British comedian and arch provocateur Russell Brand has been causing quite a storm of late. Having mocked the corporatization of global media networks on MSNBC in the United States, he proceeded to upset organizers of the GQ awards with an historical quip about one of their more illustrious sponsor’s sordid fascist affinities, only then to have the audacity to make a public call for a “revolution.” Announced in his guest editorial contribution to New Statesman, this latest provocation subsequently went viral (in excess of 1 million views) following an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight program.
While Brand’s call to revolution has invariably been met with the usual derision by the ruling political classes and wealthy elites with whom he has long had an uneasy relationship, what has been particularly notable about the backlash is the vitriolic nature of the attacks from leftist intelligentsia. This is to be expected. As Brand, like many would-be radicals quickly learn, there are few things quite as venomous as the offended liberal.
But what is it about Brand’s revolutionary calling that so offends? Or to put it in more explicit terms, what gives this flamboyant, sexually extroverted, self-confessed ex-junkie, comedian and public celebrity, who is not a recognized expert in politics, nor established member of “the Left,” the right to speak about politics and revolt? Could it be that Brand perturbs simply because he doesn’t know his place, speaks out of turn, and commands attention on subjects he has no recognized expertise in or historical record of engagement with? Could it be that the Russell Brand “Brand” offends the sensibilities of leftist liberals because he challenges their own intellectual monopoly on questions concerning the stakes of political struggle, social transformation, and indeed, the very future of “the left” itself? And is it not the case that in having the temerity to speak on these issues he effectively exposes the poverty of the prevailing branded visions of politics to be found available on the liberal left?
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Let’s begin by focusing on three of the most frequently made charges against Brand in the backlash.
1) Russell Brand lacks a developed political awareness, resulting in petulant and immature posturing and encouraging a militancy that could be dangerous in its results.
2) Russell Brand is biographically “flawed” in ways that disqualify him from being able to claim any right to speak in the name of emancipation.
3) Russell Brand is himself a wealthy member of the celebrity elite, a fact that denies him any right to speak against a system that makes him wealthy and services his narcissistic craving for public attention.
Under Brand’s editorship and intellectual leadership, New Statesman posed the question of the meaning of revolution to a number of public figures and artists including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Ai Weiwei. This collective hardly constitutes the politically ill-informed! Brand’s own contribution titled, “We no longer have the luxury of tradition,” is an honest and self-reflective 4,500 word personal journey that begins with the assertion, “before we change the world, we need to change the way we think.” Following which, he goes on to write:
Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. . . . 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.
One of the most high-profile criticisms of Brand’s intervention has come from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Clegg took aim more directly at Paxman for his sympathy with Brand’s political disillusionment and refusal to vote. The fact that Clegg leveled his criticism primarily at Paxman instead of Brand reveals who he regards as possessing more credibility to speak on politics. Paxman is, after all, Clegg might reason, one of them, as he remains a product of the same Oxbridge schooling that continues to produce the political class in the UK. But let’s focus on the substance of Clegg’s criticism. As he goes on to explain:
We know that politics is not perfect, but at the end of the day it is the way that we decide how you pay your taxes, how we support our hospitals, our schools, whether we are going to war or not, how we deal with climate change. . . . Of course it is sometimes unedifying, but this idea that you can just sort of sneer at the whole thing, dismiss everyone as being rogues and charlatans and therefore ‘I am going to wash my hands of the whole thing’ – I think it is a total abdication of responsibility.
Really? Not only does Clegg engage here in the crudest form of intellectual blackmail, saying we cannot imagine or pursue an alternative to existing political systems without committing “a total abdication of responsibility,” so does he engage in a fraudulent public deception that relies upon the delusions of his own historical amnesia. Paxman has already taken him to task for the fact that his Liberal Democrats party engaged in one of the most shameless political deceits of recent times by reneging on their commitment not to increase student fees. Hence, serious questions have already been raised about the worth of the entire process he claims is the only responsible choice. But what about Clegg’s further claim that we get to “decide” on issues of import? What about going to war in Iraq? We must have been out of the country when that occurred. Whether we’d be happy to accept crippling austerity measures? What about whether we should put the likes of Bush, Cheney and Blair on trial for war crimes, or profiteering bankers for crimes against the future of hope now viciously denied to youth across the world?
Democracy is not the act of voting for the same selection of petit bourgeois actors who just so happen to be identifiable by wearing different color suits and neckties. Neither is it found in some system that by its very definition is “representative.” It is having the ability to influence those decisions that fundamentally shape the lives of people. So, like Brand, we too have a “confession” to make. We don’t vote and never have done. Not because we have no commitment to politics or the possibility of improving societies. It is because we believe the entire charade to be a stage-managed performance that continues to express the sheer poverty of contemporary political imaginations. People don’t refuse to vote because they are apathetic or because they have abdicated any sense of political responsibility. Indeed not voting is more than some passive or negative act. It is preceded by the belief that politics can be otherwise.
