The kind of people who can assemble huge crowds into one spot will be the major influences on mass culture in the next decade.
– Jim Morrison
Unless you’ve been on a digital detox, you’d have found it hard to miss Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in your feed. It has gone viral across social media, with the video footage alone attracting an average of a million YouTube views a day since it was published on 23 October (currently 6.5 million and rising).
Prompted by Brand’s appointment as guest editor of this week’s issue of London’s political and cultural magazine, New Statesman, the interview began with the question “Russell Brand, who are you to edit a political magazine?”
Brand’s subsequent disembowelling of the status quo of politics, economics and corporate influence on social and environmental breakdown has set the internet alight with discussion – some of it on the points Brand made, and predictably, much of it ad hominem attacks on the messenger.
It’s one thing to read the transcript or blogs commenting on the interview, another altogether to watch it:
In the following interview excerpt, after Brand admitted he doesn’t vote, Paxman asked him “well how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?”
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 alternative political systems?”
Paxman: “They being?”
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 that 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…”
Paxman: “…if you can’t be arsed to vote why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view?”
Brand: “You don’t have to listen to my political point of view. But it’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class, that has been going on for generations now. And which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit, complicity with that system and that’s not something I’m offering up.”
Paxman: “Well why don’t you change it then?”
Brand: “I’m trying to.”
Paxman: “Well why don’t you start by voting.”
Brand: “I don’t think it works. People have voted already and that’s what’s created the current paradigm.”
Paxman: “When did you last vote?”
Paxman: “You’ve never, ever voted?”
Brand: “No. Do you think that’s really bad?”
Paxman: “So you struck an attitude before, what, the age of 18?”
Brand: “Well I was busy being a drug addict at that point, because I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system that, really, just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population that it was voted in to serve.”
Paxman: “You’re blaming the political class for the fact that you had a drug problem?”
Brand: “No, no, no. I’m saying I was part of a social and economic class that is underserved by the current political system. And drug addiction is one of the problems it creates when you have huge, underserved, impoverished populations, people get drug problems. And, also, don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them. They see that it makes no difference. They see that they’re not served…”
Paxman: “Of course it doesn’t work for them if they didn’t bother to vote.”
Brand: “Jeremy, my darling, I’m not saying…the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs, they’re only interested in servicing the needs of the corporations. Look at..ain’t the Tories going to court, taking the EU to court, because they’re trying to curtail bank bonuses? Isn’t that what’s happening at the moment in our country? It is, innit?”
Brand: “So what am I gonna do, tune in for that?”
Paxman: “You don’t believe in democracy. You want a revolution don’t you?”
Brand: “The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting people all over the world and the genuine, legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.”
Paxman: “All of those things may be true.”
Brand: “They are true.”
Paxman: “But you took…I wouldn’t argue with you about many of them.”
Brand: “Well how come I feel so cross with you? It can’t just be because of that beard, it’s gorgeous.”
Paxman: “It’s possibly because…”
Brand: “And if the Daily Mail don’t want it, I do. Because I’m against them. Grow it longer. Tangle it into your armpit hair.”
Paxman: “You are a very trivial man.”
Brand: “What you think I am, trivial?”
Brand: “A minute ago you were having a go at me because I wanted a revolution now I’m trivial, I’m bouncing all over the place.”
Paxman: “I’m not having a go at you because you want a revolution, many people want a revolution, but I’m asking you what it would be like?”
Brand: “Well I think what it won’t be like is a huge disparity between rich and poor where 300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans, where there is an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually ignored, where welfare is slashed while Cameron and Osbourne go to court to defend the rights of bankers to continue receiving their bonuses. That’s all I’m saying.”
…within the existing paradigm, the change is not dramatic enough, not radical enough. So you can well understand public disturbances and public dissatisfaction, when there are not genuine changes and genuine alternatives being offered. I say when there is a genuine alternative, a genuine option, then vote for that. But until then, pffft, don’t bother. Why pretend? Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”
Paxman: “Because by the time somebody comes along you might think it worth voting for, it may be too late.”
Brand: “I don’t think so because the time is now, this movement is already occurring, it’s happening everywhere, communication is instantaneous and there are communities all over the world. The Occupy movement made a difference. Even if, only in that, it introduced, to the popular public lexicon, the idea of the 1% versus the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive, corporate and economic exploitation. These things are not nonsense. And these subjects are not being addressed. No one is doing anything about tax havens, no one is doing anything about their political affiliations and financial affiliations of the Conservative Party, so until people start addressing things that are actually real, why wouldn’t I be facetious, why would I take it seriously? Why would I encourage a constituency of young people that are absolutely indifferent to vote? Why would you? Aren’t you bored? Aren’t you more bored than anyone? And you’ve been talking to them year after year, listening to their lies, their nonsense. Then it’s this one that gets in, then it’s that one gets in but the problem continues. Why are we going to continue to contribute to this facade?”
Paxman: “I’m surprised you can be facetious when you’re that angry about it.”
Brand: “Yeah, I am angry, I am angry. Because for me it’s real, because for me it’s not just some peripheral thing that I just turn up to once in a while to a church féte for. For me, this is what I come from. This is what I care about.”
