Notes From the Margins…

The Strange Cult of Russell Brand

  • October 26, 2014
  • by

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.






  1. D

    26th Oct 2014 - 5:15 pm

    This is bull. Your only criticism outside of a clash of tastes is he dismissed Evan Davis graph because graphs were just another gimmick to fool ‘people like us’. And this speaks to a larger problem Brand has with facts and counterarguments. And all this creates a hollow popularism.

    TBH figures and statistics are often used to misrepresent reality and power works it just that precise way so you’re being a little disingenuous,

    And the populism thing is he did drugs and is honest about it. We live in a world where the law demands a certain type of populism be made invisible and their are some many hypocrites. Brand brings this silent group and such implications to the surface

    • Matt

      26th Oct 2014 - 5:36 pm

      Well that’s clearly not my only criticism is it? And I have no idea what ‘law’ you’re referring to.

  2. Bernadette Hyland

    26th Oct 2014 - 6:29 pm

    I have to agree with you. But I think it reflects the dumbing down of our political culture in this country. As a socialist and writer who lives in the northwest I am totally disengaged with most of what goes on in our media. It has nothing to say to me or millions like me. The only people I see represented are people like Brand who are the eccentric types loved by the media, particularly because of his working class credentials or other Oxbridge types, usually men, who pop up to basically tell stories of how bad it is for the poor and disadvantaged of this country. Where are the working class heroes who are being victimised at work, that are leading struggles, by that I mean the men in the Blacklisting Campaign and women like Karen Reissmann in the anti NHS privatisation movement. Even on demos it has become the norm to invite a celeb or writer to speak as if working class people cannot tell their own stories. When did the Left lose confidence in their own people and why do our lives have to be mediated by “the famous” of one kind or another?

    • Matt

      26th Oct 2014 - 6:48 pm

      Exactly Bernadette, when did we? And why do we need a famous person to give validity to the ideas and struggles you talk about?

  3. Eric Randolph

    27th Oct 2014 - 8:38 am

    Excellent article as always, Matt.
    I must say I’m shocked, though. I don’t live in the UK and only sporadically spend time in activist left-wing circles, so I assumed everyone thought Brand was just for kids. I didn’t think adults actually took him seriously. That sounds horrendously patronising now I come to write it, but I did think that. Sort of like listening to Rage Against the Machine when I was a kid — a healthy way of directing adolescent rage, but you wouldn’t want to build a policy programme off it.

  4. Our distorted priorities | Homines Economici

    1st Nov 2014 - 12:24 am

    […] want to read about celebrities; my post on Owen Jones also got disproportionate traffic. As Matt says, the left is at least as guilty here as the right. There's a long and largely inglorious […]

  5. Nik

    1st Nov 2014 - 10:36 am

    Looks like we’re having our very first disagreement Matt! I think that comparing Brand or even mentioning him in the same sentence with Farage is extraordinarily unfair. Your whole criticism suggest that the only way he could make you happy would be to shut the f. up on political/social matters and be a celebrity. Period. It has a little flavour of you simply disliking the guy himself for who he is and how he says things and how that is covered by the media rather than having a problem with what he says. Again, seems like the only way he could make you happy is to stfu.

    Don’t get me wrong, I had my own problems understanding the “phenomenon” of the shagger of the year/former drug addict gone movie&media star type of UK celeb who all of a sudden starts to mutate into a social/political critic. This whole lad here lad there, chummy kind of talk isn’t really my cup of tea either. But let’s be fair: Compared to the myriad of generic celeb fucktarts who wouldn’t even dream of burning their fingers with by celeb standards more than incendiary/heretical views the guy is quite refreshing and rather thoughtful in his own way.

    Don’t be a hater, Matt! 😉

    PS: A fullstop at the end of the first paragraph apparently decided to hit the road never to be seen again!

    • Matt

      1st Nov 2014 - 8:54 pm

      Well we’ll have to disagree then Nik. I don’t think my comparison with Farage is unfair at all. Farage is a rightwing populist, and Brand is a leftwing populist. Both of them appeal in their different ways to the general disenchantment with ‘things as they are.’ Both have attracted way more attention than either of them deserve, in my opinion. I have never said that Brand should shut up. That is entirely your interpretation. I only question why so much of the left hangs on his every word, when what he was to say is neither original nor profound. I have known people with more courage, commitment and political intelligence than Brand has in his little finger, who have spent their entire lives defending the ideas and principles that he has belatedly discovered. Many of them have done this in complete obscurity. Yet now just because a celebrity comes along spouting revolutionary platitudes the left acts as if every tv appearance by Brand is bringing us closer to utopia? Absolutely ridiculous and childish. Are you aware that Brand appears to have threatened Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore with libel because he said something about her? Do you know what it is liked to be sued by millionaires who use the libel laws to shut people up? Well I do, and to see a so-called ‘revolutionary’ doing it is more evidence that deep, deep, deep down, Russell Brand is a very shallow person. And please stop calling me a ‘hater’. Criticising fakery does not equate with hatred. Cheers.

