Russell Brand was known to many of us before his political awakening. The good looking, unhealthy swarthy comedian has been a familiar figure on television screens and in celebrity magazines over the past decade. He has starred in Hollywood movies, discount presented reality TV shows and was briefly married to pop star Katy Perry. He has also suffered from drug addiction, made sexually explicit prank phone calls on the answering machine of veteran actor Andrew Sachs about Sachs’ granddaughter, and he once brought a homeless drug user to an Ideal Homes exhibition because he thought it would be ‘amusing.’
But now Brand has changed. He is no longer the prankster, the handsome rogue of the tabloids. Brand has re-branded himself. He is now a political activist. In several television appearances on serious current affairs programmes in the UK, Brand has laid out some of his concerns: the growing inequality in society, the irrevocable damage being done to the environment, the policy of some governments to criminalizing drug use, and the excess power of multinational corporations in global politics. Last month, he published his new book Revolution, where he points out where he sees the problems with the current system to be and his ‘vision for a fairer, sexier society that’s fun and inclusive.’
While Brand has correctly identified many of the issues that face the world in the 21st century, he seems to have little of substance to offer in the way of solutions. He has called for a people’s revolution, where the masses would take power back from the elite. The blueprints for this revolution are seemingly non-existent, in the political world haven’t taken his message seriously. The most notable tenet of his political philosophy is his ‘don’t vote’ message. He tells us that ‘voting is pointless’, that nothing ever changes. As a method of enacting change, this is misguided, conceited and ignorant.
Britain is in the incredibly privileged position of having uninterrupted democracy for centuries. Almost every country in Europe has suffered from the horrors of dictatorship where voting was not afforded to millions to citizens. These days, the right to vote is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, Brand think’s it would be more beneficial to not exercise this right. Rather, Brand claims that voting won’t change anything. This is simply not true. One only has to consider the massive changes which would have taken place in United Kingdom had Scotland voted for independence. While the Scottish independence project was ultimately unsuccessful, it is clear that the vote had profound impact on the United Kingdom and the future of the Union. To follow Brand’s advice and sit on the side-lines while major changes were being debated and voted on in the UK would have been a huge missed opportunity for any citizen.
In Ireland, there are plans to hold a referendum in 2015 on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. There are also signs that the age may be lowered in Britain for general elections. The fact that the voting age was reduced from 18 to 16 proved to be significant in the recent referendum on Scottish independence. Young people tend to be more radical and liberal than older voters; one only has to look around UCD to be made aware of this fact. The impact that young people can have in electoral politics has the potential to be decisive. The referendum on same sex marriage in Ireland, also planned for 2015, could be impacted by a lower voting age. Brand’s message to his predominantly young followers belies their intelligence and presupposes their apathy towards politics, and if followed would not lead to progressive outcomes in these elections.
Brand has over 8.5 million followers on Twitter. He is influential and young people listen to him. He is correct to raise the issues that he does, and it is admirable that he has presented these pressing political issues to his massive audience. Many have been impressed by Brand’s oratorical skills, as he can be both eloquent and provocative at the same time. Listening to him, it is clear that he oozes confidence and is well accustomed to speaking in front of audiences. However, there is little substance behind his rhetorical flushes. When Barack Obama appeared on the scene with his message of ‘hope and change’, many people were won over by his great oration. While this was part of his charm and appeal, there were clear policies behind his brilliantly written speeches. Russell Brand is in many ways a poor man’s Obama: he possesses some of the charisma but is totally lacking in vision.
Not only is Brand’s message confused and misguided, his claims to be a man of the people are also somewhat questionable. He portrays himself as an ordinary, concerned citizen who has been duped by the political elite. In one interview with Evan Davis, he rebukes Davis for using a graph to demonstrate his point: ‘people like you use graphs to confuse people like us.’ Presumably, the ‘us’ whom Brand refers to are not the ‘us, the stupid people, who don’t understand graphs’, but the ‘us, the common people’. But we must bear in mind that Brand himself is a wealthy celebrity, who among other things is driven around by a chauffeur. While it may be true that some of the politicians which Brand criticises are out of touch with the electorate, Brand is certainly out of touch with the masses. He is even worse than a champagne socialist: he’s a celebrity socialist. A regular visitor to the US, Brand’s concerns for the environment seem to be easily forgotten on those trans-Atlantic flights.
Brand should be commended for highlighting many of the problems which the world is facing. However, I doubt his book Revolution will be appearing in the politics section of the UCD library anytime soon. His only real discernible solution – the “don’t vote” manifesto- must surely rank among one of his best jokes to date.
-Fergus O Farrell