Cometh the Brand?
Russell Brand’s anarchistic leftism is sincere enough, but his unlikely importance speaks volumes about the left’s weakness, says Paul Demarty
When you’ve got a winning line, it is a good idea to stick to it. Thus, a year after he guest-edited the New Statesman on the theme of ‘revolution’, Russell Brand has come out with a book of the same name, pushing his now trademark blend of autobiography, sweeping cod-philosophy and scatological humour.
Reactions have been mixed, which is hardly surprising: Brand is a silly figure in one sense, but is not an idiot, and people outside the cliques of Westminster and Fleet Street pay attention to what he has to say. Many millions of people watched his showdown with Jeremy Paxman after his Staggers issue, an encounter from which he emerged unambiguously the winner.
When he talks about revolution, the great and the good laugh him off but worry that people are more likely to listen to him; when he tells people not to vote, they decry his insensitivity to the importance of democracy, but - in this age of laughably constrained political choices - cannot provide good reasons to ignore his advice. Brand is at pains to point out that he is nothing more than a daft lefty comedian; he must wonder how it has come to be that being a daft lefty comedian is enough to cause so much hand-wringing.
Nowhere is this clearer than the rumour put about by the Mail on Sunday that, in spite of his contempt for electoral politics, Brand was considering standing for mayor of London in 2016 - on an ‘anti-politics’ sort of ticket.
He would not be the first person to have attempted to square that particular circle; although probably the nicest example comes from fiction. In Alexander Payne’s scabrous satire, Election, the American electoral process is pilloried through the microcosm of the high-school president election; the most enthusiasm from the student body goes to Tammy Metzler, who promises only to abolish the office and the entire student government along with it.
Brand combines that hatred of machine politics with an unfocused, but sincere, egalitarianism; he is a vocal opponent of austerity, and in recent times has visited the mothers who occupied a flat in Newham’s Carpenters estate, as well as initiating a transatlantic flame war with Fox News shock-jock Sean Hannity. His heart, it is fair to say, is in the right place; and while he unashamedly drifts into New Age mumbo-jumbo at times, he is an articulate enough exponent of the anarchistic left-liberalism he supports.
Brand has since rubbished the suggestion that he might run for mayor: “I think we’ve already got a comedian who’s more known for his hair than his policies,” he told Xfm’s breakfast show. “If you want a daft comedian running London, just leave things as they are. What I’m interested in is real change.”
Still, the fact that the idea could be taken seriously for the 48 hours it took Brand to distance himself from it tells us something about the office for which he was being touted.
The London mayoralty has apparently bucked the overarching trend in bourgeois politics - towards the cultivation of a political caste of slick, on-message technocrats. Commentators, from Owen Jones to John Major, have decried the narrowing of the social basis of this caste: ever more products of a self-perpetuating establishment, and less and less composed of people who had any experience of life outside the Westminster bubble.
It is not altogether surprising, even leaving aside the larger social shifts of the last 30 years. When the important thing is to competently deliver rhetoric precisely calibrated merely not to piss anyone off too much, affluent middle class types on average have the jump on the rest of us.
In the capital, however, things have been different since the elected mayor came into being. We note that both mayors to date have been ‘big personalities’, in whom we recognise the supposedly ‘unacceptable’ image of their respective parties: ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, the outspoken godfather of the 80s loony left; and Boris Johnson, the bumbling, Tacitus-quoting toff.
Ken and Boris are exactly the last people - in theory - who would make it to the front benches. Boris, however, is touted as the Tories’ great blonde hope, provided he carries Uxbridge next year; and, while Ken, at this point, is probably getting on a bit for that, a broadly successful (and ruthlessly pragmatic) two terms as mayor would have stood him in good stead for frontline politics.
This perhaps has something to do with the nature of the office. While obviously not all-powerful, the London mayor is unanswerable to any collective local authority. He chooses the cabinet, his people design and implement the policies. The mayor, in short, is a Bonaparte; and history rarely has any use for a boring Bonaparte. You could not ask for a less boring Bonaparte than Brand - the reformed smackhead, semi-reformed philanderer and peddler of cheeky knob gags.
It would not, indeed, be too fanciful to imagine him winning, should he change his mind. A party machine certainly helps in such circumstances, however much the populist Bonapartes of Labour and the Tories may position themselves above such things; but then, Livingstone won initially as an independent, after Tony Blair’s attempt to carve him out backfired. A reputation for silliness did not hurt Boris Johnson; and, besides, a hotly tipped potential Labour candidate in 2016, as things stand, is Brand’s fellow leftie comic, Eddie Izzard (perhaps Jim Davidson will be available for the Tories?).
A good Bonaparte needs more than charisma, however, and it is this extra ingredient that makes Brand a tastier proposition. Like Nigel Farage or Beppe Grillo, he is an outsider. The Bonaparte must appear to be above the fray of petty politicking (or, in Brand’s case, proudly below it), as the Bonapartist vote has for its main motive force hatred of the petty, self-interested practitioners of official politics. Boris Johnson (and Ken Livingstone) do a good enough job of projecting that image; but it is hard work, given that they are both significant power-brokers in their parties. Not so for the likes of Brand.
There are also indications that bourgeois politics in the large is drifting in the direction of the London mayoral race, away from the general election calculations of desiccated wonks. Elsewhere in the world, we observe Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, whose various drunken diatribes and bizarre flirtation with crack cocaine do not appear to have fatally destroyed his reactionary electoral base; or, on a grander scale, the election of macho reactionary buffoon Tony Abbott in Australia; or, grander still, the one-two punch of George W Bush and Barack Obama (the one folksy, the other a precocious speaker, both winning on an image of being ‘outsiders’ despite being anything but).
Holding out for a hero
It would be surprising if the left had not got sucked into this process; and, indeed, it has.
Five years ago, the major organisations of the far left were gripped with anticipation for the anti-cuts fightback, which never arrived; then for major industrial action, which likewise did not materialise; then for the success of a series of decreasingly ambitious front groups, which eluded them as well.
The result has been the acceleration of a long drift towards substitutionism: anything will do to replace the agency of the working class (which turns out, after all, to be a hard thing to build up in a period of defeat). Almost the entirety of the British left collapsed completely into Scottish nationalism (the ‘yes’ campaign was, after all, very vibrant). Large swathes have adopted superficially radical forms of identity politics, for which it is apparently enough for the oppressed to speak in their own voices to shake the foundations of society.
Not a few, of course, have put their faith in strong (mostly) men. The cult of Hugo Chávez is undimmed, largely by virtue of his having died before needing to do anything too embarrassing to his foreign cheerleaders.
Cometh the hour, cometh the Brand? He would hate the idea of being a Great Leader, but these are lean times; and if he looks to the far left, the ‘natural’ source of leadership for somebody new to advocating revolutionary esoterica, he will for the most part find only people wanting to build him up and parrot back to him the things he could quite as well have come up with on his own.
If the organised forces of the far left - those of us who carry some ember of awareness of the necessity of working class socialism - are unable to build up our own strength, the field is left open to eccentrics of all hues. It goes without saying that Brand is a preferable eccentric to Farage; but he could not change anything major on his own. This week, he has at least demonstrated that he knows as much.