New Statesman cover
Type
Polemic
Category
Activism
Politics

Russell’s brand of revolution

‘Brand is on our side’ – Carlo Dellora

Whenever anyone with even a modicum of celebrity decides to turn around and criticise the system that got them there, the opprobrium is usually immediate and often scathing. Imagine then, the ensuing political censure, when someone with the popularity of Russell Brand chooses to take on a target as large as global capitalism. Brand recently undertook a guest-editor place with the New Statesman (if only because ‘a beautiful woman was asking him’).

Casual sexism aside, Brand’s work for the progressive magazine has been eminently engaging and undeniably enthralling. Casting aside the incrementalism of George Clooney and Alec Baldwin, Brand has lived up to his name and, echoing the activism of Marlon Brando, shown that there is still room for radical, militant firebrands inside Hollywood. With such an extremist agenda it is unsurprising that many different commentators and critics have wasted no time excoriating Brand for committing a number of ostensible political sins – not voting, having no alternative to the current system while maintaining a decadent personal life and a bulging bank account.

But what has been most surprising about the wellspring of criticism that Brand’s stint as editor has earned him is not so much the content but the source, much of it originating from his supposed allies and comrades on the left.

As Brand points out near the beginning of his voluminous 4500-word piece, ‘the right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors’, which is much to their detriment. In the aftermath of this work and his recent interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand has essentially proved his contention with a number of leftist writers coming out to criticise the man and his ideas. Joan Smith helped get the ball rolling by demanding Brand ‘go back to Hollywood’ (he was born in Essex) and stop pointing out the flaws and inadequacies of our current system until he enrols to vote.

This is well-trodden territory. Whenever social-democrats and other parliamentary socialists find themselves seated next to revolutionaries at the dinner table the same tired arguments about tacit complicity in an unequal system versus the practicality of world wide non-violent revolution are sure to arise. But why discount fellow travellers purely because their methods of achieving change differs? If the left is to remain any kind of potent force in this century it is incumbent upon its members to embrace recruits of all stripes into its house: revolutionaries, democratic participants and everything in between.

Similar critiques of Brand’s ideology and its lack of any substantive solutions to the world’s problems have come from other quarters, too. In his interview with Brand, Jeremy Paxman seemed positively lachrymose when informed that Brand hasn’t had time to devise a new world order which will suit everybody’s needs. Self in his column, alludes to the same thing: ‘Brand does not offer a political alternative, just observational comedy and has denied his politics as “not some weird lefty agenda”.’

These points are by no means new. As the Occupy movement found out, the major criticism held by many of society’s political doyens were not necessarily objections to their methods or messiness, but rather their inability to articulate a well-defined list of grievances and easily cooptable solutions. What these appraisals ignore is that it is not the responsibility for the critics of capitalism to necessarily devise its replacement. As Noam Chomsky said, ‘when we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for’. And sometimes this is enough: no-one truly expects Brand to be the successor to Marx and Engels, devising a new political system in a hotel during an interview with Jeremy Paxman. But his entrance into the political arena heralds at least a step towards change and altering what has for decades remained a fait accompli.

It seems shocking that when someone of the stature of Russell Brand comes out of the proverbial political closet and announces their deep distrust of corporate capitalism, many of the most vocal and strident critics of his position are those who inhabit a place next door. Can we really dismiss someone whose fundamental thesis is ‘the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for…any companies exploiting the environment’?

Sure, Brand’s waffling is grammatically frustrating and at times embarrassingly self-indulgent, but that’s not really the point. But who on the left can honestly say they want more Jay-Zs and Keshas perpetuating crass consumerism and fewer self-aware, eloquent critics? His ideas may not be perfectly formed nor carry the academic tone we’re used to, but there is no denying that the progressive movement is in dire need of someone with the wit, courage and flair of Russell Brand.

 

‘We need to watch ourselves on this one’ – Andrew Self

‘The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived’ – Guy Debord

The word revolution, following Russell Brand’s interview and diatribe on in the New Statesman, has rarely been so hip. He has created a social media explosion congratulating his unoriginal ideas as if they had never been heard before to a collective digital ‘fuck yeah!’

Yet after seeing and reading him, I felt slightly uneasy about the whole thing. Not so much because he is a rich womanising toff talking about these ideas – all luck to him! – more that it’s obvious that he is tactically and theoretically fuzzy.

Brand is not calling for the abolition of capitalism; he is instead calling for a ‘reduction’ of the profit motive, ‘heavily taxing’ corporations and putting extra ‘responsibility’ on them to be green. Which means the substance of his critique of the political class is not structural, but more along the lines of, ‘there are some bad eggs out there’.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that he isn’t earnest or that the issues he raises aren’t real – but his understanding is really limited. Capitalism is not fundamentally a moral problem – that is, a problem made by nasty people. Rather, it is a problem about the fundamental structure of a society based on value and the state. I do not think Brand understands that. As such, his ideas, in their current form, are not going to be truly supportive of a revolutionary movement against the real existing state of things.

