Sunday, 27 October 2013

Russell Brand, Boris Johnson and Jesus all walk into a pub ...

Russell Brand has a new tour to promote (the "Messiah Complex World Tour", no less), and the New Statesman has found guest editors to be linkbait fairy dust, so it was predictable that the self-styled Essex Trickster should find himself treading in the footsteps of Jemima Khan, Rowan Williams and Ai Weiwei to one of the most highly sought-after, unpaid internships in the media. To add fuel to the fire, he also did an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, where he called for the overthrow of the political system. Before anyone could point out the uncanny similarity in style and lack of substance with Boris Johnson (who has made the comic two-hander with Paxman a speciality), Brand made the connection himself, so reassuring Jezza that this would be harmless, knockabout fun. There was even a beard joke.

Brand's position can be summed up by Billy Connolly's crack about politicians: "Don’t vote, it just encourages them". He justifies his boycott thus: "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". Given that every political system can be defined as the medium by which economic interests negotiate power, this is a bit like complaining that rain is wet. Brand has been widely pilloried by those who earn a crust pillorying, but his provocative style and rambling essay in the NS (the sub-editors clearly didn't fancy a fight) has also triggered some more interesting observations by the ideologically partisan and those willing to wade through the overflow of his fecund mind.

Uber-free-marketeer Tim Worstall takes him to task for misunderstanding that profit (a "filthy word", according to Brand) "is simply the proof that value is being created", and is therefore a good thing. Of course, this equivalence of profit with value is disingenuous, as profit is actually surplus value, not all value, and politics is about the struggle for control of that surplus. Brand, like Worstall, makes the mistake of investing profit with an ethical dimension (not unlike the popular trope about "good" and "bad" capitalism), which is of a piece with his religiose outlook (he talks of the "implicit spiritual principles" of the left) and weakness for hippy shibboleths (a "revolution in consciousness" inevitably wanders on stage).

From the left, Neil Schofield espies proto-fascism in Brand's cocktail of spiritual reconnection, organic community and love of the land: "his views are profoundly reactionary and, in the literal sense of the word, decadent". And that's without picking up on Brand's routine sexism (confessing to being a womaniser, like admitting heroin addiction, does not give you licence). Nick Cohen spotted the same fascist roots, but spoilt his analysis by indulging in the "each as bad as the other" vice that he accuses Brand of: "the similarities between far left and far right are more striking than their differences" (Cohen writes in the "democracy and liberty under threat from all directions" tradition of Orwell and Hitchens, so this sort of language is almost obligatory).

Cohen's chief criticism of Brand is that he is dangerously frivolous: "Today's crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation ... Unfortunately for Brand, who sees himself a radical leftist of some sort, apparently, the greatest beneficiary of the nihilism he promotes is the radical right. Many people are surprised that the rightwing and neo-fascist movements have benefited most from a banking crash brought [about] by the most overpaid people on the planet ... Classic fascism movements borrowed from the left, and today's neo- or post-fascist movements follow suit. Mussolini emphasised that fascism was a third way between capitalism and socialism".

Fascism was reaction clothed in revolution. Cohen is essentially right in his critique of Brand's frivolity (the man's a paid entertainer, after all), but he misses the point that the encouragement of the "radical right" comes not from Brand's "nihilism" but from the establishment's flirtation with the politics of hate. It can never be repeated too often that Mussolini and Hitler came to power due to the manoeuvrings of conservative politicians and the (minority) support of reactionary voters stressed by economic change. The danger today comes from the divisive assault on the welfare state, growing inequality, and the emergence of populist chancers like Johnson and Farage. Brand is not a harbinger of fascism, he's just a very naughty boy.


  1. David,

    Is it really true that Hitler and Mussolini came to power because of the manoeuvrings of conservative politicians, as opposed to the fact that they did actually manage to mobilise substantial social movements behind them? In fact, having come to power, they increased that support, including from many former "Communists". Surely, the important question here is why such a large number of workers and sections of the middle class came to support the fascists, or at least not to oppose them.

    The simple answer is that the left had not provided a sufficiently appealing alternative to them. If we want to understand the whole thing about changing consciousness raised by Brand then it cannot simply be understood in terms of who gets what votes, who says what etc. It can only be understood in terms of is what is being offered attractive and believable by those we seek to attract to it, i.e. the workers and middle class. If it isn't, is that because what we are saying is wrong, is rejected because workers have experienced it, and rejected it, or is it correct, but workers can't accept it, because their experience so far leads them not to believe its possible.

