The tarnished Brand

I get grumpy about Russell Brand (again)

You can generally spot when someone has written something in a hurry and in a bad mood. I first noticed this while doing political campaign. If you put out an attack leaflet then quite often you’d see the other party start delivering a response with great haste. Almost as often, they did little to mitigate the damage. At time you could just the target of the original attack sat at their desk bashing out a response too furiously to consider if it made much sense or how it would come across to its readers.

I got this same sense of irritated thumping of keys while reading James Robertson’s defence of Russell Brand. Robertson is defending the wannabe revolutionary leader from the attacks made on him in a review of his book for Prospect. Given that that review was written by my friend Robin McGhee – indeed I quoted approvingly from it in a post last week – and that I’m not a Brand fan, I was predisposed to disagree with Robertson. However, even I was surprised how weak it is.

Let me take you through it and its myriad howlers. It begins:

“By following Brand’s ramblings and refusing to vote, people are submitting to a system they purport to be protesting against.” Robin McGhee’s shallow assessment of Russell Brand is not only factually inaccurate; it’s politically naive.

This our first sign that this article has been sloppily written. As we go on we’ll see plenty of arguments from Robertson as to why he thinks that Robin’s review is “factually inaccurate; it’s politically naive”. However, there’s nothing to really back up the choice of “shallow” as the correct adjective to use here. It just feels like the first insult which came to Robertson’s mind and which ought to have been switched for something more pertinent in a redraft that never happened.

Let’s start with the facts.

Spoiler: this is overpromising.

Brand is not “anti-voting”. He refuses to contribute to the reproduction of the political class that dominates the British establishment by endorsing any of them at the ballot box. That’s no more anti-voting than a vegetarian who refuses to dine at a steak restaurant is anti-eating. He won’t vote because there’s nothing politically palatable on the menu.

I’ve written before about Brand as an example of an ‘immature democrat.’ Someone conditioned by a consumerist culture to expect a politics tailored to their individual preferences, and therefore rather dejected by the results of a process which is a compromise between the preferences of an entire society. Or put another way someone who thinks voting is like ordering at a restaurant! We can decide not to go to a particular restaurant. Short of emigration, we are stuck with the society we have. And when the discontented choose not to participate that makes change harder to realise. Witness, for example, how the retreat of the young and economically disadvantaged from participating in this week’s mid-term elections made a Republican victory much easier.

I also continue to find it strange that Brand thinks there’s no one for him to vote for. Surely, the Green’s brand of luddite socialist nonsense would be perfect for him?

 However, on Newsnight in October, Brand said he “would have voted yes” in the Scottish referendum as this was a form of direct democracy that would have actually made a difference.

That doesn’t actually refute the notion that Brand is de facto anti-voting. We live in a representative democracy. Deciding you will only participate in the odd referendum removes your influence over the vast bulk of decisions which are not subject to referendums. Indeed, such exercises in direct democracy only come about because of other elections. Had the SNP not won a majority in the Scottish Parliament then there would have been no Indy referendum to Brand to approve of voting in.

McGhee claims, “Without voting you have zero chance of changing anything”. Let’s remember that Brand is talking about “a revolution”. Voting didn’t bring independence to America. It didn’t bring the indigenous Zapatistas control over their land in Mexico. It didn’t bring women the vote or black people civil rights. These revolutionary moments were created by people engaging in a collective struggle for a better world – not by wandering into a local village hall and putting a cross in a box with an Ikea pencil.

Robertson’s definition of ‘revolution’ seems rather thin. It seems encompass any political change involving violent or non-violent civil disobedience and as a result winds up including a whole host of not terribly revolutionary movements.

We now think of the campaign for votes for women as being all about women throwing themselves under horses and going on hunger strike. The reality is more prosaic. The acts of civil disobedience were confined to a radical fringe. Largely lost to our collective memory was the much larger and more effective, movement led by Millicent Fawcett. She was a Conservative supporter and her organisation relied on petitioning and lobbying to achieve its goals. It also relied on the election of sympathetic MPs to achieve its aims.

Likewise, it’s hard to see how the US Civil Rights struggle would have been assisted by African American living in Northern cities and white liberals taking Brand’s advice about voting. Without them the political incentives for the Federal Government to have taken action would have been much weaker.

