Russell Brand, Revolution

Russell Brand is probably best known as an actor, comedian, and radio host. He is also a “celebrity” in all the modern senses: working-class boy made good, with a back-story of deprivation and addiction; larger than life personality and idiosyncratic sense of fashion; high-profile romances (Katy Perry, Jemima Khan); scandalous and out-spoken. He goes out of his way to attract attention, as he half-shamefacedly admits in Revolution, his most sustained incursion into political thought: “I, like a lot of people who come from somewhere glum, was trying to be something spectacular” (104). As such, his turn in recent years to political activism–to expressing the voice of the disenfranchised, of those too alienated from the system to vote–could cynically be seen as part and parcel of the same celebrity syndrome. Again, he practically admits as such: “You know me, when I started this book I really thought I might be able to write my version of, I dunno [. . .] Das Kapital, that I’d contrive some brilliant manifesto where I would, on a wave of raring adulation, be carried from celebrity to political office” (250).

And indeed, Brand gives us plenty of reasons to be cynical, even though (or because) he then subverts them with a burst of the candor that is equally part of his schtick (“You know me”). His narrative is the hardly original tale of rags to riches to spiritual rags as he discovers that fame and fortune are no panacea for whatever psychological damage his Essex upbringing may have left him with (“I loved my mother, was uncomfortable around my stepfather, and adored my absent dad” [17]). He turns therefore to spirituality, to everything from kundalini yoga to Transcendental Meditation, via a brief excursion through African Pentecostalism, to end up pronouncing that we are all but “manifestations of one sublime vibration” (199), “a temporary expression of a subtler and connected electromagnetic realm unknowable on our bandwidth of consciousness” (253). It’s all about love (the book’s final word), as the cover image, with the “love” highlighted in rEVOLution, also emphasizes. Again, however, Brand pre-empts criticism by admitting that much of what he has to offer is a “New Age hippie ramble.” But as he points out, there are worse things than that: “Don’t look under the bed. The horrors that lurk there will dwarf this eastern liberalism” (210).

Taking both his own social mobility and his experience as a recovering addict (plus a smorgasbord of opinions from people such as Dave Graeber and Noam Chomsky, mixed in with some pretty hasty research that mostly goes no farther than Wikipedia), Brand embraces the notion that personal change is the basis for social change, without quite succumbing to the prevalent New Age substitution of the personal for the social as a whole. In other words, he never forgets that the personal is indeed political, and he makes a decent effort at translating, for instance, the keystones of the twelve-step program into a social agenda that would entail dismantling corporations, decentralizing power, and enhancing participation in communal processes of self-actualization. He wants to free us from “our addiction to a corrupt and corrosive system” (275). It’s self-help on a grand scale, but with an awareness that the self is also the product of a particular social regime.

The book makes me fairly fond of Brand, and there’s plenty of good sense (common sense) in the mix. He provides welcome bullshit-free arguments against stigmatizing the homeless or immigrants for instance: “Me, I don’t see immigration as a real issue; for me an immigrant is just someone who used to be somewhere else” (281). And yet as he points out, his hometown of Grays, Essex, is a place where people who share his background (and much of his alienation) have repeatedly voted for anti-immigration and not-so-covertly racist parties such as Ukip. If this is a wake-up call against the kinds of prejudices to which all the mainstream parties have been pandering (and not just in Britain), then the book has some worth. What’s most annoying about it is its style. I understand that it might be aimed at the “ADHD Generation,” but even so was frustrated by the fact that it is (almost literally) all over the place: Brand jumps back and forth from topic to topic, delighting in digression and following his distracted thoughts wherever they may lead. This may work for stand-up, but on the page it grates, and what is worse is decidedly unfunny. In fact, the purported jokes end up less matey and demotic than simply tiresome: telling us Guy Debord was “a clever old stick and as French as adultery” (137) or calling Chomsky variously “Chompers,” “Chomskers,” and “Chomskerooney” (260, 261). Brand is at pains to tell us that Revolution need not be boring. But I’m not sure he sets such a good example.