Reclaim The Streets (by way of \(Richard Barbrook\)) on Fri, 20 Jun 1997 15:47:38 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> McLibel article

>Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:23:22 GMT
>Ronald McDonald woke up this morning with a particularly fearsome grimace.
>It should have been a smile because a new McDonald's restaurant had just
>Throughout today, like every other day, a new McDonald's restaurant will
>open every three hours somewhere on the planet. So massive is the burger
>chain that beef from almost one per cent of the world's cattle now pass
>through its doors between slices of bread.
>All this would make Ronald McDonald beam with pleasure were it not for one
>small thing - McLibel - the longest trial in history. McLibel, the
>judgement on which will be handed down today, started out as a seemingly
>pre-ordained contest between two unemployed environmentalists from North
>London and the world's most powerful burger chain.
>The bizarre trial focused on the contents of a factsheet produced by a
>group of green activists in the mid-1980s. The factsheet accuses McDonald's
>of producing food linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer and of
>abusing animals, its workers and the environment.
>McDonald's claims it is libellous. The McLibel Two, Helen Steel and Dave
>Morris, say that it is true. The allegations and counter-claims have been
>aired in the High Court over thirty months and have been supported by
>nearly 40,000 pages of evidence.
>The seemingly endless trial has seen the inner workings of one of the
>world's most high profile multinationals paraded before the court. It has
>also seen an explosion in green activism across the country.
>When McDonald's issued the writs in 1990, Swampy was doing his GCSEs,
>Twyford Down was one of Southern England's most treasured beauty spots and
>few people had even heard of the veal trade.
>When McLibel reached the High Court in June 1994, construction companies
>were in the throws of "the biggest road building programme since the Romans
>left", a handful of campaigners were struggling to stop the veal calf trade
>and Shell was planning to dump the Brent Spar in the North Atlantic.
>When McDonald's finished it's summing-up last December, the company's sales
>per store were falling, the road-building programme was in tatters, the
>veal calf trade had been destroyed and Shell had been humbled by
>As well as mirroring the growth in the green movement, McLibel has become
>one of its main rallying cries. It has become "environmental enemy number
>one", in the eyes of many, for the same reasons it has become such a
>commercial success.
>McDonald's is founded on four core values; efficiency, calculability,
>predictability and control.
>Everything the company does is designed to maximise profit. Every unit of
>input, whether its the number of steps a burger-flipper takes across the
>kitchen floor, or the number of dollops of ketchup on a burger, is
>calculated to maximise profit.
>At McDonald's, predictability marches hand in hand with efficiency.
>McDonald's food may not taste good but wherever you eat it, it's no better
>or worse than anywhere else. To enhance predictability, McDonald's aims to
>have total control over everything it does. Only then can the company
>enforce its rigid, profit enhancing system.
>One of the company's manuals states that "grill men" have to move left to
>right, put out six rows of burgers, flip the third row first, then the
>fourth, fifth and sixth. Only then, can they move to the first two rows of
>Ray Kroc, who founded the McDonald's empire, wrote that the french fry was
>"sacrosanct", its preparation "a ritual to be followed religiously". Or, as
>one former dean of the Hamburger University - where McDonald's trains its
>senior staff - put it: "It gets so your blood turns to ketchup."
>The McLibel Two and their supporters say that the logic symbolised  by
>McDonald's has imprisoned society in an "iron  cage of rationality". The
>logic it symbolises has resulted in growing environmental and human
>degradation. It forces everyone, subconsciously, continuously, to seek new
>ways of enhancing efficiency, predictability and control, no matter what
>the cost to humanity or the environment. They call the process
>McDonaldization is no longer limited to the burger chain but has been
>copied by a host of enterprises from rival fast food chains to local
>government. Hotels, shopping malls and fast-food outlets around the world
>are indistinguishable. There's global television, global brands and global
>music. The only ethics are free-trade, the free movement of capital and
>freedom of choice - so long as you accept the rational industrial logic
>that underlies it.
>Professor George Ritzer, a sociologist from the University of Maryland,
>warns in his book, The McDonaldization of Society, that the logical, or
>"rational", system promoted by the burger chain may eventually "become a
>system that controls all of us".
>"McDonaldization is with us now, has been with us for a while and is
>extending its reach throughout society," he says.
>This has already resulted in the largest 500 companies controllig 42 per
>cent of the earth's wealth. Of the biggest 100 economies, 51 are
>corporations, the rest are countries. Only 27 countries now have a turnover
>greater than the sales of Shell and Exxon combined.
>The World Trade Organisation, the International Standards Organisation,
>CODEX and a host of other transnational organisations are part of the
>apparently "rational" systems that are being erected to promote the
>interests of multinational corporations. The health of the environment and
>society are not part of their remit.
>If rational, McDonaldized, systems are leading the world to disaster, as
>the McLibel Two and their supporters believe, what's the alternative?
