Russell Brand’s Revolution

We’ll get to the book in a bit, but first I have to say a few things about the phenomenon of Russell Brand himself. Frankly, I’m a bit worried for Russell Brand. He has shown tremendous personal courage in recent years, transforming himself from a bad-boy British comedian/celebrity, whose comedy revolved around his own dionysian excesses of sex, drugs and odd fashion sense, into a prominent voice for radical change, a razor-sharp critic of the media Spectacle [1] he is part of, and of the ruling class interests that this Spectacle serves. He is in recovery from his addictions, one day at a time, and he speaks with personal authority against the uselessly punitive War on Drugs in the UK and US. He has been able to use his celebrity status to penetrate territory where radicals have long been denied entry: popular TV talk shows in Britain and the US, not only putting forth radical leftist political perspectives, reaching millions of viewers, but also exposing the prevailing vapid discourse of these forums and of the other glitterati personalities who inhabit them.

In 2013, he was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, an attack-dog pundit of the BBC: Brand not only called for massive redistribution of wealth, and cheerfully admitted that he doesn’t vote; he rebuked Paxman and the political class for pretending that voting makes a difference. The initially sneering Paxman was reduced to whimpering lame protestations. Brand went on to start “The Trews” (a portmanteau of “true news”), a regular on-going Youtube series in which he interviews radical thinkers on a range of current political and social issues. And now he has written a book, Revolution.[2]

Well, the Spectacle, and its ruling class owners, do not suffer such public challenges gladly. The Observer’s Nick Cohen, for example, dismissed Revolution as “atrocious: long-winded, confused and smug; filled with references to books Brand has half read and thinkers he has half understood.” Their knives are now out for Russell Brand, waiting for a misstep. Given Brand’s volatile personality (he has been diagnosed with attention deficit and bipolar disorders), it is a testimony to the strength of his addiction recovery work (or, as he would probably say, to the help of his Higher Power) that he hasn’t, under this kind of pressure, self-destructed already. Meanwhile, we anarchists find ourselves in a rather awkward position: we’ve been offering serious critiques of capitalism and state violence since forever, but the first person in decades to reach a mass audience with such critiques, including many young people, is this charismatic bad-boy celebrity, Russell Brand. We don’t do charisma.

Moreover, Brand is not a systematic ideologue. His political theory remains somewhat inchoate. There are clearly some things he is against (gross political and financial inequality, consumerism, immigrant-bashing), and some things he is for (real democracy, non-violence, sane environmental policy). But readers of Revolution expecting to find therein a comprehensive blueprint for a new society, with step-by-step instructions on how to get there, will, like Nick Cohen, be disappointed. (Though anarchists should not be ruffled by this: on the contrary, we have long eschewed top-down political programs in favour of bottom-up emergence of democratic solutions.) But what will Brand call for next, and will we be able to agree with him, on either substance or strategy? Many are urging him to stand for Parliament or Mayor of London, some out of sincere admiration, others in the hope that he’ll get buried in the quagmire of electoral politics, and that will put an end to his whinging about social problems. Given his (self-acknowledged) predilection for attention-getting behaviour, this may be a difficult temptation for Brand to resist.

This brings us now to what may be the central question for followers of the C4SS website: is Brand, in fact, an anarchist? What he says is,

I don’t know much about anarchism, I only know about anarchy from graffiti, the Sex Pistols, and as a kind of slur or reprimand from my mum: “Is that what you want? It’d be anarchy!” (pp. 74-75)

But this occurs as the lead-in to an interview with the noted anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, whom Brand approvingly cites for his ideas on debt cancellation.

Well, according to David Graeber, there’s more to anarchy than not tidying your bedroom, spitting, and having a Mohican. In fact, it isn’t defiantly disorderly at all; it is society that has no centralized power…. David as an anarchist is opposed to centralized power in any form. He believes that people should be entrusted and empowered, that given the opportunity, released from the chains of authority and the spell of a corrupting media, we will form fair and functioning systems; they may not be perfect, but remember, we’re not competing with perfection, we’re competing with corruption, inequality, and destruction…. I asked him what he envisaged … “My dream [said Graeber] is to create a thousand autonomous institutions that can gradually take over the business of organizing everyday life, pretty much ignoring the authorities, until gradually the whole apparatus of state comes to seem silly, unnecessary, a bunch of buffoons useful for entertainment perhaps, but no one we have to take seriously.” I like the idea of creating autonomous organizations to perform necessary social functions that are not motivated by profit. This along with the principles of equality, nonviolence, and ecological responsibility are necessary pillars of Revolution. (pp. 75-81)

I think this passage, combined with his public anti-voting stance, is sufficient to identify Brand as, at the very least, anarchist-friendly. And he refers back to Graeber’s anarchism, repeatedly and with approbation, through the rest of the book. Moreover, later in the book (ch. 27, 30), he quotes Noam Chomsky at length, another anarchist public intellectual, regarding US foreign policy. He also seems to recognise that M.K. Gandhi was essentially anarchist, in his tactics if not his nationalist goals. But most tellingly, Brand is aware of the anarchist organizational principles [3] underlying Alcoholics Anonymous and its various 12-step fellowship offspring, to which he (presumably) owes his own recovery from addiction.[4] In ch. 32, he characterizes Alcoholics Anonymous as “a successful, worldwide, leaderless, anarchist collective with millions of members” (emphasis mine).

