Russell Brand is little known outside Britain and the USA. Nevertheless, since he was invited to guest edit an issue of the British soft left weekly magazine The New Statesman at the end of October 2013 his thoughts about politics and the world have, as they say on the internet, gone viral. Tens of thousands have now looked at his lengthy piece in the New Statesman and over 9 million (and growing) have accessed the video on YouTube. The video is Brand being interviewed by BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman following the publication of the special New Statesman edition.
We ourselves know little of Brand, although from our internet browsing there are clearly many who are familiar with this English stand-up comedian who now lives in some luxury in California. But you don’t have to watch many of the video clips of Brand on YouTube to realise that he is bright, amusing, articulate and deeply concerned about what is going on the world. He is also sexist! But he is no political heavy weight. He makes no claims to be so either. As he said himself, “It’s easy to attack me, I’m a right twerp, I’m a junkie and a cheeky monkey , I accept it, but that doesn’t detract from the incontrovertible fact that we are living in a time of huge economic disparity and confronting ecological disaster”.
By no means daunted he used the opportunity that his celebrity status allowed to guest edit the New Statesman to demand that we need a revolution. The current system is he says corrupt and immoral concerned only with looking after the wealthy with no regard for the majority who are struggling to survive. It is also, in its narrow concern with profit for the few, destroying the earth. It is time to act before the rule of privilege for the privileged destroys us all. Time is pressing and action is needed now he argues. His intervention has attracted enormous attention not the least we suspect because of the popular embrace of much of what he has written and said. For the past 2 weeks for example in Britain alone, BBC news programmes have been running with various aspects of his recent comments, particularly his call not to vote in elections. In the US too TV channels such as Fox News have run programmes denouncing Brand. But it is the internet which has has been buzzing with blogs from all over the place re-publishing and debating his New Statesman article and the Paxman interview.
These blogs and especially the hundreds of comments posted by their readers indicate that Brand is massively supported with many expressing delight that at last someone is speaking out and representing their views, their lives and their concerns. We have also been amused to see on the web that more than a few on the left are clearly irritated that such a light-weight who is also facetious, self-promoting and not least a naughty boy with a history of drug addiction and silliness, has managed to attract such enormous attention. According to these critics he is not an ‘authentic’ revolutionary, whatever that means. They delight in pointing out that Brand is also wealthy now, even if his roots and early life clearly place him as being from more humble origins, and not from privilege. These critical comments generally get short shrift with many saying that they seem to reflect simple jealousy that someone like Brand rather than the organised left are getting this attention when he calls for revolution. After all, nearly 10 million hits on YouTube well exceeds all the revolutionary left newspapers ever sold in Britain! “Why not us?!” say some on the left. This is actually a very important question and one which Brand himself addresses.
Speaking for Millions
We are not surprised by the popular attention his words have received. For the past 3 or more years during our interviews in Samos and in Athens we have talked to countless people who are being damaged and hurt by austerity measures and an increasingly violent and oppressive array of state agencies. Many of those are saying exactly what Brand is arguing. Brand speaks for millions across the globe when he talks about a global political system that has no moral compass; that cares not one jot for the majority who are impoverished; which is concerned only with the enrichment of the few and that in its greed and self-interest is destroying the globe.
Certainly here on Samos there are many now who share his assessment that the politicians within the system – of all political persuasions – are serial liars, dishonest and corrupt. What makes this even more intolerable is that ‘the people’ and their needs, concerns and anxieties are given no weight or consideration. They simply don’t count. The system is now widely understood as being only concerned with enhancing, protecting and sustaining the profit for the few. Today, those with money and power don’t even try and to justify their privileges. There is no more talk from the powerful about ‘trickle down’ where the enrichment of the few is supposed to lift the living standards and conditions for the many. Even the rich have realised that such a message has no purchase. They have no shame. They believe what they have is their entitlement and some sort of reward for their talent!
Evidence of their arrogance is all around us. The theft of billions by bankers, the endemic avoidance of taxes again running into billions, environmental destruction by corporations, all go unpunished. Yet as the poor know only too well, should a struggling parent street steal baby milk from the supermarket they are brought before the courts without any hesitation. They are punished. The implication is obvious, the rich can do pretty much what they like with impunity.
