Twice now – once on a clip from MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ which went viral and once on Question Time – we have seen that the only voices that are able to represent the sentiment of the population in a post-political era are in fact the non-politicians. Russel Brand is currently occupying a position – with his tele-visually pleasing appearance, his commanding use of the English language and his professed anti-neoliberal perspective – which should actually be occupied by the left. We see his thoughts on current affairs (such as the murder of Lee Rigby in London) spread through the internet at an astonishing rate, posited again and again as representing a lonely alternative voice in the mainstream… but what does it mean when our only representation comes from entertainers?
Firstly, there’s a problem with Brand himself. He has charm and charisma certainly, but does his wide vocabulary and sharp stand-up delivery actually mean anything substantial? There was a moment on Question Time where he blames the capitalist system for the financial crisis rather than individual bankers (incidentally, a central argument of Slavoj Zizek who it turns out he has read) but then immediately dismisses his plan as “not some weird lefty agenda”. Indeed, rather than offering a political alternative that people could actually rally behind to bring about change, he explicitly denies his politics and instead offers alternatives as a niche spectacle.
Even worse, this is a spectacle that criticises spectacle and is therefore unfalsifiable. He offers superficiality at precisely the same moment as he criticises the anchors of Morning Joe for not: “looking beyond the superficial. That’s the problem with current affairs, you forget about whats important and you allow the agenda to be decided by superficial information”. His jokes are exactly what his doting audience wants to hear (is this not what stand up comedy is about?)
Brand doesn’t offer any leadership or anything new, only what we already know. We already know that we have “lost faith in the government when they went into Iraq” or that if one were “going to pay more tax, I wouldn’t give it to the Tories mate!” This is observational comedy with a political edge, and – in the same way as Ross Noble featuring on a panel at the University of York last week – comedians seek to play only to the audience in the room (and at home). They don’t represent change and they don’t represent a vision of the future: they represent more of the same spectacle in the here and now.
I don’t think we should even give Brand the benefit of the doubt. People will probably argue that ‘at least he’s getting that alternative voice out there’ or that ‘at least it raises awareness’, but I would argue that we actually allow such subversive entertainment to represent our frustration in the place of a real alternative. Such an interpassive relationship to entertainers means that they perform our resistance for us so that we don’t have to. For me, they actually prevent politics proper from taking place.
A further problem with Russell Brand is his demeaning attitude towards women. I’m sure he would argue differently – even that he ‘respects’ them – but I argue that what he offers is a very subtle form of sexism where instead of spouting explicit remarks, he instead puts women up on a pedestal and talks about them as ‘godesses’. His is a respect for women so long as they stay in their ‘proper’ place as objectified and subaltern. For example, while his performance on Morning Joe was rightly celebrated for challenging the shallowness of such current affairs programmes, did he have to perform it in such a demeaning manner towards the female anchor? Calling her condescending names such as ‘love’, asking her what ‘seems to be the trouble’ and sexually flirting with her about holding a water bottle in a certain way? Brand didn’t allow her to be a professional ‘anchor’ (even if she was a poor one); only a sexualised object.
Crucially, celebrities are not accountable in any way to the population. Even a quick look back into Brand’s past will reveal this – from when he and Johnathon Ross harassed an elderly father (Andrew Sachs) about Brand having sex with his granddaughter – and yet here he is, back from the dead, forgiven by the short-memory of media discourse. The population were shocked by his actions in ‘Sachs-gate’ at the time, and yet we are taught to expect celebrities to be immature and lack integrity: so now all is forgiven.
The character Brand performs is to be sexually shocking and brutally literate (providing for an audience that are entertained by the former and impressed by the latter). On Morning Joe, in between breathless (but serious) rants about the media, he suggests that the news team in the background are probably looking at pornography. On Question Time he turns a serious question about banker responsibility for the crisis into a joke: ‘well, an orgy would be great’. The problem is, whilst this makes him alluring as an entertainer, this makes his rhetoric empty and politically insignificant (in precisely the same way as Cameron, Johnson and Clegg).
Brand does not represent a political option; but only a deepening of the depoliticisation of society. While he criticises politicians such as Cameron and Johnson in The Guardian for being shallow spectacles (“In this age where politics is presented as entertainment, it’s the most entertaining politicians who ascend”) this is also exactly what he is doing. Indeed, as a professional comedian, it’s what he does best.