This article originally appeared in the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory Journal (No. 32) published by the Institute for Anarchist Studies in 2021. A brief updated introduction has been appended below, but otherwise the text is presented without modification.
April 2022 Introduction
This article was originally composed in the Fall and Winter of 2020. By that time, the most intensive period of the George Floyd rebellion had already ebbed, much of its energy having been successfully captured and converted into the Democratic Party’s electoral gambit against Donald Trump. In much the same way that a practitioner of jiu jitsu might use their opponent’s mass and momentum as a tool for advantageous redirection, so too is the apparatus of the electoral party adept at redirecting popular discontent. Clearly articulated material demands, backed by the mandate of millions in the streets, become slowly hollowed out, brought “down to earth”, and made “more pragmatic” at the behest of a network of nonprofits, a cadre of self-selecting movement leaders, and “sympathetic” elected officials. Proceeding from this point, “common sense” sets in: even withered movement goals can only be achieved by marching to the voting booth, not marching on the boulevards. By now, this sequence should be familiar to all of us.
To understand the intricacies of this pattern and, more importantly, to begin to devise a strategy for breaking out of its repetition, we’re required to develop our capacity for analysis and strategy. This is an obvious observation, of course, but it’s one that bears repeating for many contemporary anarchists (especially those in North America). To paraphrase a point from a recent article, many anarchists have become all too content to lazily rest on the laurels of our movement’s central claims — the state and capital are “bad” — no further examination required.
In order to get beyond this inertia, to understand the conditions of the world around us (analysis) and then, using that understanding, act to intervene (strategy and tactics), we have to start with the basics. In what areas has our movement most suffered for lack of clarity? For us, power immediately jumps to mind. All too easily given over to metaphysical obfuscation and post-structural convolution, power is one of those concepts that too many anarchists have been willing to uncritically categorize as “bad”.
The below writing was produced in a preliminary effort to address some of these problems. It puts in conversation contemporary anarchist theoreticians from across the globe and contributes to a developing conversation around power, popular power and other concepts relevant to assessing the balance of forces and making inroads as libertarian socialist revolutionaries.
Since completing the article and sending it off for publication in the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ Perspectives journal, the conjuncture has once again shifted. Restructuring in the ‘post’-COVID economy, social movement malaise, and new imperial conflicts (to name a few elements) work to add new urgency to our project of developing strong analytical tools and cogent strategy. We hope that our small contribution here inspires discussion, response, and principled debate.
— Cameron Pádraig, April 2022
As the death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 100,000 in the United States, capturing headlines across the country, streets that had recently been quieted by a patchwork quarantine quickly filled with the sights and sounds of mass rebellion. Beginning in Minneapolis, Minnesota in response to the brutal police murder of George Floyd, protests rapidly spread to every state in the US and beyond, raising the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM) around the world.
The scale, scope, and militancy of the uprising forced a collective reckoning with some of the most profound fault lines of US society — anti-Black racism, the role of police and prisons, the limits of reform and representation, poverty and inequality, public health and safety, militarization, and more — demonstrating the power of disruptive forms of mass direct action.
On the heels of what is likely the largest protest mobilization in US history1 and in the midst of a still raging pandemic that has spurred on organizing in several key sectors, the question of power is now more crucial than ever. Groupings on the broader Left have deployed a range of slogans to describe their conceptions of power and how to relate to it. From “dual power,”—a confounding phrase that has been recently divorced from its original Leninist definition and reformulated by neo-Proudhonist mutualists—to the “political power” sought by electoral socialists, there are as many understandings of power as there are micro-ideological differences on the Left.
Although many anarchists see power as synonymous with exploitation and domination, our view is that power is a relationship forged by the struggle between competing social forces, particularly that of the dominant and dominated classes. Despite the promise of the recent rebellion, the current balance of forces in the US remains tilted disproportionately on the side of the dominant classes. To pose a more credible threat to existing power relations, we need to build our own power in strategic sites of struggle, forming a broad-based movement capable of extracting concessions from the state and capital in the short-term, linking struggles across sectors over time, and ultimately, carrying out a social revolution toward a libertarian socialist society.
For any of this to be possible however, we need to develop a solid conceptual grasp of what we, as anarchists, mean when we say the word power.
What is Power?
