Blogs > HNN > Bono Smells the Coffee

May 16, 2007 1:57 pm

Bono Smells the Coffee

Bono is apparently in a fighting mood. At least according to the photo of him above an article in today's Guardian describing his anger that the G-8 countries, and particularly Italy and Russia have not come close to meeting the pledges for increased aid to Africa made at the Gleneagles Summit two years ago.

Bono has laudably been pushing for increased aid and debt reduction for Africa for years. His devotion to the issue has led him to sit with some pretty strange bedfellows, including former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and current--and hopefully soon to be outgoing--President of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz. Whatever it took to get the big powers to reconsider their aid and debt policies to the world's most impoverished and long-suffering continent. Even if it meant putting on another international concert, Live 8, to raise awareness of the issue in the public consciousness.

The centerpiece of Bono's efforts was the Live 8 concert held on July 2, 2005 in ten cities around the world, 3 days before a major G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scottland where unprecedented aid and debt reduction packages to Africa were announced. Along with Live Aid impresario Bob Geldoff, and friends such as Geroge Clooney, Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, Bono hoped to use their star power and those of the other performers to get people off their asses--simple as that--and put pressure on our leaders to do something about the continent's myriad problems, both at the Summit and more important, once the cameras and media attention turned away to other issues.

Of course, Live 8 failed in its goal of keeping the pressure on and convincing the wealthy nations not just to reduce debt (never a difficult proposition when, like a credit card company, you can start the debt process over again as soon as the existing debt has been canceled). but to increase development aid by billions of dollars and, most challenging, convince wealthy countries to stop subsidizing their farmers and dooming African agriculture in the process (not only can't African farmers compete against subsidized US exports in the international market, the subsidized American and European produce is often cheaper than locally produced goods, which is what really dooms local farmers).

Already last year Bob Geldoff reported that the G-8 was not on target with its promised increase in development aid and in fact “stepped backwards” when it came to changing trade policies. Now it appears that the upcoming G-8 Summit in Germany will see Russia and Italy renege on their commitments and pressure other countries to do likewise. This has Bono and friends peeved, leading him to declare that there was a clear risk of a return to the violent street protests of Genoa and Seattle: "It's not just the credibility of the G8 that's at stake... It's the credibility of the largest non-violent protest in 30 years. Nobody wants to go back to what we saw in Genoa, but I do sense a real sense of jeopardy."

I've loved Bono and U2 since I saw them on one of their first US tours as a music-obsessed preteen. I remember watching him climb the giant PA speakers of the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ and belt out the lyrics to “New Years Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” while the band dug so deeper into the grooves I was literally shaken off of my seat, which like everyone else I was standing on holding up a lighter and screaming along with the songs as loudly as I could. That performance and those songs helped me understand how powerfully political great art good be. Today, it's hard not to celebrate Bono's claim that his efforts have saved thousands of lives, if not tens of thousands, by getting increased aid or AIDS drugs to Africa's poorest people from the world's most powerful political and business leaders.

But Bono's description of the violence in Genoa and Seattle reflects a troubling trend in big time rock and movie star philanthropy--instead of leading the rebellion against a corrupt and in the case of Africa murderous world system, Bono, Geldoff and friends seem to think that their star power and an occasional letter or protest from the rest of us will actually do what 200 years and dozens of bloody wars and revolutions have failed to do: change the very nature of capitalism so that it stops requiring the impoverishment and death of millions of people of the Global South to ensure the maintenance and even rise in the living standards of the North.

And so rather than challenging the dominant narratives of those in power, in this case about the causes of violence at anti-corporate globalization protests, Bono is reinforcing the lies even as he tries to inject a proper sense of urgency about the lack of progress by world leaders towards meeting the goals he helped design.

As anyone who was in Seattle or Genoa knows, the violence there was not initiated by protesters. In Seattle even anarchists who were very strategic in using vandalism against select corporate targets, and not against people or local businesses. It was in fact precisely the overwhelmingly non-violent nature of the mass protests that made them so powerful, and therefore so threatening, to which the police responded with tear gas and other forms of (at this point still limited) violence. By the time the anti-IMF protests occurred in Prague in September of 2000, which I personally witnessed, the Czech secret police stormed into the dorms housing sleeping activists and beat and arrested them, and then tore into protesters on the streets in an extremely violent way. As Czech activists explained, Vaclav Havel might have been the symbol of the new Czech Republic, but the Interior Ministry was still in the hands of the thugs who ran it under communist rule.

Ten months later, at the Genoa protests of July 2001, the Italian state made a conscious decision to use whatever means necessary to ensure it defeated a movement that was on its way to becoming the “second superpower” described by the NY Times in 2003 as the only legitimate alternative to neoliberal globalization and Bush's dreams of endless imperial war. It was increasingly harsh police repression at subsequent summit protests that led a small faction within the movement--the hardcore anarchists and (some thought not all) members of the Black Bloc--to move from strategic violence against property to fighting with police forces who themselves were using far greater violence against demonstrators.

But even in Genoa, the overwhelming number of protesters were peaceful; in fact, it was Italian groups like Rete Lilliput and Tute Bianchi that pioneered the use of militant non-violent resistance against police forces. It was precisely the fear that they might succeed in stopping the Summit through coordinated non-violence that led the semi-fascist Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to order his police forces, who have a long history of violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters, to use the violence that led to the death of one protester during the protests. And then the violence itself was perversely used as an excuse to move subsequent meetings to “secure” locations far removed from public view or scrutiny.

Along with his historical problem, Bono gives far to much credit to events like Live 8 to empower Africans in their struggles for survival against the neoliberal global system, On the homepage of the Live 8 website ( Bono argues that Live 8 gave “the poorest of the poor real political muscle for the first time.” Would that this were so! The reality, as his fighting stance in the Guardian article makes clear, is far different and more depressing.

The reality is that those that benefit from the current global system have no incentive to change it. They are not good Christians and will not be swayed by Bono's religiously grounded arguments. They are not good environmentalists and will not be swayed by Al Gore's arguments at Live Earth (which, ironically, Bob Geldoff is already criticizing for the same reasons that I criticized Live 8 when it was held: a lack of concrete measures that leaders would have incentive to actually carry out). They will do whatever is necessary--lie, cheat, steal, oppress, exploit, murder and wage war--to maintain control of a world economy that sees half the world living on $2 per day or less while inequality and poverty increase and they reap their huge salaries and bonuses.

If Bono and Gore and their famous friends really want to change the world, they need to be willing to put their bodies on the line, or at least their careers, the way John Lennon did with the Vietnam War. That means they will need to connect the dots, and use their incredible artistic talents to help the rest of us understand that the war in Iraq is intimately related to the problems facing Africa, and the ozone layer as well; that today the same system and interests are behind global war, poverty and environmental degradation. And that we--Bono, Gore, and all of us fortunate enough to be living in the advanced industrialized countries--are the main beneficiaries of this system.

Only if people see them really risking something to fight a battle that most people fear is impossible to win, will they get off their ass and join the fight. It's time for Bono to get off the stage and hit the barricades, and for the rest of us to follow him.

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More Comments:

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/31/2007

not sure. i would assume that in many cases the risks are too high for most for profit banks to be willing to take it on. but you raise a good point, and since so much of the aid and loans are tied to projects which don't benefit the local population, why bother taking them at all...

Jason B Keuter - 5/30/2007

why do we need aid agencies to loan money anyway? why not just have private banks do it?