Brand v. Rawls
The inclusion of Russell Brand on Prospect’s annual list of ‘world thinkers’ has been met with predictable outrage and ridicule. The Guardian said that his ‘presence looks designed to be provocative’. Reviewing Brand’s book Revolution for Prospect a few months ago, Robin McGhee attacked ‘Brand’s political stupidity’. At the same time, the Telegraph said that ‘Russell Brand's politics are staggeringly stupid.’ The Spectator called him 'an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance'. In the Observer, Nick Cohen once derided Brand's 'slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions'. Nathasha Lennard in Vice said she didn’t ‘think Brand is totally idiotic. But, to be clear, he is an idiot.’
If there's one thing Brand is not, however, it's stupid: that much should be obvious from watching or reading him, unless you think that having an Essex accent and taking the piss are signs of stupidity. The claim must then be that it is Brand’s ideas that are stupid, ignorant, childish, and dangerously so. Serious political issues are at stake here, after all. So what would a proper contribution to thinking about politics look like – the kind of contribution that would impress academics and influence ‘policymakers’ instead of attracting the derision of journalists?
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that a just society is one in which things are as equal as possible without making everyone worse off. How equal is that, you might wonder? Answer: we'll consult an economist and get back to you. How will production be organised so that this all works (whatever 'this' turns out to be)? Again, we'll have to consult the empirical social and economic sciences, but probably some scheme of private ownership of the means of production, a market system for exchange, plus an elected government to enforce it all and do a bit of redistribution (don't ask how much). Most Anglophone political philosophers since Rawls have thought of their task as being to decide which principles of justice should regulate a society that is assumed from the outset to include these basic ingredients.
What’s missing from this picture? The short answer is politics. Students of political philosophy these days can very easily graduate without ever having encountered the concept of a theory of transition: how does/could/should social change come about? Also missing are questions of the way societies work and develop over time: what is the relative significance of such factors as class, nationality, religion, sex, individual action and sheer chance in determining what happens? Those are empirical questions for the relevant experts – economists and social scientists. Political philosophers have their own area of expertise: the clarification of concepts and the discovery of normative truths. This week, the philosophy faculty at Cambridge cut its courses on Marxism and power.
So one way we can tell that Brand isn't a real political philosopher is that he doesn’t shy away from empirical claims, not least that our current economic and political system is wrecking the planet and causing misery and death on a vast scale. His main aim, though, is not to tell people anything they don’t already know, but to get them to see what they already know in a different light. To that end, he deploys an array of studiedly ostentatious and half-comical (but at the same time quite serious) images and analogies, such as asking what you’d do if your vacuum cleaner went beserk and subjected you to perpetual economic slavery: ‘You’d throw it out the fucking window.’ Beyond that, Brand insists that a different world is possible, and that bringing it about requires a revolution – preferably non-violent, and at all costs non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical.
He also makes the point that a huge amount of justificatory work is done by the claim – tacit or explicit – that there is no alternative to the economic and political framework now in place:
We're told there's nothing we can do about it, that this is ‘the way things are’. Naturally, of course, that verdict emanates from the elite institutions, organisations and individuals that benefit from things being ‘the way they are’.
As Brand understands, the incessant demand for criticism to be 'constructive' is another way of defending the status quo; there’s no logical reason why not being able to outline a better system should invalidate your objections to the current one. Brecht, in ‘The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House', imagined a group of people who were about to be burned alive but refused to go outside because they didn’t know what the weather was like. As Brand said to Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last year, ‘Don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system. I’m merely pointing out that the current...’ At which point Paxman interrupted to demand once again that Brand devise a global utopian system in a bloody hotel room. Just as important, it isn’t the job of any individual critic or commentator to say how society ought to be organised, because that is the collective business of the people who come together to bring about the kind of society they want to live in.
Would it really help if Brand made his arguments in a different way? If instead of throwing hoovers out the window, he talked about ‘the functional explanation of forms of thought in terms of their tendency to reinforce certain socially dominant interests’? Wouldn’t he then be told that he hadn’t earned the right to talk like that, and should stick to his role as an amusing and mildly disreputable entertainer? Brand may be a particularly visible and articulate target, but he is essentially being given the message as millions of ordinary citizens: stay in your box.