From the Observer 29 October 2014
The rich can buy anything in Britain, and they have now brought us their own opposition. Russell Brand is the voice of the discontented wealthy. He tells us that money can’t buy you love – which I already knew – and that only the complete overthrow of the existing system and embrace of mysticism can take us from “the shallow pool of the known” to the “great untamable ocean” beyond.
I was prepared to dismiss Revolution as the swollen ramblings of a jaded celeb. Brand leaves you in little doubt that he is trying to escape the ennui that follows trying everything once except incest and folk dancing. “It’s only because I decimated my life by aggressively pursuing eating, wanking, drinking, consuming and getting famous that I was forced to look at spiritual alternatives.” Inspiring a revolution – for such is his ambition – is one of the few thrills to have escaped him. “The revolution cannot be boring,” he says as he encapsulates his thoughtlessness in one phrase. “We’d all be a bit disappointed if utopia and ditching capitalism boiled down to ‘We want to be a bit more like Germany’ – fuck that.”
His writing is atrocious: long-winded, confused and smug; filled with references to books Brand has half read and thinkers he has half understood.
At one point, he discusses whether our perception of reality is a mentally constructed illusion (don’t ask me why). “So,” Brand says in a conclusion worthy of a Thought for the Day vicar, “when Elton John said Marilyn Monroe was ‘like a candle in the wind’ he was probably bloody right, and if he wasn’t we’ll never know.” At another, Brand argues that spirituality is the road to revolution, a belief that would have baffled every revolutionary leader in modern European history. “We’re all doing the same thing, dreaming the same dream, in the words of Belinda Carlisle,” he announces in a sentence that is so syrupy a Barbie doll might have written it, and worse – much worse – misquotes Ms Carlisle.
For all that, Brand is worth taking notice of because he is the nearest Britain has to a revolutionary populist. The right and far right have Nigel Farage. The Islamists have George Galloway. Scottish nationalists have (or had) Alex Salmond. These demagogues boom out certainties that make the tentative policies of conventional leaders appear pale and timid. “Get out of the European Union.” “Get out of the Muslim world.” “Get out of Britain.” Get out, and with one convulsive act of renunciation, you can escape the complexity that blights your lives.
Television news producers are as world-weary as any burnt-out celebrity. They want Brand to be their new Farage and draw hundreds of thousands to their failing programmes. I am not saying that there is not a need for a left populism to confront financial power and environmental degradation. But Brand is a religious narcissist, and if the British left falls for him, it will show itself to be beyond saving.
His book tells us much about him and little about the rest of humanity. Brand says that he is qualified to lead a global transformation, not because of the quality of his thought, but because he has transformed his private life. “I may not have overthrown a government. But [I have] navigated myself from one set of feelings where drinking and drugs were my only solution to a state where I never drink or take drugs.” It is perhaps too easy to reply: “Well, bully for you.” I accept that freeing yourself from addiction and finding inner peace can have more beneficial effect than any political programme the powerful can implement. But Brand is offering his Beverly Hills Buddhism as a political programme, not a self-help guide. Everything is corrupt, his theory runs. All politicians are the same. Reforms won’t do, and no one can expect him to relinquish his fortune until there has been “systemic change on a global scale” (a useful condition that last one).
The systemic change that means the most to Brand is an embrace of meditation and pantheism. The greatest villain of Revolution is not a super-rich financier but Richard Dawkins. Brand denounces him as a “menopausal” proponent of “atheistic tyranny” because Dawkins denies the existence of the supernatural. He pulls a succession of shabby tricks to bolster his claim that religion does not authorise oppression. Anyone who claims that Jesus, Allah, Krishna or the fountainhead of any other religion endorses homophobia instead of the “union of all mankind” is “on a massive blag”, he says. Brand has to ignore Leviticus’s edict that the punishment for men who sleep with other men is death, St Paul’s hysterics about lesbianism and the hadiths that have Muhammad saying that the punishment for sodomy is death by stoning. In other words, he has to ignore several millennia of real and continuing religious repression, so he can make his spiritualism sound emancipatory rather than cranky.
Comrades, I am sure I do not need to tell you that no figure in the history of the left has seen Buddhism as a force for human emancipation. If it were, Sri Lanka would be a paradise rather than a site for ethno-religious slaughter. Nor has any revolutionary leader said that atheists will be the revolution’s first target. In our times, only Islamist counter-revolutionaries dream of their suppression.
Brand might have designed the political programme that follows to discredit leftwing thought. The revolutionary state should revoke the charters of corporations with revenues larger than the nation with the smallest gross domestic product. According to the World Bank, that nation is Tuvalu in Polynesia with a GDP of $37m – which means that Brand wants to close all large and many medium-sized businesses. Food production must be localised and organic – which means Brand wants hyperinflation, starvation and the bankrupting of African food exporters. And personal debts should be abolished – which means that Brand wants to crash the credit system and return us to a barter economy.
In an unintentionally revealing moment, Brand describes attending a trade union march against austerity. He complains that the protesters are not like Islamic State terrorists but “flaccid” and placid. He has a case. For all its many faults, the British left does not imitate Isis. It does not commit genocide and practise sexual slavery. Its “revolution”, when and if it comes, will consist of boring, gradual attempts to restrain an economic system that is running amok. Russell Brand will want no part of its tedious reforms and will go off in search of bigger thrills.
The sooner he leaves the better.