ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN OVERLAND JOURNAL
Whenever anyone with even a modicum of celebrity decides to turn around and criticise the system that got them there, the opprobrium is usually immediate and often scathing. Imagine then, the ensuing political censure, when someone with the popularity of Russell Brand chooses to take on a target as large as global capitalism. Brand recently undertook a guest-editor place with the New Statesman (if only because ‘a beautiful woman was asking him’).
Casual sexism aside, Brand’s work for the progressive magazine has been eminently engaging and undeniably enthralling. Casting aside the incrementalism of George Clooney and Alec Baldwin, Brand has lived up to his name and, echoing the activism of Marlon Brando, shown that there is still room for radical, militant firebrands inside Hollywood. With such an extremist agenda it is unsurprising that many different commentators and critics have wasted no time excoriating Brand for committing a number of ostensible political sins – not voting, having no alternative to the current system while maintaining a decadent personal life and a bulging bank account.
But what has been most surprising about the wellspring of criticism that Brand’s stint as editor has earned him is not so much the content but the source, much of it originating from his supposed allies and comrades on the left.
As Brand points out near the beginning of his voluminous 4500-word piece, ‘the right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors’, which is much to their detriment. In the aftermath of this work and his recent interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand has essentially proved his contention with a number of leftist writers coming out to criticise the man and his ideas. Joan Smith helped get the ball rolling by demanding Brand ‘go back to Hollywood’ (he was born in Essex) and stop pointing out the flaws and inadequacies of our current system until he enrols to vote.
This is well-trodden territory. Whenever social-democrats and other parliamentary socialists find themselves seated next to revolutionaries at the dinner table the same tired arguments about tacit complicity in an unequal system versus the practicality of world wide non-violent revolution are sure to arise. But why discount fellow travellers purely because their methods of achieving change differs? If the left is to remain any kind of potent force in this century it is incumbent upon its members to embrace recruits of all stripes into its house: revolutionaries, democratic participants and everything in between.
Similar critiques of Brand’s ideology and its lack of any substantive solutions to the world’s problems have come from other quarters, too. In his interview with Brand, Jeremy Paxman seemed positively lachrymose when informed that Brand hasn’t had time to devise a new world order which will suit everybody’s needs. Self in his column, alludes to the same thing: ‘Brand does not offer a political alternative, just observational comedy and has denied his politics as “not some weird lefty agenda”.’
These points are by no means new. As the Occupy movement found out, the major criticism held by many of society’s political doyens were not necessarily objections to their methods or messiness, but rather their inability to articulate a well-defined list of grievances and easily cooptable solutions. What these appraisals ignore is that it is not the responsibility for the critics of capitalism to necessarily devise its replacement. As Noam Chomsky said, ‘when we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for’. And sometimes this is enough: no-one truly expects Brand to be the successor to Marx and Engels, devising a new political system in a hotel during an interview with Jeremy Paxman. But his entrance into the political arena heralds at least a step towards change and altering what has for decades remained a fait accompli.
It seems shocking that when someone of the stature of Russell Brand comes out of the proverbial political closet and announces their deep distrust of corporate capitalism, many of the most vocal and strident critics of his position are those who inhabit a place next door. Can we really dismiss someone whose fundamental thesis is ‘the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for…any companies exploiting the environment’?
Sure, Brand’s waffling is grammatically frustrating and at times embarrassingly self-indulgent, but that’s not really the point. But who on the left can honestly say they want more Jay-Zs and Keshas perpetuating crass consumerism and fewer self-aware, eloquent critics? His ideas may not be perfectly formed nor carry the academic tone we’re used to, but there is no denying that the progressive movement is in dire need of someone with the wit, courage and flair of Russell Brand.
‘We need to watch ourselves on this one’ – Andrew Self
‘The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived’ – Guy Debord
The word revolution, following Russell Brand’s interview and diatribe on in the New Statesman, has rarely been so hip. He has created a social media explosion congratulating his unoriginal ideas as if they had never been heard before to a collective digital ‘fuck yeah!’
Yet after seeing and reading him, I felt slightly uneasy about the whole thing. Not so much because he is a rich womanising toff talking about these ideas – all luck to him! – more that it’s obvious that he is tactically and theoretically fuzzy.
