The Back Road Web Links
Follow Me On
The Woman in White Marble

{Click Marble or visit Books in the main menu}

Follow Me On


The Great Russell Brand Revolution Controversy

by Dale Rominger

Like millions of people I watched the Jeremy Paxman Russell Brand interview on YouTube (last time I looked it was 8,773,932 views!). The interview made the rounds on my small part of the Facebook and Twitter worlds and it seemed clear that I was out of step with the prevailing excitement about Brand’s performance. The interview also directed me to Brand’s article in the New Statesman, “We no longer have the luxury of tradition,” which was interesting, passionate, disrespectful and, by his own admission, aimed to offend. I’ve been thinking hard about why I was less euphoric about Brand’s call for revolution when I agree with much of what he said. I will try to articulate some of those reasons here.

First let’s put aside the issue of hypocrisy so we can move on. I think we can all agree that people of vast wealth – Brand is worth somewhere around £10million – demanding the redistribution of wealth, perhaps through violent means, are vulnerable to the criticism of hypocrisy. Whether it’s Brand calling for some sort of revolution to redistribute wealth or John Lennon singing about the virtue of a society without private property while playing a white piano that cost him thousands of dollars (Imagine no possessions/If you can), they are easy targets. Brand himself began to address the issue of his wealth and privilege in his New Statesman article. Unfortunately, besides expressing some embarrassment at not being fully accepted by demonstrators in a march he wished to join and feelings of guilt he experienced after visiting Kenya, he never actually resolved the issued. A lot of words were written, but the best he could offer was that he is willing to give up his “baubles and balderdash for a genuinely fair system.” Yes, I know he’s a comedian but sometimes the jokes aren’t enough. Nonetheless, let’s put aside the issue of hypocrisy. Just because a person is wealthy does not mean he or she cannot talk about economic justice. (I found Brand more persuasive in the interview rather than the New Statesman article. In the article ideas, like that of his own hypocrisy, seemed to melt away in jokes and clever words.)

Let me begin by making it clear that I could care less that Brand has never voted, though I know his disdain for voting became the big issue. His voting record, or rather lack of one, seemed to be the least important aspect of the interview and the New Statesman article for three reasons. One, there can be arguments to support a protest movement of non-voting. Two, the challenge of Brand’s authority based on his right to edit the New Statesman and his voting position seemed, to me at least, less than helpful (though I would be foolish not to acknowledge that Paxman knows more about interviewing public figures than I). And three, what seemed most important was Brand’s call for revolution, and possibly violent revolution, while at the same time being unwilling or unable to articulate more clearly the alternative state he desires.

The Right to Vote

Some argue that voters are so disenfranchised that their votes are utterly meaningless. This certainly seems true of some voters in every democratic country. Poverty is never eliminated even though we have the resources and intelligent to do so. So why should the poor vote? On the other hand, the Republican Party learned in the last U.S. election that if the disenfranchised do come out to vote in strength, it can make a difference (to be sure, not the kind of difference Brand would want – as he says in the interview, “Changes are not dramatic enough, not radical enough”). A U.S. without the Tea Party  controlling local and state governments and the House of Representatives in Washington would be a different country and, at least to some degree, would be different for the poor. While Brand is asking us not to vote, those on the far right are hoping we listen. Elections are determined by those who vote and those who do not vote. Otherwise why would the Republican Party be spending so much effort to make it difficult or illegal for certain people to vote? (I wonder how Brand would respond if his legal right to vote was denied him.)

But it matters very much exactly why people do not vote. Not voting as a part of a campaign to challenge the political establishment is quite different from not voting out of indifference or laziness. Not voting in a particular situation in a particular election can be seen as a responsible political action.

It is argued that all governments regardless of party affiliation and political ideology are basically the same and exist to nurture and protect the interest of the wealthy elite. I have argued the same myself and watching governments around the world respond to the 2008 financial crisis makes it difficult to defend the idea that democratic governments exist for the people. Watching the people, and disproportionately the poor, pay for the 1%’s greed, incompetency and illegality, makes it is clear who controls the world. Here Brand’s passion and ideas ring true. His comments about economics should not be brushed aside. If your position is that the entire political system is beyond redemption, as his is, then yes, there is no reason to vote and, if you care at all, there is a reason for revolution. Assuming that Brand is serious about what he says and that all this is not just a grand comedy (Brand, always the trickster, encourages unease here), then of course one would hope that after the revolution and the new political system has been established, that Brand will participate in some way. Perhaps in voting, if indeed there is voting in the new reality. For now however, for Brand “voting with the failed system is tacit complicity.” (Interview)

Brand is right when he claims that there is no popular, and I would add credible, left-wing movement to counter the likes of the Tea Party and UKIP  and motivate people alienated from the system to vote. Unfortunately, Brand, a self-proclaimed leftist, demonstrated this fact when he is unable to answer questions put to him by Paxman about what the alternative system would look like.

