The celebrity Russell Brand (famous for just what, incidentally?) has been making the headlines this week after he published a 4000-word anti-Establishment rant in the New Statesman. It’s not an easy read – convoluted, self-regarding and rambling – but it is essentially a call to boycott the political system: don’t vote, the system is irretrievably broken and corrupt, we must return to the virility of an earlier age, we need a revolution of the mind in which we learn to love one another before we can undertake the political revolution that will overthrow the corrupt and broken order.
To anyone who has studied the history of Fascism, the rhetoric is familiar (so, incidentally, is the style: the lengthy, rambling incoherence, the frequent recourse to personal experience, the use of long words to disguise the emptiness as profundity). It’s been fascinating to see this nonsense portrayed as being a phenomenon of the left, until we remember that Hitler and Mussolini described themselves as socialists. Reading Brand’s torrent of words brought together a number of thoughts; most notably the ideology behind that extraordinary document of early Fascism, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – a film that today retains its visceral power, its artistic persuasiveness, while remaining utterly repellent in its ideology. Or perhaps the mythology of the English romantic poets like Byron and Shelley, who never grew old, who celebrated a cult of feeling, and whose most apposite memorial was perhaps the overwrought young privileged ladies who fainted at the mention of Missolonghi. Commentators like Nick Cohen in today’s Observer have already done a sterling job of dissecting Brand’s intellectual ancestry but it is worth taking a moment to consider why his ramblings are not just reactionary but deeply anti-political, and what they mean for those engaged in trying to bring about political change.
And at one level Brand does have a point: there is a crisis of democratic legitimacy, here in Britain and in the West generally. Market capitalism is failing – the crash of 2008 and the world-wide austerity that followed it, and the apparent lack of ready political alternatives are the salient political fact of our time. In Britain we see the apparent dismantling of the NHS, the sale at a knock-down price of the Royal Mail to the Government’s political and economic friends, and opposition seems futile. There is mass youth unemployment, and the only response in town appears to be the forced labour of workfare. Mainstream political discourse seems incapable of reflecting that.
But Brand’s generalisations have nothing to offer. He simply doesn’t address the concept of power; and his rantings are all about individualism, nothing to do with the collective. But at heart democratic politics is about the collective; it’s about debate, and compromise, and, yes, voting. The “don’t vote it only encourages them” line that Brand espouses mainly shows that he just doesn’t get – and indeed has contempt for – democracy; yes, voting is at the heart of democracy but it’s not the whole story by any means. It’s also about participation, about citizenship, about being active rather than passive. Yes, making a system like that work involves a lot of heavy lifting, much of it undertaken with an anonymity that offers little to histrionic exhibitionists of Brand’s ilk. But it’s the decent, democratic way. Structures matter – they’re often the only way to give the marginalised a voice. Brand’s ramblings scream entitlement from almost every adjective.
Aneurin Bevan’s formulation still holds true: “How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics in the twentieth century.” Wealth has increasingly in recent years gained the confidence to undermine that political freedom more openly than for decades, and fashionable apathy promoted by celebrities has to be a fundamental part of that. Brand provides no answer to this: his views are profoundly reactionary and, in the literal sense of the word, decadent. Rebuilding democratic politics means the hard work of changing instituions from within – anonymous, hard, collective work and not the stuff of strutting celebrities, but the only decent and democratic way. And that requires engagement, not solipsistic anger; what a corrupt establishment fears is collective action, not the ramblings of a licensed court jester.