Friday, September 23, 2005

Ronald and me: growing up in the shadow of the Arches

I hate McDonald's. This won't come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or has an inkling about my political outlook. I haven't been actively involved in campaigning against them for a while now, but i was once, and am trying to resurrect that involvement.

Here is an article i wrote in 1998 or 99, in the wake of a protest in Cambridge. At the time, the McLibel trial proper hadn't long finished and the subsequent legal actions were in the pipeline. (Details here) Locally, however, a lot of anti-McD's sentiment was stirred up by the company's attempts to build a drive-through in a neighbourhood where this was the last thing residents wanted or needed.

For someone who would never go in McDonald's and has only been in one once (my parents have better taste, plus my mother disapproves of advertising to children - remembering some of the crap i wanted as a child, i have to agree with her!) the company has played an inordinate role in my life. When i was very young, like most of my peer group in the eighties i knew who Ronald McDonald was - just not in the way the company wanted. The creature scared me shitless. (now, of course, i realise i was right to be scared - a belief supported by the original R McD) Nonetheless, part of me still held the idea that McD's was a good thing. It was advertised everywhere, and all my friends saw it as a big treat to be able to go there.

When the McLibel trial started, i was still young and innocent, but old enough to be a vegetarian and interested - in a naive and not very effectual way - in the issues contained in the leaflet. (which i was not to see up close for another couple of years) I was, i have to admit, confused. McDonalds are good, aren't they? But those things are wrong. Wait a minute... Not that it was that simple or anything. By the time the trial ended, i was going to demos and going vegan. Amazingly enough, those things weren't connected.

Skip forward a few years (maybe a couple months after the 'end' of the trial) and i'm working in a development education centre, into which i was lured partly by the anti-McD's posters on the stairs leading to the office from the Oxfam shop below. The 'offending' (but only if you're offensive to begin with) leaflet was available in the office, as was a lot of McLibel material (hmm, the good old days when almost everything happened by post! Yes, a blogger can still have luddite tendencies, especially when she's waited several days to post something because blogspot crashes her version of firefox...). The campaign became an interest of mine, and one of the driving forces in my life. I would take some leaflets and stand outside the local McD's giving them out whenever i had a couple of hours between lessons. My then-boyfriend would sulk about it if i did it when he was there - only one activist allowed in our relationship thanks, and only one of us allowed to talk to people, and that wasn't me. But sod that. People at college thought i was crazy - i had some interesting encounters with the McD's customers i knew. But mostly it was rewarding - i stand by what i said in that article, that leafletting is a good thing to do. If you change one mind in a session, that makes a lot of difference.

People ask, why McDonald's in particular? Why are they worse than any other corporation? To which i don't have the definitive answer, and these days i don't think 'the definitive answer' to the question exists or is needed. Why should we focus energy on them? That question probably does merit an answer. Thing is, as with any other campaign i've done, i am not trying to make people drop everything and make it their life. Last time i was asked that was in response to an email proposing one protest on a designated day of action. My answer at the time was something along the lines of: because McD's are more brazen. Because they get more openly flustered about opposition. There are other reasons - because they are so ingrained into the most obnoxious parts of our culture; because they are pitched at the younger generation and are agents in perpetuating said culture; because they encapsulate a wider variety of 'evils' than most corporations... you get the idea. Action against McDonalds opposes a cultural symbol as well as a corporation. To be against McDonalds is to be against a whole lot that our society (wrongly) loves.

So anyway, the point of this article is that we have a day of action coming up. October 16, or the day before if you'd prefer a Saturday - or any time. Rest assured that whatever superficial, hyped-up 'changes' they have made, McDonald's are still committing the offences detailed in the original factsheet they tried to suppress. The leaflets can be downloaded as a pdf from the McSpotlight website - get a few, spend an hour or so outside your local store, and see if you can change any minds. Call it the revolution of everyday life, if you like - didn't Vaneigm say something about corpses in mouths?*

*Yes, i know that wasn't what he meant - gratuitous pun on my part because i'm crap at concluding things. Live with it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Advertising in our own hands

Well, more accurately, our faces, and apparently other body parts. Yes, that's right - if you love our consumer culture so much that you want to play the biggest possible part in it, you can lease your body out as a billboard. If you want to be commodified more than we already are, you can get an advert tattooed on your forehead. (only a temporary tattoo, mercifully - although this may be more about adverts getting out of date than anything else) I can see a lot of significance in the fact that the pioneer of this advertising approach is a waitress at Hooters - her body is already public property, a commodity, so why not go that one step further?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Freedom is more than another word for nothing left to lose

Picking up random threads from Blu's post yesterday.

"Half of Europe now has ‘freedom’, where it didn’t have ‘freedom’ before. So why has such a momentous change made seemingly very little difference to the way in which globalisation functions?"

There is so much i want to say about 'freedom' and related issues. First i guess i must point out that i don't hate freedom - i'm not a fascist, a communist or a religious fundementalist. I'm an anarchist. That entails a desire for real freedom. I will post more on the technicalities of anarchism soon, i promise. Right now, Blu has started a story that i feel inclined to add to.

