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Wednesday, November 06, 2013 

Russell is a Brand.

Part of me really doesn't want to engage with the sudden emergence of Russell Brand as the voice of the disenfranchised youth.  Everything about his Newsnight interview, New Statesman guest editorship and now Guardian column screams that this is just the latest in a very long line of stunts from a man who hides his sharp wit and intellect under the pretence of being a Jack the Lad, a "cheeky chappie", as he himself acknowledges.  It's clearly a winning act, it's just that it's very much a poor man's Bill Hicks, and Hicks, great as he was, probably doesn't fully deserve the laurels that have been bestowed on him in death.  He was a comedian who said think for yourself and question authority; he did to such an extent it led him to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK.

Brand's philosophy doesn't so much as amount to that.  To give him credit, he doesn't pretend it does.  All he wants is for everyone to love each other a little more and to work together; if we do, we can design a system that makes the current one obsolete.  It's an echo of the sentiment I've used in the past, that another world is possible.  That other world is only possible however if you take the people with you, and that requires far more than just working together.  It's damn hard work, and it involves exactly the sort of participation Brand dismisses as not working because we haven't got what we wanted in the past.  To quote a remark that's now close to being a clich√©, democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried.  To be sure, Brand isn't proposing a violent uprising, although it's a very rare revolution that manages to be bloodless, but he does seem to be overlooking exactly what democracy has achieved, snatched as it was from those he says have fully captured it.  It's the equivalent of in Life of Brian where Stan asks what have the Romans ever done for them, only to be reminded of the sanitation and so on, even if it was achieved by a conquering power.  Our forefathers built the democracy we have now themselves, and the franchise for the ordinary man was obtained only through protest.

As others have suggested, perhaps a little too vituperatively, there's not all that far to go from Brand's position to outright demagoguery.  Calling the main three parties all the same has become the default position for those who want more radical change, whether they be on the left or right, and frankly it's becoming extremely boring.  I sympathise with those who feel that way, but it simply isn't accurate, and anyone who seriously claims that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have governed in almost exactly the same way as the Tory-Lib Dems have is just dead wrong.  I don't believe that under Labour we would have had 400,000 people denied their benefits in a single year, for instance, or the top rate of tax lowered to 45p at the first possible opportunity.  We wouldn't have had vans with racist slogans being driven around, while foreign executives are welcomed with the red carpet.  We wouldn't have had the prime minister travelling with the actual fucking arms companies trying to sell weapons to despotic regimes in the Middle East, or the same level of support given to the rebels in Syria.  You can argue these don't truly amount to significant differences, but try making that case to those who've been denied the most basic means to subsist on the whim of a jobcentre adviser.

Brand's major point is politicians serve big business, rather than the people who vote for them.  It's certainly the case that all three parties remain committed to neoliberalism, with only minor differences over how economic growth should be shared, yet Brand's critique doesn't extend to the masters of the universe themselves, only the politicians.  Yes, he brings up the increasingly tired example of Philip Green giving his wife based in Monaco a dividend of ¬£1.2bn, therefore avoiding a bill of hundreds of millions in tax, but rather than direct the blame at Green beyond saying he's an asshole he again blames politicians.  This is nonsensical: Green was only able to do so thanks to his customers.  Without them, he would be nothing.  Considering the army of fans Brand has, his suggestion of a boycott might just amount to something, but he should make the point across the board.  If companies you use avoid tax, don't patronise them.  That's a practical suggestion, and if politicians see the public reacting, they will shift.  Brand you can't help but suspect doesn't truly want to bite the hand the feeds.

You can however understand why his message has resonated.  He hasn't said anything even slightly original, again as he acknowledges, it's that previously no one with a similar cachet amongst those roughly my age has done so, or at least has and been given such wide coverage.  Indeed, his message is far less radical (and much more self-defeating) than that advocated by the Occupy and UK Uncut movements, it's that neither felt the need to have a leader, imbued with the apparent belief that such things aren't needed in the Twitter age, and consequently have declined into insignificance.  It's not yet clear though if Brand wants to try and truly surf the current wave of interest and take this beyond a few articles and interviews, and one suspects he won'tt.

Notably, Brand mentions Boris Johnson, having seen him being made-up for Question Time, yet the two have more in common than they would likely admit to.  It's not clear with either just where the act ends and the actual person begins.  Brand has gone through distinct stages: the junkie who turned up to work the day after 9/11 dressed as bin Laden; the star of a stream of terrible films, having made it to Hollywood; the husband of the global pop star.  Now he claims to want a revolution.  We really could do with someone from outside politics to speak up for the dispossessed, the apathetic and the disillusioned.  They need however to be sincere, genuine and preferably, not completely in love with themselves.  Brand fails on each of those measures.

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