Russell Brand’s Moment of ‘Truth’

I took great satisfaction in watching Russell Brand wiping the floor with the egregious Evan Davis in the above video. One of the things I liked most was the way Brand supplemented his habitual mateyness with a certain edge: he refers to Davis as “mate” and pats him repeatedly on the knee, but at the same time, warns Davis not to patronise him. It is a moment of subtle sharpness. Davis doubtless lacks the self-awareness to know he is being patronising.

Brand isn’t to everyone’s taste. He has a chequered history, some questionable acquaintances, and has said and done some grossly sexist things. This, believe it or not, is not that uncommon in men. You wouldn’t put him in charge of anything. At times he can say dubious things, but here he was quite sound. He voiced solidarity with the Fire Brigades Union, the Focus E15 Mothers, and rebutted Davis’s insinuation that this kind of political activity was something minor and piecemeal. He made Davis look like a fool by rattling off a list of names of major corporations and challenging him to defend the idea that such corporations operate in the interests of ordinary people. He pointed to the intimate links between ruling politicans and established media figures like Davis, and explained how media institutions such as the BBC impose the political perspectives of business elites.

But what’s valuable about Brand at the minute is not so much the content, but rather, to paraphrase Frank Carson, it’s the way he tells it. Most people’s understanding of politics is shaped by this idea of processes that unfold in formalised settings in which gravitas confers authenticity. Seeing people speak in a certain register and in measured, calculated terms can result in acquiring the habit of thinking that this is what politics is in fact about, and that in order to be able to speak about political issues, you have to have this way of speaking and consequentially this way of thinking. So politics becomes a matter for people like Evan Davis. What Brand does, in this video, as elsewhere, is de-mystify all that. He demonstrates that to practise politics, to communicate politically, and to think politically, you don’t need to pour yourself into an established mould.

Davis focused on one passage from Brand’s book where he appears to entertain the idea that the Twin Towers was an inside job, in the manner of a 9/11 truther. This functions as a dividing line between respectable opinions on the one hand and swivel-eyed crazies on the other. Brand said that the links between the Bush and Bin Laden families were interesting. They were certainly interesting enough for Newsnight itself to report on them some years back:

Does the Bush family also have to worry about political blow-back? The younger Bush made his first million 20 years ago with an oil company partly funded by Salem Bin Laden’s chief US representative. Young George also received fees as director of a subsidiary of Carlyle Corporation, a little known private company which has, in just a few years of its founding, become one of Americas biggest defence contractors. His father, Bush Senior, is also a paid advisor. And what became embarrassing was the revelation that the Bin Ladens held a stake in Carlyle, sold just after September 11.

Brand said that “I think it is interesting at this time when we have so little trust in our political figures, where ordinary people have so little trust in their media, we have to remain open-minded to any kind of possibility”. You could interpret this as saying that 9/11 may have been an inside job, or you could interpret it as saying that media is so untrustworthy in general that it is hardly surprising ordinary people do not believe what they are told. It was a minor moment in the interview, and Brand emphasised he did not want to discuss “daft” conspiracy theories. Both the Independent and the Guardian, however, had other ideas, with the headlines ‘Russell Brand admits he’s ‘open minded’ to 9/11 conspiracy theories in Newsnight interview with Evan Davis‘ and ‘Russell Brand ‘open-minded’ about who was behind 9/11 attacks‘, respectively. Not the Focus E15 Mothers, not the families of the New Era estate in Hoxton who face eviction on account of rent hikes inflicted by “the brother of the richest Tory MP in the country”, not the Fire Brigades Union, not the police treatment of protesters in Parliament Square, which Brand contrasted unfavourably with the Chinese government’s treatment of protesters in Hong Kong. None of these things were worthy of a headline from the more left-leaning British broadsheet sites. Nor Brand’s criticisms of the media, for that matter. But the possibility that Brand might believe conspiracy theories -which he himself described as “daft”- was.

