By Pip Thornton
A curious exchange caught my attention recently on Twitter. Misbehaving comedian Russell Brand and Marxist Geography legend David Harvey appear to be mates.
Two things struck me about this. Firstly, that although on the face of it technology has facilitated the meeting of two erstwhile strangers in a way unimaginable pre-Twitter, it is also a prime example of how the internet (and social media in particular), far from being a social leveller affording freedom and equality of expression for all, actually operates on the same quasi-feudal constructs of privilege, power and wealth that have supported society for centuries. For all the free-access education David Harvey promotes, he was never going to reply to a request like that if it had been a mere ‘follower’ who’d doffed his proverbial cap at him. Twitter provides a convincing illusion of inclusivity and opportunity, but in effect is little more than bread and circuses.
But I digress : the second thing which struck me about this tweet was the earnestness of Brand’s request. Since his infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman and guest editorial at the New Statesman, Brand has been under considerable pressure to back up his calls for electoral apathy and revolution, a task for which he clearly felt he was lacking the theoretical knowledge, hence the ostensibly unselfconscious and disarmingly charming rhetorical innocence of harnessing the help of a ‘Lovely Marxist’ like David Harvey. Of course it’s trademark Brand, but herein lies what I perceive to be Russell Brand’s biggest problem; like it or not he IS a trademark, and he’s never going to be able to start his revolution from the safety of the Spectacle. He is ‘Brand Brand’, as Deborah Orr recently observed, his mainstream appeal perhaps consolidated by his recent inclusion on the A Level English syllabus.
Shortly after the appearance of the David Harvey exchange on Twitter, Brand conducted two podcast recordings in front of a paying audience in Shoreditch, East London. I went to the first of these, hoping to hear some feedback from the Harvey/Brand summit, but, on that front, was disappointed. Brand had been casting his pedagogical net far wider than I anticipated, and the session was about his meeting with Professor Edward Slingerland, an expert in ancient Chinese philosophy at the University of British Columbia.
It was a curious audience, and I mean that in both senses of the word. Even when discussing Laozi and Zhuangzi and the subjective nature of scientific inquiry, Brand continued to play to his perhaps more traditional crowd, borrowing themes from his Messiah Complex tour, condemning the controlling evils of capitalist consumerism, trading hazelnuts with Slingerland, admiring his ‘beautifully androgynous’ assistant while comparing himself with Hitler. It’s provocative stuff in any situation, yet his earnestness – his visceral frustration at the inevitable violence of revolution and the paper-thin line between leader and dictator – is captivating.
Brand’s solution, his vision of utopia and his answer to the fascism dilemma, is a call for a shared higher consciousness unshackled by a what he sees as an obsolete democracy and capitalist society. ‘But how do we make the revolution happen?’ was a question asked several times from the audience. Brand has no answer to that, yet it’s something for which I’m loathed to deride him. At least he’s doing something to try and change things; maybe he’s just still at the philosopher stage, and as nobody else in the left-wing academy seems to have any solid suggestions, that is nothing to be ashamed about. Some unintentional light relief in the post-talk questions came in the form of an audience member beseeching Brand to ‘be our leader’, a scene so Pythonesque it’s hard to resist the obvious Messiah/Naughty Boy allusions and goes a long way to explaining Brand’s Complex.
So, if Russell Brand were to Tweet me out of the blue asking for the benefit of my vast knowledge of politics and philosophy (there are many reasons why this will never happen/is not true), I’d point him in the direction of Guy Debord and the potential (and potentially peaceful) power of détournement. Subverting the Spectacle is something he has (perhaps unintentionally) been part of before, but hasn’t quite mastered, the temptation to un-mask for the media perhaps too much to resist, but if it really is a shared revolutionary consciousness, transcending the trappings of the celebrity market, that he’s after, then maybe it could be a starting point?
I don’t know if Brand ever met Harvey. I tried to ask him afterwards but couldn’t get through the wall of trembling fan-girls. I suspect this would never have happened to (lovely) Marx.