This is going to be, without doubt, the most controversial thing I have ever said on here (at least until I write about immigration later this week).
I quite like Russell Brand.
I know, this is risking the scorn of literally millions of right-thinking folk, but there it is.
I should immediately caveat this outrageous statement by adding that I also think he’s a bit of a nob. Of course he is. He says so himself, frequently.
But that doesn’t stop me liking him, even being extremely fond of him. I like (many) of the things he says, I enjoy listening to the way he says them. I like his outlook on things, and I think he’s sincere.
I first saw him performing about a decade ago at a fundraiser for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. I had never seen him before, not being a big one for the telly; but I was impressed. He was articulate, self-deprecating and quite clearly passionately committed to change.
I don’t really intend this to be a full defence of Brand – that would take a long time. Buy me a pint and I am happy to do so – though it’s fair to say he’s not asking for a defence.
But I do think that Brand is perhaps the most misquoted and misrepresented man since Marx.
Reading the sometimes baffling reviews of his book this last week, I kept thinking of the line from the beginning of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams:
‘Nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change’ – it seems we are all lining up pretty gleefully, to crucify this man for saying some pretty obvious things.
Glaringly obvious and yet mostly unsaid or unacknowledged, at least in the mainstream media.
Brand says – this is an emergency.
The current political system is not fit for purpose and works in favour of no one but a tiny elite.
Democracy has not produced a system that represents ordinary people. Instead we have this neoliberal, capitalism-on-acid world of technicolour inequalities and catastrophic ecological meltdown.
The current system has made the world a dangerous, brutal place to live.
It’s time to change it and replace it with a system that allows for cooperation, collectivism, more immediate democracy, taking the corruption out of the political system and returning the balance of power to where it belongs and from where it originates – with the people.
That is all pretty clearly stated and set out, with some proposed, fairly specific solutions.
Yet the reviews, for the most part, don’t seem to engage with this central argument at all.
Well, leaving aside the (perhaps dubious) style – there’s a lot of substance in what he says.
Seriously, does anyone really think that the current democratic system serves the electorate?
I was brought up to revere the martyrs of Peterloo and Emily Davison, people who truly were willing to give everything for democracy and freedom. But today as I was dressing Sparkly Daughter in her Emmeline Pankhurst costume for Famous Person Day, this is what I thought:
Thanks Emmeline for having a feeding tube shoved down your throat, thanks and all that, but Russell’s right – voting doesn’t change too much, at least in the UK and the US. We’ve got the vote, but we still don’t have the power.
Brand says – the electoral market is rigged in favour of big business and particularly multi-national corporations; the media perpetuates a consensus that is breathtakingly narrow.
(The great UKIP earthquake has meant that you can now have corporatism, pinkish corporatism, or corporatism with candidates who say ‘Bongo Bongo Land’ and ‘Ting Tongs’.)
A climate where ‘austerity’ requires great sacrifices by the poor and powerless, but trillions can be found to bail out the largest banks to provide bonuses. There are countless examples of this in his book – and everywhere really, if you care to look.
This rigged system has led to gross, obscene inequalities – like the 85 oligarchs that Oxfam says hold more wealth than 3 ½ billion poorest people in the world.
Or the fact that the richest 1% of the UK population have as much as the poorest 55%.
Brand thinks this is a crime against humanity. I agree with him.
Of course Brand isn’t the only person saying this – Owen Jones, the George Formby of the Left, characterises this as ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’. Banks get bailed out with trillions of our money, while ordinary people have their mortgages foreclosed, and end up relying on food banks
He’s right, too.
We are more used to seeing the privileged these days slagging off the poor, mocking them and deriding them as feckless and pointless.
Edwina Currie, screeching repeatedly on Channel 4 at an unemployed woman with mental health issues ‘Get a job, get a job, get a job.’ Churches and charities who attempt to set right the caricature of the feckless benefits-waster are shouted down and told to ‘get back to their knitting’. And we join in, gleefully, in programmes such as Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle.
In a week when Griff Rhys Jones complained that Labour’s proposed mansion tax would make him leave the country – well it’s a welcome contrast isn’t it? Brand is pretty much the only mainstream celebrity willing and able to articulate the injustices and the inequalities in a way that gets him (and the issues) into the spotlight.
We have been sold the idea that making the most money possible is some sort of moral imperative – but it’s not. In this neo-liberal gaga-land, the only things that matter can be measured in GDP.
At least under feudalism the powerful had a duty, a responsibility to their tenants. Now they are evicted for all sorts of spurious reasons with what passes for ‘morality’ in these late stages of hypercapitalism – ‘there’s nothing we could do, we have to do what’s most profitable’:
There is nothing inevitable about this way of running things. And it could change, and it should – that’s what Brand says, and I agree with him.
The second key strand of his argument is that this broken system is not making anyone happy or even content. In fact, we’re pretty miserable most of the time.
He uses his own (often seedy) life as an extended metaphor for the emptiness of much of modern life. He talks with honesty about his own attempts to fill the emptiness at the core of himself with a variety of pointless and unsatisfying solutions – drugs, food, drink, promiscuous sex, clothes, fame.
So – how about a different way? How about we think about happiness and togetherness and community and start to value those instead? Again, I honestly don’t see this is a particularly radical idea.
His message isn’t profound – it’s so obvious as to be almost banal. This stuff didn’t make him happy; he suggest that it isn’t making anyone happy, not really.
I think he’s right about this too.
The solutions offered by the consumerist culture aren’t really solutions; they are barely even distractions. They can in fact get in the way of human beings achieving any kind of peace.
The solutions he DOES offer are solid – you might not like them, but they are sincere, real and curiously old-fashioned.
Brand suggests that if you are finding the incessant buzz of the never-satisfied consumer culture too much, you might try looking within yourself, meditating to achieve calm. You might try thinking about your relationship with God or your version of God. You might try, when anxiety strikes, thinking about connecting with your place in the universe and letting go of the weight the world has placed on you.
Brand doesn’t offer himself as a leader – if he did, he’d be starting a cult. What he is suggesting that we all start taking care of ourselves, locally and directly. This suggestion is treated with horror and disbelief – of course we can’t be trusted to take care of ourselves!
I think he’s right about this too.
But I detect in much of the criticism a degree of class based snobbery – in fact it’s pretty close to the surface. He is criticised for not being ‘serious’ enough – and for being a ‘working class hero’ or (on Radio 4) ‘a working class intellectual’ – which the commentator clearly considered to be a contradiction in terms and meant he was not fit to appear on a ‘serious’ programme. He has co-opted some pretty heavyweight names on his side – Chomsky, Piketty, Klein; this decision has been characterised as ‘half-reading’ these books.
He’s also derided as naïve or like a sixth former. When I was in the sixth form, the head of sixth form told me that my left wing beliefs – workers’ rights, freedom, equality – were a symptom of my naïve youth and I would grow out of them.
Well he was wrong about that.
On the contrary, the more I see of the world, the more I see the things that need changing. I think that those who claim that the inequities of the current political system are ‘just the way things are’ and can’t be changed – they are the naïve ones.
I guess many people could have written Brand’s book. It is certainly easy enough to criticise, but it is, I think, starting a useful conversation about what needs to change.
I like Brand, I guess in the end, because he preaches peace, love, tolerance and all the good stuff that all the good people from Jesus to Ghandi have preached. And most of all he preaches the hope that hings can change.
Because things always change. Monarchies, empires, economic systems – they all rise and fall. Even Thatcher went in the end – and it was the people who in the end sent her on her way.
I hope he’s right.