A more brutal attack on Brand’s political awareness and strategic choices has come from fellow comedian, Robert Webb. According to Webb, Brand is effectively an appeaser of the worst kind since he makes light of something truly “important,” and as a result, has not thought through properly the real consequences of his ideas. Immaturity, then, writ large! As he writes:
I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.
Webb’s typically reductionist argument suffers from a self-righteous and narrow reading of history. He embodies the “reasoned liberal” who remains deluded in the belief that music, literature, science, religion and politics can be neatly separated into distinct spheres of action and engagement. Even though, of course, there is “fucking Orwell.” God forbid that we find poetry in the political, beauty in styles of living and affirmative joy at the wonder of philosophical enquiry to take us beyond the stripped down reasoning of his sense of political agency. While Webb accuses Brand of being unaware of the consequences of history – especially the history of mass violence – he effectively forces Brand into a modernist paradigm wherein politics becomes a matter of deciding between different State models. If Webb had the slightest understanding of less Eurocentric approaches to history, he would appreciate how A) It has been precisely the modern State (which Brand is effectively bringing into question) that has been responsible for the atrocities he mentions (and for which liberal states are some of the worst offenders); and B) Alternative political actors the world over have long since appreciated the limits of liberal democracy as they are fully appreciative that its notions of freedom, democracy and justice are illusionary. Indeed, in the contemporary period, the impetus for a radical rethink doesn’t emanate from privileged students with a revolutionary urge, but from places like Chiapas in Mexico, where the capillary ends of neoliberal power and violence are most clearly felt.
Perhaps it is Webb who should read some “fucking Orwell”; not as an historical document grounded in time, but as a way to interrogate the contemporary period. Then he might appreciate that reason alone can easily become a sickness that reasons thousands to slaughter for the moral good.
The second criticism leveled at Brand concentrates on his biographical history, effectively disqualifying him from speaking on issues of emancipation in the present. While his admission of drug taking has been periodically raised to question his soundness of mind, it is really his sex life that is the major “flaw.” Brand, it seems, stands guilty as charged for “objectifying” women. Laurie Penny, responding in New Statesman, has exemplified this position. While Penny doesn’t disagree with anything Brand says in terms of his critique of liberal democracy, she nevertheless feels compelled to point out that he (like many other celebrity men) “boasts a track record of objectification and of playing cheap misogyny for laughs.” This, apparently, is “just what a rockstar does.” For Penny, this sexism is not to be dismissed as incidental to the cause. It is revealing of the wider “rape apologism on the left” that deems women to be a hindrance to the “real struggle:”
But what is this ‘real struggle’, if it requires women and girls to suffer structural oppression in silence? What is this ‘real struggle’ that hands the microphone over and over again to powerful, charismatic white men? Can we actually have a revolution that relegates women to the back of the room, that turns vicious when the discussion turns to sexual violence and social equality? What kind of fucking freedom are we fighting for? And whither that elusive, sporadically useful figure, the brocialist?
Is Penny however not equally guilty here of disqualifying Brand’s intervention by offering a more authentic concept of the “real struggle?” Indeed, outside of Brand’s widely reported sexual adventures, where is the evidence that he is fundamentally a sexist? Does the quantity of Brand’s encounters, or indeed the way these female partners look, necessarily translate into objectification? (1)
Some will no doubt recount here the radio incident that resulted in the comedian Andrew Sachs of Fawlty Towers fame being mortally offended by comments about his granddaughter in the name of comedy. The media outrage was evident and somewhat inevitable given that during the same show Brand also chastised the Daily Mail newspaper for its support of Nazism and Hitler. Even here the debate however tends to stop at the fact that Brand is a sexist because he talked about sexual relations in public. Having an active sex life that is widely reported is not the same as being a sexist. We are equally curious to question how many actually bothered to interview Sachs following his outrage and concerns with stereotyping, not least how many Spanish waiters suffered the derogatory chant of “Manuel” after Fawlty Towers was aired in the name of comedy?
One of the real tragedies of a particular strand of leftist thought, contributed to by puritanical trends within feminism, has been to forget that sexuality and desire are affirmative political categories, not in a way that sees them simply as enslaving and responsible for all the world’s problems, but integral to the creation of emancipated subjects that are liberated from the castrations of normalizing behaviors. We are all desiring subjects, and to forget this is the gravest of political deceits that is complicit in properly understanding the operations of power. That is not in any way to apologize for gender inequalities. They are inexcusable. Nor is it to make light of the feminist struggle. It remains integral to the fight against fascism in all its forms. But to argue that Brand has no right to speak in the name of emancipation because of his sexual activity is to engage in sexism of the most suffocating kind. It is tantamount to a reverse sexism that refuses to see itself on account of its claim to be the more authentic victim. Whatever happened to agency becomes an apology for presumptions of guilt that are already established and taken as given.
Brand’s celebrity status invariably raises many questions. Why is it that only celebrities of a kind can seemingly get their voices heard? Would the same criticism be levelled at Stephen Fry? Is this a problem with the individual or the system that produces this logic as such? While it might be right to question the fact that Brand profits from the very system he now has the luxury to critique, could we not say the same of some of the current darlings of the intellectual left such as Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek, who also have a mass populist following that is wholly compatible with a celebrity culture. As the saying goes, does not a person require the luxury of time that money and stardom brings to be able to entertain reading Marx’s critique of capitalism?
