Russell Brand has been named the fourth most influential thinker, behind French economist, Thomas Piketty, Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis and Canadian author, Naomi Klein. Brand has also been named the second most influential figure in politics on social media, behind David Cameron and ahead of Boris Johnson.
These honours have not been met with universal acclaim. A comedian, actor, radio presenter, the author of My Booky Wook? What kind of claim does he have to the title of public intellectual? Brand himself shares the skepticism, snorting with hearty derision: “Despite their appearance in that legitimate Guardian article, the study is not legitimate! I mean, how on Earth do you quantify a person’s ability to think?”
I met Brand at his recently launched coffee shop, the Trew Era café, in the heart of east London, where it sits easily amid the organic, hipster vibe. In the eyes of his critics, Brand is a superficial figure, a man who attaches himself to fashionable causes, gives a good quote and then goes home to live the privileged life of a 21st Century celebrity. He talks a good fight about helping the poor and the have-nots, but what does he actually do?
The Trew Era is his answer. It’s a social enterprise, funded by the profits from Brand’s book, Revolution, and dedicated to supporting the community, from hiring recovering addicts to growing its produce locally and eventually in house. This is Russell Brand, practising what he preaches.
Brand says he essentially wants to take from the rich and give to the poor, fighting for the downtrodden of society: “All we need is a revolution to make the system work for everyone, we’re simply going to have to take back some property and wealth from really, really rich people.”
Russell believes that the elite and wealthy members of society should be held accountable for the issues of homelessness and poverty and that there needs to be a fundamental redistribition of wealth. “Important information which is well worth considering is distribution of land and wealth, a third of British land is owned by aristocratic families. That’s not going to change as of the result of the election unless someone explicitly has in their manifesto: ‘We’re going to repurpose the 1.5 million empty homes and land owned by for example, the Duke of Westminster and the Queen of England, and try and end this little thing called homelessness and poverty.’”
Brand can be frustrating and his ornate and sometimes baffling turns of phrase have led some to question whether there is any substance behind the verbiage. Tony Blair, admittedly not a natural ally, confessed his confusion to the BBC’s Nick Robinson: “I’ve studied a lot of what the Russell Brand stuff really means. But I suspect if you implemented that, or tried to implement that, I literally don’t know what it means.”
One of his more controversial positions has been to urge young people not to vote. At a time when the political and media classes are worrying over young people’s disengagement with the political process, this has not gone down well in many quarters. Guardian columnist, Michele Hanson disagrees with Brand’s views on voting, saying: “Don’t listen to Russell Brand: refusing to vote will bring five more years of Tory government.”
But Brand argues that the real power lies beyond the political system. Political parties, he says, do not have as much power as we think they do, do not work to make any sort of significant difference within society and therefore voting is not essential: “The people in our country feel detached from what takes place in Parliament, the views which are discussed and the manner in which they are discussed are detached from ordinary people. I think we’re tired of seeing poor turnout in Parliament for issues we care about but high attendance when discussing politicians’ pay rises. For me, I’m not interested in the power of politicians, I’m interested in the power of people. As far as I’ve seen, voting for any of these political parties is not going to make any difference, they don’t give us anything to vote for.”
As for the youth disengagement, Brand says that it is because most young voters do not connect with politicians in suits, who are boring, devoid of personality and any relevant interests: “In a culture where they tell us the only things that matter are commodities, where our political narratives seem empty and meaningless and don’t connect people, they aren’t worth voting for because they don’t make any difference.”
“What we have to conclude is young people not being interested in politics isn’t apathy, it’s reflective impotence. They recognise its meaningless.”
Despite his ‘don’t vote’ policy, he insists that it doesn’t mean he’s against politics and recognises there are well-intentioned politicians out there. “My criticism of conventional politics is not because I am a pessimistic person, I am not a condemnatory person, I don’t think Natalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas or Tom Watson are anything but lovely people who are trying their best. But the real power and problems with our system lie outside of parliament and politicians do not hold as much power as we are made to believe they have.”
Instead of voting, Brand says it’s essential to take on the actual power outside of Parliament. Televised debates and manifestos have mainly been focused on cuts and the state of the economy, however Russell points out that the government only controls 50 per cent of Britain’s economy and that is the real reason for the economic crisis: “The other 50 per cent not controlled by Parliament is controlled by the Bank of England. No number of votes can change the fact that half of our wealth is privately owned. The only way to stop that and make changes to the economy is by the people coming together.”
Brand’s most recent film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, steps away from his usual comedic role we’ve seen in films such as Get Him to the Greek. The Emperor’s New Clothes is explicitly political, combining as it does a mixture of documentary, interviews, archive footage and comedy to discuss the financial crisis of 2008. It has also been screened in cinemas in the final weeks leading up to the general election.
The film explores how the financial crisis could have been a chance to reform the system for the benefit of everyone. The financial crisis actually resulted in austerity for everyone throughout Britain and Europe, with UK tax payers spending £131 billion to keep the financial system afloat while $30 trillion (about £19 trillion) in support and subsidies went to Wall Street in the USA.
