In Defense of Russell Brand's Stab at a Revolution
Carlos Ballesteros | Oct. 31, 2014, 5:16 p.m.
“When I was poor and I complained about inequality, people said I was bitter. Now I’m rich, and I complain about inequality; they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want inequality on the agenda because it is a real problem that needs to be addressed.”
There is no better quote to summarize the mainstream media’s response to Russell Brand’s recent entry into the political arena. From the centrist BBC to the conservative Independent to the left-leaning Guardian, Brand’s message—which boils down to an indictment of Western plutocrats and their political allies for crafting modern capitalism in a way that creates astonishing levels of economic inequality, ecological destruction and political disenfranchisement—has been disregarded as nothing more than fiery, misguided rhetoric coming from a former drug addict looking to stir up some trouble.
However, once past these knee-jerk arguments, there is much to learn from England’s wild child.
Brand’s self-proclaimed purpose is twofold: to help bring attention to the world’s multiple systemic crises and to amplify the voices of the world’s common folk. By forgoing the state and going to the masses themselves, Brand considers the current political structure’s ineffectiveness at dealing with systemic change.
All of this wouldn’t matter if Brand’s popularity as a political figure was minimal. But given that he is a New York Times bestselling author with a new book out, has a YouTube news channel with 700,000 subscribers and continues to be interviewed by Britain’s finest, to dismiss Brand simply as a comedian looking for a pastime is dead wrong and, ultimately, elitist.
It’s the Inequality, Stupid!
According to an Oxfam report released earlier this week, “the number of billionaires in the world has more than doubled to 1,646 since the financial crisis of 2009.” The report also found that “the 85 richest individuals in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population.” In Britain alone, the five richest families have the same wealth as the 12 million poorest individuals.
Brand rightly sees the need for change in these outrageous statistics, and in his new book, Revolution, he speaks at length about the long-term effects of what such levels of inequality do to us all.
“When travelling in impoverished regions in galling luxury, as I have done, you have to undergo some high-wire ethical arithmetic to legitimise your position,” he writes. “If you can’t geographically separate yourself from poverty, then you have to do it ideologically. You have to believe inequality is OK. You have to accept the ideas that segregate us from one another and nullify your human instinct for fairness.”
Ultimately, Brand calls for the end of modern capitalist society in favor of a multitude of self-governing communities that practice ecologically sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on spiritual well-being.
Of course, Forbes and the Washington Post love to point out Brand’s current $15 million estimated net worth as an insurmountable trump against his utopian ideals. This common argument made against Brand is misleading. Inequality, as it stands today, is the result of the oligarchic rule that represents the interests of a fraction of the global population, not second-tier British entertainers.
But the importance of the book is not its feeble roadmap to heaven on Earth or Brand’s attempt at undermining his inherent hypocrisy. Rather, it is Brand’s ability to retake discussions of politics and economics from the unrelenting grip of 'experts' and politicians that shines through.
Vonny Moyes from The Guardian puts it best: “[Revolution] isn’t a manifesto—it’s the opening of a dialogue we all need to be having. Some of his ideas are flimsy but he’s not a politico—he’s just a man who’s thought long and hard about making the world a better place. If nothing else, this layman’s take on society’s ills reminds us that politics is not theirs—it’s ours. And that is an excellent place to start.”
News Flash: Unschooled People Think, Too
It would be hard to find anyone who could have foreseen Brand’s evolution from comic entertainer to modern revolutionary. Admittedly, I dismissed his first couple of politically charged articles and interviews as nothing more than the products of a rich white man with an overblown savior complex.
But as I began to pay attention to what the man was saying, I realized that my neglect came not from what Brand is but from what he isn’t. All too often, we college students demand to see credentials before anything else. It is easy for us to ignore entire arguments—regardless of their validity—by simply looking at the mouth from which they came. Brand, a college dropout with a reputation closer to Paris Hilton than Noam Chomsky, did not fit the image of an 'intellectual,' and that was all I needed to ignore him.
As critical thinkers attending a collection of some of the world's most prestigious institutions, it is imperative that we realize that education is not only achieved through schooling. There’s a thing called life experience, something we will never be able to learn, study or analyze correctly within these campuses, but it’s just (if not more) important as learning about the Socratic method and Ancient Rome.
It is our duty, then, to reject our socialized understanding of who is and who isn’t intelligent. Whether or not you agree with Brand is not the point. The point is to understand that his critique of modern society cannot be dismissed solely upon who he is and where he came from. That, my friends, would be elitist.
Through his wit and rigorous autodidacticism, Brand has been able to politicize thousands of young people throughout Britain and beyond by calling out the system’s bullshit while at the same time sticking up for common folk across the world. It is because of his lack of formal schooling that Brand is able to identify with the masses in ways that the majority of Ivory Tower intellectuals could never do. What Brand lacks in technical skill he makes up in guts and determination, and it doesn't take a thesis adviser to recognize the latter. In this way, Brand is an existential threat to the status quo. He proves that you don't need a Ph.D in economics to know when things are fucked up beyond belief and—more importantly—that not having one shouldn't impede you from being heard.
When the richest man in the world would require 220 years to spend his entire fortune at a rate of $1 million a day all the while some 805 million people are chronically undernourished, something is wrong. You know it. I know it. And Russell Brand knows it, too.
Carlos Ballesteros CM '16 is a sociology major from Chicago, Ill.