We need a new Brand for the UK

The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them – Karl Marx

It did not come as much of a surprise that Russell Brand came out and urged people to vote for the Labour Party in Thursday’s UK elections. As I have written previously, Brand is spectacle and does not represent real politics, nor give a real alternative political option. This is demonstrated by his move to urge Brits to vote Labour.

Of course this is quite a big discursive leap from the man who swallowed a thesaurus. Not that long ago Brand was telling people not to vote. He wrote – correctly – a while back that ‘The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers.’

He also wrote, ‘Like most people, I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.’

And, ‘The reason I don’t vote is the same reason I don’t eat glitter, there’s no f***ing point … I would suggest total disobedience, total non-compliance and also total organisation!’

These statements ring true to many. But Brand is not providing an alternative. Rather, he is making people feel comfortable with their anti-political sentiment, which instead of mobilising people actually depoliticises in its comfort. Giving people the green light to go ahead, do the dirty deed and vote for a party you don’t really like is just the next stepping-stone.

Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys have written extensively on the anti-politics phenomenon. They have said that, among other things, it is a disconnection from, and contempt for political elites. This has meant a popular disengagement from politics, and along with this, the political class has taken positions increasingly hostile to their constituents.

Tietze and Humphrys are broadly right on this, but where they tend to overstate the current state of things is where they write that: ‘Finally, there is what Marx and Engels called “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” — a social revolution that would end “official politics” and replace it with something truly democratic, participatory and emancipatory.’

As much as I would like this statement to be true, Brand’s capitulation to the democracy machine confirms the opposite. Unfortunately, the Brand phenomenon represents somewhat of a de-politicisation, not a real anti-political option.

There is wide agreement now that much of Western politics is so badly broken that it has reached crisis point. What is also clear is that yet another change of leadership will not, by itself, halt the downward spiral. It is simply not a problem of replacing the personnel from the incredibly shallow political pool. The problem is systematic. Brand is symptomatic of this.

In the UK (and much of the West) from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the present, a two-party system has been widely prevalent – first a Conservative-Liberal alternative, then a Conservative-Labour one. Yet what can be observed from the 1970s onwards was the weakening of the capital-labour cleavage on which class politics was based resulting in the emergence of a centre-periphery cleavage, one which we find ourselves in today. In this election, the two-party political system in Britain is facing its biggest challenge since the 1930s. According to the latest polls, the two main parties would not be able to reach 70 per cent of the votes. It is reasonable to think that the 2015 general elections will once again produce no winner.

As the trend is a shift away from politics as usual, Brand’s ‘tactic’ of negative voting to get the party we don’t want out, rather than the party we do want in is playing into the hands of the tired old democratic system. To endorse that system is to sanction the rot, not try to fix it.

Add into this that Labour is far from a palatable alternative for anyone who considers themselves on the left, and we find ourselves in a sticky situation.

Just to point out a few things, the Labour party supports the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – the biggest corporate power grab at the expense of democratic institutions this century. They also plan to implement a mass youth training scheme, in return for not enough money to live on; as a result, young people will face full-time compulsory training. Last time Labour did something like this – Tony Blair’s New Deal – this training quickly became workfare.

A vote for Labour is a vote for business as usual. Popular permission for attacks, albeit slightly less vicious than the Tories, but attacks all the same. For Russell ‘Revolutionary’ Brand to endorse that mob is ridiculous – but more painfully so, predictable.

Brand’s call shows that although there is an anti-political sentiment, the liberal democratic system has no reason to fear it at the moment in most countries. In and of itself, voting for existing parties has little impact on the actual existing state of things. And a very real danger is that it tends to distract people into thinking that voting is the political act par excellence. As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, ‘It’s painful to submit to our bosses; it’s even more stupid to choose them!’

In his ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, Jaques Ranciere makes a simple claim. There are essentially two types of politics. Fake, superficial politics which he calls politics of the police and real politics which he calls dissensus:

The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein. It is the established litigation of the perceptible.

