By now, there’s been a lot of discussion of Russell Brand’s call for revolution. Some people have got very excited about it, others have been considerably more critical. I want to consider a few of those objections here.
One of the big objections that’s been raised a lot is that his politics are vague and not very well defined. This is completely true, and completely beside the point. Complaining about the fact that Brand doesn’t have a structural analysis of the way capitalism works is as true and as useless as complaining that Paxman doesn’t, or any other Newsnight guest. Ultimately, I’m not that interested in Russell Brand: I’m more interested in the vast majority of people who aren’t celebrities, and in the spaces that exist for people who have radical criticisms of this society to have conversations with people who aren’t yet convinced of our ideas.
Trying to talk to people about politics without starting from our experiences of daily life is hard, and often leads back to the sterile, useless terrain of trying to sell people newspapers, or equally ineffective attempts at communication. In contrast, talking to people, and trying to organise with them, about their – and our – own experiences of exploitation and oppression can be a lot more fruitful, but it’s then hard to generalise from the immediate shared anger we feel at a particular employer, landlord or even government into a consistent opposition to the social system that creates bosses, landlords, governments, and all the rest of it. This is where the worth of Russell Brand’s interview lies: as a way to start conversations with people that go beyond just talking about the bastards we’ve experienced directly, and can start to tackle the question of capitalism as a whole. You don’t need to approve of everything Brand says to take this opportunity to start interesting conversations with the people around you. There are still questions that haven’t been resolved here – I’m still not sure how much of the apparent excitement around Brand comes from people who aren’t already involved with radical politics, and how much of it is just fuss kicked up by people who already see themselves as radicals – but however skeptical you are, I don’t think that picking holes in Brand’s words is the most interesting or useful thing to be doing at the moment.
The other set of objections to Brand, from feminists criticising his overall misogyny, are a lot harder to write off. Given the recent history of the left, it’s fair to say that the very last thing we need is another mythologised Great Man, or yet another round of a Great Man’s followers telling feminists to shut up, stop divisively criticising him, and focus on the big picture. But does the undeniable truth and importance of the feminist critique of Brand mean we shouldn’t try and take advantage of this moment? I’m not sure it does. I’m not trying to suggest that we should adopt Russell Brand as some kind of leader, or start calling anarchist bookfairs booky wookfairs; I just think that, when having conversations with people in our lives who haven’t previously shown much of an interest in radical ideas, it might be worthwhile to ask if they’ve seen the interview, and if so what they thought of it. I don’t think that doing that necessarily means making any kind of commitment to Brand and his sexism that would lead us to defend him the way followers of other leftist Great Men do; it just might be a useful way of starting some good conversations. Other people might disagree with me here, but I don’t think recognising this particular cultural moment as an opportunity that we should take advantage of necessarily means ignoring or silencing the valid feminist criticisms of Brand.
Certainly, any attempt to build a lasting political force around Russell Brand would be every bit as disastrous as the attempts to build one around George Galloway or Tommy Sheridan, but I don’t think that’s what anyone’s trying to do, and it’s certainly not what I’m suggesting. Of course, it is also the case that this article is half a week late, and the vast majority of conversations that will happen about that particular interview have already happened by now, so none of this is much use as a practical suggestion, but it’s something to bear in mind the next time something similar happens, and Frankie Boyle makes a speech calling for a wildcat strike wave and workplace occupations, or something.