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.