On Russell Brand, Voting, and Revolution

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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.

 And yet.

 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”.           

 

 

post script:

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!

Stay tuned!

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Ending Bad: On my disappointment with “Felina”

It’s been two weeks since Walter White lay down to die. Since then, his dearly departed have filled the ensuing void with a thousand blogged obituaries. Every culture website worth its clicks has reflected on the passing with breathless adulation, or muttering disappointment. Count me among the muttering.

It must first be conceded that, like every preceding hour of Breaking Bad, “Felina” is gorgeously executed. It offers another fifty-four minutes of the kind of acting and cinematography that, when viewed in the comfort of one’s living room (read: underwear), goes a long way towards justifying industrial capitalism.

While watching the episode, I enjoyed the same narcotic engagement that had me stupefied the past seven Sundays. But then, as the screen faded to black, and Badfinger played us out of Albequerque, an inarticulate unease settled over me. After a good night’s sleep, and a lazy morning’s blog surf, my unease began to speak. Here’s the short version of what’s wrong with Felina:

Walt wins.

Granted, it isn’t the end many would wish for themselves. The man does die, despised by his family, bleeding out on the floor of some neo-Nazis’ meth-lab. Yet against all odds, and the outer bounds of suspended disbelief, Walter White goes out on his own terms.

In “Felina”, Walter secures the financial future of his offspring with a performance of menace and some well-placed laser-pointers. He offers his wife a mea culpa, who then allows him a tearful goodbye with the daughter he kidnapped. While effortlessly evading the attention of the Albuquerque PD, DEA, and FBI, he slips poison into the stevia of a woman who would kill his family, then convinces a wily white supremacist to bring a desperate fugitive onto his uncle’s compound, where, Mr. White affirms his relative moral superiority, in grand American tradition, by laying waste to a bunch of nazis. The partner he turned from burnout to biblical Job, bestows a nod that says “I guess I have to appreciate that you never locked me underground to live a life divided between cooking meth and torture sessions, although, figuratively speaking, you sort of…well whatever, this car is fast!”

Then, with the satisfaction of a long day’s work, our anti-hero nostalgically admires his face reflected back from meth equipment, and lays down, awaiting the police and what dreams may come.

Two desires drove Walt through the show’s five seasons: To provide for his family financially after his death, and to earn respect through performances of power and ruthless virtuosity. From episode one, Walter White is forever reiterating that these are his goals, attesting to the former in word, the latter in deed. “Felina” sees him fulfill his objectives with Heisenbergian gusto.

So then. The bad guy won. Why is this a problem? Wherefore this insistence that Breaking Bad’s universe prove itself moral?

Set against the other elite cable dramas of the past decade, Breaking Bad always struck me as fundamentally, often refreshingly, less “serious” than its peers. By the testimony of its creator, Breaking Bad was conceived as an exercise in genre subversion. The ambition was not to say anything profound about our shared culture or politics, at least not self-consciously, but rather to confront an audience conditioned to characters with stable identities, and transfix them with a protagonist’s moral degeneration.

Conversely, the other “greatest shows in television history” tend to be far more self-conscious and deliberate about what they have to say. David Simon built “The Wire”, (the one true “greatest show in history”), around years of reporting on the drug corners, police stations, and mayoral offices of Baltimore, an experience that furnished him with a thesis about the powerlessness of individuals in the face of amoral, often arbitrary social systems. Mad Men drips with capital T “Themes”, about the tensions between the reigning white patriarchy and newly ascendant out-groups, and the existentially terrifying lesson of advertising: that our desires and identities are but malleable illusions.

The pilot of Breaking Bad head fakes towards a concern with the American healthcare system, but once Walt turns down Gretchen’s offer to pay for his treatment, his true motivations are revealed to be more sinister than desperation, and the show reveals its interest to be more narrowly psychological. By the time Heisenberg is exploding drug dealers with the miracle of science, the show seems to be primarily concerned with good, dark fun.

But then, as the seasons progressed, and the bad did break, Gilligan’s peerless showmanship, his masterful manipulation of the viewer’s desires and expectations, seemed to be serving a higher purpose than entertainment. The show’s intense pleasures became increasingly masochistic. The viewer would be seduced into forgiving Walt his latest trespass, made to identify yet again with his diabolical genius, only to be promptly shamed for doing so.

