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Bob Geldof is at it again. The chief organizer of the fantastically successful “Live Aid” concerts in 1985 — concerts that raised more than $100 million for famine relief — is coordinating a series of five concerts scheduled to take place on 2 July 2005. Taking place “around the world” (which, in practice, means “in several European capitals and in one major American city”), these free concerts are designed to raise awareness about global poverty with a specific emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa. According to the official website, everyone from U2 to Brian Wilson to the Dave Matthews Band is scheduled to perform; organizers say that they are trying to put on the largest open-air concerts in history.

All of this entertainment activity shows up on my radar screen because of the deeply political agenda of these concerts. Geldof and company have timed these concerts so that they take place four days before the opening of the G-8 Summit in Edinburgh, and are also organizing a massive “Long Walk to Justice” demonstration which will bring hundreds of thousands of people to Edinburgh in an effort to force the G-8 leaders to take some real steps to eliminate global poverty. Hence the name: “Live 8,” which is of course also an allusion to “Live Aid.”

The Live 8 events are politics by other means, since the goal here is clearly to influence state policy — all G-8 members are states — but the technique utilized is neither the traditional electoral approach (vote the bastards out of office if they don’t do what we want them to do) nor the traditional kind of lobbying (in which advocates make their case directly to politicians in the hopes of persuading them to change their minds … perhaps by using promises of electoral or financial support). I don’t think that anyone involved with Live 8 seriously thinks that they are going to change the minds of the leaders gathered in Edinburgh, and that those leaders will suddenly convert to the cause of eradicating poverty because they were deeply moved by something that Bono said on stage; I also don’t think that this is principally about getting voters to build “poverty eradication” into the set of decision rules that they use to select candidates. Live 8 isn’t even aiming at the kind of “boomerang effect” that some scholars of transnational social activism point to, since there does not appear to be any effort to sign up governments which could then bring additional pressure to bear on the G-8 states.

So what are these concerts doing? I’d posit that what is going on here is a deliberate effort to shift the terms of global political discourse. By holding simultaneous free concerts featuring big-name popular musicians, a strategy that virtually guarantees massive amounts of media coverage, Live 8 is designed to highlight global poverty and make its eradication the kind of goal that politicians can’t ignore. The mechanism here isn’t so much electoral pressure as it is popular legitimation. As Max Weber pointed out a century ago, the wielders of political power are almost always trying to establish their rule as “right”; hence it stands to reason that if the mass public’s definition of “right” changes, politicians will in a sense be compelled to shift their policies so as to incorporate these new public demands. In that sense, the primary audience here isn’t the G-8 leaders at all, although the strategy — which we might call “rhetorical coercion” — is designed to change the policies that those leaders pursue.

I remember being at a presentation some years ago in which the speaker asked all of us to think about what “democratizing the G-7” (this was before Russia was a member of the club, so there were only seven members) might look like. His point was that we are so used to thinking of politics as operating along the tracks established by sovereign states that imagining alternative ways of influencing things is sometimes quite difficult to do. Kudos to Geldof and his team for pushing the boundaries, and for ignoring the probably futile strategy of trying to make a case directly to the political leadership — and instead trying to change the social context of economic policy more or less directly. We know that’s worked in the past; maybe it can work in the present too.

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