We shouldn't be shocked by Brand's "U-Turn". Flickr/jessie essex. Some rights reserved.Russell Brand’s last minute U-turn – first endorsing voting, then endorsing Labour – has been greeted with a mixture of shock and cynicism. In fact, if you look past the broader narrative that he weaves and all the revolutionary iconography that accompanies it, and see the actual political programme that Brand is putting forward, his endorsement of Labour is entirely consistent. What is more interesting is the misunderstanding that makes it look surprising, one which confuses edgy aesthetics with radical politics.
Since his 2013 Newsnight interview, Russell Brand has become a poster boy for the extra-parliamentary left. The merits of his exact role in promoting leftwing ideas and giving profile to grassroots campaigns – and the complicated implications of using celebrity politics – is a well-trodden topic. But Brand’s intervention into the mainstream is certainly not just self-promotion, and he has undoubtedly made a contribution to mainstreaming and developing an ‘anti-establishment common sense’, striking a chord with a range of already existing political movements.
In so far as we focus on tactics and tone, Brand is a genuine challenge to the political establishment. He talks openly about ‘revolution’, even if it is softened with an almost spiritual insistence that the revolution will be “peaceful, effortless and joyful”; he emphasises the power of ordinary people to ‘rise up’. Both Occupy and many of the smaller campaigns that Brand has befriended are centred on direct democracy and direct action, being prepared to defy the law and the establishment-approved boundaries of dissent. This willingness to break the mould of passive protest, and the implicit emphasis on the prefigurative politics that has remained a feature on the left since the anti-globalisation movement, is what has won Brand so many willing ears on the otherwise deeply cynical anarchist left.
But for all the mood music, the practical politics of much of the Occupy movement is actually reformist. While it identified bankers as the enemy, Occupy London’s demands in 2011 were that the City should make its accounts transparent and subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and that it disclose its lobbying activities since the 2008 crash. Occupy Democracy’s presence in Parliament Square in 2014, while identifying the political establishment as a whole as the enemy, asked for the introduction of proportional representation and stricter regulation of lobbying and media ownership. These are not a manifesto or blueprint for the working class to take power in society, and neither do they claim to be.
Similarly, for all the revolutionary aesthetic, the actual politics of Brand’s intervention into the public sphere are largely social democratic. He is certainly egalitarian, and he names capitalism, bankers and the whole of the political and media establishment as his enemy; and he states in interviews that people can run “their own workplaces and housing estates”.
But his political programme is very modest. In his latest film, which was screened in front of a huge receptive audience at the student occupation at the London School of Economics last week, Brand focuses on social inequalities and the story of banking excess, not on how capitalism might be dismantled. He ends the film by setting out a series of new taxes on wealth and measures that a government might take to address inequality, openly stating that they are less radical than the tax regime that existed before Thatcher, and even argues for workers’ share ownership in companies. In another scene, Brand is seen calmly remonstrating with two police officers on a tax avoidance demo, stating that he ‘likes the police’ and that if only the owner of the shop in question paid their taxes, the police wouldn’t be facing cuts – hardly a class war position.
In the current political context – in which the welfare state is under imminent threat and the power of capital over labour has been increasing for almost thirty years – almost every prominent stripe of the left, including the Greens and the SNP, is pursuing a reformist political agenda. Russell Brand is no different: his political programme is a leftwing social democratic one, in spite of all the Che Guevara kitsch, and so in practice – despite the consensus decision-making – is much of the Occupy movement.
No great surprise
So is it really any surprise that Brand has now called for progressive people to vote, and to vote Labour? Miliband may not be willing to agree with all of Brand’s propositions for tackling inequality and challenging the elites, but he is – unlike some Labour leaders before him – a genuine social democrat of one stripe or another. Brand engages in class politics, and he supports direct action (even illegal direct action), but then so have generations and generations of social democrats.
What is more interesting is the conflation of tactics, aesthetics and politics that has characterised the past few years of political dissent, and which Brand really embodies. With traditional organisations out of vogue, it is popular to both adopt and deride leftwing labels without really examining the political traditions that lie behind them. For example, many young activists call themselves “anarchists” not because they have any particular conception of the state or class politics, but because they like consensus decision-making, or because they support direct action and black bloc. But in truth, there many who engage in these tactics or who support them whose politics are not anarchist or really revolutionary in any way. When the centre is so far to the right, social democrats and anarchists can look very similar in public.
The need for a new left
The general election has provided a space for some of these tensions and contradictions to play themselves out; they have been forced into the open under the unbearable prospect of another five years of Tory rule. What will be needed afterwards is the development of a new left, in which social democracy, anarchism and various socialist traditions can not only co-exist and fight together, but in which these political tendencies can be clear about the strategic differences between them. When that happens, Russell Brand may well not represent the most radical among us.