Nearly 30 years ago, Russell Jacoby lamented the disappearance of intellectuals from the public square in his book The Last Intellectuals. Today he might be lamenting the fact that the public intellectual is making a comeback, and his name is Russell Brand.
Comedian-and-actor-turned-political-firebrand Brand, whose Rasputin-like visage stares hypnotically from the cover of his latest book Revolution, is establishing himself as a bigger politi-pop messiah than Bono. He is managing this despite his many media critics like Michael Moynihan, who wrote a devastating takedown of Revolution at The Daily Beast calling the manifesto “utterly misguided, unfunny, illogical, and unreadable.” The Guardian says he has a “barmy credo” without a plan of action. The Independent dismissed Brand as “Britain’s most trivial revolutionary.”
And yet his revolution keeps gaining traction. The grinning, gesticulating, machine gun-mouthed Brand is being taken seriously as an intellectual not so much by other intellectuals as by the disaffected, pop culture-saturated young people who feel the injustice of The System. The Guardian acknowledges that he is “worth taking notice of because he is the nearest Britain has to a revolutionary populist.” He has become a ubiquitous TV interviewee, no longer because he was once Mr. Katy Perry but because he is the new Ché. He was designated a guest editor of the liberal New Statesman. He was interviewed for London’s prestigious Financial Times. He was the subject of a Vanity Fair piece in which, like all the others, the writer found Brand’s ideas nonsensical and unworkable but was nonetheless seduced by his “innate carnality” and calculated charisma. And his influence is sufficiently worrying to induce BBC political editor Nick Robinson to present a radio series in which he grapples with it.
The very fact that Brand don’t get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield might say, from The Establishment is confirmation to his fans that Brand’s Occupy-style message – of a collectivist blah blah ecologically sustainable blah blah changing our consciousness blah blah future – is on target. They don’t care that, as Moynihan noted, Brand misquotes Orwell or makes up facts; facts are irrelevant in the face of Brand’s glib but urgent call to action. We’re raping the planet! Our politicians are all corrupt! Some people are poor! Even worse, some people are rich! These passionately delivered sentiments are intoxicating to masses of young, politically naïve utopians. “He seems designed for young people who are just getting into politics,” was the backhanded compliment from a Guardian columnist – or less politely, “people with a surfeit of opinions and a dearth of understanding,” as the International Business Times recently put it.
When Brand tells them not to vote, for example, he claims it’s not because he’s apathetic – it’s because The System is apathetic to the people: “I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations.” Well, we’re all weary of that, but “absolute indifference” is apathy, and a non-vote made in protest has the same effect as a non-vote made in apathy – it ensures that the status quo which Brand rails against will remain in place.
As for the hypocrisy of a celeb worth an estimated $20 million preaching anti-capitalism, Brand announced that “I have decided that I don’t need to make any money anymore.” It’s not that he intends to start refusing paychecks:
The money that I get, I’m going to use for the establishment of community centers, which will sell good food and provide a place for people to hang out: initially, a service for people recovering from drug addiction, but also an incubator for social enterprises, where people will work, on a not-for-profit basis, in a wide variety of trades.
In addition to starting up these enterprising incubators where recovering addicts will hang out working for nothing, Brand is unveiling a documentary about economics called Emperor’s New Clothes, on which he collaborated with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who previously turned Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine into a documentary about “disaster capitalism.” The new film, which will include “comedy routines,” promises to be as demagogic and fact-challenged as a Michael Moore documentary, and possibly as popular.
Coincidentally, another British pop star has a new book as well, and he too is being given the public intellectual treatment. John Lydon, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, lead singer of punk godfathers The Sex Pistols and rock’s first “anarchist,” is now the author of Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, which made the London Times bestseller list (as did Brand’s). At 58, Lydon lacks Brand’s satyr-like energy and mind-numbing verbosity but exudes a mischievous intelligence.
Invited to contribute to the November issue of Prospect, the UK’s “leading magazine of ideas,” the man who sang “I wanna be anarchy” in 1976 now declares that he is no longer an anarchist: “Anarchy riddles itself with dictatorial policies and doesn’t like to be questioned.” He called Brand a “bumhole” and expressed little patience for his anarchic vision. Urging young people not to vote, Lydon said in an interview to promote his book, “is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard.” When asked if a revolution like Brand’s is possible, Lydon responded,
No, what you’ll get is a rat-pile of infestation, laziness, and eventually you’ll all be evicted. If you don’t contribute or in some way try to reshape the society around you, you’re gonna have no effect, and therefore become ineffectual, ignored, condemned. What [Brand is] preaching there is a lifestyle of cardboard boxes down by the river. He’ll make you all homeless.
And like Michael Moore, who has more houses than Century 21, Brand is “preaching all this from the mansion. Lovely, innit?” His advice to Brand’s constituency? “Get smart, read as much as you can, and find out who’s using you.” Perhaps that last bit suggests that they examine whether they are being used by Brand himself.
Russell Brand and John Lydon are disenchanted with the current state of affairs – as are we all. But Lydon has grown to see that “The older you get, the more you learn, and you have to be able to put yourself in the position of going, ‘ooh, I was wrong there,’ or ‘there’s room for flexibility.’” Revolution without a workable plan, he now understands, is just spinning your wheels. “I always thought anarchy was a mind game for the middle classes, really. Impractical.”
“Anarchists can’t get anywhere without motorways,” he adds with an impish smile.
(This article originally appeared here on The Federalist, 1/7/15)