For years Russell Brand has been one of Britain’s most popular comedians, but over the past 12 months he has also emerged as a leading voice of Britain’s political left. He has taken part in anti-austerity protests, spoken at Occupy Wall Street protests and marched with the hacker collective Anonymous. A recovering addict himself, Brand has also become a leading critic of Britain’s drug laws. He has just come out with a new book expanding on his critique of the political system. It is simply titled “Revolution.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re broadcasting from London, and we’re joined by Russell Brand. Up until last year, Russell Brand was best known for being one of the most popular comedians here in Britain. His résumé includes hosting the reality TV show Big Brother’s Big Mouth, a stint as a BBC radio host and starring roles in the films St. Trinian’s, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. He also hosted the MTV Movie Awards.
But in recent years, Russell Brand has emerged as one of the most prominent voices of the British left. He has taken part in anti-austerity protests, spoken at Occupy Wall Street and marched with the hacker collective Anonymous. A recovering addict himself, Russell Brand has also become a leading critic of Britain’s drug laws.
Last year, he guest-edited the New Statesman, a political and current affairs magazine here in Britain. The issue included cover art by Shepard Fairey and articles by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, among many others.
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He then appeared on BBC Newsnight in an interview with the well-known BBC host Jeremy Paxman. The video became a YouTube sensation.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Is it true you don’t even vote?
RUSSELL BRAND: Yeah, no, I don’t vote.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?
RUSSELL 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. Alternative means alternative political systems.
JEREMY PAXMAN: They being?
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on my 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 who like doing a magazine for a novelty.
JEREMY PAXMAN: How do you imagine that people get power?
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, I imagine there are sort of hierarchical systems that have been preserved through generations—
JEREMY PAXMAN: They get power by being voted in. That’s how they get it.
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, you say that, Jeremy, but like—
JEREMY PAXMAN: You can’t even be asked to vote.
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s quite narrow—quite a narrow prescriptive parameter that changes within the—
JEREMY PAXMAN: In a democracy, that’s how it works.
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, I don’t think it’s working very well, Jeremy, given that the planet is being destroyed, given that there is economic disparity of a huge degree. What you’re saying, there’s no alternative. There’s no alternative, just this system.
JEREMY PAXMAN: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying—
RUSSELL BRAND: Brilliant.
JEREMY PAXMAN: —if you can’t be asked to vote, why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view?
RUSSELL BRAND: You don’t have to listen to my political point of view. But it’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch, where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system. So, voting for it is tacit complicity with that system, and that’s not something I’m offering up.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Why don’t you change it then?
RUSSELL BRAND: I’m trying to.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, why don’t you start by voting?
RUSSELL BRAND: I don’t think it works. People have voted already, and that’s what’s created the current paradigm.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Well, when did you last vote?
RUSSELL BRAND: Never.
JEREMY PAXMAN: You’ve never, ever voted?
RUSSELL BRAND: No. Do you think that’s really bad?
JEREMY PAXMAN: So, you’ve struck an attitude, what? Before the age of 18?
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, I was busy being a drug addict at that point, because I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system that really just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population that it was voted in to serve.
JEREMY PAXMAN: But you’re veiling the—you’re blaming the political class for the fact that you had a drug problem?
RUSSELL BRAND: No, no, no. I’m saying I was part of a social and economic class that is underserved by the current political system, and drug addiction is one of the problems it creates. When you have huge underserved, impoverished populations, people get drug problems and also don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system, because they see that it doesn’t work for them. They see that it makes no difference. They see that they’re not served. I say that the apathy—
JEREMY PAXMAN: But of course it doesn’t work for them if they don’t bother to vote.
RUSSELL BRAND: Jeremy, my darling, I’m not saying that—the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They’re only interested in servicing the needs of corporations. Look at where—ain’t the Tories going to court, taking the EU to court? It’s because they’re trying to curtail bank bonuses. Is that what’s happening at the moment in our country?
AMY GOODMAN: That was Russell Brand being interviewed on BBC Newsnight by host Jeremy Paxman last year. Since it was posted online, more than 10 million people have watched the video. Well, Russell Brand has come out with a new book expanding on his critique of the political system. It’s called Revolution. When we come back from break, he’ll be sitting right here in front of Big Ben. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from London. We’re just in front of Big Ben and also MI5, the British domestic intelligence service. And our guest has now turned around to look out the window to say, “Which one is MI5?” It’s the low building, Russell.
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s a secret. You’re not supposed to know that.
AMY GOODMAN: Russell Brand is our guest, Russell Brand who’s well known as a comedian and an actor, and also become a leading figure on the British left and has a new book out. It’s called, simply, Revolution.
Russell, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. And even though there are a lot of obscenities in the world, please don’t use them on Democracy Now! today, or our stations will be taken off the air.
