Last week when I was writing about Russell Brand’s article in the New Statesman, I didn’t want to subject it to too close a reading because there are some things that are written with intentional precision and deserve to be read with precision, and there are other things that are more disorganised and impressionistic, and you can come across as a bit of a prick by turning a grim laser-like focus onto something that was never written to withstand that kind of focus.
Russell Brand’s writing is scattergun and imprecise and is never going to be the kind of thing that people who want detailed plans for revolutionary action want to see. Would you go looking for orange juice inside a bottle of Domestos?
Maybe there are very good reasons to be suspicious of Russell Brand, given his flagrantly sexist behaviour and given the fact his considerable wealth affords him the privilege of advocating whatever course of action he wishes under present circumstances without the risk that it might impact him materially. However that doesn’t make it any less interesting that his interventions caught the attention of a very wide audience, who were receptive to the general thrust of what he was saying.
Unless you think that most people are gullible idiots who can be spontaneously led astray from their habitual convictions by a silver-tongued charmer, the fact that there were very many people who responded positively to what he was saying is, I think, evidence of a shift in political consciousness. And when I say a shift I’m not saying it’s a major shift and I don’t think it’s one caused by Russell Brand so don’t take this as me claiming Russell Brand has single-handedly summoned up a hitherto dormant new revolutionary force.
For sure, there’s no shortage of individuals who think the masses are gullible idiots incapable of putting one thought in front of another on matters political. You can find such individuals among the ranks of the people who shout “sheeple!” at passers-by, and the political correspondents of major newspapers, to name two constituencies, which may or may not overlap.
Let’s say there have been two kinds of negative response to Brand. First you have people on the left exasperated at people treating Brand’s interventions as some kind of revelation, and treating him as some kind of messianic figure, given his history and current position of privilege.
Then you have others who view Brand’s interventions as an affront to their conceived notions about the existing political system, and even a threat to the proper functioning of that system. He must be shown to be wrong. So Brand is a wealthy egomaniac, an ‘adolescent waffler’ (Joan Smith, The Independent), and even a proto-fascist who sympathises with ‘the death cults of ultra-reactionary religious fundamentalists’, as well as someone who writes like a ‘precocious prepubescent’ (Nick Cohen, The Observer), or talks like a a ’17-year-old cider enthusiast’ (Donald Clarke, The Irish Times).
You couldn’t say this kind of thing is unexpected. Whatever legitimacy the existing political and economic system has is in no small part the product of intense strivings on the part of people who identify with and believe in that system’s basic legitimacy. Some of these people, especially those who believe the system has bestowed a sweet smile upon them and recognised their worth, will find it hard to resist the opportunity to slap down, with no small amount of glee, any kind of attempt, however struggling, to articulate some kind of radical concrete opposition.
The demonstration of superior powers of reasoning, the act of tearing apart the confusions of some poor sap, the ample biceps of political maturity flexed alongside the puny flapping twigs of the political prepubescent for all to see –dear oh dear, what a mess, tsk! tsk! tsk!– can be passed off as evidence of the Reason of the Superior Power.
Such is the case with Robert Webb, one half of Mitchell and Webb, who wrote a piece in the New Statesman this week castigating Brand and claiming he would be re-joining the Labour Party in response.
In the vision of democracy Webb outlines to Brand, which is based on the primacy of the vote,
‘election day is when we really are the masters’.
That is, for 1,826 out of 1,827 days, which is the length of the last Labour Party government, UK voters were not really the masters: someone else was. Another way of putting this is that under British liberal democracy, according to Webb’s description, UK voters are not really the masters 99.945% of the time, or, for short, 100% of the time.
“If I thought I worked for David Cameron rather than the other way round”, says Webb, “I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning.” Webb is correct – David Cameron does work – for him.
His fellow Labour Party member Owen Jones, in Chavs, writes of his encounter with a Tory grandee in his final year as an undergraduate at Oxford.
“What you have to realise about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a throwaway trivial comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege.’
Thus Webb can get out of his bed in the morning, under British liberal democracy, safe in the knowledge that the Prime Minister is working to defend his privilege. The same can hardly be said, however, of the millions of working class people subjected to the austerity regime initiated by Labour and intensified by the Tories, to the bedroom tax, the slashing of housing benefit, the privatisation of the NHS, to cuts to public services, to reliance on food banks, to media demonisation, and so on, and so forth.
The work of destroying any kind of material basis for democratic equality can continue unimpeded (let’s be generous) 99.945% of the time by Webb’s lights, and it is perfectly legitimate to so do and David Cameron is doing this on everyone’s behalf. If people don’t like this, says Webb, they can vote for Labour Party politicians, who, he says disregarding Labour’s role in intensifying neoliberal rule will “help unlucky people”, Labour’s role in engineering such bad luck now neatly consigned to oblivion.
Webb decides to deliver lessons in prose and in history to Brand, and by extension, to the readership.
First the prose:
In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful.
And then, the history:
Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start.
The implication in Webb’s prose is that the liberal democratic regime of 21st-century Britain -with its food banks- is a privilege won through war.
Remembrance Sunday: on which the hapless impoverished victims of imperial carnage are remembered as ‘Our Glorious Dead’ and the victims of British military atrocities are conveniently forgotten. But Russell Brand is the one apparently suggesting violence is beautiful.
Some people living in that part of Ireland that is still considered part of 21st-century Britain, could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow here, given that Webb’s identification of British military power as the force and the source of democracy occurs right at a time when details have emerging about those forces’ complicity in the deaths of 120 people, in British jurisdiction, in sectarian attacks ‘whose aim was simply to kill as many people as possible, simply because they were Catholics‘, as Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson described it. Their privilege, I suppose.
“We (the English) got our revolution out of the way long before the French and the Americans”, lectures Webb, as if political revolution is some kind of one-off national rite of passage from ancient to modern.
He might have improved that sentence by saying “and we prevented proletarian revolution by getting our working class to fight in the First World War”, if only to flesh out the historical continuity of his political position, though he may need to recontextualise his remarks about the inevitable murderous consequences of political revolution.
It’s telling that Webb appeals, in his attempt to slap down Brand, to the jingoistic military pageantry of the British establishment that identifies monarchy as compatible with democracy, and not, for instance, the substance of democratic movements during the English Revolution- the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters or the Muggletonians: their challenges to social authority and refusal to accept the norms imposed by the regime of private property.
You see, the truth is, he has a great deal more in common with Charles I than any of those groups.