It’s too easy for everybody to love Live 8
Is this a political protest for Africa, or a charity for the benefit of the British elite?
We have repeatedly been told that this weekend’s Live 8 concerts and the Make Poverty History protests around the G8 over the next few days are going to ‘tilt the world on its axis’. However, a word of advice for all those enthusiastically embracing that ambition. History suggests that the world is rarely radically changed by protests which are sponsored by the British government and the entire political class, supported by the Church of England and the Pope, mobilised for by the BBC and all of the other major media outlets, and which even have the blessing of the chiefs of police.
An extraordinary coalition of establishment figures has coalesced around this summer’s campaign on Africa. Prime minister Tony Blair has gone out of his way to be identified with the campaign and photographed with Bob Geldof, and has ensured that Geldof and Bono, his fellow rock crusader, are invited inside the G8 summit. Gordon Brown, the UK chancellor of the exchequer and not a man one normally associates with street politics, has pledged his support for the Edinburgh G8 protests. Another cabinet minister, culture secretary Tessa Jowell, sounded like an overexcited teenybopper as she announced that the government was ‘100 per cent behind Live 8’ and wanted to make it ‘the biggest and best open air concert that the capital has ever seen’ (1).
Hilary Benn, New Labour’s international development minister, is expected to go on the march, alongside assorted archbishops, cardinals and other religious leaders. The opposition parties are all for it, as is every public figure and celebrity that can get their endorsement into the newspapers. Even the language that they all use to support the campaign seems to come from the same script. For example, we have become used to hearing Geldof and Bono talk about the campaign on Africa as the chance for ‘our generation’ to make a difference to history. But it was slightly more surprising to hear it described as ‘a key moment for our generation in really making a difference’ by the Conservative Party’s international development spokesman (2).
One of the more extraordinary examples of all this was the little-noticed statement issued at the start of June, calling for the Edinburgh events to be peaceful and safe. It began by noting that ’30,000 mothers in Africa will cradle a dead child today. We welcome people to Edinburgh to voice their opinion and put pressure on world leaders. Scotland’s capital is proud to play its part in this defining moment in history’ (3). This statement was reportedly issued jointly in the names of a spokesman for the Long Walk to Justice campaign, the leader of the City of Edinburgh council – and an assistant chief constable from the Lothian and Borders police. Surely no British police chief has ever before felt able to lend his name in such proud support of public demonstrations.
Some might think this breadth of support is the strength of the campaign. After all, isn’t it better to have everybody for you than against you? Perhaps, if all you want is to be loved and generate a warm feeling inside a lot of people. But if you hope to ‘tilt the world on its axis’, things are a little different. The point is that political protests for change are usually organised around a pointed demand that represents a challenge to the authority of ruling elites and their ruling ideas. But if everybody supports this campaign, who or what exactly is it opposing or challenging?
US president George W Bush is of course the all-purpose bogeyman du jour. Yet even he has been able to go a long way towards endorsing the aims of the campaign, winning praise from Blair, Bono and Geldof. There has been some criticism of African leaders for not making the most of the aid offered by the Western crusaders. But they, too, are mostly on board. For instance, British international development minister Benn recently suspended aid to Ethiopia’s government, after it shot dead 35 unarmed protesters, arrested thousands more and banned demonstrations. But Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi was a key figure alongside Geldof on Blair’s Commission for Africa, the demands of which Benn will be marching to support in Edinburgh. Almost the only villains the campaign has been able to rail against were a few touts trying to sell Live 8 tickets on e-bay, who were condemned as vehemently as if they had been selling Africans into slavery.
We are left with a campaign against an abstract noun, ‘poverty’, that seems as nebulous as President Bush’s own ‘war on terror’. Everybody supports it, yet few seem aware of any political demand it might be making. Instead, the slogan ‘Make Poverty History’ (MPH) has assumed the status of a moral imperative, a mantra to be repeated by everybody from the Conservative front bench to the chanting Glastonbury festival crowds.
As the Daily Mirror put it, calling on its readers to support MPH, ‘If you think it’s wrong that a child dies every three seconds because of poverty, now is the time to act’ (4). Who, exactly, do they imagine thinks that it is right for children to die in this way? Yet the clear implication is that if you do not join hands and show your support for MPH, those deaths will somehow be on your conscience if not your hands. Little wonder that Jon Show, Channel 4 newsreader and self-appointed conscience of British liberals, felt able to wear a white MPH wristband while interviewing politicians, on the ground that ‘it was beyond contention’.
Geldof insists that, whereas 20 years ago Live Aid was a charity event to raise money, Live 8 and the associated demonstrations are political protests designed to raise consciousness. Yet the moralistic content of the campaign makes it seem far closer to a charity event deemed ‘beyond contention’, like Red Nose Day or the tsunami appeal, than a cutting political protest. Except that this charity get-together is not raising money.
In political terms, far from tilting the world, this summer’s Africa crusade is entirely compatible with the existing mainstream culture. Indeed, it is acting as a welcome megaphone for the moralistic message of an unpopular political class that, as we have argued before on spiked, is eager to use Africa as a stage on which it can pose as ethical and compassionate (see Africa: a stage for political poseurs, by Mick Hume). That is why so many from within the establishment, new and old, have rushed to associate themselves with these events. They have nothing to lose.
Blair and Brown in particular could be forgiven for seeing this as effectively a charity event for their benefit, as Geldof, Bono and the rest line up to serve as what Brendan O’Neill has called ‘the pop wing of G8’. You need only contrast the panicky response of the political elite to the populist ‘no’ votes on the European Constitution to see how comfortable they feel with this sort of sanitised popular protest (see From Europe to America: the populist moment has arrived, by Frank Furedi; and Should we make ‘Make Poverty History’ history?’, by Brendan O’Neill).
At spiked, we are not cynics or killjoys. Let everybody who is so disposed enjoy Live 8 and the rest of it (as best as they can with the bans on alcohol and aggressive chanting). But let us then calm down and ask some serious questions about what all of this has achieved. Nothing should ever be accepted as being ‘beyond contention’.
Just for a start, there are pointed questions to be asked about the low expectations of the Make Poverty History campaign. To judge by its publicly stated aims, analyses Daniel Ben-Ami elsewhere on spiked, it might be more accurately named ‘Slightly Alleviate the Most Extreme Aspects of Poverty Over the Very Long Term, Maybe’ (see Poor ambitions for the world). There are questions, too, about what the aid industry has done to Africa rather than for it, or about the extent to which unaccountable non-governmental organisations now take it upon themselves to dictate African affairs. And there are big but rarely-raised questions about the very idea of ‘sustainable development’, which underpins all of these campaigns and initiatives, yet which would deny Africans the freedom to develop their economies and societies as they see fit.
No doubt many of those supporting the coming week’s events would agree that it will take more than a big pop concert in London and a protest in Edinburgh to make poverty history or tilt the world on its axis. But, they will say, it’s a start. However, a close look at some of those with whom they are marching in step might be enough to suggest that, so far as changing the world for the better goes, this is a first step in the wrong direction.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) Live8 – ‘Let’s Make It The Biggest And Best Ever’ Says Tessa Jowell, DCMS, 31 May 2005
(2) Brown to ‘waive’ VAT for Live 8 ,BBC News, 3 June 2005
(3) ‘Think ahead and act sensibly’, BBC News, 2 June 2005
(4) ‘Join Mandela and make a difference’, Mirror, 6 June 2005
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.