Not only do the majority count for nothing but they are also made invisible. The mainstream media, films, theatre, television rarely represent them in any meaningful form. The voices of the street are simply not present in the mainstream media. George Packer’s moving book The Unwinding (2013) for example offers powerful testimony demonstrating the manner in which contemporary capitalism is literally dismantling vast chunks of the USA. Housing for the poor for example has been wiped out for millions who were tricked and fooled into buying their homes; manufacturing industries which once underpinned whole regions and cities have with their populations evaporated as their owners moved them globally in search of cheaper labour, new markets and natural resources. Acute, life threatening poverty engulfs over half of the world’s population. Another 25% of our fellow beings hover over this apocalyptic abyss. Yet the wealth of the world has never been greater nor ever been so concentrated in the hands of so few. What the hell is going on? How can this be?
The street, the people, and especially the poor know and know very well that whilst profit may be the god of the rich it is the devil for the poor majority. Whether something is going to make a profit is now understood as being the sole factor determining the behaviour of corporations. For the street it comes as no surprise for example that big pharma is not interested in developing effective antibiotics simply because it is not profitable. Consequently, the giant pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned the diseases of the poor – malaria, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness or bilharzia and so on. An anti-sleeping sickness drug -elfornithine- was about to be withdrawn because it was unaffordable to sufferers. But when elfornithine was shown to prevent unwanted hair growth big pharma couldn’t wait to produce it for this was a product that is attractive to the rich. “Economics dictated that a drug could be made to ‘treat’ unwanted facial hair but not to save lives” as Michael Barrett, professor of Biochemical Parasitology at Glasgow university pointed out.
It is this endless, mindless pursuit of profit for the few that makes it such a potent weapon of mass destruction both of humanity and the environment. The reach of profit has now extended through privatisation into services once provided by the state where the bottom line was not the only matter of concern. For the corporate elites the privatisation of public services continues to be nothing less than bonanza time. Torrents of cash pour into their coffers as prisons, welfare provision, healthcare, schools and universities are opened up to for-profit corporations. No wonder they talk of such former public provision as being treasure islands to be plundered. For those who need these services the consequences have been completely predictable – disaster. Again the evidence is incontrovertible from the abuse of older poor people in residential care, to the cruel treatment of prisoners, to the indebtedness of university students, who are being saddled with huge debts at the age of 22, to those whose main supply of food is now a charitable soup kitchen or feeding centre.
Who in their right mind can support such a rotten system? It is in this spirit that Brand locates his refusal to vote and urges others to follow his example:
“I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.”
Thousands upon thousands have come to the same conclusion. There is nothing to vote for. Moreover, poor people across the globe, from Algeria to Brazil have organised along these lines arguing in their communities that refusing to participate in a system that is so profoundly corrupt and unrepresentative is not an act of apathy but a statement of rejection. We are reminded of the comment made by a young guy in Liverpool who when questioned by the local radio as to why he didn’t vote responded by saying that if the vote really meant anything, that if it actually mattered, then the system wouldn’t have given it to poor working class people like him. Voting, he said, has changed nothing fundamentally in my neighbourhood. To describe such behaviour as apathy completely misses the point.
Brand makes many telling points, some of which make for uncomfortable reading for the left. It matters little that some of Brand’s views are idiosyncratic and home-spun especially when he comes to think about what can be done. He rightly refuses to accept that because he has no blue-print for the revolution he demands he should remain silent about the sheer immorality of the current situation. He is also right when he says that it is ludicrous to expect him to come up with a detailed strategy on his own. There are he says many many people who have excellent ideas as to what is needed and together- and only together- can we move forward. The mainstream commentators desperate to pick holes in Brand have seized on his vague response that a revolutionary society would require some form of co-ordination by ‘admin types’. Vague it might be, but surely not to be so lightly dismissed. After all it is something along these lines that the Zapatistas in Mexico are exploring and developing in their liberated zones and villages. Conscious of the ways in which politicians use their positions to build their fortunes and power and then go on to dance to the tunes of their paymasters in the corporations, the Zapatistas demand that all those elected to positions of responsibility should precisely be ‘admin types’ whose sole purpose is to obey the wishes of the people and failure to do so means instant recall and dismissal. Of course, there is much to be done in developing this system as the Zapatistas openly acknowledge. But let’s embrace and not reject the challenge especially as it seeks to create forms of governance that work for and by the people.
