During one of his regular fact-finding missions in Africa, rock star Bono set aside time from the rest of his entourage – which included high profile Republicans and corporate leaders – for an interview with The Observer’s Tim Adams. As is the custom with well-known figures from entertainment, a portion of the interview dealt with Bono’s personal life and also what drives Bono’s commitment to certain forms of activism. However, deft at dealing with the media, Bono was able to use the interview as a vehicle to promote his particular brand of campaigning and justify his band’s record of tax avoidance, while simultaneously representing those critical of him as ‘hostage to a particular ideology.’
The singer begins by drawing historical links between his work and the campaign to abolish slavery some two centuries ago. Bono’s historical forebears worked, in his words, ‘not from one political side or another but worked to find a radical centre.’ This, at first glance, gives the impression of Bono seeking to generate a broad consensus about international development from across the political spectrum. However, those who might be critical of aspects of Bono’s approach, or who might ask questions about the costs of working so closely with the corporate sector or right wing political elements – costs not only to the campaign but also to its intended beneficiaries – or those who might express concerns about the marketisation of activism that Bono’s type of campaigning promotes, are excluded from the consensus. More to the point, they are bunched together by both Adams and Bono as ‘liberals’ or ‘the cranky left’, respectively.
Bono might justify his working with groups across the political spectrum on the evidently pragmatic grounds that the importance of efforts to relieve extreme poverty necessitates building such coalitions; not something I would want to dispute. However, it is curious to see his interview responses so abundantly littered with the basic premises of neoliberal philosophy, so popular among the higher echelons of the state-corporate elite. These range from the representation of global capitalism as the only option to which there is no alternative, to the representation of corporate-driven, free market capitalism as a largely benign force. This is a popular view of history among advocates of unrestricted markets that is common in the business press and adhered to by Bono’s mentor in economics, Professor Jeffrey Sachs. It is a view of history that largely obscures many of the antagonisms between working people and big business that have marked the history of poverty. It implies that workers’ rights, higher wages and safer working conditions emerged ‘naturally’ as a result of the extension of the markets, rather than through the bitter struggle of trade unions. Returning to Bono’s example of the anti-slavery movement, their work was often carried out in opposition to business interests that, in the event of emancipation, had to be compensated by the British taxpayer for the loss of their human property.
For some time, Bono and U2 have enjoyed the benefits of a reduced tax bill by moving part of their wealth to the Netherlands. It is a rare occasion for Bono to comment on this and his reply reveals much of how he views both economics and the ‘Irish.’ His view is that ‘the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness’ which ‘has been a successful policy.’ A quick glance at the Irish unemployment rates, particularly youth unemployment, shows the latter remark in a callous (or perhaps naïve) light. Additionally, the cuts to welfare and tax rises, implemented by the Irish government affect those who cannot afford to move their wealth offshore and suggests Bono’s position rests on a reimagining of the ‘Irish.’ In terms of economic policy Bono is right in one key respect: ‘U2 is in total harmony with our [the Irish] government.’
So, as Bono says, ‘there’s a difference between cosying up to power and being close to power’ but power works best when you don’t even know it.