Why? Part of it, I imagine, has to do with an imaginary cordon sanitaire used to separate the tinfoil hatted loons from the sane public. Making an example out of Brand has a disciplinary effect: if this part of what he is saying is crazy, then the rest of it must be too, so you don’t want to go there. From this perspective, it is beyond the bounds of sanity to believe the Queen is a lizard, but on the other hand, if you believe Elizabeth Windsor should be the Head of State and live in fabulous opulence because she happens to be a member of a master race, you will fit in nicely among all right-thinking people. Hence the stigma attached to people who believe in conspiracy theories, handily enough, happens to prop up the conventional wisdom of the ruling class. The wild-eyed rabble on the one hand, the gentleman legislators and rational thinkers on the other.

Brand’s initial refusal to look at a graph pulled up onscreen by Davis also seems to have caused quite a lot of condescending mirth among such rational thinkers. “Yes, our capitalist system is breaking down and our democracy has many flaws with it.”, writes one. Our capitalist system? We sick, boss? The graph Davis wanted to show Brand was a timeline of real wages. The point Davis wanted to make to Brand was that wages in real terms had been rising over time until the recent sharp drop, so why get rid of capitalism if it had created so much prosperity? Brand responded: “This is a lovely graph, well done mate, this is the kind of thing people like you use to confuse people like us.”

This may not be a satisfactory response if what you are looking for is a line of reasoning based on inferences from the graph data, but it does have the virtue of being true. At the core of capitalism is the wage relation. Ending capitalism and replacing it with socialism does not mean improving the wage relation, but abolishing it. To frame human welfare solely in terms of the wage relation, which is what Davis’s graph does, is to tacitly propose to the viewing public that capitalism is the only system there ever will or can be. This was not a dispassionate empirical enquiry but the conjuring of a prop that recalled Paul Lafargue’s worker’s catechism (‘Q: What is your name? A: Wage labourer. Q: Who are your parents? A. My father was called Wage labourer. My mother’s name is Poverty.’)

Brand’s response might bring guffaws of laughter from those who think a masterful command of economic data is a necessary criterion for being taken seriously, the people whom Lafargue lampooned as the faithful believers in “the eternal principles of our most Holy Church, official political economy”, but it no doubt rang true for plenty of those viewers among the broad swathes of society in Britain whose voice, as Brand rightly points out, is either systematically ignored or patronisingly denigrated. The fact so many of them take Brand seriously has nothing to do with what he has to say about 9/11, and it hints at their day coming sooner than Britain’s political establishment and its compliant press would care to think.

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Storming Heaven and Consensus: Podemos’s Citizen Assembly

This is a translation of an article by Olga Rodríguez, published 21st October in, on last weekend’s Citizen Assembly held by Podemos.


Podemos: an unprecedented process
By Olga Rodríguez

Podemos uses the first person plural, not the third. It is not Pueden [‘they can’]; it is Podemos [‘we can’] and this entails the will to include as many people as possible, to get the contribution of many citizens.

In the grouping’s Citizen Assembly, celebrated this past weekend in Vistalegre, one could see many faces from inside and out. There were activists from social movements, people from the 15M, workers and unemployed, young people, older people and children. Some attended already convinced that the grouping is the vital tool for transforming the country. Others went along to be convinced, or simply out of curiosity.

I attended as a journalist to observe the atmosphere, the debates, the challenges and the arguments in the course of the two days. There were moments of tension, both on and off the stage. Logically enough: there is a great deal at stake.

That is how MEP Teresa Rodríguez put it in an informal conversation with the press: “If there is tension it’s because the weight of responsibility we have is enormous. If there were no debate this would be a dead initiative.”

In the aisles, politics lecturer Ariel Jerez, from Pablo Iglesias’s group, said “this is a school for democracy with critical pedagogy”.

Onstage there were contributions that received no applause, there was whistling when speakers went beyond their time even when it was just a few seconds, there was a lot of applause, and there was the now famous call for silence by Pablo Iglesias. 72 hours after the end of the assembly, let me highlight a few characteristics:

1.- Neither the assembly nor the whole process Podemos has been following over the past months to define its ethical, political and organisational lines is limited to those who are most active. That is, the grouping’s structure is not made solely for the activists, but for popular participation. It is open and it allows for different levels of commitment. Thousands of people attended the assembly in Vistalegre, but tens of thousands more followed it live via streaming, more than 38,000 voted on the resolutions and many took part by sending questions and deliberations via internet.