Anarchism is often understood to be in opposition to power. As the late Murray Bookchin once wrote, “anarchists have traditionally conceived of power as a malignant evil that must be destroyed.”2 This is consistent with many of the so-called classical anarchists of the 19th century, who often associated power with the state, but anarchism neither is, nor should be, limited to a purely negative conception of power.
Drawing on the work of Spanish theorist Tomás Ibáñez, Brazilian anarchist Felipe Corrêa highlights three forms of power3:
- Power as capacity: this refers to the ability or potential of a group or individual to act as a social force in a given social relationship. For example, an individual tenant has limited capacity to get their landlord to fix broken appliances. But if the same tenant gets together with their neighbors, who face the same issue and share the same landlord, to form a tenants union, they now have a greater potential to act as a social force to address their shared problems.
- Power as asymmetry in social relations: this type of power has to do with the relatively unequal capacities of the different social forces in a given social relationship. For example, a small feminist group stages a sit-in at the state capital in response to recently passed legislation restricting access to abortion. Within an hour, state police arrest all members of the group and access to abortion remains restricted.
- Power as structures and mechanisms of regulation and control: this refers to the various structures/institutions (capitalism, the state, schools, family, etc) that shape existing social relations and the range of instruments (laws, police, prisons, mass media, religion, etc) used to maintain social control within society.
In this sense, power is not necessarily good or bad, but contingent on who is wielding it, how they’re wielding it, and toward what end.
According to Ibáñez, anarchists are not against power per se, but a particular type of power—domination.4 At the heart of anarchist critiques of the current social order lies the rejection of domination in all its forms. Relationships of domination can be found between social classes, racialized groups, genders, and nation states, to name a few examples. These relationships are rooted in social, political, and economic institutions where the dominant classes are structurally positioned to wield power at the expense of the dominated. Capitalism, for example, creates a social relationship between capitalists, who own the means of production, and workers, who are forced to sell their labor to capitalists in order to survive. This places capitalists in a structural position of power that enables them to exploit workers, hire and fire, speed up production at the expense of the workforce, and so on. Structures and relationships of domination are fostered through a complex mix of coercion and consent, from the police baton to the ideology of “American exceptionalism.”5
These hierarchical structures and relationships—namely capitalism, the state, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, and settler-colonialism—are constitutive of a mutually reinforcing system of domination.
This system of domination is deeply entrenched, but its relative power is shaped by the intensity of the ongoing conflict between the dominant classes and the dominated classes. This is why anarchists have historically favored strategies that build power from the bottom up, developing the capacity of social forces “from below” to not only challenge but ultimately uproot systems of domination. To this end, anarchist political organizations around the world have taken up the banner of building popular power.
What is Popular Power?
Emerging from struggles in Latin America in the 1970s, the theory and practice of popular power has evolved with competing interpretations on the Left throughout the region. Marxist conceptions of popular power cut across the range of tendencies in Latin America, from libertarian to authoritarian currents, sometimes leaving the door open to the state. In Cuba and Venezuela, for example, popular power has become institutionalized through the national government and brought under its direct control. Among anarchists, however, popular power has become a mode of struggle and a political horizon with an orientation outside, against, and beyond the state. The Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU) became the first political organization to articulate the anarchist strategy of building popular power,6 which has been adopted by similar groups throughout South America and beyond.
The project of building popular power is rooted in the transformative potential of mass social movements. Throughout US history, periods of popular unrest, in which social movements have reached a critical mass, have produced the most significant social, political, and economic gains—including the weekend, dismantling Jim Crow, abortion rights, and so on—despite intense opposition from the forces of domination. Mass movements have the power to wrest reforms from the dominant classes, disrupt existing power relations, and lay the basis for a libertarian socialist society. For this reason, the project of building popular power is about developing the capacity, consciousness, and combativeness of social movements. But not all movements are created equal.
Guided by a libertarian socialist horizon, building popular power calls for social movements with a certain set of characteristics. First, this implies movements that respond to our shared material needs and interests as exploited and oppressed people (better working conditions, dignified housing, safety from state violence, etc). To avoid the pitfalls of collaboration with the forces of domination, this approach is oriented toward autonomous social movements to maintain independence from the state, political parties, nonprofits, and other intermediary impediments to class struggle.