Anarchists, although we are not a homogenous bunch in many regards, do tend to be united in wishing to see an end to the state, to authority and heirarchy. Being governed, therefore, does not constitute freedom. This is not, however, a popular view.

'Freedom' has been fetishised for the whole of living memory and beyond. Freedom was what the Nazis, Fascists and Soviet Communists aimed to destroy, in opposing them therefore freedom was that valuable thing that everyone has clung to. No way am i going to disagree with this so far. My issue comes when 'freedom' becomes linked with one particular context - the Western world, electoral democracy, capitalism. Capitalism is a hackneyed hate figure, but in this context i believe i am right to use it, as it is one of the more harmful manifestations of 'freedom' as the expression is misused today. (y'know, my issue with totalitarians has never been that they aren't keen on McDonalds or whatever - not since puberty at any rate. The confusions of a Cold War childhood are something me and Blu have in common, although being that bit younger mine are sometimes more base) Freedom to drive a gas-guzzler, freedom to kill yourself with fast food, to buy cheap clothes made in sweatshops, to listen to the latest manufactured pop music - freedom to obsess over appearances, images, illusions. This is freedom as our leaders would have it, and anyone who opposes it - however non-violent they are, however opposed to mass murder by anyone - is a terrorist.

This isn't freedom. It's an illusion. Ok, i'll come clean here and admit that Blu's post is not the only inspiration behind this one, although it was a big kick up the arse. My fledgling research has led me into the realm of 'culture jamming', as practiced by Adbusters and a whole lot of activists including plenty in my local area. Culture jamming, just to show my geekiness on the subject, has in its theoretical ancestry the idea of Detournement. It is the idea of taking a cultural artefact - most commonly an advert, these days - and altering its meaning. In doing this, you can often show important truths that lie behind the facade: possibly the most important of which is the knowledge that such a facade exists. This is what makes culture jamming such a useful tactic for today's activists. (for once, the fact of having become trendy hasn't diminished its usefulness - i will rant here about trendiness/appropriation one day, if Blu doesn't mind) It is a way to show people, through a medium they recognise, that all is not rosy in the garden. And once we recognise the illusion and look behind it, we are that bit freer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Miss Blu's ponder on 'democracy'

I have become very jaded with political life. I wonder – is it due to my ge or generation? With childhood spent in the second ‘big freeze’ in cold war relations, 1989 was an awe-inspiring year; finally letting go of that breath that that had secretly been held since as long as I’d ever known.

But then what?

Fast-forward to 2005, and what are we left with? It’s possible to explain the world situation in the terms of global superpowers of course – the US having ‘defeated’ the USSR, and thusly ‘taking over the world’, but such sweeping political generalisations are worse than useless. Half of Europe now has ‘freedom’, where it didn’t have ‘freedom’ before. So why has such a momentous change made seemingly very little difference to the way in which globalisation functions? Have the former peoples of the USSR and surrounding states merely been added into the Westernised pot, with the net effect of a raindrop into the sea?

It was a festival of capitalism, that year. I giant ‘fuck you’ to the lumbering dinosaurs of old communism, finally the people of Eastern Europe got the goods, lifestyles and freedoms they had been taunted with over the wall for so long. So...are they just like us? And we forget all about the 40+ years of communist experience in Eastern Europe (longer, of course, in Russia)?

So the Cold War is over. And yet I still hear on the radio of ‘a majority of people’ describing animal rights activists as terrorists. Why? ‘Because they make peoples’ lives a misery.’ Terrorists = anyone who strives to change the system of power in the country - outside of voting Lib Dem, of course, which, with this mentality, is fast becoming the only form of ‘protest’ now allowed. ‘Terrorists, terrorists’, bleating out of the US government, the UK government, the military involved in Iraq, and the media. And of course, ‘terrorists, terrorists’, we bleat right back at them – pointing the accusing finger at anyone we feel might be upsetting the delicate status quo, failing completely to grasp the fundamental points that 1) the ‘status quo’ is so rigidly entrenched in the UK that it’s almost impossible to change, and 2) something they themselves may do, or say, or think, could in turn very well be considered terrorism by their neighbours. Stones and glass houses, remember?

Both points need explanation, and I believe that the explanations are both frightening and unacceptable. Let us take point 1) – the rigid status quo of the UK. ‘Ridiculous’, on might say, ‘that’s why we vote – of course we can change how the UK is run, if we really wanted to’. I refute this point. Our country is not an island. Our country is economically, militarily and politically so tied to others through agreements such as NATO, the EU, GATS etc that even differing political parties cannot change the rigid system in place if they should come to power. We watched this happen with Jorg Haider in Austria. Whilst I am eternally grateful that a man with such awful politics was harnessed by the system, there are substantial downsides to such restraints. Some countries of Europe, for example, had to stand by and watch whilst the US determined 9/11 as a NATO Sec. 5 offence – an attack on one is an attack on all. Another example could be a formerly ‘socialist’ Labour party who have arrived in power, to find that their country is the main supplier of arms to nations which regularly use such arms to maim and kill their own innocent civilians – yet such arms companies, based globally and not in one nation, bringing countless millions of pounds and jobs into the UK, cannot be challenged for the economic impact this may have, and the fear of affronting countries that keep buying the arms and thus keep the money flowing. We cannot simply walk out of trade, military or political agreements, as their global nature means that the wound of doing so to our country would be deep, and painful – and, perhaps, even felt by the people.

