Russell Brand and the Resonance of Revolution

So Russell Brand predicted a revolution on BBC Newsnight. With a rapid spitfire of cunning rhetoric he reduced Jeremy Paxman — the establishment’s private pitbull — to a cowering heap of journalistic fluff. The video instantly went viral. My newsfeed lit up with activists waxing poetics about the coming insurrection. All the major social movement pages implored their sleepy audiences to rise from their slumber like lions and reactivate that unshaken belief we all seemed to share just two years ago: that revolution is nigh. Paul Mason of Channel 4 weighed in that “Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution”, and Gawker even exclaimed that “Russell Brand may have started a revolution last night”.

I doubt it. The extreme joy with which the left (from liberals to Marxists to anarchists) seems to have embraced Russell Brand as a spokesman for the revolution is, in the first place, an indictment of our own failure. We are just so happy to see our concerns, criticisms and claims reflected in the mainstream media by a charming, articulate and — frankly speaking — slightly crazy hobo, that it briefly sent us back to that euphoric time when we first occupied everything in 2011. But at the same time, the very resonance of the interview speaks volumes about the revolutionary desire that still simmers just below the surface of our everyday normalcy. The fact is that millions of young people around the world actually agree with Russell: yes! we do need a revolution!


Of course Russell’s vision itself is not without its problems. For all his revolutionary and extra-parliamentary antics, Brand — under quite a bit of pressure from Paxman — still ended up (unwittingly, I hope) exhuming the corpse of Marxism-Leninism by calling for a centralized system of “government” control. Well, let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt and presume he meant “federated” self-governance. Also, in his otherwise excellent essay for the revolution-themed issue of The New Statesman that he guest-edited, Russell risks going slightly over the top with his New-Agey insistence upon the spiritual. As the bourgeois-bohemian vogue in Hollywood and Soho amply shows, the line between “spiritual revolution” and capitalist narcissism easily gets blurred.

But at the same time, Russell insists that a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me”. When confronted with the question what the alternative might look like, and how his utopian vision could ever be made a reality, Russell skillfully fends off Paxman’s entrenched skepticism by turning our upside-down world right back on its feet: the burden of proof is not upon us, those ones who want to change the system, to show beyond doubt that our ideas can actually work in practice; but upon our rulers — those in power — to show that their system can work for us. Since it doesn’t (and by its very  nature can’t) we should first of all stop reproducing the system that exploits us. And so we don’t vote and we don’t run for office.

Still, all of this leaves us with a crucial question. Now that the initial wave of mobilizations has subsided, how does our revolution move forward? What’s next? From Egypt to Greece to Spain to the US and the UK, and from there to Mexico, Chile, Turkey, Brazil and around the world, we now have to confront that age-old revolutionary conondrum: what is to be done? Clearly the Marxist-Leninist answer to this question brought utter tragedy, while the reformist social democratic path led straight to a giant farce. Many communist parties ended up butchering the very workers they were supposed to bring into power, while most socialist parties ended up as the ideal vehicles for the further entrenchment of neoliberal market fundamentalism the world over.

The answer lies not in the static hierarchy of the Party but in the incessant dynamism of the Movement. That said, we are definitely facing the limitations of spontaneity and leaderlessness in the short term. Now that the movements have retreated from public view and the great Thermidor of the capitalist state has come crashing down over our heads, the revolutionaries who once constituted the multitude increasingly find themselves getting sucked back in to the alienating atomicity of everyday life under capitalism. There’s a risk of becoming disillusioned — and many of us already are. That’s why Russell’s interview came at the right time. Not just because he publicly destroyed the empty pretensions of the political class and the entrenched skepticism of its intellectual watchdogs; but because he implores us all to move forward and ask what comes next.

Ultimately, it’s not Russell Brand who gives me hope. Even though I greatly enjoyed his interview, I frankly don’t care very much what this celebrity tells the BBC or what he writes in the New Statesman. It’s the fact that his heartfelt revolutionary desire still resonates with millions that truly thrills me. I wouldn’t predict a revolution just yet. But that’s because I know it’s already begun. 

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