Beyond class independence, movements that advance popular power are democratically controlled by their members, use direct action as their primary mode of struggle, and practice popular education—building confidence, skills, and capacity for self-management. Because movements are embedded within systems of domination that divide us along lines of race, gender, nationality, and so on, struggles for popular power must be imbued with an intersectional, internationalist perspective to foster a culture of solidarity and accountability. Lastly, the strength of mass movements, in part, rests on their ability to disrupt business as usual, a notion that the recent rebellion against anti-Black state violence stands as a clear testament to. This is why we need militant mass movements willing to break with the restraining rules (whether ideological or legal) of the system of domination, in order to advance on our own terms.
For anarchists, building popular power is both a means and an end. As libertarian socialists, we envision a classless, stateless society free from domination, where people collectively control their workplaces and communities, where production and distribution is based on the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need,”7 and where we live sustainably with the planet in a federated system organized from the bottom up. In this vision, popular power is a lived reality throughout society. But this future society can only be brought about through a revolutionary rupture with the status quo. This is why we are committed to building independent, self-managed, and militant mass movements as organs of popular power that both reflect a new society and act as a vehicle for its realization.
How Do We Build Popular Power in the Current Moment?
The project of building popular power faces a mix of obstacles and opportunities in the current conjuncture. Circumstances imposed by the ongoing global pandemic have put many workers, particularly workers of color, in a desperate situation. Unemployment is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression,8 leaving many unable to pay rent or cover monthly bills. Those who have been able to keep their jobs as ‘essential workers’ continue to face unsafe working conditions, with thousands contracting the virus at work. Due to the particularities of racial capitalism, the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black, non-Black Latinx, and Indigenous populations, leading to higher death rates and deepening social and economic inequality.9
These conditions have been disorienting, at times paralyzing, but they have also lifted the veil on entrenched inequalities and the failure of capital and the state to meet our needs, inspiring a wave of radicalization and revolt around the country, both fueling and fueled by the BLM rebellion.
The militancy of the uprising against white supremacy and police brutality, expressed in burning police cars and precincts, toppled statues, broken curfews, and clashes with police, dramatically reshaped the terrain of class struggle in the US. But the forces of counterinsurgency, from the Democratic Party to the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, moved with a quickness to pacify the movement, achieving mixed results in the process.
Now that the movement has withdrawn from the streets, we must, as revolutionary anarchists, provide a compelling answer to the perennial question “where do we go from here?”
To address this question, we need to look closely at what sectors of society offer the most potential for developing popular power.
Actors of Struggle, Sites of Struggle
The shifting balance of forces that marks the current moment calls for a clear strategy which both consolidates and builds off of existing struggles. This will require building popular power across multiple sites of struggle that are anchored by concrete actors of struggle. According to Chilean anarchist José Antonio Gutiérrez D., actors of struggle are defined by10:
- Problems that affect them immediately and their immediate interests
- Traditions of struggle and organization that emerge from these problems and interests
- A common place or activity in society
In Latin America, traditional actors of struggle have been workers, students, neighbors, and peasants, each associated with a specific sector or site of struggle where class conflict takes concrete form: workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and territories, etc. The US has a rich history of social movement activity associated with all these actors of struggle, except for peasants. Given the defining role of prisons in the US, coupled with the long tradition of struggle and organization in this sector, we believe prisoners, rather than peasants, represent a critical actor of struggle. Therefore prisons, alongside workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods/territories, constitute strategic sites of struggle for building popular power in the US.
Each of these sectors are intimately interlinked. A wage cut affects our ability to pay our rent or mortgage. If housing and income become an ongoing issue, this may affect whether or not we will be able to pursue an education. This, in turn, could prevent us from meeting the terms of our parole. In other words, isolating specific sites of struggle does not entail viewing them in isolation, but instead allows us to focus our efforts on where and how class conflict is taking shape, while also clarifying how each sector is marked by structures, relations and instruments of domination.
We have seen the potential of all these sites of struggle in the current moment. In the midst of the pandemic, nurses, Amazon workers, and others have organized hundreds of work stoppages and other actions to protect their health and safety, building off of two years of increased strike activity, the most we have seen since the 1980s.11 High school students have become increasingly militant, mobilizing to kick cops out of their schools as part of the broader BLM movement. Neighborhood-based or territorial struggles have taken on a variety of forms, from popular assemblies and mutual aid networks, to tenant unions organizing rent strikes. In spite of deeply repressive and dangerous conditions, people in jails, prisons, and detention centers have risen up in response to the coronavirus and under the banner of BLM, staging hunger strikes, escaping from facilities, and refusing orders from armed guards.
