What is Counter-Politics?

By Stephen D’Arcy

Politics, in one important sense, is the activity of exercising or attempting to influence the exercise of public authority, that is, power claiming legitimacy on the grounds that it acts in the name of the people who comprise a (real or imagined) political community.


“You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here, the people rule, and the government obeys.”

By its nature, the capitalist state seeks to establish a monopoly of public authority, to monopolize not only force or violence, but also the authority to impose valid laws, to recognize individuals as ‘citizens,’ to tax, and to confer or withdraw other publicly authorized statuses and credentials (such as a building permit or a driver’s licence), and so on.

The capitalist state, however, is so much in thrall to the “higher power” of capital that its claim to a monopoly of public authority poses a grave threat to those who seek a just and democratic social order. Clearly, the Left — those who attempt to oppose injustice through struggle, on an organized basis — cannot simply cede the ground of politics to the employers and their minions in government. As Karl Marx said, “complete abstention from political action is impossible….It is only a question of how one does it, and of what politics one engages in.”

Three responses to the capitalist state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority are popular on the broad Left.

  1. A first popular response may be called new politics. In this approach, the aim is to “take power,” to get leftists “in the driver’s seat,” to “take the reins of power,” and so on. In some cases, one tries to do this by winning an election; in other cases, by armed revolt. In the new politics view, state power is not seen as a system of power designed and structured to preclude popular empowerment and public autonomy, interposing structures of armed coercion, professional representation and bureaucratic administration between the ostensibly “public” authority itself and those in whose in name it is exercised (“the public”). Rather, the state is seen as an instrument, like a hammer, that can be wielded by anyone, in the service of any agenda, even an agenda of social justice and the democratization of the economy, however much that agenda may be starkly at odds with what the state is normally used to promote. No doubt, new politics is a well-intentioned view. But it seems rather more trusting in the capacity of structures of coercion and administration to be turned to liberatory ends than good sense should allow. It is, in short, a credulous or gullible approach to power, and entire generations of leftists have been doomed by their too-trusting relationship to these structures to act in service of their erstwhile enemies, taking direction from bosses, politicians or generals.
  2. A second, perhaps more plausible Left response the capitalist state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority is what one might call alter-politics. In this approach, the aim is to try to reform the way public authority is exercised, so that it is more responsive to the broad public interest, or more just, both in form (how institutions operate, procedurally) and in content (substantive policy choices). In this view, the present-day state is viewed with more suspicion, and its structures of “representation” and “professionalization” are acknowledged as barriers to democracy (rather than instruments for it), but these dangerous structures are also seen as susceptible to reconstruction on a more democratic and egalitarian basis, consistent with a more participatory conception of democratic politics. The alter-politics view is, to be sure, more promising than new politics. At least it concedes that state structures are designed to inhibit popular empowerment. Nevertheless, alter-politics can be fairly faulted for skirting the key question: if the state is built to undermine popular power, how can we change it from the inside (e.g., by electing a government committed to structural reforms), since — as we agree — popular self-organization and self-activity is, precisely, at its weakest within the constraints and confines of the state and its anti-democratic structures and practices. It seems to set us up for failure. (Of course, I’m abstracting from the interesting and important case history here, e.g., perhaps Allende’s Chile, certainly Venezuela under the Bolivarian revolutionary process, and so on. In this context, I simply assert that I regard the exteriority and autonomy of popular mobilization and self-organization as the key variables accounting for most of what one would find on the positive side of the balance sheet, and it is this side, the side of public autonomy outside the state, that alter-politics fails to insist upon and acknowledge in robust way.)
  3. A third Left response to the state’s claim to a monopoly of public authority, a response which aspires to tap into the prevailing Zeitgeist [spirit of the time], is anti-politics. In this approach, the state is viewed with still more suspicion, because by its very nature it is implacably antagonistic to radically democratic and egalitarian aims. But the anti-politics view does not stop at standard-issue anti-statism, such as the view favoured by “social republicans” like Marx, according to which the state could never be taken over and used by the Left, but had to be smashed. No, the anti-politics advocate goes further, claiming that politics itself is irredeemably wedded to the state form and its anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian features. Here, too, one finds a certain naïveté. But this time, the naïveté is not a matter of being too trusting or optimistic about the prospects for instrumentalizing state structures in the service of the very outcomes those structures have been constructed to foreclose. Instead, the anti-politics position naively supposes that its own radically egalitarian and democratic aims can be obtained by circumventing politics, rather than traversing it. Again, Marx made the point well: “Living experience, the political oppression of the existing governments compels the workers to occupy themselves with politics whether they like it or not, be it for political or for social goals. To preach abstention to them is to throw them into the embrace of bourgeois politics….We want the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The only means is political [self-]domination of the proletariat…..The abstentionists say they are revolutionaries, even revolutionaries par excellence. Yet revolution is a supreme political act and those who want revolution must also want the means of achieving it, that is, political action….However, our politics must be working-class politics.” (Note: I cite this passage, not to invoke anyone’s “authority,” but simply because the argument seems sound: to repudiate politics is to cede the mantle of publicity and public authority to the enemy, which is a profoundly political gesture.)

