The Unlikely Revolutionaries: Russell Brand and Michael D. Higgins

 Robert Grant

Russell Brand’s appearance on BBC with Jeremy Paxman caused uproar; but it has done so in two very different ways. Traditional journalists and mainstream media outlets have, for the most part, dismissed his performance as teenage-angst-style complaining, with ideas of “childlike simplicity” in verbose language.

Conversely, among social media users and the internet in general, it has been hailed as a call to arms by those who already had similar suspicions about the truth of our modern system of politics and economics: that they are not fair and that the mechanism to redress this unfairness does not exist within the system as it is.

Brand was on the show to discuss his recent guest editorship of left leaning political magazine The New Statesmen, with that institution of British political journalism, Jeremy Paxman. However, the conversation was confrontational from the beginning. Paxman condescendingly circled around a single point in the hopes of undermining Brand’s credibility. The point in question was that Brand doesn’t vote, and never has.

Since voting, according to Paxman, is the only legitimate means by which a citizen can partake in the democratic process, then Brand has no right to edit a political magazine or to even partake in political discussion.

This argument is fallacious. Choosing not to vote is a perfectly legitimate way to communicate your political opinion if you feel the choice presented is insincere, or meaningless (See: Southpark: Giant Douche Vs Turd Sandwich) Being asked to pick between a predetermined set of options every now and then is not the extent of democratic participation.

This is propaganda from a system looking to encourage tacit complicity, as Brand calls it. By agreeing to choose between the two presented options, you give legitimacy to the system that created them. By voting you are given the illusion of participation. But participation is more than periodical ratification. It must include the ability to contribute to framing the questions in the first place.

Take our recent referendum here in Ireland. We were cynically presented with a choice: either get rid of the Seanad altogether, or keep it in its dysfunctional state. But who said these were the only options? I reject the choice on offer. I dispute the fact that these are the only options. I wanted to keep the Seanad, but reform it so its work could make a real contribution to examining legislation. So I didn’t vote; not out of apathy, but out of a rejection of the premise. (Luckily for me, the Government was lying about the impossibility of reform, and are now going to reform it).

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I had assumed that Brand responded to this accusation from Paxman with a thoughtful articulation of his reasons for not voting. He didn’t just say “I couldn’t be bothered”. He is disenfranchised and feels that the difference between Tory and Labour is illusory. But the “everyone-must-vote” brainwashing clearly goes deeper than I thought.

Donald Clarke in The Irish Times picks right up where Paxman left off in dismissing everything Brand says because he doesn’t vote. His response to Brand’s perceptive analysis of a “pre-existing paradigm that is quite narrow” was to call it “some waffle”. Clarke seems to think that name-calling is enough to satisfy his readers’ right to reasoned debate. Clarke is not alone. In Britain, it was much the same: see; The Independent; Tom Chivers in The Telegraph and Andy Dawson in the Mirror; all dismissing Brand because he wants change from outside the system, not within it.

Clarke goes on to reduce Brand’s articulation of well established criticisms to “child-like simplicity” in “convoluted” language, while using the word “waffle” again, twice.

Brand’s ideas, however, are far from simple. They come from a long intellectual and philosophical tradition and he is not alone in calling for radical change.

Chris Hedges is one example. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist recently wrote an article on that also called for revolution. America, he argues, is an oligarchical state, where corporate-financial interests have captured almost every major institution: universities, political parties, the judiciary, security forces. Hedges refers to Aristotle in laying out our options: “the impoverished masses either revolt to rectify the imbalance of wealth and power or the oligarchs establish a brutal tyranny to keep the masses forcibly enslaved.” We are choosing the latter, so far.

Slavoj Zizek, the Marxist philosopher and cultural theorist has been saying something similar: the capitalist ideology, as it currently stands, is not fair to the vast majority of people. He too calls for a radical restructuring of how we organise society, beginning with the realisation that we must think differently.

Occupy Wall Street, is another embodiment of this way of thinking. They are not arguing for some little change here or there, a few extra rights, a few more dollars to trickle down from philanthropists. They want a change to the system; a fairer way to share wealth and resources.

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Our President, the venerable intellectual Michael D Higgins, is also part of this desire for change. In a speech at DCU he called for a more ethically based approach to our economic system. This idea goes right back to the father of capitalism, Adam Smith, who was also a moral philosopher and argued for a richly, descriptive, ethical approach to economic systems.

Higgins, unlike Brand or Hedges, did not openly call for a revolution, but his essential point was the same. He said:

“The current state of the European economy, with its high levels of unemployment, poverty and increasing inequality, is a source of concern, anxiety and even moral outrage for many of our fellow citizens. There is, I know, an ongoing debate at national, European and global level as to the acceptability and efficiency – indeed as to the legitimate mandates – of the orthodox policy responses that were implemented to contain the multifarious consequences of the financial meltdown of 2008. This evening I situate my argument upstream of this debate by suggesting that the problem might not lie so much in a lack of the right answers to this most recent crisis of capitalism as in an absence of the right questions.”

In a somewhat frightening parallel, our president’s speech elicited the exact same reaction from mainstream media as did Brands: dismissal. Dan O Brien, economics editor of The Irish Times at the time, criticised the president for over stepping his mark, and getting involved in things that were not his business. He didn’t engage with the ideas or the arguments the President made, he merely said he shouldn’t have said anything.

He stated that the president’s “speech was highly ideological and one-sided. It exclusively extolled left-of-centre thinkers.” Yes it was ideological. But why is that bad? It seems it is bad because it is a different ideology to the one O’ Brien favours.

These journalistic responses go to show that this issue is not about a generational gap. It is not about the young and the old. The issue here is about ideas. It is about the gap between the ruling ideological establishment, and the majority of people.

A 38 year old millionaire celebrity who dresses like a pirate and an elderly, dignified lifelong academic and politician both made a point: our political and economic system is not fair and the solution to the recent crisis of capitalism may not lie in the existing political and economic structure.

The response of these traditional journalists to this unlikely pair of Michael D and Russell Brand highlights just how far the gap has grown. Instead of taking these ideas on and discussing the possibility of change, they throw a tantrum and question the right of both these men to speak at all.

In the end, Paxman, and Clarke, both admonish Brand for failure to offer an alternative. What specifically will the revolution look like? The implication being that if you don’t have a viable alternative, then we better stick with what we know.

This is another false dichotomy. Just because we don’t know exactly what we should do, does not mean we should go on doing the same, or that the criticisms are null and void.

Political change can only start with the perception that something is not right; that some system is consistently leading to unjust outcomes. Only once the nature of the problem is understood can we begin to build solutions. We are in the early stages of this diagnosis, so let’s not worry about the end-game.

In Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, the Nobel Prize winning economist states that it is not always necessary to build a perfect system before changing an existing one. It is just as useful to focus on clear cases of injustice and change them one by one, allowing the systematic change to come gradually.

We must first try to understand how and why inequality is growing; why banks have returned to profit while the budget for health and education are being cut; why there is so much unemployment and why we are constantly let down by the promises of politicians.

The first step is to think. This may seem strangely reserved in a world that values action over inaction and decisiveness over caution. But as Zizek says, it is time stop following Nike’s dictum “Just do it”; and instead to “Just think”. The action will come when it is ready.

Finally, we should count ourselves lucky in Ireland, and be proud that it is our President that is leading the way towards discussion of a more ethical economy, and we don’t have to rely on an articulate and charming celebrity to voice the cause