Thursday 7 November 2013

Russell Brand on revolution

Russell Brand—someone of whose work I am only dimly aware—has become the new spokesperson for a generation. Most of us have known him hitherto primarily as a comedian and latterly a film actor but after editing an issue of the New Statesman and appearing on Newsnight to big it up we need to see him in a different light.

His appearance on the BBC’s flagship news programme made for fascinating television. He stood up well to a Paxman grilling, gradually shifting the discussion onto his own terrain and demonstrating genuine anger about the gross unfairness of the world and considerable concern for its very future.

Since this appearance many sections of the press have been chewing over what he said. And it shows no sign of going away: a week after the interview he reappeared in The Guardian to give his impressions of the maelstrom that has formed around him.

High time, I thought, to weigh in. So here goes.

Much of the interview—and of his manifesto in the form of a New Statesman article, centred on the question of voting—and the fact that Brand never has.

Most people, he says, and more particularly young and poor people, don’t care about politics. Or at least they don’t care about the stuff that goes on in the Houses of Parliament. But they are not apathetic. They care about the planet and how that is being destroyed. They care about the massive—and widening—gaps in wealth they see opening up around them. And they are often deeply affected by how a world is being presented to them through marketing that is utterly out of reach. And they respond on occasion with riots.

Above all for Brand politicians are worthy of our highest contempt. They are liars and hypocrites who care only for themselves and their invariably rich mates. One of the best moments of the Paxman interview was when the interviewee asked his questioner if he wasn’t more tired than anyone of the lying? How many years, he asked, has he spent hearing them lie, before being replaced by another lot just the same? Of course Paxo has every interest in politics remaining just this way—his job depends on it after all. He had no reply.

His intervention has received mixed, albeit predominantly unfavourable, reviews in the mainstream leftist media. In The Observer Nick Cohen put Brand in the same category as other artists who, in his estimation, were drawn towards extreme politics merely for the superficial excitement it engendered over the day-to-day grind of "serious” politics:

"Extremism is more exciting and dramatic, more artistic perhaps, than the shabby compromises and small changes of democratic societies. You suspect that half the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s supported fascism or communism just for the thrill of it."

In this he was backed up by Joan Smith in The Independent who, while acknowledging his wide appeal, took personal umbrage that her considerable personal efforts at effecting political change via more traditional means were being undermined by such apolitical layabouts:

“ As someone who has knocked on thousands of doors and delivered thousands of political leaflets, I don’t have much time for people who complain endlessly but don’t value democracy sufficiently to engage in it.”

Meanwhile back in the New Statesman Brand’s fellow comic Robert Webb urged him to get real and vote Labour advising him that the idea of revolution has had its day:

“I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.”

You get the idea: that kind of talk is for kids who have yet to grow out of their half-baked woolly notions that changing the world is easy. It takes time and lots of hard thankless work, of which you know nothing.

From what has come my way at least only Channel 4’s Cultural and Digital Editor Paul Mason was broadly in favour of Brand’s thesis arguing:

“I think, on balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It won’t be a socialist revolution, nor even an anti-capitalist one in design. It will be something cultural … a complete rejection of the corrupt and venal values of those who run society.”

Much of the left have been more enthusiastic, seeing Brand’s words as confirmation that a new mood exists amongst the poor and the young who have been on the sharp end of attacks from successive governments. It backs up their argument as well that for many there is barely any difference to be discerned between the principal parties.

I find myself generally sympathetic to Brand. But it’s a little more complex than his manifesto would suggest.

The first time I exercised my right to vote Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. This was not my choice. In fact I had to wait eighteen years until placing my “X” resulted in my choice of administration. And that process gave us Tony Blair: a Labour leader in name only, leading a party that was, in the words of Peter Mandelson, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. A party that in government proceeded to deepen our enslavement to the paradigm (to use one of Brand’s favourite words) of the absolute rule of the market. And that gave us, as their lasting legacy, the disastrous adventure in Iraq—sold on lies and deceit.

Sure they tossed us a few scraps: a minimum wage set pitifully low, and the right to trade union recognition providing the bosses didn’t put the frighteners on you first. Stuff like that, wrung out of them by the associated power of the trade union movement and the hard work of party activists. But fundamentally things went on as before.

So I understand the appeal of refusing to participate in this version of the democratic process. I think it is undeniable that Brand has tapped into a very real feeling out there: but one that it is impossible to really get your head round if you live in the so-called “Westminster bubble”. And indeed if you are part of the mainstream media that for the most part inhabits pretty much the same space.

Now Brand tells us revolution is coming. My hunch is he’s a little wayward in that assessment but something is in the air as more and more people come to the realisation that we, as a species, are sleep-walking to disaster.

I’m glad Brand has made his intervention. By his own admission he doesn’t have the answers but frankly neither do the bulk of his critics. Labelling him as naive and his politics as adolescent is patronising to the people to whom he is giving a voice. Just as I was writing this Prime Minister’s Questions was being broadcast on the radio. I defy anyone to listen to that and tell me Brand is any less grown-up. And these are the people that are really in charge.

To argue, like Nick Cohen, that Brand is acting as a “glib exhibitionist” or, like Joan Smith to condemn him as “more idiot than savant” is to betray a deep lack of understanding at just how deeply what he says represents many people’s thinking.

Nonetheless to justify withdrawal from the whole voting thing and leave it at that is not enough. Indeed it is my view that the argument around whether one chooses to withdraw or engage with that is a red herring. Actually there are still differences between mainstream parties even if their policies don’t always fully reflect this.

For all that his opponents have lined up to defend the gains of the parliamentary process there must be a recognition that real change has come from what we do in between those fragments of time that it takes to write an “X” in a box. That being organised in a trade union is going to help you stand up to a piss-taking boss more than who you voted for last time for example.

Rather than writing off Russell Brand as an attention-seeking vacuous celebrity his critics should listen a bit more and take note. Their own cosy little worlds might be due for a shake-up sooner than they think.

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