Deborah Orr: The triumph of neo-liberalism - but will it really make poverty history?

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The Independent Online

An awful lot of people appear to believe that there is some sort of inherent contradiction involved in a bunch of super-rich pop stars, movie directors, models and so on fronting the Make Poverty History campaign. On the contrary, people such as Bob Geldof, who's organising Live8, Richard Curtis, who's done a movie explaining trade issues, and Kate Moss, who is in an awareness-raising advert, have done awfully well out of the neo-liberal revolution launched by Thatcher and Reagan. And now they are helping to spread the word. To do so, they employ the services they have helped to define: celebrity endorsement, mega-events and their own confident, arrogant, vibrant talent. All this is troubling and seemingly paradoxical to earnest social reformers. But again, it's perfectly logical.

What the Make Poverty History campaign emphasises is just how the political landscape has altered since Live Aid. Back then, British and US politicians were the enemy because of their ruthless pursuit of free market policies. Now, in a dazzling turnaround, politicians are the enemy because of their refusal to extend the free market into Africa, by dropping their own protectionist subsidies, and unleashing upon the more vulnerable of their own voters the reality of competition.

The funny thing is that all concerned appear to have an emotional investment in not seeing it that way. The anti-globalisation movement seems not quite to realise that this is a pro-globalisation movement.

As for the far right, the old men still in love with Margaret, they are hilarious in the contortions they make in order to distance themselves from what is going on. They are so used to assuming that guys in jeans who play guitars are left-wingers that they haven't even noticed that their lot started all this. Even the former left-wingers don't get it, or they wouldn't be so dense about their concert tickets being valuable commodities.

Then there's Tony Blair (pictured with Emma Thompson) and Gordon Brown, exemplary converts from the left to neo-liberalism, yet somehow not quite getting the credit they deserve for the fact that they're singing off the same songsheet as the coalition. Neo-liberalism has become a progressive cause. When Prince William announces that he wants to work in the City to gain experience for future charity work, he shows just how deep into the heart of the establishment neo-liberalism has spread. Making money and doing good are seen as synonyms.

Will this popular uprising work? I hope so. But this economic model is rapacious. It is disgusting that the West feathers its nest at the expense of Africa, and for humanity to be able to continue referring to itself as such, this must change. But free trade with Africa and real investment in the continent won't make poverty history, not with capitalism driving the bus.

Make Poverty History seeks to redistribute wealth. But it will redistribute poverty, and the hardship wrought by lack of social cohesion. There may not be a viable alternative to this course. But doesn't make it an easy one.

Our distorted ideas about wealth

As for the environmental costs of globalisation, they are immense. The airlines are in a great huff over suggestions that they ought to foot the bill for their planetary despoliation. But there is every sign that they are only responding to their markets. I overheard one intelligent young woman complaining to her friend the other day that she'd like to visit France in the summer, but was unable to afford it. In term-time she could fly to France for £40. But in the summer holidays, she sighed, it went up to £175, which was terribly expensive. She paused, before adding with real venom: "Fucking kids."

This is a tiny example of how used people have become to artificially distorted markets, and how keen customers are to blame the victim when competition stops working in their favour. Artificially cheap stuff makes even the poor feel comfortably off, and there will be some difficult adjustments for everyone to make when reality bites (and the longer they're left, the more difficult they will be).

Yet, in the US, one statistic says it all about how the luxuries Westerners have come to demand as cheap necessities manage to distort their ideas about wealth and poverty.

Inheritance tax, a progressive tax on unearned wealth, was abolished by George Bush after a popular campaign that was supported by a majority of the population, even though it adversely affected only a grotesquely wealthy 1 per cent of them.

Partly, this was because the campaign was cleverly orchestrated. But it was also because considerably more than a third of Americans are under the impression that they are part of the 1 per cent or close to it. Which only goes to show that there's a fine line between dreams and fantasies, and a great big distorting one between fantasy and reality.

Speaking loud and clear

What an interesting woman Yvonne Ridley has turned out to be. Kidnapped by the Taliban while reporting on the Afghan war in 2001, she was greeted on her release not with plaudits for her courage but criticism because she put herself in danger even though she was a mother.

When she announced her conversion to Islam, it seemed at the time to be some crackpot variation on Stockholm Syndrome. But whatever moved her, she's certainly stuck by her guns, unlike just about everyone else. We all promised, as we bombed the poorest people on the planet, that we would not forget Afghanistan. Instead, we've allowed our attention to start drifting not just from that war, but from the one we squeezed in afterwards.

Ridley is following her own strange path. Sacked from al-Jazeera, threatened with treason charges, and held in Qatar for more than a month, she last popped up in Britain as a Respect candidate in the general election. She is now working for the Islam Channel, fronting an Islamic chat show, The Agenda, and delivering criticism of the Muslim Council of Britain. We should all be following her lead, and demanding discussion instead of repressive laws.

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