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Shortly before guest editing the New Statesman last month, flamboyant comedian Russell Brand claimed to have had a political epiphany. His leading article was a 4,754-word tirade against corporations, governments, profit, power, and anyone remotely involved in them. Since then, he consented to sit in an interview and was challenged to devise a global utopian system. During the now famous Newsnight broadcast, though, the London-born Hollywood actor spent a long time complimenting Paxman’s beard and not enough time devising this system.
I’m glad that someone is making the radical case, particularly when that someone represents the one in three Brits who don’t vote. It is, however, a great shame that this someone had to be Russell Brand. Proper activists like Naomi Klein were elbowed aside by the New Statesman marketing team so that PMI Publishing can, strangely enough, raise profits, which they have duly done. In fact, I’m starting to think that our editor-for-a-day simply nicked a revolutionary article by the eminent Will Self, whose name was instead printed above an article about why he’d “walk a c**try mile” to avoid Jamie Oliver’s lemon sole.
The worst part is his actual solution. He tries to induce a “spiritual” change away from naked self-interest using civil disobedience. On the contrary a culture has never profoundly changed without some naked self-interest. Brand has no idea how right he was about “apathy” towards Westminster. But apathy is not something you can turn into perpetual rage in a few thousand words, however charmingly complicated they are. Going by the families I know, the public only remembers to be livid when the ten o’clock news begins. In this country, the final straw is not going to come in print. Perhaps worse, people aren’t scared by the damage, violence and starvation that come with uprising; they’re scared by the inconvenience of having to get one going. So many bystanders will hear about Brand’s attempt to dismantle the system, in part by total abstinence from voting, and think “sure, I’d vote for that”.
One name that comes up again and again is the futurist Buckminster Fuller, who also believed in an egalitarian evolution. Brand readily picked up on his broad vision for a society that benefits the “100 per cent” but forgets Fuller’s most important point: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Throughout history, one revolution isn’t enough because, by the time they’re inside government house, rebel mentors like him have never quite figured out precisely who is going to do what and how.
There also remains a more moderate audience who like their politics serious. For them, not only do Brand’s riches and fame harm the cause, but also blunts his rhetoric. Certainly, nobody minds the Time Lord jokes and everyone is partial to a “dick-licker” or two when talking about Cabinet, but some people are just alienated by the constant “arse-banjoing”, the “white rhino cum soup”, and the instruction to smash some “f***ing windows”. Critics have given the EDL a fair few criticisms, but his description of “not enough fun” is a new one on me. This casual parody is a problem which he acknowledges, but his best defence is that, on the other hand, sensible politics “can’t compete with the Premier League or Grand Theft Auto”.
Quite directly, the enigmatic comedian manages to insult Old Spice, diehard conservationists, and Oliver Cromwell. Anyone feeling left out can probably find something in his stand-up. Clearly, then, the New Statesman’s one-time editor has neither the style nor the substance to enlighten a single soul. The most unfortunate thing is that he has, in his own words, “woken up”. Political apathy is a very real problem, but until Brand truly comprehends the argument he has put forward, the people are just going to roll over and fall asleep again.