Clash of Vapidities: Russell Brand’s Shallow Revoution and Robert Webb’s Shallower Response

‚Revolution‘ (at least the idea of revolution at ‚home‘, rather than in Egypt or some other suitably distant part of the world) has probably received more mainstream attention in the past few days than in the past five years, starting with alleged comedian and serial sexual harasser Russell Brand’s remarks in a recent – and fulsomely praised – interview with Jeremy Paxman.

There, and in a subsequent article in the New Statesman, Brand spoke from the hearts of millions (judging from the response he’s received) with statements like:

I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.

Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?


young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

They see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else. To them these names are as obsolete as Lord Palmerston or Denis Healey. The London riots in 2011, which were condemned as nihilistic and materialistic by Boris and Cameron (when they eventually returned from their holidays), were by that very definition political.

Further on in the article, Brand recounts his glee at participating in a riot at the turn of the century. The ideas, aspirations, demands, and anger at oppression that make riots like the one he claims to have been involved in, apparently do not merit a mention. Of the people doing the rioting, we only find Brand’s lament that, being a corporate media figure, he was not immediately trusted and embraced as a comrade by people who have every reason to distrust media outlets that routinely lie about them:

“The right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors.” This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot.

Much – probably substantially more than Brand’s ideas really deserve – has been said about the vacuous notion of ‚revolution‘ that Brand has lately been flogging. Saswat Pattanayak, in Red Monthly, points out that Brand’s actual proposals, to the extent that they are coherent at all, amount to ‚Obama clichés‘ such as:

“Heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment…I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced.”

As Pattanayak points out, Brand readily concedes interviewer Jeremy Paxman’s false dichotomy of ‚democracy vs revolution‘, and adds his own conflation of revolution (a practical matter of overthrowing one power structure and replacing it with a different one) with utopia (literally ‚a place that does not exist‘).

This, then, is the quality of thought we are dealing with: An aesthetic enjoyment of ‚disruption‘ and ‚chaos‘, whatever the cause, and outright contempt for the idea of having principles (which he dismisses as the left’s ‚moral superiority‘). An acknowledgement of popular disaffection with a hollowed-out ‚democracy‘ that offers at best the illusion of control, harmoniously combined with the ever-present sense that he thinks the whole thing is there for his amusement.

As I noted in a piece I posted yesterday, the only really worthwhile thing about Brand’s intervention is that it allows those of us who have been discussing and working towards actual revolution (not the romanticised chaos that Brand seems to be talking about) to use him as an excuse to talk to a wider audience about what an actual revolutionary project for a decent society would look like. Brand himself is not even a worthy distraction.

Not to be outdone, the New Statesman today published a response that is truly worthy of Brand’s contributions to the debate, a whiff of Scotch-egg flatulence penned by fellow celebrity Robert Webb under the title Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is.

That title is as good a place to start with as any. First of all, Webb never actually defines what he means by ‚revolution‘ anywhere in the piece, except to say that it’s something to do with lopping King Charles I’s head off and that it’s a bad thing that ‚ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.‘

Because I would probably be accused of being too flippant if I were to say that, by his own terms, Webb is saying that voting is the most British way of initiating a bad thing that ends in repression and a diverse tapestry of different ways of murdering large numbers of people in short order, I will note that Webb, like Brand, seems to assume that ‚revolution‘ inherently refers to war, such as the Civil War that Webb adduces as proof that ‚the English invented‘ revolution in the modern era. It goes without saying that Webb doesn’t notice another equally obvious problem with his reasoning: the idea that the selection of one or another political party that exists within (and supports) the current system, in a manner compliant with the rules of that system, is a sort of revolution (i.e., overthrowing the existing system and putting something else in its place).

If one were feeling pedantic, one might also note that Webb uses ‚British‘ and ‚English‘ interchangeably, though the error is excusable: What is Britishness if not the combination of Parliamentary Power and the Anglicisation of the Whole Country? One need only ask around in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Penzance (but it would be best not to do it in Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish, since the heroic efforts of the Westminster regime over the centuries to eradicate non-Anglo-Saxon languages have largely paid off). Indeed, if the trend towards devolution continues and the popular Scottish independence movement is successful, ‚From Land’s End to John o‘ Groats‘ may soon enough have to be changed to: ‚From the Isle of Wight to Berwick-upon-Tweed‘.

In a similar vein, who gives a toss whether revolution is ‚un-British‘? Surely, the question is whether it’s a good idea or not, not whether it fits in with the notion of Britishness we find in the ‚Life in the UK‘ test.

But I fear I have already made the mistake of donning SCUBA gear to examine the bottom of a mud puddle.

What substance there is to Webb’s piece is dedicated to announcing and explaining his decision – in response to Brand’s remarks – to re-join the Labour party, because ‚if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.‘

And here, alas, yet another problem arises. What if the people I most detest in public life are not David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, who are at least open and honest about their contempt for the overwhelming majority of the population and their intention to rob them of every bit of hard-fought socioeconomic security they have left, but the likes of Tony Blair and Eds Miliband and Balls, who lead a party that calls itself ‚Labour‘ and wraps itself in a long and honourable tradition of workers‘ struggles, only to take the wrecking ball to whatever the Tories haven’t destroyed yet?

But these questions probably don’t arise with quite the same urgency for someone who lives on giros with six figures before the decimal rather than three.

