Among the Axolotls
The philosophers ‘will need to use a lot of drugs’, Plato says in the Republic, talking of the guardians’ need to con the banausics into thinking that their destiny is to keep their betters pondering. It’s one of my favourite Plato lines – ‘No pun intended, man!’ as Russell Brand might say. The other night, I speed-read – or, if you like, e-read, crack-read, acid-read – Brand’s shlockbuster Revolution, and had the strange feeling of having read it faster than I had.
Pink axolotls floated before my eyes as the small hours sprawled into a timeless never-never land. Love and green-lite revolution is nigh, in a perpetual present of the hard-to-amuse. Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, Brand’s on the pavement – or kerb-hugging, at least, in his chauffeured Merc – thinking about the government. Queries come a-nagging like querulous pixies through the caliginous haze. Brand: neo-Rawlsian shaman-sage or childish knob-jockey? Who’s asking? Who’s asking who’s asking? Where’s my next shot of soma?
Like axolotls, whose neotony he shares, Brand’s development is not so much arrested as truncheoned, banged up and sent down with a bogus confession. It looks like he’s in for a life stretch. He’s self-aware enough to realise some people think he’s a pillock, but he can disown the criticism because for him crass narcissism is just another skin to be donned and sloughed as whim dictates. Brand strains manfully to show that he knows a platypus from a wombat and, more generally, digs what’s what in grown-up land. There’s the so-called ‘economy’ (mere coincidence that that’s got ‘con’ in the middle? Brand thinks not). And capitalism, the environment, God and stuff is serious shit.
Happily, Revolution comes ballasted by such intellectual bricks as ‘cherry-lipped clever clogs’ flâneur-philosophe Alain de Botton, and ‘tireless, brilliant’ Johann Hari, who quit the Independent three years ago for plagiarising other hacks and pseudonymously bollocking his critics on their Wikipedia pages, and now produces Brand’s YouTube show The Trews. Revolution’s flapdoodle shmoozes on about ‘a fairer, sexier society that’s fun and inclusive’. That sounds nice, though Brand loses his sense of fun when he’s accused of hypocrisy, which he sources to ‘a bunch of cunts’ – but then he is talking about journalists.
Some bits of Revolution vie to outdo one of those online New Age bullshit generators. Brand reports that careful observation has shown that it’s ‘the divine realm of quantum interconnection to be manifest on this material plane’. I’m not saying it isn’t profound. But stuff like this is boringer than watching Jeremy Clarkson cream phallogocentrically over the valvetrain on the new 7.8 litre Lotus Terpsichore Vroomvroom Corniche. Even the axolotls are betraying a certain ennui. But why settle for this vanilla, Sunday-league boredom? Why not go the whole bristle-backed, basted-in-its-juices, coma-friendly hog? Say, something supercharged with boringness like Rawls, or sufficientarianism, the theory that inequality doesn’t matter much as long as everyone gets enough? Russell can’t be doing with that, man. That’s fucking graphs and shit. It’s all as boring as Belgium.
Never mind reading Revolution. Imagine what it must have been like to write it. Actually, to paraphrase (I guess I should say ‘channel’) Truman Capote on Kerouac, Revolution isn’t written, or even typed: it’s mainlined via id-dictation software directly from Russell’s limbic system to a grateful cybersphere, mediated only by the publisher’s paywall.
In Word and Object, Quine imagined a tribe, the Arunta, visited by anthropologists from civilisation, which for these purposes we can take as Cambridge, Massachusetts. The pith-helmets furrow their brows when the natives murmur ‘Gavagai’ as a rabbit scuttles by. What do the Arunta mean? As Quine argues, it can mean just about anything, from ‘Lo, a rabbit’ to ‘There is rabbiting going on’ or ‘I can’t read Revolution because my Kindle’s on the blink.’ Reading Brand, one comes to sympathise with the white man’s burden. ‘Gavagai,’ he seems to say. There’s certainly rabbiting going on, but to what purpose?
There’s the negation of the negativity that is the modern world. It’s the system that’s to blame. ‘We all know the system isn't working. Our governments are corrupt and the opposing parties pointlessly similar. Our culture is filled with vacuity and pap, and we are told there's nothing we can do – “it's just the way things are”,’ gushes Revolution’s shmblurb. Its publisher, Century, is owned by Random House, a division of Random House Penguin, itself a pouch of the German behemoth Bertelsmann, which in 2012 turned over $16 billion. No matter. A graduate cum laude of the high-testosterone capitalist soft-play area of modern celebrity, Brand, gazing through the smoked-glass limo windows, has come to see the vanity of earthly glory. Beyond the pink axolotls, all is blood and ash.
Apart from more fun and fewer journos, what is Brand after? Lurve and feng shui, for starters. As the book’s jacket artfully discloses, ‘revolution’ has got ‘love’ spelt backwards in it. Coincidence? One can only answer: ‘Gavagai.’ OK, warm feelings and ergonomic furniture, granted – what else does the swami of Grays want? To boss it like a boss, but with a more democratic kind of a vibe. Think a Kropotkinesque Nigel Farage in a kaftan. Brand is well known for telling people to vote with their arses. He says that the Suffragettes would now be ‘urging people to riot’ rather than vote. So did Emily Davison waste her time, indeed her life, pointlessly seeing to it that you don’t need a scrotum to vote? That depends whether you're in Chapter 7, where Brand implies that votes for women are 'irrelevant', or Chapter 31, where he comes out in support of representative democracy. Still, there are more than two hundred pages in between, and after doing just a few short lines (yup! The ol’ Bolivian drill dust again) of ‘what we perceive as reality is increasingly negating what we understood to be objectivity,’ blah blah, I’m just, like, whatever.
Revolution’s index is Brand’s chef d’oeuvre. It takes about six page references to fill each line (house!). Marx gets half a line, Chomsky manages a whole one. Charlton Heston, Prince Charles, Robespierre, Philip Roth, Saddam Hussein, Rasputin and Hendon Police College get one name-check each. Brand himself bags 21 lines, covering his onanism, his attention-seeking, ‘hypocrisy’ and much else. The email the publicists sent me with instructions for downloading the e-booky (no MDMA! Shome mishtake!) referred to a ‘Revolution widget’. It proved to be so much less exciting than it sounded. ‘In this book, Russell Brand hilariously lacerates the straw men and paper tigers of our conformist times,’ the blurb says. ‘Embodies’ might have worked better than ‘hilariously lacerates’ there.