Back in June, I criticised Russell Brand for his apparent ‘turn’ to radical politics, suggesting that his appearances on Morning Joe and Question Time actually demonstrated a shallow spectacle of politics proper. However, Brand’s recent appearance opposite the mighty Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight has sparked further interest in his politics, and so here I wish to make some more comments on the debate.
First of all, at face value, what Brand is actually offering in the interview is none other than the radical leftist critique of contemporary society, for instance: that voting is a narrow paradigm that only legitimises the consensus around neoliberal capitalism; that we should be addressing the enormous disparities between the rich and poor; that the ecological and psychological damage of capitalism is too high a price to pay and is ultimately unsustainable.
Indeed, these points are made very well, and the position that Brand is occupying is one that I share: towards a counter-intuitive problematising of democracy and capitalism, offering a sustained investigation into the realm of the impossible, in a society where everything ‘possible’ is defined by that consensus. (Indeed, this meeting with the ‘impossible’ is precisely why Brand struggles to articulate an alternative and why Paxman, as a bulwark of the consensus, simply cannot understand what he is saying).
However, despite this professed radicalism, Brand’s ability to fit in perfectly with the fast-moving, sound-biting, idol-worshipping of consumer capitalism means that he is nonetheless open to allegations of being nothing but spectacle. In other words, he may espouse radical ideas, but because these are pandering to people that seek radicality and authenticity and difference, offering a sort of niche market by turning this progressive politics into a overly-palatable format, it feels far from a move towards change and instead a very shallow and outrageous pantomime.
What’s ironic, of course, is this is precisely the same criticism that is often levelled at radical politics itself. Zizek, for example, who has been called (amongst other things) ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’ and the ‘Borat of philosophy’, finds himself often dismissed as a spectacle in precisely the same way as Brand. Indeed, Zizek has often argued that his critics purposefully reduce him to a spectacle precisely so they don’t take him seriously, and surely this is exactly what we are doing to Brand: turning him into a clown in order to maintain an ironic distance.
However, perhaps the difference between the two is one of depth: Zizek is a theorist first and an entertainer second, offering some of the most stimulating and counter-intuitive contemporary theory out there, whereas Brand is avowedly an entertainer first and reduces this theory into bite-size pieces for easy consumption. Brand’s spectacle is therefore more damaging to a progressive change, and his very accessibility comes at the cost of sustaining a system that is maintained through easy communication and consumption. Furthermore, while his flamboyancy and eccentricity helps to distance the left from the imagination of grey Soviet Russia, it also provokes Brand to play up to his audience using whatever means possible.
This includes, of course, his unforgivable misogyny. As I pointed out in my previous post, Brand represents a strange sort of sexism which retains an unequal gender divide precisely via his professed ‘respect’ for women. This was once again demonstrated by his Newsnight interview where he suggests that he took the job as a guest editor of The New Statesman because “a beautiful lady asked him to” therefore reducing the owner or editor in question to her gender. In other words, in the guise of a supposed compliment, Brand reveals his objectification of women and retains his reputation as a ‘lad’ who says shockingly ‘entertaining’ things.
His incitement to revolution also falls under this category – he is trying to be shocking – and his advocates interpassively allow Brand to entertain them through such a spectacle: performing their discontent on their behalf so that they don’t have to, fully consuming his anti-establishment rhetoric and feeling better in their righteous indignation for doing so, yet all the while remaining passive. Indeed, Russell Brand advocating Revolution is a sure way of preventing Revolution, because we live in an age of cynicism. Even if Brand was completely genuine (and I have no reason to doubt this) then the people still wouldn’t believe that he truly means what he says.
Crucially, however, this cynicism is one that is also shared by Brand’s critics.
‘We’ on the radical left must recognise the difference between being popular and being a spectacle, and I would strongly disagree with dismissals of Brand simply because he is the former. Indeed, such an aversion to popularity seems to be quite typical of a left that loves to occupy the position of defeat, stuck in the role of the victim and seeing itself “always morally correct… never politically responsible” (Dean 2009:6) and thereby foreclosing the ability to actually create and implement a popular alternative to the consensus.
Popularity is necessary and we must retain a distinction between popular politics and spectacular politics. The left’s automatic cynicism towards popularity is part of the problem of emancipatory politics today and we should recognise that it is good that such ideas which problematise capitalism and democracy are becoming more popular and can be found in public discourse.
Is it possible to be popular in contemporary society without offering some sort of spectacle?
I’m not sure I have the answer, but we still need to remain aware of the potential regression of popularity into spectacle because this will prevent change. Spectacle allows Brand-the-entertainer to say things simply to be entertaining and to occupy a niche in the consumer capitalist market in order to fulfil demands for an expression of demands which isn’t being expressed in government. But, on the other hand, we must also not allow our cyncism to prevent such ideas from becoming popular. Brand’s performance of critique is not the answer, but neither are his cynical critics.