Wednesday 30 October 2013

Is Russell Brand the UK's Beppe Grillo?

Last week comedian Russell Brand guest edited the left-wing New Statesman, and called for a revolution in his editorial. In TV interviews he's gained a lot of attention, both supportive and derisive, on his views of political apathy and his message to young people not to vote.

So is Brand the UK version of Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian that's rocked the Italian political establishment through his blogging and the success of the 5 Star Movement?

No. The answer is no. He's not.

And actually comparing Brand to Grillo should give people pause for thought, because it's in the differences that we can see what Brand's prospects of success are. Supporters say that Brand has made a lot of good points about how ineffectual the current system is, and detractors point out that Brand hasn't got anything to replace the current system with. Brand does make some good points about invested interests and now the left needs to boil its abstract thinking down to real life experiences. But it's the childish focus on revolution where the whole thing unravels.

Vive la révolution?

First thing's first: Brand is actually calling for a revolution. Brand doesn't just assert that apathy is a rational response to a system that has failed to cater to the needs of the population - he urges people to stop voting for the explicit reason that it's a release and that opting out of the electoral system will speed up the growth of tensions leading to revolution.

This point needs to be addressed. While supporters have defended Brand for not coming up with a post-revolution system to work towards (he's been busy editing a magazine), this isn't good enough. A revolution involves the use of force, either in taking lives or injuring people, or by taking away people's political rights. (When Brand says "I take the right!", it should be remembered that a revolution removing a government would negate the political voices of the people who had voted). It's because of this use of force in the context of a democratic system, which is geared towards discussion and majoritarian rule, that people demand to know the alternative before they are supposed to violate the rights of others.

So when Brand says that it's up to those in power to provide answers, he's making a flashy statement and promptly denying responsibility for it. The joke excuse of having a magazine to write is a slap in the face - the point of that opportunity was for him to set out his political stall. He could have just criticised the way politics worked and people would have agreed and left it at that; it's because he called for a revolution that people rightly are asking what would that entail.

Earlier I said it was a childish approach to revolution, and that's because of his attitude to violence:

"At this point I’d attended a few protests and I loved them. At a Liverpool dockers march, the chanting, the bristling, the rippedup paving stones and galloping police horses in Bono glasses flipped a switch in me. I felt connected, on a personal level I was excited by the chaos, a necessary component of transition, I like a bit of chaos however it’s delivered. The disruption of normalcy a vital step in any revolution. Even aesthetically, aside from the ideology, I beam at the spectacle of disruption, even when quite trivial."

Coming from a part of the world where we have riots and protests over political symbols and wouldn't mind a bit of normalcy, I'm not so comfortable with this "bit of a laugh" spin on things. In fact, it starts to sound as if it's the fact that politics bores him, and only this kind of politics entertains him enough to be worthy of the name - which is a very self-obsessed outlook to have on things.

He's no Grillo

While Grillo doesn't seek to be elected to the Italian parliament, his 5 Star Movement has entered parliament with a bang, winning 25.55% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies and 23.79% in the Senate elections. They're not in power, but they've made it much harder for a government to be formed (it's a Grand Coalition), and they are able to use this as a campaign for their core issues, including political reform. Grillo and the 5 Start Movement are "anti-politics" in the sense that they're against corrupt politicians and want to see politicians serve the people more, but they haven't rejected the ballot box as a means of change or political activism.

Taking parliamentary seats - and depriving mainstream parties of those seats - is probably the most disruptive political activism of all. It denies the system from ignoring your legitimacy, it disrupts or even prevents the exercise of power by the targeted elites, and it provides the institutional power an positions as a platform for change. As Brand has not formulated an alternative to democracy, I assume that he's not against democracy as a concept and doesn't have much of an argument against this except the "all politicians are corrupt liars" line. Until he comes up with an alternative, then he hasn't explained why people shouldn't use elections to try to change things, and he certainly hasn't put a good case forward for the institutional reasons why the current system could never work (just that these politicians are all in bed with big business).

In truth it would be harder for Brand to achieve the same results in the UK due to the first-past-the-post electoral system. But the point is that this kind of campaigning implies organisation, working with others and, well, lots of work. And I can't see Brand committing himself to that. Waiting for the inevitable revolution (while getting to talk about it in the media, naturally), seems to be more his style.

P.S. Humour and politics

Strangely Brand doesn't seem to get what a good mix of politics and humour could be. Humour spices up a political message if it shows up the opposing argument, highlights the ridiculousness of the current situation, or adds character. But there's also a danger that you just shoot yourself in the foot with it and show up your own message. Brand's own example is this:

"When Ali G, who had joined protesters attempting to prevent a forest being felled to make way for a road, shouted across the barricade, “You may take our trees, but you’ll never take our freedom,” I identified more with Baron Cohen’s amoral trickster than the stern activist who aggressively admonished him: “This is serious, you c***.”"

Humour to deflate, highlight and add character works in politics - humour painting your own side as hopeless kind of stops people from taking it seriously. I can see how an activist might be worried that a celebrity is just using them for a laugh, rather than actually being for that cause (especially if they turned up as a comedy character known for showing people up). It's the difference between having a laugh while doing something, and ending up being the laughingstock. And as a comedian, Brand really should get that...

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