Brand has fallen for the politics of the police, after all his masquerading. But to be fair on him, it is not his fault. The options are being shut off – that is how state propaganda works. There is no lack of criticism of capitalisms horrors and excess. Books, documentaries, news articles abound. But among all this criticism, what is not widely questioned is the liberal democratic system itself and how capitalist excesses are allowed to continue within it.

If it’s a vote for whoever does not make a huge dent in worker-boss relations, then radical changes can only come out of the sphere of legal changes. This is not to say that the state cannot have a positive role to play. But the state apparatus is the apparatus of the bourgeois, with the state’s role to guarantee that the capitalist system continues on, as undisturbed as possible.

When feminists say the personal is political, when environmentalists use household matters as a political issue, or even when Eurosceptics criticise freedom of movement, they claim issues we used to think weren’t topics for political debate actually are. They claim they are about rights, responsibilities and justice, rather than personal choice. These are intensely political movements. But they are also a form of anti-politics. They are anti-establishment, opposing the status quo and the political ‘elites’. Recognising this can be the fuel for both left- and right-wing populism, precisely because elites don’t understand the everyday experiences of the population. Only the populists and radicals – ‘the people’ – do. Recognising this could be a key to harnessing the anti-political force for progressive change.

To finally get to the positive side, this is where and why some positive statist resistance can come from this anti-political populism. And this is why Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain to Latin American ‘populisms,’ should be fully supported as statist options that try to capture these anti-political forces – and the only ones providing at least some semblance of option. This is a far cry from British Labour and Russell Brand.

The Brand phenomenon is overstated. What ground that can be gained by latching on to him is very, very little. People respond not so much to the details of what he says, but how what he says fits into their already-felt and half-articulated sense of politics and the world. The real challenge is how to take this sentiment further. Left populism could provide an answer.

Andrew Self

Andrew Self is a journalist and teacher from Melbourne. He tweets at @andrewself.

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  1. Hi Andrew

    I appreciate your engagement with the “anti-politics” thesis that Elizabeth and I have been putting forward, and for your interesting criticism of Brand, much of which is on the mark.

    However, one of the key things about our general argument is that there are three distinct but related forms of anti-politics, which we mention in the Oxford Left Review article you link to, and which we outlined in more detail here.

    The distinction is important because Brand has certainly called attention to the first type (the general anti-political sentiment in society) but has by and large been an obvious example of the second type (someone with a political project that trades on appeals to anti-politics). Of the second type we argue that “because of their limited nature [they] usually end up being seen as ‘just like the others’, or collapsing into moralistic opposition to the status quo”. Brand is a bit of both now!

    No individual can represent the third type because that can only be a real movement that represents and enacts its own social interests. Movements like 15-M in Spain are embryonic versions of such a process.

    I am much less optimistic that SYRIZA or Podemos represent any kind of progressive challenge in and of themselves, precisely because while they may depend on those in social struggle as an audience for their respective political projects, they seek to channel that resistance into the bounds of the political sphere around the state. That state, separate from the rest of society and standing “over against” it, is the result of the class contradictions of capitalist society, and the administrator of those contradictions, but it is no way able to overturn them (because its own survival depends on their continuation).

    In that sense, while I find Podemos far more interesting that Russell Brand, neither is doing more than using anti-politics for a political end.


    1. Hi Tad,

      Thanks for the comment, and your work on anti-politics.

      I think we broadly agree on what is anti-politics, and I think it was a slight mis-reading by me thinking that the third aspect would become a part of anti-poliitcs.

      And your comments on Syriza and Podemos (and the same could be said of current Latin American populisms) are spot on. However I think in this current climate they offer something, even if that something is breaking out of our (to what extent is debatable) the normal manner of things.

      In Latin America (in which I know more about that the Euro examples) the ability to harness anti-political sentiment has made some fairly significant changes. Some by political outsiders (Chavez in Venezuela) and others by part of the political machine (Kirchner in Argentina, being a Peronist). However all of these examples are bound by what you say. (However I don’t know if the state is seperate from the rest of society, I tend to agree with Bob Jessop that the state is part of society.)