In some ways, this trajectory from new politics through alter-politics to anti-politics seems like a kind of centre-left to far-left “political spectrum,” with “anti-politics” taking up the most leftward limit position. But there is a need, and also a vital tradition stretching back to Marx, the Communards, and even in some ways to the most radical forms of 18th century republicanism (e.g., Theobald Wolfe Tone), supporting a fourth position, still further to the left of the relevant “spectrum.” A fourth position to the left is needed because the anti-politics view stops short of a rigorously or strictly egalitarian and anti-capitalist stance. On the one hand, anti-politics adopts a broadly radical view of the state, rejecting it as a system of domination, ill-suited to serve egalitarian and democratic ends of the sort that would require a fundamental break with the systems and structures of capitalist politics and economics. So far so good. But, indirectly, it expresses (through the back door, as it were) a certain tacit endorsement of a fundamental assumption underlying the capitalist conception of politics and public autonomy: the assumption that there can be no politics of popular self-governance, that what Marx called “government of the people by the people” isn’t even possible. In an ironical, perhaps unintentional way, anti-politics seems to rubber-stamp one of capitalism’s worst ideological props: the axiom that the people cannot constitute themselves as a self-governing polity, or what Marx (adopting the jargon of the Paris Commune) called “a social republic.”

Acknowledging this mistake, we have to push leftward, past anti-politics in the direction of something more uncompromising in its rejection of the capitalist conception of politics. This, I think, we should call counter-politics.

4. The fourth position, counter-politics, adopts the approach of, on the one hand, rejecting the viability of the capitalist state as a vehicle for anti-capitalist social transformation, and yet, on the other hand, insisting on constructing a counter-politics, an insurgent democracy, based on practices of resolute jurisdictional contestation. The fundamental specificity of counter-politics as jurisdictional contestation is well-captured by the Zapatistas, leading advocates and practitioners of counter-politics, when they declare, “Here, the people rule, and the government obeys.”

Let’s look at some examples of counter-politics in practice.

One example is provided by Indigenous communities (in North America, for example) attempting to retain and strengthen the effectiveness of traditional governance practices and legal traditions outside of, and in antagonism to, the official politics of the settler state. Upholding Indigenous sovereignty and self-rule, in defiance of the colonial capitalist state’s claim to be the highest “public” authority, is a classic form of “jurisdictional contestation,” hence, a paradigmatic case of counter-politics. (This is a matter I take up in Languages of the Unheard, when I treat the Land Defence at Kanehsata:ke in 1990 as the “model case” of sound militancy.)

A different historical (and also ongoing) strand of anti-colonial jurisdictional contestation is found within the Irish revolutionary tradition. Perhaps the most famous example is the 1916 Easter Rising, which declared (in Dublin) a Republic, and tried unsuccessfully to defend the republic with armed force. But the practice of setting up anti-colonial, sometimes anti-capitalist republican governance structures, in antagonism to an existing state claiming a monopoly of public authority, stretches back at least to the mid-1700s. In this context, I’ll mention only two cases. First, there was the Limerick Soviet of 1919, in which the local labour council took over administration of the city, expelled the “official” (British) government, and ran the city for two weeks as a workers’ republic, printing its own money and establishing (and enforcing) its own legal authority. Second, there was the Free Derry autonomous neighbourhood in the early 1970s, which expelled the “official” state (notably RUC police and UK military) in much the same way, an autonomy defended by barricades and popular patrols, and on occasion by rioting.

These jurisdictional contestation stratagems (including the widespread use of popular militias, like the Irish Citizen Army) have played a particularly important role in the Irish revolutionary tradition, which is both cause and effect of the close connection between anti-colonial republicanism and anti-capitalist revolutionary socialism in the history of the Irish Left, an intersection embodied most notably by James Connolly. (On the other hand, what one might call the republican impulse, the impulse of a community to govern itself, autonomously, rather than to live under the domination of usurpers, is by no means a specifically Irish thing, obviously.)

