Oct 30, 2013

The Unlikely Revolutionaries : Russell Brand and Michael D. Higgins

An Unlikely Pair of Revolutionaries push back against the current dogmas


Russell Brand’s appearance on BBC with Jeremy Paxman has 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.


Choosing not to vote is a perfectly legitimate way to communicate your political opinion

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).

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 Truthdig.com 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.

Brand’s ideas, however, are far from simple.

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.

These ideas are not child-like, teenage whining, nor are they simple.

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.

the solution to the recent crisis of capitalism may not lie in the existing political and economic structure

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.

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  • Finn Keyes

    Brand was admonished by the British press not because of his position that we have an iniquitous society, a readily defensible position, but because he vaguely suggested flouting the democratic process as an alternative and then deflected and cackled stupidly when asked to clarify this. For a public figure of his stature to advocate abandoning the democratic system is very stupid. Voting is the only way democracy can work and unless you’re anti-democracy, you cannot be anti-voting. It really is that simple. The “tacit complicity” argument he and the author here cites is achingly dumb. Voting is complicity in democracy, which is the power to change, alter or maintain the system. That’s the whole point. And if you don’t like the choices- hard to believe when you have on average about 9 candidates per constituency- then run yourself. I don’t normally comment on these things but I cannot allow people who advocate not voting to go unchallenged.

    • Sam

      If you dont feel the democratic process is meaningful, why should you continue to take part in it? If you dont feel there is any real difference between republican and democrat, fine gael and fianna fail, tory and labour, then why vote? And also, there is, and should be, far more to democratic participation than a measly vote every now and then. It is about framing the discussion in the first place. You basically just said exactly what Paxman and the rest of them said: you have to vote because voting is the only way to take part in governance. This is not true. Furthermore, no one is saying you should never vote. If you feel the choice is meaningful, then vote. It not, then dont. Either is ok as long as you can justify your reasons.

      • Finn Keyes

        It is always meaningful because you are choosing those who govern you. Even if there were only two options, you have a choice as to who will govern you and if you abstain you leave that choice to other people. You let them decide your fate and that is why you consequently don’t have a right to object the way the government is run (within reason). You had the opportunity to choose and you didn’t. And the more people who abstain, the fewer people it is who decide who governs and the weaker democracy becomes. The fact that none of the options agree with you on virtually everything isn’t a good enough reason for eschewing the democratic process altogether.

    • Rob Grant

      Finn, Rob Grant here (author of the piece). You said “Voting is the
      only way democracy can work, and unless you’re anti democracy, you cannot be
      anti-voting. It really is that simple”. Well, its not that simple at all. You
      completely ignore the possibility that the options we are given in an election
      or referendum are not fair, or that the options represent certain powerful
      interest groups. You ignore the power of lobbying, political campaign
      contributions, party whip systems, etc .in shaping the choices on offer.

      Also, there are options when you feel disenfranchised. Options beyond showing up at the ballot box. I happen to disagree with you about the relationship between democracy and voting.You explicitly equate voting and democracy. I happen to think that democracy is much larger than that. It is more than periodical ratification of a limited set
      of options. I think democracy is about people partaking in an ever-evolving
      conversation about how we should govern, share resources, encourage just institutions
      etc. This happens on TV, Radio, newspapers, blogs, and anywhere else citizens talk
      about political issues. So, straight away, there are WAY more ways to take part
      in politics than just voting. (Check out Jurgen Habermas and deliberative
      democracy for more info).

    • Finn Keyes

      Hey Rob,

      You may well be right that there is more to democracy than voting but I think you would equally concede that a democracy cannot exist without it? As for referenda, they are not the norm but rather an extraordinary event with the sole purpose of changing the constitution, the fact that they are occurring so commonly in Ireland in the moment reflects the quality of the constitution we have rather than the political system. I dont think they should found the basis of any theory regarding voting.

      I reacted strongly to your piece, I apologise for the tone by the way, because you expressly advocated not voting as a means of change. I think this is fallacious and dangerous. As I said in one of the earlier comments, for every person who doesn’t vote, the process is weakened. All the changes you want to achieve can be achieved by a change in government and it is for you to lobby support for that and then give effect to that change through voting. There is no other legitimate means of achieving that change.

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  • http://www.JonDanzig.com/ Jon Danzig

    As Sir Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all
    the others. In countries where there is no vote, dictatorship governments can rule for decades with no opportunity for the people to get rid of them. How much those people envy our right to fire a government with the simple, easy use of a vote.

    Here in the UK we have a better life than most others on the planet because, and only because, of our right to vote. Without the power to choose or discard our governments, we would not have any of the freedoms and the better lives we have won through the ballot box.

    The advice of Russell Brand not to vote is wrong – because the alternative to voting is to give more power to the powerful, not less.

    Read my blog in response to Russell Brand, ‘Can’t vote or don’t vote?’