Russell Brand Revolution Century, 2014, pp384, £20
It is a terrible force of habit (and probably a shameless indication of my inbuilt confirmation bias) that, whenever I pick up an otherwise unknown book with the word ‘revolution’ in the title, I invariably flip straight to the index. I am looking for one thing: Marx, the bewhiskered godfather of socialism himself. For me, Marx is oftentimes the litmus test by which a book’s seriousness can be judged and a mark of historical perspective, if not always scholarly rigour.
I am not necessarily looking for a glowing hagiography, or even anything remotely flattering, but rather some indication that, ‘Yes, this Marxism business was a pretty big deal’, and that, ‘Yes, when you start talking about revolution a certain percentage of people might react by humming the anthem of the Soviet Union and calling you comrade …’ Marx is always the big red elephant in the room, and to even broach the topic of revolution without first considering a man whose ideas have, if not defined, then at the very least framed, so much of 20th century radicalism is at best negligent and at worst wilfully ignorant.
It is also, much like my own bad habit of judging books by their indexes, a terrible blight across the broader pastures of the modern left. Marx is a grey-haired, dead white man, and, being a product of his time, even dabbled in a spot of off-hand ‘racism’ on occasion. Without a doubt he would be ill at home alongside staunch indentitarians and advocates of ‘talking to normals’, presently represented in force amongst our number. His theorising is often confusing, his writing sometimes impenetrable, his flippant use of the barbed quip unlikely to go down well with the ‘safe spaces’ crowd. In person he was a drunk – and a boorish one at that – with a predilection for vandalising street furniture like a hirsute Cool hand Luke.
Nevertheless, Marx was and remains one of the foremost thinkers of the left, an invaluable ally for the ages and a trailblazer for politics that puts the working class first; for politics that can deliver material gains; for politics to be done bythe class rather than to it. And unfortunately Russell Brand is not Marx.
Now, with that important distinction out of the way (a distinction which seems to have slipped by the mainstream ‘left’ press completely), we can get down to the important business of determining what the Marx index hit-rate looks like in the former Big brother’s little brother host’s latest Christmas hardback. Revolution, has a total of three entries for “Marx, Karl/Marxism”. Certainly not a bad tally for a book likely to top the bestseller’s list (although maybe Katie Price’s 15th entry onto that list will finally make clear her position on the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall … we can but live in hope).
That said, the three scoops of Marx come in only one flavour – and that flavour is pretty vanilla. Brand, it appears, knows and considers Marx only in reference to the opinions or actions of others, rather than as a reflection of his own hard graft, nose-down in a musty copy of Das Kapital. To that end we find out that the situationists thought that “Marxism was basically all right, but a bit too strict – what with the gulags and murders and bullying” (p168), that, for director Adam Curtis, “the problem with Marxism was that it put economics at the heart of socialism” (p241), and that Tony Blair’s bosom buddy, James Goldsmith, was no “Karl Marx” (p280). We never come close, therefore, to ascertaining whether Brand himself has actually investigated Marxist thinking, even in a cursory way. What little Marx there is, is sock-puppet Marxism with the old leftwing lush becoming little more than a prop – a useful stand-in for the fusty ‘old way’, which Brand is dismissive of by implication.
Much as I have already said, this is nothing to hold against the book in itself. There is no reason to expect Brand to prostrate himself before Marx as the alpha and omega of the left, much less so than you might have expected of last season’s darling, Thomas Piketty, who called his book Capital (in the 21st century) without even a smidgen of irony. Nevertheless, I do find that in Brand’s case the lack of interest shown is indicative of a more significant tendency found throughout the book on numerous topics. When I searched Revolution for Marx, I was looking for something vaguely stimulating or, failing that, amusing. What I got instead was the impression of Brand as a fairly well-read man (and a prolific name-dropper to boot) who, while he recognised the significance of particular ideas, either could not understand or, more likely, could not be bothered to understand, their actual in and outs. This forms a running theme, with Brand quite happy to offer intellectual nods here and there, but always quick to fall back on vague spiritualist platitudes and ‘nice things for everyone’-type rhetoric to flesh out the stringier areas of his knowledge.