More important, for me, is how Brand’s diatribe has been received, which speaks volumes more than what Brand actually said. There have been litres of ink spilt over the ideas Brand put forward in countless publications over many years, much more eloquently written and well researched. So why is Brand’s somewhat-lacking analysis of society so appealing right now?

First, many (including Brand) say that we need education: we need to tell people about the wrongs of the world, the wrongs of crony capitalism. But in fact, many people already know these things. It could be said that we already know too much, and so resign ourselves to being capitalist agents. Those who read and celebrate Brand’s denunciation already know that the political class stinks. What Brand is doing is observational comedy with a political tinge; in seeking to talk to the direct audience, he represents a pure spectacle, not a revolution.

That large corporations inflict pain on the third world is not new. Furthermore, what Brand offers in his New Statesman piece is not a political alternative – it’s not even a new perspective. More accurately, it’s a mishmash of old ideas with some New Age spirituality thrown in the mix, in which he completely gets it the wrong way around! ‘For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political,’ he said, thereby entirely confusing ‘the political’.

‘I have never voted,’ Brand writes. ‘Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics.’ But this is precisely part of the problem Russell – politics is not simply the tired voting game! As French philosopher Jacques Ranciere writes: to identify politics as simply the exercise and struggle over possession of power is to do away with politics completely and, in the process, reduce our mode of thinking.

Second, there is the obvious cult of celebrity and how that functions here. Yes, he is witty and entertaining, but all he offers is spectacle of resistance which modern capitalism allows and coopts. Look no further than the most famous image of the twentieth century, Che Guevara. Guy Debord has argued that, ‘The imposed image of the good envelops in its spectacle the totality of what officially exists, and is usually concentrated in one man’. In other words, everyone must identify with this celebrity or disappear. The celebrity is the ‘master of non-consumption,’ Debord says, and the only image in which we can find ‘acceptable meaning’. We are blinded by our gaze onto this shining star.

Many will argue that Brand is simply a man ‘raising awareness’. But we do not necessarily need any more awareness in the form of spectacle, which merely offers – let’s be honest – light entertainment in place of real ideas and a real alternative. The spectacle of performance puts our ideas of resistance and change up on a platform so that the left does not have to. In essence, it is the performing of politics rather than the practice.

One interesting comparison could be drawn with the leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, often criticised as a charlatan, a clown who plays on his celebrity to get his ideas across. Hence, some do not take his theories seriously. Paradoxically, Brand is a self-confessed charlatan who’s taken very seriously. Zizek calls for a removal from capitalism and non-participation into a ‘communist nothing’, whereas Brand continues on in the same tired path as celebrity liberals like Bob Geldof, calling for some kind of poorly outlined rich-man action.

The whole Brand phenomenon actually represents a depoliticisation, not a deepening, of politics. In the Guardian, Brand wrote: ‘In this age where politics is presented as entertainment, it’s the most entertaining politicians who ascend.’ The same could be said of him. We can sit, applaud, post on Facebook and release a collective sigh of ‘finally, someone said it!’, but Brand’s new age ‘revolutionary’ ideas have already been with us for a very long time.

In the end, it does not matter if Brand’s personal politics are ‘revolutionary’: I give the man respect for using his enormous celebrity to open the debate ever so slightly. I am not condemning him for not expressing my personal opinions about what is and is not radical. Nevertheless, the opinions he is espousing have not launched a critical discourse in the ways that have been suggested.

Comments

  1. Andrew, I partly agree with you about the limits of Brand’s politics. But part of me thinks that you are also partly disagreeing merely with the language Brand uses. When he writes, I am “disenchanted by politics”and then advocates revolution, I don’t think he is “doing away with politics” in the way Ranciere describes. He clearly means politics to refer specifically to the party politics of liberal democracy, even if this doesn’t make sense to someone with a background in political philosophy. One should be a bit more generous, I think, with people who don’t share the same cultural references as one’s self.

    • Thanks for the comment Brad. I probably should be more generous, however I still think that Brand, and many without a background in political philosophy solely think of politics as the voting mechanism and government, when it is much more than this obviously. This line of thought does not help at all on the left.

  2. Cannot fathom why you are even giving this sensationalist episode such credence?
    The only reason anybody has discussed Brand’s incoherent –supposedly ‘revolutionary’– diatribe is for the fact that he is mainstream celebrity and has maximum media access and exposure.
    For ‘progressives’ you seem amazingly smitten by the ‘stature’ of celebrity; to even bother with this as a fruitful subject for a “political analyst” seems deeply counter-productive. How are we in ‘dire need’ of such spokespeople as Brand? Apparently the best available radical Leftist response to rampant consumerist global-capitalism is … to let rich celebrities do the media representation for the masses?
    Great. Makes so much ideological sense.
    By the way:
    “Sure, Brand’s waffling is grammatically frustrating and at times embarrassingly self-indulgent, but that’s not really the point. But who on the…”
    Didn’t need the clunky repetition of “but” — lots to be said for well-formed writing, too.

    • PB – If you read the whole piece you will see that I make a very similar point to you in the second half, Carlo wrote the first half.

