The Apathetic Revolution

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Try as I might, it seems I can’t escape Russell Brand at the moment. From generating a storm following his appearance on Newsnight, to guest editing the New Statesman or attending the Million Mask March on Bonfire night, you can describe Mr Brand as many things but you cannot deny his current ubiquity. The singular subject upon which these multiple appearances hinge is revolution. Brand has sonorously called for what he describes as a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system.” He embellishes upon this weighty objective by pointing out that “young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics” and that the halls of Westminster, regardless of political stripe or creed, are inhabited by “blithering chimps, in razor-sharp suits, with razor-sharp lines, pimped and crimped by spin doctors and speech-writers. Well-groomed ape-men, superficially altered by post-Clintonian trends.”

I admit a wry smile etched itself across my face as I read that last part in Brand’s New Statesman essay, but that was precisely its purpose: to resonate, to strike a chord with the disaffected, to instil a sense of injustice, a notion of us versus them. This is why Brand’s fans, followers and scores of casual observers have danced to the merry tune of this bohemian piper. It is why they have jumped to his defence against those who seek to arraign him for his inconsistency, sweeping generalisations, historical ignorance and alarming subtext of glorifying violence. All because his polemic seems to make such perfect sense, because it aligns so neatly with thoughts I, like many others, have had over the unfairness in society and the perfidious relationship between politicians and the public.Yet it is far too easy to point an accusatory finger at ‘the system’ for every grievance, malady and splash of bad luck one may suffer. It is far too easy to follow Brand’s advice not to vote because of disillusionment with the way the country is run and by whom. It is immeasurably simpler to denigrate all politicians as liars, knaves and self-serving thieves instead of engaging with the political process, taking the time to scrutinise government policy and participate in democracy from root to leaf.

This, in its rawest form, is what is being advocated by Brand; not debate or rigorous political challenge but an abandonment of responsibility and a palatable form of scapegoating. Why attend a local surgery or write a letter to your MP when you can fulminate from afar? Why bother yourself with the benevolent and equitable achievements of democratic governments (yes they do actually exist) when you can blame politicians for anything and everything that irritates you? Why engage in the prosaic and laborious when you can instead seethe with emotion, something so easily evoked and moulded by populist demagogues?

To give him his due, Brand has managed to spark a fiery debate and has re-emphasised the ongoing need to hold governments to account, as well as highlighting the many foibles of the political left and right. However without a credible replacement for the current order, the ruminations of Brand amount to little more than an inchoate and ill-informed philosophy; one that seeks to brush over with great, nihilistic strokes the idea of a democratic state but is unsure of what to put in its place. On the basis of mistrust and the perceived malevolence of ‘those in charge’ Brand invites us to reject democracy. Yet he is also disturbingly silent on the alternatives currently enjoyed in places like China, Russia and North Korea and the smashed bones and spattered blood that paved the way for other less glamorous revolutions, like those of Mao, Guevara and the Bolsheviks.

When pressed on the details of what comes after the revolution Brand cannot offer clarification, only abnegation. In a follow-up commentary piece in the Guardian, Brand holds his hands up impotently while discussing what comes next: “that’s not my job and it doesn’t need to be, we have brilliant thinkers and organisations and no one needs to cook up an egalitarian Shangri-La on their todd; we can all do it together.” It’s a superb display of evasion and of intellectual vacuity. At least Marx and Engels had the decency to provide a theoretical alternative to Capitalism but when Brand is asked what the paradigm shifts to, his response is to pass the buck.

I have no doubt that Brand is well-intentioned and his numerous diatribes these past few weeks are, although derivative, honestly directed odium at a societal system that is by no means perfect. Unfortunately the majority of criticisms he makes are facile and retrograde. Our governments are not populated by saints, that much is obvious. Indolence, self-interest and utter stupidity are sadly not uncommon traits in the Houses of Parliament. Yet neither are altruism, determination or the desire to improve lives. By sneering from the fringes and closing our eyes to the great strides democratic governments have made in making people’s lives better over the course of the last century, we fuel the myopia Brand so vociferously decries.

Politicians can be creative with the truth, irresponsible corporate greed is an enduring blight on society and yes, the system of government in Britain is flawed but it has not failed, yet. As much as the idealism of Brand is beguiling, without an original, holistic alternative, communist surveillance states, theocratic dictatorships and military juntas are the only examples we have of what comes after revolution. Thus, on that basis, contrary to what Mr Brand may want or believe, the single most effective action any person can take to effect real change is not to step back from democracy but to stand up and be counted.

This article was originally published at contrarious.wordpress.com.

Photograph by Esten Hurtle, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Liam Perry

Liam is a writer and blogger from Wales currently working in public services. Interested in politics, philosophy, religion, activism and the environment, when not in the office, Liam can usually be found glued to a book or laptop with copious amounts of tea and coffee close by.

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