It's rare that a celebrity champions progressive causes let alone calls for all-out revolution. But is Russell Brand right?
Russell Brand sees what we all see. A corrupt political system. Skin-deep democracy. Elite politicians on the take. A tiny cabal of the rich presiding over the fate of the rest of us. Yawning inequality. Cartoonish media barons. Public school-boy (and the odd girl) politicians who think having a second home is as natural as having a second child. Standard fare for modern Britain.
It's practically the same world-over. Oxford academic Danny Dorling recently observed a remarkable, and disturbing phenomena. Last year the world's richest 1% owned 41% of the world's wealth. Sick, right? It gets worse. This year the richest 1% owned 48% of total wealth. That's an increase of 7% in just one year.
If this trend continues for another 7 years that would mean that the 1% would earn 100% of the world's wealth. It doesn't take an economist to point out that that's just not possible. Dorling concluded therefore that in the next 7 years something is going to happen. No one can tell what. But it's clear things can't continue in this way. Something is going to happen.
That something could be many different things. Total financial collapse. Total war. Civil war. Revolution? Nothing's off the table.
This may sound fanciful but the Economist (hardly died in the wool Marxists) observed that increasing global military tensions scarily echo the run-up to the First World War. French economist Thomas Picketty has argued comprehensively in his Capital in the 21st Century that the free market doesn't spread wealth but hordes it and that inequality will destroy capitalism.
This is not a novel insight, indeed Karl Marx wrote a similarly titled book with a similar core message, but what's important to note is how increasingly mainstream such views are. Naomi Klein's latest book adds to the mix by arguing that capitalism will doom the planet to environmental destruction.
But do we need a revolution?
Revolutions took root in the Middle East in 2011, and they were (and sadly still are) much needed. To date, the West has successfully managed to staunch the flow of those democratic uprisings with a string of interventions (some covert, some overt) in Libya, Syria, Egypt. The people of the Middle East have long had to deal with the burden of dictatorships thanks to the West's post-war carve up of the region. But some argue that here in the 'developed west', things are different—not that extreme; perhaps we can reform our way out of this mess.
Firstly, let's not make the mistake of denigrating reform. Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxumberg thought that revolutionaries make the best fighters for reform. Or to put it another way, revolutionaries should make the best fighters for reform.
This is because radicals need to relate to the day-to-day concerns of working people, who can be empowered through the process of winning gains against the system, and because, contrary perhaps to popular belief, revolutions tend to come at the end of a process of fighting for reform, when the ruling class refuse to give any more concessions. In Russia the movement managed to win a provisional government (however toothless) and kick out the Tsar way before the 1917 storming of the Winter Palace by the Red Army (financed by the state, thank you very much).
Nor do revolutions happen by design. At least they don't start that way. A mass of the population don't just wake up one morning and decide that they've had enough and will take power into their own hands. The final thrust of the Russian Revolution began when protests against bread shortages escalated. In recent times, the Tunisian revolution was sparked by the lone protest of a market stall holder who set himself ablaze.
But once a chain of events is set in train, conscious decisions can mean the difference between victory and defeat of the movement. The question of whether or not to take state power becomes vital. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. We've seen in Egypt over the last 18 months what happens when a popular movement hands power over to the state—bloody reaction, systematic torture, rape, assassination, imprisonment.
But it's different here, right?
It's worth reminding ourselves also that things are not so rosy in austerity Britain. A recent cross-party report, Feeding Britain, has found that 500,000 families can't afford to feed their children. Four million adults face hunger and 3.5 million can't afford to eat properly. It urged the government to stop its punitive benefits sanctions and to increase provision. There's no way the Tories will allow this, and Ed Miliband has recently confirmed what many feared—he will continue with austerity if he gets into power.
Only the democratic upsurge of the Scottish independence campaign has shown a way politics can be different. But even then the Radical Independence Campaign has shown that the real issues that motivate ordinary people north of the border—anti-fracking, equality, workers' rights, anti-nuclear—are too hot to handle for the Scottish Nationalist Party which would keep the pound, the monarchy and Nato membership in an independent Scotland.
And the system really is sick and corrupt. MPs have this year awarded themselves an 11% pay rise whilst the pay of most working people continues to decline at an historic rate. The House of Lords have recently refused to cut their lavish champagne budget (yes, they have a champagne budget) which provides them over a quarter of a million pounds worth of bubbly per year, enough for five bottles each. Cheers.
