The film "A Civil Action", which is a dramatization of the events documented by this book, opened on 8 January 1999. This review originally appeared in MIM Theory 12, "Environment, Society, & Revolution." Hey, we read the book already, if you've seen the movie and think it adds or detracts something important, send us your review!
A Civil Action is an entertaining read for anyone with an interest in corporate destruction of the environment and the law. Jonathan Harr followed the case starting in 1986, through an extravagant discovery process, 5 months of trial, lavish settlement meetings and the beginning of an appeal process to write this non-fiction account. The book is fascinating largely because what would seem to be cinematic exaggeration -- lawyers spending $20,000 to set up two-day meetings for 3 people, paying $150,000 for one day's worth of investigatory lab tests, and then expecting several millions of dollars in payment at the end of the casework -- is all documented and true.
A Civil Action explores in detail some of the contradictions of capitalism exposed by Amerikan law. The objective of the law is ostensibly to right social wrongs, to provide balance among individuals' and organizations' conflicting interests. But lawyers who spend their time petitioning for legal judgments require money in exchange for their time -- so the proceedings then have to serve two purposes: right whatever is wrong and remunerate the lawyers for their time. This means that lawyers frequently decide which social wrongs to attempt to set right according to which ones they think will yield the biggest reward.
The legal process also acts out some contradictions inherent to capitalism. In this case, the pressure to dispose of waste cheaply, to quicken the production process and decrease overhead was the direct cause of environmental destruction. Under socialist planned production, we will not see many cases like this one in which producers have taken short cuts to increase profits and are attempting to avoid correcting their errors. Under socialism, production planning will take environmental factors into account and profit will not be the sole judge of successful production. Instead, production for a healthy society will be valued.
The facts here are astonishing for being a product of First World circumstance. The plaintiffs Woburn were poisoned and then developed cancer and died mostly within 10 years of when they had first gotten sick. In Amerika we are used to seeing people poison themselves intentionally with cigarettes and with fat- and preservative-filled foods among other causes. But we do not frequently notice people poisoned by their drinking water because pollutants are so regularly exported to the Third World to get around environmental restrictions designed to protect the imperialist country citizens.
In reading accounts like this one, MIM focuses not on the horrors of the individual medical accounts, but on the industrial context in which they occur. Under imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, the unequal distribution of wealth occurs evermore along national lines, as does the unequal distribution of labor and of damage to the environment. So while socialist planning would demand an accounting of total resources and direct stresses to the places that could most easily bear them, capitalism simply uses and destroys the areas which are farthest from its center of operations. The capitalists use up the resources which are not in their own backyards and save their own immediate surroundings -- partly in response to labor aristocracy demands. This is conscious planning on the part of imperialist administrators and not mere accident. The fact that people in the First World clearly have the capacity to buy and therefore use more polluting resources than people in the Third World should make this clear: someone is making sure that pollution is separated from consumption.
Socialism -- not personal injury law
Personal injury law, while it can shed light on some nasty goings on in the corporate world, is an oddly decadent outgrowth of the Amerikan legal system. It has some romantic notions attached -- personal injury lawyers usually work on a contingency basis, collecting fees based on their expenses and a percentage of the award in the case only when they win. This arrangement gives personal injury lawyers the appearance of doing legal work for "free" for people who can't afford lawyers, and going up against big nasty corporations in favor of less privileged people.
But in the end, the law is set up to focus on big rewards, not on long-term assistance to poor people.
MIM does not look to the Amerikan legal system to correct capitalism's mistakes or to mitigate the harm it does to the masses. We devote our time and resources to building independent institutions of the oppressed and to supporting the just anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed people the world over. We know that only a dictatorship of the proletariat -- of the majority over the minority -- will alleviate the pain caused by capitalism and guard against it for the future. MIM calls on all people concerned with environmental destruction and irresponsibility to work with us to build organizations that can seize proletarian power and restore and protect the environment for the world's people.
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