:: Article

The Jester’s Banquet

By Max Dunbar.

Russell Brand, Revolution, Century, 2014

When the famous comedian, movie star and hedonist Russell Brand guest edited the New Statesman in 2013, the frontpiece of the edition was a long essay by Brand himself, that called for nothing less than total revolution. Brand said that all politicians were trash, democracy was hollowed out, the country ruled by machine corporations, and voting was a waste of time. ‘We are still led by blithering chimps, in razor-sharp suits, with razor-sharp lines, pimped and crimped by spin doctors and speech-writers. Well-groomed ape-men, superficially altered by post-Clintonian trends,’ Brand complained. ‘I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either.’

The piece was accompanied by an interview with Newsnight‘s Jeremy Paxman — a man of a hard news background, wry, forensic and sceptical, everything Russell Brand is not. Paxman demanded: ‘Russell Brand, who are you to edit a political magazine?’

Russell Brand: Well, I suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman. I don’t know what the typical criteria is. I don’t know many people that edit political magazines. Boris [Johnson], he used to do one, didn’t he? So I’m a kind of a person with crazy hair, quite a good sense of humor, don’t know much about politics –- I’m ideal.

Jeremy Paxman: But is it true you don’t even vote?

Russell Brand: Yeah, no, I don’t vote.

Jeremy Paxman: Well, how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?

Russell Brand: Well, I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means, alternate political systems.

Jeremy Paxman: They being?

Russell Brand: Well, I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on me plate. But I say, but here’s the thing you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power, not people like doing a magazine for a novelty.

Political professionals recoiled. Conservatives didn’t like Russell Brand because he was a rich hypocrite calling for revolution. Labour activists didn’t like Russell Brand because he sneered at the hard work of incremental progress and social democracy. Professional revolutionaries were suspicious of him because he was a mainstream celebrity neck deep in the capitalist hegemony. Brand always came off like — in John Niven’s marvellous phrase — ‘a man who has checked his privilege and found it good.’

Immediately after Brand’s ‘Revolution’ essay, numerous critiques appeared of his article, some very good ones – see the pieces by actor Robert Webb and radical journalist Nick Cohen. In his response, also published in the NS, Webb implored Brand to think about the context of what he was saying and to use his great fame a little more responsibly:

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.

And yet there were many others who defended the comedy revolutionary. Come on, people say. Doesn’t the guy have a point? He’s a working class lad from Essex — aren’t you all being a bit snobbish? Surely being a socialite of the MTV age doesn’t disqualify you from having an opinion, any more than being a binman does. So Brand’s wealthy and famous. So what. Maybe a lot of what he says is stupid, but his heart’s in the right place. The choice between Brand’s mashup of trickster myths and Chomsky quotes, and the machine politician who repeats speeches generated by committee, is not an appealing one. And in truth you can see why people get sick of differing variants of establishment authoritarian politics.

One question cuts through all this. How serious is Russell Brand? Does he actually believe what he’s saying. I was at a talk by a young lecturer in political science and Brand’s name came up. ‘Russell Brand is promoting a comedy tour,’ the lecturer replied. ‘He hit on a way to promote this tour and it worked brilliantly. Everyone’s talking about him. He’s a genius, but it’s all PR.’ So maybe that’s it all along. The trickster has the last laugh. Politicians, analysts, activists, newsreaders, editors, journalists, bloggers — they’ve all been gulled into taking Brand seriously. They have followed Brand’s dance into the magic mountain and the door has slammed closed. The debate about Brand’s essay and, now, his Revolution book, is nothing more than an inadvertent elaboration in a deft publicity matrix. About as far from real politics as you can get.

Russell Brand’s Revolution indeed reads like a long comic routine. There’s rumours that Brand didn’t write the book, but he certainly at least dictated it. It reads like he speaks, surreal, silly, personalised, scatological and digressive. Some of Brand’s jokes work on the page, others bomb. Cumulatively the reading experience is exhausting. In what passes for research Brand has spoken to various economists, development workers and labour activists, serious, earnest people, people who actually give a shit. The result reads like a kind of prose Ali G where Brand quotes a field professional and then uses this as a springboard to go off on his own tangent. You then get exchanges like this:

Serious economist: Blah blah trade tariffs blah blah import quotas yip yip sustainable development yip yip arable land […]

Russell Brand: Yeah! Wow! Like, if I say to David Cameron, ‘Well, you can’t just nick my nan’s iPhone’ he can’t just throw me in the Tower of London like a fiddly prince, can he? Wow! Obviously when I did my TV show ‘Brandy Wandy Canned X’ it was well interesting because we had this guy right who could do impressions of fish? Marlin, cod, mackerel, batter […]

That’s not a direct quote. But it might as well be.