  3. Andrew not everyone has your obvious grounding in high minded philosophy. However is conscience raising such a reprehensible act. Surely if a few minds were kicked out of submission and into action then it is a positive. Also I agree with Maxine wholeheartedly. A bitter pill is much easier to swallow when coated in honey.

  4. Carlo says: “the same tired arguments about tacit complicity in an unequal system versus the practicality of world wide non-violent revolution are sure to arise.”

    I’m not tired of this one. In fact, it feels fresh as ever.
    No-one is arguing that a vote should be currency in political discourse, but for every person that doesn’t vote, a conservative does. There is no such thing as conscientious objection in the system we find ourselves in – every electoral inaction from the left props up conservative governments.

    Brand’s performance was viral by design. He went in knowing his message would be spread far and wide, and he encouraged people not to vote while also failing to incite revolution. In other words he propped up conservatism.

    Why not vote progressively, let the small victories have their small impacts on all the small, uncelebrated lives, and go on making your big plans in the meantime?

  5. Methinks you draw too large a distinction between what Brad is doing and ‘real’ politics (‘The whole Brand phenomenon actually represents a depoliticisation, not a deepening, of politics.’). He may be relatively unformed or lacking in coherence – as he admitted in the Paxman interview – but whatever his problems, it takes a fair bit of courage for him to say the things he said, which break the standard neoliberal discourse. In that interview, for example, Paxman tried a number of supercilious comments designed to discredit Brand and maintain a comfortable ‘consensus’, which Brand did well to sidestep. Of course the context in which he’s speaking is one of depoliticisation, but what else was he to do? He can’t really be blamed for that. There are plenty of examples of people like him, say, in the 60s – Norman Mailer and others – who played similar roles.

  6. “rich womanising toff ”

    He may be rich and womanising, but as he tells it he is far from being a toff. He basically grew up as a member of the underclass and got out with his hyperactive comedy talent and a grant from the local council to study acting. Interesting that you would use the term ‘toff’ to denigrate him.

    He has written some very thoughtful pieces for the Guardian. One particularly about the London riots where he encouraged us to compare the treatment of the chavs for stealing a few pairs of trainers (gaol, ASBOs, opprobrium) to the treatment of disgraced bankers (not a single one imprisoned, no curtailment of bonuses). He had a good few insights into celebrity/consumerist culture in that one too; he is well aware of the economy of spectacle and his role in it.

    “Those who read and celebrate Brand’s denunciation already know that the political class stinks”

    Some of those who saw Brand’s interview with Paxton wouldn’t have given the political class much thought at all prior to seeing one of their favourite stars speaking about them. But that’s beside the point, it is absolutely refreshing and inspiring to see a wealthy person who has personally benefitted from the system denounce it root and branch. Granted I don’t think it will make a jot of difference.

    As for intoning that Brand’s critique of capitalism is not structural obviously didn’t hear him when he said that “profit is filthy, wherever there is profit there is deficit.” Which seems like a structural critique to me, not ‘there’s a few bad apples.’

    While I can’t agree that the solution is firstly spiritual and then political, I would say, whatever the solution to the current (and extreme) rise in wealth and income inequality and wholesale destruction of the environment it surely will need social and cultural as well as political change. When you’re talking about changing people’s beliefs and ideologies underpinning their actions and behaviours I don’t think its all that crazy to call that ‘spiritual’ change. I would prefer ‘social-cultural milieu,’ but if Brand want to call that ‘spiritual’ I would not be too fussed.

    ‘Brand continues on in the same tired path as celebrity liberals like Bob Geldof, calling for some kind of poorly outlined rich-man action.’ Did we see the same interview? Sure, Brand was hazy about the action required (which is disappointing), but I’m pretty certain he’s not advocating for the next ‘Live Aid’ when he calls for revolution.

    What is almost certain is that Brand will be a flash in the pan. What is sad is that the man himself appears to believe he will not be. It is, I suppose remotely possible that he will cause change, but I strongly doubt it.

    The media and entertainment industry has a thousand other channels for the chavs to distract themselves with apart from Revolutionary Hour with Russell Brand. The political class has no intention of letting the barbarians in and will not give up without a fight. And there is no fight in the barbarians, though, they stay at home, keep watching their tv and internet, keep lusting after brand name goodies keep taking the drugs and keep staying obese on junk food and no need to move. Just like they’ve done for around 40 years. This particular post industrial system of keeping a populace cowed may last another 100 years. Just imagine another 100 years of boy band mania and x-factor and Kim Kardashian and new and improved psychopharmaceuticals. I see no revolution happening for a while.

    Perhaps only when climate change and the resultant resource scarcity really kicks in will anyone come out from behind their screens.

  7. What happened to the revolution in May 1968? The French Philosophers couldn’t come up with a political alternative either and they were grounded in philosophy. It was the students that did the hard graft and academia that let them down. *Shrugs* I don’t understand why people are so scathing of someone wanting to express their view and opinions. He seems to be more a polemicist than proclaiming to be the leader of the revolution.

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