In the last month or so, British comedian and writer Russell Brand has called for a revolution against a political establishment that, in his view, serves the wants of corporations and those who wield political power while casting aside the needs of a majority of the general public. Brand has been speaking and writing passionately and eloquently around this topic for some time, particularly in The Guardian, and he’s gained plenty of notice on social media for it, but his interview with the famously hard-hitting political journalist Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight brought him into a new realm of Facebook and Twitter shares:
If you don’t see yourself as part of the powerful establishment in Westminster-based society – and very few do – then it’s easy to climb aboard Brand’s revolutionary bandwagon. We live in a world in which legislation is passed with a purported mandate from a slim majority of the population, whether or not they all understood what they were voting for; if you are part of the 40-something percent that didn’t vote for the mob in power, your opinion is discarded. Then there are cases such as the GCSB Bill in New Zealand, which allows the government to spy on its own citizens, and which was not part of any political agenda at the 2011 election but is now law by governmental decree, whether the electorate wants it or not. A lot of the political process appears to me, looking in from the outside, to be tied up with balancing the desires of powerful lobby groups that often represent large corporations. Meantime, poor folks in UK council estates or state housing in South Auckland struggle from paycheck to paycheck without anything approaching an equal voice in the democracy.
Brand followed up his rant on Paxman with an editorial in The New Statesman titled ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’. As far as I can tell, Brand’s revolution starts in the mind but veers off disconcertingly into whatever you care to make of it:
“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”
Notice that he condones the London rioters – who destroyed hundreds of small businesses and made life hell for the people living in the streets they pillaged – on account of their spontaneity, then pleads vaguely for a lack of judgment or harm. The rest of the editorial is similarly rambling, unfocused, and inconsistent; certainly eloquent, brilliant in places, but amounting to what? Is Brand’s voice that of the disenfranchised, venting a scream of raw frustration? It can’t be: in the same piece, Brand relates a story about attending a Reclaim the Streets march while working for MTV and getting called out by someone clearly lower on the ladder of wealth and entitlement than he was. How can he speak for the disenfranchised when he is such a prominent citizen? And he is even helping?
Robert Webb, best known for his collaborations with David Mitchell on Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look and a contemporary of Brand in British comedy, responded in The New Statesman with a rebuttal to Brand’s apparent cry from the heart. Webb reminded Brand that effective democracy demands engagement, with particular condemnation of Brand’s call to abstain from voting:
“I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.”
Webb went on to strongly criticise Brand’s call for revolution, reminding him of the death and destruction wrought by revolution in the past. Indeed, for a recent example, Brand need only look back as far as those ‘spontaneous’ London riots. Webb’s practical response was to rejoin the Labour Party and helping the UK’s main opposition party fight a Conservative government he believes “scapegoats and punishes unlucky people”; to actively engage with politics in an effort to further legitimise it by adding his voice as a paid-up member; to literally buy into democracy. In response to Webb’s response, Brand invited Webb to check his privilege: “If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They’re not coming for you if you’re from Oxbridge. That’s my open letter to Robert.”
It was about this time that Russell Brand offered up, for me at least, the final straw:
When it spills from the pages of The New Statesman and The Guardian into the town square, Brand’s revolution looks the same as every other impractical anti-establishment protest of the last few years: a V for Vendetta mask and a smartphone, both manufactured on production lines in East Asia by workers paid a pittance. Brand was presumably tweeting to his ~7.3m Twitter followers about the power and collective energy of the occasion, rather than scrolling idly through BuzzFeed listicles, but it hardly looks inspiring after all the promise of his language.
I posted the above photo on Facebook with the sarcastic and cynical caption ‘This is what revolution looks like’, which many seemed to take in earnest. It led to a debate with a friend, who wrote the following:
Brand’s response to Webb is better than Webb’s response to Brand. It’s about disillusionment with a system that repeatedly fails a group of people and repeatedly serves another, with some minor variation for those in a privileged position (such as Webb).
To which I replied:
I think Webb’s view is considerably more coherent and practical than Brand’s. The Westminster system of democracy, which seems to inevitably lead to two parties exchanging power, seems far from ideal but I can’t think of anything better; certainly not revolution, whether through violence or apathy. Brand may articulate the views of the disenfranchised eloquently and compellingly, but as this photo shows, his cries (so far at least) don’t add up to anything more than V masks and smartphones for all.
After some more back-and-forth, my friend later came back with this, with which I agree:
I think Brand’s disillusionment with the results of the current system is pretty much spot-on, but beyond that it’s hard to see what kind of system would produce better results while still being morally acceptable. It’s a dilemma. Disillusionment is easier than the search for a solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that disillusionment may well be justified. Some form of democracy obviously remains the ideal, but presumably Brand wishes rednecks didn’t vote (we’ve all been there). My dissatisfaction comes from how certain groups have power to distort the system (i.e. media influences voters, corporates have access to lobby politicians well beyond the influence of poorer people etc.), and I think it’s entirely reasonable to pursue reform in that direction. Just a thought.
For that reform to be pursued, Webb’s Labour partisanship still seems more effective and meaningful to me than Brand’s outright dismissal of the establishment. Brand’s great trick is to paint all politicians with the same grubby brush: a self-obsessed, money-hungry, cronyish lot with zero interest in the lives of those who struggle. This is true in some cases, but it is not the whole truth; many politicians enter public life with the express goal of making a positive difference and helping people to have their voices heard, and they work hard for decades to pursue those goals. And just so you know, I went to an expensive private school as well. Does this mean that like Paxman and Webb before me, Brand can cast my opinion aside in a single line?
Genuine democratic change, which remains the best option available to us, demands an electorate that is well-read and politically engaged enough to understand what is wrong, vigilant enough to call out those who do wrong, and optimistic enough to see a future that is more right. Then you have to keep reading, and stay politically engaged, and stay vigilant, and stay optimistic – in as much of your life as possible and for as long as possible – to promote what you consider a better society.
You also have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that not everyone will agree with you. Here’s what another friend said in the same Facebook thread about Brand:
But he has at least started a debate. And a smartphone gives him an audience. Can’t just stand in the town square and ring a bell anymore. And you can’t send pictures via Milo tins and a piece of string. I’m sure when they develop a vegan, biodegradable, solar powered, decaf phone made under good working conditions, he’ll be into it. Or not. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about a bit of hypocrisy to get his point across.
If one thing’s for sure, we’re all hypocrites in some way or another. I’m no exception. Neither is Robert Webb, and neither is Russell Brand. And my friend is right: Brand has started a debate that has helped clarify some of my ideas about democracy, and mobilised me to engage more in effecting social and political change. I’ll just be moving in a different direction, away from the messiah.