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More recent comments on Brand following his appearance on Newsnight

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.

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19 thoughts on “The Branding of the Left

  1. You never know, crazy as it may sound Brand may eventually make a move into politics when he gets bored of the comedy world and actually decides on some real political agendas. There have been plenty of entertainers before him who have done the same thing. As for British comedians, you only have to look as far as Eddie Izzard, whose rambling whimsy seems far from any Labour party agenda and yet has announced his desire to enter the political arena standing behind their banner.

  2. I’m a socialist who has confidence in neither party politics nor representative democracy, and I’m also a big fan of Brand. A point of yours strongly appeals to me. That society appreciates the ‘cynical’ outbursts of humourists as a surrogate for the satisfaction of those views actually being embodied in the discourse of government. This is because I think we see this kind of substitution occurring elsewhere (e.g. churchgoing turns what should have been the Kingdom of God into the opiate of the masses). It is very important, however, to see what humour can achieve. Voltaire said and tried to show with his life that when the ridicule of an authority really resonates with the people it has begun to lose its power, and they will never view it the same way again. In this sense, jokes can exemplify Heidegger’s category of alethia- truth as disconcealment. This can lead to a change in consciousness.

    In the UK we are blessed to have many excellent political satirists such as Mark Steel, Charlie Brooker, Mark Thomas, David Mitchell, Jeremy Hardy, Rory Bremner, Ian Hislop, and John Culshaw (I wish I could name a female one). And Brand does produce some philosophical insights about the nature of language and of love in his autobiographies, but with him everything is subsumed into the higher purpose of humour. And at the end of the day, perhaps that’s how we should live our lives. Stranger things have happened.

    • Hi Peter,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I am aware of some of Voltaire’s ideas, including his theory that “to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise” … but here I would fundamentally disagree, tending to lean instead with Zizek and his description of how ideology works today.
      Those in power would prefer to keep us in a conversation, even if it’s a critical one, than to retreat into an ominous withdrawer silence. Criticising those in power simply reinforces their position and ours. For example, thinking back to Nick Clegg’s apology for the student fees when it was turned into a remix and went viral: he then went on TV – laughed about it – and said they could release it as a single as long as the money went to charity. There’s no critique! Simply a performance of cynicism towards Clegg which is then immediately co-opted.
      I think this is precisely what those comedians (who I also am a fan of, don’t get me wrong…) do for politics proper.
      Really enjoying your comments across the blog, looking forward to reading your response.

  3. Why do his sexualized jokes necessarily undermine the importance or value of his rhetoric? I don’t understand the logic of that argument. His humour maintains viewer attention, in a sense. He is not, after all, presenting at an academic conference, where even some of the willing attendees would attest to the difficulty inherent in concentrating on the dense material. He communicates his beliefs (which you are certainly not obligated to believe) in an ‘entertaining’ manner, which is both the reason why his voice is listened to by millions, and why the voices of pseudo-intellectuals such as yourself will probably never reach widespread prominence. He almost seems, through his idiosyncratic behaviour, to embody a vital point: that people oftentimes need to be encouraged to listen to what important things there are to say, since the flaccid apathy of the stereotypical commentator would not particularly encourage a working man/woman to pay attention and/or reconsider his/her own beliefs. In the end, we need this kind of subtle coercion to exist if we want to avoid merely blowing vacuous intellectual steam that dissipates before it actually makes any difference. I think Brand often speaks wisdom, interwoven within the fabric of his sexualized nature and quick-witted eloquence, and I think it would be wise to look past his curriculum vitae when confronted with his subjective ideology. In fact, to fail to do so (and to use his general persona as argumentative weaponry) is to fall victim to the ad hominem fallacy. His person shouldn’t undermine his points. He shouldn’t need a PhD to have his views considered with seriousness.

    Since everything I’ve said could essentially be summed up as “at least he gets an alternative out”, let me ask the following: can a feasible alternative be expressed or expounded on in the context of a short video or television interview? Do even the most educated cultural/political commentators really manage to express an implementable alternative to certain fractured frameworks?

