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Demanding the Impossible: Russell Brand's Wrongs

17/11/2014 16:06 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

It's easy to criticise Russell Brand's take on Revolution. With his half-smiling, half-sneering face donning the pages and screens reserved for the liberal intellegentsia - from Newsnight to the New Statesman - he has become target practice for just about anyone looking to shoot down a celebrity who dares to think and speak outside of their entertainment box.

I was never a big fan of Brand the comedian. Not that I didn't think he was and is funny. I just prefer my comedians a little less fashionable and good looking (not to mention his somewhat dubious choice of Hollywood film scripts and relationship partners). So when I first heard about his turn towards radical politics, I was ready to join the charge. I'm a left-wing academic after all and nothing gets left-wing academics more riled than a celebrity upstart trampling all over our turf waxing lyrical about the failures of capitalism and, of course, getting all the attention in the process. As his book continues to out-sell his publisher's wildest fantasies, no wonder some on the left have accused him of selling out. Others label him arrogant, hypocritical, egotistical, self-serving and naive.

Of course, Brand's brand of revolution is wrong in a number of ways, but not in the ways that most of his critics think. It's wrong because it disobeys the rules fashioned by agents and PR gurus which keep celebrities penned into a staid culture of mindless pap fed to tabloids, gossip magazines and reality TV shows. According to this logic, a venture into anything like radical politics for a mainstream celebrity is tantamount to career suicide (although not apparently in Brand's case). The law speaks loud and clear: charity work is good, intellectual questioning of the political and social order is a definite no-no.

The reason why mainstream celebs fall over each other to be seen to endorse good causes might have something to do with the fact that philanthropy conforms to capitalist ideology. Social justice under capitalism means the rich being generous to the poor. Should the rich or the poor begin to question how or why the massive wealth gap between them has arisen and continues to widen...well, that's just being ungrateful.

Brand's revolution is wrong also because it attacks the 'system' and yet rejects all common-sense assumptions about what are possible alternatives. His suggestion that we should abandon the voting booth as a first step towards real change (as opposed to the kind of change epitomised by 'yes we can' sloganeering) seems as silly as his slouching, feet-on-the-table dismissal of newsroom etiquette. But on closer inspection, the kind of alternatives that Brand is calling for is nowhere near as radical, silly or impossible than it looks on the surface. Saving the NHS, challenging concentrated corporate power, and dealing with rampant inequality are all platforms that speak to the great moral mainstream of public opinion. When pollsters occasionally ask people what kind of policies they support - as opposed to what kind of leaders or parties they support (which are the kind of questions typical of routine political attitudes surveys commissioned by newspapers) - the results are often far to the left of anything that Labour offers.

And here we arrive at Brand's third wrong. His book is about more than just making revolution sexy and fun (as his publishers apparently sought to emphasise on its cover). It is at least as much about reclaiming the space of anti-establishment politics annexed by Nigel Farage and those who seek to repurpose it for neo-conservative agendas. In the unwritten rule of British politics, radical ideas and brash leadership personalities are the preserve of the right. Labour learnt some time ago that if it is to get a look-in to power, it must conform to the kind of tame sensibilities that befit the political centre ground. Though Ed Miliband is now trying to unlearn that lesson as he squares up to vested interests and concentrated wealth, it may well be too little too late. He should never have listened to the warnings of his special advisors. He should have worn the 'Red Ed' badge with pride, stood up for the unions, and stepped off the ceaseless bandwagon of privatisation, austerity and welfare reform that epitomises the 'possible'.

Nevertheless, the fact that challenging the banks, energy companies and the media is now teetering on the edges of mainstream political discourse is perhaps an indication of what is possible. In Spain, the populist social movement-backed Podemos party is proving that real progressive politics is not the preserve of Latin America or a dim and distant past. We may be a long way from that in Britain but if we are to get anywhere near a genuine left alternative in mainstream politics, then we need people like Russell Brand to not only challenge the system, but to also play it at its own game.

On that note, Brand knows full well that his celebrity status and comic intellectualism quenches the 'serious' news media's thirst for ratings, and gives them an alibi against charges of elitism. But he exploits that loop hole just as much as they exploit him, in order to give airtime to ideas and causes that would otherwise never see the light of day. What's more he articulates the plight of the New Era Estate or the Fire Brigades Union not as "piecemeal causes" but as part and parcel of a new politics of the left that is centred on "creative direct action".

And this, above all, is his greatest 'wrong'. The struggle against the mainstream media's narrow framework for representing the world involves two flash points: the struggle over access (which Brand wins in virtue of his celebrity status and cult of personality); and the struggle over definition - how to make sense of problems or issues, set the terms of debate and define the range of possible solutions. It is his attempts to resist the definitional power of the BBC, in this sense, which makes his recent appearances on Newsnight so exceptional. His refusal to allow successive Newsnight anchors to 'lead' the interview was not about evading awkward questions but about challenging the very premises and assumptions upon which those questions rest.

It was the radical Situationists in Paris, 1968 who chanted "be realistic..demand the impossible". If Brand had simply thrown his weight behind the Green Party rather than urge people not to vote, he would never have got close to engaging with those struggles with media power which, in some small way, have helped to make the impossible seem more real. For that, whatever we think of his comedy or his politics, and for all his mocking and derisory critics in the liberal media, he gets the last laugh.