Russell Brand, populism and a collapsing centre

Russell Brand said nothing unusual in his interview with Jeremy Paxman and yet it's been watched over 9m times and the debate is still raging. Why?

Oliver Huitson
11 November 2013

“I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit from the political class… [it’s] an indifferent system that really just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population it was voted in to serve.” This masterclass in loquacious populism from Russell Brand was shared on social media by, just about, everyone - and it’s still generating debate. Yet Brand’s comments were neither complex nor original, so why was this “a big cultural event”?

For a start, there was its reach: the interview, with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, has been watched over 9m times on YouTube already. What’s more it wasn’t just the usual political junkies raving about it, quite the opposite: if Facebook is any guide it seemed initially ignored by writers and journalists while being reposted endlessly by relatively ‘apolitical’ 20 somethings. For this demographic (and judged purely on my own news feed) the last political event to gain such widespread discussion was the death of Margaret Thatcher in April.

This can’t be explained by Brand’s celebrity alone. Rather it’s the collision of two moments both a long time in the making, and both having domestic particularities: the implosion of representative democracy and the rebalancing of the economy globally. To take the latter, Paul Mason draws parallels with movements from Taksim Square to Occupy in identifying the drivers as economic hopelessness and rejection of the life path that now seems to be on offer:

“…where will the jobs come from if automation takes over our lives? Where will high wages come from if workers' bargaining power is just repeatedly stamped down by the process of globalisation?


“The revolution that's underway is more about mental and cultural rejection of the story on offer: to leave college with a heap of debt, to work as a near-slave in your early twenties in the name of ‘work placement’ or ‘internship’.”

It’s not only jobs but housing; London prices have risen 10% in just a year, taking the average property price to a staggering £438,000. To be clear, in the South East owning property is fast becoming a hereditary matter: without equity drawn from parent’s property you’ll be in a nursing home by the time you can afford one of your own. Of £237bn worth of property deals in the last year, £83bn worth were bought in cash; tides of money are flowing in from Europe, Russia and China looking for easy returns. Providing stable investments for the world’s super rich comes well before housing the young. As for social housing, the waiting list currently stands at 1.8m people. As a percentage of tenures, home ownership since the mid-2000s and is now back at levels last seen in the 80s ( while in August the buy-to-let boom was showing a year-on-year increase of 31%. Re-feudalisation is the direction of travel.

But as Mason comments, there is also a deep rejection of “the corrupt and venal values of those who run society” which in Britain is simultaneously visceral yet passive.

“Why vote? We know its not going to make any difference” (Russell Brand)

With Britain’s archaic voting system the three major parties manage to effectively shut out alternatives with few exceptions - in England, just one parliamentary seat went to an outsider, the Greens, in the 2010 general election. For a demonstration of the choice on offer from the big three parties the BBC’s Question Time on October 24th, the day after Brand’s interview, was instructive. The topic: energy, where the operating cartel have announced roughly 10% increases in prices despite no equivalent change in wholesale prices.

The Lib Dems’ Tim Farron made a theatrical call to “put that flaming watchdog down!” Next up was the Tories’ Liz Truss, who wore an embarrassed smirk throughout much of the debate as if she was struggling not to laugh at the farce of it all. “Energy prices doubled under Labour”, she said. Yes, we’re screwing you, but they did too. Labour’s Caroline Flint followed, another bristling with indignation on behalf of the nation:

“Cameron [hasn’t] got the bottle… six companies dominate 98% of the market… and something needs to be done about that.”

That ‘something’ sadly eluded the Labour government, of which Flint was a member, for their thirteen years in office. Labour too chose the energy companies over the public. Question Time is now virtually unwatchable: the only people worth listening to were journalists, Peter Hitchens and Owen Jones, who responded:

“If you look at the polling, as far as the British people were concerned what Miliband was proposing [a price freeze] was too moderate – nearly 7 out of 10 want our energy supply back under the control of the British people under public ownership”

This was met with huge applause, yet not one of the big three parties will be offering this to voters in 2015, nor was it offered in 2010. Labour’s original 2 year price freeze proposal was itself ludicrously weak; having burnt someone’s house to the ground you don’t triumphantly offer them a hoover. When even the Guardian calls such a policy “dramatic” you have to fear for the nation’s sanity.

Time and again Westminster demonstrates its capture by private interests. The sell off of Royal Mail, originally a Labour policy now completed by the current government, has just seen a healthy, historic and profitable national asset sold at a fire sale price of £3.3bn. JP Morgan valued the business at £10bn. Investors have been gifted billions of pounds from the public purse for something the public didn’t want sold. In a functioning democracy this fiasco would be under police investigation yet in ‘fantasy island’ it’s a few wagging fingers. The saddest thing is that this is now routine:

“Shares in BT jumped from 130p at privatisation to £15 by 1999. Railtrack was sold for £1.9 billion, but within two years had soared in value to £8 billion. The rolling stock companies were initially valued at around £3 million, but were subsequently sold for £1.8 million… Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson went so far as to state in his memoirs that undervaluation was a deliberate government tactic.” (Guinan & Hanna)

But to see Brand’s democratic “façade” at its ugliest look no further than the case of the East Coast mainline. Having finally, and fortuitously, fallen back into public ownership in 2009, it has been run by Directly Operated Railways. How has it performed?