Much of Brand’s critique is familiar to the left and he explicitly draws on socialist ideas. But as with so many we have interviewed over the recent years he has little enthusiasm for organised left politics as whole. In one telling phrase he observed that whilst those on the right look for converts, the left seems more concerned with seeking out traitors. This has serious consequences. The late Joe Bageant in his insider account of white working class US ( in his wonderfully titled book Deer Hunting with Jesus) observed that right wing politicians would regularly drink in the bars of the poor and talk with them, this was not true for the left and progressive forces. They were nowhere to be seen. Despite all their talk on the evils of inequalities, capitalism and so on, their absence from their neighbourhoods, places and bars, was as Bageant noted experienced as abandonment and rejection. We witnessed exactly the same phenomenon in parts of central Athens and in the refugee neighbourhoods. Why we have been asked on many occasions don’t those who express concern for us come and sit with us, drink coffee and get to know us? Aren’t we good enough for them?
In Greece, bitter and long lasting divisions within the left have compounded this disconnection. Their inability to co-operate and work together at a time of an unparalleled hardship disgusts the street. Here we have a system that throws all its weight behind attacking the people, and yet those who claim to be at the front of our resistance can’t even stand the sight of one another. Greece may be an extreme example but it is by no means unique in the world of left politics. Who, they ask, in their right mind wants to be involved in that kind of politics where the ‘comrades’ seem to spend so much time slagging each other off? And to make it even worse it seems that entry to this world requires a good understanding of the works of Lenin, Trotsky or Luxembourg. As Brand himself observed ;
“This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot.
Perhaps this is why there is currently no genuinely popular left-wing movement to counter Ukip, the EDL and the Tea Party; for an ideology that is defined by inclusiveness, socialism has become in practice quite exclusive. Plus a bit too serious, too much up its own fundament [arse] and not enough fun.”
For some of his left critics his appeal for fun, laughter and joy in progressive politics is further evidence of his triviality. What a mistake! Of course seeking to fundamentally change the world is a serious business but that does not mean we can’t have fun or recognise the power of humour to move and unite people. In Samos for example, how much longer do we have to endure those endless boring speeches especially from the Greek communist party whose members come prepared with written out speeches which they proceed to read out whilst the rest of us sit and yawn. This is common here, and in much of Greece. Not once have we witnessed rapture, or inspiration from such speeches. It is a big turn off. It suggests a deadly, boring future should they ever get any sort of power. But then again what can we expect from those who believe that they have some special hold of The Truth whilst the rest of us are seen to be ignorant and need to be brought to enlightenment?
We are Not Stupid
Brand stands in direct opposition to such a world view. He does not dismiss the poor and vulnerable as ignorant. Quite the contrary. He sees ordinary people as having a very good idea as to the ways of the world; of understanding the tyranny of money and greed. Again, this resonates strongly with what we have discovered, whether talking with villagers in rural Samos or with refugees in central Athens, or with our friends in Palestine and Algeria. They may not be aware of the latest writings on the state but many have a very clear understanding that the state and its various agencies – with which they have daily experience and contact – is and never has been their friend, never been generous, never been kind. From this quarter, scraps are all they have ever received and even then they have been scraps with conditions – the most common being having to be humiliated in order to receive a thing.
And it is not just the police and the prison system which causes them so much damage and pain. As one of our refugee friends recently told us, the system throws everything at us. They try and destroy every part of our lives and infect us with their poisonous views. Take for example the so called war on drugs. This is little more than a war on the street with huge numbers across the globe in prison for possession of cannabis which is nowhere near as problematic as alcohol and tobacco. Sharing and smoking a joint is one of the ways in which many on the street get by. It is often a shared and deeply social experience. Show us a left party which has taken up this demand. Its all well and good getting into the finer details of the struggle but the fact is that the general condemnatory position of the left on cannabis is one of the more significant indicators of the distance between the street and those who claim to be full square behind them. A century ago one inspiring revolutionary, Emma Goldman, exclaimed that she did not want to be part of any revolution where she could not dance. Today, there are millions who will not want to be in any revolution where you can’t smoke a joint.
Throwing Everything at Us
We must listen and learn. The street knows that the police can beat you up and rob you with impunity. Over 1,000 people have died in police custody in Britain over the past 20 years. Almost all are young men from the street; many are black. If they had been from the middle classes there would have been an uproar in the mainstream media. But from the street? Nothing. Not even one prosecution. Greece has witnessed thousands of violent attacks by the police on refugees. No prosecutions and media silence. The examples are endless and global.
