Thoughts on Russell Brand

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the last several days, the interview Russell Brand had with Jeremy Paxman has been travelling around the internet. My Facebook feed has been chock-full of links to the Brand interview from excited left-leaning friends, vigorously exclaiming their support and excitement that someone with as high a profile as Brand is openly criticizing the political system on a program readily  viewable by millions. As a critic of our political system myself, I am indeed pleased to see elements of the critique echoed in the media. That said, Brand’s emotional passion for change nonetheless requires rigorous analysis to parse out which elements of his critique are valuable and which are incomplete or otherwise defective. That’s what I’m on about today.

If you’ve not seen the interview, here it is in full:

For those of you reading this on a device that inhibits you from viewing it, I will selectively quote the interview throughout this analysis. The first bit I find interesting is when Paxman asks Brand what authority Brand has to discuss politics when he himself does not vote, to which Brand responds:

Well, I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity, alternate means, alternative political systems.

The central premise here is that when we consider politics only through a democratic lens, we narrow quite severely the scope of what we deem “political”. Voting itself is not a particularly influential form of political participation, particularly when one’s political views are outside the democratic consensus. A democrat’s vote in rural Indiana has no real efficacy, just as a republican’s vote in Chicago is a waste, and the republicans and democrats are both merely opposing sides of a broad consensus–if your view is dramatically outside the views held by the two parties, it is a useless gesture. It might confer upon the voter a sense of having expressed himself, but it has no real impact on the nature of the government. If one has political objectives that cannot be satisfied through the democratic system, it follows that one would pursue alternate means and alternate systems.

Paxman responds with a telling line:

How do you imagine that people get power? They get power by being voted in, that’s how they get it.

Paxman presumes that the democratic system as it presently exists is a fundamental political constraint, that it is the procedure by which power is distributed and will remain so indefinitely. However, if we accept the democratic system as a constraint, we must accept that any and all desirable policies that the democratic system cannot bring about are impossible. Brand objects to many things, but most prominent among them is economic inequality. The evidence in recent decades is that our present system is not effective at reducing inequalities of wealth, and may even be contributory to the phenomenon:

Indeed, none of the OECD countries were able to make a substantial dent in wealth inequality during the above 23-year period. A handful of countries maintained their rates, but the vast majority saw increases. The United States is third most unequal, with Brand’s Britain in fifth. But even the stalwart Scandinavian countries, whose democratic systems are often pointed to by leftists as examples of how democracy and left-wing goals can be reconciled, have seen increases inequality. Sweden has arguably seen the largest increase of all the OECD member states. If Brand is  to concede that the only way to get people into power through the vote, then Brand is to concede that his political beliefs will never be enacted. For Brand, this means living in a society that he considers unjust with no prospect of ever ameliorating that injustice. If Brand defends the democratic system, Brand puts democratic procedures ahead of his most highly prized moral beliefs. Or, as he himself puts it:

It’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy, I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class which has now been going for generations now, and which has now reached fever pitch where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity for that political system, and that’s something I’m not offering up.

I would quibble with Brand’s claim that the political class is engaged in lies, treachery, and deceit–it’s my tendency to view our political troubles in light of Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

On my view, politicians that act unjustly do so not because they are knowingly deceiving people, but because they genuinely believe in a different conception of justice or in the efficacy of different policies. These individuals may be wrong, but they are wrong due to incompetence, due either to insufficient knowledge of the consequences of the policies they enact or a poorly reasoned understanding of what the relevant moral and political principles are and what they demand. They may even be pursuing mere material gain for themselves, but if the Keynesian critique of the current economic system is correct (and I would argue that it broadly is), they are not pursuing their ends in an efficient way. It remains debatable which conceptions of justice are more or less correct. Some of us have wrong answers, but not deliberately so.

But this is mere quibbling. Back to Brand–Paxman continues to reproach Brand for not voting, at which point Brand drops this bombshell:

I don’t think it works–people have voted already, and that’s what’s created the current paradigm.

Those who are committed to democracy while simultaneously being committed to political ideas that have no chance of being enacted democratically now or in the near future must believe that something is going to change such that presently unfeasible policies will become feasible. The trouble is that if these policies have not yet been enacted, there is already more than a century’s worth of evidence to show that such a change may be long in the coming, if it comes at all. People, as Brand says, have already voted many times, but they have yet to vote for policies that Brand believes adequately track justice. Defenders of democracy need to offer a realistic, believable theory of change to Brand and those in agreement with Brand. Often the word “education” is bandied about–proponents of democracy argue that we need to educate the voters better, but they have no plan for getting different education policies enacted by politicians who themselves oppose the changes they are wishing to bring about through this education. Often there isn’t even a corresponding pedagogical theory of what political education should be. Further more, even if we knew precisely how to change education and we had the power to enact this reform tomorrow, there would be many decades of lag before a sufficiently large portion of the population were educated in this way such that the expected changes would be affected democratically. Since older people tend to be the most active voters and life expectancies are lengthening, it would likely be half a century before we’d see any returns. For someone like Brand, who is very concerned with what justice requires right now, a 50 year minimum wait is a farcical defense of the current system.

Brand goes on to make some wider claims that politicians are servicing corporations rather than their populations. Here I think he again unnecessarily vilifies his targets–to the extent that politicians service business interests, it is because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that business interests track the public interest. There’s much scope for disputing that belief’s validity, but I submit that it is likely genuinely held.

At this point, Paxman, to his credit, recognizes the train Brand is on, and observes that Brand has revolutionary intentions, that he is opposed to democracy.  Paxman presses Brand to offer an alternative system of government. Brand is honest and upfront about his inability to do so:

There are people with alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am and far better qualified, more importantly, than the people that are doing that job.

Perhaps I am, or one day will be, such a person? I have devised an alternative political system that I believe would be more efficacious–a curious reader can consider its merits (or lack thereof) here.

I should emphasize that I am not in full agreement with Brand’s substantive views on justice. Brand’s tendency to attach Marxist class hostilities to the rich and the poor unnecessarily views the economic system as one of villains and victims. All participants in the economic system have a shared interest in the growth of wealth and human possibility. There is some distribution of resources that optimizes this system’s performance, both in terms of the rate at which growth is sustainably produced and in terms of the efficiency with which the distribution of resources allows citizens to convert wealth and opportunity into happiness, into the achievement of their various goals. While I agree with Brand that we have not achieved that distribution, the problem is not a matter of villains and victims–an optimal distribution is one in which society as a whole prospers. Even if we believe that wealth should be redistributed from rich to poor, if this redistribution improves the overall health of the economic system such that growth is more sustainable and more efficient, what wealth that remains to our rich can be used to more efficiently acquire happiness and achieve objectives. New technologies and faster growth produced through an optimized distribution allow the rich to buy more with less and in a more sustainable way. It also allows them to live in a more cohesive society with lower crime rates and more pleasant social relations. It should not be unthinkable to imagine a just society as one that is advantageous to all citizens, not merely the poor. Indeed, because the just distribution rightly conceived is an optimized one, rather than one that systematically rewards a class we arbitrarily view as virtuous or more deserving, it is likely to be one that is not so openly hostile to the rich as the one advocated by Brand.