The people, point 2). In the midst of all the agreements above, our media are reassuringly feeding us stories of our proud, military defence of our freedom in the face of evil our investment in ‘third world’ countries is really helping development for those poorer...and, of course, how the latest Hollywood movie starlet has fallen out of a nightclub, drunk, with her skirt up and no knickers on! Reassured, we sit back and let the government do the governing, whilst we grow mildly titillated by pictures of semi-nude girls the same age as our daughters, and footballers fighting. The media – global businesses also – cannot tell the truth. To do so would expose global governance’s involvement in a whole host of unsavoury situations, unsurprisingly akin to the very same terrorism that we are supposed to be fighting. People wouldn’t like it. And to be frank, people wouldn’t like it, because it’s hassle. It means having to do something. It means feeling angry and actually having to do something constructive to change the situation, not leaving it for someone else to do or punching it out onto the floor after a few pints. We squawk about how we demand democracy in other countries, yet being involved in it at home is just hard work – and besides, it’s something politicians do (the same ones involved in terrorism, er, I mean ‘international diplomacy’).

Conveniently, this means that those who do attempt to change the political system and find that parliamentary politics are, for the reasons stated above, a waste of time, become ‘terrorists’. Animal rights campaigners – companies and policies are so entrenched in (and paid for by) government that parliamentary means don’t work, thus; direct action. Anti-war campaigners – government and defence policy so entwined with that of the US that parliamentary means did not work, thus; direct action. Peace campaigners, anti-student-fees campaigners, Green campaigners – all have little or no means of even having their ideas debated in an honest and adult way in parliament, as parliament is so heavily influenced by global companies and trade agreements. So what other recourse is there, than direct action? How else is there to get the message out there, when the media prefer Abi Titmuss’ tits to Human Rights?

And we have no-one to blame because, in the same way as those responsible for 9/11 were nebulous individuals and not a definitive country or group, our freedoms are circumvented by a list of various companies and politicians, all interlinked yet with no definitive power base. If this is a war against a terrorism that = Al Quaida, Islam, Arabic Countries, then is it any wonder that protesters against nuclear weapons/animal testing/arms trade will = anti-Western, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic terrorists too?

Isn’t this democracy? People making an assessment of the power situation in their country and making an honest attempt to change it? Isn’t this democracy when there are no other lines of debate open? It was democracy in Eastern Europe in 1989, when millions of people, at some time during that year, downed tools in protest, sat in the street with a candle, refused to cheer a government leader, formed their own parties and communities, had their own ideas – why is it not democracy now? Because it’s smaller-scale? Because our government gives us ‘freedom’? What freedoms does our currently functioning democracy give us, exactly? And aren’t we perfectly within our rights to try to change that?

Freedom brings responsibility, and to this end I wonder if this means that freedom cannot exist without some form of direction. However, in the current political situation, ‘freedom’ seems to be the holy grail, whilst ‘responsibility’ is a drag – left to politicians to sort out. I don’t believe we can have one without the other, therefore, are we really free, if we refuse to take responsibility for our lives, our government? Perhaps the question should be ‘do we really want to be free?’ Or would we prefer to live our lives in a nanny state that ensures we have an ample supply of consumer goods and reality tv, keeping us comfortable and with just enough scandalous news of rioting anti-government terrorists to send us to the ballot box every five years? This is hardly ‘freedom’ in the literal sense, when our freedom to choose is so circumscribed by various groups with vested interests – the media and global business being just two.

So why is protest stifled by the media, the government? Why was all of this protest in 1989 just swallowed up in a seemingly huge tide of capitalist celebration? From my Western viewpoint it’s hard to gauge. Denied our ‘freedom’ for so long, it’s unsurprising that the people of Eastern Europe demanded governments along the lines of ours in the West. There’s no denying that our style of government can work. But how quickly have we, as Western countries, seen merely investment opportunities and cheap workforces in Eastern Europe, in exactly the same way as we do with arms sales in Africa, for instance? What happened to Vaclav Havel’s ideas of the ‘third way’? Did people just forget all this when presented with strippers and Starbucks? Why, after all the upheaval and massive change that 1989 brought about, has nothing changed? Why, when I heard on the radio this morning that ‘a majority of people’ thought animal rights campaigners were terrorists, did my mind immediately begin singing the old Del Amitri song:

“Nothing ever changes
Nothing changes at all
The needle goes back to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before”

Saturday, August 20, 2005


This is going to be a group blog featuring political and social commentary. The idea is that we have planned for a while to write a book together, but as we are both busy students that hasn't happened yet. A blog, however, is more flexible in terms of time commitments, while still allowing us to co-operate.
I'm waiting until the other half of the team gets sorted with a login etc before posting any real content. Personal introductions will also be added at some point.


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