They owe it all to their fans

The power of celebrity politics is undeniable. The challenge for the left, argues Oscar Reyes, is to develop its own cultural strength in the interests of radical social change

July 1, 2005
8 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes

Bob Geldof calls one million demonstrators to Edinburgh. Round-the-world yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur backs ‘Sail 8′, a flotilla of boats carrying G8 protesters. It can only be a matter of time before Tiger Woods joins the Peoples’ Golf Association event at Gleneagles golf course.

Welcome to the era of celebrity-endorsed protest, where the hard work of grass-roots political organising can be swept aside at the whim of a few famous backers. It is tempting to sneer at the embrace of celebrity culture as a trivialisation of development issues, or worse, a patronising subversion of the real agenda by pin-headed pin-ups. After all, pop stars do their street-cred no harm by uniting around a feel good ‘feed the world’ message, but you’re unlikely to see a Sugababes ballad about the WTO’s GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) any time soon. This argument has merits, but it ignores the more awkward fact that the celebrity succeeds in raising the profile of the very issues that campaigners are talking about.

The advent of Live 8 has achieved far more press coverage than months of Make Poverty History and Dissent! mobilisations combined. And with more than one million text messages scrambling for concert tickets, it has provoked the interest of the Crazy Frog generation way beyond the level that more conventional campaigns could hope to achieve. Organisers of protest trains to Edinburgh are still struggling to fill seats, and heretical whispers can be heard on the activist grapevine: ‘offer the trains to Geldof’.

The most positive lesson of this celebrity turn is that we should not ignore cultural politics. Successful protest movements have rarely brought people around to ‘our’ view. Rather, they have sought to engage with the feelings, norms and symbols of everyday life, and articulate them in a more progressive manner. Judged by this standard, the appearance of debt, aid and Africa on the agenda is an important political opening, since it poses questions about the eradication and causes of poverty to which the G8 is unlikely to find a convincing answer.

In opening one set of questions, however, celebrity endorsement closes others. This is the lesson of the original Band Aid and Live Aid in the 1980s. It was no mean feat to raise significant funds and, more importantly, raise the profile of African development in a context of Thatcherite indifference and me-first individualism. But those original interventions also cast Africans as victims of a process in which they had no agency of their own, no ability to question (let alone change) the conditions in which they found themselves. Geldof is still rehearsing the ‘white man’s burden’ routine today, and the return of Live Aid brings with it the same negative stereotypes of Africa, the same failure to address the fact that between 1970 and 2002, Africa alone transferred $550bn to the North in debt repayments on loans estimated at $540bn, yet it continues to ‘owe’ some $300bn.

Celebrity-driven politics does not stop here, though. Where the 1980s campaigns focused on fundraising, today’s ‘politically conscious’ stars front professionalised lobbying operations. For every impassioned plea to ‘make me some fucking money’ (at least I think that’s what Geldof said), there’s a seat on the Africa Commission. And for every charity record, there’s a tour of Washington’s Republican elite.

U2’s lead singer Bono is the acknowledged master of this political smooth-talking. He famously declared Blair and Brown to be the Lennon and McCartney of global development, and hailed former World Bank president James Wolfensohn as ‘the Elvis of economics’. With less fanfare, he has also celebrated the role of the IMF, courted George Bush and far right Republican senator Jesse Helms, and could even be found sharing a joke with Geldof and Russian president Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001 as the city’s streets burned. In 2002, Bono and Geldof launched DATA (Debt Aids Trade Africa), an awareness raising and lobbying group, which uses media attention to gain access to key decision-makers and unsurprisingly has the same agenda as the British government.

Underlying this narrative is an old-fashioned ‘great men theory’: the idea that meaningful political change can be achieved by the few on behalf of the many (see ‘Make the G8 history’). But what makes it work is something far more modern: the widespread penetration of government by public relations (PR).

Celebrities lobby politicians who, in turn, use campaigning techniques pioneered by celebrity publicists. This is not a wholly new phenomenon – as early as 1928, PR pioneer Edward Bernays brought a trainload of Broadway stars to the White House to project president Calvin Coolidge as having a ‘warm, sympathetic personality’. But contemporary politics has taken this process further. Blair’s willingness to be personally associated with ‘eye catching initiatives’, and his preference for softer, chat-show formats over hard-news interviews, are symptoms of a far wider process of focus groups, polls and surveys designed to maintain the right political image, using publicity techniques that extend deep into the policy-making process itself.

It can be argued that this is an appropriate form of politics for an information age. We need a clear point of reference to negotiate the complexity of our social interactions, so we place our trust in personality as a guide. But there are more immediate political concerns at work here, too. Ideological convergence around a market-driven politics means that today’s politicians are no longer offering meaningful choices, different visions of how the world could be. And in this situation, personal reputation and image become increasingly important factors. Celebrity has stepped in because mainstream politics seems incapable of stirring our passions.

In the face of this, it would be tempting to turn our backs on celebrities altogether. But this approach doesn’t always work. For example, when the World Social Forum (WSF) abolished plenaries – the platforms for major speakers – the same star system re-emerged anyway: with Venezuelan and Brazilian presidents Chavez and Lula, in particular, playing court to political rallies far larger than the sessions that were scrapped. This is not simply a matter of bad faith. The politics of representation is alive and well, but it rests upon the recognition of faces above and beyond their formal authority. The WSF says that politicians can participate only in a personal capacity. But that personal capacity was shown to be a mobilising factor in itself, a source of legitimacy and popularity. Needless to say, the media circus followed suit – since its values system puts a premium on faces, on representatives who can articulate the demands of what it otherwise sees as a disordered mass.

In light of this, we should not reject celebrities but rather demand more from them. At the 2004 WSF in Mumbai, for example, novelist Arundhati Roy used her star status to call for a coordinated campaigning initiative against corporations profiting from Iraq. In other words, she sought to use her position to catalyse a common initiative, inviting us to ‘bring our collective wisdom to bear on one single project’ in a way that months of consensus meetings cannot. But at the same forum, she also gave a platform to Dalit women (oppressed by the caste system) to express their grievances. This is closer to what can be achieved: celebrity as catalyst, and celebrity as facilitator – not directly voicing the concerns of others, but giving up a platform for them to do so.

Politics in the extra-parliamentary mould could learn from this to mobilise a different kind of cultural politics. When politicians increasingly draw legitimacy from their personal profile, their trustworthiness, they become susceptible to attack on this same ground (as Blair did with the Iraq war). What this teaches us, too, is that political power does not come to rest in the offices of government and multinational institutions. Public profile, image, trustworthiness: all of these are resources in the public’s gift to bestow and to take away. Seen in these terms, power is better thought of as something dispersed, and that we are all capable of activating. This doesn’t mean we ignore the traditional hubs of power, but instead understand them as places that gain legitimacy through our own belief in, or even identification with, the values of the personalities who inhabit and interact with them. It does mean we need to stop believing – a message that is hardly new to many activists. But the challenge remains to develop a cultural politics that can stir up political passions in the interests of a more democratic and radical form of political change.


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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