RUSSELL BRAND: You’re really concerned about that. Did they say, “Just say it to him on air”? Honestly, I don’t swear very often. This evening, I’m performing at the Royal Albert Hall, London, before an audience of children. I won’t swear, I promise. You’re perfectly safe.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, there are children who are listening and watching right now. There are adults. There are senior citizens.
RUSSELL BRAND: Stop worrying about it. I won’t swear. What do you need to know, Amy? There won’t be any swearing.
AMY GOODMAN: I need to know where you were born.
RUSSELL BRAND: Grays, Essex, where people do use obscenities a lot, as would anyone suffering under such dreadful conditions. If continue down the Thames in that direction, you will end up at Grays, and you’ll swim back rather than stay there. You’d rather live in the MI5 building.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Grays. Talk about where you were born, Russell.
RUSSELL BRAND: Where I’m from is a suburban town with low expectations. So people in America understand, it’s a bit like Camden, New Jersey—low expectations, really, really cool people, fantastic people, but a kind of place where it’s difficult to engage with hope, where it’s easy to imagine that your life can just sort of trundle out like this low, grey River Thames.
AMY GOODMAN: Camden is one of the poorest places in the United States.
RUSSELL BRAND: Oh, it might be a bit better than that, then. It’s not one of the poorest places; it’s just not that nice. And growing up there, I think it sort of—I’ve had cause to reflect. I wondered why it was that I was so attracted to the idea of being so famous and living a sort of glamorous life and going to sequin-covered events and being in sparkly places with superficially attractive things. I think I put a lot of it down to the sort of mundanity of my early life. What was surprising when I went back there recently is, even though it was kind of ordinary to begin with and somewhat economically deprived, when I went back there recently, it had become much, much worse—like the sort of dodgy shops, payday loans, people living on welfare. And it really was the inspiration in the writing of the book to see how the place where I come from had deteriorated and where that money has gone, where those resources have gone, and why people don’t seem to think that they have any political purchase or any ability to change the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were talking about this with Jeremy Paxman, the clip we just played that went totally viral, from BBC Newsnight, where you talked about why you don’t vote. Now, that was a few years ago. Have you started voting?
RUSSELL BRAND: One year, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you voted since then?
RUSSELL BRAND: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the system is changing at all?
RUSSELL BRAND: Do you?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I don’t live here.
RUSSELL BRAND: I think this is an international problem. You’ve just had the American midterm elections, in which $4 billion was spent on the campaigning, when we’re told there’s not enough money to deal with what would seem to me to be more—like, you know, it was interesting recently, you know, like that FEMA, that U.S. agency that lent out money to people who were victims of Katrina and Sandy. They wanted their money back that they lent to people that had suffered in those hurricanes. And this is simultaneously, $4 billion has been spent on campaigning in midterm elections. And, like, we live in a system where tax breaks and tax avoidance are easy if you understand the law. So, the degree of systemic change required is so significant, I don’t see any point in voting for it. But no one’s saying, “We will do something about that.”
AMY GOODMAN: Russell, this gives me a chance to go to your show, called The Trews. And—
RUSSELL BRAND: Yeah, The Trews is my TV show that I made with Gareth. It’s not on the television; it’s on the Internet.
AMY GOODMAN: So it’s a combo between “truth” and “the news”?
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s one of the cleverest puns in human history.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about this issue of disabled and elderly residents in a assisted living center in Rockaway, New York—this is after Sandy, after Superstorm Sandy—being asked to return aid to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Let’s go to that clip from The Trews.
RUSSELL BRAND: “Can we have our money back?” “But the hurricane, disabled.” “Money back.”
FEMA AID RECIPIENT: I asked them, “Do we have to pay this back?” And they said, “No, it’s a gift from the president.”
RUSSELL BRAND: “You know that gift I gave you?” “Yes, we all appreciated it.” “Mmm, that makes it a little bit harder to say what I’m about to say.” “Oh, what is it?” “Give it back.”
AMY GOODMAN: There it is.
RUSSELL BRAND: I’m proud of The Trews because what it does is it gives us an opportunity to provide an alternative news narrative. What I’ve noticed since I’ve come in this sphere of public debate talking about politics, which I do in my book with, like, input from insightful and brilliant figures such as Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, that, like, it’s sort of like people are having a go at me, like I’m not allowed to participate. You know, “Shut up! Look at your hair! Listen to your accent! Be quiet!” It’s like a really sort of fiercely guarded, like, realm—not just from the right, but from the left, as well. If you sort of go, “Hey, I’m actually from a background where people are affected by stuff like this. This is what we think. Can we talk about this in a different way?” people are so fiercely territorial and protective, it’s interesting. And it’s not difficult to see why there is such political stasis and such immobility, because people don’t welcome new debate. Not ordinary people. Ordinary people like it. Ordinary people are engaged and excited. But I would say there’s a kind of circuitous establishment that’s interested in a kind of peculiar circle jerk of exchanging opinions.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you did at Occupy Democracy and what it is, what it is here in Britain.
