Sunday 27 October 2013

Russell Brand and Revolution

"There is going to be a revolution, it is totally going to happen." So said Russell Brand in his widely-celebrated Newsnight interview with Paxo. It would be tempting to view this as the naive aspiration of a dilettante celebrity taking five minutes out from his lavish lifestyle for a political dabble. But this would be a grievous mistake, especially for those of us who spend too much time with our heads in the Westminster goldfish bowl.

Purposely, I've avoided all comment on Brand/Paxman. Except for Paul Mason's commentary. Why? Because Brand has articulated a disenfranchised but growing constituency that Mason has been tracking in his spare time. That is what Hardt and Negri call 'the multitude', or what you might call the 'disconnected connected'. But I'm running ahead of myself.

Accompanying Brand/Paxman is the editorial essay Brand wrote for his guest editorship of the New Statesman. And it is as you might expect - a lanky, disordered, careening piece picking up bits of ecological thinking, spiritual insights, postmodernism, left populism and anti-capitalism. Completely in-keeping with a hipster's fleeting tribute to retro chic, socialism gets an airing too. It is as vivacious and verve-ascious as a Brand monologue typically is. Funny. Weird. Interesting.

A couple of apƩritifs before the main course. On spiritualism, Brand notes:
Throughout paganism one finds stories that integrate our species with our environment to the benefit of both. The function and benefits of these belief matrixes have been lost, with good reason. They were socialist, egalitarian and integrated. If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema. If like the native people of America we believed God was in the soil what would our intuitive response be to the implementation of fracking?
There's nothing hippyish about linking the relationship we as a species have with the natural world to the ideologies our pre-industrial ancestors developed to come to terms with it. Nor does one have to become an advocate for the healing power of crystals to see the precursors of modern ecological thinking embedded within these beliefs. Brand's basic argument is mining this sort of thinking is useful for a new popular politics of the left.

Ah, the left. Of this, he writes:
It’s been said that: “The right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors.” This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot. Perhaps this is why there is currently no genuinely popular left-wing movement to counter Ukip, the EDL and the Tea Party; for an ideology that is defined by inclusiveness, socialism has become in practice quite exclusive ... When Ali G, who had joined protesters attempting to prevent a forest being felled to make way for a road, shouted across the barricade, “You may take our trees, but you’ll never take our freedom,” I identified more with Baron Cohen’s amoral trickster than the stern activist who aggressively admonished him: “This is serious, you cunt.”
Revolutionary identity politics. Movement identity politics. Whatever you want to call it, the self righteousness of the self-identified righteous is not an attractive quality. There might be "social conditions" that militate against militancy. The stars of the objective situation could well be out of alignment. But this does not excuse the deeply unattractive politics the left peddle. For the Leninists it's as if the world hasn't moved on since the invention of the printing press. In a radical mirror image to UKIP, anarchists denounce the world and want to get off, and the centre left are blown hither and tither between principle and expediency. For one lot it's the - I'm afraid to say - increasingly strange looking rituals us labour movement people practice; and for the other the dull diet of wonkery, focus groups, and managerialism. Political porn for some, political yawn for everyone else.

Brand is exactly right. Something is missing. Back when anarchism was fun, when Class War was almost sort of relevant they argued their immediate political objective was the diffusion of a culture of resistance. You don't have to subscribe to that kind of politics to realise that they were onto something. I mean, look at me. I'm very much part of the problem. My revolutionary impulse has long been safely diverted down the path of live tweets about Prime Minister's Questions. But what the left lacks as a whole is the idea it stands for something different. Or if it does, it cannot get that alternative over in ways that are relevant, engaging and - crucially - mobilising.

In his interview, the glimpse Brand offers of his alternative sounded a bit like the 1945 Labour government, albeit one that squeezes the rich until the pips squeak, as a former rightwing Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer reputedly put it. But this alternative is founded upon common-enough anarchist tropes of 'not voting'. His view is if the system isn't working for the majority of people then why should they give it any shred of legitimacy by voting? He's very quick to point out that this position isn't apathetic. Rather it is politics that is apathetic to the interests of working people - the example of Dave and Osborne taking the EU to court to prevent a cap on bankers' bonuses is a neat illustration of the fundamental disconnect that exists. Yet the problem goes deeper than politics "not listening". It's a symptom of a system in which the rich harvest the lion share of the rewards, a system set up to legitimise and defend that privilege, and a system that is only interested in the fate of those it governs insofar they remain passive and accepting, not hostile and belligerent.

