Look I’m well disposed towards anyone who was in both Despicable Me films but if Russell Brand is the voice of my generation then God help us.
For starters, it’s not clear how much knowledge his position is based on. He worries about inequality and the environment, and proposes socialist nonsense as a solution. He also complains about not having a party to vote for. That suggests to me he has not heard of the Green Party and consequently does not know a great deal about politics.
Secondly, whether or not he realises it, Brand’s vision is anti-democratic. The reason democratic politics is not delivering Brand’s utopia is because it’s not what people want. Concern for the environment is lamentably low especially if doing anything about it involves higher energy costs. And while people might feel anger at instances of high pay that seem ‘unfair’, they are generally uninterested in equality as an abstract concept. His dreamed of revolution is thus an imposition on rather than a liberation for the population.
Brand is worth paying attention to because his idiocy makes him a prime example of an ‘immature democrat’ – someone who struggles to function in a democratic system because their approach to choices has been conditioned by a consumer society. As Gerry Stokes explains:
Politics as an exercise in collective decision-making has been unable to withstand the assault of a naive individualism. The idea that it is only through individual choice that we can express ourselves has reinforced a negative view of politics compared with other forms of decision-making that we experience. People have disengaged from politics and become frustrated in their activism because they do not understand the fundamental nature of politics—that in the end it involves the collective imposition of decisions, demands a complex communication process and generally produces messy compromise. Making decisions through markets relies on individuals choosing what suits them. The genius of the market is in part that rationing is internalised—you calculate knowing what you can afford—but in the case of politics, rationing is externally imposed. You get what the system gives you. And democracy means that you can be involved in a decision that goes against you and still be forced to follow it. As a form of collective decision-making, politics, even in a democracy, is highly centralised compared to markets.
So why do we put up with it? Rich democracies depend not only on individual possession of goods but also on a shared, indivisible infrastructure, what are called public goods: a well-maintained and regulated system of roads, national defence, clean air. Decisions about these public goods need to be taken and implemented. Collective decisions, followed by centralised imposition, are required for many other reasons too: for example, the fact of conflict over scarce resources or a broad consensus supporting publicly funded schools and hospitals.
Centralised decision-making is a core part of our societies and politics is the mechanism for deciding what those decisions should be. We accept the prospect of coercion in order to live our lives more efficiently and in a way that meets our needs and interests.
But politics as a form of collective decision-making relies on “voice” rather than the market mechanism of “exit.” If you don’t like something you see in a shop you can go elsewhere, but in politics the only way to get something is to use voice, and that carries far higher costs than exit. You have not only to make your views known, you also have to listen. Politics is not about individual choice, it is about collective debate. Knowing what you want, and knowing how to extract it from the political system is testing and complex.
Politics often involves a stumbling search for solutions to particular problems. It is rarely an experience of self-actualisation, of “getting what you want”; more often it is an experience of accepting second best. It works through a complex process of mutual adjustment as politicians and officials develop coping, or manipulative, modifications to their behaviour in the hope of inducing the right response from others. The results inevitably create a mix of winners and losers.
A propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance, even in democratic societies—where power changes hands peacefully and citizens are protected by the law.
Brand’s dream of a socialist utopia and his unwillingness to engage with a process that requires him to compromise on it are thus the product of consumer capitalism.