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

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