Russell Brand’s appearance, and ensuing diatribe, on Jeremy Paxman’s BBC Newsnight was uncomfortable. Both men came off as self-absorbed twits: a microcosmic display of why the Progressive movement so often falls on its face.
I have few feelings towards Paxman. Coming from an American background, his ability to ask minimal follow up questions has always mildly impressed me. He seems to have palatable political leanings to my taste. But he has never struck me as a veracious and capable champion of media or social reform. His performance last night was no exception. He clearly underestimated Brand, and the propensity of many to dismiss Brand’s intellect on the basis of his status as a performer and novel nature of his attire stinks of pompous pretention.
Truly, I appreciate much of what Brand has to say on politics. He is clearly smart and often proposes worthy and unique ideas. On the whole, his force as a social presence has done more good than harm. Helping to further the perception that smart is cool. I generally approve of his ascendance to guest Editor at the New Statesmen. He was very correct to state at the end of the Paxman interview that it is not naive to work for change, that he does not need approval to take the right to change society.
But where Brand does come across as naive, where his lexical verbosity does not protect him from being derided as a fool, where he should be rejected as a counter-productive extremist disgorging nuance deprived nonsense, is on the two points of action he advocated to Paxman: revolution and a disengagement from the existing political infrastructure.
This is why that interview was so frustrating. Brand was right about many of his complaints. Paxman even agreed with much of what Brand had to say. But then Brand continued on with self-righteous and inane blather, at which Paxman merely sneered. Paxman came off as a square tool of the establishment while Brand appeared platitudinous, a ‘mananarchist’ lacking perspective or tangible goals.
It is important to address why Brand’s ambitions deserve sneers, rather than simply to disengage from them in a similar manner to which Brand advocates disengaging from the existing political reality. Both are damaging.
Personally, I do not think the Revolution is coming. Maybe I am just projecting; maybe I am the only one who is selfish. But I look at humans and I see a species that comes with a highly insular, shortsighted, pleasure addicted and self-absorbed operating system. Despite watching the interview three times, I cannot decide if Brand is advocating a ‘Western’ revolution for the sake of the World, or for the sake of itself. But one is only slightly more absurd than the other.
To my knowledge, the World has a resource problem. Many of the destitute in the First World still constitute a section of the global elite. Even Occupy protesters still wandered around with their iPads constructed with the souls of Chinese orphans.
It seems laughable to think that huge numbers of humans will put their own lives in peril in a bid to lower their own standards of living simply to improve the conditions experienced by individuals half-way around the World. Sad, but laughable. It is hard enough to imagine a localized revolution aimed at actively improving the lives of those participating. The general population is too concerned with scraping by and keeping up with the Kardashians.
But aside from my erroneous and pessimistic thoughts on human nature, I am not particularly distressed by the unlikely probability of revolution. Revolutions, particularly poorly fomented and ambiguously aimed revolutions, are dangerous.
Metaphorically, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a masterpiece of articulation concerning the fears we should all have in this regard. Power vacuums are always filled and power corrupts. To quote The Who: ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’
If a revolution is to succeed, it has to be well planned and perpetrated by a highly informed populous capable of throwing off its own leaders once power is obtained. The historical event of which Animal Farm is a satire, the Russian Revolution, provides the corpses of millions as a testament to why this should never be forgotten.
Brand is correct in stating he is not obligated to provide specific delineations regarding the future he wishes to create. And I would wholeheartedly agree that haranguing him on this point, as Paxman did, would be a Red Herring were Brand simply critiquing the status-quo. But he was not. He was advocating specific action: disengagement from the existing political infrastructure in favour of revolution.
Revolution under the uniting pretence of ambiguous hatred for the establishment, rather than particular goals, is even more destined for failure than simply a poorly fomented revolutionary cause.
Egypt is the most contemporary example of such a failure. Mubarak’s government was overthrown by a population united by general contempt for the system, but little else. A religious theocracy took control through the subsequent elections, alarming the huge segments of the population that had envisioned a different future. Protests continued, further fractures engulfed the population and the result was a military coup. The corrupting influence of power didn’t even have time to wrought destruction upon an ideological leadership. The ambiguity of the cause fractured the revolutionaries as soon as power was ceased. The only probable outcome other than military dictatorship was protracted civil war.