“The company has won 13 industry awards since April 2012, including that of being Britain's top employer. There has been a 4.2% increase in ticket sales year-on-year, £208.7m returned to the taxpayer during the year in premium and dividend payments, and a record level of customer satisfaction.” (The Guardian)

Even the Financial Times acknowledged the “state-run East Coast mainline has emerged as the most efficiently run rail franchise in terms of its reliance on taxpayer funding”. That is, the sole nationalised line is being run much more cheaply than any of the privatised lines; this won’t surprise the general public, 70% of whom want the trains renationalised in their entirety. Instead, however, the government has just opened the bidding to reprivatise the East Coast line, an unequivocal admission that private profiteering comes before the public interest. Like a pinstriped necromancer resurrecting his fallen daemon, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said they wanted to “rekindle the spirit of competition”. It’s as welcome as rekindling smallpox - and much more expensive. Voting won’t change this: all three parties are unflinching supporters of the privatised rail monopolies.

The public’s patience is waning. In a heart-warming piece on City AM, Allister Heath wrote last week that “the public is turning its back on the free market economy”:

“No fewer than 45 per cent of the public believe that the state should [control] private rents; it was 74-18 for energy prices and 72-19 for public transport… 67 per cent believe Royal Mail should have remained in the state sector…There is overwhelming support for the nationalisation of energy companies… There is also huge support for the nationalisation of the railways, at 66-23.”

These results are apparently “terrifying”. Heath’s interpretation of the current state of these markets is a peculiar but entirely orthodox economic fantasy: despite price fixing scandals, LIBOR fixing, arbitrary price hikes, our markets are operating at some optimal and ‘natural’ equilibrium which must be protected from “artificial” interference. The message is quite clear: we will interfere with prices, you won’t.

Against a backdrop of serious economic decline and shrinking opportunities, the pantomime debates Brand rails against are indeed “boring” while also failing to address what is actually happening. The forces of globalisation, financialisation and automation have between them been driving down labour’s share of the economic pie for thirty years:

“In America, their wages used to make up almost 70% of GDP; now the figure is 64%, according to the OECD. Some of the biggest declines have been egalitarian societies such as Norway (where labour’s share has fallen from 64% in 1980 to 55% now) and Sweden (down from 74% in 1980 to 65% now)”.

Young people face a future of low paid, ephemeral jobs – or worse still, workfare - and insecure yet expensive housing while wealth is increasingly sucked upwards: living standards are set to fall sharply. The persistently corrupt Westminster has little to say and less to offer. When old certainties are slipping away people may expect solutions and ideas from government, or at least a passable impression of representing the public interest. Instead they find the emperor in his birthday suit, gleefully handing out the nation’s few remaining assets while defending an extraordinarily invasive system of mass surveillance.

Brand’s interview was effective precisely because it was light, it was populist, it was not complex and, critically, he refused to take Westminster seriously, to dignify its pretensions with engagement. (It should be added that ‘populist’ is not intended here in the pejorative sense, in the current climate populism is a necessary antagonist.) Brand was an ostentatiously silly and “trivial” man yet the real act was Paxman's, his defence of what is, to a considerable extent, an elective oligarchy was delivered with deadpan sincerity and studied solemnity. His solution? ‘Go and vote then’. For “facetiousness” it was Paxman, again, leading the way.

This is not to suggest any great wisdom on Brand’s part. In his 4,500 word essay in the New Statesman there seemed little of note. His call for “total revolution of consciousness and [of] our entire social, political and economic system”, to be modelled on a “socialist, egalitarian system”, was, as Nick Cohen replied, “as if we never lived through the 20th century”. Yet it was a spectacle that caught the public imagination, a figure of high profile responding to our political system with a combination of disgust and laughter – and the public roared with approval. It is telling that Nick Clegg has now seen fit to rebuke Paxman for saying Brand’s comments were “understandable”; the BBC must under no circumstances be seen to legitimise this notion of illegitimacy.

The Brand furore confirms again that populism is on the rise on both left and right and this is not a wholly negative phenomenon. In a brilliant essay Paolo Gerbaudo writes:

“… this is a starkly different political response to a major economic crisis than the one that took hold after the 1929 crash. While in the 30s people asked for more State either in the form of totalitarianism or in the social-democracy of the new deal, nowadays protest movements largely see in the State part of the problem”

Not exactly. The highly successful UK Uncut movement against tax avoidance is a plea for state action, while the Occupy manifesto included:

“Free and universal access to health, education… We reject outright the privatisation of public services management… Retirement/pension… Mandatory universal sick leave… [Mandatory] international environmental standards”

This was not a call for abolition of the state but for its democratisation. On the right, Eurosceptism is a call for sovereignty of the nation-state, while ‘getting tough’ on immigration is a direct call for state action – UKIP are no anarchists. Across the spectrum there is no clear state/anti-state unifier: they are bound by calls for an end to the corruption of state-corporate synthesis and, chiefly, the return of the social. Whether it’s reinstating ownership of utilities to the public, ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share to the public purse or demands for national identity to be protected with border controls, there is a recurring note: public sovereignty. If we are still trapped in a post-08 stasis it is because the tension between the individual and the social does not sit neatly across the left-right divide. In the Polanyian sense people are not seeking only the re-embedding of the economy, but the re-embedding of society.

Brand’s interview was a “big cultural event” not because he said either this government or this economic system isn’t working but because he said this democracy isn't working. Will voting Labour in 2015 change any of this?

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