This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Coca-Cola's Nazi links

On the 11 and 12 of May at the Regents Park Marriott Hotel in Swiss Cottage, London, representatives of some big corporations were gathered for a two-day conference entitled "What's the point of Corporate Responsibility?" The delegates and speakers included people from BP, Shell, Gap, Timberland, Marks & Spencer, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. They discussed such weighty topics as "How smart companies use corporate responsibility for commercial objectives." And "Is corporate responsibility simply another management fad?"

For opponents of globalisation, the conference was the equivalent of the Harrods sale - some probably slept outside to be first in the queue to heckle. Faced with the prospect of these companies appearing as standard-bearers of ethical business practices, protesters gathered outside under the banner of "You're having a fucking larf!"They waved placards with "Child Obesity, Animal Cruelty, Union Busting, Mmmm We're Loving it!" and "Baby Gap - old enough to wear them, old enough to make them!"

Inside, I managed to avoid paying the minimum entrance fee of £295 plus VAT and joined the afternoon session. On the platform was a former McDonald's legal man and I asked him if, when a company's very raison d'etre is to increase profits through higher sales and lowering costs such as wages (encouraging union busting, contract labour or child labour), isn't the very notion of "corporate responsibility" just window-dressing?

His reply was illuminating: "No, I don't accept the premise. Because shareholders will not invest in a company that doesn't have social worth, they will simply disinvest from the company."

In his vision of the corporate Shangri-la, shareholders are moral guardians. No doubt they turn up to annual general meetings dressed in white robes, with long beards and carrying staves, asking the board, who sit cross-legged with shaven heads in front of them: "Tell us wise ones, if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, can it appear in a Greenpeace report on deforestation?"

The reality is that shareholders are interested in profits and bend their moral viewpoints to suit the returns on their investment. Over the past 200 years, civil movements have forced social change, not corporations. I could be wrong, but I just don't recall the abolition of slavery being preceded by a vote of no confidence in the board.

My new best friend, the ex-McDonald's man, continued our conversation after the session. Unprompted, he started to talk about Coca-Cola and the accusations that the Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia (a company 46 per cent owned by Coca-Cola) have conspired or hired paramilitaries to kill, kidnap, torture and disappear trade unionists working for the bottling plant. The bottlers face charges in the US in a case brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. My new best friend went on to say that Coke is in trouble because it didn't take these accusations seriously.

I found this conversation incredible. Coca-Cola was being criticised on ethical issues by McDonald's! This is off the scale of moral equivalence; this is like the BNP saying: "That Prince Philip, he's a bit racist."

Coca-Cola also faces questions into its role in the increase of childhood obesity, its sponsorship of sporting events, and the saga of water depletion at the Coke plant in Kerala (southern India).

Coca-Cola also has an interesting past. While Coke was storming through Europe in the 1940s supporting American GI's , Coca-Cola GmbH (Germany) was busy collaborating with the Nazi regime. The company advertised in the Nazi press, thus financially supporting it. It built bottling plants in occupied territories. Then in 1941, when Coca-Cola GmbH could no longer get the syrup from America to make Coke, it invented a new drink specifically for the Nazi beverage market, out of the ingredients available to it. That drink was Fanta. Yessiree! Fanta is the drink of Nazis!

As many of the images of Coke's collaboration have disappeared or are difficult to find, the artist Tracey Sanders-Wood and I decided we would try and recreate them. Using the internet and word of mouth, we have asked people with any kind of artistic bent to recreate, imagine or subvert the images of Coke's Nazi links. Already we have received more than 350 works of art, from schoolchildren, keen amateurs and well-known artists. The exhibition opens on 24 May at the Nancy Victor Gallery in Charlotte Street, London, under the title "Coca-Cola Nazi Adverts", and plans to tour afterwards.

Although a few artworks of Coke's embarrassing past aren't likely to bring the multinational crashing to the ground, it is better than waiting for shareholders to finish their spiritual journeys to enlightenment and press for change.

Monday, May 10, 2004

What a cheek!