What Brand has to offer is less a worked-out strategy of socialist advance and more a gut reaction. It's redolent of - remember him? - Herbert Marcuse's 'Great Refusal', albeit without the matching revolutionary struggle Marcuse knew such a movement depended on. Brand's revolution is very much one that exists in the realm of ideas. Capitalism is an idea. Racism is an idea. Religion is an idea.
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.
At one level of remove, Brand is right. If we stopped believing in one set of ideas and became convinced of something else, then hey presto, social change and revolution. But it's not as easy as that. Ideology isn't a box of chocolates. It is never a matter of picking the strawberry cremes and leaving the nut cracknels. The ideas that weave in and out of the social fabric are bound to material relationships. In a society such as ours, riven as it is with conflict and contradiction, all ideas speak to and speak of certain sets of interests. Hence the very idea that ideas stand apart and are separate from their roots in the materiality of social relations is an articulation of the sorts of interests who have no interest in having society, its processes and mechanisms, its power relations and practices, laid bare to scrutiny. Therefore at another level of remove, Brand is wrong. Social movements require ideas. But ideas require social movements, and I'm not entirely convinced he grasps the indispensable and mutually constitutive interrelation between both.

You can (and some might) argue that Brand's political turn is another self-centred career shift. He offers nothing new, we've heard it all before, and no one is listening. That would be a mistake for two reasons. Firstly, he is an A-list celebrity. Thanks to celebrity culture, there are millions across the world who appreciate his comedy and take the little bit of politics he indiscreetly throws in seriously. Since Wednesday, Brand/Paxman has had almost two million views. Any other Newsnight interviews out there that have commanded such a large audience so quickly post-broadcast? Didn't think so. He reaches the parts no Labour election broadcast, no Trot paper seller, no publicity for an anti-austerity demo will ever reach. And that is why, incidentally, having him guest edit the New Statesman was nothing short of a master stroke.

Second, and more importantly, as I mentioned earlier Paul Mason recognises (as does Brand himself) that he articulates the desires, fears, anger and hope of a growing constituency of people. But of that more in the follow up post.


Phil said...

The limitations of Brand's argument reflect his position. Capitalism doesn't actually do him any harm in material terms, so he sees it as an ideological problem to be solved by ideological means - "let's all think differently".

As for the Celts and the Native Americans, all he's doing is projecting contemporary anxieties about Humanity and Nature onto some very diverse cultures which we don't know much about - although what we do know isn't particularly happy-clappy. If, like the Native Americans, we killed far more than we could eat... If, like the Celts, we believed that human sacrifice was essential to the health of society...

Dave Weeden said...

Well, a lot of that is correct. But quite a lot of it is wrong, too.

"His view is if the system isn't working for the majority of people then why should they give it any shred of legitimacy by voting?"

There have always been people who haven't voted. We don't really know why, because no one's invested in asking them. (We know a little about some: Pete Townshend didn't vote, and maybe still doesn't.) Certainly more and more people don't vote, and still no one's paying any attention to why not. I've always voted, although only once (in 1997) for the party who won, and I regretted that, of course.

I think historians will look at this time quite differently. We have much greater access to government, and now we see what Parliament is like - just the swots from the debating society polishing their insults - we don't like it very much. But this started in the 50s and 60s with "the end of deference" and has just taken decades to filter through.

You're sort of right about anarchism. But when that ceased to be a thing, it wasn't because former anarchists became born-again party hacks and political evangelists: it was because they lost all faith in anything, save making money.

Finally, I think you're hung up on ideas. That's old hat. Look at it like the James-Lange theory of emotions. As William James had it, you don't see a bear, get frightened, and run: you see a bear, run, and call that feeling (fight/flight arousal) "fear". The action comes first. As Wittgenstein put it: "Philosophy is finding bad reasons for what we know already." Political theories don't cause anything, they're a gloss on what's happened. (Thanks to internet archives, you can now see how often pundits are wrong. The models are all, as Alan Greenspan coughed to the FT this weekend, broken.)

