Russell Brand is currently on the receiving end of a lot of flak in the UK media. This is more-or-less unprecedented. A few haters aside, Brand has been largely untouchable as a comedian, actor and, latterly political commentator since first appearing as a presenter on MTV in 2000. OK, his films, including Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and a remake of Arthur (2011) have hardly set him up as the new De Niro, but his undeniable charisma meant that for the most part his popularity rode consistently high among mainstream audiences.
He has also been much-feted in the manosphere (including here) for his social savvy, and attendant ability with the ladies, which culminated in his brief marriage to pop star Katy Perry in 2010. Whatever your personal opinion on Brand’s flamboyant appearance – a mash up of Captain Sparrow, Keith Richards and a Victorian chimney-sweep – he certainly challenges the one-dimensional belief that alpha is the sole domain of roid-headed bulk-beasts in muscle t-shirts.
Things started to go wrong when Brand began commenting publicly on political and social inequalities as he saw them, joining demonstrations by activist groups including Occupy Wall Street, and the protestors at the G-20 London summer summit in 2009. He also wrote to The Independent newspaper to condemn Israeli assaults on Gaza in the same year. This led to a number of admittedly very well-written articles for The Guardian (the UK’s leading liberal newspaper, which has a global voice due to its highly-influential website).
In 2013, Brand was invited to edit an issue of left-leaning political magazine The New Statesman, a decision which led to this combative interview on Newsnight with heavyweight pundit Jeremy Paxman. Paxman takes umbrage at Brand’s famous refusal to vote and therefore participate in what he views as a broken system:
Here, Brand outlines the problems that he perceives in society: the planet being destroyed, the creation of a global underclass, and the exploitation of the poor by governments who care only for the interests of big business. His diagnosis, while unoriginal, is not unsound. Many ROK readers who take more of an Ayn Rand tack would still recognize his portrait of a mainstream “system” created by complicity between governments, commerce, and global banking that is antithetical to the interests of many groups and individuals.
A year later and Brand appears to have become a full-time activist with a YouTube show called The Trews (“True News with Russell Brand”), and a new book fleshing out the ideas he discussed with Paxman, Revolution. The reviews have been patchy at best, and frequently downright scathing. The problem is that while Brand articulates his bugbears well enough, he seems unable to provide a rigorous alternative.
The Atlantic says that the book is “ostensibly a manifesto for the peaceful dismantling of capitalism and the establishment of small anarco-egalitarian communities without centralized power structures.” Big business is a target, of course. How to handle the motor trade? Stop exporting cars as “other countries have their own fucking cars.” Personal debt? Simply cancel it. Corporations not paying tax? “If they don’t pay tax, we’ll reclaim their assets and give them to the people who work there to run.” While well-intentioned, Brand’s ideas are infused with a kind of hippy-dippy peace-and-love idealism, but with little sense of how they might play out in the real world.
A second Newsnight interview, this time with new incumbent Evan Davis, featured an overbearing Brand who apparently favored shouting down his opponent rather than engaging in a more considered debate.
Brand’s evangelism has caused such amusement on social media that a rash of Tweeters recently began appending the word “PARKLIFE” to the end of some of his more flamboyant utterances, thus likening them to the convoluted monologue by actor Phil Daniels on Blur’s 1994 single of the same name. To his credit, he has taken the joke in good spirits and this week put out a parody of the track which further promotes his message:
Regrettably though, Brand is now seen by many as a figure of fun rather than the serious political figurehead he would no doubt like to become, not least because a millionaire film star railing against the evils of personal wealth is always going to have a hard time being taken seriously.
Brand and Spirituality
Brand’s forays into spirituality in the last decade can be found at the root of his transformation from comic into would-be revolutionary. He writes that “the spiritual Revolution, the Revolution we are about to realize, will be fast because the organisms are in place.” Brand, as is well-documented—not least by him—is a former drug addict who now adheres to a strict program of abstinence from all mind-altering substances to stay sober.
For those who are unaware, twelve step programs such as AA (and NA, essentially an off-shoot for problematic drug users), which are frequently the recourse for addicts who have been through rehabilitation treatment, are run along spiritual lines. The second step (after the addict has admitted powerlessness over the substance or behavior that troubles them) states that former members “came to believe that a Power greater than [themselves] could restore [them] to sanity.”
The third step says that they “made a decision to turn [their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God as [they] understood him.” The recovering addict will then “clean house” by making a list of people they have harmed and making amends to them, before continuing to pray and mediate and generally live a spiritual life in the future.
The eleventh step is key: “[We] sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him.” For Carl Jung, alcoholism and addiction are “the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” For Jung, a “spiritual or religious experience” is required to escape their tyranny.
Recovering addicts will frequently find themselves attracted to a variety of different religions or spiritual disciplines as they search for this closer contact with a higher power. While I have no idea whether Brand is an AA member or not, this would certainly explain his interest in Buddhism and Hare Krishna, and his increasing tendency toward “everything is everything, dude”-style pontification.
To be clear: AA, which will be eighty years old next year, is without doubt a phenomenal organization that has helped millions of people to stop drinking and to stay stopped. In spite of its liberal use of thew word “God,” the program is spiritual rather than religious, meaning that it is open to those of all faiths and denominations, as well as to atheists. Members are simply encouraged to seek out a higher power of their own understanding, which doesn’t have to be a god from one of the monotheistic religions.
For real alcoholics and addicts (those for whom the idea of will power is a laughable irrelevance) who want to quit using and go on to live a productive life, it is almost certainly the best available form of treatment. I have personally known many people whose lives have been transformed utterly by attending meetings, getting a good sponsor and working through the twelve steps.
The problem is that Brand uses the steps as the basis for Revolution, as though the components of his own personal recovery are fit for purpose for rebuilding global society from the bottom up. Profound personal change brought about by any means can often feel so powerful that the individual it affects imagines that others will be touched similarly. But to moot individual spiritual enlightenment as a means to enabling widespread structural change in world politics and finance simply sounds naïve.
Russell Brand’s intentions appear good, but his Revolution has started a conversation he seems ill-equipped to finish.
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