    That is what I think is wrong about your idea about the right-wing attack on Welfarism. The question you need to ask is what is the experience of millions of workers that leads them to find that attack attractive to them? The answer is that their experience of Welfarism tells them that it does not meet their needs - workers pay into a state pension that the state tells them they can only draw from if they die early, they pay huge amounts into a social insurance scheme for health and social care, which they either do not get, or when they get it, it is terribly bad, when they need social housing it isn't there, and when it was, it was bureaucratic, and oppressive, and so on.

    Of course, socialists have been aware of these issues, and tokenistically raised demands for democratic, even workers control of some of this provision, but if capitalist firms were never going to concede such control there was no possibility the even more powerful capitalist state would do so. So, its not surprising workers and more so the working class that pay the larger part of the taxes, and are able to provide alternatives for themselves, are turned off this welfarism, and see those who do manage to obtain something from it, as leeching off them. Its no wonder workers chose to buy their Council houses, increasingly provide for some of their healthcare etc.

    1. On the lessons of history, yes, it is true that Hitler and Mussolini came to power because of the manoeuvrings of conservative politicians and the (minority) support of reactionary voters. Most of the "mobilisation of society" occured after they seized power. A feature of Fascism in practice is the need for constant revolution (and permanent enemies) to provide both legitimacy and distraction.

      The Nazi party's support was actually declining in 1932, and they had nowhere near a majority in the Reichstag (33%). It was the manoeuvring of Franz von Papen and the conservatives (the DNVP), with the tacit support of the Catholic parties, that led to Hitler being appointed Chancellor of what was intended to be a broad rightist coalition. The demography of Nazi support points to a core of rural, small town and Protestant voters. They did not enjoy much support among the urban working or middle classes.

      In Italy, the paramilitary Blackshirts were initially used by the big landowners of the Po Valley to counter the socialists and anarcho-syndicalists who were pushing for land reform. They were then used by big capital and the bourgeois parties to break the general strike of 1920. The PR exercise of the 1922 march on Rome led to Mussolini being invited to form a cabinet. Again, the conservatives believed he could be manipulated to their advantage.

      In highlighting the attack on welfarism I am not suggesting that it is practically perfect in every way and should be defended unreservedly. I agree with you that workers' control would be a better approach. I also agree that this is eminently practical, which is why having the "revolution" articulated in Utopian and deliberately impractical terms by a popular entertainer should be seen as ideologically congruent with the interests of capital.

    2. I think that definition of support is way to electoralist. I don't think that there is any doubt that during the early 1930's, the Nazis like the Blackshirts had been able to mobilise large social forces on the streets. They were able to break up trade union and socialist meetings etc. To see the coming to power in terms of the electoral manoeuvres of bourgeois politicians, is I think to misunderstand the dynamics of a social rather than electoral political process. Without that "electoral coup", there may have been some more delayed process rather like Marx's description of the Bonapartist coup of Eighteenth Brumaire, but only that, a delay.

      A similar process can be seen in Spain in the 1930's, and in Egypt and Libya today, and possibly in Syria to come. As Trotsky describes, in Spain the bourgeois parties had their representatives in the Parliament, that the Stalinists sought to ally with, but the reality on the streets was that those bourgeois politicians represented nothing, even though they had won votes suggesting they did.

      In Libya, we have the same situation of bourgeois politicians who have been elected, but in reality represent nothing, because the real power in the streets belongs to the various militias. In Egypt, Morsi won the election, but it was obvious that at some point the MB would have to confront the military, just as happened in 1848.

    3. Electoral support was a close proxy for wider social support during the Weimar Republic due to relatively high turnouts (average 80%) and the use of proportional representation. The Nazis were certainly able to mobilise large forces on the streets, as were the KPD and SPD, however the ubiquity of the SA has tended to be over-stated (often by self-interested post-WW2 conservatives). Most of the post-WW1 Freikorps and their paramilitary successors were actually aligned with other conservative parties, notably the DNVP and DVP. It should also be remembered that the SA's success on the ground owed much to the complicity of the police and a conservative judiciary.

      My point was not that the rise of the Nazis was solely the product of bourgeois manoeuvrings, which is why I emphasied the support of wider reactionary forces beset by economic change. It was the latter that provided the strategic bedrock for the growth in Nazi support (and which was ebbing in 1932 due to economic improvements), but it was the former that delivered the tactical misjudgement that allowed Hitler the opportunity to assume power. NB: I use the word "assume", not "seize", because neither Hitler's accession nor that of Mussolini was a coup d'etat (unlike Franco and Pinochet). They were invited into government by the "party of order".