Let’s take, for example, Salon writer Natasha Lennard, who raises directly this question of Brand’s celebrity status. Although she acknowledged him to be a “well-intentioned, wildly famous performer with a “fuck-this” attitude and some really nice thoughts, she nevertheless is compelled to question:
We have to be willing to obliterate our own elevated platforms, our own spaces of celebrity; this grotesque politico-socio-economic situation that elevates a few voices and silences many millions is what Brand is posturing against. Would he be willing to destroy himself – as celebrity, as leader, as ‘Russell Brand?’ I think he’d struggle, but I don’t really know the guy.
Suey Park and Isabelle Nastasia argue that Brand’s “so-called revolution” is “particularly ridiculous” as it is the corporate media that is holding him up as this revolutionary icon, while, “young people of color, and women, queer kids, working class and poor youth are leading organizations that are building a robust movement across issues, strategies and identities; a movement that is not looking to celebrities or elites for direction, but is informed from below.”
So how does one authenticate as being from below? What qualities do you need to possess in order to qualify as a valid member of this inverted vanguard? What does one need to renounce about oneself before being able to speak with an authentic voice? Are there degrees for instance of “belowness” that create levels of subaltern verification? Does this invalidate the voices of all white men, especially those who garner a public profile? Does this preclude ourselves who, although from working-class backgrounds, now find ourselves part of well-established academic institutions? Indeed, does having a presence in the corporate media world necessarily disqualify the quality of the criticism and the political intervention? We wonder whether Park and Nastasia would apply the same logic to Pussy Riot, whose plight and message is equally reported on account of their stardom and corporate agenda?
Surely what matters is that a person appreciates the conditions in which they are located and chooses to resist on such terms. Or else we risk becoming revolutionary vanguards in the most exclusionary of senses. We might recall here Brand’s justification for his outburst at the GQ ceremony, which is worth quoting at length:
In case you don’t know, these parties aren’t like real parties. It’s fabricated fun, imposed from the outside. A vision of what squares imagine cool people might do set on a spaceship. Or in Moloko. As we come out of the lift, there’s a bloody great long corridor flanked by gorgeous birds in black dresses, paid to be there, motionless, left hand on hip, teeth tacked to lips with scarlet glue. The intention, I suppose, is to contrive some Ian Fleming super-uterus of well-fit mannequins to midwife you into the shindig . . .
I could see the room dividing as I spoke. I could hear the laughter of some and louder still silence of others. I realized that for some people this was regarded as an event with import. The magazine, the sponsors and some of those in attendance saw it as a kind of ceremony that warranted respect. In effect, it is a corporate ritual, an alliance between a media organization, GQ, and a commercial entity, Hugo Boss. What dawned on me as the night went on is that even in apparently frivolous conditions, the establishment asserts control and won’t tolerate having that assertion challenged, even flippantly, by that most beautifully adept tool: comedy.
I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: The glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it; we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each other. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.
What Brand terms absurd, we call tragic. Our current predicament is most certainly a tragedy. As utopian ideas and the belief that we may transform the world for the better are displaced by an open horizon of inevitable insecurity, more tightening of the belt and future catastrophe, politicians tell us that there is no way out of this already fated existence. This is where Brand’s “comedy” represents something far more than frivolous entertainment. It crosses firmly over into the political, for comedy can be the most potent and disruptive of political weapons when tragedy prevails. (2)
For too long have we been sold the idea that politics is a “science” through which humans can be studied like lab rats and prodded into action through the simplest of participatory mechanisms. Anything else simply confuses the docile masses! We prefer to see the political as a poetic art that is defined by the creation of new modes of living and new ways of thinking. Revolution in such terms is not about storming the palace or even returning to outdated political categories such as communism. It is, as Brand argued quite rightly, about changing the way we think about the political. Such a task demands embracing the impossible and transgressing the limits of what is simply the “natural” order of things. This is why we find Brand so compelling. He has become a lightning rod to expose all that is outdated with the left’s political imaginary. The liberal left obviously cannot abide Brand; because his discordant, unlicensed, and for many unwelcome, “entry” into politics actually demonstrates in its temerity the existence of a political imagination worthy of the name. The rules of the game must be changed, and another way of deciding on how we all live together must be fought for.
Brands sexual extravagance has been widely reported in the media. The British tabloids have dedicated pages to his multiple adventures, sometimes with multiple women at the same time. The Sun, that exemplar of gutter press, accused Brand of demanding a fellow worker on a film set expose herself for his pleasure. Given however the source and its penchant for manufacturing sensational stories for the sake of improving sales, we’d prefer to keep this discussion to what can be reliably proven about Brand as a public figure who attracts controversy.
See Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London: Verso, 2013). Also See: “The Revolution Will Not Be (Russell) Brand-ed.”