The far right in Britain, in its present guise as the British National Party, likes to promote the idea of "racial purity". Yet, if you ever meet party members, the words "racial purity" are not what come to mind. What comes to mind is the word "inbreeding". The BNP candidates look as if there isn't one of them who couldn't do with a decent dollop of Kosovar asylum-seeker's blood just to widen the gene pool. And surely it must count as a bit of an own goal to hate foreigners and then stand in the European elections. No one seems to have pointed out to them that Europe is, shock horror, foreign. So if the unthinkable happens and they do get a seat in the European Parliament, they will have to go abroad and hang out with a load of foreigners, which should piss them off no end.

The BNP tries to cloak its racism in respectability, claiming that it is not anti-black, merely pro-white, which is about as believable as Adolf Hitler claiming that he was not anti-Semitic, merely pro-foreskin.

Not surprisingly, the BNP is not really interested in local-authority politics. Having got 17 seats last time around, it is worth looking at how it has fared since. Out of the 17 councillors, according to the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, Luke Smith resigned from Burnley Council after attacking a man with a bottle; Maureen Stowe left the party claiming the BNP "did not care for Burnley at all"; Robin Evans, a Blackburn councillor, left too, amid claims that drug dealers and football hooligans were in his branch; and John Savage, BNP councillor in Sandwell, was so bewildered by council debates and voting that he ended up supporting a pro-asylum-seeker motion. That surely has to be a first--a BNP councillor so stupid that he couldn't even be a proper racist. Many BNP councillors have not attended council meetings and those who have, rarely--if ever--speak there.

BNP councillors have done nothing but sit on their arses, claim their expenses and mutter occasional rubbish. There is not one ex-member of the House of Lords who was as lazy and arrogant as that. Surely this can't have gone unnoticed. So if the BNP does get returned or increases its vote, it could underline the message that many anti-racist activists have been getting in places such as Burnley and Blackburn--that voting BNP is done out of anger with Labour.

And why shouldn't they hate Blair and his chums? Much of the Labour Party membership does, a sizeable chunk of the cabinet does, and even Tony's wife has given him some funny looks of late.

Tony Blair doesn't care about the working-class poor. The Labour election machine has long ignored the poorer regions, expecting them to turn out to vote automatically, while concentrating on the battleground of Middle England. And in the melee of PFI, privatising and invading Iraq, some of the poorest wards in Europe have seen little or no improvement to their lives from a pro-big-business government.

One ex-miner I met at the Miners' Gala in Barnsley on May Day was handing out anti-fascist leaflets. He told me: "They [the BNP] wouldn't have dared stood when the pits were open and the NUM [union] were strong: we'd have kicked them out." Where once there was a community with the values of working-class self-reliance and improvement, and of strength in the unions, there is now nothing similar: neoliberalism and the free market have left in their wake nothing but devastation--fetid ground for the BNP to grow in.

The Labour government's bellicose delight in creating increasingly draconian immigration and asylum laws has only helped the BNP. It was Mike O'Brien and Jack Straw at the Home Office who loudly proclaimed most asylum-seekers to be "bogus" while the Daily Mail cheered them on.

The Daily Express's reporting of EU enlargement has reached new levels of hysteria. Hordes of immigrants are waiting at Calais. It is like the start of the London Marathon over there, with some even dressed in bear costumes and carrying collecting buckets, ready to invade. At the same time, Labour starts its own infamous campaign: "Kick out the asylum-seekers from our council homes."

Labour has helped to create the asylum-seeker witch-hunt hysteria, and then it has the cheek to say that the only way to beat the BNP is to vote Labour. It is asking us to beat racism by voting for a little bit less racism.

As the European elections are run on proportional representation, people can vote against the BNP and Labour by supporting the Greens or Socialist candidates and not split the vote. But in some northern wards the local election will be a straight run-off between Labour or BNP.

I only hope that in those areas where the BNP is a genuine threat, it gets beaten--but I also hope that in every other ward the voters punish Labour's racism and its love of big business.