    • Hi Paul, it’s a pity you felt the need to insult me in the middle of your comment (see my ‘About’ section) but I would nevertheless like to try and respond to an otherwise sound criticism of this article.
      The reason I point to his ‘sexualised jokes’ is to highlight a certain non-egalitarian strand in Brand’s ‘stance’ (I believe he is sexist) but also to highlight that he will say things to shock, to entertain, because he is a performer not a leader (although I would like to reiterate James’ comment above, there is no reason why this couldn’t change…)
      I’m sorry that you felt I was taking an elitist position, I strongly agree with your point that you don’t need a PhD or academic conference to have an opinion or be political proper. This is also Ranciere’s position which I have a lot of time for (yes Ranciere is a philosopher, so maybe I’m proving your point, but anyway…)
      I take the point that I should have looked past his CV in order not to fall for the fallacy… but I strongly argue against your claim that Brand makes us question our already-held beliefs! He literally spouts them back to us, in the form of a spectacle, and we applaud and lap it up, interpassively performing our righteous indignation, but doing nothing to challenge the ruling ideology!
      To answer your final question then… No, other ‘mainstream’ commentators do not offer alternatives, but does Brand?! Whilst entertaining and witty, he only offers us the spectacle of resistance, which sits very comfortably side by side with the status quo.
      Look forward to reading your response

  4. Pingback: Zizek: Alot of Fuss About Nothing | EsJayBe

  5. I’d like to begin with a short disclaimer; I am in no way attempting to undermine or discredit the academic discipline, and I have no intention of causing any offence.

    I find that the fundamental appeal of Brand is his accessibility. He affords millions of spectators the opportunity to listen to the issues as he perceives them, often by effectively using humour. He may not offer rounded solutions, nor grand plans to bring about change – but he doesn’t purport to.

    He does, however, draw people to listen to issues regarding the human condition, politics and philosophy. He’s promoting discussion among others across a massive arena, regardless of how very base or developed it may be. Surely this is a valuable thing to permeate through culture and society?

    In the academic discipline and arenas such as this blog it’s great to quote Zizek to each other and hit back with another citation ad infinitum, but I can’t help feel that it’s so niche in the grander scheme. I’m not attempting to deconstruct the validity of it; we need it.

    It comes back to accessibility. Brand spouts what he’s feeling about the financial crisis and (in my opinion) very wisely distances himself from affiliation with comments such as ‘not some weird lefty agenda’. He’s not bogged down with partisan politics spouting out “my camp’s better than your camp” to preach to the converted, which is frankly quite puerile. For instance, I personally know staunch Tory voters who love Brand and listen to what he’s got to say – There’s not many flamboyant, eccentric and traditionally ‘left’ wing people who have that mass appeal.

    If Brand is preventing the stuffy punch and judy rhetoric we know as PM’s questions – our ‘proper politics’ of today, then so be it. It needs deconstructing, it needs ridicule and yes it does need an alternative. I think that Brand offers the accessibility to get fired up about the issues and potentially pursue politics, academia or another arena to bring about change. He may not be the one offering it at the moment, but he’s a catalyst for another great mind to come along.

    I can’t help disagree that he’s sat in place of a real alternative, spewing out political apathy while gathering zombies along the way. He’s a great addition to the political and academic world to aid discussion, as many other entertainers have been before him. What would the social revolution have been without the help of The Beatles, The Doors and many others? Thom Yorke refused a meeting with Tony Blair regarding climate change and threatened to sue David Cameron for using one of Radiohead’s songs. He’s hardly engaging with politics or offering comprehensive solutions, but he gets millions talking about global problems.

    To you, as a PhD researcher, he may be spouting back your already held beliefs and he may offer nothing new – and that’s ok. To many others he may entertain, inform and perhaps sew the seed to a younger generation to study in a field similar to you, start a social revolution or enter politics.

    • Hi Culvul, first off there was no need for a disclaimer! Your comment is a much appreciated well-thought critique and I will try and respond to your points…

      Let me start by explaining what I mean by politics proper. This is a term taken from the work of Jacques Ranciere and precisely seeks to distance itself from “the stuffy punch and judy rhetoric we know as PM’s questions” which he sees as post-political. In other words, politics proper is not a debate between interest parties at all, but a battle over the definition which defines those positions in the first place.

      But in addition, I argue that Brand would also come under the post-political (although, again, let me reiterate that he could well change in the future). What Brand offers us is a spectacle of politics, the performance of critique, and what I tried to emphasise in the article as no better than the spectacle offered to us by politicians.

      The question is what is the cost of his mass appeal? His accessibility? For me, it allows us to agree with him and perform our righteous indignation of a system we despise, but without having to actually risk changing it. Look at all this royal baby shit: I don’t know what annoyed me more, the adoring royalists or the leftist liberals all over Twitter moaning about it (“look how cool I am because I don’t like the royals, yet I don’t want to actually do anything to change this!”) In this way, Brand’s position is fully within the ideological framework which sustains capitalism (at the same time as it purports to be a critique).

