I wasn’t planning on reading Russell Brand’s book Revolution. It was only when I saw the media responses to it that my curiosity was piqued enough to give it a go. I was fascinated by the idea that Russell Brand, a comedian, should have to give a rigorous and precise account of how capitalism ought to be replaced with something better. Regular readers of this blog will know I devote quite a lot of attention to the question of political participation: who is considered a legitimate participant in politics?
So many of the responses to Brand are based on the received idea that politics is a matter for serious people who wear serious suits and speak in serious tones.
This idea is held to be true even when the language used by such figures stretches well beyond the bounds of credibility. Let me give you an example. In Ireland, there is a Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. When I scan that job title, it seems as if the second part is concerned with reforming the public, in a similar vein to when Brecht wrote about the government dissolving the people and electing another. Anyway, said Minister declared yesterday that he was a “passionate believer in semi-State enterprises”.
It’s impossible to take such a statement at face value, as though he would accept his own crucifixion in order to keep the idea of State-owned capitalist enterprises alive. This is one of the reasons policy-making circles across Europe have such low levels of public credibility nowadays. Then there is also the fact that the policies enacted serve capital first and foremost. The latter fact has become palpable to many people over recent years on account of lived experience. Such people may have accepted the legitimacy of Britain’s parliamentary democracy when it appeared that it served them, but such appearances are hard to keep up during the imposition of a brutal programme of austerity.
Established political parties are unable to give expression to the consequent outrage and disaffection. It is in this context that so-called ‘populist’ voices emerge, hence Russell Brand’s present popularity.
One anonymous reviewer on Amazon was typical of the wider response in media circles to Brand’s book and publicity campaign:
‘Any man who advocates the murder of the queen, the confiscation of private property and offers no concrete manifesto deserves not to be heard.’
As it happens, if you read the book, Brand doesn’t advocate the murder of the queen. In fact, he suggests that she be stripped of her title, turfed out of Buckingham Palace in order for 100 poor families to move in, and perhaps given the option of staying on there as a cleaner. But this is beside the point. The response reflects the fake open-mindedness of the response to the book in establishment circles.
This stance of apparent open-mindedness holds that right-minded people are not necessarily opposed to murdering the queen or confiscating private property or whatever: it just has to be articulated convincingly, and, from this perspective, Brand is judged incapable of doing this. The plans are so vague and so poorly expressed, the person articulating them so scatter-brained and with such a dubious history, that one need not bother entertaining them.
This stance supposes us to believe that parliamentary democracy under neoliberal capitalism has been settled upon as the best of all worlds. But not only that: if it could be shown that it were not the best of all worlds, then existing structures of power would freely and willingly conform to whatever that new model might be.
If an alternative model were desirable, it would already be here, because Very Serious People would have decided upon it. There would be no need for the queen to be turfed out of Buckingham Palace; she would have scuttled out herself, of her own accord, after consulting with the British Academy. Hence it can only ever be the incoherent and infantile who would seek to show that the way things are is not more or less how it ought to be. In this regard, the focus on Brand as an unreliable and confused figure is congruent to a wider picture of an unthinking, easily-led and dangerous mob.
What about the book, then? I’m not even half way through yet. But I think it’s great so far: entertaining popular literature about society under capitalism that’s accessible and funny and –to a large extent- convincing. It isn’t without its shortcomings but what book is? Envisioning Real Utopias by Erik Olin Wright bored me to tears and I can’t remember a single damn thing about it, except something about Wikipedia. If I tried to talk to my work colleagues or family about the concept of biopolitical labour as discussed in Commonwealth by Hardt and Negri, they’d look at me as if I had two heads, partly because I wouldn’t be too sure of my explanation. Russell Brand’s book is likely to engage people who don’t normally talk about capitalism at all, and I think that’s a good thing.
I’m listening to the audiobook. Brand is doing the reading, and I reckon that makes a difference. He’s a talented writer but I’m guessing some of the words fall flat on the page, because they can’t be conveyed the way he delivers a monologue with changes in speed, tone, accent, emphasis and ironic inflection. The reviews I’ve read so far, even the ones that tend to be positive, focus on the absence of concrete political solutions, and either dismiss or ignore the parts on consciousness.
