By Nafeez Ahmed
Oct 25, 2013
During his Wednesday night interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight, comedian and actor Russell Brand said what no politician or pundit would ever dare say: that without dramatic, fundamental change, the prevailing political and economic system is broken, and hell-bent on planetary-level destruction:
"The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers."
Yesterday, Brand published an extended essay in the New Statesmanfleshing out in detail his case for a "revolution" - not just a political and economic transformation, but one fundamentally rooted in a shift in consciousness toward a new way of thinking.
Brand's interview and article elicited overwhelming support from the general public in social media, but widespread detraction from journalists and commentators. In the Telegraph, Tom Chivers insisted:
"But the political system – or, more precisely, the wider human system of society – is working... generally speaking, humans have it better than ever before. There is more food per head of population, despite the population growth. We live longer. We are less likely to die violently."
The Independent described Brand as "Britain's most trivial revolutionary", slamming his Newsnight performance as the:
"... ultimate expression of Slackerism, a political theory with roots in teenage angst, mild rebelliousness, and a pie-in-the-sky leftism that wants to pull down the walls of the politics then sit around smoking pot in the ruins."
Andy Dawson in the Mirror scoffed:
"What we do know is that we won't have a 'government' under Brand's vision of the future – instead we'll have 'admin bods.' Sadly, he didn't seem to have any idea how the admin bods would be chosen though... Brand's overriding message was 'be more apathetic.'"
But these and other critics simply missed the point, by focusing obsessively on one issue: that Brand has never voted in his life, and rejects democracy in its current form as a viable system. "Like most people, I am utterly disenchanted by politics," Brand writes:
"Like most people, I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."
Yet the response of many pundits - which has consisted largely of ad hominem attacks on Brand's inauthenticity due to his stance on voting and his own personal wealth - illustrates precisely his point. It is not Brand that is trivial or apathetic. It is the prevailing political, economic and cultural system. And the very inability of so many media commentators to engage with the substance of this issue, the crux of Brand's argument, is symptomatic of the complete state of delusion this system revels in as it accelerates its trajectory toward environmental annihilation.
It is a sad reflection of the dire state of politics and the media that it falls to a celebrity comedian such as Russell Brand to speak truth to power - and an even sadder reflection that mainstream cultural commentators find themselves incapable of even understanding his key message.
"Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people. A system that is apathetic, in fact, to the needs of the people it was designed to serve."
To this, the critics simply insist ad nauseum that there is no viable alternative to our current bankrupt form of representative democracy - the solution, the Mirror claims for instance, is for "the disillusioned and disenfranchised to become re-engaged with the democratic process." But what about the fact that the democratic process has become hopelessly compromised by corporate power?
Take the issue of environmental policy. As I've shown in my previous articles here, both the Tory and Labour parties' approaches to the questions of fracking and energy prices are incoherent. Ed Miliband's lofty declaration of intent to freeze gas and electricity bills, just like David Cameron's promise to review green taxes, were simply hot air that overlooked the fundamental deeper systemic crisis: that we are transitioning to a new energy era in which fossil fuels are now increasingly dirtier, costlier, and more difficult to extract. And yesterday, I revealed the financial connections of Cameron acolyte, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, illustrating that his stance on deregulation and fracking was hardly objective.
The British political stalemate is not unique. In the US, President Obama has exerted his executive authority to push through climate change powers which are, however, fatally compromised by his government's unyielding commitment to exploiting unconventional oil and gas - and which, in any case, are so timid in emissions reduction pledges that even if implemented, they would not avert catastrophe before close of century. And even this is under threat from a deeply irrational Republican Party stocked with oil industry-funded climate deniers.
The US and UK stalemate on climate change illustrates the impasse continually reached at international climate change negotiations, which have consistently failed. It is a stalemate that is fundamentally irrational. Cutting edge research looking at the complex interconnections between planetary ecosystems suggests we are on track to see as much as an 8C rise in global average temperatures by 2100 - but even half that would create a near uninhabitable planet facing collapse of the oceans, world crop yields dropping by almost half, and over 4.8 billion people experiencing water scarcity.
Confronted with these prospects, however, governments remain structurally beholden to the hegemony of giant energy corporations tied into the old, defunct, carbon-dependent system. And we would be truly foolish to think we can separate out looming climate catastrophe from the other crises Brand highlights.
