Russell Brand: Revolution – A Review

This is a guest post by Jamie Bartlett of Demos

Whenever a celebrity ventures into politics, the reaction from those of us who’ve been laboring away in obscurity is typically a mix of snobbish dismissal and jealous indignation. ‘Have you ever bothered to actually read Amartya Sen’s work on economic development, Bono, or were you too busy having your favourite hat flown around the world by jumbo jet?’ The dominant response to Brand’s latest book calling for a Revolution is derision and unreasonable demands for a detailed 12 point plan.   Some of this, deep down, is: ‘I’ve been writing about politics for years and no-one listens. How dare you come along and get everyone talking, you handsome, successful, rich bastard’. So when I picked up Revolution, I determined to purge my own petty jealousies – which are many – and review it honestly. This book deserves to be taken seriously, if only because so many people are talking, thinking, and complaining about it.

The central argument of his 350 page call-to-arms is the following: good ol’ Russ (he calls himself ol’ Russ a lot) has sorted himself out spiritually. He’s seen off his own demons and recognised his disillusionment with material offerings. And if he can do that, then we can sort ourselves out politically too. And so he’s calling for a spiritual revolution, where we the people see modern capitalism for what it is: unsustainable, unhealthy, propped up by vested interests. It needs to be overthrown and replaced with something better. He’s not quite sure what exactly, but whatever it is, it’ll be based on love, peace, decentralization of power to people, ecological sustainability. Possibly some kind of autonomous anarchic collectivist model, although it’s not entirely clear.

These are all old ideas – very 1960s West Coast – but that’s okay as he’s not a political visionary, as he repeatedly admits. And I don’t mind the lack of detail because I don’t think that’s what the book’s about. No, the great conceit here is that ol’ Russ’ conversion (of which I approve of course) serves as a decent allegory for political change. This is a supremely narcissistic analysis, which is a major flaw for a book which asks us to cast off the shackles of individualism. The whole book – from the cover of swoony ol’ Russ, to the endless anecdotes about Brand’s rehab, Brand’s spiritualism, Brand’s comedy shows – is fundamentally all about Him. Look at me, look how far I’ve come! I’m having a revolution – you lot are more than welcome.

Spiritual revolution as the first step of towards a political one is a common trope for those who can’t really think of anything better, like people who moan that everything is the fault of the Daily Mail. The reason he’s wound up with this solution is because of his lazy analysis of modern society.  Much of the book is him railing against Western society, politics and economics. It’s all laced with that mild conspiracism that so often masquerades as intellectual skepticism these days. He doesn’t scream from the rooftops that 9/11 was inside job (though he flirts with that). No, his is an amorphous and insidious form of conspiracism. The ‘they’, the ‘them’. Someone, some group, somewhere is controlling things to some undisclosed and unclear ends: and we the people are losing out. Corporations, governments, the rich and the powerful – there are all in it together. ‘The oppressors are miles away’, he writes. They are at Whitehall or Wall Street or at a Bilderberg meeting. This sort of faux intellectualism really is the death of independent critical thought and it turns people away from politics because everything feels a little pointless. Revolution reads like a checklist of this thoughtless malaise: 1) Blame everything on America (‘all good things about America either came from the counter—culture or were there already when the white people arrived’).  2) We have a reductive ‘scientism’ that quashes everything. 3) We’re not really free, we are in fact slaves to the hegemonic capitalist culture. 4) All politicians are identical because ‘their true agenda [is] meeting the needs of big business’. (He hadn’t heard of the Spanish revolution, he says, because the powers that be didn’t want him to, although I suspect it’s because he couldn’t be bothered). 5) The military-industrial complex is too powerful, which he defines in full lifted from Wikipedia.  This is all bog standard lazy adolescent tosh, best suited for the Facebook wall of someone who’s heard someone talk about something Noam Chomsky once wrote. And above all, because They / Them are so adept at controlling us, because the system is so overpowering, we don’t even realise it. We’re prisoners in it, we’re ‘imprisoned within, and hypnotised without’.

This is why the answer has to lie in some kind of spiritual awakening rather than hard work. We must look ‘beyond our materialist parameters and individualistic desires’ he writes, because there is a realm ‘beyond contextualisation’, one ‘connected by consciousness’.In Sanskrit all characters are connected by an individual line, he explains, which shows how ‘we all come from the same place, an unknown dimension’, a ‘refracted projection of one supreme consciousness’. All this is rather narcissistic too, all this personal awakening stuff, because it’s still about you and your journey. But it’s only in this spiritual awakening that you see, finally, the extent of your own enslavement and know the truth, like he has.

This leads him, tragically, to that popular landing spot for the disenchanted rich and famous: Transcendental Meditation.  He cites an experiment, conducted in the 1990s in Washington, DC, where thousands of people meditated together and tested the impact on the area. Brand notes excitedly that over the two months of the experiment, crime fell by 23 per cent ‘as a result of the state of consciousness achieved by a group of people inwardly thinking a word until a state beyond thought was reached’. This, says ol’ Russ, is ‘irrefutable proof’ there is a connection between the apparently separate consciousness of individuals. It can manifest harmony, it’s close to affirmation of a Higher Power.  Obviously I looked into that study as it seems like quite a claim. Turns out it’s never been replicated. Those who reviewed it were all, like the organisers, adherents of Transcendental Meditation themselves. It also turns out that the murder rate in Washington hit its highest ever level during the experiment. What’s more, the drop was not an actual measurable drop in recorded crime (given it’s an impossible experiment), it was a drop from what a computer model created by one of the experimenters predicted would have been the crime level had these people not been meditating and levitating and what not.  I would have thought uber-critical ol’ Russ, who’s smart enough to have spotted the vested interests running modern capitalism the rest of us can’t see, might have smelled a rat.

