Reaction to Russell Brand’s manifesto in New Statesman* has been almost exclusively of three types: supportive, dismissive, or patronising. Because the level of support for his position is so large the dismissive and patronising reactions will not do. What is needed is engagement with his perspective. It needs to be examined and subjected to the level of critique due to all public arguments.
New Statesman is attracting a great deal of criticism for publishing Russell Brand (RB) and allowing him to edit an entire edition. This is not deserved because the journal has performed a service in giving this political perspective space, respect and above all attention. The political perspective offered by RB is not at all uncommon. It would appear to be shared by at least a significant minority of people and possibly by a majority. It is the perspective which dominates mass media and social media. That it has been expressed by Russell Brand should neither increase nor decrease its importance.
His presentation of the position goes something like this.
He builds a case for casting aside the whole Westminster model including representative democracy. The starting point is “most people” and the observations that they don’t give a fuck about politics, view all parties and politicians as the same and hold them in equal contempt. He reckons that all political “agencies” are irredeemably and totally corrupted by big business. The conclusion is that “the current paradigm” should be renounced.
He holds a particular contempt for the Conservative Party and the smaller more extreme right wing parties but contempt for their opponents is only marginally less. Paradoxically for someone with such strong anti-state/anti-politics (ASAP) views, he has a positive attitude to leftist values, and leftist figures and achievements of the past.
He lists very real inequalities, poverty, deprivation and exclusions from decent living. Things are so bad and reform so impossible that only a revolution will do, a spiritual revolution. Now, he is not alone in using “spiritual” in relation to revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, the late 19th – early 20th century Marxist philosopher, does so too. However, he is quite explicit that the revolution is not about the overthrow and replacement of institutions and that “spiritual” refers to individual rather than collective change and to some kind of conversion rather than persuasion by argument.
He holds that media, public relations and polling combine to delude the people, keeping them apathetic rather than angry.
There are problems with all of this but first it is necessary to deal with those who would patronise him and those who share his views. RB has defenders on the left who appreciate the publicity he has given to the scale of the problems we face and to some of the issues that they too might prioritise. Moreover, they may share his view of the importance and wisdom of “most people”. They say that because he is not a politician, practiced in argument or particularly well-educated or informed, he cannot be expected to offer any solution or be subjected to analysis. Now, RB himself tries to exploit this (Indeed, he invites patronising admiration.) by saying that because he knows so little, little can be expected of him. In this position and that of his supporters who seek to patronise him there is acceptance of elite authority – a reliance on one’s betters (Yes, very likely the same betters already rejected as complicit in the problems.) to devise a solution. It is a rejection of the ordinary citizen’s involvement in great debates. It is a rejection of the notion that anyone may express a view in public and when they do, they invite criticism and counter argument. The patronising of RB’s views is an example of a modern form of censorship in which, “everyone is entitled to an opinion” has come to imply that a speaker’s opinion should not be questioned. It is tolerance turned on its head and made to mean the opposite. RB’s views deserve the respect of being challenged, particularly so because those views are commonplace, shared by so many people.
The overriding problem with the perspective now associated with RB is that it is for the greater part right wing. There are three important overlapping right wing perspectives which dominate. Firstly, though it might seem daft at first sight to associate RB with right wing dogma – given his apparent hostility to the establishment and in the UK to the Conservative Party – he is embracing an old and familiar approach to citizenship. Opposition to the state, and rejection of ideologies and of traditional forms and accepted norms for public debate signal opposition to the republican or participative model of citizenship. This is a model with which most leftists would identify and support. He opts instead for a variation on the liberal model of citizenship which cares little who is in charge or what is done as long as a level of comfort is guaranteed.** It should be admitted and then emphasised that a level of comfort is increasingly denied to many, many people and they are sorely, justifiably aggrieved.
Secondly, the ASAP thrust is meat and drink to those whose views can be loosely identified with the highly individualistic Freeman movement. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax, pro-property and standing-up-for-the-little-guy approach this is particularly attractive right now. In Ireland its largely bogus attempts to prevent debtors’ property – especially houses and lands – being seized are proving attractive because so many people in debt are in need of some relieving faith.*** These same characteristics give it credibility at protests and either confuse leftists or tempt them to turn a blind eye to the reality of a political perspective which in other circumstances they would oppose.†
Thirdly, it is plain that “New Age” thinking or what is frequently termed Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) approaches are central. Indeed, for the edition of New Statesman which RB guest-edited he invited Deepak Chopra – among others – to write a short piece about revolution. Moreover, he talks admiringly of “sacred knowledge” in various pantheistic myths and seems to think that these myths were killed off because they were “socialist, egalitarian and integrated”. Clearly he believes at least some of the huge range of MBS doctrines. He may also realise the importance and influence of the New Age/spiritual/MBS constituency among his supporters. It is this that provides the quickest line of retreat from ordinary understanding of revolution into the radically individualist notion of a spiritual revolution.
It is worth returning to his view that the media are to blame for deluding the people. He may well be right but the delusion supports rather than hinders his perspective. To be fair to RB, it is true that journalists are generally loud in their condemnation of rioting and violent protesters and that they seek out examples in order to make a largely peaceful demonstration newsworthy. It is also true that what little analysis of disorder there is takes place months later in documentaries aimed at a small, more thoughtful audience. However, for decades the media have been deriding both politicians and politics,†† presenting an overall view that is remarkably similar to that of RB and – significantly – to that of the majority of citizens. It may be very hard for many of those accustomed to condemning the “mainstream media” to grasp the extent to which routine media output supports the denigration of politics, the acceptance of an elite political class, the reduction of the citizen to supplicant seeking favours, and the rejection of a demos in favour of minorities competing for resources at each other’s expense.††† It is a view which is incompatible with leftist thinking but many leftists decline to tackle it and instead either make common cause with its adherents, attempt to lead it or patronise it by asking no questions.‡
RB has performed a service in underlining the extent to which there are problems beyond the competence of any one state. The world, organised in competing states and federations and pinning almost all hope of a better life for citizens on economic growth, faces an existential threat in Global Warming. Moreover, within and across developed states there is a refusal to face two looming issues. Firstly, not only are there more people now but they are living much longer. The very idea of a pension rests on the assumption of employment until 65 and death soon after. That is plainly not how things are. Secondly, almost all policy assumes that a good society has full employment in decent jobs. The enormous productivity wrought by technology means that plainly this too is not how things are.
Russell Brand and the huge numbers who think similarly are disappointing not only because they are right wingers under their socialist fleece but in rejecting reform in favour of a vague hope they bring to mind a hoary old joke told too many times in Ireland:
A tourist stops and asks a local for directions to be told, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”