Wealth inequalities globally and within nations have spiralled out of control even as exploitation of the planet's resources has accelerated for the benefit of the corporate few under the prevailing paradigm of endless growth for its own sake. A comprehensive study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington DC gathered data on the period from 1980 to 2005, widely hailed as neoliberal globalisation's 'golden age' of growth. The study found that in this period, under IMF and World Bank reforms, the vast majority of the world's economies had been systematically retarded, facing declines in progress on growth and other key social indicators such as literacy, health, and so on.
Even worse, those of us in the west, particularly the centres of neoliberal capitalism such as the US and UK, are not necessarily lauding it up. Amongst our most wealthy are growing numbers who are deeply unhappy and suffering disproportionately from mental health challenges, even while our increasingly unequal societies correlate with all kinds of social problems including more violent crime, higher teenage births, more obesity, more people in prison, and so on.
So when Brand in the same breath says that the system is simultaneously destroying the planet and widening wealth inequalities while the political class prevaricates pointlessly, he is absolutely right.
We are currently at the helm of a dysfunctional political, economic and cultural system which is plundering the earth's resources at unsustainable rates, accelerating environmental degradation, concentrating wealth in a tightening network of unaccountable corporate entities, spawning rampant unhappiness, amplifying the risk of economic crisis, and potentially culminating in planetary-level species extinction.
Should Brand be taken to task for rejecting the vote in this context? Yes and no. No, because his rejection clearly resonates with, and is reflective of, a growing sentiment in wider society where, in fact, actual majorities in our liberal democracies do not vote - not because they are apathetic, but because of the abject apathy of a broken political system in the face of the crisis of civilisation. Yes, because simply disengaging from the prevailing political system is another extreme reaction that is, in fact, part and parcel of the very system it purports to reject. Because the more the majority disengages, the more a decreasing minority is able to dominate the political class.
It is precisely the reactionary disengagement of the majority that permits powerful corporate lobbies to inordinately influence the democratic process, and even allows proto-fascist parties like the now defunct British National Party (BNP) and the meteorically rising UK Independence Party (UKIP) to enter the political scene and channel the direction of political discourse - apathy fueling apathy enabling insanity.
If anyone wants a glimpse of what happens when you simply reject the existing system without the slightest clue where else you're going and why, look at Egypt and Syria.
Both countries are microcosms of the global crises we face as a species, encapsulating the challenges of peak oil, climate change, economic inequality and political repression. The convergence of those crises triggered food price hikes that, in turn, sparked uprisings which may well have overturned and undermined prevailing state structures, but which have been unable to offer viable alternatives.
That does not mean the solution lies within the prevailing political paradigm. Brand's call for revolution, for a fundamental political, economic, cultural and cognitive shift, is on point. But rather than entailing disengagement resulting in anarchy, this requires the opposite: Engagement at all levels in order to elicit structural transformation on multiple scales through the overwhelming presence of people taking power back, here and now.
That could include civil disobedience and occupying public spaces. But it should also include occupying mainstream political spaces - not just as an act of protest, but as an act of constructive engagement that is difficult to ignore, through intensive, organised grassroots campaigning, lobbying and dialogue with political actors; occupying media narratives by mobilising organised critical engagement with journalists and editors; occupying economic spaces by experimenting with new equitable forms of production, consumption and exchange; occupying food and energy spaces by pooling community resources to grow our own food and produce our own energy in our communities; and so on.
And in doing so, we might begin to realise that it is precisely the lack of a single, top-down manifesto that is our greatest strength - because, unlike the old, dying, fossil fuel dependent paradigm of endless growth for its own sake for the corporate few, the new, emerging post-carbon paradigm will be co-created by people themselves from the ground up.
That is why Brand's answer for the way forward is so compelling:
"We shouldn't destroy the planet. We shouldn't create massive economic disparity. We shouldn't ignore the needs of the people."
If we want our children to inherit a habitable planet, rather than bashing Brand for not having a more coherent solution, we need to start being part of it.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It among other books. Watch his film, The Crisis of Civilization, for free. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
Image above: Russell Brand at Birmingham Symphony Hall performing his Messiah Complex show. Photograph: Tony Woolliscroft/WireImage