The truth behind Russell Brand’s mindless revolt

The revolution will not be televised on Russell Brand's YouTube channel.


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Published Feb 18, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 12:29 pm CDT

For those wondering who should replace Jon Stewart once he leaves The Daily Show, actor and YouTube star Russell Brand seems ready to fill those gigantic satirical shoes. His YouTube channel, dubbed The Trews, features the coquettish British comedian ranting and raving against the hypocrisy of those in power, be they Fox News, HSBC, or Tony Abbott.

Bringing truth to power is generally a good path for a comedian (it certainly never hurt Stewart). But Brand has positioned himself well outside the realms of traditional comedy and into social advocacy, appearing at protests around the world and writing a book aimed at inspiring true revolt against the known systems of the world’s nations. The broadness of Brand’s revolt, however, is undermined mostly by Brand himself, a political idealist who often betrays one side of his mouth with the other. While painting himself as a man of the people and clinging to a blue-collar past, Brand might find it very difficult to argue for the proletariat in silk shirts and fine jewelry.

Brand’s raucous comedic style combined with his persistent calls for “revolution”—a lofty idea of which he provides scant detail—have made Brand a looming presence in British politics, if not a very popular one. A YouGov UK poll found 46 percent of Britons believe Brand has a negative impact on political discourse, even outranking notable corporate shill Jeremy Clarkson. His appearances on serious news programs have been dissonant at best and offensive at worst.

In an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight to promote his latest book—plainly titled Revolution—Brand was called out by Jeremy Paxman for his vague anti-authoritarian stance. When asked what sort of political format he’d prefer to democratic capitalism, Brand somewhat quipped, “Well, I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy.” Despite not having answers, Brand turned the interview into a list of generalized complaints about society at large: “Here’s the thing you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.”

If a politician were to talk this way, he would (hopefully) be sent packing as a populist no-nothing. But because the press is generally surprised when a boyish comedian has read Thomas Piketty and Howard Zinn, he’s given a serious venue to propose not much at all.

The British press has largely aligned itself with the public on the subject of Russell Brand; Nick Cohen of the Guardian wrote that “to call his thought ‘adolescent’ is to insult teenagers everywhere.” Evoking the European dissent that led to the rise of fascism and nationalism, Cohen adds “the greatest beneficiary of the nihilism [Brand] promotes is the radical right.”

Which is definitely the opposite effect Brand has hoped to engender. Brand’s Revolution is filled with diatribes against the poisoning of the planet by corporate interests and the rampant dangers of income inequalities—all true points, but filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing. “Now there is an opportunity for the left to return to its vital, virile, vigorous origins,” Brand wrote in a much ballyhooed article for the New Statesman, “a movement for the people, by the people, in the service of the land.”

His calls for the abolition of current economic and political formats—“I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced”—do not represent any political ideology, however, which might come as a relief to a Western public that is rightly sick of partisan quarrels both in Europe and the United States. Instead, Brand is proposing something much more dangerous than dogma: nothing but sheer rebellion. Brand offers no distinct solutions outside his advocacy for a “spiritual revolution” with vaguely socialist trappings.

Of course, we fail ourselves if we act disappointed that the star of Hop can’t solve the world’s ills. As Brand rightfully pointed out to Newsnight, “The burden of proof is on the people with the power, not people doing a magazine for novelty.” But the half-cooked solution Brand does offer is this concept of “revolution,” a dangerous idea when backed by little more than the schema of anarcho-punk movements and slogans.

These ornamentations make him appear more like a salesman for the imagery of revolt than a true advocate for anything in particular. In that Statesman article, Brand sings the praises of an early-aughts protest he found himself accidentally attending while shopping, praising the “buzzing, bongos, bubbles and whistles,” continuing that “even aesthetically, aside from the ideology, I beam at the spectacle of disruption, even when quite trivial.”

Of course, that Reclaim the Streets march was an ideological protest—marking the alienation of Blair’s Britain and RTC’s roots at the dawn of the environmentalist movement—but it was also fueled by vague righteousness, the Westernized #revolution that looks good and changes little. Marching against the police can be an enthralling experience, filling you up with enough piss and vinegar to make you feel like you’re really changing the world. However, such protests are an important part of the slow pace of government Brand ridicules when he calls for a mutiny of the elite.

The short-lived Occupy movement, which Brand is quite fond of citing, largely fell apart due to disorganization and a reliance on bringing about a utopian state of consensus and peace. Occupy did, however, appear to be something truly radical—much like Russell Brand. It simply lacked the forethought and intellectual meat to sustain its goals.

Brand might have an easy time visiting Trafalgar Square or donning his very own Guy Fawkes mask, but his calls for revolt stink of ignorance of true revolutionaries in the literal sense of that term. As much as the U.S. has romanticized that phrase—“revolution”—it stands for the exact existential conflicts being experienced the world over, in Ukraine, Yemen, and Egypt. It does not represent the low levels of “disruption” Brand glorifies, embracing the scalding hug of tear gas over First World fashions and the general chaos of the moment (“The disruption of normalcy a vital step in any revolution,” writes Brand). Revolution, real revolution, means violence. While there are a few rare bloodless coups, the actual disruption of systems is generally met with bullets, not with spiritual acceptance.

Yet you’ll notice no jackbooted riot police have shot Russell Brand. The man wearing the gold-plated “REVOLUTION” necklace is safe from the distant fires of those with very specific ideas of how their lives could be better. This is because Russell Brand promises no revolution and urges no specific action past buying his book—maybe helping to enforce the $15 million net worth of this anti-capitalist. He is a threat to no system outside one that might encourage actual problem solving.

Of course, you don’t have to be poor to help fight for the poor. But that is not what Brand does. Brand is the Che Guevara T-shirt of his time, making money off of the low-risk possibility that a solid number of chumps will make someone else rich if they feel smarter by proxy. In fact, for all of his hatred for Fox News, Brand often utilizes the same tactics as Bill O’Reilly by clinging to a rough-and-tumble background (for O’Reilly it’s Levittown, and for Brand it’s his history with drug use) in order to manipulate the dreams and frustrations of the poor.

Except Brand also urges people not to vote; he’s admitted to “not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class” and believes those who do vote are exhibiting a “tacit complicity” with all errors of government. Even Johnny Lydon, another Brit who got rich off of juvenile angst at The Man as vocalist for the Sex Pistols, called Brand’s anti-voting plea “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Such ideals are emblematic of some larger failures in our culture—that all it takes to fight injustice is voicing complaints until something better arrives. 

Brand is a human hashtag: He makes you think you’re fighting for something by truly doing nothing for nothing. Sadly, however, the revolution will not be uploaded to YouTube—and most certainly not by Russell Brand. 

Photo via david0287/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 18, 2015, 2:00 pm CST