All of this breaks with the political logic that had existed until now. More than 150,000 people have already signed up to vote on Podemos’s proposals throughout this week.


2.- It is an open door process. Citizens can find out in detail what it is that each group is proposing and they have listened live to the discussion of the different proposals, with moments of tension and with criticisms. Let’s admit it: compared to the secrecy and the closing of ranks that is the norm under the two-party system, this is something new. It is the will of a grouping that wants to promote a collective debate.

3.- The process includes many people who come from social movements. One of the most interesting moments of the assembly was the presentation of the five most-voted resolutions. The promoters of these resolutions rose to the stage and we were able to listen to teachers, economists, lawyers, doctors and professional experts defending the need for quality public health and education systems, the right to housing, urgent anti-corruption measures and debt restructuring.

Among others who spoke were the economist Bibiana Medialdea, doctors Mónica García and Juan Antonio Palacios, specialist in Psychiatry, Public Health and Preventive Medicine, as well as members of the Mortgage Holders’ Platform [PAH] Irene Montero, Carlos Huerga and the lawyer Rafa Mayoral.

4.- The tense side of things: there are differences between the various proposals. Pablo Iglesias used a sporting simile to say that when a basketball game cannot be won you can “bring every player on, give everyone a go”, but when it can be won “we cannot make a wrong move, nor miss a three-pointer”.

He said this in clear reference to the ‘Sumando Podemos’ [Together We Can] proposal, driven by Pablo Echenique and supported among others by the MEPs Teresa Rodríguez and Lola Sánchez. This proposal calls for 20% of the roles on the Citizen Council to be decided by lottery, for the Citizen Assembly to be elected every two years and that instead of a General Secretary for there to be three spokespersons.

Iglesias and his team on the other hand call for a General Secretary, a Citizen Assembly elected every three years, and they believe that election by lottery would hamper effectiveness. Those who criticise them say that democracy would be lost, and they respond by underlining the importance of the timelines: municipal and regional elections in a matter of months and a year for the general elections. They hold that a situation of political and economic emergency, with elections just around the corner and adversaries who have the advantage, requires a leadership with emergency dynamics that guarantee victories.

The group supporting the ‘Sumando Podemos’ initiative appeals to “consensus”, whereas Pablo Iglesias opened the assembly with the phrase “heaven is not seized through consensus, but by storming it”, and stressed that if his proposal did not win, he would stand aside. He does not wish either to lead or contend with organisational models he does not agree with.

During break times from the assembly, in the aisles, coffee in hand, certain people held that to win hegemony internally there ought to be different methods used than the dialectic of confrontation applied outward. This has continued to be discussed on social networks since.

Barring the odd exception, the discussions are being handled with great political responsibility. What is striking is the preoccupation of certain sectors outside, interested in maintaining the status quo, who these days have unsuccessfully sought to discredit what is an unprecedented political process that is attractive to many people.

On the 26th the voting on the proposals inside Podemos will end, on the 27th the result will be known and in November the candidates will be chosen. Then the most urgent matter can be addressed: the battle against those responsible for the political and financial robbery, the struggle to recover the spaces robbed from the citizens. There is a great deal at stake.

Heaven is occupied and controlled by investment funds, by tax havens, by corrupt figures, by those who bail out banks whilst throwing people out of their homes. Freedoms and rights do not just come along: they have to be won. And, as history shows, heaven is not handed over as a gift: it has to be seized.

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Ireland: Country On The Verge of A Communications Breakdown

'Forget the fire, what matters is people not seeing the smoke!'

‘Forget the fire, it’s people not seeing the smoke that matters!’

Let’s review some rueful episodes of Ireland’s recent past.