Brand is not calling for the abolition of capitalism; he is instead calling for a ‘reduction’ of the profit motive, ‘heavily taxing’ corporations and putting extra ‘responsibility’ on them to be green. Which means the substance of his critique of the political class is not structural, but more along the lines of, ‘there are some bad eggs out there’.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that he isn’t earnest or that the issues he raises aren’t real – but his understanding is really limited. Capitalism is not fundamentally a moral problem – that is, a problem made by nasty people. Rather, it is a problem about the fundamental structure of a society based on value and the state. I do not think Brand understands that. As such, his ideas, in their current form, are not going to be truly supportive of a revolutionary movement against the real existing state of things.
More important, for me, is how Brand’s diatribe has been received, which speaks volumes more than what Brand actually said. There have been litres of ink spilt over the ideas Brand put forward in countless publications over many years, much more eloquently written and well researched. So why is Brand’s somewhat-lacking analysis of society so appealing right now?
First, many (including Brand) say that we need education: we need to tell people about the wrongs of the world, the wrongs of crony capitalism. But in fact, many people already know these things. It could be said that we already know too much, and so resign ourselves to being capitalist agents. Those who read and celebrate Brand’s denunciation already know that the political class stinks. What Brand is doing is observational comedy with a political tinge; in seeking to talk to the direct audience, he represents a pure spectacle, not a revolution.
That large corporations inflict pain on the third world is not new. Furthermore, what Brand offers in his New Statesman piece is not a political alternative – it’s not even a new perspective. More accurately, it’s a mishmash of old ideas with some New Age spirituality thrown in the mix, in which he completely gets it the wrong way around! ‘For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political,’ he said, thereby entirely confusing ‘the political’.
‘I have never voted,’ Brand writes. ‘Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics.’ But this is precisely part of the problem Russell – politics is not simply the tired voting game! As French philosopher Jacques Ranciere writes: to identify politics as simply the exercise and struggle over possession of power is to do away with politics completely and, in the process, reduce our mode of thinking.
Second, there is the obvious cult of celebrity and how that functions here. Yes, he is witty and entertaining, but all he offers is spectacle of resistance which modern capitalism allows and coopts. Look no further than the most famous image of the twentieth century, Che Guevara. Guy Debord has argued that, ‘The imposed image of the good envelops in its spectacle the totality of what officially exists, and is usually concentrated in one man’. In other words, everyone must identify with this celebrity or disappear. The celebrity is the ‘master of non-consumption,’ Debord says, and the only image in which we can find ‘acceptable meaning’. We are blinded by our gaze onto this shining star.
Many will argue that Brand is simply a man ‘raising awareness’. But we do not necessarily need any more awareness in the form of spectacle, which merely offers – let’s be honest – light entertainment in place of real ideas and a real alternative. The spectacle of performance puts our ideas of resistance and change up on a platform so that the left does not have to. In essence, it is the performing of politics rather than the practice.
One interesting comparison could be drawn with the leftist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, often criticised as a charlatan, a clown who plays on his celebrity to get his ideas across. Hence, some do not take his theories seriously. Paradoxically, Brand is a self-confessed charlatan who’s taken very seriously. Zizek calls for a removal from capitalism and non-participation into a ‘communist nothing’, whereas Brand continues on in the same tired path as celebrity liberals like Bob Geldof, calling for some kind of poorly outlined rich-man action.
The whole Brand phenomenon actually represents a depoliticisation, not a deepening, of politics. In the Guardian, Brand wrote: ‘In this age where politics is presented as entertainment, it’s the most entertaining politicians who ascend.’ The same could be said of him. We can sit, applaud, post on Facebook and release a collective sigh of ‘finally, someone said it!’, but Brand’s new age ‘revolutionary’ ideas have already been with us for a very long time.
In the end, it does not matter if Brand’s personal politics are ‘revolutionary’: I give the man respect for using his enormous celebrity to open the debate ever so slightly. I am not condemning him for not expressing my personal opinions about what is and is not radical. Nevertheless, the opinions he is espousing have not launched a critical discourse in the ways that have been suggested. (