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Battling Big Business



Naomi Klein

When under attack, every entity has the right to self-defence, whether that entity is an individual, a state or a corporation. And large corporations are indeed facing mounting attacks these days, coming from a public angered by everything from sweatshop labour to genetic engineering.

They have the right to fight back. To correct critics when they are wrong. To put forward their perspective in their own words. To try to win the argument. But make no mistake: this book does not tell the story of corporations defending themselves against public concern and criticism with facts, arguments and improved practices. It tells the story of a few very powerful multinationals and their lobbyists using, in Eveline Lubbers’ words, “a bag of dirty tricks” against their critics, from setting up fake activist organizations, to sending in spies to infiltrate meetings, to pressuring the state to treat legitimate activists like terrorists. Sometimes companies adopt the language of their opponents (calling gas-guzzling cars ‘eco-warriors’, for instance); sometimes they exhaust their critics’ limited resources by tying them up in court for years (as in McDonald’s infamous McLibel case). Either way, the aim is not to win an argument but to contain, intimidate and ultimately eliminate the opposition. Indeed, what becomes painfully clear in reading this important book is that it is not the substance of the criticism that so galls these massive corporations, but the very fact that they must face critics at all.

Through case studies and analyses, Battling Big Business exposes a spirit of intolerance coursing through the corporate world: intolerance of criticism and dissent, as well as a deep aversion to public scrutiny and accountability. The great irony is that post-September 11, many of these same companies have rushed to align themselves with the ‘war on terrorism’, wrapping themselves in the US flag and claiming that their logos are symbols of freedom and democracy in the face of tyranny and censorship. Some business lobbyists and business-friendly politicians have even begun using the symbolism of the attack on the World Trade Center to argue that these acts of terrorism represent an extreme expression of the ideas held by peaceful and reasoned critics of corporate abuses. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has argued that the terrorist attacks were simply the far end of a continuum of anti-American and anti-corporate sentiment, attempting, not so subtly, to link the protesters on the streets of Genoa during the 2001 G-8 meeting with murderous religious zealots.

What has become clear is that alongside the military war waged by the US government, an international propaganda war is also being waged, one attempting to ‘bundle’ support for pro-business policies into the war on terrorism. United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has even claimed that trade “promotes the values at the heart of this protracted struggle,” so the US, he says, needs a new campaign to “fight terror with trade”.

The message coming from the companies profiled in this book is the same: criticizing business is illegitimate and must be eliminated at all costs. Any tactic employed to achieve this end is acceptable, from wilful misrepresentation to covert operations. Any tactic, that is, except the obvious ones: honest public debate and open airings of divergent views. So in the end this book is about democracy. It is about a handful of companies that treat it with disdain, while never hesitating to use the rhetoric of democracy to accumulate higher profits. And it is about growing numbers of activists who, despite facing escalating attacks from the state and corporate world, are insisting on their right to express dissent, openly and vocally.

It’s worth remembering that corporate campaigning re-emerged as a dominant activist tactic precisely because our democracies were imperilled long before September 11. With governments unwilling to take on powerful corporations for fear of their countries being branded uncompetitive places to invest, environmentalists and labour activists naturally began looking for new places to exert pressure on important public policy issues. The result is that political debates over everything from global warming to labour standards are now taking place less in the halls of government than between activists and corporations—hand-to-brand. These campaigns are not reflexively anti-business, rather they are part of a swelling international movement to reclaim the most basic of our democratic rights: the right to have a direct say in how our societies are governed. When politicians willingly bow to the forces of the market, politics necessarily spills into the streets, from Seattle to New Delhi, Genoa to Buenos Aires. This trend isn’t anti-democratic, as some have argued, it is the very essence of democracy.

As regular people have crashed elite gatherings by the hundreds of thousands, the response from many states has been severe: globalization activists around the world have been met with tear gas, pepper spray, mass arrests, beatings and bullets. And, as this book shows, the response from the corporate world, while harder to see at first, has been equally real. For activists, the most compelling reason to understand how corporations are responding to their campaigns is the need to stay nimble, to realize when actions are being anticipated and subverted by public relations companies, often with the help of newly hired recruits from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Yet for those who don’t identify as activists, but believe in the principles of open debate and free expression, this book should serve as a warning. Post-September 11, many of the strategies used to silence anti-corporate activists are being used against much broader segments of the population: university professors with unpopular views about Israel, engineers of Middle-Eastern descent who show a keen interest in politics, journalists who criticize US military strategy.

All around us freedoms are being taken lightly and power is being exercised with a heavy hand. If there was ever a moment to insist on the right to vigorously challenge authority, it is now. If there was ever a book to help us do it, this is it.


BBB book