What does Brand want? You can pick a few concrete proposals out of the babble. He says that ‘Any corporation selling us products on the basis of anything other than utility should be shut down.’ He wants to abolish credit and debt. He wants a direct or Athenian or liquid democracy – Brand can’t decide which term he likes best, or how it would work as opposed to our current sham puppet system. How would things actually get done? There is a lot of talk about delegates and assemblies and representations. Brand has a system of ‘micro-level discussions’. ‘Bring it up at the micro meeting,’ he says, ‘work it through, take it to the assembly the following month.’ The glorious utopia is like… a community meeting. That never ends.

But maybe I’m missing the point. Brand writes in his NS essay that ‘For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political.’ In the book he goes on at length about spiritualisms and mythos therapies he’s tried. The way forward is inner spiritual growth, impossible in our godless, atheistic, materialist society. He slams ‘the mechanistic, reductive dogma of ‘scientism’ — the belief that everything in the world can be explained using the scientific method.’ From the essay: ‘This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation.’ He doesn’t realise — even as he quotes Einstein and David Eagleman — that what he calls ‘scientism’ was never just about measurable results, that science never closed its eyes to the intangible, that it actually achieved a lot more in exploring our hidden multiverse than many people realise.

But that is where Brand begins to take himself seriously. He shares a meeting with a recovering alcoholic in New Orleans: ‘He looked like a man who had lived, who’d had long nights and fistfights, but his eyes were as clear as his words.’ This man said: ‘Why would you be satisfied with the scraps of fame and fortune, of sex and distraction?… Money, fame — those are the crumbs… I want to be at the banquet.’

So maybe that is the conundrum. What do you do when you’re rich, famous, women love you, reporters hang off your every word — and inside you still feel like the same boring fuck you were before? And not only that — you still feel miles away from the centre, the place where things are decided, the Inner Ring. What do you do then? A spiritual conundrum. A tricky one.

Brand’s spiritual mission inspires his most intense prose. Check this out, from the essay:

The model of pre-Christian man has fulfilled its simian objectives. We have survived, we have created agriculture and cities. Now this version of man must be sacrificed that we can evolve beyond the reaches of the ape.

If like the Celtic people we revered the rivers we would prioritise this sacred knowledge and curtail the attempts of any that sought to pollute the rivers. If like the Nordic people we believed the souls of our ancestors lived in the trees, this connection would make mass deforestation anathema.

Little wonder then that these myths, these codes for our protection and survival, have been aborted and replaced with nihilistic narratives of individualism, peopled by sequin-covered vacuous heroes.

Now there is an opportunity for the left to return to its vital, virile, vigorous origins. A movement for the people, by the people, in the service of the land.

Our young people need to know there is a culture, a strong, broad union, that they can belong to, that is potent, virile and alive.

This kind of thing, long ago, used to appeal to young people of a certain style. Nature! Virility! Strength! Rivers! The cry of the wolf, the soaring eagle, the communion of the Volk. The striving for improvement of the spirit — of the species. Around the time Brand’s NS essay came out, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett won the Samuel Johnson Prize for her superb biography of Gabriel D’Annunzio — the Italian poet, rake, hedonist, orator and fascist revolutionary. From his ravings crawled Mussolini’s totalitarianism. Reading Hughes-Hallett’s biography, historian Tom Holland made the connection: ‘More Russell Brand style rhetoric from D’Annunzio: ‘The crowd howls like a woman in labour. The crowd writhes in giving life to its own destiny’.’ But I don’t get a sense of the sinister from Brand. D’Annunzio flew a fighter plane and dropped bombs. You can’t imagine Russell Brand dropping a bomb (unless it was some kind of silly glitter thing that went ‘pffft’). D’Annunzio led two thousand men and seized the republic of Fiume. Russell Brand is going to stand for Mayor of London. Maybe.

Still, although I don’t believe Brand is wicked or malign, he attracts crooks and frauds like moths to a flame. He congratulates Johann Hari, the plagiarist and charlatan, for doing his research (so that explains the research). He set up a book launch debate with a guy called Laurence Easman, who turned out to be a genuine neo-Nazi with links to bailiff and blacklist firms — a screwup so egregious even Brand had to pull out. I follow a brilliant novelist, Jeremy Duns, who uses his Twitter account to ruthlessly fact check and expose such frauds. He is a brilliant man but I think that, with his emphasis on verifiable facts and journalistic rigour, he misses the point. Brand, Hari and Easman are all pure political subjectivists who advance romantic narratives against what they see as the hypocrisy of objective truths and reason and ‘scientism’.

In this, they are perfect figures of a consumer society. It’s not about what actually goes on in the world. It’s about the Game itself.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 30th, 2014.