Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams… Review of Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’


Revolution will never be a classic work.  I’ve started collecting books from the mid 20th century by minor political figures — sold for a song and published cheaply, they shine a small light upon the political issues of the day.  In this way, I connect with what went wrong in conservative politics and try to imagine a world where we went down a different trouser leg of history.  In a lot of ways, Revolution resembles these books.  It’s a polemic.  It is deeply personal, biased, and subjective — unabashedly so.

But the resemblance fades rapidly.  This isn’t a cheaply made knock together book but a glossy, dense, highly publicised work.  Indeed, this is the political discourse of the market: books written by political thinkers don’t sell particularly well, but celebrity can always be deployed to shift copy.  The result is a very complicated piece of work that really demands serious, intelligent attention in a way that is not immediately obvious.

Nobody will read this book in two years’ time.  The book relies upon the reader’s knowledge of the events which resulted in the book being written which, let’s face it, weren’t the most newsworthy of events in the first place.  The book also relies upon the fanfare and circus of the response to the book, which was predictable.

It’s worth noting this latter point and playing with it a bit.  This was a book where actually reading it was entirely unnecessary.  People already knew what they wanted to say and they were going to say it come hell or high water.  Here’s Helen Razer’s take:

The “news” industry now so fixated on celebrity as meaningful and moral currently doesn’t change a thing. Well, other than to speed the death of faith in journalism. People like Brand, so manifestly part of the orthodox entertainment industry, can never really provoke a change. But they can reflect one.

Brand is hardly the first to reflect anti-politics. It’s long had a place in politics itself. Although young fans of the hypersexual “radical” might not care to entertain the thought, Brand’s anti-political appeal has less in common with, say, The Pirate Party than it does to Pauline Hanson. Like Lambie, Palmer, Katter and other minor party or independent locals who rose to power on a platform of detachment from the political process, the shiny-eyed Brand is accumulating his cultural capital based on the appearance of a deep, and likely genuine, distrust of the political process.  [Source]

Except that’s not what’s going on in this book.

This is instead a book about perspectives. What makes it difficult is that the book changes as you change perspective.  There is, of course, the perspective of the publisher who feels that they can cash in on Brand’s brand.  People are bored by politics, so get somebody flashy and ‘alternative’ to write a polemic about politics in order to make millions.

There’s the perspective of Brand, who clearly recognises that this is the strategy of the publisher — indeed, he explicitly says so.  In one very moving passage, he notes that he’s got this platform that he doesn’t deserve, that he’s not a social scientist or an economist, and that he’s the beneficiary of (what he perceives to be) a thoroughly awful system.  In response, he claims that he’s giving his royalties from the book to a charity.  For him, this is an opportunity for him to vent about what he sees as a problem that nobody wants to talk about.  But this is the difficult aspect.  Brand hasn’t got the depth nor the education to identify what the problem is — he can only list various symptoms, and his focus is on symptoms that he can personify.  Homelessness, in Brand’s world, isn’t some global thing, but a thing that affects the guy who sleeps under the bridge at the end of his street.

Then there’s the perspective of the ‘experts’ with whom Brand talks as part of the research for the book.  Given an opportunity to pitch ideas at him, they load him up with a host of strange notions which do little but confuse Brand’s point.  People will disagree, but Brand’s book is all the worse for the (minimal) research that he’s done.  If he’d just stuck with a polemic, we could all read it in that way.  This wouldn’t be about advocating a particular revolution.  This wouldn’t be about diagnosing a particular problem.  This would have been about appealing to fans of Booky Wook 1 and 2 to pay attention to the world around them.  Instead, we end up buried in a vast amount of crap that Brand doesn’t understand but he thinks it sounds intelligent.  An early anecdote explains that Brand is easily taken by people wearing robes.  That childish gullibility is on full display when Brand recounts political theories that make absolutely no sense.  He seems to believe that luxury goods only came into existence in the 1950s (when psychoanalysis is used to sell products), that Daesh might have a point, and that electromagnetic energy requires minds in order to actualise.

We have the perspective of the fan of Russell Brand who likes his risque, hypersexual humour who is reading the book simply because Russell Brand’s face is on the cover.  Brand clearly has that person in mind but when it comes to the crunch, what has he got to offer?  Some barely cooked spirituality and a munted political theory.  If anything, the book demands that his fan base just ‘have a go’ at getting engaged with politics — far from the ‘anti-politics’ tag that his critics want to slap him with.

And then we have the perspective of the wonks who know what they’re talking about.  This is perhaps the saddest perspective of all.  The first wave of criticism chastised him for being too much of a simpleton to engage with the real political questions of the day.  The second wave criticised the first wave, and then tried to find something deep and important about the book.  Wasn’t this book, after all, just like the Harry Potter series?  It didn’t matter what people were reading, so long as they were reading.  What a hollow and petty group of losers in this category.