Everyone who defends 'democracy' talks as if it were a universally recognised system. But it's not. USians get to vote for their head of state; so do the French; we don't. I don't believe that we're less democratic than the USA for that. Many Americans insist that the right to bear arms is inseparable from freedom. Doesn't look that way to me. Most of the arguments we have around democracy are just hot air. We're stuck with an 18th century system and a clerisy who won't accept change, but everything has moved on. We could have and should have much more transparency from our representatives (they are not our leaders, but our laziness has let them become so.)

Writing the last sentence reminded again of Paul Weller. I first read this on the inner sleeve of a Jam album "Rise like lions from the slumber,/In invanquishable number,/Shake your chains to earth like dew,/Which, in sleep, had fallen on you,/Ye are many, they are few." ('Again' because Weller also wrote "The public wants what the public gets/But I want nothing this society's got.") These aren't new sentiments.

There may be such a thing as progress. Maybe we are moving toward democracy. We're not there yet. Choosing between representatives who offer menus you don't want, and who don't deliver them anyway can't be the final stage.

Why would anyone thing we live in the best of all possible worlds. Yet that's what all Brands critics argue: better worlds are impossible. Dare to say, no they're not.

Speedy said...

Brand is simply a rare example of a working class person with a voice - the only two avenues now open being showbiz and sport. Even pop is increasingly dominated by the bourgeois. Haven't you noticed - there is almost no social mobility these days. Things are actually going backwards.

That's Labour's fault as much as the Tories, and Brand is right - it's the system more than both.

Brand's is the authentic voice of the disenfranchised majority, albeit filtered through the obtuse and unique world view that made him famous in the first place.

He rightly points out democracy does not meaningfully exist in the UK - in almost any other EU country there would be the chance for the people to be heard, but in the UK the electoral system it simply does not happen. Paxman is a pratt - "free speech" means nothing if it can result in nothing. What point is a wasted vote?

As I pointed out in the comments here only recently - UKIP are unlikely to garner a single seat in Westminister despite polling under the proportional system maybe 25 per cent and winning the Euro elections.

I don't agree with UKIP, but there is plainly something profoundly wrong here. Brand was spot on - there really is no meaningful democracy in the UK and until there is it's barely worth asking what a future would look like, let alone voting - it is endorsing a system designed to control, exactly like the origins of democracy in fact.

Gary Elsby said...

I was in Norton post office on Saturday and I asked a group of ladies, on their way to the Darby and Joan club, if they were up for Russell Brand's revolution?

They all cried, as they pulled out their Kalashnikovs(carefully hidden in the knitting)and we all marched down to the Chinese takeaway......

The look on Andy Bentley's face as he asked us to sign his petition on 'cuts' was a picture!

Today Norton, tomorrow Norton Green!
Viva Viva La revolution.

Russel Brand, what a fucking arsehole.

Steve Funnell said...

Gary has made me chortle here. Brand may well have something profound to say, but I find him intensely irritating. He is in your face, but is he funny? I found Billy Connolly the same.

When I was teenager and announced I wanted to be a comedian people laughed. They are not laughing now!

Phil said...

Dave, I certainly agree with your point about political theories. I'm not hung up on ideas, even though I write an awful lot about them. But ultimately to make sense of where we are and how we can think about moving things forward, we have to think in materialist terms. As the other Phil points out, Brand is more keen on ideas because for him socialism is just a nice idea. In as far as it's a necessity, it comes down to questions of natural limits.

Phil said...

If democratic politics are broken, how are we going to fix it Speedy? I'm not expecting you to come up with a fully fledged alternative like Paxo did with Brand, but the 'what is to be done?' question always has to be front and centre. It is for me.

Anonymous said...

People don't vote because they instinctively know that with the current capitalistic momentum in a world of dwindling resources we are all well and truly fucked.They are also probably aware by now that having a group of politicians revamping the paintwork every few years is not going to fundamentally change this situation.

While most people struggle to enjoy the world they do not pause to consider the consequences of their actions.Look around at the faces on the high street, is the consumer deliriously happy? just LOOK at them they are having to try very hard indeed to be happy for only a few moments before yet another desire for some landfill bound piece of detritus comes their way.

Vote to support the rotten fruit?
never never and never.