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Talkin’ bout a revolution

Russell Brand – sometimes comedian, sometimes Christian, always a showman – is calling for a revolution. Russell’s Revolution is not about guns and bombs, it’s not about the people rising up to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government. Russell’s Revolution comes in the form of a willing disengagement from the political process, most clearly displayed in a refusal to vote. (Presumably in a country like Australia, with mandatory voting, he would be willing to settle for donkey voting.) Working in a variety of media, including an editorial in New Statesman magazine and a widely viewed interview with Jeremy Paxton on BBC’s Newsnight, Brand has pitched his message to the young and the disenfranchised. In doing so, he has hit a nerve.  There are any number of copies of the video available on the web; the one I linked to has almost 9 million views in a little more than a week. Brand’s polemic has spawned a popular Facebook page, innumerable news and opinion articles, and a new kind of global conversation about politics. We should be so lucky.

As always several days late, Fairfax news has published an “article” about the phenomenon. The article serves as an introduction for those in the wider world – probably not the young and the disenfranchised – who may not have come across this particular strident voice for reform. The kind of people this article is presumably aimed at are the ones who might have little respect for anything which challenges the status quo. The article reads as a quizzical realisation, written on behalf of forty-year olds everywhere, that “People are listening to this guy, and we have no idea why.”

Well, I am forty and I feel, as this is the Independent Media Network, that I can give at least as considered an opinion.

Russell Brand’s basic contention is laid out in the first few paragraphs of his editorial.

Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites… I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance.

The editorial is well worth reading. It’s amusing and insightful, and it’s attacking the wrong target.

In his Newsnight interview, Jeremy Paxman asked: “You want a revolution to overthrow elected governments, but what sort of government would you replace it with?”

Brand’s answer is illuminating. “I don’t know,” he replied. “But I’ll tell you what it shouldn’t do. It shouldn’t destroy the planet, it shouldn’t create massive political disparity, it shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.”

The problem is that what Brand is actually complaining about is not democracy. He is, instead, complaining about capitalism, and in this he is not the first.

Like socialism, democracy as a concept is good, it’s effective, it’s egalitarian and it works. It provides all citizens with a voice in how they should be governed. It is inherently equalising; whilst minorities of sexual preference or colour or social class may find their specific desires thwarted by the views of the majority, equally the rich, the powerful and the venal should find themselves constrained. Democracy gives us a chance as a society to force those at the top of the tree to support those at the bottom (force, because it is unlikely that this will happen without enforcement). Democracy is a good system of government. As Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.”

In practice, democracy is poisoned by capitalism.

Like the USSR’s dalliance with communism, like (dare I say it) China’s current dalliance with communism, any system of rule is open to abuse and corruption. The motivations behind corruption may be simple power – people gravitate to the corridors of power for all sorts of reasons, and the lust for control over your fellow man is a common and powerful driver. Or they may be for personal gratification and gain. In western democracies, the lure of profit that can spring from being in a position to influence the laws can turn many an honest politician into a bottom-feeding snouter.

It is an arguable contention, but supportable, that in our modern western democracies, rich interests have too much of a say; that the power of the rich can secure access to soapboxes and propaganda by which the opinions of the elite can influence the opinions of the poor; and that challenging the rich, the big corporations, is done at a politician’s peril.

When Russell Brand talks of our systems of government ‘destroying the planet’, provoking ‘political disparity’ or ‘ignoring the needs of the people’, these are behaviours driven by the interests of the rich and powerful. Against these forces stand integrity and idealism, and these are qualities eminently frangible. It is not fair to say that all parties in our political system are equally complicit in the continued subjugation of the downtrodden; the right and the left have very different approaches to the problem of power. (Where each party falls on the left-right spectrum I leave to the comments.) Both sides of politics, beholden to the votes of the people every three or four years, argue that they have the best interests of the whole at heart. The traditional preserve of the left is to talk about services, supported by the idea of taxing the rich in order to support the poor. The right relies heavily on the idea that when you allow the powerful to benefit, all boats will rise.

“Trickle-down economics” – the idea that improving the lot of the rich will result in an improvement for everyone – is an argument employed by the rich. It has little basis in fact. But it is so often the primary argument the electorate hears that enough will be convinced to give the conservatives another go at the reins.