And it is not just the police. We have had long discussions with young people and children about schools. Some told us that almost from the first day of going to school at 5 years old they realised that these places were not for them when they saw the kids who arrived by car being given the best places in the classroom and the most attention from the teachers. Why, a young girl asked, did the teacher on the first day ask about the jobs of our fathers (not mothers)? We soon found out she said, when those whose fathers were professionals and well paid were pandered to whilst those of us who came from poor families were ignored and insulted. One young boy we heard about was so outraged that he asked his teacher why they treated kids like this. He was told to bring his father to the school next day, where upon his dad was told that his son needed to see an educational psychologist. The boy was 6 years old.
Not all poor kids are strong or street wise enough to avoid compulsory state schooling. Most of them anyway want an education and are full of curiosity to learn more of the world around them. But many soon learn that state schooling does not necessarily provide an education. They go to school nevertheless and endure what for many is torture. They attend but rarely participate. They do what they can to protect themselves. Others, and there are many, just drop out, not from apathy, not from being stupid, but from despair and anger. They hate what schools and teachers do to them and their friends. They reject the ways in which they are disrespected; they reject the ways in which teachers encourage them to compete against one another; they hate the arbitrary discipline and lack of joy and they utterly reject the complete value system of the school which they see as little more than propaganda. And they totally reject that they should learn to be bored!
All this and more must be swept away. We need, as Brand argued, a revolution, but this is where he and many of us are at our weakest, for we appear to have no or little idea as to how get there, and what to do. According to the American socialist, Michael Albert, this is a problem:
“Asked repeatedly what his alternative is, quite like many – most – other leftists, Brand won’t answer other than to note that slaves don’t need to be able to present an alternative to slavery to say that slavery should be overthrown. His observation is true, and it is even wise in some respects. Admission: It is also precisely how I used to answer that question, in 1968, though having gotten a bit older since then, I now feel that Brand’s not having a ready answer to such a question even though it isn’t his responsibility to do so, is unwise and even politically suicidal, because it allows dismissal of his whole revolutionary stance and drastically weakens the chances for anything collective and sustainable emerging from his moment in the spotlight. When Brand’s interviewer says why should we take you seriously if you offer no positive vision for what you say, the interviewer is probably poorly motivated, but that doesn’t mean his feeling is wrong, or that millions of others are wrong for feeling similarly. What do you want, how would we get it – are fair questions. Taking absence of an answer as an indication of lack of seriousness is reasonable.”
In the course of our investigations in Samos and Greece, Palestine and Algeria, we have also been asked many times by those we interview what proposals we have to make things better; what strategy we propose and what would we want to see replace the current evil social systems. We have sometimes been puzzled that so many we meet seem to understand so clearly the problems they face and yet are at a loss as to what to do about it. There seems to be a kind of paralysis. This does not apply of course to the political parties whether from the left or right who seem to have leaders and organisations who tell them what to think and what to do. But as with Brand we have found no popular enthusiasm for such an approach.
Here is not the place to engage in detailed critiques of such politics but we should recognise, at least in terms of austerity ravaged Greece, where virtually every indicator of well being is plummeting new depths of despair, that no single political creed has captured mass popular support and enthusiasm. Take for example strikes. Many in Greece are now weary of strikes. It feels like theatre many complain. We go out and march, the police try and stop us, throw some gas around, arrest who they can and then we go home til the next time. Yet many on the left both in Greece and throughout Europe continue to applaud the great number of general strikes that have taken place over the past 5 years and seem to think that it provides a measure of popular militancy and class consciousness. This assessment is simply not good enough and is delusional.The fact is that successive one day general strikes have achieved very little. They don’t build confidence ; they are not long enough for participants to build even the most basic relationships of solidarity. And anyway, why should we expect strikes to be effective and why should we place so much faith in this tactic when Greece has a general unemployment rate of 30% with 65% of all young people have no work? General strikes do not speak to these vast numbers who have no job and nowhere near a union? More to the point, the general strikes have not stopped or modified any of the Troika’s austerity measures.
Yet at the same time we can think of no kafeneion on Samos where you wouldn’t find the majority agreeing with the notion that what we require in Greece today is revolution. Who believe that the system is rotten from top to toe and needs to be thrown out. This would not have been the case 10 years ago. This we should celebrate and not be dismayed because we can’t give a detailed account of how we are going to get there or what our emerging society would look like. Furthermore, we would suggest, that wishing to live in a society which is infused with humanity and justice, fairness, and honesty and where all people matter and no one is illegal provides us with a pretty good base from which to build.