Tuesday, October 25, 2005
written by Jez during g8 july '05
Bob Geldof has pissed me off. In fairness, it’s not just Saint Bob who has drawn my ire of late: it is the whole spectacle of Live 8 and the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign. We have had to endure the sight of multi-millionaire pop stars lecturing people about poverty; promoting the idea that the leaders of the G8 countries are willing and able to solve the problems of world poverty; and that all we need to do to make the world a better place is to carry on being mindless consumers, only this time not only are we supposed to digest banal pop songs, but also buy wrist bands, and more importantly swallow the lie that the world will be a better place if can just encourage politicians to do the right thing™ by promising more capitalist intervention in a continent that has been ravaged by capitalist intervention.
The message is clear, the likes of Saint Bob, Bono and Richard Curtis and their cabal of cretinous cronies can save the world by working hand-in-hand with their good mates Tony and Gordon.
It was bad enough having to watch the bourgeois media fawn over Saint Bob. His message was exactly the one which they want to promote, with the occasional swear word thrown in to create the illusion of radicalism. Plus, of course, Bob’s little love-in provided a handy distraction from the unruly elements in Gleneagles trying to break up the party. What else would you expect from the media? What has really got my goat though is the fact that some of the people who I know and love, my family and friends, have bought into Bob’s rosy vision.
In reality of course, we know that the G8 will change nothing. The MPH campaign want third-world debt cancelled, more aid given and ‘fair’ trade (as if any trade under capitalism could be ‘fair’). Their spokespeople may claim that the leaders of the G8 can and will meet at least some of their demands. Whatever aid packages are agreed on, however much debt is cancelled, represents a pittance when compared with the poverty of the countries on the receiving end, and the wealth of the G8 countries. Even the paltry sum on offer will not go to the people who need it most: it will be used by the ruling class in the G8 and African countries to do with as they see fit. And in return? We will see more privatisation and more resources being stolen from the people of Africa by Western corporations and African despots. Potentially more damaging than that, working class people in the G8 and African countries will continue to have illusions that the capitalist system can somehow be a force for good. The G8 leaders are portrayed as the most powerful men in the world, but in reality they are incapable of using capitalism to benevolent ends. No matter what their intentions may be, they do not control capitalism: it controls them.
The millions of working class people who support Live 8 and MPH are sincere and compassionate: but they have been misled.
Of course, it would be both deeply patronising and profoundly wrong to see these millions as passive sheep, following whichever demagogue comes along. It’s more complex than that. I am sure that there are many people involved who have a healthy amount of scepticism for the likes of Geldof, Curtis et al, let alone Blair and Brown. Equally, I am sure many are reasonably realistic about the prospects of any real change coming out of the G8 meeting. Yet, they still go along with it in the hopes that something positive may come out of it, or indeed that they see it as the only way that positive change can happen.
In my opinion though, the high-profile celebrity leaders of progressive movements have a counter-productive effect. The names might draw the punters in, and attract media attention, but such leaders then end up having a disproportionate role in determining the course of the movement, and all too often end up playing, at best a conservative role, at worst a deeply reactionary one.
Geldof is a case in point. In the shadow of the G8 there is an understandable interest amongst people in the problems of world poverty. Previous G8 meetings have seen the birth of the present day anti-capitalist movement. Geldof and his celebrity mates have raised the profile of the issue in question, but have also sought to hollow out the radical impulse inherent in the movement: instead of challenging the leaders of the G8 (no matter how futilely), Geldof has tried to divert people into a campaign aimed at supporting (no matter how critically) the leaders of the G8.
Geldof is just the latest in a long and inglorious line of high profile leaders that have hijacked progressive movements and used them for their own ends. Previous to this, we have seen Charles bloody Kennedy and George Galloway compete to portray themselves as the real voice of the anti-war movement, and thereby reap the benefits at the ballot box. Kennedy has the advantage that the bourgeois media are happy to paint him as anti-war, while Galloway has the advantage that he actually is anti-war. Even so, I object to the idea that either of them have politics that are compatible with mine or can speak on my behalf.
