SEPTEMBER 14, 2013
IS THE WORLD BETTER OFF, or worse, thanks to Bono’s career as a global statesman and advocate for human rights? It’s a question Harry Browne takes seriously in the breezy but trenchant The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). In Browne’s treatment, the Bono much of the world has come to accept — a global statesman fighting AIDS, advocating for indebted countries, shaming military juntas — is far more ineffective than the man he’s branded himself to be. At the very least, his campaigns have consequences that may work at cross-purposes to his ostensibly philanthropic goals. At worst, Bono’s advocacy work may be outright destructive, buttressing a system inimical to his putative goals. Bono has, as Browne puts it, “turned his attention to a planet of savage injustice, inequality and exploitation, and […] in some ways, helped make it worse.”
In Browne’s deft treatment, we begin to suspect that despite the bombast and posturing, despite the tone-deaf and often racist declarations about “the terrible beauty that is the continent of Africa,” Bono’s genius is his ability to efface himself. This may sound odd for a man as attention-seeking as Bono, but it’s a particular kind of effacement: one that means Bono never makes an enemy of someone with suction in the beltway, never confronts entrenched power, never stands with (only purports to represent) the world’s abused and marginalized. As such, Bono continues to morph with the times, reflecting the status quo and even advancing it through his endorsement as an ostensibly anti-establishment rocker.
But this is no character assassination: Browne is a disciplined critic, tracing Bono’s rise carefully while refusing to scurry down the hermeneutic rabbit hole and assuage the reader’s desire to know why Bono’s words don’t match his deeds. For instance, it is tempting to suspect that Bono started idealistic and politically committed, only to become neutered after years of standing too close to power. Browne finds that, no, Bono has always been anti-political and opportunistic — even appropriating Northern Ireland’s Troubles as a cause célèbre while simultaneously endorsing state violence and rejecting any association with Bobby Sands. Alternatively, it is easy to embrace conspiracy theories that construct Bono as simply a cynical imposter (something Bono himself even jokes about) who uses his status as a rocker to endorse policies which open up markets for his private equity firm or boost his band’s sales. Browne problematizes this as well, showing that sucking up to the deeply uncool George W. Bush and Jesse Helms could hurt Bono’s symbolic power (and hence sales), and shows that Bono’s massive campaign efforts and unpublicized lobbying can’t be easily monetized.
This point about avoiding speculative psychoanalysis is a critical one — for Browne’s book and indeed for the entire Verso “Counterblasts” series, of which his is one. Harper’s has called Verso “Anglo-America’s preeminent radical press,” and the “Counterblasts” series is designed to take aim at prominent apologists of high society, in the vein of polemical pamphleteers of the 17th century. Its title suggests rapid and explosive rebuttals to mainstream discourse. But by focusing on individual men, the series risks being dismissed as sad lefty ressentiment, of whining on as great men make history. Browne’s iteration avoids this easy dismissal, eschewing “hysterical harangue” and settling instead on a tone of “bemused contempt.” It is patient and thorough, covering everything from band performances to secondary literature, to academic analyses in sociology and economics to Northern Ireland’s peace process archives.
But, as Browne himself asks early on, “How seriously can you treat a figure who is so often ridiculed, in such a range of venues, for so many reasons?” Bono has been a source of controversy for some time. If he, as Browne believes, is so easily dismissible, to what is this book responding? Indeed, why does Bono warrant a “counterblast”?
A book about Bono per se is not all that relevant. Browne notes that Bono has lost some of his salience due to overexposure and overuse. But Browne’s exegesis is not so much about looking at Bono as it is looking through him — an intervention against an entire type, at what Bono has helped create, forcing us to weigh his useful advocacy (especially around AIDS in Africa) against the symbolic succor he lends to the brutal statesmen and corporations his advocacy work — sometimes subtly, sometimes directly — advances. As Browne puts it: “The point of The Frontman is to focus not on what motivates Bono but on his rhetoric, his actions, and their consequences.” While it is often a takedown of Bono the man, at its best it is a criticism of how we rely on and enable men in his position.
While Browne acknowledges that Bono has done some things to make the world a better place — and that “it would be silly to insist otherwise” — he mentions the good and the bad running astride one another, and asks us to consider both. The task becomes one of weighing Bono’s effects, in a system larger than any one man, and deciding whether his good would have been impossible without the bad, and whether it could have been done otherwise.
