In an expletive-spattered, 4,500 word opus as guest editor for the New Statesman, and a clash with Jeremy Paxman on BBC’s Newsnight, British comedian Russell Brand declared the political system irreparably broken, and in the service of the corporate and upper class elite. He then disseminated a rallying cry for the coming Socialist revolution. Was this an example of a man of the people channeling the righteous anger of the disenfranchised? The articulation of alternative politics is no doubt of the utmost importance, but what gives members of the establishment, such as Brand, the authority to speak for those marginalised by the current political system?
Brand decries the need to convert today’s political apathy, especially among the young, unemployed, and poverty-stricken, into genuine political revolution, declaring the act of voting every four years “a tacit act of compliance” in the current inequitable political system. Widely criticised for its advocation of non-participation in electoral democracy, it seems Brand’s argument has been misunderstood by much of the British media; he was not simply saying do not vote, but rather that voting is an implicit acceptance of the status quo of how politics is done in Britain. Real change, however, comes only from mobilised and coordinated political action that challenges and subverts the underlying structures of power and corruption. In his view, the choice offered by the ballot box is illusory: all politicians are tainted by the system’s symbiotic relationship to big business, and the materialistic and selfish ideology that alienates us from each other, and destroys the planet. The only remaining option for progressive politics is the mobilisation of the disenchanted masses and a complete change in our thinking along more egalitarian, and apparently, spiritual lines. Precisely what Brand means by the upcoming “Spiritual Revolution” is up for debate, but perhaps that is the point.
A new politics of revolution will, and to some extent has, articulated itself through protest, such as with the London Riots of 2011, and movements such as Occupy Wall Street. We need to challenge the belief perpetuated by the political elites that there’s nothing we can do to bring about meaningful change. The success of these mobilisations, however, has so far been limited; their optimism has often been met with derision. How can the disenfranchised be brought together and motivated to risk repression from the state for politics, an idea that already alienates and bores them? The socio-economic underclass are unlikely to even read the New Statesman, nevermind heed Brand’s call and coordinate themselves in a coherent Socialist political challenge.
Brand’s high profile status as comedian, actor, and all-round bad boy may be valuable in spreading awareness of the potential of alternative politics. Anarchy may well indeed ensue. Yet, while Brand does have a platform to spread such a message, can he really be deemed a legitimate, self-appointed leader of a Socialist revolution? Brand believes his personal history of drug addiction and subsequent interactions with many recovering addicts give him insights into the lives of those abandoned by society and democracy. This, however, does not match up with his status as an extremely privileged, white, male member of the establishment. He himself is a part of the problem. His overtly sexist remarks are degrading to half the population, and his public persona, exemplified by the fact his latest comedy tour is entitled ‘Messiah Complex’, is one that plays right into the hands of our materialistic, fame-obsessed, egotistical culture.
In fact, the involvement and endorsement of celebrities in social movements such as Occupy Wall Street may be outright damaging to their cause and image. Based on the concept of the 99% claiming back power from the 1% (a category which Brand surely falls into), OWS should be about inclusion, not consolidating existing social hierarchies. This 5th November, Russell Brand defiantly donned the infamous Guy Fawkes mask in Anonymous’ Million Mask March in London, in apparent solidarity with other protestors across the globe, yet Twitter was awash with pictures of Brand posing with protestors, as if it were a meet and greet after one of his gigs. Symbolic appeals to popular culture references of anarchy, such as the Guy Fawkes mask, can be problematic and reductive when trying to convey a message that is at once pluralistic, contested, and evolving, as shown by the revelations that these masks are actually mass produced in harsh factory conditions in Brazil; pictures show the need for the workers to wear gas masks to protect themselves. Can these movements really symbolise emancipatory change when our society is so embedded in structures of power, and a global political economy that plays to the richest and most powerful?
The Anonymous Million Mask March highlights the global reach a revolution must necessarily have. Even if Brand could succeed in mobilising the disaffected in Britain, politics, economics, and society today is so affected by global processes, ideas, and capital that a revolution must be truly global in order to bring about lasting change. The ideas that Brand attempts to articulate are of great importance to the future of politics; we cannot continue consuming at the rate we do, consigning millions to lives of poverty and destitution, while we destroy the planet and create ever widening gaps in income and living standards. Yet, the global potential for a revolution amplifies, exponentially, the challenges facing such a revolution, including how to mobilise so many uninterested people and the greater capacity for state repression and corporate and ideological illusory distractions from the cause.
Aside from questions as to the likelihood of a British or global political revolution, there still stand issues of who can be counted as a legitimate spokesperson, claiming to represent the masses. Celebrity endorsement in politics is nothing new, especially in American politics, where the cult of celebrity is crystallised in the very being of the President, who is elevated to an almost savior-like status. Many celebrities such as Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, and Oprah Winfrey have not been shy in declaring their political views, regardless of the potential controversy their views may have or how representative of public opinion they may be. The issue here is that the people who decide what is on the public political agenda are the people with money, power, and vested interests. If these issues can be separated from their proposed policies, then perhaps celebrity endorsement can work to the benefit of the people. Yet, it remains to be seen whether such egalitarian ideas as a Socialist revolution can legitimately and effectively propagated by someone so divisive, controversial and implicated in the politico-economic system as Russell Brand.