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.

The trashing of Russell Brand

I’ve not written about Russell Brand’s book. It’s not that I’m indifferent towards him. I despise his cod radicalism and wrote many posts laying into his early forays into politics. But I just can’t bring myself to spend £6.99 on his new book and then sacrifice several hours to reading it. And I think that even Russell Brand deserves to have his work read before it is mauled.

There are, however, masochists  people who have plunged into this pit apparent of fatuous fallacies and returned to recount to the rest of us the horrors therein. My friend has Robin McGhee has contributed to this emerging sub-genre with an article for Prospect. He compares (or rather contrasts) Brand’s book with a recently published collection of Noam Chomsky’s work:

Russell Brand’s new book is a brilliant, if totally unintentional, defence of the establishment. On the one hand, he proposes the bankruptcy of the current political system. On the other, he gives victory to the establishment by suggesting the only way to fix it is by not participating in politics. Worryingly, Brand’s so-called ideas have resonated with the public: the Newsnight sparring session between him and Jeremy Paxman has had over 10m hits on YouTube and his own news show, The Trews, is up to 44m views and rising. He is a master populist, who is restyling himself as an “alternative” leftist voice. On several occasions he has professed his admiration for alternative thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, despite Brand’s anti-voting stance directly contradicting his hero’s arguments. Chomsky believes the corporate media fabricates narratives to suit the aims of the governing elite. The media’s job is not to inform the public: it is to massage them into being apathetic so the privileged can run the country in peace. While this conspiratorial message has been much derided, if anything proves it, it is Brand’s latest printed tirade.

For me the highlight is the following:

Where there is humour, it is gratingly predictable. His act of the streetwise hedonist playing with literary and philosophical concepts is, as usual, the main source of comedy. (“Amazing as it is that the brain can conjure up these neurological illusions, which on some subtle level are a physical reality, like they must be made of an electrical impulse which has a charge or a weight, it’s a fucking drag when I can’t voluntarily stop it.”) Other attempts at humour come out as surreal meta-ironic puns. Chomsky is “Chomskerooney” at one point, while Thomas Picketty is described like this: “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…” The effect, besides bafflement, is padding. Brand has more of an eye on the word count than the words—or less on the spellcheck as the cheque.


The revolution will not be peaceful

Having been challenged by Robert Webb to “read some fucking Orwell,” Russell Brand responds by showing that he’s either not read or not understood Orwell.

Robert Webb and Russell Brand

I’m not sure quite how we have got to the stage where the politics of Russell Brand apparently merit not only an interview by Jeremy Paxman but also a follow up with Medhi Hassan. However it happened, I really wish it hadn’t. His responses to Robert Webb’s thoughtful and intelligent critique of revolutions illustrates the shallowness and recklessness of his political thinking.

His Weak Arguments

Brand continues to deploy the George W. Bush technique of trying to make his ignorance into an asset. He explains that he doesn’t “claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had.” People who try to legitimate their views by saying in effect ‘you should take me seriously because I’m as stupid as a regular person’ are not only insulting regular people but also showing why their views don’t merit attention. Political debate should be about the mutual enlightenment of all those involved not about the dissemination of ignorant opinions by those who main qualification is being as stupid as some purported everyman.

Brand also tries the inverse of this reasoning by trying to brand Webb an elitist. He says: “Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb…If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids.” This is a weak argument because:

His scary argument

However, this is far from the worst part of the interview.

“I’m not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I’m not in on the old death camps… I’m double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness.”

Brand added: “Definitely no killing. I’m against that; I’m a vegetarian, I think we’re all equal. I’m not saying smash people’s stuff up, and definitely no killing.”

Assessing previous Marxist revolutions, the 38-year-old said that in its “traditional form” revolution was ok but it “went a bit genocidal, it was just a bit of sharing, then it got spoilt.” Brand insisted that he wanted a peaceful revolution. “Once you are violent you’d get nicked. If you’re disobeying without being violent they can’t nick you, it’s a paradigm breaker.”

What Orwell could teach Brand

If Brand took Orwell seriously, he’d understand precisely why these (bizarre) clarifications are so pointless. The whole point of Animal Farm is that even revolutions that seem benign at the start, can mutate into something ugly. The pigs do not start out announcing that they plan to have dogs kill other animals, send Boxer to the glue factory and begin walking on two legs. But that’s what happens as power corrupts them and their revolution.

This not only happened in the Soviet revolution that inspired Animal Farm. It took only a few years of the French Revolution to turn Robespierre from an opponent of the death penalty into the instigator of the terror.

Why we need Democracy for peace

Let’s be clear, the kind of revolution brand imagines – anti-democratic and radical – would almost inevitably be violent.

Democracy is not only (or even primarily) a means for representing the views of the people, it’s also a means of avoiding political violence. It provides a set of rules on transferring power that are generally perceived as broadly fair and therefore accepted – it’s a safe bet that after the last general election, Gordon Brown did not contemplate using the army or police to hold onto power.  Take away democracy and you take away the rules of politics, and anything (including violence) goes. Without democracy it is hard to see how the Brandian revolutionary vanguard would legitimate their rule and without legitimacy it is hard to see how they could maintain their rule except through coercion, and indeed how they could dissuade people from using violence to oppose them.

And revolutions are worse than even Orwell suggested

Brand says a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me.” These kind of genuinely revolutionary revolutions with their utopian pretensions are the most dangerous. Better even than Orwell for understanding why revolutions go bad is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. In the dry prose of a sociologist she explains why she found conventional Marxist analysis inadequate for understanding ‘social revolutions‘ like those in France, Russia and China. Marx would lead you to believe that revolutions transfer power between classes. Instead Skocpol found that the largest shift in power was not towards any particular class but to the state itself. This comes about because the revolutionary regimes needed a state mighty enough to push through their plans for dramatic changes. So they give bureaucrats, the armed forces and other organs of the state a degree of power they’ve never had before.

Orwell was actually understating the horror of the revolution when at the finale of Animal Farm, the ordinary animals see that the pigs have become indistinguishable from their old human masters. Stalin wasn’t indistinguishable from the Czar; he was far worse. The Czars ability to oppress his people was constrained by his ramshackle state. By contrast, the Soviet state was powerful enough to send thousands to the Gulags, spy on the entire nation and starve millions to death in the name of collectivizing agriculture.

Time for the political prima dona to exit the stage

Just about the only thing Brand gets right in this whole sorry interview is that there are indeed plenty of people who know more than he does. It’s time he let them take the floor. Nothing he has to say about revolutions portrays insight or deep thought. His political thinking is underdeveloped and ill-informed.

He should be more careful. Revolutionary socialism is an unpleasant and violent doctrine. While there is little or no chance of a socialist revolution in Britain today, there is a risk in even some individuals taking it seriously. There was a time not to long ago when the terrorist threat to Europe came not from angry young Muslims but angry young leftists. Given high youth unemployment and our general disengagement from party politics, the conditions for it to re-emerge are there. Webb rightly observes in his letter to Brand that:

In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

Russell Brand vs. Democracy


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.

His proud rejection of the ballot box in favour of a revolution is nonsensical.

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.