Brand believes that The Emperor’s New Clothes “will shake up the world by revealing the bewildering truth about how the people at the bottom are paying for the luxuries of those at the top.”
Discussing issues which are beyond the control of the government, there is also the issue of media ownership and Brand argues that Rupert Murdoch has more power in the results of an election than voters do: “Rupert Murdoch is one of the most powerful men on the planet. People say to me ‘If you want to have an opinion on politics, you’ve either got to stand for Parliament or at least bloody vote.’ But Rupert Murdoch doesn’t vote and he is the most powerful and influential figure in politics.
“Getting elected, trying to remain in office or trying to get your policies through without the support of Rupert Murdoch is difficult and near impossible. So he’s one of the most powerful figures in contemporary politics without having any office. He’s more important than any other political figure. What you think of Ed Miliband or David Cameron is irrelevant: they come, they go and ultimately, they work for Rupert Murdoch.”
Brand also despairs of the way in which voters are led blindly by false promises made in a manifesto.
“What’s even the point of voting for these people, based on what they say they’re going to do, when in reality they aren’t going to do it. It’s a farce!”
For example, in 2010’s General Election, Nick Clegg promised a free higher education and this particular pledge earned the Liberal Democrats a significant number of votes. Once a part of the coalition government, Clegg didn’t follow through on the promise of free education. Brand puts it quite bluntly: “just because something is in a manifesto, don’t mean people are going to do it.”
Russell also argues that the falseness of politics can be easily seen during the televised events leading up to the General Election: “In the leadership debates, they need to overcome the nation’s issues and anxieties about them as leaders and political parties, so they can’t act normal and what we see that is really just a media event. There’s a surge of support for Nicola Sturgeon, people saying: ‘oh she was the good one on television’ when let’s not forget, 2010’s ‘good one on the television’ was Nick Clegg. The Daily Mail does a condemnatory article about Sturgeon, Nigel Farage says something unforgivable and unacceptable about HIV and we all roll our eyes. Then Ed Miliband failed to speak up at the time, only writing a tweet about it afterwards, the whole thing is a spectacle.
“The problem is we’re not judging it on what politically is happening here and who represents me, whose vision of Britain is closest to my vision of Britain. It’s hard to judge that when someone mispronounces a word or someone is making too much eye contact with the camera. From an entertainment point of view, I understand how awkward it can feel when the camera is on you but someone else is talking. You try to act natural and it just doesn’t work. Politics shouldn’t really be entertainment.”
As to what policies Brand would like to see in a more democratic society: “We need to find a different way of taxing high earners, different ways of taxing world transactional taxes in the city, corporation taxes and the closure of corporate tax loopholes. But really, none of that’s gonna be enough, we’re talking about global shifting consciousness, like an entirely different way of looking at the world.”
Russell admits that his ideas and thoughts aren’t popular opinion, and that he doesn’t expect political parties to take a leaf out of his book to write these type of policies into their manifestos: “these ideas are not in the Green Party manifesto, nor are they in the Labour party manifesto because these ideas aren’t popularised because that means genuine, true change.
“To get to a situation where real change is possible, we’re going to need people to come together collectively and stop disempowering ourselves by voting for things which cannot bring about real change. We’ve got to access the true power, the corporations and the elite who are behind the facade of democracy. We need a revolution!”
To most, Russell’s idealistic and romantic views of revolution appear to be far-fetched, but he believes the revolution is definitely around the corner: “We need to give people the time and space to come together in community and enterprises. Change does happen and it can happen quickly. Five years ago, we had a revolution secretly for the richest 1%, a reference to the selling off of public housing, which the bloody Tories are trying to revive.”
While Russell calls for revolution and is certain this revolution is coming, the pitfall to his argument for a revolution is his lack of an answer to the question: ‘what will be the result of a revolution?’ If government is dismantled, what will replace it?
It’s difficult to envisage how Brand’s utopian democracy which truly represents the people will actually work in practice. Brand has been interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and Jon Snow on what his revolution will result in, without providing any sort of conclusive answer. And it appears he is still unsure as to what this utopia may look like: “it will be a process, we just need people to come together to bring about this revolution. There are people better suited to lead the revolution in the right direction and form a better and representative system, it won’t just come from me.”
While the phrase “be the change you want to see” does pop into mind, I didn’t even have to ask Russell why he doesn’t stand as an MP or have an active role within politics. Russell clearly isn’t interesting in taking on politicians: rather he is targeting those who have real power, the Bank of England, the multinational corporations who hinder democracy, away from the scrutiny of Parliament and legislation. When asked simply, what it is he wants to see in the future, Brand replies: “I want to see a democracy that truly represents the people. That’s why I believe in radical change, revolutionary change, true change and the only people who can oppose corporate power is us.”
All images by Natasha Quarmby/Demotix/Corbis and Peter marshall/Demotix/Corbis