Irish Water. Complete disaster. The firm has failed to communicate properly with people regarding how they can pay for their water. The government has failed to communicate properly to people that they need to pay for their water. Fortunately there is time for Irish Water to get it right, with the help of conscientious journalists.

Property Tax. A fiasco. The authorities failed to communicate properly with people regarding how to fill out the forms, and how to assess the value of their homes. As a result, the public mood was inflamed by siren voices preaching mayhem, and could have taken the nation to the brink of chaos had Revenue not taken matters in hand.

Bank bailout. An outrage. The authorities failed to communicate to people that property developers racking up astronomical debts was in fact their fault, and that things such as driving down wages, or cutting budgets for health, education and social welfare, were in fact in their best interests. What is more, they failed to make people understand that a thriving financial speculation sector is an essential part of a thriving society. As a consequence, people have fallen prey to populism, endangering long term economic prosperity.

Symphisiotomy scandal. Dreadful dereliction of responsibilities. The authorities failed to communicate to the women affected by symphisiotomy that sawing through their pelvis was not only in their best interests but in the best interests of society as a whole. It is understandable that this is an emotive issue for many, but we have to see these things in the context of their time.

Magdalene Laundries. An appalling story. The authorities failed to communicate to people that these institutions really operated in the best interests of society as a whole, and were motivated largely by concern for the welfare of those who worked in them. Surely a calm debate is now needed.

Industrial schools. Shameful episode. The authorities failed to communicate to people just how much effort the religious orders actually put in to look after those in their care, and just how troublesome their charges could prove. A balanced account is urgently required.

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Neighbours vs. Residents: Some Thoughts

I can clearly recall the day, some ten years back, just after we had moved into our house and were out in the street taking delivery of some household appliance, how the man from across the way approached me, and, stretching out his hand, said with a smile, “Hello resident!” From that day on, we have got on very well, helping each other out with this and that, chatting about this, that and the other.

No, sorry, that’s not quite right. He said “Hello neighbour!”.

There is a difference between being a resident and a neighbour. There’s nothing necessarily good about being a neighbour, especially if you’re the kind who likes nothing better to do a spot of arc-welding in your terraced house in the dark of night.

But ‘neighbour’ implies some kind of relation to others, a common bond, whereas ‘resident’ does not. Residents reside, nothing more. Perhaps this is one reason why the most prominent voices at Residents’ Association meetings can be those most concerned with matters like delineating the boundaries between their dwelling and someone else’s, or getting the police in to give a talk on why everyone should install a burglar alarm.

The difference between being a resident and being a neighbour came to mind a little while ago when I was translating a speech by Ada Colau at the launch of Guanyem Barcelona. You can watch the speech here, with my subtitles. Even if you read no further of this post, I promise you that watching the speech is worth it.

At one point in the speech she says

But we are the people who are out on the streets, we are normal people, ordinary people, who speak with our neighbours [in Catalan, las veïnas i els veís] each day, who in contrast to professional politicians get onto public transport every day…’

And then she says:

We are the neighbours, we are the neighbourhoods [els barris] who have taken the lead in the finest victories of this city, which would not have happened if it were not for the neighbourhood struggles of recent decades. And we are also the neighbours who are getting organised today to confront the disasters that are being created by the political institutions in connivance with the economic powers that be.

So the operative word of ‘neighbour’ carries with it, in such a context, a common human bond that ‘resident’ lacks in English. I thought it was interesting how, when it comes to the Irish Water protests, the emphasis is on what ‘residents’ are doing, and how, from certain perspectives, if you’re not a ‘resident’, you have no right to be entering a particular area in order to protest. In fact, ‘neighbour’ isn’t a word that fits into the overall discourse around the opposition to water charges. ‘Resident’, on the other hand, neatly fits into an atomised view of the world, in which water charges are the sole responsibility of individual units.

(Bible enthusiasts might like to know that the word for ‘neighbour’ as in ‘love your neighbour’ in Catalan as with in Spanish is not the same word for the person who lives in a dwelling near yours, but simply the person next to you: el teu proïsme)

‘Resident’ is also an administrative category from the perspective of the State. You are entitled to certain benefits, for example, based on the criterion of ‘habitual residency’. So it is also worth thinking about the effects of talking about ‘residents’ of Direct Provision centres.