But honestly, why do we need revolution? Revolutions can only really change the reigning political infrastructure. And the political infrastructure we have is pretty good, it simply is not working for us. Whinging about our voiceless exploitation at the hands of our governments is an insult to the billions who languish under truly tyrannical regimes. To those who have no say, and no possible outlet through which to channel political dissent. To those that do not live in democracies.
This is not to say that our systems function properly. Or that they are not stacked against those wishing for change, particularly those wishing to change society to be more equitable. But this brings me to the other point on which Brand is wrong: the importance of voting and engaging with the political system.
First, although Brand brings up the United States, it should not be forgotten that he is speaking in a British context. A context thoroughly deprived of anything resembling the insanity of the Republican Party. Britain’s Conservatives much resemble American Democrats on policy, and simply lack some of the populist rhetoric.
I feel greatly betrayed by the Democrats, jaded even, by their incompetence and centrism. But to suggest they are not superior to the Republicans, or at least different, defies logic. Beyond the fact that Republicans now seem intent on dismantling all existing social programs, the Democrats have made improvements since taking the Executive Office. Although ObamaCare is not a paragon of Progressivism, it has expanded insurance coverage to over 32 million Americans, and increased the level of coverage received all-around while reducing cost. Something that would never have happened had Romney or McCain won either election. The Democrats may endorse corporatist policy regarding much of the economy, and possess a significantly neo-conservative outlook on foreign affairs and defence, but things could be a lot worse.
Although it would be naive to assume that the Democrats will fix all of our problems on a Federal level, voting for them is a means to temporarily slow our slide towards ever greater dystopia. And breaking the system is not the way to fix our society. The infrastructure already exists to make the government representative of the population, to bypass the Federal Government and force campaign regulations on our legally-bribed Legislatures: a Constitutional Convention. Groups such as Wolf-PAC are currently working towards gaining the grassroots and state level support to force such an event. If they were as popular as not voting, we would live in a different world.
But Brand is wrong about Britain as well. Although there is huge similarity between the current mainstream British Parties, it is foolish to despair at the British system for the same reason they are free from the Republican scourge: comparatively restrictive campaign finance regulations. Admittedly, the candidates for office are often cut from similar cloth, but maybe that is because only 1% of the British electorate is a registered member of a political party and can therefore vote in Party primaries.
Even if greater awareness of inner-Party politics couldn’t change the system, creating a new party has been shown to have noticeable effects on the system as a whole. UKIP has successfully done that. Although they are not in contention to take the government, they have somewhat surpassed the Liberal Democrats as the ‘Third Party’ and their rise has correlated with a rightward shift in the immigration policies of both Labour and the Tories.
The dialectic can be shifted from within the system. It has been. It has just often been in the wrong direction. New Labour and corporatist Democrats showed up in the UK and the US following the right-wing landslides of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The American Tea-Party movement has huge corporate donors and benefits from gerrymandering, but is a genuine grassroots movement shifting the American political dialog.
This is why what Brand is advocating is so obnoxious and dangerous. The Left, and those advocating social equity, are already at a disadvantage to those on the right: our grassroots movements do not help the rich. But the imposition of xenophobic fears regarding immigrants on establishment politics shows that things out of sync with business interests can be inserted into the system.
Yet, if the Left is hampered by romantics and loons, those wishing for the impossible, we will simply fight each other and fail to gain support among moderates. The self-righteously disengaged are of no help to the pragmatic Left’s real attempts to better the world. They are sitting in the clouds like the drug addled hippies of the ‘60s, apathetically allowing the Reaganites to shit on us all.
The only bastion of refuge for those calling for revolution is to claim that it is too late for gradual change. Maybe, but it is our only hope. To advocate revolution in our present state is to ignore the past, it is to ignore our present failures.
If the population was informed and motivated enough to pull off a revolution without succumbing to subsequent tyranny, the Revolution would not be necessary. The infrastructure already exists for such a populous to impose its will upon the political hierarchy. We simply fail to do so. Perhaps this failure is an indication that our culture is dying, that we are doomed. But even so, revolution and disengagement is not the way forward. Such actions would only hasten our demise while muting our chance at victory.