Notes From the Margins…

The Strange Cult of Russell Brand Part II

  • November 11, 2014
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I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised that my recent thoughts on the Russell Brand phenomenon have attracted far more comments on this site and on Facebook than my posts usually get – it’s in the nature of the Brand phenomenon that when you speak about him people sit up and listen.   I’ve written hundreds of pieces about what I consider to be far more important subjects over the last few years, yet now people who have never commented on any of them have roused themselves to counter or protest the criticisms I made.

Some of these criticisms have been of the usual personal kind; that i’m jealous, bitter, full of ‘hate’ etc.     No surprises there.     The left often reacts like this when its idols are held up to scrutiny.     When I once criticized the dreadful fraud Johan Hari I remember being described as a ‘bitter hack’ on the Medialens website.     When I said that I found the sexual allegations directed against Julian Assange ‘creepy’ in a piece that otherwise criticized the attacks upon him in the British press I was similarly accused of being ‘against sex’ and joining in the hate campaign against him.

Just to make it clear: if I see a person who I think is a fake or may simply have flaws I’m not going to not say so just because he or she is a ‘leftist’.     It seems that in some leftist circles that it’s fine to say what you like about Blair, Bush or George Osborne say, but say anything negative about one of us and criticism suddenly becomes ‘hate’ or ‘jealousy’.

Other critics have insisted that Brand is an invaluable asset to the cause and suggested therefore that criticisms of the man or the ‘caravan of change’ that he is supposedly leading are somehow reactionary, damaging to the ‘movement’ and perhaps ‘counter-revolutionary’.

These arguments tend to break down into the following general categories a) that Brand is ‘engaging’ people – particularly young people – with radical politics b) that the media attention that Brand is receiving will open the gates for the rest of us and therefore bring the revolution closer c) that Brand is acting as a celebrity-advocate for worthy causes that would otherwise receive little attention d) that Brand is a real threat to the system and that’s why he is being criticized.

Regarding a) I have not seen any evidence that Brand is ‘engaging’ young people – a suggestion that seems to assume that ‘young people’ are so stupid that even the most incoherent platitudinous gibberish will be enough to make them aware of inequality and lead them to join the ‘caravan’ or ‘Brand’s revolution.’

As far as b) is concerned, I can’t believe that anyone on the left takes this seriously for an instant.   Do people really believe that just because Brand gets on Newsnight, they will too?   Boy, let’s just dream on shall we?

I don’t have any problem with c) on one level, although I do think it raises the question of why these causes need a celebrity-advocate to bring them to public attention in the first place.

As for d), well I’ve already made clear that I don’t think that Brand represents any threat at all and that if he did, he would be as ignored as the causes that he now advocates.

Some people have asked me whether I want Brand to just ‘shut up’ and whether I think that ‘celebrities’ shouldn’t speak out on political issues.   The answer to both questions is no.   Because famous people are moral agents, who are as entitled as anyone else to have political views and speak out and campaign on them, and it’s rare and unusual for any of them to articulate arguments about inequality and social justice that have generally been a leftist preoccupation.

In this sense Brand could be considered an asset, if you ignore the massive ego and self-regard that seems to have accompanied his conversion to a ‘total revolution of consciousness.’   We are, after all, talking about a man who has written, ‘Capitalism has brought us many useful tools and systems: the laptop I type this on, the money I bought it with, the fame that means you”ve heard of me and are reading this.’

Well go ahead and call me counter-revolutionary, but it takes a real jerk to say something like that.   Or maybe it’s just some kind of postmodern irony that a staid old git like me doesn’t get, you know, like the fact that Brand once turned up to visit destitute asylum-seekers in a chauffeur-driven limousine.   Call me old-fashioned, but I have met men and women who have worked with destitute asylum seekers for years in complete obscurity, and I admire them a hell of a lot more than I admire Brand.

And I have also met people who really did lay their lives on the line for the causes they believed in, so forgive me if I feel just a little bit sceptical when I hear a celebrity millionaire saying that he is willing to die for a revolution that he compares to a post-addiction recovery process.

Some people have asked me if I have read Brand’s book.     The answer is no.   I was leafing through it the other day in Housmans, wondering what I might have missed, and a quick browse made it clear that I was missing nothing at all.

Oddly, I’m not galvanised by observations such as ‘The significance of consciousness itself as a participant in what we perceive as reality is increasingly negating what we understood to be objectivity’? Or ‘ Revolution is change. I believe in change, personal change most of all. Know, too, that I have seen what fame and fortune have to offer and I know it is not the answer. Of course, I have to change as an individual and part of that will be sharing wealth, though without systemic change, that will be a sweet, futile gesture.’

And you actually expect me to take this guy seriously and read the WHOLE BOOK?   When Johan Hari is cited in the acknowledgements and may even have contributed to writing it?     When the same creep produces his Trews show, on which Brand has invited the warmongering archthug Alistair Campbell to analyse the media for him as if he was a legit guy?