The fight against police brutality and white supremacy has demonstrated the potency of weaving together these sites of struggle into a broader multi-sectoral movement with solidarity as the glue. In Minneapolis and New York City, unionized bus drivers refused to transport arrested protesters to jail.12 On Juneteenth, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down West Coast ports in solidarity with the George Floyd uprising.13 The Los Angeles Tenants Union has tied the call to “defund the police” to the need for social housing.14 Educators and parents have joined students in the demand to get cops off campus.15 Immigrant detainees in an ICE detention facility in California staged a hunger strike in solidarity with George Floyd.16
There’s Levels To It (Political, Social, and Intermediate)
Developing a multi-sectoral strategy for building popular power entails different forms of organization, a clear understanding of the unique role of each of these forms, and an analysis of the relationship between them in the course of struggle. Since the late 19th century, social anarchists have developed a theory and practice of “dual organization”17 that emphasizes the need for both a political level and a social level of distinct but complementary types of organization.
The political level of organization brings together anarchist militants who share a common ideological perspective and political program. This level requires a high degree of political and tactical unity and is aimed at cultivating a “militant minority”18 of revolutionaries to engage in collective analysis and strategy, active involvement in movements, and political education in and outside of the organization. Anarchist political organizations are composed of various actors of struggle (workers, students, neighbors, etc) and its members participate in social movements as rank and file militants dedicated to defending and expanding the revolutionary potential of the working class, not as a parasitic force seeking to co-opt struggles for its own benefit. As Black Rose/Rosa Negra points out in our “Role of the Revolutionary Organization”:
“The revolutionary organization should be a tool for the active and militant members within the class. It never seeks to dominate, impose upon, manipulate, command or control mass movements in recognition of the need for revolutionary pluralism, and that those movements, not the revolutionary organization itself, are the revolutionary agent of social transformation.”19
Social level organizations, on the other hand, bring together actors of struggle (workers, tenants, students, etc.), who are situated in a particular sector or site of struggle (the workplace, the neighborhood/territory, schools and universities), in order to address their concrete needs through collective action. Examples of social level organizations include labor unions, tenant unions, militant student organizations, and so on.
It’s important to note that social level organizations, unlike those of the political level, gather actors of struggle with a variety of different ideological perspectives. This level of organization aims to unify as many actors of struggle as possible and build our capacity to impose our demands and gain increasing amounts of ground from the dominant classes.
As anarchists organized at the political level, one of our main priorities is to create and/or expand social level organizations. As rank and file participants, we promote our values, principles, and practices from within mass movements, combat reformist and vanguardist currents, and expose the contradictions of capital, the state, and social domination.
But it is not a one way street. As anarchists, we don’t organize ourselves to impose our politics as some kind of removed alien force within social level organizations. We too are members of the dominated classes and as such, we are directly invested in building the capacity of popular organizations to address our material needs. Our experience in mass struggles informs our theoretical and political development, which we are then able to take back into social movements in a mutually reinforcing and complementary relationship.
Despite recent movement activity, social level organizations remain underdeveloped in the US. For example, roughly 10% of workers belong to unions,20 primarily in the public sector, meaning the vast majority of workers are unorganized. Because of this, we need the political level to develop militants committed to building social level formations within the sites of struggle identified above. This task often requires starting at a third intermediate level, found between the political and social levels, to lay the foundation for mass movement.
Like those found on the social level, intermediate level organizations also bring together actors situated in a common site of struggle, but are typically smaller in size and driven by a shared political orientation. An example we might look to are the mutual aid networks that emerged in the wake of the pandemic, which have brought together neighbors from various backgrounds to meet each other’s needs in a way that promotes autonomy, solidarity, and direct democracy.21 The intermediate level can also be found within long standing movements, often promoting a distinct set of politics and course of action within a broader formation. We can see this in the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE)22 in the Chicago Teachers Union, which played a key role in organizing Chicago’s last two public education strikes and has been a force for severing ties between Chicago Public Schools and the local police department.23
During periods of widespread radicalization, such as the one we’ve recently lived through, the potential for intermediate level organizations to transition into mass social movements can be accelerated. Ultimately, though, all three levels—political, intermediate, and social—will play a critical role in building power from below.
The anarchist movement in North America (and elsewhere), while experiencing a surprising resurgence in the last 30 years, has suffered from an underdeveloped repertoire of analytic and strategic tools. Facing a highly complex world marred by compounding and accelerating crises, it’s incumbent on anarchists to develop our ability to critically and systematically analyze the balance of forces in a given moment, so that we can determine where and how to most effectively intervene.
