Russell Brand went on BBC Newsnight last Wednesday to promote the latest issue of The New Statesman and the overthrow of most, if not all western governments.
Since Jon Stewart went on Crossfire in 2004, the wise fool has become an archetype of television news, but Brand plays the gate-crashing jester with singular virtuosity. His relentless eloquence and self-deprecation disarm his interlocutors, even as he showers their entire worldview in bemused contempt. For more evidence of his mastery, see this segment of the only morning show simulcast from both MSNBC and the ninth circle of Hell.
Brand served as guest editor for this month’s issue of The New Statesman, a far-left British political magazine. In the Newsnight interview, BBC host Jeremy Paxman dutifully played the role of elitist foil by asking Brand “who he was” to be directing political discourse. Paxman quickly specified his objection, asking why Brand should have any authority on political matters when, by his own account, he’s never voted in his life. Brand responded thusly:
Brand: “Well I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere, for alternatives, that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means; alternate political systems.”
Paxman: “They being?”
Brand: “Well I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on me plate. But I say, but here’s the thing that you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power, not people, like, doing a magazine for a novelty.”
The rest of the interview circles this basic point of contention. Paxman insists that Brand either accept the parliamentary process as the most legitimate and effective means for achieving political change, or else offer a specific alternative. Brand rejects any such burden while indicting the status quo with such verve, Paxman declines to rebut Brand’s dire assessment:
Brand: “The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting poor people all over the world and the genuine, legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.”
Paxman: “All of those things may be true.”
Brand’s charisma and verbal gifts are profound. As he wittily decried corporate rule, the spiritual bankruptcy of our culture’s materialism and of his own lust for fame, giving voice to every conviction I’d ever felt on the back-half of a shrooms trip or reading Noam Chomsky, a part of me was ready to join Russell’s revolution, eager to be led by this beautiful man in guided meditation, a march to parliament, the construction of pressure-cooker bombs.
On the specific issue of whether a person who advocates a boycott of the vote is obliged to offer an alternative means of effecting change, and an explanation of how pursuing that alternative AND voting would be mutually exclusive…I have to side with Paxman.
The question of exactly what revolutionary action Brand is proposing, and exactly why that action prohibits voting, got frustratingly lost in the dialogue. When Paxman asked for Brand to get specific, he protested that he can’t be expected to spontaneously construct a utopian system, sitting alone in his hotel room. This seems entirely fair to me but obscures what I saw as the true point of contention: I don’t think Brand has a burden to describe the logistics of an unrealized system of social relations, but rather, that he has a burden to explain why his advocacy for the awakening of political consciousness within a long-suffering but complacent populace, is logically of a piece with his advocacy for a boycott of the vote.
Natasha Lennard of Salon, in a piece warning radicals against the toxic hierarchy that a Brandinista movement would entail, nonetheless defends Brand’s refusal to propose alternatives:
“…no, we can’t offer you a pragmatic alternative program — we’re too entrenched in the ideology of the current one. We have to live, act, think differently, dissentfully, for new politics to emerge. I’m simplifying, of course. But the point is, I’ve learned to leave conversations when the “what do you propose instead?” question is posed to me qua anti-capitalist. If you had a blood-sucking monster on your face, I wouldn’t ask you what I should put there instead. I’d vanquish the blood-sucking monster. And it seems Brand is committed to do the same.”
There are a lot of things wrong with this analogy. The relationship between the capitalist system and the people who live under it, is pretty different than that between a blood-sucking monster and a human face. There’s no reason to ask what we’d replace the blood-sucking monster with, because the human face has no need for any kind of monster. Human faces have existed sans attachable monsters for many thousands of years. But human beings cannot exist without some system of social organization. If we were to extract ourselves from capitalism SOME system of organization would rise to replace it.
So what if the monster that comes next is worse? No doubt, the current monster can be sort of awful. All that blood loss leaves you weak and irritable. By all appearances, it’s very slowly killing you. But what if you nonetheless are able to enjoy fleeting moments of entertainment, excitement, love and connection through all its blood-sucking fury? What if removing this monster creates an opening for a more lethal one?
Here, I myself am straying into scrutiny of the revolution’s end point. But my primary objection is to the implication in both Brand and Lennard’s arguments that there is effectively nothing to lose from voter non-participation.
The fact is, were a sizable portion of the American left to heed this call for electoral disengagement, there would be easily specified, concrete policy ramifications. The radical argument here, in the American context, is that the certain harms of Republican governance in the short-term, are the necessary price of a thorough discrediting of the present electoral system, that would inspire more creative and direct acts of dissent, that would produce a new consciousness, that would imagine and then realize a new, more egalitarian mode of social organization.
