Russell Brand, celebrity and imputed authority

As you no doubt know, Russell Brand has recently been calling for revolution. The revolution will most likely be televised (younger readers, that’s a reference to a Gil Scott-Heron song/poem that’s worth listening to, regardless of how you feel about Brand or revolutions), but that’s pretty much all we know about it. Things are broken, politics doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t vote.

You can read Nick Cohen or even another comedian, Robert Webb, for arguments as to why Brand’s comments – even if well-intended – are wrong-headed. What I’m interested in adding to the conversation is the observation (not a unique one, of course) that while Brand’s interview on Paxman and subsequent columns have certainly been entertaining, and certainly deal with important issues, that doesn’t make them interesting or worthwhile as political commentary.

While people were still #Occupying things, I wrote a column that expressed a similar sentiment about the South African incarnations of the Occupy movement. In short, what we seemed to be seeing was an inchoate shouting about things that were broken, without any attempted solutions being proffered, except for “demolish what we have because it isn’t working”.

There are two immediate problems with that “solution”. The first is that it states the obvious, and the second is that it’s as crude as what it claims to be rejecting.

It states the obvious in that since time immemorial the Bolsheviki, the hippie, the 1st year politics student, or the occasional Leftie in a suit have been railing against “the system” or “the Man”. Regardless of how defensible or not it is that inequalities persist in our economies, we can ask whether these celebrity and/or very well-publicized protests (like Occupy) get more people talking about the issues in an informed and useful manner.

It’s not intrinsically good or useful to simply “raise consciousness”. Earlier today, when I tweeted

many responses told me that “at least it’s starting a conversation”, and variants on that theme. But simply starting a conversation isn’t in itself a good thing – I can (as I responded) start a conversation by developing the practice of skinning kittens. Everyone would talk about me for a while, but to what effect? Unless we began speaking about how to stop me, or why I started doing this, nothing good can come of it except for entertainment (not for me, I mean, but for you – the prurient attention of a scandal-obsessed public would be sated).

Sated, at least for a short while. Because Brand can call for revolution all he likes, but it’s a different question as to whether you can persuade people living in Britain to reject their government when so many of them are leading perfectly acceptable, even if not exceptional, lives. As the Floyd remind us, “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”, and the same is no doubt true for many of us elsewhere – but that quiet desperation remains preferable to rejecting the status quo in favour of a completely undefined and unknown alternative.

And for a figure like Brand to respond to critiques of his view by saying that he’s just a comedian, and can’t be expected to come up with the answers, raises a different and quite important problem of its own – namely, it dumbs down what serious political conversation can be about, and leads readers to treat serious commentary as only “matters of opinion”.

On Twitter, some people like to use the hashtag #justsaying when they a) say something, and b) want to sort of leave it hanging there, as a pregnant thought that will presumably lead you to some revelation. It’s a stupid thing to do because obviously you’re saying something, and to add the “just” to it means that you’re trying to evade responsibility for the implications of the thing you’re saying. If you just hint at it, you see, it’s the audience that interprets it rather than you saying it.

To say “I’m just a comedian”, or something of that ilk, is to treat statements calling for violent revolution as #justsaying. And to tell us something as serious as that “all political systems and economies that currently exist are broken”, then follow up with #justsaying, as Brand is effectively doing, is good for nothing but entertainment value.

It’s as simplistic as he claims the broken thing is, because it’s a flat rejection of the status quo, without allowing for any possibility of fixing the status quo using its own tools and resources. Democracies – or even more generally, systems in which people vote for political leadership – come in various shapes and sizes, any of which might work better or worse than another in some other context.

And, democracies allow for the creation of a socialist state also, which is presumably what Brand is envisaging. One might suggest that the primary reason he rejects democracy is because he knows that too few people would actually vote for socialism, so we’d have to get there by persuading people to revolt.

The last point, which perhaps requires a separate post of its own, is that this is another instance of the (quite alarming) death of authority when it comes to various fields of expertise including science, as I’ve recently written about, and here politics. Russell Brand does not appear to be a sophisticated political thinker. He’s wonderfully charming, entertaining, and a great speaker. So, his Paxman appearance and related writings are seductive, to be sure. But being seductive doesn’t make them right.

And if we want to improve our lot as a species (not to mention the welfare of other species we might care about), maintaining the distinction between concepts like “entertaining” on the one hand, and “educative” on the other is quite important. So yes, let’s have a revolution – let’s go back to reading, and thinking, and remembering that (in general) comedians don’t make for great public intellectuals.

To conclude with a word of warning to his defenders: you might also want to stake a little less on his sincerity in this regard – the revolution he’s calling for might, in the end, be quite a British one itself, judging from images like this (posted to his Google+ profile)…


Also published on Medium.