Russell Brand has caused yet another disturbance in the Twittersphere with his recent appearance on Newsnight. Many question why a mere comedian should be afforded the gravitas of a one-on-one interview by Jeremy Paxman. The obvious answer is his obvious intelligence and eloquence, but he is interesting beyond his showbiz facade.
I know many people dislike Brand, with his airy-fairy bohemian language, over-gesturing, crudeness and simplistic belief in socialism; personally, I like him. I’ve watched his material for years, seeing past the flamboyant performance art of his stand-up comedy to the intelligent foundations beneath. And, importantly, he makes me laugh – a comedian’s raison d’être, after all. Several years ago I arrived in Edinburgh for a few days at the Fringe, walked up those never-ending steps from the dinginess of Waverley station into the majesty of Princes Street, to be greeted immediately by Russell Brand and his entourage walking past. He noticed that I’d recognised him, smiled and said “Wotcha mate!” In that passing second his joie de vivre was contagious.
But Brand is more than just a former addict-turned comedian. Here he was in front of Britain’s toughest political interviewer mocking democracy and promoting revolution; even Paxman looked shocked. Brand rightly pointed out that voting is useless, it changes nothing: “why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”. He then railed against the inequity in society and linking this to the self-serving political elite. He boasted of never having voted, to which Paxman used the political-establishment line of ‘if you don’t participate then you have no say’; Brand decried this mantra as the con-trick that it is.
And then on BBC’s Newsnight, its flagship TV news platform, Brand advocated revolution! He didn’t go into detail about how this revolution would happen (thankfully, as advocating violence to enact political change is illegal under the various Terrorism Acts), but was adamant that this was the only way to change society radically. Personally I don’t agree, but I do share his belief that democracy isn’t going to help the state abandon its ways.
At this stage I agree with much of Brand’s enthusiastic critique of society. However, as many other libertarians would agree, it all goes wrong here. As you would expect, if you know anything about him, Brand then espouses as the saviour of humanity “a socialist egalitarian solution based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for […] any company exploiting the environment”. His policy to reduce inequality we need to tax corporations hard, ‘catching’ tax avoiders, and all the usual Marxian dialectic and faux-logic (“profit is a filthy word because wherever there is profit there is also deficit”) short of putting evil capitalists up against the wall come the glorious day.
So Brand is intelligent, why socialism? I believe there are a few options on this…
1. He’s taking the piss? His eloquence and political solutions are just his own performance art, and he’s parodying Wolfie Smith.
2. He honestly thinks this is the best solution?
3. He, like many who make their living in the public view, recognises that saying you believe in socialism is the easiest way: you appear caring and cuddly, albeit ignoring the evidence of the vast social, economic and political inequities that socialism brings. (Why anyone thinks that being proud of believing in socialism is any better than believing in fascism is beyond me: they are the same evil ideology separated by relatively few characteristics).
As a libertarian, I share his anger at the political class, the inequality in society, and damage to the environment: he is right to see the existing system as the fault. However, I disagree vehemently with him as to the solution. Only voluntary trade (‘capitalism’ if you will) can improve this. Without the individual’s self-interested actions we would live in a society where the bureaucrat controls our lives, deciding our job, pay and conditions. Why would anyone think that Whitehall can make decisions about my life better than me? This is idealistic nonsense: to decry the status quo and then think that ‘administrators’ could control the economy better than millions of self-interested individuals. The inequalities that Brand so dislikes still exist after 70 years of our glorious welfare state, so why on earth would one think more statism would change that?
Brand is right, a revolution is coming. However it’s not a socialist revolution, despite his support for neo-socialist groups like the anti-capitalist Occupy movement. The rising wealth in China, India and Africa, all due to international trade, is creating a new class of educated young, people whose parents struggled in poverty. Even Bono has come to the realisation that trade not aid is needed to lift Africans out of poverty. This wealth and education, along with the international awareness that social media has brought, will create a desire amongst those not enjoying it to participate. Unfortunately this new-found approach to individual voluntary action isn’t shared by all.
In the UK we have created a society where school leavers expect work to be given to them, or free money if nobody thinks them worth employing. That entrepreneurial spirit required for growth is lacking in many in the UK, despite attempts by the BBC to promote it with such successful pro-business franchised shows as The Apprentice and, more importantly, Dragons’ Den. Sadly many of our youth have been left behind, indoctrinated by state education that society (i.e. government, i.e. the taxpayer, i.e. them and their parents) owes them a living. As Simon Kelner in the Independent says: “His call for revolution may be Spartist nonsense, but Brand definitely articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” While Brand recognises the anger of these left isolated from the productive world around them, he misses the cause.
It is a shame that Brand hasn’t recognised voluntary transactions, free trade, as the greatest route away from the inequality that he rightly despises; that the state that he advocates more of as being the root cause of much of that inequality. Imagine the fireBrand in action, convincing the youth, if he understood and believed in the coherent, egalitarian philosophy of libertarianism.
In the meantime we must just be glad he’s arguing against established politics, politicians and democracy. Come the glorious day…