Perhaps the most memorable iteration of this pattern comes during the cockamamie train heist at the end of “Dead Freight”. In this episode, Walt, Jesse, Mike and Todd conspire to hold up a train at a mythical point in the New Mexico desert, a monitoring black-spot where no alarms can be heard, no cell-phones dialed. While Mike and one of Saul’s hired hands pose as unlucky truckers marooned on the tracks, Jesse and Todd endeavor to siphon pre-cursor from a storage car, replacing the missing methlyamine with water. When a good samaritan arrives in a pick-up and offers to push the broken dump truck off the tracks, Walt orders Jesse not to stop until they collect the thousand gallons they had planned for. Whatever incredulity the more skeptical viewer might have harbored towards the whole nutty scheme is long forgotten, as Jesse just barely beats the clock, escaping notice by lying directly beneath the train’s rushing cars. The team is united in the euphoria of an outrageous gamble rewarded. In the room where I was watching, there was no small amount of fist pumping. And then, before the more exuberant viewers have had a chance to sit back down, a boy on a bicycle appears, and Todd shoots him in the face.

The boy functions as a stand-in for all the invisible victims of our heroes’ grand ambition, those whose lives must be destroyed to facilitate the trade and use of methamphetamine.

In my estimation, Breaking Bad’s most singular achievement is in engineering moments like this, when the viewer is forced to confront how easily she can adopt a blinkered morality, one that defines “the good” as whatever action brings material benefit to those characters she knows, regardless of the costs to characters she doesn’t.

What makes these confrontations so resonant, at least for myself, is the sense that this selective morality is the dominant system of value within our culture. It is the morality offered by the cult of shareholder value, which insists a corporation’s only obligation is to its investors. Because this is a corporate world, and the rest of us just live here, the moral vision of the corporation ripples out into the wider culture. The middle managers of amoral advertising agencies, rapacious megabanks, and weapons manufacturers, learn to evaluate their daily efforts solely by the material gains these bring into the lives of their families, the broader social impacts of such efforts being too abstract and uncomfortable to consider. Breaking Bad follows this moral reasoning to the nightmarish endpoint of a chemistry teacher cooking meth to provide his family a windfall inheritance.

Throughout the series, when confronted by the monstrosity of all he hath wrought, Walter White seeks absolution through the refrain: “All that I’ve done, I did for my family”. Even if the sincerity of this claim weren’t in doubt, the show exposes this defense as entirely inadequate. For one thing, this justification in no way separates Walt from his enemies. Mike Ermentraut is in it for his granddaughter, the ruthless Lydia is a single mom, even Uncle Jack’s band of homicidal skinheads believe in family. Further, the show’s tragic arc, at least up until Felina, suggests that the fanatical prioritization of family above all is toxically self-defeating. In our world, this myopic morality has furnished us a financial crisis, and impending ecological disaster. By the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, it brings Walter White the isolation of a freezing cabin, the death of his brother-in-law, and the contempt of the rest of his impoverished family.

For me then, what made Breaking Bad more than artisanal grade pulp, was the way it managed to punish, not only Walter White’s attractions to power, and to the fig-leaf of a myopic moral code, but also those very same attractions in its audience. At its best, the show undercuts the pleasure of identifying with Heisenberg, by pulling back to reveal the boy on the bike, a gentle Gale Boetticher, or potted lilly of the valley. In such moments, the viewer’s allegiance to the brilliance and dynamism of the show’s most familiar characters is challenged by a higher allegiance, to the essential humanity of all those vulnerable figures on the periphery.

The penultimate “Granite State” functions largely to restore the audience’s rooting interest in Walter by transforming him into just this sort of  figure. The episode is one of the series’ best, its most quietly surprising. For the first time in ages, we’re asked to identify with Walt, not on the basis of his individuating genius, but in recognition of his basic human frailty. We are presented with a dying man, isolated by mistakes and failing health. The millions of dollars that were to justify his crimes, reduced to so much paper, happily traded for a single hour of any human company.

And then Heisenberg returns, and the show’s moral complexity goes into remission.

“Felina” asks little more of its audience than an episode of “24”. Its hero is portrayed as brilliant, brave, and righteously vengeful. When Walt struts into the Schwartes’ palatial home, there’s no question whose side we’re meant to take. The Schwartes are portrayed as insufferable foodie billionaires, Walt as one cool operator. So what if he forces them to live as money launderers, or else in constant fear? Someone has to pay for Flynn’s pancakes.

The problem with “Felina” isn’t so much that it rewards Heisenberg. The problem is that it rewards our identification with him. It rewards our attraction to power, our myopic morality.

In the show’s final minutes, Lydia calls Walt, suffering the flu-like symptoms of ricin poisoning. A sinister close-up of stevia spilling into her tea already confirmed her fate for all but the dimmest of viewers. The call has no impact on what remains of the plot. It exists solely to provide the satisfaction of seeing Lydia receive her death sentence. Her helpless terror is the cherry on a dead nazi sundae, as Walt walks Jesse to his getaway car.

The Breaking Bad I loved would have stayed with Lydia in that moment. It would have followed her down the hall, watching her dumb shock give way to sobs of despair. Treating every fist-pumper in the audience to this woman’s tearful goodbye with her daughter, the one she swears that all of this was for.