How to have your coke and snort it too

Russell_Brand_Fire_Brigade_Union_RallyIn 2013 the comedian Russell Brand guest-edited an issue of the New Statesman magazine and declared in his editorial that he had never voted in a general election. An interviewer on the BBC’s Newsnight wanted to know why, and also, given the comedian’s apathy, why anyone should care what he had to say. As he put it, rather more pointedly, ‘Why, if you can’t be arsed to vote, should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?’

Brand responded that since successive governments had failed to address the scourge of inequality and environmental degradation, it was clear that voting didn’t work. What was needed, he said, was a revolution, though when pressed on what form this revolution would take and on how society would be configured on the other side of it, he retreated into generalities. Clearly stung by his interrogator’s sneers, and by the sneers of many others besides, Brand resolved to write a book on the subject. The result, alas, is Revolution.

The book is a grab-bag of vague ideas – a breathless series of riffs upon and rambles through the source material, which includes Dave Graeber’s thoughts on debt, some fragments of Noam Chomsky and Thomas Piketty, and George Orwell’s essay on the Spanish Civil War (a war, by the way, Brand hadn’t heard of when he began his book a year ago). This is followed by some recommendations to do with the need for direct democracy and a system of economic cooperatives. These, says Brand, can be brought about ‘spontaneously’ through ‘collective action’.

In essence, however, Brand’s revolution will not be a collective revolution at all, but a series of personal revolutions in which a nebulous notion of spiritual ‘oneness’ will take the role of solidarity. For this, Brand’s own (successful) struggle with drugs and booze will serve as a paradigm. An addiction to growth is like an addiction to smack – so much so that Brand’s revolutionary principles are based around the ‘twelve traditions’ of Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘The only Revolution that can really change the world is the one in your own consciousness, and mine has already begun.’ Okay then.

Many of Revolution’s critics have complained that while Brand has identified the disease he’s failed to come up with a feasible cure. This is true, but a far more serious defect is that the recommendations he does come up with are symptoms of the disease he’s identified. All his talk of Buddhism and kundalini yoga and transcendental meditation is the blether of someone who, having assimilated the lesson that the personal is political, now behaves as if the converse is true – that the political is merely personal. Brand’s ideas are those of a spoiled narcissist. Where he doesn’t understand something, he makes a show of his ignorance (in fact, he makes a virtue of it). History is a joke. Other countries are a joke. The only subject Brand takes seriously is himself, and woe betide the commentator who suggests that his newfound revolutionary principles may be inconsistent with his lavish lifestyle, since it is for this ‘bellend’ that Brand reserves his only flashes of real anger. Everyone else – even the scumbags of ISIS – just need a bit more love in their lives.

It used to be said that politics is show business for ugly people. Increasingly, however, show business is politics for beautiful people. Nor is this a bad thing, necessarily: if an actor wants to highlight a cause, or remonstrate with an empty chair at a Republican rally à la Clint Eastwood, who am I to call him insincere? But there’s something sick about a man with cash to burn telling people not to get so hung up on possessions. To do so in so flippant a way, and with such lazy contempt for complex ideas, makes the insult all the more profound.

Russell Brand, Revolution. Century; $35; 372pp


First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.