With their recent Russell Brand-edited issue, The New Statesman probably got the most bang for their buck ever in the entire 100 year history of the venerable socialist journal. Brand is obviously a controversial figure and he pulled no punches during the—I thought totally amazing—interview he gave to BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman to promote the issue. Seen all over the world, I can’t think of a better advertisement for what the New Statesman is selling or radical ideas in general.
It was a worldwide mass media coup and Brand’s comments penetrated the normal noise. That people were talking about socialism, the capitalist oligarchy and the survival of the human species, well, great work for a comic. Even Fox Business News dipshit Neil Cavuto inadvertently opened the door to a brief discussion of socialism on his show in a segment critical of Brand’s comments. Anyone curious enough to follow up got exposed to something they’d never normally see on Fox.
Brand concluded his own epic “letter from the editor” exhorting his readers NOT to vote as it only lends legitimacy to politicians and the capitalist system, something which has now led comic actor Robert Webb, the self-described “other one” on the brilliant Peep Show series (watch it on Netflix, Americans) to respond to Brand in the pages of, where else, The New Statesman.
... I thought you might want to hear from someone who a) really likes your work, b) takes you seriously as a thoughtful person and c) thinks you’re willfully talking through your arse about something very important.
It’s about influence and engagement. You have a theoretical 7.1 million (mostly young) followers on Twitter. They will have their own opinions about everything and I have no intention of patronising them. But what I will say is that when I was 15, if Stephen Fry had advised me to trim my eyebrows with a Flymo, I would have given it serious consideration. I don’t think it’s your job to tell young people that they should engage with the political process. But I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.
Why do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.
Webb, of course has a very good point here, but I can see where Brand is coming from as well. I used to think voting was futile myself, because no matter who I voted for, the government was always getting elected. In my defense, I was in my 20s and there was a thimble-full of difference between between Democrats and Republicans during the Clinton era. Now I vote, it’s insane not to until the Tea partiers die off en masse.
You’re a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think. In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker,” with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.
That’s one way to look at it—mature, nuanced, something a Cambridge grad might argue—but as much as I respect what Webb has written, I don’t think his open letter will sway the adressee much one way or the other. If you look at the some of the other articles in Russell Brand’s New Statesman issue, it’s pretty clear where he’s coming from and it’s not a timid place. He might not be coming out and directly calling for a violent revolution—although he surely hints at it—but some of the pieces he selected for publication most certainly do a lot more than beat about that bush, notably Naomi Klein’s essay which asks aloud what a lot of people—including many scientists—have been wondering: Is waging revolution against the unsustainable capitalist Leviathan the unambiguous answer to climate change and survival of the human species?
Webb feels the most British form of revolution is precisely the one waged at the voting booth:
What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.
I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell
Left-of-center types not voting out of protest will only cede the government to the reichwingers, Webb’s right about that, but seriously dude, death camps and gulags are NOT the obvious consequences of a revolution against capitalism either. I winced when I read that. Reading a little Orwell can never be a bad thing, though.
What about voting AND some direct action so they know we’re fucking serious?
I think where both Robert Webb and Russell Brand might agree is that things seem to be coming to a head.
Have to admire Robert Webb’s pro-active response to Russell Brand but it has also made me wonder, in a week when I’ve been protesting on the streets of London with Mark Thomas and Bill Bailey, why is it comedians who are willing to take a stand these days rather than musicians?
Below, a classic clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look: