Russell Brand is peddling false idols in the marketplace. Beware his apathy-fueled and undemocratic spritual revolution on the cheap and go for the real, hard work of actual change instead.
Jeremy Paxman vs. Russell Brand. Great TV. Riveting drama. There’s something utterly magnetic about Russell Brand’s combination of charisma, intelligence, bravura and sesquipedalianism. Something about the way he mingles insight with an utter inability to understand the constraints of reality reminds me of Oscar Wilde. And like Oscar Wilde, his unwillingness to accept the demands of the status quo on social change is both his greatest asset and his greatest weakness.
So Paxman, above, is interviewing Brand about the latest issue of New Statesman, which Brand edited. In it, Brand reveals a revolutionary streak, in a rambly, new agey, grossly unedited piece where he calls for a revolution, spiritual and political, to overthrow capitalism and the political class and institute … well, what follows is unclear, but it’s way better than what we have. Or so says Brand.
He also says that he has never voted and discourages voting. (It only legitimates the system blah blah blah.)
So, coming from where I coming from, a card-carrying socialist, anti-establishment, pro-equality and egalitarian democracy and sharing many of Brand’s policy goals, such as they are, I still find Brand’s anti-politician rhetoric to be so painfully simplistic that it in itself seems to demonstrate that he doesn’t see the real problems of capitalism. A glib denunciation of a whole group of people, completely neglecting the fact that the social movements these politicians come from are just that: movements, classes, structures. He turns personal dislike of the political class into a political statement (and a lifestyle choice).
Cameron, Osborne, Boris, all of them lot, they went to the same schools and the same universities that have the same decor as the old buildings from which they now govern us. It’s not that they’re malevolent; it’s just that they’re irrelevant. Relics of an old notion, like Old Spice: it’s fine that it exists but no one should actually use it.
We are still led by blithering chimps, in razor-sharp suits, with razor-sharp lines, pimped and crimped by spin doctors and speech-writers. Well-groomed ape-men, superficially altered by post-Clintonian trends.
Well, no. Sure, some of them are blithering chimps in nice attire, but if you don’t see what politicans are, who they are, what they do … well, how can you fix a society if you don’t understand in what way exactly it’s broken? If you can’t understand in what way good men and women come to generate bad politics, you’re not nearly clever enough to be let near a revolution. If you can bring yourself to say that “Capitalism is not real; it is an idea”, then you don’t understand that ideas are real and that capitalism is way smarter than you are.
That’s why it’s so hard for us to do away with. It takes actual, you know, work, and thinking and more work. You don’t overthrow capitalism or genuinely make a difference by saying that “we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power” — I swear, I’m not making this up — you do it by doing political work.
And can I just jump into the margin for a second to say that the one thing I find truly grating about Brand is how a major part of his schtick is that he’s not supposed to be smart and brilliant. He plays at being a dilettante when he’s not. That’s what all the long words are about, and the lines like “When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.” O why, me, edit a magazine? But I’m just a co-me-dian. And then of course he does it smartly because he’s smart. And why shouldn’t he be? Being smart and being uneducated, a former junkie or a comedian are not mutually exclusive, as it turns out. And I can’t help but resent a little bit his constant assumption that I think he’s stupid.
It occurrs to me that Brand reflects the romantic and revolutionary longings of his namesake in Ibsen’s Brand, which apparently is the Norwegian word for “fire” (meaning a firebrand in Norwegian is a fire-fire, but i digress). Like all good revolutionaries the Brands of this world burn to utterly reshape the way the people live. And they often have very little room for the people whose lives they want to change in their visions, and very little support among them. Neither Brand bother asking what people actually want, or bother reflecting on how best to achieve those goals. (And then one of them ends up buried under a glacier, let’s not tax the analogy.)
It is telling, in the Paxman interview, that our modern-day Brand sets out purely negative views of the coming utopia: not unsustainable, not unequal, not elitist. But you can’t build a society on negative terms. There are many sustainable and equal societies, but you need to know which one you’re aiming for in order to start progressing in the general direction of it. This is the point of the American sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s brilliant book Envisioning Real Utopias, an insightful discussion of how to identify things in our current world that seem like they would have a place in a real utopia and start moving society in that direction by expanding those things. It’s an insightful work of theory which Brand (Nordic or otherwise) would do well to read.
And it’s blindingly obvious that Russell Brand has no idea how to conduct the business of a revolution (especially, it seems, a peaceful one):
We now must live in reality, inner and outer. Consciousness itself must change. My optimism comes entirely from the knowledge that this total social shift is actually the shared responsibility of six billion individuals who ultimately have the same interests. Self-preservation and the survival of the planet. This is a better idea than the sustenance of an elite. The Indian teacher Yogananda said: “It doesn’t matter if a cave has been in darkness for 10,000 years or half an hour, once you light a match it is illuminated.” Like a tanker way off course due to an imperceptible navigational error at the offset we need only alter our inner longitude.
As the British writer and actually-an-activist George Monbiot once so fittingly wrote, in the introduction to his book The Age of Consent: “If you believe that slogans are a substitute for policies, or that if we all just love each other more, there’ll be a transformation of consciousness and no one will ever oppress other people again then I am wasting your time, and so are you.”
“I don’t need the right from you, I don’t need the right from anybody, I’m taking it.” It’s a telling conclusion to the Paxman interview. And it demonstrates just how wrong Brand is. Because that’s the point he doesn’t get when he slags off voting:
He does need permission to change society in any deep way. Who does he need permission from? All of us. Because that’s what democracy is. And he’s not getting it from me, not while he wears scarves like that or says unbearably stupid things like
We require a change that is beyond the narrow, prescriptive parameters of the current debate, outside the fortress of our current system. A system predicated on aspects of our nature that are dangerous when systemic: greed, selfishness and fear. These are old, dead ideas. That’s why their business is conducted in archaic venues. Antiquated, elegant edifices, lined with oak and leather. We no longer have the luxury of tradition.
Oh, fuck off. Russell: Stability is not the same as tradition. Just because things happen in oaklined offices, doesn’t mean they’re bad. My old pharmacy had been in business for 250 years. Doesn’t mean medicine is bad for me. Change the politics, don’t throw democracy out the window. If you want to change society, run for public office, you twat. Build a coalition. Keep fighting for, keep speaking out for, social change, egalitarian politics, social equality and participatory sustainability. I (often) applaud your spokesmanship and I often respect your insights, your way with words and your funny.
But as someone who has actually been down in the trenches handing out leaflets and taking names, arguing at party conferences, at podiums and in back rooms, writing op-eds, discussing and negotiating and organising and communicating and organising some more and discussing some more: I resent your apathy dressed up as politics. I resent you presenting change as some lame, spiritual lifestyle choice. I resent the way you spit on those of us who are trying to make change real. And the reason I do is because you are not.
And until you start fighting for those things, for equality, egalitarianism and democracy, until you roll up the sleeves of your no doubt extremely expensive shirt and get up to your elbows in organising for change, like the rest of us plebs in the movement: please, for the love of God, cease with the whining.