Anyway, there are some very good moments in this book, because ol’ Russ is a good writer and a very clever chap. His description of Jeremy Paxman as a ‘somnolent croc’ rather than ‘salivating pitbull’ is neat. Coming as I do from a similar part of the world to ‘ol Russ, I can attest from experience that his description of the shopping centre Lakeside is spot on. There are many fine moments of honesty too: he says he knows he’s meant to care about Palestinian children, but gets far more angry when he can’t use his mobile phone abroad because of ‘some intricate admin around roaming’. But it’s all riven with mild patronising. While Brand was on his journey (drug addiction, hedonism, marrying a celeb, Hollywooding, kicking the habit) some of us were reading books about politics, about the nature of voting, the discontent of modern hyper-capitalism, of governing a large society. Yet ol’ Russ lectures the rest of us about it like some snotty first year anthropology undergraduate who’s read one book on post-modernism and suddenly thinks his parents are closed minded morons. ‘We have been told that freedom is the ability to pursue petty trivial desires’, he confidently declares ‘when true freedom is the freedom from these petty trivial desires’. Have we? Is it? There are, I believe, some decent books on the subject of freedom that he might enjoy reading.

And if he’d read some of these books, he wouldn’t directly contradict himself repeatedly. In chapter 18, he sort of sets out an ideal way of arranging society: ‘each group is fully autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or these fellowships as a whole. I think this is a beautiful principle’. Later, he adds that obviously we would also ‘need to safeguard against domineering individuals tyrannizing systems designed for the community’. ….Oh f— me Russell ! You’ve just described almost word for word modern liberalism, set out by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), and which most British law tries to follow. Later, he describe the twelve traditions of anarchism: ‘I love this idea: no individual has authority; the group has authority; the group conscience is expressed through voting.’ Very peculiar stuff from the country’s most famous non-voter.

But perhaps all these gripes miss the point of this book. I think Brand views himself as a sort of modern court jester, someone who bounds around saying exaggerated and silly things – hedging it all with jokes and self-deprecation. This is how he does his interviews. Say something outrageous, as soon as it gets tricky or complicated, reverts to jester: ah, I’m just an ordinary bloke m8, just an idiot really, haha. Silly old me etc. And for all the b——ks, jesters play a useful social role, saying things no-one else in court dares. He’s a modern Situationist (he mentions them repeatedly) who were 1960s French philosophers that believed in creating unusual and bizarre situations to make everyone realize the absurdity of the society in which they lived, thereby sparking (that phrase again) spiritual, then political, revolution.  I think he knows lots of what he’s written is wrong, silly, and poorly thought out – but that’s not the point, because he’s trying to make a scene, to stir it up. Yes of course there are the hypocrisies (we shouldn’t buy iPhones – but I have one) and the needlessly offensive jokes (about 9/11) and factual inaccuracies. All infuriating, and that’s the point. He’s making a scene.

So that brings me to the crux of the matter. Brand has got many people into contact with politics and political ideas. For better or worse, he’s able to reach parts most of us cannot. Is that a good thing? Not if the terms of involvement is based on misinformation, lazy faux intellectualism and stupid self-help dribble. This book has plenty. But I trust people, and I think they will read Revolution, ponder it, jettison the rubbish and realize that there are also plenty of serious and decent ideas in there too.  Brand argues the environment is in jeopardy – and we aren’t doing anything much about it.  Workers, he reckons, should be represented on boards. Too many jobs are meaningless and unfulfiling. There are new opportunities to involve people in politics using modern technology. The war on drugs could be betterapproached as a public health rather than a criminal issue.  Politics can be fun, yes, fun, with jokes and all. All of these ideas are important and deserve a wide audience. And above all, he argues that there are alternatives to modern hyper capitalism – it’s not inevitable that we slink quietly along. He hints at self-governing autonomous self-sustaining communities as an alternative model. He hasn’t thought this through of course, but fortunately other people have, and they are worth thinking about. I still think his call for people to not vote is idiotic, misguided, and self-defeating. He thinks it legitimizes the system and would prefer people to get involved in other types of political protest. He’s half right. People should do both.

So Revolution is based on a flawed and lazy analysis of society, offers the wrong solutions, and is often badly written. But there are flashes of worthy ideas, and it certainly succeeds as a Situationist spectacle. And I think we need more spectacles, more challenges, even if they are misguided. So on balance I’m glad ol’ Russ is thinking and writing about politics rather than money, about society rather than endless acquisition and sleeping with supermodels. He could have made another s— film instead. Although I disagree with a lot of it vehemently, he’s saying, underneath all the drivel, that together we could create a better system of government and a better society. He’s right. But in the end, I just can’t shake the feeling he’s better than this book, and he knows it. So, yes, I’m glad he’s written this book, and I’m glad people will read it. He should now go and write a better one.