McGhee and other critics relentlessly attack Brand for the language he uses. For not being what McGhee calls, “a serious political thinker”. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the political bourgeoisie pour scorn upon a working-class lad for not speaking like they do. However what they fail to remember is that, as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlikca wrote, “democratic politics is the politics of the vernacular”. Brand is engaging a much wider audience than Chomsky precisely because he doesn’t use the language of the political intelligencer.

Actually what Robin attacks Brand for is trying simultaneously to appear like someone you should take seriously while also being funny, and apparently failing at both. Robin writes that “Brand is clearly desperate for people to take him seriously—punishing the reader with statistics and poorly written summaries of 18th century political philosophy. The constant changes of tone from whimsical memoir to sombre pseudo-philosophic discourse are unpleasantly jarring.” Robin is purporting to judge Brand by a standard the comedian has himself chosen; calling him out for posing as a ‘serious political thinker’ while failing to articulate any thoughts of substance.

Robin’s problem with Brand is not that he writes in ‘the vernacular’ but that he writes sentences like “Dear ol’ Thomassy Piketts, ol’ Piketty, Licketty, Rollitty, Flicketty, has been given a right kicketty by the right wing for daring to suggest that we need transparency around the wealth and assets…” which are neither funny nor enlightening.

Talking politics in an amusing way to a broad audience does not require producing such witless crap. In the US, the trio of John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver have been showing how to do satire with bite and brains.

Brand isn’t claiming to be the heir of Chomsky or to speak “for the people.”

The fact that it’s in quotation marks might lead you to believe Robin uses the words “for the people”. Ctrl F it and find out for yourself.

What he does do is provide evidence that Brand does indeed see himself as engaged in a similar enterprise as Chomsky. Again Robertson dismisses this without dealing with that evidence.

Instead he is using his platform in the media to draw attention to the stories it ignores. Stories that undermine the disempowering narrative that there is no way out of life under capitalism: stories of the E15 mothers who refuse to be priced out of their community in London; stories of academics like Graeber who challenge the notion that debt should always be paid back, however unjust the conditions of the loan.

Side note British law does not support the notion that “debt should always be paid back.” The selling of financial products is subject to consumer protection legislation and there are insolvency procedures for dealing with unmanageable debts.

Brand provides the British public with a guided tour of alternative ideas, but he no more claims to be an intellectual or a representative of the people than the tour guide claims to be the attractions they draw attention to.

A nice analogy that gives Brand too much credit. If I asked my guide to elaborate on something or tell me how he knows that and rather than answering the question he began ranting that this was the kind of strategy that people used to show him up; I would conclude they were pretty useless at their job.

As a Liberal Democrat supporter, maybe McGhee is looking for a scapegoat in Brand for when next-to-nobody votes for his party next May?

Is this a serious argument or a weak excuse to bring up Robin’s Lib Demmery? Come May 7th, I can’t see anyone, including Robin, who’s asked the question “how do you explain these Lib Dem losses?” replying “Russell Brand.”

However, rather than joining the legions of puritanical lefties who relentlessly feel the need to prove their intellectual and moral superiority over this former drug and sex addict, perhaps McGhee should use the space that Brand is creating in the otherwise hegemonic media narrative to open up a discussion about how to address the colossal democratic deficit, social inequality and climate crisis, created by capitalism.

What’s ‘puritanical’ got to do with anything? Has Robertson just gone to a list of insults and looked up the ones starting with P?

Also since when has the media not talked about democracy, climate change and inequality?

Because as many times as pompous interviewers demand it of him, Brand, a celebrity engaged in a project to help people to regain control of their political destiny and collectively agree a way forward, will not and should not define how society should be organised. In a real democracy, that is for us all to decide, even you Robin.

No but he is advocating for a change. And it behoves him to explain what the change he wants is. If he wants us to join the revolution then we should know where it is going to take us. If Brand cannot or will not articulate that then he should make room for people who can.

This final point is a weakness you encounter in much other anarchist writing. Many of the other mistakes throughout this article just seem like sloppiness. I do genuinely wonder if Robertson read Robin attacking a figure he likes and agrees with and was riled up by that, and put fingers to keys without stopping to think through the piece properly.

Writing an article with greater haste than care and more passion than reflection is bad. Trying to summon a political movement that way is worse.

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