>The McLibel Two believe that green anarchy offers an alternative to a
>McDonaldized society. They are careful to draw the distinction between the
>popular perception of anarchy as chaos and its true meaning - which is
>"without government".
>"We want to create a society where people, animals and the environment are
>not exploited for a minority to make their profits," says Ms Steel.
>"It's not idealism. It's just wanting an ideal reality. Most people in this
>world want a more equal, fair and caring society.  There's no reason to
>have a society based on exploitation and oppression to satisfy the desires
>of a few. That's why we're anarchists - in the true sense of the word. We
>want a harmonious society in which government and corporations are
>abolished because they're unnecessary. It's a logical development of people
>not wanting to be bossed around."
>To the jaded ears of big business such views probably sound naive. But they
>only appear naive because business has been conditioned to accept only one
>set of values - that of increasing profitability by enhancing efficiency
>predictability  and control. All else smacks of hopeless idealism. Big
>business and the politicians prefer to deal with reality - even if it is
>collapsing around their ears.
>The views of Ms Steel and Mr Morris were probably irrelevant to McDonald's
>before the trial. Since then, they have been forced to take them very
>seriously indeed.
>McDonald's supremacy in the marketplace and its legendary PR and marketing
>machine appears to have faltered when the company reached the High Court.
>The case was deftly turned into the most exhaustive analysis of a
>multinational company, its ethics and working practices ever undertaken
>anywhere in the world.
>It proved to be a unique opportunity to cross-examine top executives from a
>multinational company. Normally campaigners, journalists and the public are
>fed with pre-packaged sound-bites. But once McDonald's was in the dock,
>it's senior executives had to answer the questions, no matter how
>uncomfortable they were.
>During the trial, the court heard that McDonald's employed seven private
>detectives from two agencies to monitor London Greenpeace, the organisation
>to which the McLibel Two belonged. Meetings of less than ten people were
>often attended by three or four McDonald's agents. It was also revealed
>that Special Branch helped McDonald's and supplied them with crucial
>information on the two defendants.
>The court also heard that burgers were sold to the Japanese on the basis
>that they would make them tall, blonde and pale. But perhaps most damaging
>for a food company, one ex-store manager told how staff were forced to
>serve burgers over kitchen floors covered in raw sewage.
>Early in the trial, McDonald's became so concerned about the adverse
>publicity that they flew over senior executives from the USA for "peace
>talks" with the McLibel Two. Once again, they failed to understand the
>opposition. McDonald's simply provided its greatest critics with a noose to
>hang itself.
>In a press release shortly before the trial, McDonald's accused the McLibel
>Two of lying. This provided the basis for Ms Steel and Mr Morris to sue
>McDonald's for libel. Their action was held concurrently with McDonald's.
>McDonald's had to defend the allegations it made in the press release. This
>ensured that the company couldn't just walk away from the trial when the
>publicity became too bad. They had to stay and fight or admit in court that
>they libelled the McLibel Two. In effect, the two amateur lawyers had
>outwitted the $30 billion burger chain.
>It's difficult to see how McDonald's can dig itself out of the hole it now
>finds itself. They were forced to modify their case half way through. The
>company admitted in court that the McLibel Two have got nothing like the
>same resources to defend themselves - which is a central feature of the
>European Convention on Human Rights' definition of a fair hearing. Nor were
>they permitted a jury - McDonald's having successfully argued that parts of
>the evidence would be too complex. Consequently, in the eyes of many, the
>judgement will be almost meaningless.
>But more disastrously for McDonald's, they appear to have given their
>greatest critics an almost unlimited supply of publicity. This paper, for
>one, has followed every twist of the trial. Channel 4 has transmitted a
>three hour reconstruction of it. BBC1 will screen a McLibel documentary at
>the end of June. A book has also been written about the case.
>Since the start of the trial, more than two million copies of the offending
>leaflets have been distributed world-wide. A site on the World Wide Web
>containing details of the case has been accessed tens of millions of times.
>It even has versions of the "What's Wrong With McDonald's" factsheet in a
>score of different languages. All an Internet user need do is click a
>button and they can have an inexhaustible supply of the leaflets in a
>choice of languages.
>Ronald McDonald's agony will not cease today. In the end when the case has
>gone through the appeals procedure, when the European Court of Human Rights
>has passed its verdict (some time in the early part of the next century)
>the public will still have to decide, with their hard cash, whether the
>allegations in the factsheet are true.
>McDonald's customers will need to assess whether the company respects its
>workers, animals and the environment and whether its food is linked to
>heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The McLibel Two have made that
>judgement infinitely easier.
>Dr Danny Penman is a freelance environmental writer and broadcaster.
>Copyright D. Penman 1997 for commercial use. Anti-copyright for
>non-commercial use.
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