Regardless of which side of politics you favour, however, all can see that our politics is broken. The argument is about degree. Whether you’re talking about the tendency of the right to remove any constraints that prevent the rich from subduing the serfs, or you’re bemoaning the latest revelations of cronyism within the left, modern politics is driven by the capitalistic system. Corruption, infighting, backstabbing, pandering and political inconsistency – these are driven not by public good, but by pecuniary self-interest. The corruption of politicians will occur as long as capitalism drives people to greater wealth, as long as it encourages people with wealth to even greater excesses, and as long as there’s a buck to be made.

By conflating democracy – a force for great good, rule by the people for the people – with capitalism – the benefit of the few at the expense of the many – Brand spoils the reputation of the one and gives the other a free pass. He is turning people off the one part of our current society that might possibly have a chance of addressing the very disparity he rails against.

In calling for a revolution, Brand has no alternatives to offer. “I don’t know,” he says, when asked what he would replace it with. As history has shown, time and again, overthrowing a system of power without having clear ideas of what should replace it leads to bad outcomes. Ambitious, grasping people will always seek to fill the holes; nature abhors a vacuum. If you replace your democracy, what you get will perforce be a government by the few at the expense of the many. In the current world where capitalism has so much sway, the likelihood of this coming to a good outcome is pretty much nil.

The need for some kind of revolution is evident, but it’s a revolution against capitalism and consumerism, rather than against democracy. Do I have an answer, an idea for a replacement? I do not. Democracy in my opinion is still the best form of government. Does this mean an overthrow of the capitalist system is required? Possibly, possibly not. Capitalism has some benefits that should not easily be dismissed; it is in untrammelled capitalism that we find the problems.

What we ideally want is a democracy that is free of the pernicious influence of capitalism. We live in a world which is not ideal, where power provides benefit to those who hold it, and it is unlikely we’ll see this kind of reform without a significant upset. I don’t know what kind of upset could bring about this change – it’s probably not going to be Russell Brand’s army of the disengaged. One thing I do know, however, is that Russell Brand does not have the answers. Do I have an answer? No. But until I do, I won’t go calling for any revolutions.

28 comments

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  1. diannaart

    Yes, I agree that the true target of Russell Brand’s interview is the unregulated mess of capitalism we have either endorsed willingly or unwillingly or even unwittingly.

    Was Russell wrong to talk about it?

    No.

    Should he have only spoken about it if he had a solution?

    If everyone only spoke out against disparity when they already had a solution…….

    I don’t have one (solution). But I am quite willing to support others who believe the trickle down effect is simply the rich pissing on us – and it ain’t rainin’.

    Keeping silent, when we do not have full thought out solutions – where will that get anyone? The rich are still laughin’ all the way to the bank. The least we can do is point out they are starkers, their lack of concern for the majority who made their wealth possible is clear and obvious.

    Will this lead to ‘revolution’ – it didn’t in the 60’s – everyone got degrees, ‘n jobs and basically forgot about all others outside their immediate circle and our environment, Earth and all who reside upon and within her.

    Yes, the Earth is female – that’s one thing I do know.

  2. The Real News News (@oz_house)

    Prof. Richard Wolff may have some answers for you. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guSdjsctrUQ

    The problem is not so much the solutions, but denial of the answers from so much capitalist/christian propaganda.

  3. Elisabeth

    A thoughtful and balanced response, now we need figure out how to deal with the pernicious effects of capitalism. Any ideas anyone?

  4. Buff McMenis

    He needs a good hair brush!!! I am sick to death of people from other parts sticking their self-conceited heads into the business of MY country! We have enough dills as it is .. we don’t need more! Please, BUTT OUT, Russell!! If he wants Revolutions then let it be where he lives and not in Oz! I loathe and abominate the L-NP’s and the rich bitches and bastards who think they own me and mine, but I don’t want a Revolution .. I want a sensible, considered change. Now.

  5. diannaart

    Buff

    I and Russell Brand are from planet Earth. If you don’t want to hear or read opinion of inhabitants of this planet – no-one is forcing you to.

    FYI

    Australia is not another planet. We have a global economy controlled by global corporations which require a global solution.

  6. diannaart

    And, before I forget.

    Russell was being interviewed on the BBC, by British television interviewer – hardly what I would call butting into anything Australian – seeing as you are so preciously parochial.

    Reminder, you are free to remain ignorant,the choice is yours.

