Brand’s liberal critics don’t have a leg to stand on

Newspaper stand

History conducts no controlled experiments, but sometimes gets close – offering an insight into the way the world works.

Take a few recent cases: Labour plans a “Mansion Tax”; a corporate-backed Tory lobby group suggest the poor fund social security through a regressive charge; and the government plans to let innocent people drown in the Mediterranean. Which poses the gravest threat to human welfare? And which most outraged the media? You already know the answer. Labour’s mansion tax – flawed above all because it does not go far enough – prompts gales of outrage from plutocrat-owned papers’ inner-London-property-owning hacks. Celebrities threaten to leave the country; hard-pressed owners of £2-3m properties (who can defer the charge unless they pay top-rate income tax) launch a “humanitarian appeal”. These are the people with whom we share our country: holders of wealth so blinkered and selfish that any modest reduction in their privilege looms like an existential threat.

With that in mind, consider the treatment of Russell Brand. The comedian has come a long way since his interview with Jeremy Paxman, in particular fronting satirical Youtube series The Trews. But, since publishing his book Revolution – calling for spiritually-informed political change, localised industry, organic agriculture and an end to large corporations – the comedian rarely avoids a mauling from the smug, superior banalities of the know-nothing commentariat; or, in Peter Wilby’s acid phrase, the “unskilled middle class”.

Reliably, Nick Cohen leads the charge for this brigade. That Christianity or Buddhism possess revolutionary pedigree or emancipatory potential he deems ridiculous. “Comrades, I am sure I do not need to tell you that no figure in the history of the left has seen Buddhism as a force for human emancipation”, Cohen declares – presumably including E. F. Schumacher, David Brazier, Thich Nhat Hanh, Allen Ginsberg and Erich Fromm. Christianity likewise must have bypassed Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, the Quakers, diggers, liberation theologians and civil rights movement. Religious texts feature nasty passages, after all, and people do bad things in the name of religion – not yawn-inducing truisms that would embarrass a pub bore, but observations so trenchant and complex they fly clean over Brand’s head.

Revolution’s ideas on agriculture and environment are nonsense (by contrast, Cohen’s derive from the corporate-backed, swivel-eyed ideologues of the Adam Smith Institute – so go figure), because localized organic farming would cause mass starvation, poverty and hyperinflation. Naturally, he provides no evidence – though the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation state that “organic agriculture has the potential to feed the world, under the right circumstances” – and ignores the waste, biofuels, meat consumption, and gross inequality that already turn massive surplus into mass starvation. Cancelling personal debt, he scoffs, would “return us to a barter economy”. A telling claim: as the definitive study on this subject points out, there was no prehistoric “barter economy”; it is a fantasy dreamed up by neoclassical economists. In reality, debt forgiveness is sound economics; and, since money has taken various different forms in the past, why should it not in future?

On this occasion, though, even Cohen cannot out-do the Telegraph. Robert Colvile, having lampooned Brand’s “sub-undergraduate dross”, adds, without a trace of irony or self-awareness: “You feel like grabbing him by the shiny lapels and shouting: “Adam Smith! David Ricardo!”” Even the crudest satirist would struggle to contrive that sentence. It refers to “comparative advantage” – a “law” wholly irrelevant to the real economy. As economist Vladimir Masch points out, the theory

“is invalid, inapplicable, and irrelevant in the real world of trade imbalances; global movement of capital, technology, research, and management skills; worker specialization; persistent large-scale unemployment; huge wage-level gaps between countries; “sticky” prices, wages, and currency rates; technological progress; “learning curves”; production overcapacity; geopolitical and economic instability; and unprecedented uncertainty.”

Even this prodigious list omits, among others, “unfair-trade” conditions “such as predatory trading and currency manipulation”.

For the Financial TimesLucy Kellaway, Brand’s tactile interaction with “various ex-cons and former drug-users” is “administer[ing a] secular blessing”. (Was his tactile mode with Evan Davis equally Messianic?) Brand is a “do-gooding narcissist”; his mistrust of the government’s agenda “babyish”. She dismisses as hyperbole Brand’s claim that the FT helps sustain injustice, but if anything, her interview vindicates him:

“I protest that capitalism has lifted billions from poverty in his lifetime.

““Yes, I’m sure a lot of people would prefer waterboarding to anal rape but we don’t have to tolerate either,” he replies, slightly bafflingly.”

