Russell Brand, proto-fascist

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.

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15 thoughts on “Russell Brand, proto-fascist

  1. I can see where you are coming from, but imagine if Brand’s call for a non-vote was taken on by the masses, i.e. collectively. What sort of message would a huge non-vote send? I realise that to a certain extent this already happens and nothing changes, but I mean REAL numbers. Say 80% of the electorate?

    I just find it sad that it has to be Russell Brand that stands up and says the system is fucked and only serves a minority, and no one with any real political clout.

  2. While I’m sure I woul agree with you most of the time and I do believe engagement is key I still find you confidence disconcerting and naive. To expect that the current system can be repaired with the same level of thinking that’s brought us here is insanity. We need a revolution of one sort or another to shake us from our stupor. I don’t advocate for the wholesale decadece of Brand but can certainly appreciate his focus on the collective expressed as love.

  3. “famous for just what, incidentally?”

    Er, he was a TV presenter for years, I believe. Some show called MTV? Nah, I’ve never heard of it either. Something to do with a fat sister or big brother or something like that, too… No? E4?

    Oh yeah, and I think he made a couple of quid doing something called ‘Stand up’. Not sure what that’s all about, I’m sure he only performed to his mates though, so definitely not famous for that.

    And he *definitely* wasn’t famous for being in any Hollywood movies. Definitely not.

    In fact, who is this Russell Brand person you speak of?? If you can’t be arsed to do the research, I definitely can’t, but your snide opening smacks of sour grapes. Sorry, didn’t make it through the rest of your rant, but from the intro it sounds just as self-serving and smug as Brand’s mindless ramblings.

    D- Must try harder

    • I think he was most “famous” (infamous?) for playing a nasty trick on a young woman because she had a relatiive who was a popular TV actor and personality who showed more talent in a single half hour episode of say, “Fawlty Towers” than Brand will ever display in his lifetime.

  4. Brand’s piece – like his interview with Paxman – was far more interesting as a litmus test for a degree of something approaching anarchist tendencies. If you genuinely think that the system is fucked and can’t in any possible or meaningful way deliver the real and thoroughgoing change needed to address the social, economic and ecological crises we face, then why on earth would you think voting would matter? To vote of not is held up as the paradigmatic collective act, but instead it is individualised worship, taking succour from the fact that others too believe like me.

    The vote used to be collective – a place where a we came together to use the political system to bring about some form of change. But to continue to fetishise the act of that bygone age which has long since lost either the collective movement behind it and the faith that the party one might vote for would deliver that change, is just, well, fetishism.

    I don’t see Brand as portraying a cynicism or apathy that behoves the wiseacre bar-room pundit who believes they’re all as bad as each other. He thinks that the last thing politically motivated people should do is waste a second on what passes for politics, and the onus is on those who profoundly disagree to explain why that’s not the case, without simply giving a lesson in civics for a civil society in which those lessons are but a hollow joke.

  5. Bar a few quibbles, excellent article Neil. The narcissism of people like Brand is only a little less breathtaking than the fact that some people seem to take them seriously.

    • Brand shouting “look at me” from his privileged position at the NS isn’t going to do anything to restore fair payments to the disabled. Action and campaigning within what he would doubtless sneer at as “conventional politics within the “system”” just might.

      • I think you could apply that comment to anyone making any intervention in politics. I’m also not sure Brand is saying look at me, anymore than anyone making a claim that they hope sparks some discussion is de facto doing the same.

        I’ve no problem with people having a go at Brand’s arguments, but there’s a fair amount of ad hominen stuff which is pretty irrelevant.

  6. Brand is surely saying that personal responsibility has to come first – one is of no value or use to the collective if one has not first addressed the state of oneself….or wanted and tried to. A collective of marginalised and helpless would get nowhere, alas and so there is to me naivety in putting the collective on a pedestal.

    To value others, you have first to value yourself.

    Politics is absolutely down the pan and pathetically worthless. A noisy tableau at best. A game of let’s pretend. There isn’t the integrity to make it otherwise.

    Until there is a valuing of altruism (as a replacement for the religious version of it) and self-cultivation from childhood onward about how it works (it is ultimate selfishness for the common good) democratic political governance remains a fraud.

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