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russell brand, utopian idealist and third way theorist

Russell Brand is the cheeky, chummy political provocateur and pound-of-flesh activist who might just start a revolution. Well, maybe. i-D’s Cody Ross starts for but finishes against, presenting a free and fair view from across the pond, of Mr Big Mouth’s politics.

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He’s Britain’s potty-mouthed pontificator, a working-class hero, who wittily channels pseudopunk, celeb culture, Deepak Chopra, Jeffrey Sachs, Banksy and sexual anarchy. Brand has been the butt of a fair amount of criticism since his BBC Newsnight address a few weeks ago, but the quick-witted-Marxist-new-age-poet makes a valid point, calling for a swift “paradigm shift”, punitive action against malfeasant bankers and outright social revolution.

Serving Blue Sky crystal-meth to the sneering, jeering blogosphere and myriad armchair revolutionaries, the interview has since let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the Dalai Lama and Vivienne Westwood have weighed in on what Brand had to say, and somehow a popular and queer fascination with him has merged into an enraptured discourse, where rage transforms into affection (and vice versa) that has the power to change the world.

In that commanding Q&A, his curious and bemused interlocutor, BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, called him out on a number of questionable positions, characterized him as “trivial” and criticized him for abstaining from the political process (Brand has never voted in a national or local election). “I have never voted...I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for perpetuating the advantages of economic elites.” He recently followed up with a sassafras essay in The Guardian, in which he doubles-down on his positions, excoriates the “duplicitous servants of the City”, rails against the “political hokey cokey” and insists that “democracy, in its current form, is a farce.”

Brand’s take on the current state of culture and politics reflects a fairly widespread view that blends apathy, anger, alienation and hair-trigger aggression. His refusal to go to the ballot box is simultaneously a statement of action and inaction, and his insurgent politics and ideological aphorisms are enthusiastically shared by droves of disenfranchised youths, middle class mums, freelance fashion designers and Hollywood elites, even if they are sometimes mindless bromides.

“The banksters-pranksters-wankers have nicked the system,” goes the phrase. “We want change!”

Despite his many televised conniptions and stream of consciousness polemics, Brand should not be totally written off; on the contrary. His arguments are indeed thoughtful, often intelligent and endlessly funny from a comedian who seems heartfelt and has merely been asked to contribute to a progressive political mag, The New Statesman. He’s making the point that things have gone alarmingly wrong, corruption has been unmasked, inequality is growing and economic opportunities are shrinking—it’s the “99% against the 1%”—a now familiar catchphrase that is synonymous with youth disruption and anarchy, where grievances range from Newscorp and the NSA to “false Consciousness” and Christmas holiday. “The banksters-pranksters-wankers have nicked the system,” goes the phrase. “We want change!”

But slogans aside, Brand’s argument has always struggled to explain his agenda in coherent terms to the world, especially since he rejects parliamentary politics altogether. He calls for “an immediate redistribution of wealth” (he specifically advocates garnishing the income of Topshop mogul Philip Green, for instance, who got a £1.2bn tax exception in 2005), “the end of Conservatism”, a “new conscious awareness” and the recognition that the current social structure is based on a contrived illusion: “Capitalism is not real; it is an idea. America is not real; it is an idea that someone had ages ago. Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate, Wednesdays, are all just ideas that we choose to believe in and very nice ideas they are, too, when they serve a purpose. These concepts, though, cannot be served to the detriment of actual reality.”

 And Brand is dead on, for the most part: the democratic, free-market capitalist “construct” of the Anglosphere has very often failed to fulfill its promise. Despite the ostensible rule of the people, many are hanging in the balance, or have fallen through the cracks altogether. Hegemonic wars continue, albeit in the guise of “human rights” and “the war on terror.” Economic inequality intensifies while the environment degrades. Our system seems only to exacerbate it, and so radical, perhaps revolutionary remedies are required.

Yet Brand’s passionate polemic came with a dubious decree: until a “new Paradigm” or “alternative regime” is up and running, he argues, going to the voting booth amounts to “tacit complicity” in the criminality of the governing elite. So he refuses to cast a vote. If you sympathize with his gripe, he implores you to do the same.

"If his interview inspired even one young revolutionary to stay idle next election, Brand has done more harm than good."

On this, the insurgent comedian is dead wrong, and if his interview inspired even one young revolutionary to stay idle next election, Brand has done more harm than good.

I’m not merely trying to be pedantic or annoyingly political here. The intelligentsia and mainstream media, of which Paxman is a part, tends to capitulate to Brand’s tasty tirades and soaring Robin Hood rhetoric (I was shocked that Paxman didn’t rip into Brand). I guess that’s the tried-and-true alchemy of art packaged, theatricalized, theorized and made easy to digest. But as a fairly young person who is genuinely worried about the current situation and cares about the fate of individuals in society, it is NECESSARY and morally imperative to vote. Participatory democracy must be defended at all costs; failing to vote is tantamount to the same complicity and evil that Brand is railing against. And for all the talking heads who say voting is implicitly a coercive act because it lends support to a compulsory state, that is dead wrong, too (it is an empirical fact that functioning democracies [constitutional republics] are more robust, more resilient and allow for relatively peaceful and smooth power transitions and cultural change). Most importantly, constitutionally limited republics protect individual rights, property rights and freedom of expression (try Brand’s tricks in China, North Korea or Saudi Arabia and you’ll quickly experience the state’s coercive kapow or a trip to the gulag!).

There are obviously implacable problems with the current political and economic structure (not least, a total vacuum of visionary/transformational leadership and diffusion of centrist/pragmatic ideas). But participating in elections does inevitably change political outcomes and affects the lives of ordinary citizenry and real people. Whether you are in the UK or the US, Egypt or Afghanistan, if a monster gets elected into office, then the chances for irrational policy-making or egregious errors go up. Every vote does indeed count, and each vote not cast contributes to unfavorable outcomes. It boils down to this: if you had the power to effect change via the voting box but didn’t, you are complicit in whatever comes, including what Brand calls “the current system based on false consciousness that furthers the narrow interests of the elites.”

We cannot abstain from the democratic political process, no matter how flawed, just to exercise an abstract notion of civic or ideological purity. Not when people are suffering to the extent that they are now and not when the government so arbitrarily intrudes into our private lives with impunity. Our political alternatives are not the simple binary outcomes of the status quo vs. outright statism (Brand suggests government appropriation of “giant corporations” in the name of “normal people.” But that only creates a cascade of further appropriations until there is nothing left in society to take. We’d end up in the very Hobbsian jungle-state that we’ve struggled so hard to get out of. Just look at Putin’s Russia, Chávez’s Venezuela or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe); we can certainly nurture a more just social system through democracy, pluralism, free enterprise and civic engagement—what philosopher Karl Popper called “The Open Society”. And through a kind of economic rehab and by strengthening key institutions (legislatures, courts, administrative agencies and markets), we can make a better blueprint of how to reform the public sector, making the state far more efficient and responsive, and tempering capitalism’s harsher effects without vilifying capitalists.

The main lesson is not to be ideological but practical, and to blend market mechanisms with the welfare state to hone overall performance, promote innovation, entrepreneurship and to engender a compassionate and creative commons.

Raging against the machine in the manner that Russell Brand does can be effective in politics (and obviously gets good ratings on the telly); no doubt it lends a visceral and viral street cred to the cause. But remember this: by refusing to vote, you aren’t rejecting the “evil narrative” perpetuated by the political pecking order—you’re becoming complicit in very evil you are trying to undo.

Check out the interview here and join in on the debate. And next election, don’t forget to go out and cast your vote.