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, Occupy—the Occupy movement is a leaderless, decentralized campaign movement, so it’s the same in the U.K. as it is in America. There were a group of protesters occupying Parliament Square, a coalition of groups interested in issues such as, like, you know, fracking, animal rights, but primarily our inability to have any political purchase through democratic process, like that voting doesn’t make any difference. No one’s interested in presenting alternatives to draconian, restrictive trade agreements, whether they be European or TransAtlantic. And we have no—and these are the rules and regulations that affect people’s ordinary life. And so, I suppose something like Occupy Democracy is people venting that frustration and demonstrating their belief that there’s a need for change.
So I support that, because what I reckon is important, and what I talk about in my book, Amy, is that creative, local direct action is the answer, that we shouldn’t be looking for sort of glamorous new figures to lead us. We shouldn’t be looking to conventional politics. It’s not going to provide any answers to people, like the women of the New Era Estate in Great Britain, who were being evicted from their homes because their areas got trendy now, so all of the rents have gone up. These people were going to be evicted from their homes. They organized themselves. They campaigned. And now Richard Benyon, MP, the wealthiest politician in the houses of Parliament there, has packed his bags and run from the confrontation. But still, the Westbrook group, the developers that own 90 percent of the estate, still have to be confronted. Still, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has to be confronted, because, you know, it’s difficult to get any political purchase. There are no political figures that are interested in representing ordinary people.
AMY GOODMAN: Might you run for mayor of London?
RUSSELL BRAND: I don’t think I would really want to be part of that political system. What I’m interested in is ordinary people being engaged, whether it’s for union activity in their workplaces, new coalitions or people that are taking control of the places that they live, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: You have talked a lot about the power of corporations and also materialism.
RUSSELL BRAND: How come you’re allowed a glass, and mine’s plastic? Why am I not trusted?
AMY GOODMAN: You can have mine.
RUSSELL BRAND: Why am I having so many warnings about swearing? You get glass; I get plastic. This is America versus England, isn’t it? You’ve nicked our language. You’ve thrown our flag away, rejected our queen. And now you’re taking all the glassware. Come on!
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Russell.
RUSSELL BRAND: Cheers! To freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: Corporate culture and materialism—I mean, I want to talk about your book, because you talk about the kind of revolution you want to see. Talk about the revolutions in your own life, how you’ve changed over time.
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, the reason I have such faith in the capacity for change, for people to change their lives, is because my own life has changed radically. All a revolution is, really, is to create structures outside of the existing structures, to create change without using the sanctioned means for change. And me, I’ve gone from a life of being impoverished and drug-addicted to a life where I’m sort of affluent and free from drugs. So, that’s what gives me this belief that change is possible on an individual level.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you beat addiction.
RUSSELL BRAND: I don’t know that I beat addiction. One day at a time, I surrender to the fact that I am a drug addict. And with the help and support of other drug addicts and the belief in a higher power, I’m able to get daily reprieve from drugs, that is contingent on me being available to help other people with the disease of addiction, taking advice from people that have got more time than me, offering help to those that have got less.
And I think it’s an important issue, because I think that actually drug addiction is people—like, the reason people are addicted to drugs is because there’s sort of a deficit of happiness, a deficit of community, a deficit of connection. Joseph Campbell talked about our problems being due the lack of a communal myth. I think all of us feel a little bit—or a lot of us feel a little adrift, that we don’t know how we’re supposed to live, we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. And in the end, some kind of anesthetic becomes attractive. Certainly that’s my personal experience. I recognize now that the thing that I was chasing after in my years of addiction was probably some sort of sense of communal connection or a connection to a higher thing.
AMY GOODMAN: You write very movingly about Philip Seymour Hoffman and also about Robin Williams, both dealing with addiction. Both died in the last year.
RUSSELL BRAND: Yes, well, I suppose those high-profile and sad deaths provide an opportunity to highlight how many lives are affected by addiction and the need to address it by different means. I think criminalizing and penalizing people that are ill, like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Robin Williams, is sort of pointless. It doesn’t work. People are using more progressive means to tackle the issue of addiction, places like Canada and in Portugal and Switzerland. I think that the only way for drug addiction to be correctly addressed is for it to be regulated, regulated properly, not left in the hands of criminals—decriminalized and regulated.
AMY GOODMAN: And overall, the drug war, overall, how this fits into that larger story?
