Russell Brand Has Written a Populist Manifesto

Photo: John Phillips/Getty Images

Tangle-headed, bleary-eyed, nails-chippered, headache-blossoming, fattened up like a veal calf on milky coffee and carbohydrates, the journalist sat down with steely intention on her sofa to write this review — never having thought about where that sofa came from and whose labor went into its production. What about the arthritic Chinese youngsters who stapled that scratchy fabric to its frame? What about the corporate fat-cat sofa-producer at the top of his tower in London or Switzerland or Bermuda, bilking money from the journalist with her sitting needs and limited budget, and squeezing the life from the Chinese child at the same time? What about the system that holds each atomized in his or her place, hoping, pleading, crying, fucking, drinking, barfing, loving, loving, desperate for love?

That might be how Russell Brand would start off a review of Revolution, his perplexing and exhausting new political and economic manifesto. I would continue to write the review in his voice, if only I had the energy. But I do not, not after spending hours wading through its mess of interviews, bullet points, and spiritual ruminations — all in long, long sentences peppered with what I suspect are made-up words, like lughole and quiff.

Why is the actor Russell Brand writing an economic manifesto in the first place, you might be wondering? Strong feelings, an essay, and a viral YouTube video. A year ago, Brand published a piece on inequality, political disenfranchisement, and so on in The New Statesman and went on BBC’s Newsnight to spar with Jeremy Paxman about it. The clip took off, and Brand decided to flesh out his ideas into a book.

The general idea goes something like this: Low incomes and a callous political system have engendered apathy in the public. Powerful corporations are bleeding the Earth that belongs to that public. But individuals needs to recognize that this is reality, not inevitability, and reengage with one another to create new institutions and a better world. But much goes awry with this argument when Brand makes it at 100,000 words. 

Exhibit A, in which Brand is simply wrong, wrong, wrong: He writes that the Federal Reserve has given hundreds of billions of dollars to banks through its quantitative easing program. “Let’s break this one minor Fed program down: With the trillion dollars they most recently handed out, you can give every unemployed person in America a $50,000-per-year job,” he adds.

But there’s just one teensy little problem with his analysis: The Fed hasn’t given banks anything. It’s purchased trillions of dollars of assets, which are currently sitting on its heavily swollen books. You can argue that the Fed should have used its considerable resources to help individuals more directly, but you can’t argue that it didn’t get something in return for its money.

Exhibit B, in which Brand writes something psychotic and then moves along quickly: “James Lovelock, the bloke who came up with Gaia theory, that the earth is one symbiotic, interrelated organism where harmonious life forms support or regulate each other, says we shouldn’t bother with recycling, wind turbines, and Priuses. It’s all a lot of bollocks, he says.” And Brand says it, too: Radical action is the only way! Forget the marginal revolution! But by that logic we are all doomed, since I don’t see anyone coming to confiscate your car anytime soon.

Exhibit C, in which Brand offers up a mishmash of good and bad ideas, all uncritically: Brand suggests that we “re-localize food and farming by taxing food miles; removing subsidies and research for large-scale, capital- and energy-intensive agriculture; giving support to small, diversified organic production and to the growing number of young people who want to take up farming.”

Give support to organic production, and support young farmers? Great. Remove certain harmful agricultural subsidies? Fine by me. But get rid of research dollars for agriculture? Why would you want to do that? What if blight or climate change wipes out important crops, driving up food prices? What about promising scientific developments, like vitamin-A-enriched golden rice, that might save millions of lives? And re-localizing food and farming? That might sound like a good idea, but what if it resulted in higher food prices that would punish the world’s poorest? 

Brand never deigns to explain why his system of local farms would really work better, nor does he put much work into explaining why the current system is bad. Brand cites none of the nuanced research on whether it really is better for the environment to buy local products. He cites none of the research on the link between farming subsidies and obesity, or farming subsidies and hunger. He never bothers to disaggregate the problems the food system poses for wealthy countries, versus the problems the food system poses for the global poor.

These agricultural tenets, by the way, come in the form of an interview with anti-globalization campaigner named Helena Norberg-Hodge. That bit on the Federal Reserve comes from David Graeber of the London School of Economics. Much of the book is structured this way: Brand talks to someone whose ideas he agrees with, and then regurgitates those ideas uncritically, often at endless length. But at least other people’s ideas are a respite from Brand’s own caterwauling about his addiction issues, arrest record, fashion, childhood, sex life, failed marriage, feelings on God, feelings on revolution.

Ah, yes, Brand’s feelings on revolution. The book is meant to be a manifesto, but it is questionable as a call to arms. His ideas are airy and impractical. His suggestions are all over the place — debt forgiveness, personal truth, local farming. He fails to engage with our current political structures. He fails to suggest a new method of organizing. This is not a manifesto so much as it is jargon-inflected, politicized spoken word, and horrible spoken word at that.

I hesitate to ask you to read this, but here goes: “Aren’t we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality? If I get this job, this girl, this guy, these shoes. If I pass this exam, eat this pizza, drink this booze, go on this holiday. Learn karate, learn yoga. If West Ham stay up, if my dick stays up, if I get more likes on Facebook, more fancy cookbooks, a better kitchen, cure this itchin’, if she stops bitching.” 

Another favorite: “Do you want those boots if the true cost is God?” No, no, Russell, I do not want boots if the cost is God. Nor do I really want to read your thoughts on the global economy and revolution anymore.

Russell Brand Has Written a Populist Manifesto