Russell Brand and organ

Russell Brand: Hippies, clowns and technocrats

The effect of the Russell Brand interview highlights the fragility of bourgeois politics, writes Harley Filben

The last time Russell Brand barrelled onto the comment pages of the ‘quality press’, it was for leaving obscene voicemail messages for actor Andrew Sachs. It was a pretty typical bit of Brand attention-seeking, which ended up getting the comedian rather more attention than he probably wanted - provoking a rather silly, but ferocious moral panic, which cost him his job.

Few people, at that time, would have expected - at least one tiresome celeb marriage and endless gurning later - that he would now have provoked a round of establishment soul-searching, less still through his wits rather than his impulsive tendencies, and least of all through a call in respectable bourgeois media outlets for revolution.

If anyone is guilty of a publicity stunt in this whole affair, after all, it is The New Statesman, along with The Guardian the staple product of establishment leftism, which - in what should have been a cringe-inducing ‘down with the kids’ gesture - handed itself over to Brand for one issue. In retrospect, it seems rather to have been a masterstroke. For Brand seized the opportunity to theme the issue around ‘revolution’.

His featured essay is long, digressive, meandering, alternately jokey and jargon-laden, anecdotal and sweeping. It is not going to go down in history as a fine example of the essay as a literary form. It caught onto something in the ideological atmosphere, however, and raised a laughably defensive response from the political class he savaged.

All of which led to that appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight: and if you happen to be one of the approximately four people in the country who have not already watched it (at nine million views on YouTube, probably the most successful 10 minutes in Newsnight’s recent history), you might want to do so. As a comedian, Brand is intermittently funny, but prone to irritating self-indulgence. He is most bearable if he has a foil. Why not Jeremy Paxman, the legendarily irate interviewer?

The genius of Brand’s performance is not in his ‘big ideas’ - which he, of course, admits he has borrowed and pilfered from the likes of Occupy - but in Paxman’s face. His heart is not in this particular fight. “Aren’t you bored? Aren’t you more bored than anyone?” Brand taunts him, as he tries to defend the ‘political process’. Paxman may sneer at Brand not being “arsed” to vote, but in this interview, Paxman could barely be arsed to be Paxman. Just days later, he more or less conceded defeat in the Radio Times, claiming not to have voted himself in a recent election out of the same disgust at the mainstream parties that Brand articulates.

We will take a more serious look at Brand’s arguments, but ought first to acknowledge a reason for doing so: the establishment response has been snivelling, disingenuous, defensive and patronising. It is alleged that one should not take seriously anyone advocating populist views who lives in wealth and comfort in California; as if the bloodless wonks who sit on the front benches know more about the atomised underclass than a reformed heroin addict. His ridiculing of elections in this country supposedly encourages apathy or worse, as if the ever smaller difference between the competitors is not rather more to blame than one ‘bad role model’.

The truth is that Brand’s meandering 5,000-word essay perversely has more intellectual substance than more or less anything written or said by the Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduates in Westminster on such occasions that they suspect an ‘ordinary’ person might be listening. Those frontline politicians who are not afraid of being seen to have half a brain - Michael Gove, perhaps - seem, alas, to have only the half. The rest of them expend all their intellectual energy working out via technocratic pseudoscience exactly which banal slogan, repeated with sufficient persistence, will bludgeon the rest of us into voting for them.

The core of Brand’s argument is a somewhat idiosyncratic hybrid of various forms of run-of-the-mill leftism. In brief, global capitalism is driving itself - and all of us - to destruction: first of all through rampant environmental degradation, and secondly through opening up ever larger disparities in wealth between a tiny clique of super-rich and more or less everyone else - though Brand has a particular concern for a growing underclass, completely alienated from society altogether. To him - and to us - it is obvious that this state of affairs will not be fixed by a run-of-the-mill bourgeois election. ‘Revolution’ is needed, to bring about an “egalitarian socialist society”.

This concern for a growing underclass - and the consequent judgement that social disturbances will inevitably result - is the meat and potatoes of a great many well-meaning patrician social democrats and liberals. Brand departs from them because he hardly seems sure that riots are a bad thing. “At a Liverpool dockers march,” he writes, “the chanting, the bristling, the ripped-up paving stones and galloping police horses in Bono glasses flipped a switch in me. I felt connected, on a personal level I was excited by the chaos … I like a bit of chaos, however it’s delivered.”

He also - being a “bit of a tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator” - likes a bit of New Age mumbo-jumbo as well. There is a serious political point behind his digressions in that direction; in his view, as with hippiedom more generally, the virtue of various paganisms is their inclusion of the natural world in the moral universe. The spectre of apocalyptic climate change is everywhere.

His more mundane political proposals are mundane indeed: a clampdown on tax havens, an end to public indulgence of high finance ... The former idea he attributes to UK Uncut, and the latter to the People’s Assembly and Occupy. On the far left, we hear very much of this sort of stuff from our own; you might write Brand up as a clownish cross between Counterfire’s John Rees and anarchist Ian Bone. He differs most especially from the former in that, for Rees, pious noises about tax-dodgers and bailout money serve to conceal his nominally revolutionary politics; for Brand, on the other hand, these things should be sold to the public on the basis that they are a revolutionary assault on the profit system.

This inference rather slips in between the lines of the Newsnight interview; we must offer the comrade the same answer we offer all those who imagine that these kinds of demands in themselves hit structural weaknesses in capitalism: it is just not how it works. Capitalism is able to survive, even on the bare economic level, only because there is a relatively stable global organisation of state power. Brand’s primary line of attack on this is his dismissal of voting, which gives this arrangement a veneer of legitimacy, as opposed to direct action and riots, which does not. But that misses the point; the question that needs to be answered is not what tax rate capitalists should be forced to put up with, but how exactly the disenfranchised can become enfranchised; how society could be politically reorganised in such a way that the parasitic caste of professional politicians should become superfluous.

Brand has been accused of valorising the nihilism of social disturbances, somewhat disingenuously. Yet, while we must interpret phenomena such as the riots of two years ago as political events, they are by no means automatically political actions. Boycotting elections is indeed most often a passive, cynical act of resignation; casting a vote is often an act of enraged protest. What gives either course of action meaning is the ‘line of march’ - the existence of a meaningful plan for longer-term change. It is this that the far left lacks, above all else; that Brand should not have the answers is hardly the surprise of the century.

The whole episode is a reminder of the fragility of the bourgeois grip on the mass imagination - it seems strong only in comparison to the weak and scattered forces that seek to loosen that grip. All it takes is a scatterbrained leftie comedian to rip into the status quo, and it becomes momentarily obvious that those who presume to rule us are a corrupt clique with nothing of substance to say on anything. We may expect more of these little affairs.

It is likely, however, that the wrong ‘lesson’ will be drawn by the far left: that this fragility portends an imminent breakthrough for our side. Rees, in particular, will be chuffed at all the free publicity for the People’s Assembly; no doubt Brand will be booked in to rally the troops at the PA’s next outing (watch out, Mark Steel). The PA is already divided on whether to vote Labour, Green or far left; it would hardly be fatal to have a boycottist in the mix.

The trouble is that Brand openly avows that he looks to the PA, among others, for answers; but the leading clique have no answers except what they imagine Brand already wants to hear. All too similar by half to the desiccated products of the Westminster village, come to think of it.