In Brand's revolution, the personal is profoundly political

December 5, 2014
Russel Brand
Russel Brand taking part in an action this month against evictions from a housing estate in East London.

By Russel Brand
Random House
$26, 340 pages

Russell Brand is on a mission to save the world.

Since his impassioned advocacy for revolution in an interview with journalist Jeremy Paxman in October last year, Brand has waged, in his own inimitable style, a battle against the ruling class in the name of a peaceful, loving and ― above all ― a “fun” revolution.

His YouTube program “The Trews” has excited and engaged people across the globe. His work is as unique as the man himself. He can be sensitive, funny, open, honest, warm and courageous.

He has been criticised for sexist behaviour, which he responded to by expressing surprise at the allegation, but saying he would seek to rectify it.

Brand is also the only celebrity I know of who has risked so much to push revolution ― a revolution he claims is absolutely necessary if we are to address the enormous ecological threats our species is facing, along with the gross inequality produced by capitalism.

There is much to like about Brand and this “booky”. A talented autodidact, Brand has a gift for language and is especially skilled when it comes to digesting complex theory in a way that is communicable across the social and political spectrum.

Having said that, like the man himself, this is quite a strange book. In part it reads as a religious confession, not dissimilar, in some respects, to the autobiography of St Augustine.

Brand comes clean about his drug and alcohol addictions, his orgiastic sex life, and a host of other anecdotes about his self-destructive failings. Moreover, Revolution is powered by religious themes and imagery.

However, unlike Augustine, Brand’s narrative is rambling, comical and utterly free from self-loathing. Which brings me to a second genre ― Revolution is a self-help book with a twist.

Most books in self-help genre are concerned with individualistic self-overcoming but, for Brand, it is individualistic consciousness that is responsible for our cultural neuroses in the first place.

To cure oneself from the lonely destructive ideology of capitalism requires not only careful introspection but mass mobilisation against the ruling powers hurtling our species into a violent apocalypse.

Revolution, then, finally, is also a political manifesto. Brand’s anarchistic, mystical, beatnik approach champions a socialist revolution that is as much about conquering capitalistic ideology at the personal level as it is about mobilising in masses against the machine.

There are some aspects to the book that may not sit well with all, particularly the secular left. Brand’s inability to exclude himself from every paragraph, even when discussing the serious work of Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, is likely to add to the fuel of those who seek to ridicule his work as the product of man with a messiah complex.

Moreover, there are frequent appeals to religious motifs garbled together in a way only those intimate with a Ginsberg/Kerouac-esque drug culture are likely to be impressed by.

Outsiders who have never tried, for instance, DMT would probably conclude that those lovely peaceful spiritual voices saying nice things were the result of taking DMT and not the invisible whisperings of higher beings encouraging us all to peacefully mobilise against the forces of capital.

Religion is a complex and powerful tool. It can be ― and often is ― made use of by the ruling class to distract the masses away from engaging in politics. As such we should probably be praising Brand for subverting religious language to inspire the socialist revolution.

Nevertheless, some might find Brand’s portrait of St Francis of Assisi as a socialist radical a bit anachronistic, to say the least.

Brand is probably at his best when he narrates his own personal experience of dealings with the ruling class and his intuitive insight into his own addictive obsessions. He explains what he now sees as destructive activity as a product of the competitive and alienating consciousness of capitalism.

As someone who lived through an impoverish childhood in Thatcher's Britain to become a successful comedian and celebrity, Brand has gone through the whole tumultuous system.

His anecdotes about exchanges with the rich and powerful, however, are free from bitterness and cruelty. In fact, he says our rulers are just as much at a loss about what to do as the rest of us when it comes to the fate of our species.

If his optimism about the goodness of human nature and the conscience of the ruling class is perhaps more than many of us share, it is nonetheless commendable that his vision for a liberated humanity reaches out to all.

But there are further limitations to his work, especially his simplistic analysis of past revolutions and their aftermath.

For instance, he champions the Spanish revolution, yet appears uninterested in exploring how it was destroyed and the legacy of fascism which followed.

His suggestion that the Egyptian revolution failed owing to “demagogic exploitation” and a lack of perpetual will of the people blinded by an “orgasmic flash that yields to post-coital lethargy” is pretty simplistic ― though it makes a pretty good sound-bite.

What's more, for someone who clearly recognises the ecological crisis as the greatest threat our species has ever faced, he is short on words to highight how Cuba's socialist policies have created, according to a 2006 WFF report, the world's only sustainable economy.

There are those who wish to denigrate Brand on the grounds of his supposed “mental illness”. Brand is at times manic, but why wouldn’t he be? He has decided to risk everything by an open and frank account of himself and his defence of socialism as the only means of defending humanity in a time of unparalleled crisis.

The same attack was once levelled at German writer and revolutionary socialist Bertolt Brecht, who responded responded: “When the present is passed on to the future, the capacity to understand my mania will be passed on with it.

“The times we live in will make a backdrop to my mania. But what I should really like would for people to say about me: he was a moderate maniac.”

If Brand is sometimes manic, it is a credit to him that he moderates it with his compassion and humour. If his remarkable book might at times may exhibit flaws, his narrative, if nothing else, testifies that the personal is always political.

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