While I was reading this book, two people I know (one well and one vicariously) got really great news about landing gigs that they wanted.  It is really difficult to break through in the media landscape and here were two people that would do really well with more publicity and fame.  Instead of just being happy for them, a bunch of people thought that it was appropriate to hang shit on them instead.  How could they deserve what they have been given?  Why wasn’t I given the chance instead?  &c., &c., &c.

It is utterly disgusting the way that our first instincts are to tear people down, but it reveals a greater insecurity that we so rapidly head to meta-commentary in order to find something ‘new’ and ‘unique’ to say.  Neither the knockers nor the praisers really grappled with the very complicated social aspects to this book.  The book was released and the response was as narcissistic as the author: who could get a response out the fastest, and who could tear down all the people tearing it down?

Which leads me to a positive. One of the best reviews of Revolution, by Sarah Burnside, rejected the garbage narrative about the book and broke down the way humour is used to engage with politics.  It’s a great review because it’s not taking pot shots at people and it takes one of the many threads in the book and runs with it.

Revolution should make us all take a very long look at ourselves and what our political culture has become.  Every person in our society — from the philosopher to the vagabond to the celebrity — should be able to sit down and write a short pamphlet about their political intuitions.  Two factors will determine the success of those pamphlets.  First, the quality of the person writing the pamphlet — their ability to control language, to use it to express complicated feelings and thoughts, to use it persuasively to engage with others.  Second, the quality of the cultural inputs that go towards forming those political intuitions.

Brand often struggles with language.  He is not pleasant to read.  But he’s persuasive, curious, and engaged with trying to explain his intuitions.

The problem is that he has absolutely nothing to work with.  His intuitions are shit because his political environment is total crap.  This is what happens when you let people wander around a post-ideas environment.

Brand has no way to challenge his intuitions.  He feels that there’s something to this idea that workers should be able to control the capital behind their production, but does he really want a future where we’re all labourers?  Many of us are trying to deal with the prospect of a future were there are no labourers, where work is this strange thing from the past that stopped us from developing ethically and culturally into proper people.  But this view of the future is utterly antithetical to a society where tiny communities own the modes of production to protect jobs.  Would tiny communes of workers agree to the development of new technology which put them all out of work?  Should the tiny communes own the manufacturing robots collectively?  But how would they come to own the manufacturing robots?  Would they continue to manufacture in the outdated factories while other communes develop and own robots that can produce cheaper, better cars?  And so on and so forth.

Brand struggles with the bigger ideas of the day, even dedicating a chapter to Piketty whom he then completely failed to grasp.  Which is a shame, given that teaming up Brand with Piketty would be mutually beneficial to both.  Piketty’s key idea is that ordinary profits from capital are greater than the ordinary profits from labour.  Although our culture champions the idea that you can become rich if you just work hard enough, the empirical data shows that it tends not to be true.  Brand sort of wants to jump into that space and react to it: noting that it’s unfair and unjust and that ordinary people on the street — not just French economists — should be angry and should demand answers.  But Brand can’t quite wrap his head around the ideas, so the line of inquiry fizzles away.  I would probably read an entire book of Piketty in discussion with Brand.

Brand also feels that the way to a new future is through personal spiritual development, but does this view hide a lot of the power structures inherent in the way we describe various values?  It’s all very well to claim that your spirituality is prelinguistic and apolitical, harmonising and unifying every living thing, but you can’t bring those insights into the social space without leaning on particular intuitions about what ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’, and ‘love’ entail.

The moment you ask, ‘Yes, Russell.  But how would this work in a world with hundreds of different languages, values, customs, and ideals?’ the clarity of his vision fades.  His Revolution is one in which every man, woman, and child is an idealised version of Russell Brand.

Brand’s book is a wake up call for those of us who want to be in the Ideas Race.  If we keep talking to each other and ignoring the broader world, we’re going to be overtaken by celebrities who have some red hot reckons about how the world should work.  We want our celebrities to influence our culture and our public discourse, and that means delivering ideas that engage with them meaningfully.  The biggest shame of the book is that there are so many brilliant, interesting, insightful, thoughtful people out there, but Brand’s celebrity meant that he could land the book deal.  This needs to tell us something about the failure of our ideas to get traction, and something about the need to work out why the big, radical, ideological ideas of the day are getting rusty from neglect.  If you want to know why Australia’s myriad of new progressive parties is a giant omnishambles, read this book: there are no good ideas in the public domain with which to wrestle and our intuitions are shit.

Don’t read this book.  It is painful.  But do think about why the book exists and how we need to do better.

2 responses to “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams… Review of Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution’”

  1. Completely brilliant review – I’ve just finished this and I can’t help myself, I’ve been browsing around to read the various debates going on around the internet. It’s compulsive. Of all the things I’ve read so far, this is probably the best (read, closest to expressing my own opinion in a way I haven’t really been able to do myself). I think you’re right when you say no one will really be reading this in two years’ time – in fact, I read an article somewhere (the Guardian probably) which suggested this was already a year late to catch the real feeling that grew up after the Paxman interview.

    My review: Revolution by Russell Brand

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