On October 23, 2013, Russell Brand appeared to crash through the filter system protecting the public from dissident opinion.
His 10-minute interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC’s Newsnight programme not only attracted millions of viewers – the YouTube hit-counter stands at 10.6 million – it won considerable praise and support from corporate journalists on Twitter. Brand was arguing for ‘revolution’ and yet was flavour of the month, cool to like. Something didn’t add up.
The hook for the interview was Brand’s guest-editing of New Statesman magazine, promoted by him in a video that featured editor Jason Cowley giggling excitedly in the background among besuited corporate journalists. Again, this seemed curious: why would a drab, ‘left of centre’ (i.e., corporate party political) magazine support someone calling for a ‘Revolution of consciousness’?
The answer is perhaps easier to fathom now than it was then, for time has not been kind either to the Newsnight interview or the New Statesman guest issue.
It is clear that an unprepared Brand was largely winging it with Paxman. In response to the predictable question of what political alternative he was proposing, Brand replied:
‘Well, I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I had a lot on my plate. But here’s the thing it shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet. Shouldn’t create massive economic disparity. Shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power, not people doing a magazine.’
In his new book, ‘Revolution,’ Brand recognises that the first part of this response ‘ain’t gonna butter no spuds on Newsnight or Fox News’ (Brand, ‘Revolution’, Century, 2014, ebook, p.415) and he is clearly keen to move on from ‘the policy-bare days of the Paxman interview’ (p.417). On the other hand, the second part of Brand’s answer helps explain the huge impact of the interview – he was speaking out with a level of passionate sincerity and conviction that are just not seen in today’s manufactured, conformist, marketing-led media. Brand looked real, human. He was telling the truth!
Similarly, the New Statesman guest edition was a curious hodgepodge, with good articles by Brand, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky alongside offerings from BBC sports presenter Gary Lineker, rock squib Noel Gallagher, actors Alec Baldwin and Rupert Everett, multi-millionaire entrepreneur Martha Lane-Fox, and even Russian media oligarch, Evgeny Lebedev. This was revolution as some kind of unscripted celebrity pantomime.
Brand’s Newsnight performance, then, was an inspiring cri de coeur. But a 10-minute, impassioned, ill-formed demand for ‘Change!’ from a lone comedian is not a problem for the media’s gatekeepers. It makes for great television, enhances the illusion that the media is open and inclusive, and can be quickly forgotten – no harm done.
Killing Corporate Power – Humanity’s Stark Choice
Brand’s new book, ‘Revolution,’ is different – the focus is clear, specific and fiercely anti-corporate. As we will see in Part 2 of this alert, the media reaction is also different.
Brand begins by describing the grotesque levels of modern inequality:
‘Oxfam say a bus with the eighty-five richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population – that’s three-and-a-half billion people.’ (p.34)
‘The richest 1 per cent of British people have as much as the poorest 55 per cent.’ (p.34)
But even these facts do not begin to describe the full scale of the current crisis:
‘The same interests that benefit from this… need, in order to maintain it, to deplete the earth’s resources so rapidly, violently and irresponsibly that our planet’s ability to support human life is being threatened.’ (p.36)
‘Global warming is totally real, it has been empirically proven, and the only people who tell you it’s not real are, yes, people who make money from creating the conditions that cause it. (pp.539-540)
We are therefore at a crossroads:
‘”Today humanity faces a stark choice: save the planet and ditch capitalism, or save capitalism and ditch the planet.”
‘The reason the occupants of the [elite] fun bus are so draconian in their defence of the economy is that they have decided to ditch the planet.’ (p.345)
And so ‘we require radical action fast, and that radical action will not come from the very interests that created and benefit from things being the way they are. The one place we cannot look for change is to the occupants of the bejewelled bus.’ (p.42)
The problem, then, is that ‘we live under a tyranny’. (p.550) The US, in particular, ‘acts like an army that enforces the business interests of the corporations it is allied to’. (p.493)
But this is more than just a crude, Big Brother totalitarian state:
‘A small minority cannot control an uncooperative majority, so they must be distracted, divided, tyrannised or anaesthetised into compliance…’ which means ‘the colonisation of consciousness by corporations’. (p.165)
Brand notes that 70 per cent of the UK press is controlled by three companies, 90 per cent of the US press by six:
‘The people that own the means for conveying information, who decide what knowledge enters our minds, are on the fun bus.’ (p.592)
He even manages a swipe at the ‘quality’ liberal press:
‘Remember, the people who tell you this can’t work, in government, on Fox News or MSNBC, or in op-eds in the Guardian or the Spectator, or wherever, are people with a vested interest in things staying the same.’ (p.514)
Thus, the ‘political process’ is a nonsense: ‘voting is pointless, democracy a façade’ (p.45): ‘a bloke with a nice smile and an angle is swept into power after a more obviously despicable regime and then behaves more or less exactly like his predecessors’. (p.431)
The highly debatable merit of voting aside, anyone with an ounce of awareness will accept pretty much everything Brand has to say above. Put simply, he’s right – this is the current state of people, planet and politics. A catastrophic environmental collapse is very rapidly approaching with nothing substantive being done to make it better and everything being done to make it worse.
Even if we disagree with everything else he has to say, every sane person has an interest in supporting Brand’s call to action to stop this corporate genocide and biocide. A thought we might bear in mind when we subsequently turn to the corporate media reaction.
