to Mark Beeson
Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University
British comic Russell Brand has gained further notoriety of late, but not for the usual reasons. His recent interview with Jeremy Paxman, the too-clever-by-half doyen of television interviewers, has gone viral. So it should. It sheds light on some of the most important political issues of our time, even if the take-home message is bewilderingly unclear.
In some ways the Brand-Paxman interchange is timeless. Paxman’s look of bemused condescension is the expression of one who clearly thinks he has seen it all before and has nothing to learn from an autodidact who, by his own admission, remains a very unfinished work-in-progress. No doubt Socrates experienced similar feelings with his students. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Brand out of hand. For better or worse, he expresses the feelings of many of his generation.
The basis for the interview was Brand’s admission that he had never voted. In an earlier article for The New Statesman, Brand explained that this was because:
Like most people, I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites…Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people.
The alternative, according to Brand is a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system”. One is tempted to respond in rather patronising Paxmanesque tones: “good luck with that, Russell”.
Some baby-boomers in particular might want to argue: “been there, tried that”. It is important to remember just how revolutionary the 60s and 70s actually were, and not just in “lifestyle” terms either. The French government really tottered in 1968 and “revolutionary” groups — sometimes violent, fairly well organised ones — were surprisingly common across the Western world.
Arguably, though, the real action was happening in China. Not only was Mao’s Cultural Revolution a source of inspiration for many in the West, but it also exemplified the sort of generational consciousness raising that Brand seems keen on. Significantly, the youngsters were in charge, even if they were egged on by an ageing megalomaniac. As we know, it didn’t end well.
Plainly, London in 2013 is not Beijing in 1966, but China’s experience does offer some interesting comparisons. The big question for all revolutions, of course, is what comes afterward? It’s one thing to sweep away the old order, quite another to create a new one that actually works—never mind enshrining progressive social values and an economic system that is egalitarian and sustainable.
The rather sobering lesson for would-be revolutionaries—to judge from the Chinese experience at least—is that socialism (if, indeed, that’s what it was) wasn’t capable of really inspiring the masses. For better or worse, the big story from China has been the triumph of the “capitalist roaders”. Whether this model of development on the scale and speed that it has happened in China is actually sustainable is a profoundly important and unanswered question. But there’s little doubt that people pursuing individual rather than collective interests has been a big part of China’s capitalist revolution.
This merits emphasis because Brand argues that “we ultimately have the same interests”. At the level of our relationship to the biosphere, perhaps. But having taught in some of Britain’s better universities I know that many of the brightest and best can’t wait to join the ruling class and want to be investment bankers rather than planet savers. At this stage of our collective development, at least, there is no “we” that self-consciously recognises a common set of interests and values.
No doubt every generation thinks of itself as especially brilliant or benighted — or both. But the current crop of “young people” could be forgiven for feeling especially hard done by: their expensively acquired educations are no guarantee of employment, they have to pay for the upkeep of the boomers in their dotage, while environmental deterioration threatens to undermine the very foundations of anything resembling the good life.
Under such circumstances, one might be forgiven for wondering whether our political leaders generally and democracy in particular are up to the job. One might even wonder whether any political system can address the unprecedented challenges we collectively face. Deciding what to make of this may be a function age as much as anything else. The old cliché about ageing and growing conservatism is not without foundation.
From the perspective of an ageing member of the pampered, self-indulgent, over-privileged global bourgeoisie, democracy for all its problems still seems like the only feasible system. Political pluralism may be an unfortunate fact of life, but it is an underlying reality that the West has spent the last few hundred years working out how to accommodate. Imperfect as it may be, we’ve yet to develop a more sustainable and legitimate way of coping with difference.
It is unclear how well democracy can cope with potentially conflicting inter-generational perspectives and interests. Whether Brand’s generation will prove any more successful eliminating inequality and disadvantage than all those that have gone before remains to be seen, but it seems highly unlikely given the environmental constraints with which he is rightly concerned.
The great political challenge for future generations may be coming to terms with, and managing, diminished expectations. Not too many votes in that either, I fear.