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I think it’s fair to say that Russell Brand is something of a firebrand. If you ask Donald Trump, he might make use of that same term, albeit with slight dyslexic modification — “Brand, you’re fired!”. Of course Trump is quite the trigger-happy-chappie when it comes to firing hapless reality show apprentices. But he really would love to eliminate Brand. You see, someone like Russell Brand, a contrarian with a loud and far-reaching voice, can pose a real threat to the elite systems of power set up and maintained by wealthy persons like or unlike Trump.
Not too long ago, Brand was just this libertine comedian with a reputation for pursuing the most debauched of lifestyles, a decadent combination of womaniser and former chronic-substance-abuser — an image he in fact seems to have encouraged and cultivated for himself during his years as a television presenter / celebrity-at-large. And that’s why Brand can seem a bit unnervingly profound in his recent avatar as Leftliberal-Spiritualist-Autodidact. If you view him through the prism of labels that are commonplace and reinforced by the media, you might be perplexed at the stark paradox of a man who seems to have been both horridly hedonistic as well as studiously spiritual in his 39-year-old life.
But read his 2013 book, Revolution , and binge-watch his YouTube series, The Trews (which he put on hold last month citing a need to withdraw in interest of further academic edification), and you may realise that these two seemingly antithetical personalities are really just offshoots of the same gestalt identity. Bipolar manifestations of the same underlying condition. You realise that human beings — like Brand with his own erstwhile drug addiction — are inherently spiritual creatures afflicted with an existential discomfort that we try to remedy with the ‘exoscopic’ pursuit of material things. This insatiable and ultimately corrupting thirst for material things — all really just objects that provide a temporary scratch for the greater itch that is the “separation from our divine interconnectivity” — makes us power-hungry and greedy to acquire and consume beyond our needs. And this is what exacerbates and perpetuates inequity on the global scale.
Armed with this self-knowledge, a substantial stack of eclectic Leftliberal literature, a powerfully disarming charm, and of course the Christ-like hairdo, Brand has been hobnobbing in top intellectual circles with a message that could easily be construed as Communist propaganda. If you confronted him about that, he might well not deny it. Rather, he’d probably qualify it — exaggerating his natural Cockney accent for emphasis — saying something like, “Communism in its traditional form — before it went a bit genocidal — was just meant to be sharing!”. Evidently, Pol Pot’s world view did not accommodate the eternal spirit that made up all humans. This is where Brand’s enlightened approach might well give birth to a more refined Communism 2.0.
Among the most contentious of his political beliefs is that he doesn’t vote. In fact, he uses his loudest and most impassioned voice to urge everyone not to vote either, calling it a “tacit act of compliance” with self-serving systems. Does this make him an anarchist or just apathetic, or at least too apolitical to be eligible to talk about politics? He insists that the apparent apathy is symptomatic of the failure of elected governments to fairly represent the concerns of those they were designed to serve. And that renders the ‘democratic process of voting’ rather a token activity that merely keeps the wheel of power spinning and perpetuates status quo systems that serve the elite and not the electorate.
Apathy is but a rational response to rising disenchantment. In such a scenario, imagining a social revolution that culminates in the “overthrow of the current political system is the only way [Brand, or anyone for that matter] can be enthused about politics”. “Give us something to vote for!” he exclaims when BBC NewsNight host Jeremy Paxman admonishes him over his anti-establishmentarian stand against electoral democracy. “Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me; but that’s not on the ballot,” he laments in an article published during his stint as adjunct editor of the New Statesman in 2013.
When it comes to his vociferous aversion to voting, his critics have in fact rightly pointed out (mostly in YouTube comments and obscure Op-ed articles) that his fight is a tad specious. The party he is looking for, points out >Kieran Turner-Dave for Huffington Post , actually exists already and goes by the name of the Labour (Green) Party. The party "doesn't have big corporate backers, actively turns away donations from tax-dodgers, opposes austerity, and is calling for the closing of tax loopholes... introduction of a 1% wealth tax on the richest 1%... opposes privatisation of the NHS... calls for a living wage and Citizens' Income, scrapping of tuition fees, renationalising the Railways". All these things happen to be part of Brand's own script and, therefore, his firm stand can seem like little more than a loud gimmick. A wanton denial of a viable option.
But what I do love about Brand’s sketchy-but-robust alternative socio-economic paradigm is its emphasis on spirituality as the driver of economics and policy. And this makes me both enthused and despair at the same time. Enthused because spirituality — the idea that we are all carbon-based lifeforms made up of the same atoms and united by the common humanity we share — is the only “ideology” with a near complete chance of success in harmonising life, if and when applied properly. Despair because it’s near ludicrous to even suggest that six billion human beings shall one day en masse obliterate millions of years’ worth of evolutionary priming based on exclusionary self-interest.
But this isn’t as crazy an idea as it might sound, even as we are submerged in the market economy. Already, society has adopted radically novel systems that are fundamentally based on more collaborative — less capitalistic — practices. Take the Internet for starters — a socio-cultural phenomenon brimming with collaborative interconnectivity. And we’ve managed to sublimate it as a full-fledged platform for commerce too. Social scientists like Jeremy Rifkin have already managed to create quite a buzz about futuristic economic models based on a “commons” approach where ownership makes way for access, scarcity is transmuted into abundance, obsolescence is replaced by sustainability, and selling is set aside for sharing.
A revolution is a costly and violent business, as it usually involves razing existing structures and rebuilding anew. But, as Brand tells British political journalist Mehdi Hasan during a chat in a plush London hotel, “Capitalism has provided the organs of a functioning [system]. The infrastructure is in place; what’s needed is an ideological shift.” I’ll admit, the chap can seem a bit vacuous for all his eloquence, the way he goes on about the grandiose idea of revolution without coherently articulating an alternative or providing specifics. But hopefully, specifics is just what he’s gone and become a hermit now to acquire.