I’m afraid I don’t have any name that works as a better fit for these contexts. But sometimes it isn’t so much about inventing a name to put on things, but of accumulating forces, of building forms of solidarity, so that the established order can no longer rely on words to bind what can be said and what can be done.

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Stephen Collins and ‘the Irish psyche’

'What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events'

‘What matters is not what is happening but who defines the events’

This is originally a comment left on a post-budget analysis in the Irish Times by its political correspondent Stephen Collins, who, evidently responding to the mass opposition to water charges that has materialised in both active resistance in housing estates and a huge demonstration in Dublin city centre last week, wrote that:

A fundamental problem is that paying for water offends something deep in the Irish psyche. Living in a country where it rains so much, people find it hard to accept the notion of paying for water. Of course what they will actually be paying for is its treatment and distribution but that is not easy to explain.

I’d love to see the poll questions and methodology Stephen Collins uses to assess ‘the Irish psyche’. Eamon De Valera once said that to know what the Irish people thought all he had to do was look into his own heart. I imagine Stephen Collins is more methodical, and commissions MRBI/Ipsos to launch a probe deep into his own raging id.

Meanwhile in the real world, that is, anywhere outside the general vicinity of Leinster House, anyone you speak to is well aware that the treatment and distribution of water has to be paid for. It is just that most people are aware that they are already paying for it through general taxation, and, given that they are already paying for it, do not see why they should pay even more for it in the form of a regressive tax. It seems that the only people incapable of grasping the reality of this situation are those whose job it is to ignore this reality.

While we’re on the subject of tax, it’s worth noting that throughout all the years of austerity measures designed to protect the sectors of society culpable for Ireland’s economic crash, I cannot recall a single instance where a political commentator in an established media outfit identified cuts to public spending and the consequent withdrawal of vital public services as effectively a higher tax burden on the working people who depend on these services. Indeed, they actively sought to dispel such thoughts by framing previous budgets in terms of a choice between raising taxes and cutting expenditure. I think this is down to something buried deep in such commentators’ collective psyche. I might get MRBI/Ipsos to do a survey on the matter, then torture the data until it confesses I’m right. (For the context, see here).

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Irish Water Protests: The View from Beijing

'Water that flows is money that is lost'

‘Water that flows is money that is lost’

I had a listen to Liveline today, the popular phone-in show on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster. There was a discussion about the protests against the installation of water meters taking place on numerous estates in Dublin, though the focus of the discussion was Clare Hall, in North Dublin.

Apparently one of the earliest callers, who I missed, advocated using tear gas to disperse the protesters. Another caller said that rule of law was the cornerstone of democracy and that the protesters had no business obstructing Irish Water from doing their work and these things should be addressed in the ballot box. Another said her husband worked for Irish Water and that people should only protest at designated times after seeking permission from the authorities.

Joan Burton’s comments about protesters using “extremely expensive mobile phones” were played several times, and concern was expressed for the welfare of the police. A resident of Clare Hall complained about the “gangs” of “vigilantes” roaming the estate and intimidating people. This complaint was countered by a caller who said that other people on the estate had been welcoming, inviting them into their house to use the bathroom, providing tea, and so on.

On the whole, the comments of most callers opposed to the protesters echoed the comments by Enda Kenny and Joan Burton in the Dáil. To wit: a small group of people, unrepresentative of the bulk of society, acting for their own selfish purposes, was failing to show respect for the rule of law. They were paralysing transportation, disrupting business, and interfering with the daily lives of residents of the area. There are ample ways of communicating discontent, they said, but not through this kind of confrontation.

Not only does this sentiment echo the comments of the main government figures in the Dáil, but they also echo, perhaps even more perfectly, the statement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding the protests in ‘Occupy Central’ in Hong Kong, as you can read here. Doubtless there are many Chinese people who share the Chinese Communist Party’s view.

Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s view that the ‘vast majority of people in Hong Kong agree that economic growth and the improvement of people’s livelihoods are the most important challenges facing them today’ would fit well in with the standard view of protest expressed both by figures in the Irish government and Ireland’s established press. It would not sound out of place in a Stephen Collins column in the Irish Times, for example.

I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the negative comments expressed on Liveline, which I am prepared to imagine reflect the feelings of a substantial number of Irish people. This is the idea that there is something illegitimate and base about a small group of people from outside an estate protesting on an estate against the wishes of the residents. In so doing I will ignore the many images of people who are indeed from the areas where the protests are taking place, and who are participating in meetings there. Like in this picture here, from Kilbarrack this evening.

The idea that there is something wrong with people protesting in an estate where they do not live shows scant understanding of how democracy works and how the law works. Let me explain. Irish Water meters are being installed on public property. Indeed, the Taoiseach has said as much in the Dáil. In democracy, members of the public have the right to contest and protest what the State does with public property, at the very minimum..

Based on these principles, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if you got out of your scratcher at 4am and travelled from Mizen Head to protest in Dublin: it is the same as if the meter were being installed right outside your own gaff.

Thus objecting to protesters on the basis that “they’re not from round here” has as much sense as saying that Enda Kenny has no right as Taoiseach to be making decisions affecting Dublin because he is from the Wesht.

The Irish Water installation is not happening across the country on the foot of a process whereby residents of a particular area have freely decided whether or not they want them installed in their community; it was a decision centrally taken, regardless of whether the residents of any particular area objected. The Troika and the Irish government are as indifferent to the wishes of the protesters in Clare Hall as they are to the fearful curtain twitchers who look outside and hallucinate about rampaging vigilantes.

In democracy, the claim that an entity such as Irish Water has ‘unshakable legal status and validity’, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s term in objecting to the legitimacy of the protests in Hong Kong, is only true for as long and as far as the demos consents to it.

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The Irish Constitution and its ‘Weaker Sections’

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools.

Venezuelan children with illustrated copies of 1999 Constitution, distributed to all schools. Credit:

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times titled Budget 2015: How constitutional is the behaviour of our Minister for Finance?. The article is by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography at Maynooth University, and is well worth a read for the data it shows.

The trends in relation to poverty, emigration and regional inequalities laid out in this article are shocking. The fact that the government is planning on introducing what the author calls ‘tax cuts for fat cats’ illustrates very clearly where their priorities lie.

However, Michael Noonan might well argue that cutting taxes for the wealthier strata of Irish society is intended to reverse these trends, and hence he is operating in keeping with the Constitution, and that, contrary to the author’s suggestion, he is indeed ‘safeguarding with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’, or, in more common terms, ‘protecting the most vulnerable’.

The starting point of such an argument is the orthodox position that economic growth is beneficial to the whole of society because it leads to an improvement in public finances, and to pursue economic growth you have to maintain an attractive climate for investment. This in turn gives the government more leeway to ‘safeguard the weaker sections of the community’. This position is adhered to by all the main political parties. They all claim that maintaining an attractive business climate -i.e. tax cuts for fat cats- is the precondition for ‘safeguarding the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community’. They would likely argue that the primary economic interest of the weaker sections of the community is having a job and making sure their boss has a viable business. That’s why they say “jobs jobs jobs”, all the time, like crazed fanatics. Besides, what politician does not claim to be acting in the interests of compassion and social justice? Even the Tory party in the UK does that nowadays.

What is a constitution for, anyway? One of the major democratic events in recent decades was the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. After a massive social mobilisation, a new constitution was drafted that guaranteed the political and social rights of broad masses of people hitherto excluded from the political process. It is a common sight to see workers, women, peasants and people from sections of society previously excluded from political life taking to the streets with copies of the constitution in their hand: it is their constitution, and they charge themselves with enforcing it. The idea that the strong should look after the weak, expressed in Ireland’s Constitution and cited by the author here, is at odds with this kind of citizen-led democratic government. Democracy can never be the weak drawing attention to their weakness and calling upon the ruling powers to look after them – at best, that is benevolent oligarchy.

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