This does not keep Brand from calling, intermittently, for statist solutions to social problems. He’s in favour of tighter laws against greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental degradation; a better financed National Health Service (NHS) and other health and welfare benefits for vulnerable members of society; getting corporate money out of politics; more rigorous tax enforcement against big corporations; and many other things that statist leftists typically call for. But so have many avowed anarchists, from Proudhon to Chomsky, as interim measures to deal with particularly egregious forms of suffering and injustice, without abandoning the ultimate goal of a stateless society. (Personally, I don’t believe that working for statist policy reform is a fruitful strategy, even in the interim, but other anarchists may disagree.) Even within, the point has repeatedly been made that, in the face of massive upward redistributions of wealth through state-enforced monopolies and rents, anarchists should hardly be focussing their ire on NHS and the few remaining “welfare-state” institutions and policies which redistribute small amounts of wealth in the opposite direction.

In Brand’s case, though, I suspect that this mixture of anarchist and statist positions is merely due to a failure to think it through and recognise their incompatibility. Brand writes with passion, often based on personal experience, in a style that is sometimes funny (as one would expect from a professional comedian), and sometimes movingly poetic, particularly in his descriptions of the underclass society he grew up in. Which is to say that Brand is clearly more of a poet than a philosopher: to paraphrase Emerson, Brand’s mind is not hobgoblinned by ideological consistency, foolish or otherwise. But on the whole, the various solutions Brand proposes through the course of the book are overwhelmingly anarchist in spirit, including relocalization of the food system, abolition of personal titles (Dr., Lord, Mr. President, etc.), nonviolence (on this point he is consistent)[5], promotion of worker cooperative businesses, and a general disposition to engage with people in democratic discussion and see what emerges.

So, the book is called Revolution. What kind of revolution, then, does Brand have in mind? Robert Colville of The Daily Telegraph sneered that Brand “has not even the faintest fragment of an inkling of how his Revolution will come about” and “[a]s for how things would work afterwards, don’t ask.” I think though, that the mystification is Colville’s, not Brand’s; it stems from Colville’s obvious (professionally obligatory) ideological hostility to Brand, and, more interestingly, from his rather outdated (though still widely shared) conventional understanding of what a revolution is – i.e. simply a popularly supported coup d’état: the old regime falls (peacefully or violently) and a new regime assumes power, enacting some program of change. But this has never been the anarchist understanding of revolution, and it is not Brand’s either. For anarchists, revolution is not a single cataclysmic political event, but an ongoing social process of “building the new society in the shell of the old”, or as Gandhi put it more succinctly, “be[ing] the change you want to see in the world”.

Brand takes this a step farther — and here he may part company from some “ni-Dieu-ni-maîtres” anarchists, not to mention completely befuddling establishment critics like Colville. For Brand insists that we cannot “be the change” without undergoing a personal spiritual awakening that puts us in relationship with a loving Higher Power. As Brand says, “I know society can change, because look at how I’ve changed,” from fame-besotted heroin addict to activist. And that change, according to the 12-step program in all its incarnations, requires “a decision to turn one’s life and one’s will over to to the care of God as we understood God” (Step 3). What distinguishes this position from Evangelical Christianity (or various other forms of fundamentalist religion) is the eschewal of dogmatism: as millions of recovered alcoholics and other addicts have found, it is sufficient to trust in a “Power greater than oneself” — however that is conceived. That won’t win over militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, (whom Brand pokes fun at throughout Revolution), but it should reassure the rest of us that Brand does not aspire to become a new Jerry Falwell.

Indeed, Brand is nothing if not eclectic in his spirituality: he describes a number of religious experiences in Revolution, from Kundalini Yoga and Transcendental Meditation to an altar call in an Eritrean church. He shows an almost indiscriminate openness towards unconventional forms of spirituality, just as he sometimes seems to fall for any sort of anti-establishment political argument. But auto-didacts like Brand come by their intellectual quirkiness honestly; and “quirkiness” is, of course, a purely subjective judgement. So, the reader may be inspired or put off by Brand’s exploration of religion. But it should be understood that, for Brand, this spiritual openness to change is precisely how the Revolution starts.

[1] I’m using “Spectacle” in the sense of Guy Debord and the Situationists, i.e. capitalism’s tendency to replace authentic social relations with objects, such as consumer products and celebrities. Brand, by the way, devotes chapter 15 of Revolution to Situationism, so he’s well aware of this phenomenon.

[2] This is not Brand’s first book. He has written two autobiographical books, called My Booky-Wook, and Booky-Wook 2.

[3] For discussion of the classic anarcho-communist Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin’s influence on Bill W., the co-founder of AA, see

[4] Brand has to be slightly cagey on this point, due to Tradition 11, which says, inter alia, “we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films”. That is, one doesn’t “out” oneself or one another as members, not merely out of respect for confidentiality, but also so that the fellowship doesn’t come to be publically associated with particular high-profile personalities. Brand merely says that he’s part of an “abstinence-based recovery” program and fellowship; he doesn’t identify it as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or any 12-step group. I should add that my inference that it is a 12-step fellowship is merely an assumption on my part, based on no personal acquaintance with Brand.

[5] As I never tire of pointing out to my fellow Quakers, the logical conclusion of nonviolence is anarchism; one can’t have a state without violence.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory