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Live 8: What's The Deal
The small print behind Drop The Debt. Also: When Old Blue Eyes was a Red.
Eamonn McCann, 18 Jul 2005
"These people,” complained Sir Bob Geldof unpleasantly, “have nothing to do with me.”
The Dublin-born businessman was speaking upon his arrival in Scotland to join G8 leaders at their hotel at Gleneagles. “These people” were the thousands thronging in the streets to show their hostility to poverty politics.
Geldof’s disowning of the protesters came as a relief. Over the previous few days, at scores of formal and informal meetings around Edinburgh, argument had raged as to whether the political elite’s rock-star outriders were well-meaning chumps or conscious agents of the poverty-makers providing a shield against anger.
My own view was that, for safety, we should proceed on the assumption that the Live 8 crowd knew well what they were doing.
I was taken aback by the numbers who appeared seized by moral panic at this suggestion.
Three weeks earlier, Geldof had been quoted everywhere saying: “Tomorrow, 280 million Africans will wake up for the first time in their lives without owing you or me a penny” – a statement crass beyond words on a number of levels. He was referring to a deal said to have been brokered by British Chancellor Gordon Brown, allegedly providing for $55 billion debt relief for 18 dirt-poor countries. (The figure is fraudulent, but for reasons of space and the purposes of argument we’ll let it stand.)
Geldof had nothing to say about the conditions attached to the deal, although he must have known. It had been spelt out in a G8 communique that the relief was predicated on the 18 countries “adjusting their gross assistance flows by the amount given”: the debt relief would be set against the aid for which each country would be deemed eligible. None had been guaranteed an extra cent.
The G8 communique also declared that, “it is essential that (the 18 countries) boost private sector development” and ensure “the elimination of impediments to private investment, both domestic and foreign.“
Thus, the price of the putative debt relief was that each country put its public services up for sale to private interests. Another African bonanza for big business.
The result will be greater inequality in the targeted countries, with the least well-off excluded even more rigidly from health-care and education, and necessities of life – water, for example – subjected to market mechanisms and priced beyond the capacity of those most in need.
Why didn’t this rate a mention from the celebrity roster? It hardly matters, I suppose. What matters is that we recognise the role which it suggests the Live 8 celebrities have been playing.
Their efforts have had the effect of blunting the edge of political opposition to the rulers of the richest nations. It is this factor which brought the rock aristocracy and the political elite together, and which is symbolised in the knighthood conferred on Geldof by the Queen of England.
More important, perhaps, has been the function of the rock gentry in protecting criminal war-mongers from the repercussions of their crimes.
I travelled into Edinburgh for the 250,000-strong Make Poverty History rally on July 2nd on the parish bus from Tilliecoultry in Clackmanannshire. A more moderate, welcoming and idealistic busload of people you wouldn’t meet in a month of Scottish Sundays. Every one that I spoke to saw the connection between expenditure on war and the persistence of world poverty.
The US alone has already spent more than three times as much on the war against Iraq as all the G8 countries have pledged in debt relief and increased aid to Africa. Primary-school children have no difficulty understanding the relevance of this relationship.
So, who is it that Geldof and Bono think they’d be alienating if, in the course of what they say is a campaign against poverty, they spoke out against arms spending and war? Not the parishioners of St. John Vianney’s, Tilliecoultry, I can tell you.
So, who, then?
And contrarywise, whose interests are they bolstering when they resolve not only to sing dumb on the issue themselves but to ensure that others do, too?
Primary-school children could work that one out as well.
What’s most striking in all this is the contrast between the daring aspirations of the ordinary multitude and the timid conservatism of the rock-star elite. Millions want to turn the world upside down. Geldof and Bono would like to give the world a tweak. In terms of ambition, their attitude to Africa isn’t far removed from the approach some of us are old enough to remember from the era of classroom collections to save the Black Babies. They see Africans as suitable cases for charity concerts, not as the fighters best fitted to break the chains that bind them.
I don’t suppose it matters much to either of them, but, just as there appeared to be nobody on the Tilliecoultry bus who agreed with the Geldof/Bono line on weaponry and war, so none of the African speakers I encountered at the G8 Alternatives events across Edinburgh regarded the role of the Irish rock stars with anything more positive than weary frustration.
There is a Marxist view which I have always found too abstract that the purpose of popular culture in capitalist society is to immobilise the masses and persuade them to feel it would be futile to fight the power. After Edinburgh, I don’t think it too abstract at all.
Mind you, I did think Bono looked totally pissed off leaving Gleneagles Hotel. Perhaps there’s hope for the lad still.
A relief to turn to a genuinely radical star of popular music – Frank Sinatra.
Towards the end, he did it their way. But in his best days, he’d been one of us.
Sinatra wasn’t a celebrity who lent his name to safe causes but an activist who, at real risk to himself and his career, campaigned vigorously against inequality.
The only child of immigrant Italian parents, he’d grown up in an America shaped by racism, Depression and war. He burst out into the mainstream to become the first-ever pop icon, helping to open the way for tens of millions corralled within the ghettoes of ethnic identity. In the days before rock and roll, he gave white, male, urban America a distinctive, pained and dignified voice.
Sinatra unlocked the emotional meaning of popular songs to liberate the feelings of a suppressed generation.
In When Ol’ Blue Eyes Was A Red, (Bookmarks, stg.£5.99) Martin Smith brings to Sinatra’s story a vast knowledge and intimate love of the music. He traces the parallel trajectories of a professional and political evolution, locating both the thrilling significance of Sinatra’s early days and his eventual decline into super-stardom in the social and political context of the times. He makes sense of the story of how a man once denounced as a Red faded into a role as troubadour to the ruling class.
This book rescues Sinatra from the diminishing entanglements of his later years and restores him to his place as a genius of popular culture who deployed his art to challenge injustice. It will send readers back to the songs which eased the ache of alienation and which speak more deeply and directly to our condition today than the shallow anthems of kitsch compassion uselessly offered to people hungering for justice.