A comparison of the Tea Party and Occupy movements is interesting. The Tea Party was not established as a political party but always had political ambitions and a natural home in the Republican Party. In a relatively short period of time the movement organised and entered the political process, electing people, who embrace Tea Party ideology and goals, to local, state and national offices. The movements ambitions were greatly supported through vast financial donations from wealthy conservatives and extensive positive coverage on Fox News. The Occupy movement, on the other hand, while political in nature (all social movements are political) resisted, on principle, any formal leadership, fund raising and political organising. As a result I have never heard of Occupy putting anyone forward for political office. Occupy was vitally important and changed the mind-set of American society, but it is the Tea Party that exercises political power which has a profound impact on the U.S. In the interview Brand says that when there is a “genuine alternative, then vote for that.” Occupy did not offer a genuine alternative one could vote for. The Tea Party did.

In Brand’s black and white world, all politics is corrupt and all politicians are cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, it’s an absurd and juvenile position. President Obama is not the same as the Tea Party. Ed Miliband is not the same as Nigel Farage. Francois Hollande is not the same as Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Challenge of Authority

Paxman’s initial challenge to Brand about his authority – who are you to be the guest  editor of the New Statesman and why should we listen to you because you don’t vote– seemed unhelpful. I would have thought it obvious that Brand would reject out of hand the kind of authority that Paxman legitimises, and of course that is just what he did in precise and passionate terms. As he says in the end of the interview, “I don’t need the right from you, I don’t need the right from anybody, I’m taking it.” It’s difficult not to applaud his stand. And yet…

When asked by what authority he edited the New Statesman, Brand began by saying he was asked by a beautiful woman (which is also the justification by which he began his New Statesman article). Score one for Brand! Paxman the establishment figure could only laugh. Brand had every right to reject Paxman’s implied authority and choose his own. There are many forms of authority to choose from: political, traditional, historical, artistic, intellectual, spiritual, religious, experiential, reputational, etc. (though given the title of his New Statesman article we must assume he would reject the authority of tradition). However, if we can get beyond Brand’s in-your-face-persona we might realise it was not such an unreasonable question to ask.

If I were asked to edit a journal on comedy having had no experience in the world of comedy, it would not be unreasonable for someone to ask me by what authority I did so. I am not suggesting that because I am not a comedian I have no thoughts and opinions about comedy or that I have no right to express them. I am saying it is not an unreasonable question, especially from comedians. But because we admire Brand’s brashness in front of Paxman’s establishment persona, we excuse or simply ignore the fact that Brand’s response was glib, hollow and sexist (Brand is a self-proclaimed womaniser). It was a joke, you say. Well, yes, he is a comedian and humour can be a sharp tool. But after the joke, Paxman, you, me deserve some seriousness of thought.

It’s interesting to note that Paxman has a good reputation as a journalist who does not hesitate to aggressively challenge politicians, perhaps even speak truth to power. In this interview, however, he seems to be the bad guy, or at least the not so good guy, apparently representing the establishment elite. Perhaps he shouldn’t have worn a tie. On the Graham Norton Show Paxman, while saying he disagreed with Brand on many things, did agree with his thoughts on British apathy towards politics. He said, “I think he is absolutely right. I think people are fed up with posturing politicians.”

Others have said that what we witnessed in the Paxman/Brand interview was a clash of generations representing different notions of authority and responsibility. If Paul Mason, writing “Generations collide as Brand meets Paxman” in the New Statesman after the revolution edition, were to read this essay he would no doubt say I hold my positions because I am over 40. Perhaps he is be right. I am certainly over 40! Mason concludes his article with these words: “…while everybody over 40 is saying, in effect, ‘Tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous?’ a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right – bring it on.” For the record, I’m not tee heeing.

A Call for Revolution

So, Brand doesn’t vote and rejects Paxman’s challenge of authority. Interesting but hardly shocking news. What’s more interesting is Brand’s call for revolution. The precise form the revolution will take is not always clear. He certainly calls for a revolution of the mind, by which Brand means a spiritual transformation. He says, “For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political.” By spiritual he means “the acknowledgement that our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritised.” But it’s also important to note that this spiritual acknowledgement “implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.”(New Statesman)

I suspect most would agree that dismantling the sociological, economic and political world in which we live, and doing that in a hurry, would probably not be accomplished peacefully. Thus Brand also says, “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” and that he likes “a bit of chaos however it is delivered.” (New Statesman)

Brand begins his New Statesman article by saying that the only way he can “be enthused about politics” is by “imagining the overthrow of the current political system.” Fair enough. But when pushed by Paxman about what the new world will look like, Brand instead tells Paxman what it wouldn’t look like. With some passion, Brand says that the new socio-economic political system would not destroy the planet, would not create an underclass and would not exploit poor people all over the world, which he describes as “genuine problems of the people are not being addressed by politicians.”

