Demonising Russell Brand

By Tim Holmes (Guest post for New Left Project)

hqdefault23First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. In Russell Brand’s case, of course, they paid to laugh. But the fighting has now begun in earnest.

Note that it hasn’t come primarily from the direction one might have expected. The ever-dignified Tory MP Michael Fabricant labels him a ‘twat’ (a badge of honour, surely?), but apart from that, politicians have been pretty quiet. It is mostly journalists, commentators and assorted pundits who really have the knives out for Brand. And therein lies a lesson. Actually, it’s one to which Brand himself gave voice not so long ago, in the pages of the Guardian:

We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticise the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation.

Brand is right; indeed he echoes the views Ralph Miliband expressed four decades ago. With some honourable exceptions, the media function as a kind of ring of steel around the powerful. They repackage official propaganda as news. They present the rich man’s worldview as natural and normal. Sometimes they demand the arrest of journalists, or the murder of whistleblowers. And without fail, they demonise, belittle, denigrate and dismiss dissent.

Take the Observer’s Nick Cohen. Brand is just another ‘glib exhibitionist’ driven by the ‘need to strike a pose’, writes Cohen (whom no-one could mistake for a rather tragic George Orwell impersonator). Cohen bends over backwards to associate Brand with fascism – lifting a passage of Brand’s, labelling it a ‘call to violence’, and declaring it practically identical to Mussolini. Brand, Cohen tells us,

[holds] up the death cults of ultra-reactionary religious fundamentalists as examples to emulate rather than the enemies to fight.

Let no-one doubt Cohen’s profound abhorrence of violence, even as his keyboard drips with the blood of countless innocent Iraqis. Merely note that, seven words later, Brand adds: ‘without harming anyone’. A crucial point; Cohen entirely ignores it.

Brand’s concern for people and planet Cohen labels ‘nihilism’. His manifest attention to human rights and democracy Cohen deems deplorable apathy toward both. Brand is sub-adolescent, ‘prepubescent’, a ‘child’: this from a man who labels opponents ‘fascist‘ with all the care and intelligence of a jerking knee. Brand’s pacifist, new-agey call for ‘a revolution in consciousness’ Cohen portrays as support for totalitarian ‘control of’ consciousness. Lie and distort this freely, and turning a hippy into a Nazi is child’s play.

Cohen is not alone. The Telegraph’s Tom Chivers writes in a gentler, warmer, more affable tone, but his argument is equally dreadful. Brand has ‘got a large part of the political and media class captivated by his excellent cheekbones and long words’, Chivers avers. (Really? The same class Brand wants to bring down?) Nevertheless:

We don’t need a revolution. A revolution would be a terrible, destructive, unnecessary thing. [People like Brand] think that the world is going to hell and we need to tear it up and start again. It isn’t. We don’t.

Where Cohen likens Brand to a fascist demagogue, Chivers compares him to a fanatical cult leader: his ‘millennialist doom-saying … could come from the Reverend Jim Jones or David Koresh’, or indeed from Fight Club. But it’s superfluous, because ‘the political system – or, more precisely, the wider human system of society – is working’: ‘Don’t rip it all up and start again, because basically, it’s not that bad.’ Any and all problems are mere ‘pockets of regression, little eddies in the forward current’. Of course, he adds lamely, ‘we’re mangling the planet more than we might like …’

But revolution would be far worse, because it would ‘stick a spanner in’ the wondrous mechanisms of consumer capitalism. For lo,

A man with too much bacon will profit from trading some of that bacon with a man who has too much bread, so they can both have a bacon sandwich. That’s how the bulk of human progress has happened.

The prostitute gets her crack; the client is serviced: everybody’s happy. Behold the miracle of capitalism! It’s astonishing, of course, that anyone in an era of bank bail-outs and omnipresent oligopolies can wheel out even this free market fantasy with a straight face. Moreso that they can blithely shrug off the very real prospect of environmental catastrophe. According to UNICEF, six million children a year die from easily-preventable causes – a Holocaust, easily ended, taking place under our noses every year. Well, whatever. It’s not that bad.

On the Huffington Post, Robin Lustig offers more compelling criticisms, but displays the same patronising, dismissive attitudes. He successfully defends voting: it gave us Obamacare, the minimum wage, Mandela. But his enthusiasm is over the top, because each example really demonstrates the limits of the ballot box. Obama has proved a clone of George Bush. New Labour continued to advance the right-wing agenda it inherited from Major. Mandela’s ANC were unable to deliver significant social change.

But Lustig’s argument gets odder. The failure of the Arab Spring has dealt a blow to the idea of revolution, he suggests. Are even revolts against dictators not legitimate, then? How exactly does he think Mandela’s ANC got where it did? By signing petitions?

Obviously, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Brand. His desire for radical change is justified, but his references to revolution are vague, flaky, and open to misinterpretation. His casual sexism is a real problem. And by encouraging electoral abstention, he ignores the powerful signal protest votes can send, dismissing a modest but useful tool in preventing suffering. That may well have damaged the interests he cares about. As Paul Weyrich, a grandee of America’s radical right, put it:

I don’t want everybody to vote. … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t about Brand. It’s about the people he gives a voice; the silenced, marginalised ideas he articulates. Over the past week, it’s become clear just how deeply those ideas resonate, and how threatening much of the commentariat find them. And so they laugh at us; fight us. But we know how that story ends.

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