Players counter players.., p.1
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       Players, Counter-Players & Non-Players, p.1
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           Zaid Hassan
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Players, Counter-Players & Non-Players
Players, Counter-Players & Non-Players

  A note on the politics of change

  By Zaid Hassan

  © Zaid Hassan 2015

  “I had tasted the bait and knew that there was nothing more attractive and more subtle on earth than the Game. I had also observed fairly early that this enchanting Game demanded more than naïve amateur players, that it took total possession…”

  – Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game


  During an Oxford Cambridge University boat race, the coach for the Oxford team explained his motivational strategies. He said that he asked his team, most of them over 6-foot tall, muscle men, to imagine trampling the faces of their opponents.

  Such is our desire to play and win. The role of the coach becomes that of a cheerleader driving his team to annihilate the opposition. Meanwhile the rules of the game and hapless referees attempt to ensure that annihilation is not total and permanent.

  As we contemplate our social systems, we can also discern a game with rules, players, counter-players, and in turn winners and losers (not that they’re correlated). We can discern slow-moving, toothless regulatory bodies attempting to rein in the desire for annihilation of the one side by the other and maintain an adherence to the rules of the game. In some contexts players abandon the agreed rules and start shooting each other.

  As citizens, change-agents, managers, organizers, activists and entrepreneurs we typically make a decision to play in some form or the other. Sometimes this decision is highly conscious and principled and sometimes we are simply born to a side and grow-up unquestioningly accepting our role in the game.

  Regardless of the case, we often pick a side, choosing either to be players or counter-players. That is, we either choose to play the game for the dominant side or we choose to play as counter-players, holding a critique of players and their adherence to upholding the rules of the game.

  If we choose to play as players we largely play by the rules of the game, even when we break the rules we are playing within the rules. When we choose to play as counter-players, our goal is to change the rules of the game and we choose to either play by the rules or not.


  Players believe that most progress can take place within the rules of the game, even when they believe the rules of the game need to change. For players, the rules of the game are a bulwark against the forces of chaos.

  Players see in the word “anarchy” the ultimate Hobbesian nightmare. Their interpretation of the rules of the game may well be sufficiently broad so as to appear that they are rule-breakers but they are not.

  Henry Kissinger is an archetypical example of a player, albeit one who does not come from the business or private sector. His statement, “The real distinction is between those who adapt their purposes to reality and those who seek to mold reality in the light of their purposes,” reflects the archetypical attitude of a player. Kissinger, of-course, being one of those people who mold reality to suit his purposes. Deeply enmeshed in the machinations and realpolitik of US foreign policy for many decades, Kissinger accepts and plays by the rules of the game, even as he is accused of being a war criminal. Or as another player summarized it, “There is no conflict of interest because we define the interest.”

  The notion of a player is deeply tied to the idea of power. Players are those who are perceived to be the holders of hard power in our society. They control resources; they have easy access to money and they decide what shade the corridors of power are painted in.

  Half a century ago sociologist C Wright Mills referred to them as the power-elite. Traditionally they have been holders of high political office and their advisors, captains of industry and finally, high-ranking military officers. This has changed dramatically in recent years though.

  Janine Wedel, a professor and author, argues that we are witnessing the birth of a new breed of player, one she calls the “shadow elite”. She says,

  “…a new breed of players has arisen in the past several decades...whose manoeuvrings are beyond the traditional mechanisms of accountability. They, for example, play multiple, overlapping, and not fully disclosed roles. They have their people and work themselves individually [as] government advisers, think tankers, consultants to businesses. They appear in the media. And it’s very difficult for the public to know who exactly they represent… They are all about the interdependency between government and business, so the intertwining of state and private power. And they get government benefits to use to the advantage of the market.”

  Conversely those who believe that the rules of the game are fundamentally flawed, take on the role of counter-players.


  Counter-players come in a number of shades. There are those who believe the rules of the game are patently unfair and take a non-violent approach to changing it. Then there are those who hew to the assessment as inherently rigged and unfair and believe that violence and collateral damage are inevitable in order to change the rules of the game.

  Al Qaida is a typical example of such as counter-player, as were the Red Army Faction and so too were a number of political parties in South Africa during Apartheid.

  Or as counter-culture writer William Burroughs put it,

  “The people in power will not disappear voluntarily; giving flowers to the cops just isn’t going to work. This thinking is fostered by the establishment; they like nothing better than love and nonviolence. The only way I like to see cops given flowers is in a flower pot from a high window.”

  Counter-players who advocate violence largely do so because they perceive the game to be rigged via an asymmetry of violence. That is, players fall back to the utility value of violence as the ultimate backstop in the maintenance of their self-interested position and in defense of the rules of the game. This happens again and again.

  So players will therefore utilize violence in an instrumental way and often rely on the hegemony of the state to legitimize such violence. Kissinger’s position during the Vietnam War is an example of this, as are any number of military adventures in the name of freedom and justice and the increasing use of quasi-militarized police forces in domestic contexts.

  Players believe that the democratic mandate gives them the right to legitimately exercise violence as an instrumental tool when needed. In the eyes of players, counter-players have no such right. This fallback to violence is thus denied to counter-players. If they revert to violence they are swiftly declared terrorists and insurgents.

  The classic strategy deployed by players against counter-players is, in the case of non-violent counter-players, marginalization and in the case of violent counter-players, criminalization and pathologization. Prisoners at Guantanamo are not accorded the status of prisoners of war, accorded to fellow “players” or state-actors. Instead, they are criminal counter-players. After 9-11, when George Bush declared “you’re either with us or against us” he was essentially deploying the classic strategy by sending a warning to the counter-players to watch their step or else face the consequences.

  Henry David Thoreau articulated clearly the counter-player position when he said, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

  Activists are classic counter-players. The Chicago activist and organizer Saul Alinsky wrote a classic playbook for counter-players, “Rules for Radicals.” His stance is captured by the statement “My aim here is to suggest how to organize for power: how to get it and to use it.”

  Non-violent counter-players rely largely on advocacy, self-organisation and negotiation. When that fails they may undertake what are known as “actions” such as blockades, protests
or strikes. Counterplayers who rely solely on dialogic approaches are sometimes hard to distinguish from players, as both share a practical adherence to the rules of the game, while potentially having substantial attitudinal or rhetorical differences.

  It is deeply fashionable for prominent players to speak and dress in the language of counter-players. Thomas Frank, in “The Conquest of Cool” explains,

  “Today, there are few things more beloved of our masses than the figure of the cultural rebel, the defiant individualist resisting the mandates of the machine civilization…the rebel has become the paramount cliché of our popular entertainment, and the pre-eminent symbol of the system he is supposed to be subverting.”

  The bad boy image of the rebel, the counter-player, is carefully cultivated by a range of super-star players, from Bono to Steve Jobs.

  There is nothing to say that genuine counter-players are not adapting the strategy of donning the uniform of players. However, such a strategy is much harder to discern then its reverse as the revelation of ones allegiance as a counter-player is likely to lead to either marginalization (at best), ejection from the field of play or far worse – as Bradley nee Chelsea Manning discovered.

  In some instances though, former counter-players genuinely become players. This is usually by mutual agreement. Nelson Mandela is
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