openDemocracyUK

In (half hearted) defence of Russell Brand

Russell Brand encourages us to glimpse into worlds in which people are already building their own politics, rather than voting for someone else to do it for them.

Liam Barrington-Bush
31 October 2014
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Focus E15 Mums

This isn’t really about Russell Brand. It can’t be. Celebrities will not change the world for the better. Their positions reinforce the idea of ‘society as spectator sport,’ pushing the rest of us to be passive recipients - not active participants - in the world we live. That said, it is telling that the mainstream Left have come down on Brand’s stance on voting with the kind of scathing vitriol usually reserved for a UKIP policy announcement.

What if we applied the patronising old trope 'if you don't vote, don't complain' to every deeper form of political engagement? My mate Richard Bartlett did this recently on Facebook. To paraphrase him: 'If you don't fight inequality and climate change in some way everyday, don't complain!' But most of us would see that as an unnecessarily divisive statement. Apparently not so when applied to voting though. As long as you check a box with a posh white man’s name beside it twice a decade, you can avoid such belittling dismissals of your political opinions!

So why is Brand's belief that there are far more effective tactics than voting such heresy within the political establishment? Perhaps because by raising the idea that democracy isn’t about box-checking, he has recast the country’s leading political actors - politicians and pundits alike - as inconsequential bit parts in a drama they have always been the stars of. What the commentators either don’t get, or choose to ignore, is that Brand’s ‘revolution’ places all of us - not a few talking heads - at the centre of the change we need. And those on the inside struggle with this.

The trouble with the critiques, from Nick Cohen (a year ago), to Polly Toynbee (last week) and Sunny Hundal (this week) is that they can only seem to comprehend Brand’s ‘revolution’ as a formal overthrow of capitalism, in which others come to fill its roles (police, health service, tax man, etc) and mimic its organisational practices, as in Russia, Cuba, China, etc. But none of them can begin to imagine what Brand actually seems to be suggesting (albeit in a messy, semi-formed sort of way); that perhaps there is society beyond the nation state. And perhaps it already exists in pockets all around us, on the New Era estate and amongst the Focus E15 mums (as two examples highlighted on Newsnight).

Cohen, Toynbee and Hundal all offer variations on the predictable ‘he has no alternative to capitalism!’ line of attack. When academic and activist David Graeber is asked to explain exactly what an anarchist society would look like, he calls the question out for its utter ridiculousness: 'Do you think,’ I heard him reply once, ‘that some philosopher sitting in a Vienna cafe in the 1600s could have explained to you the detail of the capitalism we have today? Of course not, because what we have today is the gradual emergent result of lots of independently minded people and governments taking action and making choices based on some shared underpinning beliefs about individualism and free markets.’ And so too would a new system of governance emerge over time, though with some very different values at its core, and equally different practices and systems in its wake.

Graeber - a fairly clever guy who has spent decades exploring these questions - knows he doesn't have the blueprint for an entirely new global economic, social and political order. So why would we expect one from a professional comedian, relatively new to this kind of political exploration? Russell Brand seems to recognise the absurdity of such an expectation, but this doesn’t stop Sunny Hundal from accusing him of “leaving the heavy lifting to others.” (‘You want to make us laugh and think, but you can’t tell me how to restructure the global economy? You’re clearly not worth my time!’)

What none of Brand’s critics seem to offer is a decent case for continuing to reinforce the political status quo. Instead they offer an uninspiring ‘yeah, it’s a bit shit, but don’t stop playing along or it’ll get worse!’

As belief in 'the system' tends to grow with one's privilege, what can the rest of us expect when relatively established pundits can only *mildly* endorse it? If Polly Toynbee is so tepid in arguing for participation in a system that broadly works for her, what can the rest of us hope to get from voting?

But this critique tells us as much about the critics themselves, as it does about their political views: they are privileged enough to keep having endless discussions amongst themselves about electoral reform, Lords reform, Labour Party reform, etc. without having to worry about the politics of their own immediate needs, a luxury fewer and fewer of us can afford these days.

What if we actually began to build alternatives from the ground up, as Graeber, John Holloway, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, Raul Zibechi, Marina Sitrin and many others have described happening all around the world in recent decades? There is no blueprint for these kinds of change, but there are plenty of examples of people in communities, workplaces, towns and movements coming together to meet their collective needs without systems of top-down authority to do it for them. These are examples that any of us - not just those who make ‘politics’ their business - could learn from.

While seemingly small when seen in isolation, ‘horizontal’ autonomous groups in Argentina have involved at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Argentines in alternative forms of self-governance. They may have experienced a worker-run factory, a neighbourhood assembly, a movement of unemployed workers occupying disused land, or an Indigenous community protecting their territories from resource extraction. These groups have been practicing an alternative version of politics that a) often ignores the state, b) gets in the way of the state’s worst impositions, and (critically), c) creates alternatives to meet the immediate needs of those involved. This has been happening since at least 2001 and is not unique to Argentina. Parallel practices are emerging all over the world, including the UK, if we start to see the examples as more than simply inspirational peculiarities.

The Focus E15 mums are certainly one such example, having taken over an empty block of council flats when Newham Council threatened to ship them off around the country, away from their lifelong communities. So too are the community in West Hendon, Barnett, taking direct action to protect their homes from demolition and gentrified redevelopment. Not only are these communities preventing something destructive from happening in their lives, they are creating something positive in its place and are changing themselves through the experience. As Sam, one of the FocusE15 mums said in a recent interview:

“At the beginning we were blind to what was happening, but now – even if we were to be given a permanent council house and ten million pounds, we’d still carry on. There are so many people whose voices need to be expressed and if they can’t do it, we’ll help them.”

And this is the politics that Russell Brand has helped to shed some light on; the politics of Do-It-Yourself direct action that changes the world, via the people who are doing it. He has refused to join the wider political chorus in dismissing these stories as insignificantly local or ‘piecemeal,’ defending the impact they have created in the lives of those who’ve lived and been touched by them, as the microcosms of a different kind of society.

Once again, celebrities will never save us. Never. But I'm glad Russell Brand has opened the idea of politics-beyond-voting in the public debate. The storm that the mainstream Left has rained down on him suggests we have a lot of soul-searching to do if we are serious about the kinds of change the world so clearly needs. Or perhaps, we just need to get on with it and start this revolution wherever we are...

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