This blog is, not so much a riposte as my thoughts on Russell Brand’s editorial for this month’s New Statesman magazine and subsequent interview with Jeremy Paxman which was doing the rounds on t’interweb this morning. I recommend reading the article at least before continuing otherwise you might find your eyes glazing over with incomprehension at what the hell I’m dribbling on about.
Let me begin by saying I’m a big fan of Russell Brand. I love his style, as is evidenced by the frequency with which big men with gold chains and Le Coq Sportif tracksuit bottoms on shout ‘fuck me it’s Russell Brand’ at me in the street, I love his stand-up and other comic misadventures but most of all I admire his intellect and his eloquence. In the latter regard he reminds me of a rather more flamboyant, pop-star dating, ex-junkie Christopher Hitchens.
As much as I’m a fan of his comedy it’s when he takes a more serious approach on matters, whether it’s society’s approach to drug addiction, politics or spirituality that I find him the most engaging. That being said, we don’t always share similar views and whilst I found his editorial for New Statesman, which he is guest editing this month, a very thought provoking read, there were a couple of points with which I found myself pulling a face in disagreement and others, though they were less numerous, where I expressed our disparity of views in a more vocal and expletive-ridden manner.
The first countenance contorting revelation in the article is that Russell doesn’t vote. Someone in my twitter feed cynically opined whether this was because he’s now holed up in Hollywood but the Paxman interview reveals that he never has and never will. This irks me somewhat. I’m very much of the opinion that if you don’t vote, if you don’t engage, then you can’t really complain about what you get.
Brand though, sees voting as an act of compliance to a broken system, in which there is nothing to vote for and no real alternatives, and to a certain extent I find myself agreeing with him. However, whilst it might seem a groaningly obvious choice of source for a quote, Churchill is said to have remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” and he’s right. Democracy sucks, but it sucks marginally less than the alternative systems. Though it’s not entirely clear what alternative Brand is offering.
He’s certainly unhappy with the choices we’ve got (and generally speaking, who isn’t) but he gives no real insight as to what he’d prefer. He rightly protests on Newsnight that it’s kind of difficult to devise a whole new political system on the back of a beer mat in the pub, though I daresay the public houses of Britain are rife with such things of a Saturday evening, but can anyone genuinely come-up with a fairer system than the democratic principle of one man, one vote? Sure it’s not perfect and occasionally has the air of being gaffer taped together with the speedo wound back and sawdust in the transmission but generally speaking it does work in so far as that the people of any given constituency get the candidate they voted for.
I’d say to Russell if you don’t like the choices at the ballot box and care so passionately about people and politics, stand for election yourself, tell people your values and principles and let them decide if they agree enough to have you represent them.
Brand’s right in that apathy is the biggest obstacle to societal and political change but nothing will work better to change that apathy into the rage he desires than people increasingly feeling like their voices aren’t being heard or they aren’t being properly represented. Uniquely in the UK I think, the British people will put up with a hell of a lot but eventually we will say enough is enough and go about changing things fairly, effectively and for the better.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see more and more independent candidates standing in elections to come and is in fact something I’d love to see. The biggest problem with the current system for my money is MP’s voting in the interests of their party rather than in the interests of the constituents. So bring on the independents and do away with the whips, those whom we democratically elect to represent us should ultimately answer to us and not their party leaders.
There is an air of anarchy in Brand’s arguments, which I applaud and would urge him to run with, but sadly this is forestalled by his leftist ideologies. His passion for socialism and desire for the redistribution of wealth particularly is by it’s very nature authoritarian. He decries Cameron and Osborne for taking the EU to court in defence of bankers bonuses and whilst our initial instinct is to rally against this, do we really want to give the government, whether it be Westminster or Brussels, the power to decide what and how private businesses pay their employees? Big business may be bad (though I don’t fully subscribe to this view) but if you value freedom and liberty then big government is certainly worse. Indeed, many of the problems people have with big business stem from them being able to manipulate big government in their favour. The answer is not to make government bigger but to reduce it so it’s an ineffective tool for businesses to utilise.
I share Brand’s view that we need to look after the poverty stricken, not just in this country but the world over, and the planet that we find ourselves clinging to, but I reject the notion that we need the government to tell us how to, or indeed make us, do this. If you’ll indulge me in a little intellectual posturing by paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, those who sacrifice liberty for security will ultimately have neither.
The argument can be made that the selfishness and individualism that Russell decries is perpetuated more by left wing socialism than right wing libertarianism. All too often we hear of the suffering of our fellow human beings and immediately cry ‘what is the government doing about it?’ Well balls to the government, what are YOU doing about it? If the plight of your fellow man worries you, why look to those in suits in the house of commons to alleviate? Go help! Donate to a charity, volunteer, take the responsibility you’re trying to shirk onto the shoulders of your elected representatives for yourself. (A, frankly perfect, example of this idea can be seen in this video, in which Piers Morgan challenges Penn Jillette on his libertarianism. Morgan expresses his outrage that so many people are living in poverty in America to which Penn fantastically responds “and I assume you’re helping them.” He goes on to correctly say that if 1 out of 7 Americans are living on food stamps then that’s 6 out of 7 Americans that can help them. Now, can you remember what I was saying before I opened those parenthesis? Oh yes, socialism).
Socialism isn’t the compassionate option, it’s the lazy option. If the idea of a city fat cat earning millions whilst some families rely on food banks rightly offends you, don’t look to government to intervene, particularly if you believe them to be completely self-serving, appeal to the millionaire’s humanity and ask him to contribute to private social programmes that will help those less fortunate. Believe it or not, just because someone happens to be rich, that doesn’t make them a cold-hearted bastard. Globally, the bastards are an incredibly small number.
If you take the 6 billion people on the planet, rounding off the numbers, and take away the bastards, I fully believe that you’ll be left with 6 billion that are good. I don’t find myself leaning towards libertarianism out of selfishness but because I believe people will help each other without the need for the government to tell them to do so. I’m not cynical enough to be a socialist, nor do I want my compassion outsourced to a government welfare programme. If we do need a social paradigm shift, it’s not towards left wing, big government socialism, but towards right wing, libertarian, humanist principles.
Which brings me to the other main point I found myself profusely disagreeing with Brand on. He renounces atheism as a stumbling block to social co-operation. The paragraph in full says:
“The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation. The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation.”
This is the part that got me worked up and had me gripping my cup of tea with a little too much gusto. It’s no surprise however, given Brand’s desire to invoke a higher governing power in a bid to solve the world’s problems, that he would see atheism as a problem, rather than the ideal mindset with which to tackle said issues. By acknowledging that in the absence of a divine babysitter we have a personal responsibility to the planet and each other, we can properly motivate ourselves to tackle the ecological and societal problems that humanity faces.
It’s far easier to see the suffering of our fellow primates and be OK with not doing anything about it if you believe that a mystical sky fairy will take care of them. Atheism, and more specifically, humanism, is the more effective and more compassionate option. Russell’s right when he says we need a new, unifying ideology, but he’s 100% dead wrong when he invites us to search for a new common mythology with which to motivate us. Why do we need a mythology to unite us at all? Isn’t the fact we share a planet and a gene pool enough? The most effective way to solve any problem is to take a purely rational, materialist, logical approach. We must tackle the issues we face ourselves and not palm off the responsibility to a governing power, celestial or otherwise.