The case Webb seeks to make, then, is not just that voting is the supreme expression of people’s power (‚election day is when we really are the masters‘), but that voting Labour will benefit ordinary people.

This case he makes as well as anyone could given the available evidence, which is to say, badly.

Webb has harsh words for those who have trouble distinguishing between a beating administered by the Tories and one administered by Labourites:

They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail.

(That would be the Daily Mail that is no more chuffed about Brand’s remarks than Webb is.)

Tellingly, Webb’s evidence for the proposition that the Labourites are clearly different to the Tories is not Aneurin Bevan or Clem Atlee, but Tony Blair. The NHS, trade union rights, and the British social safety net (such as it is) – laurels so old that they have long since petrified – may be the best available evidence that Labour has ever cared about ordinary people, but it seems even Webb knows that none of that would have been enacted if the current mob had been around after the war.

He’s gracious enough to acknowledge that ‚The last Labour government didn’t do enough and bitterly disappointed many voters‘, but doesn’t elaborate on the reasons for that disappointment, wisely sensing that it would not help his case to note that the current coalition government did not have to invent their murderous welfare ‚reforms‘ from scratch, but were able to build on the destruction already wrought by Blair and Brown. The murderous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which bear Labour’s stamp of approval, are not mentioned even as an aside.

Even the Daily Mail had to admit that the current lot are so right wing that only way to red-bait today’s ‚Labour‘ party is to smear Ed Miliband’s dead father. 

Also absent from Webb’s defence of the Labour party is any reference to the policies the Labour leadership have proposed for their next government (a matter to which we will shortly return). Instead, Webb tells us what a Labour government wouldn’t have done:

You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now.

So, you see, readers, the Labour Party is subjunctively different to the Tories. Webb doesn’t bother us with any further explanation on the matter, though one can certainly be excused for wondering why he is so confident that the party that rewarded the banks that were responsible for the ongoing economic crisis with £500 billion would draw the line at bonuses. In any case, the idea that banks, and not individual bankers, should be rewarded for destroying the economy seems an unlikely rallying cry to say the least.

‚Why‘, Webb asks:

do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

It is true that the over 65s have the highest rate of electoral participation in the UK. According to AgeUK, they also have a 16 % poverty rate (1.8m living below 60 % of the median income after housing costs), and are ‚the biggest group of people on the brink of poverty with 1.2 million on the edge‘. Clearly, voting pays – the rent or the electrical bill, but not both at the same time.

And what sort of attention are pensioners getting from Labour, you might ask? Ed Balls has promised to cut pensions as part of an overall intensification of the coalition government’s attack on the welfare state. Webb’s ‚bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years‘ probably don’t have to worry, but, then, when have they ever had to worry?

But voting Labour will show them. For example, it will show Iain Duncan Smith that he’s been too soft on working people to give them a proper beating such as the one as Shadow DWP Secretary Rachel Reeves has promised.

Hell, these days, Labour can’t even be counted on to stand for the admittedly radical notion that doing a day’s work gives a person the right to get paid.

In short, voting Labour will do bugger-all for the disaffected poor and working class people Brand co-opts in his piece, and Webb dismisses in his.

And so, Webb moves on:

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? […] That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small.

‚Vanishing‘ is a very apt term for the current state of democratic liberties. Let’s have a look at what this paean to advanced (neo-)liberal ‚democracy‘ leaves out. We could start with the fact that, whilst saying what we like, reading what we like, and loving whom we want, the NSA and GCHQ are taking copious notes (leading many to remark that they’re about the only government agencies that still listen to ordinary people), and that those copious notes may indeed be used in order to ‚kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured‘, perhaps in that bastion of advanced liberal democracy that is the Guantánamo Bay concentration camp. We might further note that, the minute we leave the privacy of our homes (such as it is, see above) to ’say what we like‘, there’s a fairly strong likelihood that agents of the state will show up to exercise their freedom to truncheon, kettle, arrest, and occasionally beat to death whomever they like. And those who make the mistake of being politically active with the wrong name, religion, or skin colour can experience the ultimate in advanced liberal democracy: the control order, which allows the Home Office to put anyone they want in a ‚prison without bars‘ without even accusing (let alone convicting) them of a crime, and with little recourse for the person in question (courtesy of the last Labour government, in case anyone’s keeping track).

In closing, Webb writes:

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution.

Leaving aside the fact that revolution is often about things rather less fuzzy than ‚the luminous‘, such as food, clothing, and fucking shelter, Webb does not explain why ‚the luminous‘, whatever it is, is no longer available in revolution, except to say that

We [sic] tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.

This was, of course, just as true of the civil war that leads Webb to remark that the English invented revolution, and of the ‚advanced liberal democracy‘ he praises, but Webb does not seem to notice. Instead, he enjoins Brand to ‚read some fucking Orwell‘, by which he presumably does not mean to suggest that Brand read the censored foreword to Animal Farm, in which Orwell describes the structurally undemocratic realities underlying Britain’s ‚advanced liberal democracy‘.

Brand may not have ’started the revolution‘, as some enthused after the Newsnight interview, but he certainly has unleashed an epic clash of vapidities.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Laura on 11.01.13 at 01:07

Right on! I wanted to comment one thing here though, which is that the titles of these things are pretty much never written by the authors. I found the title of Webb’s „open letter“ extremely painful, but I would wager he had nothing to do with it. If only I could say the same of every word of the damn thing.