Brand sees himself as a “trickster, “writing that he identifies more with the “amoral trickster.” (The Trickster is a god or god-like figure in many cultures. One thinks particularly of Coyote in Native American mythology.)  As he says, sometimes things (movements, demonstrations, riots) are a “bit too fucking serious…” And he’s right when he says that “Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.” (New Statesman) I would caution, however, that 20th Century history certainly shouts that chaos, riots and revolutions quickly become very fucking serious, particularly when the death count rises. And this trickster when pushed to name by what authority he calls us into revolution and what his new world will look like, can only say he hasn’t “had time to think about it yet. “I need to stress, however, that Brand does offer at least a vague reference to a “socialist equalitarian system based on the redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, and massive responsibility for the impact on the environment” (Interview) as the skeleton of his new world. Hopefully when he has time he will explain exactly what means.

If you are advocating for revolution, both spiritual and violent, it’s not good enough to say only what you are against. If destruction and death are on the table, then it’s not wrong to ask what socio-economic political system you embrace. During the interview, Paxman asked more than once what Brand’s alternative would look like. Brand’s response was first to brush such challenges aside by saying he hadn’t had time to think about it. Well, not good enough. If you present yourself as a spokesperson for revolution with a massive audience, then you cannot dismiss the questions about the future with glibness and a joke. (As I write, Brand’s Twitter following: 7,228,503; Facebook followers: 616,852; Facebook Newsfeed: 769,064; and of course thousands of people who attend his live shows)

I am not saying that a comedian has no right to venture into the realms of economics, politics and revolution. Many comedians have been challenging politicians and the elite for years and they serve society in doing so. Bill Hicks comes to mind (From Shock and Awe 2003: “People often ask me where I stand politically. It’s not that I disagree with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy, it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.” Or from I’m Sorry Folks, 1989: “It’s all about money, not freedom, ya’ll, okay? Nothing to do with fucking’, freedom.” Or: “People tell me, ‘Bill, let it go. The Kennedy assassination was years ago. It was just the assassination of a President and the hijacking of our government by a totalitarian regime – who cares?”) But comic gigs are one thing while Newsnight and the New Statesman are quite different.

Much of his assessment of the current situation in both the Paxman interview and the New Statesman article are right on target. We are destroying the planet. Politicians of all persuasions do protect the financial elite, or at best only tinker with the system that protects them. And yet his passionate black and white never grey declarations undermine his argument. In truth, not all politicians are protecting the bankers and not all politicians are the same on all issues. Capitalism is only an idea, unless you are starving to death because of that idea. Indigenous religions and spiritualities are grounded in humankind’s relationship with the planet, but an romanticising of those religions is silly (perhaps Native Americans of the high plains did “use every bit” of a bison, but they also would drive 5000 bison off a cliff while needing only for a few).

Brand closes his essay with intelligent and inspiring words: “But we are far from apathetic, we are far from impotent. I take great courage from the groaning effort required to keep us down, the institutions that have to be fastidiously kept in place to maintain this duplicitous order…Now is the time to continue the great legacy of the left, in harmony with its implicit spiritual principles.” And yet in the interview he says that he doesn’t mind if we don’t take him seriously and that he’s just ”here to draw attention to some ideas and to have a little bit of a laugh.” So which is it? A bit of a laugh about chaos, rioting and revolution or ideas that demand our attention. We want to say, surely it’s about the ideas, but as we do so we remember that Brand claims that capitalism, America, Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate and Wednesdays are “just ideas we choose to believe in” that “cannot  be served to the detriment of actual reality.” Just ideas. So why are not socialism, equalitarianism and the environment also just ideas that cannot stand in the face of reality? Paxman was right to push Brand. We need more.

Conclusions in the Theatre of the Absurd

Václav HavelThroughout this perhaps overblown controversy I couldn’t stop thinking of Václav Havel (also see Havel’s official website for a collection of his writings). Like Brand the comedian, Havel critiqued society through the arts, in his case the Theatre of the Absurd. Like Brand he was wealthy. Like Brand he became a public figure through his art and political activism. Like Brand he advocated revolution. And like Bran he was intelligent, passionate and irreverent.  However, and it’s a big however, he was never accused of being glib and juvenile. He was always aware of the painful lessons of history. He was imprisoned for his activism and writing. He would never have been accused of not having thought through the implications of his words and popularity. He never merged the far right and left by glorifying violence and encouraging people to emulate the spirit of fundamentalist murderers. And he would never have claimed he did not care if people listen to him or not (if that claim is true then one shut up, if not then one should drop the false modesty). Instead he articulated a precise and profound moral, economic, social, spiritual, environmental and political alternative to the oppressive system that oppressed him. I am not trying to deify Havel and his memory, he was no god. But the Velvet Revolution avoided a great deal of chaos and was virtually without violence. And the contrast between Brand and Havel is striking. I suspect that Havel would have liked and respected Brand, but Brand’s claim to enjoy chaos and rioting Havel would have been left cold. Havel knew that words and activism could have harsh consequences. No joke.

Copyright © 2013 Dale Rominger