But the parts on consciousness, though a bit uneven, are what I find most interesting so far. He explores the way neoliberal capitalism shapes our ideas about ourselves, drawing on his own experience, first as a working class teenager enthralled by consumerism and the promise of fame, then as an insatiable drug and sex addict. Crucially, he is writing about it in a way that deliberately seeks to appeal to people like him, who didn’t necessarily go to university, who take no interest in politics, who find themselves intimidated and alienated by experts in the service of power and wealth. He isn’t writing with a view to presenting the 2014 Reith Lectures. He doesn’t try to ape the style of Someone In The Know: he continually recognises his own failings and vulnerability, and the possibility he might be wrong, which is more than you can say for his critics. And he is aware of his habitual egomania, whereas those reflexively diagnosing him with narcissism seem blissfully unaware of what this might say about them.
I don’t share his enthusiasm for religious experiences, and whereas he associates Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles, I associate it with the Beach Boys’ Mike Love: hardly a key figure in anti-capitalist counterculture. But he’s far more sensitive to the social realities of religion, to the reasons people engage in religious practices than, for example, Richard Dawkins. There seems to be an idea doing the rounds that there is something weird about religion and spirituality informing ideas about overturning the social order in the pursuit of a free and equal association of human beings. You would have to ignore huge chunks of the history of England’s revolutionary tendencies to come to this conclusion.
What also comes across from the reviews and commentary on him more generally is a disdain for the notion that there are techniques you can use to shape your own consciousness, of how you relate to the wider world and other people. All this is either treated as falling outside the realm of politics or the frivolous concern of affluent hippies. But it’s wishful thinking, at best, to treat this dimension of human experience as irrelevant. Thatcher herself said ‘Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul': neoliberalism itself has never left this dimension to chance, so I think Brand is right to use it as a starting point.
People seizing on the verbal flights of fancy as evidence of a lack of seriousness or trustworthiness are missing the point: a lot of the time, Brand does this to anticipate the reflex response to specialised language and serious-sounding concepts from people who wouldn’t normally explore this subject matter. He chews over them, cuts them down to size, places them on playfully human terms that makes them accessible.
That isn’t to say his writing always coheres: some of the concepts – ‘unity’, ‘connectedness’, ‘consciousness’, for example, can be hard to pin down. Sometimes he uses big words when small ones would have done. I get the feeling this stems from an anxiety about intellectual credibility, about not being taken seriously. That feeling also comes across when he adds a self-deprecating aside to a serious matter. Sometimes it appears geared to make the reader or the listener feel at home with the material, but at other times it seems for the writer.
That kind of anxiety is understandable, as illustrated by the reception given to the book. But it is not at all “barmy”, as Nick Cohen puts it in his Observer review. Cohen writes:
“We’re all doing the same thing, dreaming the same dream, in the words of Belinda Carlisle,” he announces in a sentence that is so syrupy a Barbie doll might have written it, and worse – much worse – misquotes Ms Carlisle.
In fact, the sentence in question rounds off a fairly interesting and not at all syrupy discussion of how the same images recur in people’s dreams across different cultures. Brand goes on to joke, in typical fashion, that come to think of it, he’ll have to take another look at the song now. It’s hardly misquoting Belinda Carlisle to identify ‘dreaming the same dream’ as a lyric from one of her songs. But accusing someone of misquoting someone by misquoting them yourself is misquoting raised to a higher power.
One of the major strengths of Brand’s book, at least as far as I’ve got with it, is the way he anticipates how responses such as these are just part of a defence of power and privilege. He discusses the use of guard labour and police militarisation as a means of sustaining unequal societies, but also symbolic power: titles, honorifics, and in Britain, deference to monarchy and the domineering contempt from elite voices when anyone proposes that things could be different.
What’s important here is his ability to do this with humour and accessibility, anticipating that many of his readers and listeners might be habitually inclined to recoil. Especially impressive, I thought, is the way he advances the idea that the overthrow of political power has to be accompanied by a subjective transformation, what he describes -shades of Foucault- as “overthrowing the David Cameron in our heads”.
To be clear: the book is a muddle. But it has lots of illuminating observations and plenty of sensible ideas. And, to put it mildly, these are muddled times. The forging of a new democratic common sense against capitalism isn’t going to come via Guardian op-eds or Newsnight reports. It isn’t going to spring into life as a consequence of this book either. If it comes, it will entail those outside the political system finding the common language to name their problems and create collective solutions. Brand’s book, if it is anything, is an attempt to break with the reigning hegemony of Britain’s polite culture with its deference to expertise and wealth. So: the more such people read this book, the better.