Review: Brand takes the side of the oppressed

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Revolution- Russell Brand, Random House 2014, 372pp, £20

Russell Brand rocketed to public attention far beyond his usual fan base after a BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman during which he called for ‘no vote’ at elections. Brand’s personal life and his politics came under immediate and hostile attention from media commenters. There was outrage that an argument for a ‘no vote’ position should be presented on a major BBC platform. However, as Brand himself says in Revolution, he is neither leading nor following: ‘I think it unlikely that people aren’t voting because I told them not to; it is more likely that they’re not voting because they are subject to the same conditions that led me not to vote. The realisation that it’s bloody hopeless’ (p78).

For successive general elections Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has adopted the slogan Don’t Vote! Organise!, sharing Brand’s view that none of the parties standing for election represent what is needed for the poorest people, the vast majority of the world. Moreover, the election machine itself feeds into a discredited pretence of democracy which sidelines and kills off real political engagement. At the last British General Election in 2010, the turnout of registered electors (which excludes prisoners and homeless people) was 65.09%. The turnout in the May 2014 European elections was 35.05% of those eligible. These figures signify a deep and widespread contempt for career politicians and distrust of their electoral promises and institutions. Growing anger about rapidly increasing poverty, privatisation of the public sector and cuts in public spending is deepened by the charade of parliamentary politics. As Brand says, exploitation has now ‘reached a pitch where the disenfranchised and exploited can look to a culpable minority with vengeful eyes’ (p79).

Commitment to the parliamentary vote, and this is something not discussed in Revolution, comes from British left groups as well as the political class. There is a view that the Labour Party can be pressurised by the trades unions and individual MPs to stand up for the working class. This evades the central issue of real political power. As Brand says ‘those who exploit us’ have stitched up political power which is totally subservient to the needs and the wants of the corporations. Or as we put it, ‘monopoly capitalism/imperialism’.

The first response to ‘no vote’ is ‘How then do you propose to change the system?’. Brand’s answer is by revolution, by consciously changing ourselves and the system. Revolution is Russell Brand’s own story of redemption and salvation from drug addiction and more. He also describes his release from the drives of consumerism, celebrity chasing and a lot of ‘ego’. For Brand, the practice of yoga, more precisely Kundalini exercises which he self-mockingly describes as ‘hyperventilation’, set him free. Through this discipline Brand achieves a state which allows him to be ‘in harmony with “God”’. Unfettered by theological difficulties, he claims the world of the spirit is manifest through Jesus Christ, Buddha, and a whole range of visionaries and gurus. Love is the divine essence of being human, he says, and must be liberated. He embraces the ‘universalism’ of humanity. He exudes a vast global mateyness which extends to the poor, the oppressed, and frail, disabled, troubled, powerless and marginalised people everywhere.

Luckily for us Brand’s ‘love’ is very energetic and proactive. He writes about his evolution from lonely, lost boy to revolutionary activist showing a great deal of study, reading and researching on the way. He clearly sought the acquaintance of critics of capitalism and shows a passing appreciation of contemporary works by Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and others. He is good at using numbers and giving life to ‘facts’, for example: ‘Oxfam say a bus with the 85 richest people in the world would contain more wealth than the collective assets of half the earth’s population – that’s three and a half billion people’ (p13).

Brand’s internationalism expands organically from his ‘universalism’ and calls for unity against ‘big financially motivated wars … We’ve more in common with the people we’re bombing than the people we’re bombing them for’ (p186). For Brand, an ‘immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else’. But he does engage with political realities when he talks about UKIP which has won support in Grays, his home town in Essex. He sees reactionary splits in the working class as ‘tribal illusions, sold to divide humanity’ (p187).

Che Guevara said, ‘A true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love’. This we can understand, but there are places where it is hard to follow Brand’s universal love, as when he says:

‘Sure the ISIS insurgents right now rampaging through Iraq, somewhat making a mockery of the initial impetus of the West’s invasion, may be fuming and Muslim but beneath their militant goals we will find love. Of course Rumsfeld and Cheney and three generations of mercantile Bushes have got hopelessly entangled in cultural imperialism and greed but beneath the lust for power is fear and beneath the fear is love.’ (p192)

However, note what marvellous language he uses. It aims straight at the enemy and then puts in an opposition, a caesura that halts and jolts the meaning. Stylistically this book is an amazing, rollicking read just like the author’s politics. But for all its jokey flood of words and enthusiasm for life, Revolution has two serious purposes.

The first is Brand’s affiliation with the poor, the drug addicts, those who regard themselves as nonentities, the ordinary. He urgently wants people to get self-respect, dignity and a voice. Secondly, he wants us to join in a revolution against the systems that dominate our lives and believes that it can be done. In this, and it may surprise Brand himself, he is like Karl Marx on whose memorial these words appear: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’.

Brand refers to Marx, quoting Adam Curtis as saying ‘The problem with Marxism is that it placed economics at the heart of socialism’ (p 241). This is wrong. We do not have to share Brand’s spiritual compass to value the individual as a social as well as a material being. The ‘economics’ of Marxism is a materialism that embraces both nature and humanity. This is well expressed by the Bolivian indigenous writer Marcelo Saavedra-Vargas: ‘It is capitalist society that rejects materialism. It makes war on the material world and destroys it. We, on the other hand, embrace the material world, consider ourselves part of it, and care for it.’

Russell Brand is on our side because he wants to change the world now. We have seen him in action in support of the Focus E15 campaign, demanding social housing, and the New Era Estate struggle against eviction. His solidarity, his belief in the self-emancipation of the working class and the oppressed people of the world makes him one of us, at least for now and for as long as his activism and commitment remain.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 243 February/March 2015