      Is it enough to promote discussion? Or do we actually need change? I would argue the latter, as in a society of free speech we can pretty much discuss things all day and yet nothing changes. Furthermore, I would argued that Brand only echoes back to us what ‘we’ already ‘know’ (e.g. I dont trust politicians, rich people are bad, no one likes a tory…)

      So my criticism is definitely not that he is not ‘academic’ enough (surely academia is just as guilty, if not more guilty, of the same intellectual masturbation?) Or even that he is saying the ‘wrong’ things. But the way he goes about it will not bring about change. The whole point of starting this blog (besides escaping the trash discussions that take place on FB) was an attempt at accessibility. For me, Zizekian theory means far more than niche discussions in academia, and I would try and distance myself from that kind of academy as much as possible (even if I fail miserably).

  6. When one considers Brand on his merits, we see those merits to be entirely market based and of limited or no intellectual merit or substance. Simply because one can win a round of applause from an audience is no reflection of the intellectual validity or profundity of ones assertion. Indeed if we are to recall Nietzsche’s contempt for the masses, or indeed the gullibility of the masses towards Nazi ideology… the ability to entertain an audience of millions is hardly a reflection of the depth of ones reasoning.

    Brand’s calls to punish the bankers and jail the politicians etc etc.. is little more than rabble rousing and crowd pleasing.. this is what the majority want because the majority cannot come up with an alternate politico-philosophical model that might accomplish the real task. Not simply to punish the wrong doers in the futile hope that the punishment will deter future wrong doers and thus make the world a better place. This type of reasoning is retrograde and entirely primitive. The task at hand is one that lies beyond the intellectual capacity of both the panel members and the audience… that is to try to envisage and create the type of society where the recent behavior of bankers is not possible. As Zizek states not to discard the evil but to make the evil work for us. In order to do this we must move beyond the constraints of market ideology and it is only in the context of the market that Brand’s views or Brand himself have any validity whatsoever as the above commentator writes:

    He communicates his beliefs (which you are certainly not obligated to believe) in an ‘entertaining’ manner, which is both the reason why his voice is listened to by millions, and why the voices of pseudo-intellectuals such as yourself will probably never reach widespread prominence

    This is an interesting statement as it points to the fact that Brand’s comments regardless of their intellectual emptiness.. posses a relevance or importance that is invested into them and him by virtue of the market and his own “success” as a marketable entity. If David Beckham had offered to appear on the show to discuss the same issues with Brand the producers would have undoubtedly jumped at the opportunity because Beckham like Brand has Market value.

    Individuals like Brand are frightening for they show us the type of intellectual analysis that the market will offer up to us at the level of popular discourse, as an antidote to itself. We should not be surprised that these Market derived messiah’s have nothing to offer other than reinforcing the market itself. One cannot judge a book by its cover and yet one can tell a certain amount, certainly if and when Jesus or Zarathustra does return, he/she probably wont have a make up artist, and wont spend as much time on his hair as he does on his philosophy.

  7. Don’t many of these criticisms – he performs our resistance for us, he makes sexual jokes in the midst of serious discussion, he is a skilled entertainer who delivers no clear and concrete vision for the future or definitive call to action, he is full of references which impress people – apply perfectly well to Zizek? Leaving aside the content of their arguments, is Zizek’s style of presentation more acceptable than Brand’s or should we be viewing it as a hindrance to the content (as Zizek himself believes that Lacan’s style was)?

  8. Pingback: The Re-Branding of the Left | EsJayBe

  9. Although I partly agree with your assertion that ruling class ideology isn’t really challenged through Brand’s grand “spectacle,” wouldn’t you agree however that what he says at least opens up discussions and alternatives into mainstream political discourse that have been shut out? I mean, even if Brand is allowing the public to live their frustrations through him, they are still ideas that don’t occupy tremendous space in the public sphere and sometimes those in positions of power can help raise awareness to such alternatives.

    Also, yes Brand is a performer, but I don’t think you can dismiss the authenticity of his statements based on that merit alone. He seems to be passionate about what he talks about and I think passion is a very useful ingredient in the adoption of subversive practices/thought. He entertains, but behind the act, behind the performance, there are real ideas he is trying to communicate.

    You also accuse him of being superficial. Sure, he very well knows who his humor appeals to, but a lot of his jokes on that show promoting the Messiah Complex hinted at the inauthenticity and triviality of mainstream media outlets. His jokes are subversive in nature in that whether populist or not, they still critique the status quo.

    As for the sexism, I agree that Brand can be sexist, but not in any malicious way. I think what can be interpreted as sexism through popular feminist discourse is really just the adoration of women. And yes, the man loves sex, but once again I think that he communicates his love for it, not necessarily an objectification of women. I can see how it could be interpreted as objectification seeing as he uses socially acceptable channels of sexism to his express his feelings

    Anyways, I’d be interested in your thoughts. Brand has been in the news lately if you’ve haven’t noticed already 🙂

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