Again, the bafflement is telling. If crudely put, Brand’s point is easy to grasp: environmental self-destruction, extreme poverty, horrific wars and public health disasters are not obviously necessary or desirable. To apply Kellaway’s standards elsewhere, the International Labor Organisation note that “[s]ocial security was well developed in the Soviet Union, protecting workers from a wide range of risks”, and its implosion produced widespread misery. Do these facts justify the Soviet system? Is it “baffling” to argue otherwise? Pravda might have said so.

In the Daily Mail, Craig Brown dismisses Brand’s “pseudo-revolutionary blather”. Treated with “reverence” because he’s young (actually a subject every reviewer ignores), he is “shifty and evasive”, merely affecting sincerity. How Brown achieves this feat of telepathy we are not told. Outrageously, Brand fails to rise to the level of Piketty, Marx, Engels, Castro or Martin Luther King, and has the audacity to make jokes. He refuses to accept – unlike the Eton-educated Brown – that his failure to grasp economics is “his fault”. He dares propose the end of the nation-state, of large corporations and some spiritual grounding (“of whatever form”) to society. Presenting another trite, tedious cliché as a fatal blow of blinding originality, Brown triumphantly exposes Brand’s publisher as … a corporation! Naturally, he omits to mention where the proceeds from the book are going.

The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman calls Brand a “false prophet”, “painting himself into faux-political corners” and resembling the tinpot leader of an absurdist banana republic. He

“displayed the kind of ecstatic hypomania you’d expect of a celebrity who long ago exceeded the outer limits of his knowledge … and is now coasting on the adrenaline of his own messiah complex.”

His populism and distrust of the media are obviously deranged. Clearly he lacks judgment, because he cancelled an event after learning of another speaker’s links to the far-right. “What Brand appears not to grasp is that any revolution simply involves the replacement of one set of unaccountable leaders with another”, writes James Bloodworth – leading to “the concentration camp and the Gulag”: hence the American, Portuguese and Nicaraguan revolutions. Brand has not “taken a cursory glance at violent Islamist ideology”, he protests, omitting to explain how he knows this, or why it is relevant. On Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal dismisses Brand along with the occupiers of Parliament Square: “some of the people there only spoke in cliches and hadn’t actually looked into the nuances of what they were saying.” Unlike Hundal himself, of course:

If you want to replace the current system of capitalism with something else, who is going to make your jeans, iPhones and run Twitter?

“I.e. capitalism clearly has downsides, but it also leads to products that people really want to use.” (Emphasis in original.)

Is it really Brand that will make people “dismiss the Left as over-privileged white guys who don’t want to work but want their iPhones anyway” (my emphasis)? If so, only because Hundal, clutching iPhone to jean-clad bosom, assumes someone else will put the work in for him.

What exactly is going on in these articles? As Jonathan Cook writes:

“Here, in a nutshell, is what the liberal’s concern amounts to: I am doing fine in the current system. I like my privileges. How can you promise me that in a fairer society I will not lose any of those privileges?

“… If Brand wants to get a fair hearing in the media, he needs first to reassure people like Hundal that they will not lose their iPhones. If Brand doesn’t think such reassurances are a priority as we try to address climate meltdown and social collapse, he will be dismissed as a simpleton or court jester.”

By focusing obsessively on Brand’s flirtation with “9/11 trutherism”, the liberal press achieve precisely this. Tangential, ambivalent and ambiguous his nod towards “daft” (his word) conspiracy theories may be, but, as the excellent Cunning Hired Knaves points out, without fail the liberal press play up this angle:

“Not the Focus E15 Mothers, not the families of the New Era estate in Hoxton who face eviction on account of rent hikes inflicted by “the brother of the richest Tory MP in the country”, not the Fire Brigades Union, not the police treatment of protesters in Parliament Square, which Brand contrasted unfavourably with the Chinese government’s treatment of protesters in Hong Kong.”

Why? Because an

“imaginary cordon sanitaire [is] used to separate the tinfoil hatted loons from the sane public. Making an example out of Brand has a disciplinary effect: if this part of what he is saying is crazy, then the rest of it must be too, so you don’t want to go there.”

Brand and his book are fair game for criticism. But the commentariat revile it for the same reason they revile the Mansion tax: it poses an unwelcome threat to ideological and economic systems sustaining their employers’ entitlements, and their own. That is why, as our government plans to bleed the poor dry and commit homicide in the Mediterranean, you will read more words of outrage about one puny tax on the rich – and one man’s call for change.

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