At first I thought that Brand was running rings around Paxman (or someone in a G-T state and someone in a D-Q state missing each others’ points).
But on reflection, I don’t think that Jeremy Paxman was in any way taken down or apart by Brand – I suspect it was a well crafted piece of theatre in that Paxman played Devil’s Advocate with Dorothy Dixer questions that enabled Brand to take flight with his responses, which I believe to be completely genuine (not ‘acting’ as some of his detractors have claimed).
In this short clip, Brand has encapsulated and communicated in minutes – MINUTES – what activists, concerned citizens and change agents everywhere, whose work spans a wide array of issues, have been on about for so long, in a way that has both gripped people and resonated with them.
Most importantly of all, it is because this came from Russell Brand that it has ignited. It hasn’t come from an academic, a political figure, an activist. It’s come from popular culture, which by definition has access to a greater diversity of antennae.
The messenger matters, as illustrated by this comment sourced from one of many Facebook threads:
Actually I think Brand has broken something in England. For this to be aired on the BBC is a biggy. The kids on Facebook are posting it and at last the mainstream have heard it. That’s THE most positive thing that’s been done for years. I marched in Manchester against the annihilation of the NHS the other week along with over 50,000 other people and it got two minutes. Nobody in London noticed. This will be noticed.
Like any change agent who sticks their head above the parapet, Brand has copped flak for his outspokenness. Across social media, this seems to have coalesced into several key grievances:
1) he pointed out everything that was wrong, but didn’t offer any solutions
Given the sum total of the greatest thinkers and do-ers in the world have yet to do this, or get their ideas traction, or to tipping point, it’s hardly a fair accusation.
Or as Brand eloquently rebutted it:
Jeremy darling, don’t ask me to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.
2) he’s criticising the 1% and profit, yet his net worth is $15 million
This is an ad hominem attack ie. it seeks to discredit the messenger, rather than engaging with the message. Those making this point need to remember that Brand’s message is all the more powerful coming from someone who is in this position – and that he’d already addressed this accusation in his New Statesman editorial:
I should qualify my right to even pontificate on such a topic and in so doing untangle another of revolution’s inherent problems. Hypocrisy. How dare I, from my velvet chaise longue, in my Hollywood home like Kubla Khan, drag my limbs from my harem to moan about the system? A system that has posited me on a lilo made of thighs in an ocean filled with honey and foie gras’d my Essex arse with undue praise and money.
Whether Brand is worth $15 million or $150 million is irrelevant. Not even $15 billion would address the systemic flaws raised in the interview.
3) he’s just playing it for a laugh
Brand himself, in both his interview and editorial for the New Statesman, is quoted as saying:
…first and foremost I want to have a f*cking laugh. As John Cleese said, there is a tendency to confuse seriousness with solemnity. Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.
Not only is he spot on in relation to competition for attention, but what many of the critics have failed to grasp is that by styling himself as The Fool, or The Jester, Brand has more scope to play with potentially dangerous material, challenge the status quo and breach taboos.
4) if Brand wants a revolution, he should get down to the ‘real’ work
Perhaps best expressed by this quote from Robert Lustig in The Huffington Post:
…he demonstrated his utter inability to offer any concrete example of what he believes we should do instead of vote. He wants fundamental change but has no idea how to achieve it…by writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he’ll never go hungry or be without a home.
See #1, #2 and #3 above.
If he really wanted to encourage the development of a genuinely revolutionary movement, he would start organising one. He would knuckle down to do really, really boring things, like handing out leaflets on street corners, launching petitions, holding meetings, just like the early trades unionists and labour activists he professes to admire so much.
Er no. That’s not the best use of his platform.
Attention is a currency, and like it or not, celebrities in our era have that currency to spend. Instead of criticising him for doing so, or nitpicking about his linguistic style – which I find a fascinating mix of Shakespearian vocabulary meets My Fair Lady grammar and dialect – let him spend it in service of those who, as Brand already noted, are people who have:
…alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am, and far better qualified, more importantly, than the people that are currently doing that job.
It’s not his job to fix the world. It’s our job. All of us.
In fact I’d be more worried about many of the people offering Brand ‘solutions’ to champion than I would anything Brand had to say.
I personally don’t 100% agree with all the points Brand made, for example, I think the 99% meme was useful for awareness (and it sure feels good to metaphorically sink the boots into banksters now and then), but ultimately we are all – including the 1% – in this together. I think the idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics is no longer relevant, and those labels bog us down. But it doesn’t matter.
IT DOESN’T MATTER.
What matters is that people everywhere are talking about this.
Russell Brand wins the internet right now.
Brand is one of the most fascinating characters of the modern era – he’s independently wealthy (which makes him beholden to no-one), he has a massive public profile AND all his skeletons are already out of the closet.
These things put him in an enormously powerful position of influence.
He’s opened a Pandora’s Box for himself, with armies of change-makers now seeking everything from support for their initiatives to a chance to further ‘educate’ him. No doubt he’s going to continue his already impressive learning curve, but those who he referred to as ‘far better qualified’ also need to let him be who he is.
Let him sing the social consciousness equivalent of ‘Eye of the Tiger’.
Let him be an alarm clock and a megaphone.
Brand has delivered changemakers a signal interruption of epic proportion. How best to use it?
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