as weak, defeatist and counter-revolutionary. History has shown that revolutionaries once in power, either conform to the diktats of power or are booted out and replaced by those who wield power for power's sake. Case examples include: Muammar Gaddafi who has imposed his own views on Libya since 1969; the Castro brothers since 1950 to date; the Nasserite revolution in Egypt which replaced a feeble king with a monolithic dictatorship; the Jammeh APRC replacing the Jawara PPP; Wade's PDS Sopi replacing the Senghor-Diouf PS in Senegal; Uganda's Museveni replacing Obote-Amin-Lule- Okello; or Kabila's father and son replacing Mobutu Sese Seko. In none of these countries, did the revolutions or changes give the people the promised utopia. The problem may not be the people but the structure and nature of pouvoir.

The proponents of the theory of counter pouvoir have been heavily criticized and accused of encouraging political disengagement. Those in its favour like Miguel Benazayag and Diego Sztulwark argue that individuals and civil societies have a fundamental role to play as "situational activists" and collectively, individuals wield more power than the state organs.If awakened and organized, individuals can change societies in ways, states cannot.

In the neo colonial states in Africa where there is a  disproportionate remit of the authority and power of the state and/or those in power, whether Qaddafi's Libya, Jammeh's Gambia, Mubarak's Egypt, or Wade's Senegal, or Campaore's Burkina Faso, it can be argued that change of personnel in power does not necessary equate to a more democratic dispensation and therefore the need for a counter pouvoir organization as one growing in Nigeria which stands up and challenges the powers that be when necessary. In the Gambia, recent events point to the germination of such a movement.

The more one studies power and its dynamics, and understand its use, role and psychology, the more one appreciates that the problem is the nature and structure of power and that the need for counter pouvoir is urgent. The role of counter pouvoir by civil society is to seek to influence, and encourage the respect of constitutional provisions, civil and human rights. It is not to seek power, but support the fact that the state exists to serve all its people as opposed to an elite or a class.

By Pa Musa Jallow

Bamako, Mali.

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