‘Wow, I’d Like To Be Him’
Even more astutely – and this is where he leaves most head-trapped leftists behind – Brand understands that progressive change is stifled by the shiny, silvery lures of corporate consumerism that hook into our desires and egos. He understands that focused awareness on the truth of our own personal experience is a key aspect of liberation from these iChains:
‘Get money. I got money, I got the stuff on the other side of the glass and it didn’t work.’ (p.56)
‘I have seen what fame and fortune have to offer and I know it’s not the answer. That doesn’t diminish these arguments, it enhances them.’ (p.202)
‘We have been told that freedom is the ability to pursue petty, trivial desires when true freedom is freedom from these petty, trivial desires.’ (p.66)
In a wonderfully candid passage – unthinkable from most leftists, who write as though they were brains in jars rather than flesh-and-blood sexual beings – Brand describes seeing a paparazzi photo of himself emerging from an exclusive London nightclub at 2 a.m with a beautiful woman on each arm:
‘I can still be deceived into thinking, “Wow, I’d like to be him,” then I remember that I was him.’ (p.314)
Brand tells his millions of admirers and wannabe, girl-guzzling emulators:
‘That night with those two immaculate girls… did not feel like it looked.’ (p.315)
So how did it feel?
‘Kisses are exchanged and lips get derivatively bitten, and I am unsmitten and unforgiven, and when they leave I sit broken and longing on the chaise.’ (p.316)
The point, again:
‘This looks how it’s supposed to look but it doesn’t feel how it’s supposed to feel.’ (p.186)
Exactly reversing the usual role of the ‘celebrity’ (‘how I loathe the word’ (p.191)) – Brand sets a demolition charge under one of the great delusions of our time: ‘Fame after a while seems ordinary.’ (p.189)
Everything, after a while, seems ordinary – external, material pleasures do not deliver on their promises.
So why are we destroying humanity and the planet for a vampiric corporate dream that enriches a tiny elite and brings alienation and dissatisfaction to all? The answer? Thought control:
‘We are living in a zoo, or more accurately a farm, our collective consciousness, our individual consciousness, has been hijacked by a power structure that needs us to remain atomised and disconnected.’ (p.66)
‘Incrementally indoctrinated, we have forgotten how to dream, we have forgotten who we are. We have abandoned our connection to wonder and placed our destiny in unclean hands.’ (p.600)
Again leaving most ‘mainstream’ and leftist thought far behind, Brand urges us to liberate ourselves from the marketised dreams of future happiness ‘out there’ – the fame, the indulgence, the wealth – to focus on a bliss that is available here, now, inside ourselves. What is he talking about? Is this just ‘mumbo-jumbo’, as critics claim? Far from it, this is a truth that is subtle, elusive, but real:
‘You never know when you will encounter magic. Some solitary moment in a park can suddenly burst open with a spray of pre-school children in high-vis vests, hand in hand; maybe the teacher will ask you for directions and the children will look at you curious and open, and you’ll see that they are perfect.’ (p.105)
Bliss is there in that tiny, fleeting instant when the mind, for once – for a moment! – stops its ceaseless chatter to make space for ‘another awareness. A distinct awareness. An awareness beyond, behind and around these thoughts’. (p.82)
This is brave and truthful; in fact, it is the central message of all the world’s spiritual traditions freed from their political, theistic and superstitious baggage.
Yes, the hard-headed Chomskys and Pilgers are of course right, the world is shackled by economic and political chains. But these hook into our most personal dreams and desires. Activism often does, and perhaps more often should, arise from the ultimate inactivism of sitting silently, doing nothing, thinking nothing, realising deeply that the bliss we seek ‘out there’ is an imposed illusion that obstructs an authentic bliss only available, in fact, ‘in here‘.
This is the crucial, perennially-ignored link between spirituality and politics, between meditation and the ability to relinquish our dependence on corporate trinkets and ‘service’, and it has been made by far too few people in the history of Western thought.
If all of this wasn’t enough to earn Brand support and applause, he even challenges the taboo that associates seriousness with virtue: ‘people mistake solemnity for seriousness, [assuming] that by being all stern and joyless their ideas are somehow levitated’. (p.399)
And indeed leftist writers are almost universally angry, solemn and stern – seriousness is worn like a badge of sincerity by people who are supposed to abhor conformity and uniformity. Brand has the self-belief to joke and jape with childish abandon when discussing even the most serious subjects. Again, he is asserting the right to be whoever he chooses to be – an authentic, juicy human being, rather than a hard-boiled ‘intellectual’.
In the effort to escape from illusions, both political and personal, Brand throws all kinds of ideas for action at his readers. He argues for the rewriting of trade agreements to support the needs of people and planet through localised farming. He wants to cancel personal debt, for communities to use modern high tech communications to take control of politics. He wants to ‘kill’ particular corporations like General Motors, ‘sell them off and use the money to compensate victims and former workers, or we could collectivise it and run it as a worker-based cooperative’. (p.409) He wants genuinely participatory democracy along the lines of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Energy companies need to be stopped from wrecking the climate through oil refining and fracking, and so on.
All of this is courageous for another reason. Brand writes:
‘I know too with each word I type that I am building a bridge of words that leads me back to the poverty I’ve come from, that by decrying this inequality, I will have to relinquish the benefits that this system has given me. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t frighten me.’ (p.62)
If by this he means that, in writing of the need for revolution, he will lose the support of the corporate media that lifted him to a place of prominence, he certainly has a point, as we will see.
Part 2 is now available here.