Brown repeatedly outlines such tensions with examples from Bono’s many campaigns. Taking Bono’s first, on debt cancellation for poor countries, Browne argues that the financial- and political-sector elites whom Bono had befriended were able to actually benefit from what appeared to be their sacrifice:
[T]he small good [the campaigners] achieved in gaining some debt cancellation […] and making the issue a public concern should be weighed against the publicity boost that was given to some of the most viciously destructive forces in the world. History tells us that, as they were being hugged by Bono for dropping a few pennies to the poor, his friends in the Washington–Wall Street axis were gorging themselves on the fruits of massive and newly unregulated financial speculation, all the while running up unpayable debts that would eventually dwarf those they were so magnanimously forgiving in Africa.
The problem Browne raises here is not really about Bono. It is rather about political-economic power more generally and how state ceremonies of largesse (such as debt cancellation) succeed in eliding a system’s deeper violence (that of systems that privatize profit and socialize risk). But Browne does bring Bono in: the rock star’s iconic power, he writes, effectively enables rapacious systemic extraction. This is a provocative claim, and in some ways the key to the book. But Browne does not provide us with many analytical tools with which to consider and assess it.
Indeed, Bono’s supporters might argue that those who wield power would continue to preside over this system, extracting economic rents based on their position of access and power, with or without Bono as the frontman. They might point out that despite cringe-inducing photo-ops, Bono managed to cajole the “Washington–Wall Street axis” into improving its conduct, that he altered — at the margins, but still — an entire system of North-South relations. How else does social change occur but in marginal revolutions that may spawn increasingly larger ones?
Browne counters by saying that the opposite is in fact the case: nothing of any importance has been sacrificed on behalf of those in power; Bono has merely siphoned energy from more radical and potentially impactful movements. Browne argues that Bono turns protests into welcoming parties (as in the 2005 Gleneagles G8 meeting), amoral corporations — arms makers amongst them — into concerned humanitarians (as in Nestlé, Rio Tinto, and BAE’s funding of Bono’s Live 8 concert), mass murderers into messiahs (as in George W. Bush in the African AIDS epidemic). Moreover, Bono both implicitly and overtly forecloses on critique of these corporate-friendly anti-radical approaches; to this end, Browne quotes a scholar, Kate Nash, sympathetic to the campaign around the Gleneagles meeting, who nonetheless admits that “African intellectuals were critical of the [Make Poverty History] campaign, in contrast to those Africans represented as the grateful recipients of ‘our’ help. Across the focal points of the campaign, criticism was virtually uniformly identified with cynicism and not permitted.”
And so, is there any way out of this impasse, this constant indeterminacy over whether someone such as Bono is either becoming captured or is making headway towards change? To his immense credit Browne sets the table for the reader, allowing us to consider both the stakes at hand. We are compelled to imagine alternative ways that Bono could have engaged the status quo.
Slavoj Žižek, in a 2006 article in the London Review of Books, wrotea devastating critique of the rising phenomenon characterized by celebrated figures like Bono, called philanthro-capitalism. Led by such scions as Bill Gates and George Soros, this form of anti-politics has a distinctive neoliberal tint: markets will save the world; applications of “smart,” technocratic solutions must displace soft-headed “ideology”; there is simply no disconnect between monopoly capitalism and social justice. Gates and Soros, men who made their fortunes effecting monopolies in the case of the former and destroying entire economies in the latter, have managed to reimagine themselves as global saviors, using their respective foundations’ beneficence to mask the sordid ways these foundations got their funds. Browne makes this argument in Frontman, too, but it is Žižek who turns to the issue of political praxis, when he concludes, “It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists [Soros and Gates] in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.”
What does such a “remembering” mean? Žižek and Browne seem to both effect this remembering by pointing out the contradictions of the philanthro-capitalists, while also admitting that they have capacity for (limited) good things. But Bono refuses to occupy such a position; for example, Browne observes that, “Bono has rarely missed an opportunity to praise George W. Bush for his efforts on behalf of AIDS and Africa. As he insisted as recently as 2011, ‘He’s a controversial figure … but I can verify that at the very least there are a few million fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers that would not still be with us were it not for him.’ [Bono] never mentioned those who owed their deaths, rather than their lives, to Bush.” And so, why couldn’t Bono have said both? Why must he displace Bush’s destruction with the cowardly appellation “controversial,” and continue to displace it by only focusing on those Bush allowed to live rather than those he left or made to die?
How could Bono have done it otherwise? Could Bono have brought a radical critique while he engaged elites? For instance, instead of blithely endorsing free trade, what should Bono have done? When Browne cites developmental policies from the 1960s — such as providing protection to domestic infant industries — it is one of the few times the book provides a potential counterfactual. While Browne is incorrect to describe such an approach as a “simple” alternative to neoliberalism (East Asia did quite well from it, but countries in Latin America and Africa experienced disaster as compradors directed state funds to nepotistic boondoggles), today evidence from some of those same places — El Salvador, Uruguay, and South Africa for instance — suggests updated policies can still be effective. In other words, there are alternatives to the “There is no alternative” ideology.