Whether one believes there is a substantial difference between the two major parties is perhaps the most significant dividing line on the American left. I am sympathetic to the radical assertion that when it comes to the most fundamental policy questions, those that most profoundly structure our social and political reality, “bi-partisanship” is alive and well. Both parties acknowledge an urgent need for deficit reduction but never for full-employment, both support America’s exceptional right to bomb other nations at will and to surveil its own citizens in secret, and to subsidize millionaire farmers, and to socialize the risk of megabanks and and and and
And I reject the partisan Democrat’s argument that the party’s “moderation” is a reflection of political necessity in what is still a “center-right” country. Polling consistently shows that when asked about abstractions like the deficit and debt, or a government takeover of health-care, or whether they are “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, your average American does tend to identify in the conservative direction. But when asked about concrete policy, not whether government spends too much money, an assertion every national Democrat since Clinton has more or less espoused, but rather whether Social Security and Medicare should be expanded or contracted, the enlightened self-interest of the middle and lower classes kicks in.
I believe the wealth and power of the insurance industry made “Medicare For All” a political impossibility, not the will of the American people.
All that said, it strikes me as simply dishonest to assert that there is no functional difference between Democratic and Republican rule. That the difference between the two parties is not what it purports to be, that one party is not left but center-right, while the other is reactionary, does not eliminate the reality of any difference.
North Carolina is a useful case study in the costs of left-wing electoral disengagement. Politically, the population is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. The electorate however, is decisively more conservative, particularly in mid-term elections, and the result of this greater political engagement is a “purple” state under complete Republican control. The effects on left-leaning constituencies has been far from negligible. They’ve passed a restrictive abortion law that will shutter most of the state’s clinics, gutted employment benefits and teacher pay, and refused the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, one piece of that law that any advocate of a more empathic and humane system of governance has no cause to object to. To insure these regressive policies against popular resistance, the Republicans passed the toughest voter restriction laws in the country.
It is true that the victories of the far right in both North Carolina, and in our national politics more broadly, have been assisted by incredible amounts of corporate cash. Whether it is possible for the principled left to wrest control of the Democratic party from its donor class via incessant primary challenges, to push the party left by the same means employed by the Tea Party in pulling the Republicans right, seems unclear. The effectiveness of the far-right insurgency seems at once a hopeful model for grass-roots left-wing activism, and a disconcerting one for the power of moneyed interests to shape the ideology of populist resistance.
Even if one believes that corporate control of wealth and media prohibits a radicalizing of the Democratic party, one must still contend with the demonstrable harms of Republican rule. Even on issues of wealth redistribution, it is only by the grace of the more progressive Democrats in the house and senate that Medicare and Social Security have not already been cut. If one allows that it is at least possible that a Gore administration wouldn’t have ordered the invasion of Iraq, the difference between the year 2000 candidates of each major party, could very well be measured in 500, 000 Iraqi lives.
These demonstrable harms are why it is fair to ask a radical to justify exactly how attempts to enact political change through the electoral system prohibit the success of attempts to work outside of it.
In his otherwise charming essay in The New Statesman, Brand remains insistently vague about the alternative means of resistance he is advocating, writing this of the London rioters:
Perhaps in a system where legitimate, peaceful protest was heard that may have been an appropriate option for them, but Stop the War marches don’t stop wars…They may have been misdirected but they certainly had some vim. How beautiful it would be to see their passion utilised and directed at the source of their grievances.
It is hard not to read this disparagement of peaceful protest as anything but a call to violent resistance, and yet Brand concludes the piece with the following instruction:
Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone. (emphasis mine)
This final sentence asks the literally impossible. A movement cannot include those who want to revolt violently, while also harming no one. To boycott the vote, to violently riot, to pursue these tactics is to cause harm to certain people. Perhaps those harms are necessary. To achieve one of Brand’s central end goals, the massive redistribution of wealth, is to cause a kind of harm to his fellows in the 1%. Perhaps those harms are desirable. But to suggest that anarchic revolution can be undertaken without harming anyone, is to be as panderingly deceitful as any neo-liberal politician that ever “felt our pain”.
The strongest argument that Brand offers for the pursuit of disruptive acts of resistance, even in the face of short-term harms and long-term uncertainty, is the fact of climate change. It seems difficult to argue that the policy changes necessary to avert ecological catastrophe have any chance of being enacted in our present political reality. If one accepts that the machinery of democratic governance is both too co-opted by oil interests, and simply too slow to adequately respond to this crisis, then even if one believes that mass rioting is unlikely to succeed in changing our political reality, isn’t trying anything new better than staying the course that leads to extinction?
In a short follow-up post, I plan to explore the philosophical implications of such questions. One argument in Brand’s article that resonates deeply with me, is his assertion that a new spirituality and faith is a necessary pre-condition for the radical political change he proposes. I find that when I am reconciling my own complicity with a socio-economic system I recognize as fundamentally exploitive and unjust, I tend to seek absolution from the notion of an amoral universe, in which human consciousness and suffering is a nightmarish but ephemeral accident, (full of sound and fury but signifying nothing). I don’t endorse this nihilism but I recognize it as the logic that I live by, the logic that allows me to enjoy privileges I recognize as arbitrary, while the country slouches towards facism and the species towards oblivion.
Or, fingers-crossed, the singularity!