  7. Veloaficionado

    Russell B. was off his head for a large part of his 20s and thirties, so missed out on the gradual dawning of ideas that a lot of us seem to have experienced. He comes across as a charming but wayward child – blurting out “don’t vote”, so … what? The one means by which change has historically and might yet arrive, to unseat the worst of unearnt and unheeding privilege – he discounts like some sort of arbitrary extra. So, those who need change most depoliticise themselves, those who the system serves best get them and their acolytes voted in again… inequality perpetuates and magnifies – Tory Britain is a bad and getting worse place for many many people, communities, and the environment: here come the robber barons again. I prefer the other Russell – Bertrand Russell. He’s got the advantage of several 10s of IQ points and wheelbarrowloads of wisdom over this stand up comedian, I.e., basically a capering fool.

  8. mikestasse

    Wow wow wow………… best thing I’ve read on the internet in AGES! Thank you…..

  9. rossleighbrisbane

    We must chat soon. No, seriously. 🙂

  10. rossleighbrisbane

    Or to put it another way.
    If Russell actually offered anything, don’t you think he would have been excluded by now.
    He’s the M&M revolution.
    Read that last bit out LOUD, ffs.

  11. tropicaltheartist

    So until a full and complete answer is available, do nothing? Let the ship of capitalist corruption drive us toward the rocks at increasing speed? What kind of nonsense argument is that?

  12. OzFenric

    I am -not- arguing that we do nothing. I am, however, arguing that overthrowing systems – going back to tabula rasa – will never have good outcomes.

    I think my perspective boils down to this:
    1. Democracy is a tool of reform and liberation, not oppression, and Russell Brand’s exhortation to the youth of today to disengage is worse than useless – it’s counterproductive when we’re relying on the youth to see what is being done to the world they will inherit;
    2. Capitalism, as I said, has merits – it encourages excellence and improvement, it inspires effort and entrepreneurship and, at its best, it can provide reward for those who excel whilst not abandoning those who for whatever reason do not, or cannot; and
    3. Capitalism and consumerism as we know them are headed for collapse in any case; the world simply does not have enough resources to give every human a Toyota, resources are limited and being depleted at an unprecedented rate, and the kind of disparity Brand decries is increasingly being seen as an abuse of power.

    Brand has keyed into a zeitgeist of the youth, but he’s leading us/them astray. If I were a more cynical man I would say he’s not attacking capitalism because it has treated him so well, he’s attacking democracy because it’s an easy soapbox and nothing will really change.

    It is beholden upon us to seek for and provide the answers. We must defend the principle of democracy and the ideal of how it *should* operate; we must decry the corruptions of capitalism as they seek to sway the democratic process; and we *must* have an answer ready to the question of how the two may be disentangled before we go doing anything so irresponsible as calling for systemic change. At least some suggestions.

    Ironically, Clive Palmer with his crusade against political lobbyists is more effective in this regard than Russell Brand and his gaggle of fans.

  13. Gilly

    It is the loopholes and weaknesses within our democracy that have allowed capitalism to pervert the system. There are swings and roundabout in capitalism. I expect that much of the problem with both capitalism and democracy is the misinterpretation of social capital as human capital.

  14. Wilson

    I took one of his key messages that we need to change the way we think. Yes he is not providing explicit answers, but what a profoundly important conversation to open up and for us all to start having. He has very publicity kickstarted change by asking us to question and think about what needs to change.

  15. Liam Manley

    I totally agree Wilson, the profound word just needs to be heard. It is as simple as discussing the matter to get the revolution ball rolling!

  16. Kaye Lee

    Protest can get people thinking but without a viable alternative it is little more than a tantrum. “If you aren’t part of the solution then you are part of the problem”.

  17. mandymul

    Clive Palmer is the epitome of a wealthy capitalist political lobbyist. Look how he ran his election campaign – from paying his booth workers, to accusing the AEC of corruption – forcing recounts when it suited him, denying a fresh election in WA after crucial votes go missing. All because it suits Clive Palmer. Why does he want to ‘represent the people’? To further his mining interests of course. Pfft.

  18. lockyervalley

    The assumption that political parties are a good and necessary part of representative democracy is the root of the problem. How can a politician represent constituents and be under the control of a party? How much easier is it for a corporation to subvert a political party leadership than to subvert 100+ independent elected representative? The role that independents have played in recent Australian parliaments clearly indicates how democracy should work. The roles of the parties in those governments show how democracy is broken.