And it is via this ‘running theme’ that a slightly nauseous feeling can set in the reader’s stomach; that much of the excitement surrounding Brand and his Revolution is very much related to the paucity of his knowledge, dressed up as a fresh slant on an old formula. In the spirit of Left Unity (and why hasn’t he been signed up yet?) Brand is very much into ‘doing politics differently’ – doing away with boring encumbrances such as facts and figures. What he has instead is a vague feeling that everything can turn out all right if everyone were just nicer to each other and that revolution must surely be just around the corner. Is this the type of talk that wins him editorial positions at the New Statesman and wall-to-wall coverage in TheGuardian?
Worryingly, it probably is. Brand is bankable politics, the kind of revolution which sells T-shirts, much like his ‘real’ lefty reference point, Che Guevara (seven index hits!). And, by happy coincidence, it works well at filling up the inches in the rightwing press too: easy to digest and even easier to dismiss; perfect for Telegraph readers to gloat over on a Sunday morning. ‘Nazi salute’ splits Brand’s disciples,” spits a recentSunday Times headline – doing its utmost to narratively coagulate Brand’s disjointed witterings on 9/11 conspiracies, Nazis, a disgruntled Peter Tatchell and a picture of Brand waving what looks vaguely like a Sieg Heil – for a sneering bourgeois audience, evidently making hay whilst the loony-left sun shines its brightest.1
None of this is to say that Brand is insincere in his professed convictions. Far from it, his weekday blog The Trews is a perfectly entertaining way to burn through 10 minutes of your boss’s time, and you never once get the sense that the man has an ulterior motive, other than proselytising his viewpoint (and enjoying the accompanying ego massage, of course). This then encapsulates part of the problem with Revolution – one that really is not Brand’s fault. The cover, with the comedian’s angular mug staring out intensely against a tasteful white background, is just begging to be headlined My booky wook 3(for those who are counting) -a fact that both an Owen JonesGuardian review2 and Brand himself (p113) have tacitly acknowledged.
Contrary to its frequent billing in secondary literature as a ‘manifesto’, the book is nothing of the sort, and much closer in fact to the bog-standard pop-autobiographies with which it will be competing come Christmas time. Although it is an improvement on that turgid formula, in that it manages to take the standard ‘my drugs hell’ narrative and reconfigure it into something potentially interesting, the book is pitched at a very similar level.
The titular Revolution that Brand speaks of is therefore as much a personal revolution of the self as it is the type that our readers and sympathisers may be interested in. Revolution is simply the title of his latest autobiography, rather than a call to arms, and you will feel a lot less despondent in the large sections dedicated to childhood occupations (chocolate and vigorous masturbation) or the smaller, but implicitly significant, sections describing his divorce from Katie Perry. The confusion of manifesto and autobiography likely arises because Brand does not make much distinction between the spiritual self and the political-public revolutions, prescribing for the social ills of Joe Six Pack precisely the remedies that have ‘cured’ him of his addictions and ailments. In turn, his inability to differentiate between these two spheres means that, although he occasionally acknowledges his political and methodological deficiencies, he still neglects to recognise them ‘in action’: ie, in moments where they clearly colour his thought, pushing him towards limp spiritual answers when a better politician would go back to books, reconsider options and rethink tactics.
To that end transcendental meditation, the go-to spiritual outlet of Hollywood vegans, manages to earn itself a healthy plug, even though Brand becomes embarrassed by the prospect of associating with its sillier practices (TM’s levitation, aka ‘yogic flying’: cross-legged practitioners jumping around crash-mats on their bottoms “like highly motivated amputees clamouring for a top-shelf magazine” – p138). Brand is trying his hand at the pick ’n’ mix approach to life, taking what he fancies from one branch of ideas, and tossing it in a grab-bag with all his other eclectic tastes. Yogic flying thereby intertwines with the often sensible suggestions of radical theorists. How to combat the tendency of humans to turn on one another in times of scarcity? Democratic redistribution of wealth and … chakras: break the bonds of consumerism, reconnect people with the magnetic, quantum-physical, cosmological frequency that resonates through the immaterial souls of humankind and we’ll all get on just fine (I am chucking in words at random there, but Brand uses them all at various points to describe – I think – the ‘energy’ formerly known as God).
