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Did Russell Brand Really Mean That We Should Govern With Facebook?

It's been two weeks since Russell Brand was on the BBC Newsnight programme telling Jeremy Paxman that voting is a waste of time. Since then, it feels a little like democracy itself has been drowned in a political cacophony as Brand lovers and haters debate his prediction of revolution in the UK.

It's been two weeks since Russell Brand was on the BBC Newsnight programme telling Jeremy Paxman that voting is a waste of time. Since then, it feels a little like democracy itself has been drowned in a political cacophony as Brand lovers and haters debate his prediction of revolution in the UK.

Fellow comic Robert Webb slapped Brand down, suggesting that inciting people to not bother voting isn't cool - though it later turned out that even Jeremy Paxman has not bothered marking his own X from time to time - everyone seems frustrated at the futility of the system.

Russell Brand is a clever man. He might market himself as a comic, but any reader of his books or journalism can see that he isn't in the Roy 'Chubby' Brown school of stand-up comedy - he knows about political philosophy and is clearly aware of what revolution involves so why has his contribution to British political discourse touched a nerve in the way it has?

Firstly it's because Brand is a popular figure with the intelligence to talk about politics and sociology - holding his own against BBC anchors and recently editing an edition of The New Statesman magazine. But what he has exposed in his recent media appearances is that the political rejection that resulted in the Occupy movement has not gone away. It may have fizzled under the radar a bit as people drifted away from the main areas of protest, but your average bloke on the street is still not happy about the way representational democracy represents (or fails to represent) ordinary people.

This is not just a British concern. Look at the heavy-drinking-crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford. Look at the Tea Party crippling the entire system of government in the USA to the point that public services were recently closed down temporarily. Look at the Brazilian Congress where almost a third of all members elected to the house are facing criminal charges. Do you really think the Brazilians were rioting this year over the price of a bus ticket? A sense of frustration and outrage with their cheating elected officials who vote for measures such as a 'Christmas bonus' worth three months salary would be closer to the truth.

But calling for a revolution, what would it mean? Would all property owners need to hand in their keys and allow everyone to enjoy a common right to use houses as they wish? Would bank accounts be closed? Would private companies all be nationalised? And even then, who prevents the powerful members of the state from being corrupted by the power they wield?

It's delusional to imagine that any modern industrial society would choose to reject what we have grown accustomed to over hundreds of years. I don't believe that Russell Brand's cry for revolution literally means that the people of the world should reject money and all their worldly possessions. Most people love their own home too much to think of it as a common resource anyone could just pop into for the night.

The real problem in Britain - and beyond - is the representation the people receive in the name of democracy. The great English revolutionary, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet called 'Common Sense' in 1776 describing how a representative democracy could flourish:

"Some convenient tree will afford them a State House, under the branches of which the whole Colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man by natural right will have a seat."

In an ideal society, a utopia perhaps, every person would have a place at parliament and be able to contribute to laws and regulations - as Paine describes with the space under the tree acting as a forum.

But people are busy. Russell Brand wants to spend time making movies not loitering around in Westminster and most of us need to work to pay for our home and family. So we outsource the task of going to parliament to professional politicians, who are elected by the people and nominally represent them.

2,400 years ago Plato could see that this was a natural way for a state to be run. In his 'Republic' published in about 380 BC Plato described his idea of the 'philosopher-kings' - people who would be born and educated specifically to rule. If smart people are running the country, the rest of us can get on with the other things that we really want to be doing.

But the way so many democratic societies are organised today feel far from representative of the people. First past the post voting systems ensure that many people will find that their vote is meaningless and discarded. Partisan politics focused more on attacking those of another party rather than finding solutions for society mean time, effort, and money is wasted - on what?

Of course in a society that contains millions of voices there will be millions of opinions. Some of them are poorly informed leading the educated classes to consider them irrelevant, but it feels like something has to give - and soon.

The way politics is run in so many societies today has led to the career politician. A good school followed by a PPE at Oxford or Cambridge followed by a stint as a researcher for an MP followed by party selection and eventually winning a seat. People can become members of parliament and vote on national legislation without ever having done a 'real' job in their entire life - politics has itself become a career.

A combination of career politicians and the creaking slowness of democracy-as-is have led to this crisis. We live today in a world where Mumsnet can mobilise millions behind a cause in a single day. Online polls and petitions gauge opinion better than a single election every four or five years, but online opinion is still seen as frivolous.

But there is no immediate alternative to what we have. I read someone suggesting that Russell Brand votes for a socialist party if those are his views, but he may as well just not bother - as he does.

What we really need is a reformed democracy that moves beyond the traditional parliamentary system and embraces what real people think and feel on a daily basis. Can you imagine the vibrancy of a single-issue political campaign on Facebook combined with a system of representation that allowed real people to still vote for full-time representatives at a parliament, but gave them an ability to control what their 'MP' does on a daily basis?

Parliament by Facebook? It might not be what Russell Brand actually said, but surely that's where his thinking will lead us - if the people want it. And to those who laugh at the idea of involving people who can't be bothered to vote in a new form of democracy just look at the online debate over energy prices. People do care about politics when it affects their life - create a way to involve them in the decision-making process and we will be well on our way to a brave new world that no longer features masters of spin as leaders of nations.