  19. Roswell

    We all want to change the world.

  20. mikestasse

    Why are our leaders desperately reconfiguring the legal super structures of global trade

    BECAUSE they utterly rely on us consuming the planet to death so that the money + interest owed to them can continue to be created out of thin air to make them ever richer………….

    Why are our leaders desperately reconfiguring the legal super structures of global trade without either consulting their respective voting constituencies

    Because we are AGAINST IT…..

    At the root of this model is the basic notion that corporate profits and investor returns must at all times supercede all concerns about public interest.

    YEP……. otherwise they go broke. And we can’t have that now can we……

    Not a single shot will be fired,

    DEAD RIGHT……… all we have to do is stop servicing our debts, and they would be broke within hours. Here’s the plan……. http://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/collapse-must-be-near-now/

  21. Kaye Lee

    I agree that it’s capitalism we need to be worried about, starting with the TPP.

    “Why all the sudden newfound enthusiasm for more free trade? Even more important, why all the secrecy? Why are our leaders desperately reconfiguring the legal super structures of global trade without either consulting their respective voting constituencies or even divulging what is actually up for grabs in the negotiations?

    According to Andrew Gavin Marshall, these new agreements have little to do with actual “trade,” and everything to do with expanding the rights and powers of large corporations:

    Corporations have become powerful economic and political entities – competing in size and wealth with the world’s largest national economies – and thus have taken on a distinctly ‘cosmopolitical’ nature.

    “Acting through industry associations, lobby groups, think tanks and foundations, cosmopolitical corporations are engineering large projects aimed at transnational economic and political consolidation of power… into their hands,” writes Marshall. “With the construction of ‘a European-American free-trade zone’ as ‘an ambitious project,’ we are witnessing the advancement of a new and unprecedented global project of transatlantic corporate colonization.“

    At the root of this model is the basic notion that corporate profits and investor returns must at all times supercede all concerns about public interest. As such, as Open Democracy has pointed out, investor-state dispute settlements under TTIP would empower EU and US-based corporations to engage in litigious wars of attrition to limit the power of governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

    What they ultimately seek is to transfer what little remains of our national sovereignty to the headquarters of the world’s largest multinational conglomerates. In short, it is the ultimate coup de grâce of the ultimate coup d’état. Not a single shot will be fired, yet almost all power will be seized and transferred into private hands — and all of it facilitated by our elected representatives who, by signing these treaties, will be permanently abdicating their responsibilities to represent and protect the interests of their voting constituencies.”

    Read more at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/11/the-global-corporatocracy-is-almost-fully-operational.html#GswZPBTTockpxo3x.99

  22. Kaye Lee

    And if you were in any doubt about who is now running our country, Tony has made it very obvious.

    Remember the wedding in India that Gina Rinehart took Joyce, Gambaro and Bishop to? It was the wedding of the granddaughter of one of Gina’s business partners. The bride’s family own GVK who, in partnership with Gina Rinehart, have just received approval for a massive new coal mine in the Galilee Basin, the largest in Australia.

    “Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the 37,380 hectare Kevin’s Corner project on Friday.
    The mine, to be operated by a joint India-Australia consortium, GVK-Hancock, is the first to be approved since the introduction of a new water trigger rule by the previous federal government.”

    http://www.smh.com.au/environment/largest-coal-mine-approved-in-queensland-20131103-2wuiw.html

  23. Kaye Lee

    Clive will no doubt be saying “what about me” as he also has holdings in the Galilee Basin awaiting environmental approval. Shouldn’t take Greg Hunt long to stamp that.

  24. OzFenric

    I’m not certain that our Clive will get the rubber stamp for this one. With this government (and, to some extent, the previous one) politics trumps everything else. Giving Clive what he wants increases his resources. Increasing his resources will lead to further political opposition. Opposition is a Bad Thing. Thus: no sweeties for Mr Palmer.
    The Coalition is fundamentally incapable of saying yes to anything from their political enemies – even if it’s a part of their own policy platform.

  25. Wayne T

    This is off topic, apologies, but thanks Kaye Lee for the article on TPP. That is one SCARY piece of work

  26. Pingback: Talkin’ bout a revolution revisited | Damn the Matrix

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