What Brand really struggles with, as is hinted by dismissive nods towards Marx, is basic aspects of (philosophical) materialism. Thus, the sections of the book that are particularly irksome are ones where he discusses economics. His argument is best summed up by the statement, “Economics: you know it’s bad because it’s got a ‘con’ in it” (p242), and his outburst in his Evan Davis-molesting Newsnight interview: “Don’t show me graphs, mate! I ain’t got time for bloody graphs!”
At the risk of being labelled a dirty economist (!) by my comrades, I do not think it too ridiculous to say that some of the principal gains made by the working class in the last hundred years have been fundamentally economic in nature. Reduced working hours, minimum wages, workplace-safety legislation and unionisation have all, whether driven by sound political principle or for pure economic reasons in themselves, been characterised by carving out an ever greater slice of the wealth pie for our class. Some of Brand’s borrowed solutions – maximum wages, for example – are directly predicated on the notion that we should be taking a greater slice still.
Nevertheless he seems unappreciative of this, arguing that the economy is a figment of our imaginations, a complete fabrication imposed upon the working class by their paymasters to befuddle them and legitimise their subsistence-level existence. It seems an odd proposition, akin to denying the existence of language, geography or compound interest, or any abstract concept. In one sense it feels like a cod-materialist position (‘I can’t see economics; therefore it doesn’t exist’) and made all the odder by his self-confessed interest in the philosophical implications of quantum-physics; the potential erasure of the boundaries between the material and the abstract.
Brand has copped much flak and mockery over his apparent phobia of graphs, and in truth he falls into pitfalls we on the left should be quite familiar with. Problems such as the flight of capital in the event of a socialist ‘take-over’ are tellingly ignored in favour of feel-good fluff about punishing wicked bankers and reversing austerity. Were Brand more appreciative of the insights of Marx, he might acknowledge that revolution – revolution that sticks and is worthy of the name – necessitates a thorough understanding and supersession of the overthrown system, so as to be able to comprehensively identify its strengths and thereby turn them to our advantage. Refusing to understand or ignoring the nature of capitalist economics – the movement of capital, its temporary redeployment in order to pacify the masses – is not an option; like not understanding how the gun to your head works and therefore concluding that there is no gun.
Without using a fundamentally materialist approach (ie, that the problems created by capitalism are the logical products of its inner-workings) the temptation is to simply assume that the problems of capitalism are an arbitrary imposition of the capitalist class, rather than the immersive system in which we live and breathe. Brand is not wrong to argue that the ruling class loves a good, inscrutable graph for the purpose of bamboozling the proles – and he does not make the all-too-common mistake of pinning his hopes on a gradualist systemic improvement (there again, Reform would be a much less punchy title) – but his faith that simply ‘waking people up’, bringing them out of the matrix with a Vedic chant, will mark the turning point in the war against capitalism is philosophical bunkum.
Brand waxes lyrical in the language of a denatured anarchism – which is to say that he inherits some bad habits from our anarchist comrades. This talk of spirituality interlocks with a fetish for decentralisation of powers and the atomisation of individuals. Yes, in the Brand utopia individuals will belong to autonomous collectives and power will be mutually shared. But in truth his thinking is underwritten by a simplistic resistance to authority (and he admits as much: “If I see David Cameron on my TV telling me to do something, I listen to what the cunt says and go: ‘Fucking hell! The opposite!’”3). Though he will concede space to other thinkers, making self-effacing platitudes as he does so, my sneaking suspicion whilst reading through the book is that much of this deference is for show, that Brand selects his talking heads on the basis of my old friend, confirmation bias: choosing on the basis of quotable sound bites rather than for their thought-provoking conclusions.
David DeGraw, frequently named-dropped in Revolution (eight mentions, tied with Hitler) and featured in The Trews,struck me in his recent book Economics of revolution as being a mildly run-of-the-mill libertarian-anarchist of the Occupy stripe, heavy on the 99%, Wall Street fat cats and military-industrial complexes and (quite problematically for anyone non-indoctrinated in Americana from an early age) the irreducible virtuousness of the founding fathers. DeGraw’s apparent lack of originality is more than made up for by an abundance of take-away statistics, many of which are regurgitated verbatim in this book.
