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11 July 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

Real people power, or pernicious platitudes?

G8: I've changed my mind: it was an incredible outpouring of global fellowship

By Zoe Williams

I was totally wrong about Live 8. Last week, I wrote that it wouldn’t have a “vibe”. I quoted a number of other people who said it wouldn’t have a vibe. If I hadn’t gone on Saturday, I could have happily continued in my belief that there wasn’t a vibe. All I would have noticed from the telly was a lot of very rich musicians shouting at us about responsibility, and Bob Geldof wheeling out Birhan Woldu, a success story from Live Aid – ten minutes away from death in 1985, saved by the west, now studying at agricultural college and, more to the point, a “beautiful woman!”. (Really, this is aid at its most facile: we give them money, they stop starving, become beautiful . . . it’s like international relations rewritten by Joan Collins.)

The fact is, though, the atmosphere was incredible. You can never underestimate the power of a crowd. It is awe-inspiring. However authority-sanctioned this business was, however slick and policed, all it takes is a huge crowd, and the buzz of a couple of helicopters, and you cannot help but experience the surge of your own significance as citizens. Revolutionary sloganeering suddenly makes sense. I do not doubt the demonstration in Edinburgh – as eclipsed as it was by the event with all the famous people – felt, in a different but comparable way, just as exhilarating.

There is a reason, too, why it should be musicians who bring all this together. Music is the only art form that can understand, marshal and intensify the power of numbers. In the pre-Live 8 debate about how bad these pop stars are at preaching and political expression, we forgot (well, I forgot . . .) how good they are at what they actually do: singing. Paul McCartney I still can’t see the point of, but Robbie Williams, REM, Madonna – these are epic personalities and born performers. Watching them is like taking drugs – proper drugs, not prescription drugs.

Naturally, this is adrenalin talking. Adrenalin is a lot like morphine; it doesn’t banish the function of your conscious mind, it just makes it seem rather irrelevant. So you can watch between-band footage of starving children to a weirdly upbeat soundtrack and still find it manipulative, but your mood does what it’s told. You can see the electronic messages “Berlusconi, Blair, Bush, Chirac, Koizumi, Martin, Putin, Schroder – now is the time, this is the year – you can end poverty for good” and think it reads like a bad Hallmark poem. But still, there are just so many of you . . . how can it possibly not make a difference? What else will ever change the world, if this doesn’t?

But the fact is, when the adrenalin passes, it all seems inane. Sure, a lot of people are now “aware” of the problems facing Africa, but it is ludicrous to contend that nobody knew, before the weekend, that people on that continent were starving. The first message to seep out of Gleneagles was that Bush still intends to “put US interests first”: a profoundly unsurprising statement, given that large demonstrations never make any difference to policy unless they are violent. (Just think of the great anti-war march. A million people. No difference at all.) Domestically, it takes the wind out of your sails that everybody seems to be saying the same thing – Bob Geldof and Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Robbie Williams, all united in the laudable belief that “nobody should starve in the 21st century”. On who, exactly, are we meant to be putting pressure? Ultimately, you build this collective energy with huge, simple, uncontroversial statements – music can change the world, humanity should rise up, and so on. And once we are agreed on these statements, what then? More aid? Aid jettisoned in favour of fairer trade agreements? Investment by private western companies to stimulate entrepreneurship, or barriers against the same to protect nascent African industries? The overriding message of “We don’t want your money, we want you” just confused things further. Want us to what? How will we know when we’ve made a difference, and whether it’s a difference of the right kind?

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Yet on the day, none of this mattered – all that mattered was a remarkable sense of global fellowship. It might be the adrenalin speaking, but there was definitely, incontrovertibly, a vibe.

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