      And, although I beleive you detest him, Laclau points this out very well in his work, using the interesting combination of Schmitt and Gramsci. That once there is enough anti-poltical sentiment, a state leader can capitalise on this for political ends, this of course being populism.

      Therefore the current way out for anti-political sentiment seems to end up in a form of populism. And if this populism can be harnessed for at least some progressive gains outside of the two party system, it’s a start. Where to go from there, well that’s a discussion for another time,

  2. So gender/race/ environment social movements are anti-politics now? As well as Syriza, a party that’s been part of the Greek political system for decades, and derives from a standard-issue Communist Party? Podemos, too, which has rapidly organised a left social-democratic political party around a social movement?

    Does the concept of anti-politics have much use in describing these processes? Unlike the sort of movements that Ranciere might be thinking of – Maoisant, anarchist, refusing any notion that they can be represented, and focusing on things like capturing and trasnforming social spaces – most of what has gone on, especially in the UK, seem oriented to the political from the start, ie petitioning type movements.

    Thus UK Uncut, targeting tax-dodging corporations by occupying big stores, was using that tactic for the modest aim of changing tax policy, and challenging the implicit notions of austerity politics. A Good Thing, but far from a more anti-political act of questioning work, consumption, privatised urban space etc. And further examples from the Cameron-Clegg era resistance could be added.

    One concern would be that anti-politics doesn’t really describe anything – but does give a gloss to standard piecemeal street-based activism. And a false sense of novelty. The big thing in the UK at the moment is a revived squatting movement (pro-squatting laws were abolished by Cameron; but it was then found out that they didnt apply to commercial buildings, giving squatters the same legal latitude they once had with residential buildings. Dozens of inner London buildings are now being squatted, and the idea of reclaiming, redefining space is part of it. But part of it is also the homeless finding shelter in an organised fashion. That gives it an autonomous dimension – it’s not a spectacle, it’s a real claiming – but i still don’t see what the usefulness of calling it ‘anti-political’ might be.

    In that respect, Brand is a bit of a red herring. I think his don’t vote etc thing has been a pose for a long time, and he was always going to use it – or has intended so for a year past now – to throw his support behind Miliband and the Greens, after building up an amount of cred. He;s no dummy, and he’s advised by traditionl centre-left figures like Johann Hari.

    As we’ve seen in the past 24 hours, the assumption of impssse was disproven. Scotland chose a left nationalist party; England chose the Tories to govern alone; Wales chose Labour. The anti-political UKIP – and there I think the term has some usefulness – got three million votes, but couldnt group them suffficiently for power

    The question arising from the UK eletiions is whether widespread disengagement is best seen as a political process, or a social one, with a longer arc, and deeper structural causes

    1. Guy, thanks for your comment. Appreciate you engaging with my piece.

      Whether or not anti-politics has an analytic boundary, therefore rendering it a weak tool is a fair criticism. However, like the use of populism, used correctly it can be very useful. (And I am sure Tad will argue even more strongly for this!)

      Syriza itself (as in the state apparatus) is not so much anti-political, but it has harnessed anti-political sentiment. So, anti-political sentiment ends up being directed into all sorts of places, most of them not that useful in the end. In other words, people’s frustration goes nowhere, just ends up being a vote for Labour or signing some shitty online petition, or writing an article for Overland….

      As much as I would like to see a more revolutionary movement in the sense of Ranciere, I just don’t see that right now. Hence, I give a nod to some of the more progressive movements that are at least making some change to the normal state of things (and as in my comment to Tad, I think Latin America is a better example, and one I know more about). For me, this could be easily classified as populism. Ie: An anti-political sentiment harnessed by a political party etc is populism. And of course, UKIP could fit into this. Populism can go either way.

      And on your last point, I would take the easy way out, and say a bit of both really, in that they are very much related, right?


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