The Strange Cult of Russell Brand
- October 26, 2014
This won’t make me popular, but I’m tired of hearing about Russell Brand. It has now become impossible to go on Facebook without coming across a post hailing his latest pronouncements or interviews. These postings are almost always celebratory, as though Brand were some kind of leftwing Moses, coming down from the Internet with a stack of Youtube videos in one hand and the skulls of Jeremy Paxman or Evan Davies in the other
On the other side you can barely open a newspaper without some twat like Piers Morgan, John Lydon or James Bloodworth trying to take Brand down, or solemnly informing their readers that his politics aren’t ‘real politics’.
So let me lay my cards on the table. I am not a member of the ‘establishment’ seeking to put Brand in his place in order to stop the anticapitalist revolution from unfolding or protect my privileged position. But I am incredulous and even alarmed by Brand’s transformation into a revolutionary icon.
Before his New Statesman issue, I wasn’t especially impressed by him. In fact I was repelled by the grotesquely sexist ‘aren’t we just lads having fun’ humiliation of poor old Andrew Sachs that he and Jonathan Ross once engaged in just for the crack. I occasionally read his columns in the Guardian and found them to be sporadically witty, but also showy and pretentious.
Now please don’t accuse me of condescension just yet. Because I was favourably impressed by his interview with Paxman. It was fresh and obviously sincere, and there is a great deal of Brand’s critique of early twentieth-first century capitalism that I agree with.
That said, I cannot hear Brand talk without an overwhelming sense of the narcissistic poseur that coexists with his obvious sincerity, and I am instinctively repelled by the cult of personality that has been established around him, particularly on the left, who have greeted him with the adulation that you would expect to be heaped on One Direction.
I suspect that Brand’s looks are crucial to his appeal. He looks like Che Guevara, and also like Jesus, as far as anybody knows, and that makes him a perfect avatar for the 21st century ‘revolution’, and has also enhanced his media appeal.
It isn’t Brand’s fault that he’s a goodlooking guy. I don’t condemn him for not ‘having solutions’ or ‘alternatives’ to the problems and inequities he describes. That absence is hardly unique to him. Nor do I begrudge him his inconsistencies, absurdities or contradictions. We all have them. And I certainly don’t wish to counterpose him with the ‘sensible’ politics advocated by Polly Toynbee et al.
But some of his pronouncements are really quite glib and stupid. Doesn’t anyone on the left find something anomalous in the fact that a millionaire celebrity is telling people not to pay their mortgages or go to work as an expression of rebellion? Wasn’t anyone suspicious when Brand told Evan Davis that he didn’t want ‘to look at a graph mate’ because graphs were just another gimmick to fool ‘people like us’?
Davis may be a typical mainstream journalist who never kicks upwards, but he presented Brand with facts that required a counterargument. Brand may not have had the facts to hand to refute these arguments, but his blokeish ‘simple folks like us’ dismissal reeks of the same populism that Nigel Farage invariably resorts to whenever anyone presents him with evidence contradicting his claims.
To some extent Brand is a leftwing Farage, and an English version of Beppe Grillo. And like Farage, he isn’t ‘like us’, at least not now. On the contrary he’s extremely famous and extremely rich. That in itself doesn’t mean that his ideas are fake or that he is a hypocrite, but it has brought him a level of attention that has not accrued to many other people who have put forward the same ideas, equally and often more persuasively.
Aha, I hear you say, a jealous hack speaketh. Let me nip that one in the bud. I am not referring to myself. But to people like Chomsky, David Harvey, Malcolm X, Sivanadan and many others, who acquired their influence through the quality of their ideas and the movements that they were involved in, and not because they were famous or photogenic.
Too many of Brand’s admirers seem to have forgotten this, to the point when anyone who doesn’t greet Brand’s every pronouncement with a cheery hallelujah is somehow part of a conspiracy to silence dangerous truths, or a member of a ‘media lynchmob’.
I would like to offer a counterargument, and suggest that the real reason for Brand’s appeal to Newsnight, the New Statesman etc, lies in precisely the fact that he isn’t dangerous, but famous, charismatic and a novelty who boosts ratings. That’s why he, like Alistair Campbell, was invited to edit the Staggers.
And I can’t help thinking that he is another product of the morbid cult of celebrity that produced Band Aid, Bono, Lady Di and George Clooney, in which serious ideas like antipoverty, mines, genocide etc only become worth paying attention to because someone famous is saying them.
We all know that the media acts like this. But what I find alarming is that sections of the left appear to be as susceptible to this celebrity worship as some of the ‘friends’ of Princess Diana once were in a very different context. If Brand, like Grillo and Farage, is a product of political disenchantment, his hero worship also reflects an element of desperation in the left.
It’s as if at last someone is paying attention to us because they’re paying attention to Brand. He may be a celebrity but he’s OUR celebrity. Hey look, Russell’s criticizing inequality! Hey, Russell says that democracy doesn’t work and that politicians are corrupt! Wow, Russell says we need a revolution! Look, Russell’s gone to one of our demonstrations!
Maybe this isn’t surprising. After all, the left has been losing, in the grand scheme of things, for many years. Even after the economic crisis and the horrific social cruelty inflicted by the Condem coalition, the great ‘protest’ party isn’t anything to do with the left, it’s Ukip.
In this context Brand maybe fulfils some compensatory necessity. The more he speaks, the closer we are to getting the truth out there, and the more truth that gets out past the media ‘gatekeepers’ the more likely it is that there will be a revolution, or just, anything at all.
If so, this is really barking up the wrong tree, or more appropriately, like stumbling across a pool of water in a desert. Because comedian messiahs are not going to compensate for the absence of movements, organizations, ideas and struggles waged by many people whose names will never become known. That’s how history changes, and that’s what we need more of.
If Brand contributes to that, then all well and good. But we’d do better to leave the celebrity worship out of it and get his contribution in proportion.
For as Brecht once said, unhappy is the land that needs heroes. Too many of us seem to have forgotten that too.