THE SCOFFERS of Grub Street have had a wonderful time over the last few weeks attacking the comedian Russell Brand for having the temerity to write a book about radical politics.
Scoffing at people who try to step outside the system is fun. And it’s easy. As a seventeen year-old public schoolboy scoffer, I remember being mightily pleased with the following observation: “These hippies say they are anti-capitalist, but they sell friendship bracelets at festivals!” Ha!
When I grew up I realised that things were a little more complicated than that. If you don’t have a job, you have to sell your wares in the marketplace. People who try to live without taking the corporate or government shilling ought to be applauded because it is not easy.
But such sixth form level sneering is about the level of the admittedly often very funny criticism that has been hurled at Russell Brand. “He says he’s against capitalism, but his book is published by Random House!” (That was from arch-scoffer Craig Brown in the Mail, who should know better.) “He says he’s against capitalism, but he is rich.” That was up-and-coming scoffer, Camilla Long in the Sunday Times. “He says he is against pollution, but he has a car.” The past-it amateur scoffer Rod Liddle, who wrote hilariously in 2008, “the public don’t like Russell Brand”, called him, quite simply, “an imbecile”. Meaning? And the intellectual scoffer, David Sexton, in his piece on the book, quoted a couple of bits of purple prose and then, again in sixth form style, mocked: “He says Hellenistic when he means Greek.” Erm, Hellenistic does mean Greek, David. If that’s the only bit that the public schoolboys can find to sneer at, then Russell isn’t doing too badly.
Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The scoffers like Craig Brown and Camilla Long are paid to scoff and they do it very well and wittily. Their pieces are hilarious. They produce great entertainment, which is later used to light the fire and is forgotten. The problem is that the scoffing is an excuse to avoid engaging with what Russell Brand is trying to say.
Well, I decided to read the book and make my own mind up. I took a copy of Revolution home from the Idler Academy, carefully concealing it in a brown paper bag, in case anyone saw me reading it on the tube, and would think I was an idiot.
I have now read it and while it is clearly flawed, it is a brave, positive and at times fascinating book whose central messages are: “fame and money don’t make you happy”, and “take responsibility”. It’s a cross between the Confessions of St Augustine and Revolution for the Hell of It by Abbie Hoffman. It is in the tradition of spiritual memoirs. It is the parable of a man who went down the wrong path, has seen the error of his ways, and now wants to help the poor. It’s quite funny. It’s cheerful. It comes from the heart.
I’d like to sweep away the “hypocrite” angle that Brand’s liberal attackers love to use. There is an idea that unless you are an NHS nurse from Birmingham, you are not allowed to discuss political issues, take the side of the poor or attack the status quo. I remember giving a talk in Brighton where an audience member tried to discredit my ideas by pointing out that I had studied at Cambridge University. If you are rich or privileged or well-educated then you have to be either unapologetically right wing or keep your mouth shut. This is a clearly a fallacious argument. It would mean that Engels, William Morris, Bertrand Russell and Lord Byron would never have put pen to paper.
We ought to mention Russell Brand’s courage. He could quite easily have followed the conventional path. He could have taken the corporate dollar like Stephen Fry and other successful comedians by doing television ads for booze or banks. He could have carried on making money. Instead he has done the complete opposite and screwed up his chances of a conventional career. It was brilliant when he disrupted the cosy compact between advertisers and Condé Nast magazines by criticising Hugo Boss at the GQ awards a few years ago.
Brand is also courageous enough to say that he believes in God and hates Richard Dawkins. That’s another no-no in liberal circles.
The most important point to make though, is that like anarcho-punks Crass before him, Brand is introducing people to radical political ideas. He is starting a debate. In the book he talks about the Occupy anarchist intellectual David Graeber, the journalist Naomi Klein and the brilliant film-maker Adam Curtis. He cites Guy Debord and the Situationists. He discusses Taoism and going with the flow. He quotes from Noam Chomsky, Terence McKenna, Buckminster Fuller and Maynard Keynes. There is a lovely section on Orwell’s description of the anarchist utopia that briefly existed in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. These are all great independent minds who have asked questions.
Sometimes he seems a bit dumb, it’s true. “If we’ve learned anything from Blackadder, it’s that history is a shithole” is not one of his best lines. Still, in that sentiment, he is merely reflecting the naive belief in progress that characterises every contributor to The Economist. “History is bunk” is the credo of the money-maker. The Economist: there is a scoffing rag for you. I was recently in a meeting at the RSA on the growth of small business and how to encourage it. Present at the meeting was a journalist from The Economist. He scoffed. He asserted that most people liked working for big companies as they had more security. Big companies also enjoyed better economies of scale. End of argument. He clearly had no concept of the misery of being stuck in a job you hate.
I was horrified to read the following line: “According to my mate Johann [Hari] who did a lot of the research for this book…” At that moment I felt a horde of devils leap from the book. I was physically affected in my stomach. Johan Hari is a well known bullshitter and loudmouth who has been hounded out of Fleet Street for making stuff up and has now got his teeth into Brand instead. I can’t help thinking that Brand has been hoodwinked by a total fraud here. Also: what research? On his website, Hari boasts of having carried out research on the “political material” for Brand’s book. But there is no research in the book, other than a few facts about the rich being much richer than the poor. But I’d be happy to have my mind changed.
Broadly, though, I’m in sympathy with a lot of the stuff in the book. Critics on the left and liberals in general attacked Brand for not voting. But the point here is that not voting is the opposite of political apathy. Not voting is a declaration of independence. Not voting is a well known and reasonable political position. I didn’t vote in either of the last elections, though I was tempted by New Labour under Blair at first and by New Tory under Cameron, at first. I am glad because I feel I have no blood on my hands.
The final criticism that is levelled against Brand is his lack of coherent practical alternatives to the existing system. It is not enough to smash a system; you must create a new one. Well, there are in fact many ideas in this book – e.g. cooperative ways of working, shorter working day – and while we’re at it, why did the liberals not criticise Christopher Hitchens for failing to produce a detailed proposal for housing benefit reform?
His goal, which is gradually to supplant the existing corporations and governments with “localised
self-governing communities and businesses” is surely a laudable one. Who wants to be stuck in a boring job for ever?
Brand can also create a pithy aphorism, which is quite a skill. For example: “True freedom cannot be offered from above, it must be taken from below.” “We are the creators of our reality.” The book is very readable.
He is great on Tesco: “They spend millions designing typefaces, symbols and campaigns that eerily ape the local, informal economies that they bludgeoned into mush to achieve their towering monopolies.”
Also ignored by the critics is his compassion. All right, I suppose he is compassionate by his own account, but I believe him. He is good on the fact, for example, that as many as a quarter of homeless men are ex-services.
I actually love all the Hollywood stories. He successfully makes you not envy his lot, which I regard as a good thing when every magazine and newspaper out there tries to fill you with desire for the life of the celebrity. And when he could easily boast about his romantic conquests and worldly success.
Brand is brave also because he has a hard path ahead of him. Every lunatic, nutter and useless parasite out there will try to hijack him to advance their own crackpot theories. Take a look at the “comments” section on his website. Every other contributor writes something like: “Dear Mr Brand, I have been trying to get hold of you to discuss my project to revolutionise education/invent a new form of currency/convert everyone to my weird cult. I know you are a busy man but I would only require thirty minutes of your time.”
Brand is a renunciate. He is shrugging off the world and embracing God. He won’t be the first to follow this path and he won’t be the last. The scoffers will move on to a new target but Brand will be stuck with his decision for life. I for one salute him.
And would I give this book to my fourteen year-old son to read? Yes, I would. It is full of life.