The thing about Russell Brand is, he’s not a bad fella. I have no doubts that his motives are well-intentioned, if a little (lot) self-serving. His clumsy manifesto seems routed in a genuine humanity and – at times – is well researched, and supported by some strong academic discourse.
Also, it’s pretty easy to pour scorn on Brand. He’s a character who admits to his own gargantuan ego, and said ego permeates every facet of his over-worked performance. He’s overbearing, smug, over-stylised, self-satisfied and seems to lack any sort of humility whatsoever, which is at odds with his frequent verbal attempts to be self-deprecating, in a false, “I think this, this and this [showboat face] but what do I know, Guv?” sort of way.
Despite all of this, there is something likeable about him. He is genuinely witty and robustly articulate, which has stood him in good stead when arguing with right-wingers and generally proffering his new-found revolutionary spoutings.
He’s managed to beguile Jeremy Paxman, Katy Perry and even some yank filmmakers, and there is no denying – even if you aren’t won over by his 19th century porno-pirate costume – that he does have some charismatic charm.
First, Brand is the sort of figure that the Ruling Class absolutely loves. The reason for this is because he poses no real threat to the establishment. I’m not talking about his ridiculous faux pas about not voting. It was a stupid, ill-advised point though. But it’s bigger than that.
Nobody in Whitehall is shitting themselves about Brand’s new brand of politics; they’re pissing themselves. And quite rightly.
You could look at the farcical, fucked-uppery of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and their absurd bumblings, replete with deer-hunter hats and comedic slip-ups, but the truth is both of those people have a clear agenda.
Farage is preying on the irrational fears of the disenfranchised, with policies based on a hatred, which is anchored by fear and perpetuated by insidious propaganda.
Johnson… well, I’m not sure what the fuck Johnson is doing. He’s just a very lucky idiot and his village is London. Further proof that the north is the real intellectual hotbed of England.
But both of these people are politically successful with their gimmickry and personal indignities, because people feel let down by identikit, humourless politicians in too-tight suits, speaking in ridiculous sound bites they’re too afraid to deviate from.
Which should make Brand a dream for those wanting an alternative, which isn’t imbedded in racism or offensive gaffes.
The problem is, Brand isn’t really offering anything. He talks about revolution, and overthrowing hegemonic imperialism in the very broadest terms. And – put simply – revolution will not be about rhetoric, but action.
The single most revolutionary event in the UK of the last ten years was the London Riots. It came about as a direct reaction to a perceived injustice over the death of Mark Duggan in August 2011. It was not orchestrated by any spokesperson, it did not need endless discussions about the distribution of power, but it was very clearly revolutionary.
More than any organised political demonstrations, sound biting, or posturing from self-appointed figureheads (bumbling, funny or otherwise) it was direct anti-establishment activity that absolutely threatened government and big business and was a clear demonstration of a general dissatisfaction, as well as a commitment (albeit anarchic and unstructured) to change.
Does this mean I think rioting is the solution to overthrowing our oppressors?
Perhaps not. The truth is, though, that is how revolution begins. And direct action is what’s needed in order to implement radical change. In any country that has achieved revolutionary political change within the last two hundred years, it always begins with the poor – very often the youngest poor (average age of the Bolshevik party members was fifteen) – rioting. It’s not something that will occur little by little through European Human Rights legislation, or workplace laws. Significant change will involve direct action, some of which will be unpleasant and possibly unlawful, because the laws only serve to protect those in power. By any means necessary, and all that.
The rhetoric used during the riots by politicians about the “real cost” of the riots being incurred by small business owners was clever, but misleading. The bigger cost came to the government, which is why rioters were so ridiculously penalised in the aftermath, and to insurance companies – who did their best to squirm from financial obligations, but ultimately lost a great deal. But nowhere near the cost that small business owners undertake to protect their businesses, so let’s not get daft about it.
I do think those riots were infinitely more meaningful than Russell Brand showboating on the Jonathan Ross Show. And more importantly, so do the establishment.
I’m under no illusion that Cameron and Co. are having a giggle about Brand’s antics, and despite the low-level attempts to smear him in the press, he pretty much smears himself because this new-found political identity is really just another vehicle for Brand’s ego.
He went from MTV Presenter, to comic, to DJ, to columnist, to full-time shagger, to film star and I don’t begrudge him any of it. Not even the shagging.
Do I think that Brand has a disrespectful attitude to women? Quite possibly, but not resoundingly so, and his well-documented succession of sexual partners doesn’t seem to form a pattern of promising women any sort of romantic future – aside, of course, from that one he married, but we can’t condemn someone for a failed marriage – so it’s all fair dos. In any case, I don’t think his attitude to women is overtly worse than any other man in the public eye. In fact, he always seems to be fairly respectful to the opinions of women he engages with publically, which is a step further than many other male celebrities.
The problem is though; this politics stuff is a folly. That’s the perception, and that’s the second biggest problem with Brand. He initially warmed us up with talk of revolutionary change in newspaper columns, with Paxman and on subsequent political panel shows and was received so favourably, that he wants to press on.
He’s a good orator and the more attention he receives the further he wants to take it. Cinemas up and down the country, screening Brand calling for (a very vague and unstructured) revolution, without equipping us with a strategy for what that revolutionary change will look like is pretty fucked up.
It’s actually quite dangerous. Someone who’s in it for the gratifying applause, but without the personal strength and long-term commitment to what is truly needed to lead people into action, is an easy target and a threat to positive change.
The other thing – and it’s fairly fucking pertinent – is that Brand is not an ordinary person. He’s from a working-class background, a recovering addict, and from a single-parent family, but he’s also a film star who marries pop stars in elaborate Asian ceremonies. Despite his funny and not-unreadable sports columns and chirpy cockney persona, he’s actually very rich, very well protected by law, and not subject to the same oppressive struggles some of the rest of us face. He’s white, he’s a man, and he lives his life indulging his faddy diets, trendy quasi-religious dabblings, and knocking around on film sets. If he wanted to be truly revolutionary he’d give up his wealth, refuse to work with film companies that operate in intrinsically capitalist ways and reject much of what it is he’s attempting to convince us he is opposed to. That’s the truth.
It might sound churlish to ask him to make such personal sacrifice, but if he is sincerely speaking of revolution, whilst living in a way that contradicts this sort of change, how can anyone take it seriously?
It’s very easy of course, to be cynical and dismissive of those speaking political truths by dismantling them as people. The truth is, much of what Brand is saying is absolutely right. Therefore shouldn’t we just be glad that someone is saying it? It seems that that is what Brand is asking of us. To accept the sincerity of what it is he saying, whilst accepting he is a flawed leader and himself a part of the establishment, without asking anything else of him personally.
Let him talk a good talk, which is at the very least progress because not enough other people are doing it well, and because he is a high profile figure? Well, ok except that – and this is my final major point – much of what he is peddling is not his own work.
For years, Brand has incorporated little snippets of intellectual trivia into his act so as to make him appear more knowledgeable and worldly. I never really minded, because we all do it to a certain extent and because when he was on Big Brother’s Big Mouth and referring to his cock as a winkle, and interspersing it with throwaway comments about Wittgenstein, it was entertaining. His flourishes could be a bit annoying, but on the whole the whimsy was fun.
It’s not fun when you’re using the work of other academics – sometimes successfully, and sometimes slightly clumsily and out of context – to peddle your own career in entertainment.
You’re an entertainer or you’re a politician because this shit is too important to use as a public wank vehicle. It might not be as important to you, with your LA mansion, famous mates and blood-type diet. But for the people you’re purporting to represent it really is life and fucking death.