And it might be true that Bono simply didn’t know about efforts in 21st-century industrial policy. But the point is that if Bono was a) committed to social justice (as he claims) then he would b) want to avail himself of arguments that could effect such justice, especially when c) he was being criticized by many people, as we have seen. And so, if Bono was really a radical, he would have tried to advocate for such alternatives — to demand more in exchange for his imprimatur. But he did not, “he stuck firmly within the corporate Washington consensus”; it is here that we might return to Bono’s ability to take the demands of the status quo and seamlessly recodify them as somehow transgressive.
While it is troubling that Bono did not try, another argument is that he and his ilk simply cannot engage those in power productively, that to play is to lose: that those who work with privileged elites — given the deeply inscribed class interests that these elites necessarily defend and promote — must a priori quash meaningful political critique. Hence Žižek’s suggestion that working with while also condemning elites is an empirical political impossibility: the elites would simply not play, unless on their own terms. And yet, if those in positions of power are impermeable, always able to capture and convince those who engage them, then how can we explain the incremental material achievements some social justice movements have attained over time, in conjunction with these very elites? Many successful movements have relied on an often implicit and even mutually contemptuous internal division of labor between reformers and radicals, one that in turn allows the reformers to productively engage elites and challenge socially accepted truths. King benefitted from the unwavering militancy of Malcolm X; Booker T. Washington relied on W.E.B. DuBois; Gandhi’s nonviolence campaigns utilized the ever-present threat of mass violence from Bhagat Singh and the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. Cornel West (himself spending time in both conformist and radical camps) points out that radicals such as Frederick Douglass convinced Lincoln to finally reject slavery, effectively convincing an elite who defended the status quo — preserving the Union — to become an elite who would radically transform it.
Hence a second question emerges: could Bono at least have played the “reformer” role, working in productive tension with the radicals? It is here where Bono is perhaps most problematic: ironically, it is in his positioning of himself as a “radical” reformer that he seems to consistently turn away from opportunities to do either. For instance, while editing a special edition of the London Independent in May 2006 about his corporate-friendly (RED) campaign, Bono assured us that his intervention constituted a “radical centre” to work hand-in-hand with the “radical edge.” He continued: “For anyone who thinks this means I’m going to retire to the boardroom and stop banging my fist on the door of No. 10 [Downing Street], I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Browne is flabbergasted at the mendacity of such a comment: “The astonishing suggestion of fist-banging at his friend Tony’s place […] is belied elsewhere in the paper, in his skin-crawlingly obsequious interview with Blair and Gordon Brown.” Browne goes on to describe the softball “questions” — of the “Are you afraid you’re doing too much good?” variety — thrown at the two statesmen.
It’s difficult to imagine that Bono’s friendly appeal to scions and statesmen — what seems to constitute for him a new radicalism both in and out of the boardroom — could be equivalent in force to “fist-banging” on the doors of power. What Browne tries to show is that this method of doing good in the world — doing it through the halls of power, instead of against them; of shaking hands with the purveyors of injustice, instead of shaking a fist — is hopelessly flawed. It banishes the cherished concept of disagreement that lies at the heart of real politics. Browne cuts through any such illusions that such false consensus is actually helping the world:
Today, as a high-profile multimillionaire investor, as part of a band of notorious tax-avoiders who assured us that financial innovation was the route to success, as the man who dressed a bunch of multinational corporations in his favoured shade of (RED), as the Blairite who applauded when the world’s war-mongers pretended to lavish some relief on a few poor countries while saddling them with more neoliberal conditions — today, he is hard to see as anything other than one of Them, the elite 1 per cent of 1 per cent.
It’s a harsh assessment, and not one with which everyone will agree. But consider this: when .01 percenters spar over issues that affect the 99.9 percent and come up with “win-win” solutions, there are often still losers. As indexed above, these win-wins take the explicit form of “growth for poor countries” and “expansion of Western capitalist access to markets,” but a closer look suggests that much of this penetration undermines infant industries locking in place those countries in degraded positions in the economic architecture. And so the relationship established between Bono and those in power may be a symbiotic relationship for them. But it is not necessarily a symbiotic relationship for all.
Ultimately it is impossible to prove just how negative the effects are that Bono himself has had on global justice. But The Frontman’s point is beyond that: at its best, it uses Bono as a lens from which to turn a potent critical eye towards an entire system, towards philanthro-capitalists, their celebrity endorsers, and indeed the entire field of entrenched power. Through repeated iterations and multiple points of buttressing, we can perceive the complex physics that engineers hegemony. To see it as such allows us to continue to chip away at its processes, and to look more critically at those who ambassador it in the name of a better world.