Robert Webb vs. Russell Brand

by Benjamin Studebaker

The other day, I wrote a piece commentating on British comedian Russell Brand’s argument against voting. Now another British comedian, Robert Webb (of Peep Show fame) has written an opinion piece for New Statesman criticizing Brand’s position. The irony that a critical issue in political theory is being debated in front of a wide audience for the first time in years by two comedians is not lost on me. All irony aside, as a serious political theory person whose interest is the political system and what’s wrong with it, so I want to have a look at Webb’s argument.

Webb’s argument is likely shared by a silent majority of British people. It is more or less representative of the very kind of argument Brand is seeking to displace. As I did with Brand, I will quote Webb selectively as we move along.

The first major claim Webb makes is that by discouraging his fan base from voting, Brand contributes to a tendency for young people to be disproportionately politically inactive, thereby causing British political parties to be ageist, paying more attention to the interests of the old than the young:

…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.

There are two problems with this:

  1. The Theoretical Problem–this implicitly concedes the existence of a major problem with democracy that most politicians when questioned deny, that they do not defend the interests of the entire citizenry but only the interests of those citizens who are part of their voting coalitions.
  2. The Practical Problem–even if young people participated at the same rate as other age groups, they’re still too small.

The implicit theoretical problem shows that Webb’s point does not defend the democratic system at all, but is in reality an indictment. If the ruling party only cares about the people whose votes it needs, then a majority of citizens (those who vote for losing candidates and those who don’t vote) are always outside the concern of the government. In the British case, the Conservative Party took power in the 2010 election with a mere 36% of the vote, with a mere 17% of the total British population voting for the Tories. This means that the Tories don’t care about 64% of voters or about 83% of the British population. States are supposed to take seriously the equal value of citizens’ interests. They manifestly cannot do that in a political system that only incentivizes them to care about a minority. Even if there were a government that were elected with the support of young people, that government would not fairly balance the interests of young and old, but would merely reverse the injustice. This is what routinely happens on a wide variety of issues in politics. The left champions the unions, the right champions the employers, the left champions secularists, the right champions religious conservatives, the left champions environmentalists, the right champions polluters, and so on. No party, and consequently no government, actually attempts to locate interest of the community as a whole, let alone enact policy to further that interest.

The practical problem is statistical–approximately 20% of British people are between the ages of 15 and 30 (and the number eligible to vote is smaller still, as only those over 18 can vote). Let’s take an issue that young people in particular really care about–tuition fees. Most people in their 20’s in Britain have already graduated university and no longer have a personal stake in that issue, but even if we presumed that everyone under 30 in Britain had a stake in university costs, a much larger majority of British voters either currently receives or is anticipating receiving the various state benefits for the elderly. If citizens are expected to vote in their own interests rather than in the state interest, and the government is expected to govern in the interests of its voting coalition rather than in the interests of the population as a whole, it follows that even if young people voted just as much as elderly people, the state would always prioritize the elderly when distributing state benefits.

What else does Webb say? He points to some policies the previous Labor government enacted that he deems benign, and claims that these policies offer good reasons to vote for Labor if one holds Brand’s views. Yet on the whole, the Blair & Brown governments failed to properly regulate the British financial sector, contributing to the beating Britain took during the global economic crisis. Even if we excluded the events of 2008 and beyond from the analysis, the issue Brand is most deeply concerned with–income inequality–did not improve under Blair & Brown:

Indeed, from a wealth inequality standpoint, there really was no difference between Major’s conservative government and the labor administrations. This is not to say that there is no difference at all between the conservatives and labor, but from Brand’s standpoint, the British left is urging citizens to vote for “bad” in order to prevent “worse”. Indeed, the dichotomy between what is, from Brand’s perspective, center-right labor and the hard right conservatives only serves to ensure that some kind of right-wing party always dominates the government. A choice between bad and worse is a false choice.

Webb goes on to echo a familiar democratic trope:

…election day is when we really are the masters. We give them another chance or we tell them to get another job…

For Brand, this sense of control that citizens experience on election day is not merely illusory, it is a deluding pacifier. Citizens choose between two blocs that are, for Brand’s purposes, insufficiently distinct. One can throw out any given individual, but one is not able to throw out the paradigm. “Throwing the bums out” does little good if it entails letting new bums in. The existence of a David Cameron or a Mitt Romney does not justify the inadequacies of an Ed Miliband or a Barack Obama, and to give us the choice and tell us that we “really are the masters” is disrespectful to the value of our moral principles and an insult to our reasoning capacities.

Webb then goes on to apologize for injustice on the grounds that things are worse in other places or have been historically:

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.

Here Webb is limited by the perspective of his time and place. Just as Webb thinks it’s wonderful that he lives in an advanced liberal democracy, there were once Roman peasants who thought it was wonderful that they lived in an advanced republic. Nevermind the slavery, the gladiatorial combat, the endemic war with the Gauls, at least they lived in civilized Roman Italy rather than in some dank shack north of the Rhine. In the future, there will be people who will be just as glad that they live in still more advanced societies than ours, who will consider us primitive, barbaric, and unjust. When Webb praises our status quo on the grounds that much of the past was worse, he forgets that much of the future can and should be better, but it will only be better if people today do something meaningful to bring it about. Voting clearly isn’t doing the job, if you’re Brand and income inequality is your metric.

Webb closes with this paragraph:

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.

Here Webb recognizes that our society is alienating and anomie-inducing, but he claims that if we try to change that in any comprehensive political way, the outcome is 1984. A change in the political system need not necessarily mean a change in favor of a totalitarian fascist or communist ideology. To claim that it does is to attack a straw man. Having read “some fucking Orwell”, I can verify that this is precisely what Orwell routinely does. He views all radical change through the tinted lenses of communism and fascism–and who can blame him, given the times in which he lived? But as the American and English Revolutions illustrate, structural change can be accomplished in the name of new political systems that are stable, enduring, and clearly better than what came before. If we’re unwilling to consider making significant changes to our political system, if we’re unwilling to think big in the way that past generations thought big, we will remain stuck in systems that just aren’t good enough, that reproduce injustice with regularity. Why should we settle so easily? We don’t even know what future wonders we’re missing out on. The improvements we made to our political systems in the past should not satisfy us, they should inspire us to keep moving forward.

Imagine the kind of argument an American who thought as Webb does would have made in 1776. He would have claimed that If we were to try to escape mercantile imperialism, we’d inevitably produce a totalitarian dystopia, because all structural change is change for the worse. He’d claim that we were so lucky to have been born in colonial America in the 18th century, that we could have been born as Medieval serfs. There’s a running theme here–content yourself with the way things are. Accept injustice, accept the status quo. Think about how it could be worse, how if you really tried to do anything, you’d probably just make things worse. These are not the arguments of a citizen who really cares about the demands of morality and justice or who believes in the capacity of people to collectively better themselves. These are the arguments of an apologist, who thinks his life is fine enough and would just as soon see it not messed with. Robert Webb is a wealthy man, and he has become too comfortable, too unaware of the suffering and injustice in his midst and the costs these sufferings impose on his fellow citizens.

Why should the rest of us be satisfied, and why should we accept that just because serious structural change is hard we ought to give up on living in a better kind of society?