Yet, Galloway, Geldof and their like are able to portray themselves as the leaders of progressive campaigns. Undoubtedly the mainstream plays a role in this. It suits politicians and lazy journalists alike to paint mass movements as being made up of leaders and followers, so that they can then lionise or demonise said leaders, and the movements by extension. The movements themselves though bear most of the responsibility. With both MPH/Live 8 and the anti-war movement, many of the activists involved have allowed, and in some cases, encouraged these ‘celebrities’ to present themselves as leaders. The success of the Stop the War Coalition was a result of the hard work of activists organising themselves, and yet at each successive national demonstration we saw those same hard-working activists overshadowed by ‘celebrities,’ including Charles Kennedy, speaking from the platform, having been invited by the StWC committee, a body, which let’s be honest, largely elected itself.
If these mass movements are to play a progressive role in restructuring society, it needs to be through ordinary working class activists realising their potential: to not only organise protest movements but through that, to realise that our class has the ability to organise the whole of society. That takes confidence, and it is a confidence that our class lacks at present. Yet people who should know better, many of whom are socialists, lack that confidence in other people. They promote high-profile leaders because they think that our class will respond to them, be inspired by them and follow them: they think that we need leaders.
Live 8 is a perfect example of where this attitude gets us. No-one needs to hear the likes of Elton John and Madonna moralising about poverty in order to understand that it is unjust, certainly not people who exist on a fraction of the money that any of these celebrities spend in a single shopping trip.
So what can we do about it? What can we do to prevent mass movements being neutered by such leaders?
Many socialists look to the Bolsheviks for inspiration. A frequently used example is that of Father Gapon. Gapon was a priest in St Petersburg in 1905, who led a radical mass movement that tried to persuade the Tsar to be nice. Gapon was also a state asset. Despite this, the Bolsheviks worked with this mass movement, and worked with Gapon, in order to use him to further their aims. Some socialists in the Bolshevik tradition have drawn parallels between Gapon and Geldof and Galloway. They think that they can use these latter day Gapons in the same way as the Bolsheviks did. The only problem is though that it does not seem to work. Perhaps it is because today’s left is small, weak and easy to ignore. Perhaps it is because Galloway, Geldof et al are far shrewder than a ragged-trousered Russian priest from the 19th century. Whatever reason, the end result is that we see self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists subordinating themselves to people whose politics, on paper at least, are to their right. Plus, it seems to me that if you encourage people to follow such leaders, no matter how critically, it seems likely that they will end up putting their faith in those leaders, and thereby undermining self-organisation. Of course, this is somewhat in keeping with the Bolshevik tradition: they fully support the idea of leaders, just so long as they are the ones who are in charge.
Conversely though, the attitude taken towards high-profile leaders by those socialists and anarchists who take a more ‘purist’ approach to revolutionary politics is broadly that of ‘ignore them and hope they’ll go away.’ This does not work either. Instead all that happens is that the celebrity leaders find it easier to dominate movements, because some of their most consistent critics have effectively surrendered without a fight.
Personally, given that my instinctive response is to grumble about things rather than to actually do anything, my impulse is to have a grumble about these bastards and cast aspersions on the intelligence of the people who support them. I think this is a mistake as well. For one thing, there is the argument that has been put forward by those who defend George Galloway’s reactionary position on issues like abortion, faith schools and immigration, and his romanticised view of the Iraqi resistance: if a public figure is associated with a movement, any mud that sticks to them rubs off on the movement as well. I am not entirely convinced by this argument. Like many people, I was opposed to the war and subsequent occupation of Iraq, but that clearly does not mean I have no political differences with anyone who was also against the war. It is important to be willing and able to openly disagree with others, and even criticise them, even if you agree with them on other issues. That said, it is true that political attacks on Galloway have the (often intentional) effect of undermining the anti-war movement. For me though this highlights the danger of such profile leaders, they can all too easily become liabilities. Personally I view it as a cause for regret that Galloway has so effectively managed to make the anti-war movement his own personal property.
The chief danger of me mocking the people who play follow the leader though, is that I am all too likely to cut myself off from them and be ignored. They are often motivated by good intentions, but have been misled. If I ignore them, or worse, deride them for their naivety, then I am abandoning them to the misleadership of their self-appointed leaders. And yet, I never learn...
The task is to work alongside these people and through our words and actions encourage them to have the confidence in themselves necessary for self-organisation, within whatever campaign it might be and in the future society we want to build. The task is also to have the confidence in others that they can see through the leaders who would lead them down blind alleys. Easier said than done of course. We not only need to be able to inspire others to believe in themselves: we also need to find that courage in ourselves.