Don’t you know you can count me out: A reply to Russell Brand’s call for Revolution

Russell Brand

Readers of the New Statesman, viewers of Newsnight, lend me your gear, Russell Brand wants a spiritual revolution! Yes, the loquacious libertine wishes to “renounce the current paradigm”, that classic call of the common man, encouraging others to denounce the vote as a parlour game and inspire the disaffected, atomised, brainwashed masses to rise up, embrace their responsibilities as global citizens and fight for a socialist utopia that recognises both self and geo-political interest as subservient to one’s duty to the ecosystem and its (dis)contents.

If you think this argument is solid in the abstract but ludicrous coming from a confessed narcissist whose adult life has been defined by the will to be famous, a dream that by definition requires elevating oneself above the ordinary citizenry and indulging in the rewards the capitalist system endows on the celebrated, then relax, so does Russell. I like Brand, he’s erudite, albeit in an affected way, and mischievous. The world’s more colourful with such gremlins in the system poking our complacency. But there was something deeply depressing about watching, then reading his repackaged student politics clichés, noting that he’d used the very strategies, beloved of the political class he despises, to make his case pass the jumping on the floorboards test.

Russell hates these self-serving elites but their spin-doctors would have been proud that this proto-revolutionary had purchased their tool kit. In making his case Brand sought to do three things, i) neutralise his negatives ii) throw a big tent around his audience (shades of Osborne’s ‘we’re all in this together’) and iii) recast self-serving lifestyle choices as virtues. Sadly, like the politicians who peddle this guff professionally, the manipulations were crude and obvious.

Brand knows that most of his audience will see him as the personification of what he calls being “a prisoner of comfort in the absence of meaning” – a pretty good definition of drug addiction. Best to acknowledge this early then and make the case that it doesn’t exclude him from having the right to challenge a system that in all likelihood he couldn’t live without. “I should qualify my right to even pontificate on such a topic,” he writes, theatrically arching back his hand, caricaturing himself to pre-empt those minded to do the same. He languishes on “a lilo made of thighs”, on an “ocean filled with honey”, but he nevertheless attended his first riot in good faith, aggrieved at the sanctimonious protestor that thought he shouldn’t be there and irritated that they didn’t share his good humoured, that is to say, glib approach to socking it to the man: a crusade for equality that he’d happily give up “some” of his “baubles and balderdash” to achieve, though only some mind. You see, Russell’s superficially very serious about this revolution, so now we’ve established that we can start listening to him and get inspired.

Brand’s got the biggest tent there is for his sketchy project to reorganise the world – humanity. Tears stream down your face as Russell recalls attending the pomp and circumstance of the Givenchy fashion show in Paris, just a week after visiting the starving kids of Kenya, and realising “that the price of this decadence was their degradation”. It hadn’t stopped him going of course but here was proof of capitalism’s folly; the moral and socio-political ghetto in which we’d imprisoned ourselves, enslaved to the cult of our personality, when we should be looking outward, putting an arm around the world’s shoulder and offering it our coat of plasticised organs.

Here Russell acknowledges his own innate ridiculousness, asking for our understanding that a person can believe in higher ideals while being all too human, all too fallible. One’s left baffled that he can’t therefore accept that politicians may, despite their flaws, believe in something too, something greater than their own self-interest. But in Brand’s world you’re an establishment lackey if you’ve successfully stood for election and can have no excuses. Later, recalling the protestor that wouldn’t ascribe him human credentials on account of his celebrity, he’s furious. Yes, there’s nothing like a pious arsehole that refuses to believe you’re interested in anything but yourself, right?

Then there’s the third tranche of Russell’s strategy to win over his readers: recast self-serving lifestyle choices as virtues. This is essential; else we may use his smack habit, hedonism and glibness as a means to dismiss him. Here Brand is adamant: he wants to have a fucking laugh and that’s a healthy thing, a philosophy on life that acknowledges its ludicrous character while simultaneously allowing for righteous fury at its many injustices.

Russell’s selfish and contemptuous of any and all moral authority, after all being a committed self-serving cock makes any other attitude toward authority impossible, but arguing that such a worldview constitutes a political philosophy is a bit of a stretch. One can certainly be self-absorbed and want the world to change but living one’s life according to principles that reflect the kind of society you’d like to see created helps to carry people with you. We must hope that Tony Benn didn’t read Russell’s piece as the convulsions of laughter might have killed him.

What’s fundamentally dispiriting, pun intended, about Brand’s call to arms is that it has so little intellectual content. He makes the easiest argument in the world, that politicians are self-serving and corrupt, that the system reinforces their power, that its interests are ultimately self-selecting, meaning those who won’t buy in are ignored – with the only alternatives offered being a series of morally watertight abstractions.

We must get spiritual, get selfless and apply these principles to governance in the interests of all the people – “a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology”. Worry if you don’t know how such a system might function or what happens to those who don’t believe in its precepts, Russell’s just the visionary, it’s our job to make it work. Still, he prescribes a solution for bringing it about. “Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters (surely opportunism, Russell?), with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone”. As easy as that, huh?