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s even just as a piece of language, Amy. It’s a bit of an odd thing to say, isn’t it? We’re doing a drug war. Bill Hicks, the American comedian, said, “If there is a drug war, and we’re losing it, that means drug addicts are winning.” That’s really bad to lose a drug war to people that are high. So, like, it’s the wrong attitude to have wars on terror, wars on drugs. Stop making things worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the amount of money, for example, that goes into—in the name of fighting against drugs. Like yesterday, our big special was on Mexico—
RUSSELL BRAND: Was it?
AMY GOODMAN: —and these 43 students who disappeared in the state of Guerrero. And it turns out that the mayor and the police turned them over to drug gangs. And the question is—
RUSSELL BRAND: Good, good.
AMY GOODMAN: —going right up to the president, the billions of dollars, for example, the United States has given the Mexican military and Mexican police, in the name of the so-called drug war, where has it really gone? And is it in fact a real war, but a war against people, particularly poor people and indigenous people?
RUSSELL BRAND: Some people would argue, like in that brilliant film by Eugene Jarecki, The House I Live In, he argues that what’s actually happening is that the bottom 15 percent of society are no longer needed because of the collapse of the manufacturing industry, so it’s a lot better to just criminalize them and put them in prison. So, yeah, it’s like it’s a proxy war on poverty. It’s a proxy race war. I certainly think that argument holds. I mean, I think addiction can affect people from any economic or social background, but those who tend to suffer most are those without money. And there’s no doubt that social conditions have a huge impact on people’s tendency to get addicted to substances. I think if people live in communal environments where they’ve got access to support and—forgive me for using the word—love, then they’re less likely to get addicted to drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to an amazing moment you had in the U.S. media on Morning Joe.
RUSSELL BRAND: Do you?
AMY GOODMAN: But before I do that, I want to go to the Parliament right here.
RUSSELL BRAND: Do whatever you want.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the Parliament building, where you recently testified. You offered testimony on the issue of drugs?
RUSSELL BRAND: Didn’t offer it. They drag you in there, to go, “Will you talk to a committee?” And I think the reason they got me in there was to draw attention to the fact that they were having a committee to debate drug laws. Since then, of course, drug laws have radically changed in the country. They haven’t. They’ve done nothing. So, it was like a sort of a circus, you know, kangaroo court thing, when they just bring people in [inaudible].
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to Russell Brand in the British Parliament.
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s more important that we regard people suffering from addiction with compassion and that there’s a pragmatic, rather than symbolic, approach to treating it. And I think the legislative status of addiction and the criminalization of addicts is kind of symbolic, not really functional. I don’t see how it especially helps. I’m not saying let’s have a wacky free-for-all with people going around taking drugs. Didn’t do me—didn’t help me much.
KEITH VAZ: You’re a former heroin addict.
RUSSELL BRAND: Yeah.
KEITH VAZ: Briefly, could you tell us how you got onto drugs and then how you managed to come off it, and how many years you were on hard drugs?
RUSSELL BRAND: I see you’ve incorporated the word “briefly” now into the question. As you already know, it’s my propensity for verbosity.
I became a drug addict, I think, because of emotional difficulties, psychological difficulties, and perhaps a spiritual malady. For me, taking drugs and excessive drinking were the result of a psychological, spiritual or mental condition, so they’re symptomatic. I was like sad, lonely, unhappy, detached, and drugs and alcohol, for me, seemed like a solution to that problem. Once I dealt with the emotional, spiritual, mental impetus, I no longer felt the need to take drugs or use drugs.
AMY GOODMAN: So that is Russell Brand testifying before the Parliament. And we’re going to go to break—
RUSSELL BRAND: Why?
AMY GOODMAN: —to a music break for a minute. But you said something right as we were going into this.
RUSSELL BRAND: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: When I said, “Let’s go to Russell Brand in Parliament,” you said, “Get used to it”?
RUSSELL BRAND: “Get used to saying that.” I was being silly.
AMY GOODMAN: No, but are you?
RUSSELL BRAND: What do you mean? Go to Parliament?
AMY GOODMAN: Would you consider running as a member of Parliament? Would you consider running?
RUSSELL BRAND: No, I want to help the ordinary people of America and Britain dismantle their corrupt political structures and replace them with directly responsible, directly democratic organizations. I don’t want to help them lot continue to tyrannize people.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you could ever do that within the system, or do you think it’s much more effective to be outside?
RUSSELL BRAND: Well, I would take the advice of people that know a lot more than me—Lawrence Lessig and Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky. Most of those people say that change within the system is prevented, impossible, futile, that we need significant systemic change.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Russell Brand. We’re going to go to break, and then we’re back right here in London, as we sit in front of Big Ben and MI5. Stay with us.