      • Nik

        3rd Nov 2014 - 11:23 am

        Well of course you can compare anything. The guy who killed someone while drunk and in a heated argument and the guy who is a serial killer. Both murderers, not doubt. But still there is quite a difference between them. So I am not sure if the logic of Brand-Populist, Farage-Populist thus Brand=Farage of the Left is fair. But probably we are just talking past each other because in German this a very very heavy weight thing to say. So if i were to say that populist, famous Lefty Soandso is the Jörg Haider of the left this would pretty much be as personal as it gets.

        But back to your reply. It seems to me that you are at least as or even more pissed off with the left that clings to every word he says as you are with him. I totally get that and do not count me among his “admirers”, honestly. I am just surprised at the borderline hatefulness (thus the “hater” you didn’t like, but I wrote it with a wink 😉 mind you, so don’t take it literally please). Usually your wellspoken, intelligent and enviable “wrath” which I have come to like so much is reserved for the likes of Herr Snooty, Osbourne et al. Well maybe you are able to get more mad about Brand and his following due to the fact that you are english and more exposed to him and the media bonanza around him. Who knows, maybe I might write much more nasty things about him if I were exposed to him on a more “national” level. I just know the “lad” via some youtube videos.

        PS: I just read the tweets Suzanne Moore wrote about the solicitors letter she received from Brand. I did not know about that. Quite idiotic to be honest. I liked the way she tweeted it though:

        suzanne moore @suzanne_moore · 31. Okt.
        Solicitors letter from Fight the Power Sir Russell Brand @rustyrockets A tad prickly. More Trews as it arrives.

        PPS: My name is Nik(olaus) 😉

        • Matt

          10th Nov 2014 - 7:16 pm

          Hi Nik. I know your name is Nik, but I was in Ecuador and was writing quickly when I got the chance, which wasn’t often, so I have now corrected it. Regarding the comparisons, of course I regard Brand as an infinitely more positive figure than Farage, but I made the comparison not to compare their negativity, but to suggest that both of them are are, in their different ways, populists, and because I think leftwing populism should not be immune to criticism. Sure I find a lot of what Brand says to be shallow, glib and unoriginal (except in so far as a famous person is saying it), but my main interest in him is the cult of personality being woven about him and what it says about the ‘left’ and the British left in particular. Because in the end I think Brand is a sideshow, but what is worrying is that normally intelligent and thoughtful people are talking about ‘Brand’s revolution’ and Brand’s ‘caravan of change’ as if every word he utters has profound and far reaching implications. I think that is dangerous. And as for the Suzanne Moore letter, I think it’s more than ‘idiotic’, I think it’s an act of gross hypocrisy for a celebrity/revolutionary to be using the British libel laws to silence a critic, and I think it says a great deal about Brand’s integrity or lack thereof.

  6. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

    1st Nov 2014 - 10:30 pm

    I go along with a lot of this (I know I’m a bit late reading this one).

    Let’s put on one side, for now, the poor judgements and laddism of Brand’s past

    If you listened to him on Start the Week ( it was a breath of fresh air on Radio 4. Impolite and interrupting for sure but impassioned, direct and forceful and with a lot of truth.

    And it’s not so very recent. I’ve read (via Twitter or whatever), really good articles by Brand in the most mass circulation red-tops arguing against racism and prejudice. If his celebrity status means young people, in particular, are listening to such arguments and discussing them, that’s wholly good. The Sun or the Mirror certainly aren’t going to give me of Matt a couple of pages to make such points.

    Is it shallow? Or just pitching ideas in a way that is digestible by the average person? Populism or good communication? All of these in my view.

    And Matt, although I understand that there are now no words that can shock, I dislike using words that till quite recently only meant a woman’s genitals to insult anyone. Says more about the vocabulary of the writer than the object. (Same applies to male genitalia of course, though calling someone a prick or a dick has been common usage for a very long time). Genitalia, when deployed responsibly, are good things, by and large, and it’s sad that in Britain in particular, they are so despised verbally. But I digress.

    • Matt

      2nd Nov 2014 - 12:00 am

      Paul, you are entitled to disagree with me as much as you like. But if you don’t like my vocabulary or find it limited I suggest you read other blogs, instead of giving me rather prissy lectures. But thank you for reminding me that genitalia can have a useful purpose. Good to know really.

  7. Steve Murray

    3rd Nov 2014 - 7:45 am

    I have been increasingly dismayed by people’s willingness to listen to a man who continues to lead a lifestyle so at odds with the one he suggests for others. The double standards are so blatant you begin to wonder if it is a very perverse wind up. Someone owning a 2.2 million mansion calling on others to default on mortgage payments is obscene. I’m really not sure why we are expected to forget the bloody awful films he was paid too much for, the Hello wedding at no little cost and the numerous corporate junkets…let alone forgive the sexual bullying and braggadocio.
    The awful irony is that any criticism of him is seen as striking a blow for ‘the establishment’ when he is very much a part of it. Hell, he even sings the praises of James Goldsmith.

  8. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

    10th Nov 2014 - 7:24 pm

    I tweeted earlier today:
    Tally ho! The elite’s new blood sport: hunting Russell Brand (@rustyrockets) | @NeilClark66 on RT Op-Edge (Nov 3rd)

    Interested in your comments, Matt. Of course, I’ve no idea of your educational or social background and I make no assumptions of that nature in drawing your attention to this article.

    • Matt

      13th Nov 2014 - 3:52 pm

      My comments are now available in part II!

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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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