Russell Brand: Good Pundit, Bad Thinker

The comedian wants his ideas to be taken seriously in the political world, but his call for revolution doesn't deserve it.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

In a review of Russell Brand’s 2007 memoir, Andrew Anthony of The Guardian asked: “What will become of Russell Brand?”

More than five years later, the answer is that he’s developed a sideline career as a pundit of sorts: writing a piece about an encounter with Margaret Thatcher in the Temple in London, published the day after she died; embarrassing the hosts of Morning Joe in the summer (“Is this what you all do for a living?”); editing a special edition of the New Statesman; and calling for utopian socialist revolution during an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, a move that has been tremendously popular, getting support from Time and Gawker.

This level of engagement isn’t usually in the purview of celebrities or comedians, but Brand isn’t typical here; he begins his memoir with lines from Percy Shelley, after all.

Over the last few years he has been edging towards seriousness, flirting with it at first, then finding its allure too great to return to writing solely about sex and heroin. As a comedian, Brand is witty, dark, and funny (“I was born with my mouth open, and my umbilical cord wrapped around my throat, as if I was thinking, ‘Well, if this is all there is, I’m off. Check please,’” he writes in his memoir). But the Serious Brand’s ideas—with the gravitas, and with the humor pared away—aren’t very good. In the case of calling for a socialist revolution, they’re quite awful.

Brand has become a goofy warrior, trying to balance seriousness with comedy. This is difficult not just for the performer, but for the audience as well. In 2011, when Stephen Colbert stepped out of character while testifying to Congress and read from the Book of Matthew in defense of treating undocumented immigrants compassionately, it was both gratifying (he actually does have sensible opinions) and confusing (with that much influence and those convictions, why isn’t he serious more often?).

Brand, though, has clearly decided to wield his influence. In the Morning Joe interview, he asked his hosts to look beyond the superficial, past his appearance—long curly hair, a dark beard, and generous chest hair to match behind an open button-down shirt. He asked, basically, to be taken seriously by his hosts. All of that served to give him more credibility with a younger, alternative audience, one willing to listen to his blithe calls for revolution, despite the fact that he clearly hasn’t thought much about actual revolution. Actual revolution, after all, is stylish.

Not all of his seriousness can be easily dismissed, though, which is perhaps why he is taken more seriously than most American celebrities who dabble in politics. His Thatcher piece, for example, had the interesting insight that the Iron Lady had broken the glass ceiling for women “only in the sense that all women beneath her were blinded by falling shards. She is an icon of individualism, not of feminism.” When Brand saw Thatcher in the Temple, he saw her as a lonely old lady; and when she died, he suggests, echoing her famous phrase, society did not mourn, but a handful of individuals did.

One may disagree, but Brand makes a legitimate contribution to the debate over the sustainability of an ideology or project that emphasizes the individual above all else. His ability to analyze major figures on a personal level can be even quite good at times. But he has no ability to theorize on a grander scale. When Brand starts talking about revolution, the folly of his political ideas becomes clearer.

In his New Statesman piece, Brands reveals that he doesn’t vote, because to do so is to be complicit in a broken system. “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?” he asked.

The problem is that Brand gives no clue what the socialist utopia would look like. He tells us it wouldn’t be oblivion (which is where he believes society is headed sans revolution), and he told Paxman that there would have to be a “centralized administrative system ... call them the admin bods.”

That sounds horrifying. His case for change is a familiar one: Politicians are apathetic to the plight of the poor and serve only corporations; there is massive inequality and injustice; and social problems (including drug use, with which Brand is on intimate terms, or the 2011 riots in London) are a result of this injustice.

They may all be valid points, but it isn’t Brand’s aim to provide convincing evidence for them; he just wants a revolution, a social utopia where we take care of the earth and look out for one another. But anger at the status quo and calls for revolution are easy; as long as poor children—and there have always been poor children—and privilege coexist, there will be a charismatic leader cursing the system.

It’s fun to watch, but it’s a poor kind of journalism for a serious magazine: broad and deliberately diaphanous statements without any substance, calling for radical change without giving readers justification for that change or telling them what a conceivable concrete end might be.

Brand wants to live in a different world, one where political power is the opposite of the Hobbesian idea: a genuine interest in the needs of the poor ipso facto, a simultaneous desire for equality while seeking power over another. But goodness and right have little to do with political power; or as Machiavelli puts it, rulers are only really concerned about the maintenance of power.

Brand seems to have put little thought into a realistic mechanism or outcome for revolution. And because of that, he’s never had to confront the realities of it. Reality, which Brand’s gritty upbringing surprisingly didn’t prepare him very well for, is sticky; revolution is ghastly and dreadful—as some people familiar with the process have pointed out, it isn’t a dinner party and there are broken eggs. Behind these two analogies there is charisma. Those were revolutions, awesome revolutions, spectacular in their sheer force.

But Brand sees none of this. By sidestepping the part of the process where he thinks about the form of the revolution he’s calling for, he avoids reckoning with the fact that revolutions aren’t kind to the downtrodden. The poor can almost never win, but even in revolutions it is they who pay the heaviest price. That price is difficult to overstate. It may be sufficient to paint a small scene of the poor during the early stages of Mao’s revolution: trees in the villages stripped bare of leaves and bark, graves dug up for flesh.

That is the tradition of revolution Brand is calling for, but the danger is masked by a smooth tongue and a suave personality. When Brand’s ideas are examined by themselves, free from all of that, it becomes clear just how little merit they have. He has tapped into a widespread and understandable dissatisfaction with the status quo, but there is no reason to think that his “utopia” would be any better, and indeed, a lot of reasons to think it might be much, much worse.

Russell Brand did not start a revolution; he merely reinforced the notion that revolutions always seem in style.