Review: Revolution by Russell Brand

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Revolution by Russell Brand book cover
Following on from Russell Brand’s now infamous Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman and the special issue of the New Statesman that he edited, Revolution (2014) is Brand’s book-length dissection of capitalist society – an answer to his critics who called for more than sound bites and sweeping statements. So here it is, Brand’s revolution laid out: from debt cancellation to Kundalini yoga, direct democracy to ecological sustainability, this is a sprawling stream of ideas spewed out by the most charismatic voice of leftist thought currently banging the drum. Is it time to peg back the cancerous spread of capitalism, to return power to the people, to take up some casual meditation and start measuring a country’s success not by its GDP but by a happiness index? For Essex’s would-be revolutionary the answer is certainly ‘yes’ – but does he convince?

Since he became commonly known in the mid-2000s, Russell Brand has always shown a penchant for revolution – back then it always felt like an affectation but Brand’s view of revolution has grown steadily more serious as the years have gone on and his own fame has developed. 2013 was Brand’s year – the point at which the wider public sat up and took note of his loquacious calls for revolution. Admittedly, most sneered at his posturing and condemned his call on people not to vote, even if, as Brand declared, the political system was broken and unrecognisable as a democracy, so little did it represent the vast majority of people. Since then, Brand has amped up his YouTube series ‘The Trews’ in which he dissects and comments upon the daily news, and his group of followers has grown and broadened to the point that he is now one of the most talked about celebrities cum politicos in the UK (admittedly, a small group). So what of Revolution – what does it add to Brand’s already stated position? The short answer is very little. Where one might have expected more depth to his line of argument, one is instead presented with a strung together collection of half-formed ideas, which are all too familiar to Brand followers.

Here, Brand acts as a mouthpiece for various leftist thinkers, openly hoping that his notoriety will bring his own fans to discover some of those writers and thinkers Brand himself admires. Various references to Chomsky and Piketty – probably the most referenced political writers – and a handful of lesser known names help give the book shape, but in truth the majority of the pages are taken up by Brand’s anecdotal riffs and some rather dubious spiritual digressions (the line by line Lord’s Prayer analysis is both baffling for its inclusion and painful in its execution). However, while many of the ideas have been heard before, not just from Brand but from many others, there is a fundamental truth in his assessment of our society: aggressive capitalism can only lead to power being transferred from the state to big business. Brand is spot on here, and has a very firm grip on the problems of modern society (although, admittedly, is somewhat lacking in solutions) and more than that, he has a very human feeling for how these larger concepts affect people on the ground. There are, however, two big areas in which one should be sceptical about his reading of society’s current plight. Firstly, and unsurprisingly, the ‘I’ is very much first and the Revolution second for Brand (you don’t even need to get beyond the cover to glean this fact), which somewhat undermines all his talk of egalitarianism, etc. Having Brand so tightly connected with his own idea of revolution creates problems immediately: it skews his thinking both by making his revolution performative (and thus popular lines are always chosen over purposeful ones), and by causing him to fall into the trap of seeing everything through his unique perspective while failing to recognise his essential difference from many of the people he attempts to speak for. Secondly, the book is overburdened by what is, essentially, spiritual claptrap. Brand has always been a fan of Eastern philosophy and spirituality, and here puts this across strongly, pushing the idea of a shared consciousness, and various other ideas he finds appealing. Some might agree with him, but most readers will have signed up for a political revolution not a spiritual one, and this line of argument – which Brand puts at the centre of his philosophy – rather undermines a lot of the good points he makes.

Brand understands that revolutions happen first in the mind and, despite the paradigm shift he extols being tied up with some sort of Eckhart Tolle spiritual revolution meshed with the twelve traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, he is on the money here. Winning hearts and minds is hardly a new idea, but Brand is as likely to actually do the winning of said hearts and minds as anyone else (better qualified) mentioned in the book. One can’t help but feel, however, that revolution is simply another in the long line of mirages towards which Brand has propelled himself, hopelessly longing for something to vanquish his personal ennui. Sadly, where drugs, sex, fame and fortune have failed, revolution is destined to follow. The real failing in Brand’s vision is the solution, or the end-game of his revolution, which is to move away from a system which affords a small minority power over the majority, and towards small, self-governing collectives, each of which would be responsible for its own members and with the right to do as it wishes, provided it doesn’t harm the rights of other collectives or do ecological damage to the planet. It’s a solution that, by definition, cannot be laid out too clearly at this stage, which is probably a good thing as any attempt to follow this idea through to its logical conclusion doesn’t seem to lead anywhere particularly promising.

One of the charges often laid on Brand is that of hypocrisy, something he is very well aware of. Orwell – whose writing Brand is at pains to demonstrate a decent knowledge of – felt the moral position of the author and their work were inextricably linked. With Brand, however, this has been taken too far, with many critics meaninglessly attacking him rather than his writing, which has led Brand, in Revolution, to acknowledge his hypocrisy frequently and gently try to extricate himself from the uncomfortable position of being a millionaire revolutionary. Undoubtedly, there is a disparity between Brand’s lifestyle and his writing (“be the change you wish to see in the world”, as he quotes from Gandhi) but a lot of that criticism can be set aside for the purposes of giving the book, and not the man, full attention. After all, Brand is an engaging writer. However, he is at his best when indulging the literary end of his talents rather than the political; he writes best under constraints and sadly Revolution has very few to tether him to the point and get the most from his writing. There is a lack of exactness throughout – not unexpected but, in a 300-page book, still disappointing. It’s easy to write from the outside: there is no pressure to commit to decisions, no need to do more than criticise those in power, no need to get bogged down in detail. Brand isn’t interested in details – an increasing problem amongst armchair revolutionaries sedated by social media – and if there’s one phrase that sums up his appeal and his ethos neatly, it’s when he writes that “revolution can’t be boring”. Sadly, real change often is.

Brand’s writing style so perfectly apes his speaking style – erratic, loquacious, almost free associating through ideas haphazardly – that it’s hard to see Revolution winning any new fans. For those that already sneer at the hammed up accent, spurious spirituality, and general vibe of Brand’s brand then Revolution will only reinforce that point of view. However, for those of a more sympathetic bent, this meandering narrative will tantalise and frustrate in equal measure; he writes with heartfelt verve and turns some brilliant phrases, but so too he mangles facts and meanders from points.

Ultimately, frustrating is a pretty good word to sum up Revolution. Brand has a good grasp of the problems facing the modern capitalist society, but he has no real solution and muddies the waters with his digressions about spirituality, which seemingly forms a big part of his personal motivation for revolution. As a book, Revolution is more or less what one would expect: a highly entertaining, sometimes prescient, look at the problems facing the Western world and its relationship with big business, which might inspire readers to take up the cause and really get involved in shaping the world. If Revolution can inspire serious engagement with important issues in the previously disaffected, then its own lack of serious engagement can be more easily ignored. After all, engaging minds already swamped by vacuous distractions is no mean feat. If there’s one thing that can be said of him, it’s that Brand makes revolution sexy. This is both his biggest problem and his biggest achievement.

I like Russell Brand a lot - even when he's wrong. I like his energy and humanity, not to mention his genuine outrage at the state of things. Revolution is not dissimilar to what I'd expected it would be, but I still wanted more.


Useful Links
Reviews of Revolution on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Revolution on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

The Thinking Gaill said...

Great Review. Your right- 'frustrating' yet 'sexy' are perfect descriptions for Revolution and what it offers the reader. A sexy idea, with a frustrating lack of practicality.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks, I really enjoyed your post too! Russell Brand certainly serves up a lot of causes for discussion, sexy frustration aside.