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Responses to Oppression: Legal Remedies

This is the first follow on blog post from the previous Oppression post that looks at legal remedies as a response to oppression.

Most activists groups are centred around legal remedies to address specific harm. This is for a very good reason. As Catharine MacKinnon points out, “Law organises power.” To be clear, when we talk about legal tactics, we’re not referring to tactics that simply obey the law, rather we’re talking about tactics that intend to use the law as a means towards achieving a goal. Legal tactics can look like anything from passing new legislation, bringing lawsuits against corrupt industry, voting, or lobbying those in power. Historically, they have run the gamut from being extremely effective to necessarily restricting and piecemeal. Most in the contemporary environmental movement have sanctioned legal tactics as the only legitimate way to engage in activism, many radicals have written off legal means altogether. Well, it’s important to note that legal tactics aren’t just for liberals.

Through the course of history, there have been legislative victories and court rulings that have substantially changed people’s lives and redirected the flow of power. If we’re going to try to reorganise power, we are going to have to grapple with the law in one way or another. The trick is to learn how to utilise the law as radicals, or in such a way that employs the law as a tool for creating material change. So let’s take a look at some of the legal tactics that have been used in the contemporary environmental movement.

The law has commonly been used to regulate, or to check unjust activities on the part of individuals or corporate entities. The most common subject of regulation is egregious industrial waste, in the form of toxic chemicals released into the air and water, as well as solid waste disposed on land. In the UK we have the Clean Air Act 1993, Water Resources Act 1991, and the various pesticide and herbicide regulations which all set standards for “acceptable” amounts of toxins released into the environment. This legislation has been considered radical by some, and have indeed been extremely effective in at least reducing the amount of toxins released, especially in comparison to the state of things before these acts were in existence. However, these kinds of regulatory acts are only effective insofar as those who are in charge of doing the regulating actually do their job. This doesn’t exactly work when those who are in charge of regulation are most always the same entities who profit from the very destruction that should be regulated—the government or the corporations themselves! The result of this is a plethora of loopholes made to accommodate profitable industry that doesn’t quite attend to the toxic limits.

The latest figures indicate that 29,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, and that air pollution is now second only to smoking as a cause of death. I don’t think anyone reading this would truly argue that this is “acceptable.”

So while most liberal activists are left wondering how to tighten regulation around industrial pollution, logging and sexual violence, as radicals, our job is to be asking the deeper questions. When did it become acceptable to drink and breathe in any level of synthetic poisons? How is clear cutting any percentage of living, breathing ecosystems justifiable? As radicals, we should recognise that no level of destruction and oppression is acceptable and we should be working to stop it, not merely lessen its blows.

Aside from creating new legislation, legal tactics are often concerned with putting pressure on people in power through methods such as lobbying, petitioning, calling or writing. One big problem with this is that, as many of us know, you can’t convince insane people.

To get more to the point though, you can’t convince people to stop destroying the natural world if they are directly responsible for upholding a system which necessitates that destruction. The current political structure is predicated on the material condition of infinite growth, meaning a necessity for continued resource consumption and imperialistic expansion. So we’re never going to simply convince them to stop burning fossil fuels or tearing apart forests because they simply cannot undermine the economic and political system they are responsible for running. It goes against their job description.

The Coalition Government looks to have little interest in meeting the legal obligations necessary to ensure the Climate Act (2008) targets are met. Read more here and here. In July the UK Government announced large tax incentives for fracking companies and it just so happens that senior energy sector bosses sit at the heart of Government.

In the same vein, voting new people into the same corrupt positions of power is not really going to get us anywhere. Hopefully we all know that the current environmental crisis won’t be solved by electing a new Prime Minister. Last year leaked documents indicated that the Coalition Government was trying to water down new EU targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency. So rather than expending so much energy trying to convince those in power to change or vying to put someone new in their place, radical legal tactics are concerned with giving people more control over their own lives, or redistributing power back to the people.

Whether it be giving marginalised classes more political leverage, The Representation of the People Act 1928 gave all women over 30 the vote or giving individuals more control over their own bodies and lives, the Slave Abolition Act in 1833, radical legislation seeks to empower oppressed classes, individuals and communities.

Of course, there are many circumstances where those in power have the control over legislation and we do have to convince them to wield that power in less destructive ways. It’s important to say though, that this pressure doesn’t always have to come in the form of supplicant pleading.

For instance, the suffragettes had to convince those in power to give them the vote. For generations they tried asking nicely, and when that didn’t work, they turned to tactics such as civil disobedience, hunger strikes and finally arson before finally winning the vote.

The moral of the story is, if you have no political leverage, then your best bet at winning is to engage in disruption, or moving the terrain of conflict outside of electoral politics or bureaucratic process. We will get more into these kinds of disruptive tactics in a later post, but for now we can simply note that legislative battles don’t always have to be won through legal means.

The final way that we can measure the effectiveness of legal tactics is by looking at the grander picture and considering whether the tactic supports a larger campaign or resistance movement. So this would be one of the circumstances in which our categories of tactics overlap in crucial ways. If a legal tactic can’t be a decisive action on its own, it can aim to support other tactics or the larger resistance movement.

The work that Green and Black Cross does is a great example of this kind of support. They provide legal observers on the ground, a 24/7 arrestee support line and follow-up advice for defendants and claimants. We need people who know how to navigate the legal system because whether we like it or not, the legal system is what many of us end up wrapped up in when we necessarily break the law to achieve justice. If we don’t have organisations like Green and Black Cross to support activists, then we won’t have anyone doing the work that needs to be done.

One of the key questions DGR aims to ask environmentalists is to consider approaches beyond the usual legal response. But if we would like to organise power in a egalitarian distribution, we need to grapple with the laws. The trick is to do this as radicals, which means asking the questions:

  • Does this initiative redistribute power, not just change who is at the top of the pyramid?
  • Does it take away the rights of the oppressors and reestablish the rights of the dispossessed?
  • Does it let people control more of the material conditions of their lives?
  • Does it name and redress a specific harm?
  • Does this legal effort support a larger resistance movement?

We can stand on the sidelines with a more-radical-than-thou attitude, but this attitude will not help a single gasping salmon or starving child. A transition toward direct democracy built on a foundation of both human rights and human participation in the life of the planet is not conceptually difficult. Law is not just for liberals. The question is, what actions will get us from here to there? Neither sneering nor despairing has ever proven to be effective. It’s easy for nothing to be radical enough, but an interior state of rage is also not enough. Structural change needs to happen. A radical analysis starts from that fact. How best to force that change is a strategic question.

This is not a call to behave and ask nicely. The UK State upholds a corrupt arrangement of power. It was written by white men who owned white women as chattel and black men and women as slaves. It was written by white men who feel entitled to plunder the planet for their own profit and and whose primary interest is to protect that disgusting arrangement of power. We have no moral obligation to respect it, quite the opposite: we need to bring it down.

The next post in this series looking at responses to oppression will focus on direct action.