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The political conversation on sharing is growing by the day, sometimes from the unlikeliest of quarters. Take Russell Brand, for example, the comedian-cum-activist and revolutionary. It’s easy to dismiss Brand’s polysyllabic and self-referential meanderings, as do most of the establishment media in the USA and Britain, but this only serves to disregard his flashes of wisdom and the reasons for his popularity.
His latest book is clearly not meant to be an actual roadmap to “systemic change on a global scale”— hence the various crude digressions and contradictions. Yet as pointed out by Evan Davies at the beginning of his second BBC Newsnight interview, Brand has probably engaged more young people in thinking about serious political issues than any politician, despite his infamous disavowal of voting in parliamentary elections. On this basis alone, there’s every reason Brand’s call for a revolution based on love, sharing and cooperation should be taken seriously. But what does his revolution actually mean in practice?
To elucidate, Brand uses a homespun analogy in his book that he attributes to “my mate Nik.” If 20 school children were in a playground and a couple of them took all the toys, you would “explain to them that sharing is a basic human value and redistribute the toys.” In a similar way, he says that the rich who hoard resources are misguided in their belief that this can make them happy, so we have to “be the adults,” and help them—which will require dismantling the machinery of deregulated capitalism, winning over the military, and redistributing their excessive wealth.
Admittedly he’s a bit sketchy on the details of how this would be done, though he does endorse Thomas Piketty’s proposal for greater transparency around the assets of the super-rich—with a modest tax on their wealth as well as on their income. But many implicit recommendations are scattered throughout the book on how sharing could be institutionalised. He’s keen to point out, for example, that the “corporate world in its entirety is a kind of thief of more wholesome values, such as sharing.” Therefore the least they can do, he suggests, is to stop exploiting tax loopholes (which is “a kind of social robbery”) and pay their fair share of taxes.
In describing how “Jesus is pretty committed to sharing,” he also makes it clear that any British politician who claims to be a Christian should—like Jesus—try to help the poor and heal the sick, rather than implementing austerity policies and selling off the National Health Service. By implication, the kind of sharing Brand upholds needs to be systematised through progressive taxation and the universal provision of public services and social security.
Brand’s other line of reasoning is a bit more contentious: “Socialism isn’t a dirty word,” he says, “it just means sharing; really it’s just the bureaucratic arm of Christianity.” Do people have to be “socialists” to espouse the human value of sharing? No, but it’s pretty clear what he’s trying to say: most religious faiths have expounded the importance of sharing wealth and other resources fairly, and it’s high time this age-old ethic was used to underpin the fabric of society.
Another of Brand’s gems is that a sharing society depends on mass public participation and a truly representative democracy. Drawing on a fleeting interview in his house with David Graeber, he writes: “Democracy means if enough people want a fairer society, with more sharing, well-supported institutions and less exploitation by organisations that do not contribute, then their elected representatives will ensure that it is enacted.” But this will never happen, Brand suggests, so long as we have leaders who have been “conditioned and groomed to compliantly abide by the system that exploits them,” whose only true agenda is “meeting the needs of big business.” Hence there can be no true form of democracy without “a radical decentralisation of power, whether private or state.”
Brand returns repeatedly to the theme of sharing both political power and economic resources, which he sees as a prerequisite to any form of true democracy and the creation of a better world. How this is going to happen in practice is a bit vague or outlandish in places, as when he advocates for “total self-governance” via “small, self-determined communities that are run voluntarily and democratically” and without any leaders, which may eventually require nation states to be somehow “dissolved.” But in other parts of the book he’s entirely practical, as in his endorsement of direct democracy in Switzerland or participatory budgeting in Brazil—which, he explains, has empowered local communities.
When it comes to the business world, Brand is also cogent in his recommendations on how to restructure corporations and redistribute power downwards. One proposal is for Employee Investment Funds, in which a significant percentage of the company’s profits are shared with workers, and controlled by democratically accountable worker management boards that have to use the proceeds for social priorities. Another proposal is for jointly-owned and value-driven enterprises in the guise of co-operatives, which Brand argues provide a model that can democratise the workplace and prevent the proceeds of labour from being poured into the pocket of some “thumb-twiddling plutocrat who by happy accident owns the firm.” He adds simply: “The profits should be shared among the people who do the work.”