All this whilst food banks proliferate. A recent phone call to the LBC radio station by a 35-year-old man who lives on a tin of food a day whilst searching in vain for jobs is a shocking illustration of gross poverty in one of the most powerful nations on the planet.
Ok, but what about violence?
Often when people begin to grapple with the notion of revolution the question of violence is at the forefront. It's not surprising given that left-wing values are typically anti-war and anti-violence, and rightly too. But the violence of revolutions is in fact the violence of a state attempting to cling on to power. The violence of the Russian revolution for example was actually minimal, it was the ruling class attempt at counter-revolution that was particularly bloody, and it was backed up by the Western powers who intervened.
The strength of the mass of the population and the strength of working people is not their ability to use violence to get results. That's actually the strategy of a minority seeking to hold on to power. Violence is implicit in capitalist society and is often invisible—tens of thousands die of starvation around the world every day, in a system that can send robots to Mars, split the atom and build billion dollar ghost cities that lie vacant.
Across the water in America violence is a big issue. We've all seen the racist violence that lead to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner to name just a few that have grabbed the headlines over the last couple of years. And the US prison system is bigger than Stalin's gulags.
In this country we witnessed the police shooting of a black man which lead to the UK-wide riots of 2011 that channelled mass disaffection into a kind of quasi-conscious class revolt. And police violence against student protestor Alfie Meadows nearly left him with brain damage back in 2010. These are just potted examples of the violence of even so-called liberal democracies.
The best way to prevent violence is for people to combine their numbers (there's simply more of us than them) with organisation. The bigger our movement and the more organised, the less effective violence will be as a tool of oppression.
This is not an argument for pacifism. Movements are at the biggest risk of violent reaction when they leave the job of revolution half done. The mass movement that rose up against the Morsi government in Egypt last year actually handed power back to the 'deep state' military regime that had underpinned the Mubarak dictatorship. The leaders of the Tamarod (“Rebel”) movement have since admitted that they were under the direction of Egyptian security services and were “naive” to let the counter-revolution be disguised as the revolution.
If we want to end a system based on violence, the capitalist system, we need to organise the struggle on a mass basis and never surrender our self-activity in the name of 'peace', 'law and order' and all the other false friends of progress. To throw away the gains of a revolution because of a moral injucntion against violence would be in itself immoral.
Russell Brand is unique in that here is a celebrity who openly proselytises for system change. His Trews Youtube channel has 700,000 subscribers and over 8 million follow him on Twitter. And he's not sitting in an ivory tower either. He's out on the street defending the New Era Estate residents against the corporations that want to force them out, calling on people to take a day off work to support the Irish water tax protests, sitting atop an FBU fire engine supporting striking firefighters, and at countless demonstrations large and small.
A Guardian journalist notes that whilst privately interviewing Brand a stream of fans came up to him. All they wanted to talk about was Trews. This is a generation, probably best summed up as Generation Rent, who are turned on to radical politics. This is not supposed to happen and explains the otherwise baffling fury and derision with which Brand is met, even from the liberal media like the Guardian and the Independent.
Brand calls for mass civil disobedience, the press bray about his tweeting of the professional (not private as is misreported) phone number of a senior Daily Mail journalist. Brand calls for system change and is branded a hypocrite by The Sun. The left needs to defend Brand (although he does a pretty good job of it himself) not just because it is defending left-wing ideas against the power of the media and the establishment, but because it's the generation that Brand speaks to that are some of the most politicised people in the country.
A recent People's Question Time organised by the People's Assembly Against Austerity in which Brand participated began to tap into a mass audience for radical ideas and transformed many of that 'audience' into activists at the following week's TUC demonstration. It's easy for some of the left to find fault with Brand because he's not from a particular left tradition, he's working out his ideas as he goes along. Brand is in many ways doing the left's job for them.
We need to be as active as he is and as relentless in challenging the power of undemocratic elites. And we can do what Brand can't do on his own. We can organise a movement of ordinary people that can raise people's confidence to take on the government and the bosses and the discredited elites.
Revolution? It all seems such a long way away...
Capitalism has always been a system of war and revolution. It's massively crisis-prone and only gets more unstable as it ages. We've witnessed historic demonstrations and widespread uprisings in our own lifetimes.
We've also seen the entire neoliberal order of the last 40 years teeter on the brink of collapse. Another financial crisis is inevitable and gone are the days when another world war seemed remote if not impossible, as The Economist has observed.
As Danny Dorling says, in the next few years something is going to happen. That something could be the start of a movement that does not stop until our sick system is overturned.
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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