In future posts to this blog, I plan to say more about counter-politics as jurisdictional contestation. For now, I just want to underline one key point: that there is a position (which I associate with the idea of a “social republic”) that rejects the state, but embraces politics (the exercise of public authority). This is the project that gives this blog its name: the project of public autonomy. “Here, the people rule.” Not the state, certainly. But not nobody, either. The idea of politics as a the self-governance of a political community of equals, the “republican ideal,” is to be upheld against the state, which usurps public autonomy. Liberating ourselves from the yoke of the usurpers, who falsely claim the mantle of public authority, “the expropriation of a few usurpers by  the mass of the people,” as Marx puts it in Capital, is what gives the Left its point and its orienting mission.

4 thoughts on “What is Counter-Politics?

  1. But what do the people *do* when they rule, and how is it different from what the government did? How will that community of equals be created and maintained? Or are these issues you will address in the coming parts of the series?

    • Pat,
      Here, I’m talking about politics, and the need for a a view of politics that avoids especially two mistakes: first, the mistake of equating politics with participation in the structures of the existing state, with its coercive, administrative, and ‘representative’ structures, which I regard as attempts to constrict and minimize popular self-rule; second, the mistake of rejecting the very idea of politics, as some do, as if it were hopeless compromised and irredeemable. In my view, politics is about exercising (or attempting to influence the exercise of) public authority, and oppositional social movements can construct an oppositional politics, a set of institutions and practices of public authority, that would be rooted in organized “counter-publics,” so that this counter-politics would make a competing claim on the mantle of public authority. This is how I understand the Zapatistas, the Irish Republic of 1916 and the oppositional Dáil during Ireland’s subsequent War of Independence, the Limerick Soviet, as well as cases like the Tahrir Square occupation and assembly in 2011, the OWS General Assembly, and many other cases, including forms of Indigenous traditional self-governance, and so on.

      Now, you’re asking, about such cases, what would they do, substantively, and how would they create and maintain a community of equals. This is in part a matter of taking a wider view: not just the politics of oppositional struggle, but also the economics, and struggle at the level of “the social” (in contrast to the political). I’m a “community-based socialism” advocate, which means that I favour the construction — rapidly where possible, slowly where necessary — of egalitarian and democratic forms of economic cooperation, based on the meeting of needs and the recognition of human dignity and autonomy. But this is not just a matter of politics: it is a matter of undertaking, already in the present, to construct cooperatives and other self-organized forms of democratic and egalitarian production and distribution. But I also favour mobilizing political power — public authority — to stimulate, accelerate, expand, support, coordinate and defend such practices and institutions of egalitarian, post-capitalist cooperation.

      Ultimately, however, it is less important what I favour, and more important what people would decide to to, and what they already decide to do, when they have the chance to deliberate for themselves, collectively, and to make choices. A counter-politics would be democratic first, and substantively egalitarian (I expect) only secondarily, as a side-effect of the fact that substantively egalitarian institutions and policies are more responsive to the public interest and to the demands of justice than today’s ruling-class-oriented politics and policies could ever be. That, indeed, has been typical of counter-political institutions in the past, including in my examples, noted here: they tend to lend support to the most democratic and egalitarian impulses of ‘civil society.’

      I hope this answers your question, at least in part. Thanks for reading.

    • Nikolas,

      It partly depends on what one means by “dual power.”

      First, I think that in the Marxist tradition, dual power has indeed meant something very close, if not identical, to what I’m calling “counter-politics.” However, there’s some ambiguity even there, because I think that sometimes it is taken to mean two co-existing but antagonistic states or semi-states, associated with different classes, whereas for me counter-politics is not a state, not even the beginnings of one. Marx, in “The Civil War in France,” apparently regarded the Commune as (and this is how it described itself) “a social republic,” but he also believed (I would suggest) that, as Engels put the point, “the whole talk [on the revolutionary left] about the state should be dropped, especially since the Commune, which was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” So, if Marx were to use the term, “dual power,” perhaps it would have the same meaning as my “counter-politics” — not dual and competing states, but dual and competing claimants to public authority, one of which is and one of which isn’t a state.

      So, counter-politics is indeed a variant of the idea of dual power (in Marxism), but only within the context of an assumption that “talk about the state should be dropped,” since the kind of “republic” intended here is “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.”

      Second, I think there’s also an anarchist usage, or “libertarian socialist” usage, according to which “dual power” is a broader notion than just a form of *politics*. In this view, popular self-organization, including within “civil society,” including cooperatives, social movement organizations, even “collective houses,’ etc., are all instances of “dual power,” because in some sense they break with the system, and embody the “prefigurative” institutional features of a post-capitalist social order: cooperation, self-organization, egalitarianism, and anti-authoritarian horizontalism. This view of dual power is too broad or expansive to be equivalent to my “counter-politics,” because I am trying to make room for an anti-statist politics, not anti-capitalist institution-building more generally.

      I hope that helps clear up the relation between these ideas.

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