The big political news story in the UK at the moment is the political ranting of Russell Brand, a recovering(?) junkie sex maniac celebrity, who was recently invited to guest-edit one of the country’s most respected left-wing political magazines, The New Statesman.
Brand has essentially two “Big Ideas,” which can be summarized as follows:
(1) Normal politics is shit. The only hope is the left-wing, but they are smug, self-important, and have no sense of fun, so it’s no wonder that people are apathetic and prefer sport and computer games to politics.}
(2) We need a spontaneous, grassroots, Utopian, spiritual revolution to share all the wealth and save the environment. P.S. I have a personal fortune of $15 million and constantly use jets.
While the first idea plays to lazy cynicism about politics, the second substitutes pop yogi mysticism for practical details.
Here is the key passage from Brand’s big essay in The New Statesman:
“For me the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political. This, too, is difficult terrain when the natural tribal leaders of the left are atheists, when Marxism is inveterately Godless. When the lumbering monotheistic faiths have given us millennia of grief for a handful of prayers and some sparkly rituals.
By spiritual I mean the acknowledgement that our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritised. Buckminster Fuller outlines what ought be our collective objectives succinctly: ‘to make the world work for 100 per cent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone.’ This maxim is the very essence of ‘easier said than done’ as it implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.”
Right. Are Russell’s revolutionary masses now mixing their Molotov cocktails and breaking up the cobblestones in the streets, or are they just logging into their Xboxes and having a wank as usual?
At some level Brand wants to be seen as an heroic and idealistic character. As we saw with the baby boomer generation, people sometimes develop these displaced moral urges when they give into their worst desires.
The pedophile, bestialist, or drug addict may feel the need to win some moral brownie points by opposing Apartheid or Saving the Whale, all in order to keep on doing what he or she is doing. There is always a stench of this whenever a libertine member of the showbiz elite starts climbing on some soapbox or going on some moral crusade.
Brand wants us to think that he’s hyper-political, that ordinary politics is far too small for his vast, sweeping political instinct and appetite; and that things will only really, really change when the system catches up with him.
The fact is he is quite the opposite. He is hypo-political, even anti-political. He represents an attempt to harmlessly vent some of the real political tensions building up within the body of modern British society.
Judged on his own merits, Brand would not be worthy of comment, but he is part of a bigger pattern that casts light on how modern society works.
What we are seeing in this case is the way that modernism protects itself through post-modernism. Modernism is essentially the scientific-financial system that underpins our materialistic and ecologically insensitive society. Its essence is brutal efficiency combined with anti-humanistic soullessness. Alas it is a poor fit for humanity, which is doomed to feel forever ill at ease in modernity.
In the past, ideological theorists, starting with Marx and Spengler, believed that modernism would break down under its own contradictions. As time went on, however, and modernism continued to flourish, new theories emerged, such as post-modernism, which was typically seen as either a positive evolution of modernism or as a negative sign of its decay and coming collapse.
Both of these theories are wrong. As a social phenomenon post-modernism essentially represents an irrational, self-defining free-for-all, where things like gender and race can be ‘chosen’ or ‘unchosen.’ Everything becomes relative, no standards exist, and everything becomes a great big ironic joke.
There is no way that such a system could replace modernism as it would effectively turn off the materialist cornucopia that we all depend on and which depends on modernist man with his rationalism, mathematics, chemical formulas and train timetables. Yes, by all means have your absurd gay parades or celebrate primitive dung painting from Bongo Bongo Land, but at the end of the day you have to step back onto a subway train that works or get into a car with gas imported from half-way around the world.
As for the other theory that post-modernism is a sign of materialism’s collapse, this is odd too, because it actually helps modernism to survive. As already said, humanity is constantly irked by living in modernity. Post-modernism exists as a salve to modernity. It is the oil that keeps the machine smoothly running and which reconciles mankind to its modernist destiny.
To operate at peak efficiency modernity needs to separate man from his real passions and replace them with simulacra. Instead of race, religion, or class, he needs role playing games, sports teams to follow, or pointless causes that have no relation to his authentic being.
Someone in the Midwest will fret about saving Japanese dolphins while on his way to a Star Trek convention, while elsewhere a pre-op sex change Swede will worry about child slavery in Bangladesh, etc., etc. Perhaps these causes are even laudable, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that they are guaranteed to be ineffectual. You have heard of thinking globally and acting locally. They are actually a bad example of thinking locally and acting globally, in other words pure dissipation. Brand’s laughable call for an all-or-nothing utopianism fits perfectly into this slot, a sexy salve for the politically disenfranchised.
Real politics happen close to who people are. Real politics are therefore class-based, community-based, nation-based, race-based. Based like this there is a real chance for them to take fire. If Brand really wanted to be a political firebrand and spark off a revolution, he wouldn’t be auditioning for the role of Che Guevara of Sugar Candy Mountain. He would be finding the real fault lines in modernity and exacerbating them.