Based on this type of relationship between Brand and quotable material, it seems not implausible to conclude that his criteria for whether something is true or not is whether he understands it. Spirituality fills his life because a godless vacuum is too sublimely incomprehensible; Brand rejects authority because, for all his talk of oneness and human communality, he cannot put absolute faith in the motivations of others if those motivations lie outside the remit of his own knowledge. In his desperation to avoid falling into the pitfalls of Socialist Workers Party-style sycophancy, Brand waltzes into its opposite – deep-seated mutual mistrust.
I may have given you the impression that I hated Brand’s book. In fact the truth is quite the reverse. If you are to be taken on a rambling journey through the mind of a god-bothering, reformed drug-addict radical, then there are worse fellow-journeymen than Brand. He is funny – genuinely funny – in the moments when he is clearly in a comfort zone of sorts. The swivel-eyed permanent apoplexy of Fox News is a low-hanging fruit, but Brand has a certain juvenile panache to his take-downs – never sneering or condescending, but always gleefully bemused by the channel’s latest frothy outburst. Likewise, his section on the hierarchy of the Ten Commandments and the absurd omission of the would-be commandment 11, “Thou shalt not be gay” (“He is God: he doesn’t have to stick to decimal neatness” – p67) in favour of 10, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours oxen” (“God, I’ve had a terrible day at work, I’ve got to let off some steam. Either I’m going to have sex with Terry or I’m going to covet my neighbour’s oxen.” “What!? No, you mustn’t do that. You better go hang out with Terry” – p68). This is easy material that comics have been drawing on since time immemorial (or at least the Life of Brian) but Brand makes the most of it and is mostly successful – no mean feat in between tracts about wealth redistribution and yogic mantras.
Again, Brand’s sincerity is endearing and it is clear that this is a man honestly attempting to tackle enormous epoch-defining issues with the tools he has at hand. Accordingly, top marks need to be awarded for effort, even if he falls short of the prize. For what it’s worth, I would argue that such a task is necessarily beyond the abilities of an individual, and Brand’s acknowledgement that, initially, he had fancied himself the leader of his forthcoming revolution before realising that it was beyond him seems to affirm this. It would hardly be fair to hold him accountable (as all the major media outlets are wont to do) for every single word and idea that comes out of his mouth.
For his flaws, Brand’s ‘coming out’ as a non-voting malcontent marks something of a revival in the tradition of the mainstream radical. Brand is a different beast from the faux-caring liberalism of the Hollywood set (to quote Bruno, “We’ve had Darfur; now where is Dar-five?”), but also from the ever so slightly stodgy worthiness of outwardly ‘political’ celeb-entities in the Billy Bragg mould. Brand is charismatic and defiantly ‘mainstream’, less concerned about re-enacting old battles, against ‘Maggie’ et al, and more about positively driving the movement forward, looking for hope over resentment and meaningless gestures.
In that sense, if there is anything to be taken from this book andthe Brand phenomenon in general, it is not the specific politics of the man – which are, of course, very non-specific to the point of incomprehensibility – but rather the reinvigorated spirit that he represents. For a start, the Brandmania must surely be chipping away the long-held fear of revolution riddled throughout large sections of the left. The number of times that radical ideas are dismissed purely on the basis that ‘They’ll scare off the man on the street’ is demonstrably shown to be nonsense by the sizeable audiences that Brand currently commands. The man openly calls for revolution and yet he counts YouTube subscribers in the hundreds of thousands, Twitter followers in the millions.
And, lest we get too wrapped up in his ‘doing politics differently’, we should remember that he is at all times defiantly rude and abundantly offensive (see jokes above). For all the talk of love and peace and nice things, he shows a flagrant disdain for petty sensitivities (albeit at times bordering on an extent that should not be encouraged), refreshingly direct and in stark contrast to the po-faced, bureaucratic weaselling that dominates left discourse. This ‘boorishness’ has the potential to punctuate a grey and dismal political environment with moments of energy and vitality – likely not in a way of which his (also overwhelmingly grey and dismal, but always with pretensions on the ‘new’) sponsors would approve.
In that tiny respect, perhaps he does have something of his three-hit forebear in him after all.
- The Sunday TimesOctober 26 2014.