24 Oct 2013

Worlds collide as Russell Brand predicts a revolution

When Russell Brand told Jeremy Paxman there would an anti-capitalist revolution, the comedian was speaking for all those who despise what growing inequality is doing to their lives.

Russell Brand skewered my old mate Jeremy Paxman last night, on the subject of “revolution”. Or rather, they skewered each other. It was one of those rare media occasions where each participant achieves exactly what they want to: Russell to inspire a generation, Jeremy to get a feisty interview with one of the key voices of his age.

Russell’s normal shtick is benign mayhem: to be the Jungian trickster. Jeremy’s shtick is to conduct every interview from the point of view of an 18th century country vicar, who if the times were not so chaotic might – as in Orwell’s poem – “preach upon eternal gloom / And watch my walnuts grow”.

In Jeremy’s world all legitimacy comes from the parliamentary process and the monarchy. In Russell’s world things are different. In Russell’s world people are so fed up with capitalism that there is a high likelihood of revolution. When he made this point, Jeremy’s eyebrow went crazy.

So who is right?

Russell stands up in front of thousands of young people who’ve paid a serious dollop of their wages to hear him make them laugh. Though he looks like a survivor from Altamont, his audience do not: they are young, professional people; nurses, bank clerks, call centre operatives.

And what Russell has picked up is that they hate, if not the concept of capitalism, then what it’s doing to them. They hate the corruption manifest in politics and the media; the rampant criminality of a global elite whose wealth nestles beyond taxation and accountability; the gross and growing inequality; and what it’s doing to their own lives.

Russell’s audience get pay cheques, but their real spending power is falling. They don’t just need help to buy, they need help to pay the mortgage; help to get out of relationships that are collapsing under economic stress; help to pay the legal loan shark and meet the minimum credit card payment.

When Russell Brand tells Jeremy Paxman capitalism is destroying the plant, it’s like watching proxies for two different worlds collide.

Above all, they need help to understand what kind of good life capitalism is going to offer their generation. Because since Lehman Brothers that has not been obvious.

Jeremy’s audience consists of their mums and dads. They too are worried about the future, but – as a generation – financially secure.

So when Russell tells Jeremy profit is evil, that capitalism is destroying the planet, that politics is corrupt, it’s like watching proxies for two completely different worlds collide.

Of course, it’s not really Paxman who should be having to defend the status quo: it’s the people who think it’s a great idea to let a private health guy run the NHS. Or that having most of the press owned by a few rich men who keep their money offshore is normal.

Spiritual revolution

In this week’s New Statesman Russell Brand spells out a 4,500 manifesto for what turns out to be a slow, spiritual revolution which he thinks has begun:

“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”

I think, on balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It won’t be a socialist revolution, nor even an anti-capitalist one in design.

On balance, Russell is right about the prospect of a revolution. It will be a rejection of the corrupt values of those who run society.

It will be something cultural – like the mass uprising of Turkish youth I saw in Taksim Square this year. A complete rejection of the corrupt and venal values of those who run society. In fact, as I’ve written before, it’s already going on.

What’s driving it is the failure of the current model of capitalism to answer some basic questions: like where will the jobs come from if automation takes over our lives? Where will high wages come from if workers’ bargaining power is just repeatedly stamped down by the process of globalisation? How will this generation be secure in old age, if the pension system is shattered and we face half a century of boom-bust?

To people of my generation the absence of outright anger, rage and aggression sometimes makes it seem like young people don’t care about any of this. But anger and rage are behaviourally impossible in our society: show any kind of emotion, or raise your voice, and the range of official responses goes from “being asked to leave” to tasering.

All the repression of the various protests – Sol, Syntagma, Taksim, Occupy – has done is to force the anger and rejection inwards.

Social unrest

The revolution that’s underway is more about mental and cultural rejection of the story on offer: to leave college with a heap of debt, to work as a near-slave in your early twenties in the name of “work placement” or “internship”.

And it is not only Russell who thinks there’s going to be a revolution. Analysts at the Gartner group, an IT consultancy, recently issued this warning:

A larger scale version of an ‘Occupy Wall Street’-type movement will begin by the end of 2014. Gartner group IT consultants

“By 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies. A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street”-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.”

So Russell versus Jeremy was a big cultural event, akin maybe to one of those David Frost interviews in the Profumo era, only in this case it’s the interviewee, not the interviewer, who speaks for the upcoming generation.

Because while on my timeline everybody over 40 is saying, effectively, “tee hee, isn’t Brand outrageous”, a lot of people in their twenties are saying simply: Russell is right, bring it on.