      The "mobilisation of large social forces" was a deliberate programme that occured after the Nazis and Fascists came to power. In Germany this was know as Gleichschaltung, or "co-ordination", and sought to affect (and infect) every form of social organisation. The mass rallies and hysteria we're familiar with from newsreels were a product (both real and confected) of this post-accession programme. Before 1933, the Nazis were significant but not dominant.


  2. For those like me who recognise that these alternatives can never provide for the needs of workers, and believe as did Marx that, therefore, workers have to organise their own provision collectively, and independent of the state, the problem is convincing workers they can do that. The task of doing that is not helped by the fact that large numbers of supposed Marxists themselves do not believe that workers can provide for themselves collectively, and call on them instead to rely on that very capitalist state that oppress them, to instead take that responsibility. Once again, workers look at those statements about this kind of workers ownership and control only being possible after the revolution, and after the state has taken over everything, and they look at the experience of that in Russia, and elsewhere, they look at their experience of nationalisation and they look at how these "revolutionaries" themselves behave, and conclude that what "workers control" really means here is some kind of top down control by those revolutionaries and their state, not any real control by the workers themselves, and they reject that too.

    Its actually only when an increasing number of workers do start to take ownership and control that other workers will see that they can do it, that it can provide a superior alternative, and that will change the set of ideas they work with.

    As for Brand, its just an entertainer seeking attention, but for that reason its also dangerous. There is not going to be a revolution any time soon. That's not because of an absence of leadership, or people being fed the wrong ideas. The ideas that politicians feed to voters are largely the ideas those voters are already prone to accept, determined by their material condition. If there were a revolution simply based upon the fact that people were extremely pissed off about their conditions, which seems to be Brand's contention, it would be very dangerous. When people knock something down on that basis, it is very difficult for them to construct something better in its place. If you want to build something better, its a good idea to know in advance exactly what it is you intend to build, and have some idea of how you are going to go about it. You should build your house on rock not sand.

    It would be dangerous because a revolution is like fighting a war or a battle. Before you engage in it, you should know in advance you have won, as Tsun Tzu put it. You should know you have overwhelming forces to achieve your goal. You should have established bastions that you can defend, and which provide the basis of your supply lines. You should have the means of supplying your army. You should have disciplined and trained forces. You should have adequate numbers of and skilled leaders. You should have a worked out strategy, and tactics.

    At the start of the last century, workers had some of those things. Even then their struggle was defeated, mostly because of their forces being divided. Today they have only a small fraction of what they had in the early 20th Century. Before it has been rebuilt, any revolution will simply be an adventure doomed to simply cause massive carnage and the coming to power of a terrible reaction.

  3. I disagree that Brand is, in any way, dangerous. He is playing the classic role of the licenced court jester (and is clearly self-aware) by pointing at modern life and saying "this is not fair". What he isn't doing is aking "why has this arisen and what can we do about it?" Such inchoate rage is just a pressure valve for society. The real danger comes from those with a plan who would seek to channel this rage.

    The lesson of history is that reaction always has a plan (to roll back democracy and consolidate property) and that capital is pragmatic enough to either challenge or ally with it as best suits its needs. The danger is that this alliance is inherently unstable, because they seek to move in different historical directions (one backward, one forward), which prompts the creation of a "national revolution" to provide uniform cover. But this cannot resolve the underlying tensions, while the pathological forces it unleashes cause chaos, leading to eventual collapse.

    I don't see Brand heading up a national revolution any time soon, but I can imagine Boris Johnson doing so if the City decides that quitting the EU is in its best interests. As Mussolini proved, being a capering buffoon with a sideline in populist journalism is no bar to ultimate power.

    1. Badly worded on my part. What I was meaning was the kind of almost flippant way in which the idea of revolution is addressed - including by the way people on the left simply latched on to "revolutions" in Libya etc. as though its just another student demonstration to let off steam, is what is dangerous. We have a problem of our own General Haig's, whose romantic, studentist notions of revolution - as Trotsky and Lenin pointed out, many of those who promote these ideas are the first to disappear when the actual serious fighting starts - would continually send battallions of workers over the top to be slaughtered.

    2. Agreed. Revolution has been successfully reinterpreted as an atomised consumption preference: the people "want democracy", as if it were a new model iPhone.

      Brand is clearly indulging his inner student with his admiration for gesture politics and aimless looting, but he's also (in time-honoured standup fashion) licensing his audience to share his fallibilities and excuse their own passivity.

      I think his anecdotes about being distracted from a drugged-up shopping spree in the West End and enthusiastically joining a Reclaim the Streets march, and being more frustrated by a phone charger than corporate colonialism, should be read as parodies. Underneath the manic persona, he is holding up a mirror to Paxman. Progressive despair and reactionary despair are the same thing, but with different haircuts.