From the outset, Brand makes it clear that his greatest concern is the “galling inequality” of the world, which is sustained by an economic system that continues to “deplete the earth’s resources so rapidly, violently and irresponsibly that our planet’s ability to support human life is being threatened.” In frequently quoting Oxfam’s “fun bus” statistic—that a bus carrying 85 of the world’s richest people would represent more wealth than that owned by half the earth’s population—he also makes it clear that he is “seriously comfortable with society getting extremely equal.” As he puts it: “the practical, fair allocation of resources, the preservation of the planet must naturally be prioritised.”
Unfortunately his book omits to mention the reality of ecological limits to growth or the promise of de-growth economics, which are imperative for any serious discussion about how to achieve greater equality on a planet with finite resources. But he does draw on the ideas of various thinkers on how to “reapportion money and power” and share the world’s wealth more equitably and sustainably. This includes “the peaceful establishment of a fair global alternative” through the cancellation of unjust debt; the rolling back of corrupt global trade agreements; a return to localised and ecological farming; the revocation of corporate charters “for businesses that have behaved criminally;” and the incorporation of measures other than GNP to judge a nation’s success.
He is also under no illusions about the international politics that render these proposals somewhat utopian. More than one chapter is devoted to the tenets of America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the Monroe Doctrine, which he describes as the ideological pillar of the U.S. government’s imperialist strategies and perpetual war-mongering. The vagaries of the British Empire—built by “vicious thugs using violence to get their way, reneging on deals and nicking the resources of whole nations”—also get short shrift. The whole thing was a “swizz”, he says, and deceptively based on a Christian mythology which in truth is about “empathy and sharing,” not a false authority achieved “through coercion and violence.”
Hence his inevitable conclusion that “real change will not be delivered within the machinery of the current system—it’s against their interests… [Instead] we all need to come together and confront our shared enemy.”
Yet for all of Brand’s posturing about chopping off the Queen’s head, killing corporations and overthrowing the establishment to “take our power back,” he is also passionately convinced that the revolution must be peaceful. He says that all “revolutions require a spiritual creed. It doesn’t matter who is doing violence or to what end. Violence is wrong.” Therefore the only way to end conflict and change society for the benefit of everyone is through a new revelation about our purpose on earth, a revolution in our understanding of who we are as human beings.
Spirituality, he says, is “not some florid garnish” but “part of the double-helix DNA of Revolution. There is a need for Revolution on every level—as individuals, as societies, as a planet, as a consciousness. Unless we address the need for absolute change, unless we agree on a shared story of how we want the world to be, we’ll inertly drift back to the materialistic, individualistic magnetism behind our current systems.”
Perhaps this is a major reason why Brand’s silver-tongued musings are so popular: he is at his best when describing how social change won’t happen without inner, personal change. He also has the courage to share some candid insights from his own spiritual journey, even if it sometimes comes close to proselytising: “My love of God elevates the intention of this book beyond the dry and admirable establishment of collectivised communities.”
Brand is often inspiring when he describes the alienating effects of commercialisation and “the impulse we all have for union” that has been misdirected into our worship of shopping malls, material comfort and possessions. Our longing for revolution, he says, is really “our longing for perfect love.” And our true salvation lies in the “acknowledgement of our unity. That we are one human family. One consciousness. One body.” The last chapter of the book reads like a poetic entreaty to that awareness of the Self which comprises the true spiritual reality we all share. No doubt purposefully, the last word in the book is “love.”
While such ideas can easily be dismissed as New Age truisms, Brand has a deft ability to weave his spiritual convictions into a case for wholesale political and economic transformation. For instance, in contemplating how it is that humanity can endure the needless poverty and suffering of others, he neatly examines how “an extraordinary attitude [of complacency and indifference] has been incrementally inculcated” into our societies.
He goes on to question why the old maxim ‘From each according to his means, to each according to his needs’ still lingers in our conscience, even after all the “capitalist lies and communist misadventure” of the past century. By retelling a story about a spontaneous act of goodwill in helping a stranger, he points to the obvious answer: because empathy, kindness and sharing are hardwired into our human nature. To share with one another is to be who we really are.
The implications of this simple truth are far more radical than any historical revolution based on ideology or violence, which is arguably the overall message of Brand’s book. “The agricultural Revolution took thousands of years,” he writes, “the industrial Revolution took hundreds, the technological tens. The spiritual Revolution, the Revolution we are about to realise, will be fast because the organisms are in place; all that needs to shift is consciousness, and that moves rapidly.”