Harry Browne’s searing polemic against Bono should be of some interest to socialists, particularly those sections of the book where Browne elaborates on Bono’s labyrinthine business affairs and crucially his role in espousing neo-liberal ideology on a global stage.
The book is concise and well researched, drawing from a myriad of interviews and analysis given by the rock star, his supporters and his detractors over the years. Throughout, Browne establishes Bono as a sanctimonious, hypocritical, egotistical fantasist, entirely part of the capitalist establishment despite his often radical posturing. In the introduction, Bono is quoted as describing himself as the latest in a long line of travelling salesmen;
“I sell melodies and words. And for me, in my political work, I sell ideas.
In the commercial world that I am entering into, I’m also selling ideas”
The danger, argues Browne, is that this “conventional thinking opportunist”, whose guest editorial for the 2 January 2010 New York Times implored the developing world to “trust in capitalism – we will find a way”, poses as an outsider and a radical, and in so doing provides the perfect front for the system itself, peddling free market ideology and sanitising war mongering capitalist leaders.
Browne starts by tracing Bono’s (aka Paul Hewson) formative years in Ireland right up to his recent commercial ventures, unravelling many of the cringe worthy cod-working class origin myths that he has perpetuated, exposing his “caring” facade as politically conservative grandstanding and lifting the lid on his involvement in the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger period in the process. U2’s participation in the culture of property speculation is put under the spotlight, revealing the deals and connections between them and other nefarious figures and discredited organisations from the developer scene.
Particularly galling from this period of recent history though, is the rank hypocrisy of U2 moving their music publishing wing to Amsterdam in 2006 in order to avail of a scandalously low tax regime where royalties would be taxed at just 5%, while at the same time chastising global capitalist leaders for not providing enough aid to the world’s poor. Incredibly in 2009, after the disastrous bursting of the property bubble and subsequent collapse of the banking and financial sector, Bono, apparently living on another planet, was still defending the low (no) tax regime and neo-liberal policies that had ruined the economy;
“…everybody in Ireland knows that there are some very clever people in Government and in the Revenue who created a financial architecture that prospered the entire nation – it was a way of attracting people to this country who wouldn’t normally do business here. And the financial services brought billions of dollars every year directly to the exchequer”
It has been revealed recently that this same “financial architecture”, so worthy of Bono’s high praise, saw Apple avoid paying $44 billion in tax in the last four years. Browne also quotes from a speech wherein Bono takes part credit for attracting those other masters of tax avoidance, Google and Facebook, to Irish shores.
Browne next turns to Bono’s curious obsession with Africa, wherein the author explains how wealthy celebrities, through banal generalisations and racist stereotyping, have managed to strip an entire continent of it’s cultural richness and diversity and reduce it to one homogenous problem entity for the worlds wealthy philanthropists to solve. As Browne points out, the underlying cause for the horrific poverty that exists lies in the capitalist system itself, an uncomfortable truth that is never addressed by this wealthy celebrity cohort; much easier for them to wring their hands, mouth platitudes and bask in the fawning media attention and self satisfaction that comes from being saviours of the poor than to confront the system of profound inequality and exploitation that their own personal fortunes are built upon and is, at root, the cause of the problem in the first place.
Browne takes the knife to Bono’s “activism through consumerism”, his “philanthro-Capitalism” brainchild, “Product (RED)”, which aims to raise funds to combat AIDS by partnering with some of the world’s biggest corporate brands, including Nike, Apple and Motorola, through product endorsement arrangements. Unsurprisingly this is a win-win situation for the corporations; they get the prestige of the endorsement and make a miniscule contribution to (RED) in exchange. Browne gives one example of a particular pair of (RED) branded ‘Beats, by Dr Dre’ headphones that cost $200, just $5 of which goes to (RED). In it’s six year existence, (RED) has managed to raise a paltry $200 million, a drop in the ocean in terms of what is required to combat AIDS.
Browne sharply criticises Bono for cosying up to the world’s powerful elite conferring on them a degree of acceptability in exchange for very little other than a further inflated sense of ego. In fact the material gain in terms of debt write-down that Bono sought from G8 leaders in the Jubilee 2000 campaign for example, was in the grand scheme of things, negligible, considerably overshadowed by the subsequent liberalisation of some of the world’s poorest economies that was demanded in exchange, costing poor and moderate income economies $375 billion annually according to economist Robert Pollin.
Browne also illustrates how Bono, in essence, gave support to the idea of the invasion of Iraq, merely differing with Bush and Blair for not having the support of the UN and describes him as being supportive of the methods Obama employed to kill Osama Bin Laden. His support for Obama is nauseating in the extreme, seeing it as he does, as the culmination of Martin Luther King’s “Dream”. How easy he is able to ignore the fact that the gap between the incomes of white households in the US widened from 12 to 22 times that of black households in Obama’s first four years. Bono’s crusade against the African HIV epidemic saw him charm the Bush Administration and American Christian Right, who in exchange for assistance had their own set of reactionary and counterproductive conditions, including requirements that one third of the funding was directed towards promoting abstinence and that stringent restrictions were to be placed on the availability of condoms.
An interesting conclusion that Browne draws from all of this is that, having supported so many discredited forces over the years and clearly being amongst the elite himself (multi-millionaire investor, tax-avoider, Blairite), “Bono may have begun to outlive his usefulness as a fashionable accessory to power”. Browne is careful to assert that “he should be judged not on his motivations or intentions, which are invisible, but on the plain reality of his actions”. Well intentioned or not, Browne concludes that Bono’s actions have deepened injustice, inequality and exploitation in the world. On the strength of the evidence provided, it’s hard to disagree.