The concepts elucidated in this writing—of power, actors and sites of struggle, and levels of organization—are informed by decades of practical experience accrued by anarchist militants around the world and provide a working model for analysis that is already being put into use.
Recent rebellions against unabated racist state violence and an economic logic which demands the continued circulation of capital in the midst of a deadly pandemic, have demonstrated that while raw force can tip the scales briefly, a permanent re-ordering of social relations requires long-term revolutionary strategy and organization.
1 Between 15,000,000 and 26,000,000 US adults took part in protests related to the murder of George Floyd. Civis Analytics. Coronavirus Pulse Survey Research. Chicago, IL: Civisanalytics.com, 2020.
2 Bookchin, Murray. “Anarchism, Power, and Government.” New Compass, 10 January 2014.
3 Corrêa, Felipe. “Anarchism, Power, Class, and Social Change.” Em Debate no. 8 (2012). doi:10.5007/1980-3532.2012n8p69.
4 Ibáñez, Tomás. Poder y Libertad. Barcelona: Hora, 1982.
5 American exceptionalism is the notion that the United States of America is somehow qualitatively different from, and therefore superior to, all other nations.
6 Federación Anarquista Uruguaya. “Poder Popular desde lo Libertario.” 15 May 2020.
7 Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gotha Programme. 1875.
8 US Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2020 Employment Situation News Release. USDL-20-0815. Washington, D.C.: BLS, 2020.
9 American Public Media Research Lab. The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the US. St. Paul, Minnesota: American Public Media, 2020.
10 José Antonio Gutiérrez D., “The Problems Posed by the Concrete Class Struggle and Popular Organization.” Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation Blog, 19 September 2017.
11 Keshner, Andrew. “Strikes are 257% Up in 2 Years, Even Though Labor Union Membership is Down — Why More Workers are Taking a Stand.” Marketwatch, 13 February 2020.
12 Carlisle, Madeleine. “Bus Drivers in Minneapolis and New York City Have Refused to Help With Police Transportation.” Time Magazine, 30 May 2020.
13 International Longshore & Warehouse Union. “ILWU Stands Down at West Coast Ports for Historic Juneteenth Action to Honor Black lives.” ILWU Website, 13 July 2020.
14 Kingkade, Tyler. “Los Angeles Activists Were Already Pushing to Defund the Police. Then George Floyd Died.” NBC News, 15 June 2020.
15 Keierleber, Mark. “Teachers Unions Historically Supported Campus Cops. George Floyd’s Death — and a Wave of ‘Militant’ Educator Activists — Forced Them to Reconsider.” The 74 Million, 27 July 2020.
16 Ortiz, Fernie. “ICE Now Says Detainees Held Hunger Strike in Honor of George Floyd.” Border Report, 10 June 2020.
17 Turcato, Davide. “Italian Anarchism as a Transnational Movement, 1885–1915.” International Review of Social History 52, no. 3 (2007): 407–44. doi:10.1017/S0020859007003057.
18 Uetricht, Micah, and Barry Eidlin. “U.S. Union Revitalization and the Missing ‘Militant Minority.’” Labor Studies Journal 44, no. 1 (March 2019): 36–59. doi:10.1177/0160449X19828470.
19 Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation. “Role of the Revolutionary Organization.” 2014.
20 US Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 2020 Union Members Summary. USDL-20-0108. Washington, D.C.: BLS, 2020.
21 Tolentino, Jia. “What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic.” New Yorker Magazine, 11 May 2020.
22 Brogan, Peter. “Getting to the CORE of the Chicago Teachers’ Union Transformation.” Studies in Social Justice 8, no. 2 (2014): 145-164. doi:10.26522/ssj.v8i2.1031.
23 Olivier, Indigo. “Chicago Teachers Join the Nationwide Movement to Kick Cops Out of Schools.” In These Times, 17 June 2020.
Enrique Guerrero-López is a member of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, a public high school teacher, and rank-and-file union militant in North Carolina.
Cameron Pádraig is a member of the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation in the California Bay Area, a teaching assistant, and a rank-and-file union militant in the UAW.
If you enjoyed this piece, we also recommend: “Create a Strong People: Discussions on Popular Power” by Felipe Corrêa, or “Going on the Offensive: Movements, Multi-Sectorality, and Political Strategy” by Lusbert Garcia.