Russell doesn’t say how to temper the destructive instincts of those willing to die, like the committed religious fundamentalist, or how to vet the uprising for those who may want to achieve their aims by aggressive means when you must “include everyone, judging no one” but he’s not talking out of his blow hole, his political philosophy was built on the teachings of Billy Connolly.

In fact there’s so much fallacious crap in Brand’s piece it’s likely Connolly will be inserting it into his routine about toilet conditions at Glasgow’s ship yards. Russell doesn’t vote because politicians are “frauds and liars” and the Westminster system is a self-serving bureaucracy. “Most” people feel the same and that’s why they’re apathetic – the only rational response to the situation. It doesn’t occur to Russell that the system has provided relative stability for centuries, which in turn has made the country politically stable, or that if many people “don’t give a fuck” about politics it’s because there’s very little to trouble them, beyond what amounts to administrative laments.

When politics truly fails, when it’s conspicuously detached from the concerns of the electorate (assuming one exists), the threat of social collapse looming as a consequence, then people are awoken to it. The more content a society is, relatively speaking – the less troubled by war, poverty, corruption or state power, the less likely it is to take notice of what the government’s up to. What Brand calls apathy is often ignorance. Would things be better if the populous was politically more astute? Probably, but for those who believe politics is none of their concern, government is benign or invisible. Some would argue that’s a system that broadly works, a system that despite being unrepresentative, slow to react to social change, inward looking, archaic and morally bankrupt, does enough to convince both the 30m people who vote for it and the 10m who don’t, that it’s working well enough not to be violently overthrown.

But what about the London Riots? Isn’t that evidence of deep discontent, boiling over? Russell wants to believe, needs to believe, that this flashpoint was political in the sense that an unrepresented underclass sought a voice; that their anger bubbled up from feeling disenfranchised. That may be how it looked from Hollywood but to the eyes of many it seemed like an act of opportunistic lawlessness – later rationalised as a revolt against haves by the have-nots. That struck many as awfully convenient, as it absolved them of individual responsibility for joining the herd at a moment when it was thought the authorities were overwhelmed and their backs turned, but Russell sees something healthy, something faintly heroic about it all. The mute spoke. Regrettable then, that they had sod all to say.

Is apathy really the only rational reaction to discontent? Might it not be argued that the complete opposite is true; that if you feel, as Russell does, that the system’s broken, then it’s your duty to get involved and change it? Winston Churchill, admittedly not a political thinker like Billy Connolly, once noted that parliamentary democracy was the worst system there was, apart from all the others.

One can lament social injustice, inequities between rich and poor, have ideas about how ideological principles should be applied to how society runs, but what is the delivery system for changing these things if we burn down parliament and take to the street? In reality states require bureaucracies to function, it’s the only practical way, which in turn requires that a) they be populated and b) somehow we decide by whom they should be populated. Yes, that old paradigm.

Russell hates politicians and conveniently excuses himself from standing for election by signalling them out as a club he wouldn’t want to be a member of. But they’ve put themselves out there and he hasn’t, they’ve made themselves accountable to the electorate and he hasn’t, they understand that peaceful change can only come when the people consent to a body taking decisions on their behalf, and he doesn’t.

Not voting is easy; it’s inaction. But those that opt out don’t suddenly become a member of a shadow society. You’re part of the political culture of your country whether you participate or not. That’s a social fact, not an abstraction. Russell believes it’s noble to reject the system that governs him. On a personal level that’s understandable. He and the political class have nothing in common; their values are not his – they can’t be, as Brand represents a kind of militant individualism, of the kind he decries, that no political party can buy into as they’re obligated to moderate their views to appeal to the most people possible.

Russell loathes their faux piety, that they represent the rule of law, that they’re conformists, that they’re grey and stuffy. Who wouldn’t prefer the romance of the revolution – wild abandon fuelled by drugs, sex and a brazen disrespect for cherished institutions? The answer is anyone who wants to rule by consent, who’s serious about reorganising society, who understands that building coalitions of support, of the kind courted on Election Day, is the mechanism that allows all this to happen without civil war and anarchy.

The trickster may find that a bit of a drag, because a nuanced understanding of how society functions and the time and effort it takes to address these problems is somewhat anathema to the one off the wrist-flippancy that puts rusty rocket boosters on a comedian’s career, but that’s the tried and tested construct that works. If you don’t like your MPs, get a group of like-minded people together, write a prospectus for government and stand for election. If you won’t do that because you don’t trust the people to “vote the right way”, or think it’s pointless because what needs to be done would never be vouchsafed by Joe and Jacinda Public, or recoil at the thought of the work that would follow, ask yourself what that says about your own libertarian instincts, your attitude toward government by consent and how truly angry you are. The answer’s no laughing matter.

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Published in: on October 24, 2013 at 21:33  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Bravo Ed, couldn’t agree more.

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