What kind of scapegoat is Bono?


I’m going to take my cue from Harry Browne’s very fine article on Bono in today’s Irish Times.

The vulgar abuse may stem from people’s belief that Bono spends entirely too much time schmoozing with politicians – but maybe he is their victim as much as he is their pal. The cover of the new Italian edition of my critical book about Bono pictures him with a barcode across his face, an image that invites the reader to view the book’s subject as both a product and as a prisoner.

Internationally, Bono has been used to bathe statesmen (George W Bush, Tony Blair) and corporations (Apple, Amex, Monsanto) in the moral legitimacy that he earned over decades as an artist and activist. In Ireland of late, however, his service to the powerful is cruder: he is a sort of human shield, taking the flak for the sins of banks and State. He’s a scapegoat.

And ask the question – if Bono is a scapegoat, just what kind of scapegoat is he, apart from a fabulously wealthy one?

Let me say, first of all, that there are very good reasons for finding Bono unbearable and I have no interest in improving his public image. Just to get it out of the way.

I am going to focus on just one area: tax. Bono’s hypocrisy on tax is well known by now. He and the rest of his band moved their tax affairs away from Ireland because they wanted to make as much money as possible. So when they go on about being Irish, and about what Irish people think or what they are like, people get annoyed. Bono, if u so Irish, why u no pay tax in Ireland?

But not all critiques of Bono’s tax hypocrisy are undertaken for the same reasons.

Some people hate the idea of paying taxes altogether. They think it’s an injustice that a conspicuously rich and celebrated person should get away without paying taxes when they still have to. A lot of the time this sense of injustice comes informed by a sense that the law is the law and obedience to the State is a virtue.

Others think taxes are an essential obligation in democratic society, part of the social glue. Some of them might also recognise that an international tax regime that allows very rich people and the corporations they own to squirrel away their earnings, without paying tax, has the effect of suffocating the public finances of nation states.

Which position reflects the dominant public discourse in Ireland? I think it’s the former.

You can see this in the way there has never been a truly national health service in Ireland. But not only has there been no such thing, there is rarely ever even a discussion of why there has been no such thing.

You can see it too in the way there is no such thing as universal public education. Parents –I am one- have to pony up for textbooks and stationery and even basic school maintenance, as well as give of time in a voluntary capacity, to make sure that their child’s school can function properly. Meanwhile, the State pays for teacher wages in exclusive private schools that nurture and maintain privileged elites.

(This provides a vivid illustration of why volunteerism is so highly valued in Ireland: because it gives a communitarian gloss to a basic situation described by Adam Smith, often quoted by Noam Chomsky: the ‘vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people’)

When it comes to public debate on education, whose voice gets more hearing – parents, or the country managers of multinational corporations that employ a tiny proportion of the workforce and take advantage of Ireland’s favourable tax regime?

These corporations haven’t been subjected to any tax increases over the past five years of crisis. Rather, they’ve benefited both from a religiously defended low tax rate and lower unit labour costs, to the point of free labour laid on by the State.

Meanwhile, the burden on ordinary workers and their children –in terms of lower living standards and higher taxes, with a growing emphasis on indirect taxes- has grown.

It’s the corporation bosses, of course: managers who tell you the country needs more Flemish speakers for call centres, or more graduates who stand up straight when they’re talking to you, or more people ready to work at least thirty different jobs in their lives.

What all of this, and more, means is that there is little sense that you or I have an obligation to contribute towards the education of other people’s children.

We can extend this observation to health care, and welfare more generally. In a society with such a marked absence of mutual responsibility, in which paying as little tax as possible is part of official culture but PAYE workers are seen as a cash cow, there is ample room for resentment towards Bono.

Not because Bono is seen as standing in the way of a better society, however, but because he fulfils a particular role in popular Irish narratives about how such a society works. According to these narratives, the rich are rich because they are greedy and devious bastards, the poor are poor because they are lazy and stupid bastards, and ever was it thus for we ordinary punters in the middle.

So Bono provides a safety valve for venting resentment about a superficial feeling of injustice, but with the structural basis of that injustice well out of sight.

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