Yet such is the hero-worship that Brand   has accrued on the left that   none of this even seems to matter.     Last week the millionaire activist/revolutionary got his solicitors to threaten Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore with libel because she suggested that his book was ghostwritten – presumably by Hari –   but   I have yet to hear any of Brand’s defenders (worshippers?) suggest that using the rich man’s libel laws to silence a critical journalist might not be a particularly revolutionary thing to do.

Hey, it’s just Russell being Russell, innit?   And mention those things and you must be part of the gatekeeper/Oxbridge/counter-revolutionary/corporate-funded and corporate-loving elite.   At least that’s what Neil Clark seems to think, in a spectacularly dim piece criticizing the media ‘blood sport’ that has led to criticisms of Brand’s book.

According to Clark, these criticisms have nothing to do with the fact that his book might be rubbish; it’s all an expression of ‘middle class’ snobbery from an ‘Elite Journos Club’, made up of ‘Oxbridge’ journalists resentful of an ordinary self-educated working class bloke who has crossed media ‘red lines’ in opposing ‘ the elite’s policy of endless war’ etc, etc.

This is a travesty of an argument.     Anyone who has read this blog will know that I hold no brief whatsoever for Nick Cohen, Aaronovitch et al, but I don’t really care what university they went to.     And criticizing someone in print is not a ‘blood sport’ and Brand is not a victim.     Clark wilfully misrepresents the criticisms directed at him, using the well-worn trope of inverted snobbery that has been endemic amongst the British left for a very long time.

If the ‘elite’ is so afraid of Brand, then why is he a regular guest on Newsnight and Start the Week?    Never mind.     As far as I can see, the criticisms of Brand’s book have mostly been aimed at the manifest stupidities, shallowness, narcissism and absurdities of a book that deserves everything it got.

So to repeat, I have nothing against Brand’s activism.   As far as i’m concerned he can say what he wants as loudly as he wants, and he may even do some short term good.   But he is ultimately a sideshow.     And it seems to me that in its determination to ignore his contradictions, hypocrisies and absurdities and transfrom him into some kind of lodestone of revolutionary integrity, the left does itself no favours whatsoever, and actually exposes itself to ridicule.

And I can’t help feeling that, whatever short term publicity ‘Russell Brand’s revolution’ may have attracted to the cause, it is ultimately a sign of political desperation and intellectual bankruptcy rather than a confident and revitalised movement that knows where it is going and how to get there.




  1. Steve

    12th Nov 2014 - 6:28 pm

    Glad to have you back Matt,almost thought you’d given up after the last brand piece.

    • Matt

      12th Nov 2014 - 10:53 pm

      Thanks Steve. In fact I was away in Ecuador when I wrote that piece. A week in Galapagos off the Internet meant that I wasn’t able to write anything. In any case, I think I’ll leave off on Russell Brand for now…

  2. Nik

    14th Nov 2014 - 1:30 pm

    Noticed your reply just now. I have to backtrack a little on what I wrote in my first reply, also having read your Brand Cult Part II I want to emphasize that the “Don’t be a hater” plus the 😉 probably had an effect which I did not intend it to have. So again: I do not think that you are actually a “hater”, I merely tried to “tease” you (which obviously backfired heh) _not_ to take the whole thing too seriously. I should probably have simply written that..

    Now to my backtrack: As I wrote in my second reply I know Brand from a few youtube videos and have the luxury of not being exposed to the coverage of his persona and and ideas on national level. I now read up on him and realized that my defending him has to do with the fact that all I knew about him was a few cleverish, laddy interviews on youtube, in which he said some refreshing things by celeb standards. Par example I really enjoyed him wiping the floor with Hitchens (the brother) on the topic of Drugs or the way he dealt with Paxman.

    On top of that I simply got hung up on your Farage comparison which at first glance seemed sensationally unfair to me and which lead me to say that what you wrote is _borderline_ hateful (mind the border)! Having read your latest reply and having read up on Brand I now get what you mean.

    I guess the whole ordeal is a classic case of me knowing a bit too little about Brand and you knowing much more about the Brand Saga 😉 which resulted in vastly different perspectives of the pros and cons of the “lad”.

    PS: I just want to point out that I am not one of those who only started posting here after you wrote something about Brand! 🙂

    • Matt

      14th Nov 2014 - 3:33 pm

      No probs Nik! We are entitled to disagree after all, and it will always be a pleasure to have you as a reader. I should point out that I am not necessarily one of those who knows ‘much more’ about Brand than you or anyone else. I have simply found that my viewpoint is at odds with the prevailing consensus on the left, and I’m afraid that has made me rather sceptical not only about Brand himself, but also about the current state of the left. And I know you have posted before!

      • Nik

        14th Nov 2014 - 11:13 pm

        You’d like it over here Matt, no one really knows him! 🙂

        Glad we managed to clear things up!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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