Live 8: Tour de Force or Farce?

Many thought that singer Bob Geldof's time had come and gone. But this weekend, 20 years after Live Aid, it was back again as billions tuned into a string of concerts, described as "The Long Walk to Justice," being held in ten cities on four continents. The big bands were back singing for Africa, but this time as part of a larger campaign demanding a real change in the world. There were other players, but the pop concerts, attended by over a million and a half, drew far more attention than the political activists did.

NGOs and lobbyists advocating for fairer trade, debt reduction and more aid have come up with policy proposals that already have been embraced by some G-8 governments. Using celebrities, media campaigns, and protests called "Make Poverty History," they mobilized hundreds of thousands to take to the streets as they did in Edinburgh, Scotland on Saturday.

Elderly church people, swarms of students, and young activists descended upon Edinburgh eager to send a message to the world leaders arriving at Gleneagles for next week's G-8 Summit. Some in the anarchist "black block," wrapped in bandanas and chanting revolutionary slogans, were blocked by cops from joining the march. Most poured into the streets peacefully with signs and good cheer. There was even a battalion of costumed characters in camouflage get-up organized as the "Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army."

The demonstration paraded around town in waves for hours, 18 people across. It went through blocked-off main streets and then back to a meadow where activists set up tents to talk politics and play political songs. I heard Billy Bragg and saw Bianca Jagger. I chatted with economist-writer Noreena Hertz about how great it is that people are finally marching for global economic justice, and not just against the policies they hate. There was a sense of heady optimism in the air, as in, "We are putting the issues of the poor on the public agenda and forcing powerful governments from the rich world to respond."

And on the television, the WHO punctuated the point by declaring "we won't be fooled again." Throughout the world, artists endorsed calls for action on the issue. Speaking to a concert in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela said it would be a crime against humanity if governments ignored the demands of the public. "Do not look the other way," he demanded. "We want action."

His was the only real political statement I heard in two hours of primetime programming that kept calling it "the day that changed the world." Live 8's presenters were more into engaging in sappy rock star adoration than exploring the larger mission of the show. A presenter asked George Michael if he was going to tour again. Artists and TV presenters kept saying "what a great day" it was. A Christ-like Bono proclaimed they were there not for charity but for "justice" -- but little detail was offered about what that means.

At the same time, the visibility that TV stations like MTV gave the issue inspired 26 million people to access the Live 8 website and add their names to a list of supporters. How many of those supporters will become activists remains to be seen. Will they heed Geldof's call to "converge" on the G-8, or just go home agreeing with his post-show pronouncement of "job done?"

As far as I can tell, plans for a million to march on the summit are not as detailed as those that made the concerts so successful. Rock stars organize events, not revolutions.

The more relevant question is: Have the rock stars been seduced by Tony Blair, who is desperate to recast an image battered by his association with Bush and the bloodshed in Basra? Have they been deceived by politicians used to making pledges that they don't honor while thinking they have persuaded the politicians to new levels of caring and commitment? Geldof was part of an Africa commission chaired by Blair which calls for change, but in a free market, pro-private sector direction.

Is this campaign serious about transforming power relations and redistributing wealth and resources, or is it content to wrest symbolic concessions that are actually not very significant?

These questions were raised by a third party this weekend: the "Stop the War" coalition. The Make Poverty History campaign wouldn't allow them to march with their own banners in the big parade or speak at their rally, inviting suspicion that the Blairites were stage-managing the protests from the shadows. (The British government actually funded some of the organizing undertaken by Oxfam, which now has former staffers advising Blair's people while ex-government functionaries work with the charity.) Tony Blair's chancellor Gordon Brown supported the protests. Was there a deal between the popsters and the politicians that we don't know about?

The Stop the War coalition suggests there was. They want to make both war and poverty history, and argue that the former contributes to the latter, pointing to all the money spent on the destruction of Iraq and the growing impoverishment of its people.

They say that the G-8 is not the solution but the problem, and that the rich nations are rich by keeping the poor nations poor. "Tony Blair has forged a false consensus promoting the idea that we have a shared view of what's wrong and how to make it right," argued George Monbiot, the brilliant Guardian columnist who contends that the people protesting and the people in power are actually enemies who have different world views and needs. He says that the Bushes and the Blairs are promoting an illusion that they care as deeply as the people pressing them to act. But the former are promoting the neo-liberal agenda that the protesters are resisting.

The high point of their rally was a fiery address by Member of Parliament George Galloway who now runs the RESPECT Party. Galloway was one of the few speakers to challenge Sir Bob Geldof and what he mocked as "Sir Bono, because he soon will be" for playing up to Bush and Blair rather than confronting and denouncing them as war criminals. They were critical of how Blair is posing as Africa's champion while deflecting debate about the ongoing war that is eating up resources and lives. Their slogan is "It takes Respect to Get Respect." And Blair is not someone they respect.

"We are here to spoil the party and bust its illusions," Galloway said to cheering activists. RESPECT says that the announced debt relief is only a quarter of the amount of money spent in invading Iraq. They note that the amount pledged by the U.S. is less than the amount spent annually on cat and dog food, and that Britain is selling arms to many of the poorest countries in the world.

In other words, while the music was often sensational and the passion strong, making poverty history will require a far more fundamental transformation than most of the marchers and the musicians seemed to realize. This concern was ignored among most of the feel-good media outlets. Conservative newspapers like the Daily Mail even fashionably praised demonstrators whom they usually dismiss. All the newfound concern for Africa has driven the bloodshed in Iraq off the airwaves and the G-8 agenda. (The Sunday Observer brought Iraq back with a report that Britain is helping to subsidize torture and human rights abuse in Iraq.)

Live 8 ended with a nostalgic sing-along of "Hey Jude," a song that Paul McCartney wrote for John Lennon's son Julian after his parents divorced. No one reminded viewers that it was Sir Paul who organized a pro-patriotic post-911 concert in New York that jeered those who called for peace. His own song urged a "fight for freedom," a slogan the Bush Administration adopted as the battle cry of its Global War on Terror.

And yet at the same time, these forces that are now talking about ending poverty are raising issues that have been invisible. Expectations for change are high, as is hope that the G-8 will rise to the moment. That's asking a lot from politicians who have, for so long, done so little to help. Note also that G-8 is not a representative body even of economic power -- China and Brazil are excluded.

It's now up to the media to track what happens, to separate the heroes from the hypocrites, to assess the political impact and follow up on whether the poor of the world will be disappointed and forgotten again. What is needed, writes one columnist in Britain, is more rage, not rock.

More protests are coming. All Eyes on Scotland.

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