(Promotional image from Brand’s Messiah Complex)
Ever since Russell Brand positioned himself as a revolutionary on Newsnight last year, the internet has divided itself into two camps. The camp of opposition sees Brand as some kind of moronic hippie opportunist who’s trying to get in the spotlight. The camp of support sees Brand as making uncontroversial and quite astute points about the current system. Before you decide which camp you’d like to be in, have a read of my thoughts.
Isn’t it interesting, that the first slightest hint by a public figure that the system may be broken, and would-be rebels and political activists collapse under the weight of their own outrage. How dare Russell Brand question the systems that we too are unsatisfied with. How dare a comedian, of all people, possibly think he has anything to offer us (although somehow the Sex Pistols singer isn’t met with the same dismissals when he calls Brand a “bum-hole”). Isn’t it a shame that we have a complete loss of message, and that for all Brand’s calls for egalitarianism, social equality, and humanist love, we can dismiss and swat them away like an annoying fly, all because of one or two unsavoury quotes towards voting. It’s as if we’re saying that you can only question the system in certain safe ways. That your civil disobedience and calls for change must come from within the corrupt system and must not attempt to alter it in any meaningful way. It’s as if revolution must be neatly packaged and commodified so that it doesn’t disturb us too much. We want a quiet, slow revolution, not one that is actually going to deliver the change Brand talks about, as vague and haphazard as his expression of it may or may not be.
The oft-used weapon against Brand so far has been that people before us suffered and even died for the right to vote, and therefore it’s crude to question the purpose of voting now. We’ve heard John Lydon make pretty much that exact argument. My question is, do we owe it to the brothers and sisters, the suffragettes before us, to vote for a system that is corrupt, or do we owe it to those radicals and game-changers to demand more from our vote, to make sure that we are voting for something worth showing up to the polling station for? In an age of political disillusionment, it’s easy to see Brand as calling for further apathy and a lower voting turnout, when in fact those are the exact problems he is trying to combat.
Another oft-used charge against Brand, the one used by Paxman himself, is that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to question authority or those in power. Do we vote for bankers? Do we vote for heads of corporations? Do we vote for our bosses? No we don’t. And yet we feel quite justified in criticizing them when they tread on us. Why do we suddenly lose the right to join the debate if we don’t vote for a political party, even when we perceive that no party properly represents our interests? Are we supposed to vote Labour or Conservative just so we can join the conversation, regardless of whether we like them or not? What alternatives are left to us when the main political parties abandon all promise to make things better for us?
When voting becomes a facile exercise, of no more utility than practising our ticks or crosses, the idea that we have to vote before we can possibly have an opinion in politics becomes absurd. Democracy is also in danger when we vote not for some grand principles, but to keep the other side out (usually the Tories). If the point of voting is to remain one step away from conservatism, don’t pretend you’re living in a democratic society. I would rather see a society that recognizes that voting is a pointless exercise, than a society that votes for no credible reason at all. Neither are particularly desirable states of affairs, but to interpret Brand as calling for us to abstain from voting as the single solution to all of our problems is a blatant and deliberate misinterpretation of his argument.
Cherry-picking the “don’t vote” thesis, an off-the-cuff comment not intended to be a wide political call to action (or inaction, as the case may be), is unfair to Brand’s wider world-view. He was not trying to create some grand unified theory of civil disobedience around the principle of non-voting, he was trying to highlight that democracy is dead when the party you vote for is no different from the party the next guy votes for.
And just look at the cynicism, which tells us that Brand’s calls for change are so well-timed that the only explanation is that he’s trying to make money off his book and not trying to create a culture of questioning authority and the status quo. He’s looking to make some money, by decrying the very system that allows him to make said money. If anything, he’s a crass hypocrite too right? I think not. If Brand’s motives were so profit-driven or self-centred, why did he abandon the Hollywood industry and the machine that lets him show up for a movie role and collect a fat cheque? Why not stay silent at the GQ awards, instead of highlighting the problems with teaming up with Hugo Boss, whose founder designed the uniforms for the Nazis.
Brand had/has a huge entertainment audience, one probably totally divorced from politics. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not a political work, and Get Him To The Greek had all the merits of a wild comedy film (that is to say, none of the merits of a serious political revolutionary drama). Why leave such an industry, if Brand’s motivation is to make a buck? Why leave the safety and comfort of his career within the established industry in order to pursue a goal which, according to the cynics, is also profit-driven? Why not just stay put?
Of course, this anti-Brand argument in particular constitutes nothing more than an ad hominem attack and does nothing to question the character of the arguments Brand is making in his Trews videos. Brand can be a Hollywood star and a political activist at the same time, by the way. No, Russell Brand has not written our generation’s Communist Manifesto. No, he’s not Gandhi. No, he doesn’t have a grand, unified theory of economics and government. What he has is a list of complaints about the current system; valid complaints that it doesn’t take a revolutionary to digest. Every generation’s social dissident is different, so to squeeze Russell Brand into the mould of Noam Chomsky or Che Guevara and complain when he doesn’t fit, makes little sense.
If we cannot even listen to a man who is making obvious arguments against the current socio-economic and political establishment without calling him a “bum hole”, we do not properly deserve a radical who is willing to incite revolutionary change. Are we so comfortable, in our stagnant wages, in our climate of scapegoating immigrants and the poor, in our ever-increasing rich-poor gap, that we are willing to ignore Brand’s legitimate complaints and boil all of his many arguments down to “yeah but he said you shouldn’t vote and that”? I’m not, so I will continue to listen to Brand’s attempts to expand consciousness and question those in power. I hope you will not shut your eyes whenever Brand tries to open them, however much you dislike his personal character or his speaking style.
You can watch Russell Brand’s The Trews here.