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.