Aiming to silence protest

Time and time again, the courts and the judiciary have been deployed against the workers’ movement. More often than not, the law has been used in a downright vicious and flagrantly anti-democratic manner, crushing all those who dare to defy it or the vested interests that lay behind it. Just ask any militant trade unionist.

Worryingly, the law is becoming more and more a plaything of the rich and powerful. This is only to be expected of course, given the complete absence of a workers’ movement in this country.

In the United States, where the erosion of class consciousness is even more advanced, capital is getting increasingly arrogant and aggressive, using its power to suppress even the mildest of consumer criticisms. To use the Kafkaesque jargon of business, this is called ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’. This has reached such a stage in America that 14 states have now adopted ‘food disparagement’ legislation, which aims to ban denigrating remarks about ‘perishable’ food - ie, fast food. So, if you decide to go to the US this year for your annual holiday, be very careful what you say when you pay a visit to your local Burger King ...

Even the mighty Oprah Winfrey has fallen foul. A group of ranchers filed a ‘strategic lawsuit’ against her show after Oprah expressed understandable horror at the practice of feeding offal to cattle. She has kept her mouth shut on this topic ever since. It seems that they will not be content until they have the right to poison us all.

We saw an example of the power of big business in Britain last week. British Petroleum, with its annual worldwide turnover of £44.7 billion, obtained a court order against Greenpeace (annual worldwide turnover - £80 million) freezing it assets and demanding £1.4 million in compensation for its recent occupation of a BP-chartered rig off the Shetland Islands. The Court of Session in Edinburgh granted BP an injunction, or interim interdict, against three senior members of Greenpeace, who were ordered not to “interfere” with BP’s activities.

A few days later, BP offered to drop its claim for damages. “BP’s principal concern is not the recovery of damages,” an official statement read.

“Rather it is to ensure its lawful operations are not interfered with and safety is not compromised. BP has never questioned Greenpeace’s right to campaign on climate change issues, but we do object to their employing unlawful activities.”

Of course, BP had not suffered from a sudden attack of ethics or from a sense of good old British fair play - rather, it is playing the PR game. It does not want to spoil its carefully constructed ‘eco-friendly’ image and, crucially, it has followed carefully the ‘McLibel’ case. The petty vindictiveness of McDonalds in this case proved to be totally counterproductive - resulting only in a more effective boycott campaign and tarnishing its ‘user-friendly’ image. BP does not want to make the same mistake.

An instructive aspect of this showdown has been the loud complaint by Greenpeace that BP is using laws specifically designed to hammer trade unions against them, an eminently respectable, middle class-based pressure group. This exposes the self-evident truth that anti-democratic laws and legislation can, and will be, used against anyone who becomes an inconvenience. This is why all the anti-trade union laws should be swept away, along with the entire battery of oppressive legislation.

Everybody is equal before the law - anyone can become Richard Branson. That is the official ethos of bourgeois society. However, as BP and ‘food disparagement’ legislation in America prove, the right to freedom of speech is purely formal. The living social reality of capitalism actually makes a mockery of this ‘right’ every minute of every day - especially when it is translated into action.

Eddie Ford