Live 8: How did protests become love-ins?

Over the past 15 years, 'street politics' has lost its critical edge.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

‘We don’t want your money – we want you’, ran one of the slogans at Live 8 in Hyde Park, London. Like so much about this shrieking event, for a while it is difficult to know who is putting forward this mealy mouthed demand. Is it crusading Saint Bob? Or is it scriptwriters for the UK’s political class?

Certainly, the gooey photo of the Bob’n’Tone love-in confirms that Live 8 really is ‘the pop wing of G8’. Indeed ‘we want you’ can be read as a rather desperate plea for social consensus, a Shared National Experience (SNE) with Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ as the new national anthem. Judging by the snowballing coverage before and after, as SNE’s go this one has succeeded beyond expectations.

Whether hearing comments in the staff room, or watching the protesters at Gleneagles, it seems that many veteran activists have been happy to oblige. The cultivation of inoffensive, one-slogan-fits-all protests has been the striking feature of ‘street politics’ for the past 15 years. Live 8 and the protest in Gleneagles are simply the logical extension of courting middle-class respectability. In the past, politicians hoped to present Britain as a ‘classless’ society. In today’s climate it seems, politically at least, we are all petit-bourgeois now.

All this is a long way away from Live Aid 20 years ago. Back then, the battle lines of ‘us and them’ politics were more trenchantly defined. The 1985 charity event took place in the same year as the defeat of the miners’ strike and only a few months before riots erupted in Birmingham. As such, the world of confrontational politics and displays of rock royalty ‘altruism’ were far apart. So much so that it was possible to watch – and enjoy – Live Aid with some critical distance. It’s worth remembering that Live Aid generated as much critical questioning as it did cash for Ethiopia (much to the chagrin of Geldof).

Today’s clamouring for happy-clappy consensus, though, means that proper social criticism isn’t allowed – or is reduced to the level of teenage cynicism. American singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, for example, has immediately become a pariah for daring to air critical views of the Make Poverty History gravy train. The absence of social critics – formerly known as the left wing – made Live 8 a peculiarly queasy event to watch. It had the appearance of a carnival celebrating the evacuation of politics from Western society.

Today the entire political scene is dominated by such uncritical posturing – especially in relation to challenging the consensus on environmentalism or the animal ‘rights’ lobby. Time and again, it is argued that popular protests are a ‘good place to start’, if not exactly a revolutionising impetus. But all the evidence suggests the opposite. Popular campaigns are mobilised on the basis that nobody is made accountable for distinctive beliefs, or that little commitment is expected. This is one reason why one popular protest can morph effortlessly and seamlessly into another. Anti-globalisationists and environmentalists from the late 1990s merged with the Stop The War demonstrations of 2003, which now merges easily with Live 8 – which is endorsed by every section of the British establishment.

No doubt some will point to the recent playground shoving between police and protesters at Gleneagles as proof of an oppositional spark. In reality, such pantomimes foster the illusion that there’s something big or worthwhile to get involved in. And like previous G8 protests in recent years, media commentators – for all the faux hand wringing – look rather benignly on the ‘idealism’ of youth. All it really amounts to is that everyone from Starbucks-avoiding anarchists to the liberal press to Tony Blair will be singing off the same ‘Earth first, humanity last’ hymn sheet. That’s about the last thing Africa or anywhere else needs right now.

Far from Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign being the start of a ‘revolution’, as one website fancifully put it, this is the logical conclusion of popular protests in recent years. By jettisoning their critical independence, popular protests have been transformed from vehicles for change to stage armies for Britain’s political class. No wonder ‘we want you’ was the most eerily apt slogan of the entire weekend.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

Read on:

It’s too easy for everybody to love Live 8, by Mick Hume

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Topics Politics


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