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Bragg on Brand
Oct 27, 2014, 13:01
Billy Bragg wrote:

It’s difficult to say which I’ve found more entertaining – Russell Brand’s recent declarations of revolutionary fervour or the splenetic anger that he has elicited from mainstream commentators of both left and right wing persuasions. His Newsnight appearance last week had me laughing out loud as he attempted to avoid the best attempts of Evan Davis to paint him into a corner. And in his scathing review of Brand’s new book, Revolution, in the Observer yesterday, the normally insightful Nick Cohen sounded more like Sir Bufton Tufton, harrumphing about the ‘atrocious writing’ and accusing him of only half reading the books that he quotes.

Brand’s new revolutionary persona - an irrepressible mixture of Che Guevara and Austin Powers - can be exasperating. I find myself attracted by what he’s saying, yet repulsed by the way he’s saying it: great that he’s talking about inequality, but please don’t spoil it by telling me 9/11 was an inside job.

Brand made more sense on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Start The Week’ this morning along with Juliet Barker, who has written a book about the Peasant’s Revolt, David Babbs, who founded 38 Degrees and philosopher Susan Neiman, who posed the question of what it means to be a ‘grown up’. It was an idea platform for his ideas.

Each guest had something to say about the way we conduct politics now and Brand managed to keep his excitable verbosity under control until the host suggested that the best option for change was to vote for the least worse party at the next election. Brand let rip at this and I have to admit that I would have done the same if I’d been in his position.

His exhortation not to vote is perhaps an extreme response to the problem, but many millions of people are deeply frustrated by the paucity of choice at the next election. With Labour promising to stick to Tory and Lib Dem spending limits, where’s the choice? Where’s the democracy?

And despite being portrayed as such by the media, Brand’s dismissal of voting isn’t an apathetic cop-out, it’s a call to arms. He wants people to get more engaged in activism, to think outside the box, to see that the way that we do politics is rigged to benefit the powerful.

In many ways, Brand represents a return to the days when alternative politics was a key aspect of youth culture. The ideas in his book are very similar to those expressed by the Beatles in the mid-60s. It’s unusual, in these days of fundamentalist atheism, for counter-cultural figures to espouse spiritual insights as part of their critique of capitalism, but Brand does so without any qualms. When Nick Cohen dismissed this tendency by snootily declaring that ‘no figure in the history of the left has seen Buddhism as a force for human emancipation’ I couldn’t help thinking of how John Lennon embraced transcendental meditation.

In a society where the government offers us graphs that prove that, despite more foodbanks opening every week, the economy is successful, Brand’s call to think differently, to change your consciousness from passive to active, makes as much sense as anything else on offer.

One of the biggest criticisms of Brand is that he doesn’t have the answers to the problems that he’s highlighting. But guess what – Woody’s guitar didn’t really kill fascists. It was a declaration of intent - that he was going to use his talent to challenge the oppressor.

This idea, that popular culture should be used as a force to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, has been pushed to the margins in the 21st century. I believe that Russell Brand represents a return to that tradition. He realises that his talent has given him a platform to speak out about inequality and now he’s going to push as hard as he can against the system to see if it has any effect.

He appears to understand the limits to this approach – several times now I’ve heard him say he’s just trying to amplify the voices of people like the E15 Mothers, whose fight against eviction was ignored by the mainstream media until he turned up to support them.

As ever, pop figures talking about radical politics always throw up a heap of contradictions and Brand’s hedonistic history makes him an even bigger target for those who seek to stop him speaking out. I hope he manages to keep his nerve and focus his arguments, because at a time when out political discourse is tightly controlled by a bunch of technocrats who all did PPE together at Oxford, we need counter-cultural figures to challenge all our thinking.

Russell Brand may not have all the answers, but the role of the artist is to ask the right questions, to ring in the changes rather than make them himself. I welcome his contribution.

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