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Why the media doesn't get Russell Brand's revolution

Clip: Why the media doesn't get Russell Brand's revolution

First published in The Oxford Student, November 6th 2014.

Russell Brand does not have a plan.

From his most recent appearance on Newsnight, that much is very clear. What he does have is a cluster of anecdotes and a hyperactive enthusiasm for his cause. Protesters in Parliament Square, his mate Leigh in Grays, the Focus E15 mums, residents on Hoxton’s New Era estate: these are good, ordinary people, fighting against the machine of corporate hegemony. Boris Johnson’s meetings with bankers, the tax evasion of Google and Amazon, Monsanto – just the name is enough – quantitative easing: these are the representatives of the failure of capitalism, and the death of true democracy.

It’s settled opinion, among the people in the media who have written about it, that Brand made a fool of himself on Newsnight last week. In his book, he suggested that General Motors should be ‘taken back’ from the private shareholders who own it. Interrogated about the idea, he called the debate a “silly administrative quibble” and refused to engage. Shown a graph of real wage increases since the 19th century and asked whether he really wanted to do away with capitalism, he mocked the graph and waved off the question. And he insisted that we “have to remain open-minded to any kind of possibility” as to who committed the 9/11 attacks. At one point, in the Guardian’s words, interviewer Evan Davis was “reduced to almost pleading” – “I’m trying to take you seriously”, he said, and it’s very easy to conclude that Brand just wouldn’t let him.

There’s another movement, not in the news much any more, that raged against a system they said was broken and that journalists and politicians struggled to take seriously. The first posters of the Occupy Wall Street movement asked “What is our one demand?” The question was never answered. The Occupy movement became a hub for protest against nearly every aspect of a system that was seen as rotten to the core. Demands, policy platforms, leaders – they belong to the old, broken way. Occupy was not a movement that would fight until it achieved some specific demands and then peter out. It was meant to be an ongoing fight for reform of almost everything, until power was back with the people.

That was baffling to journalists. Who were they supposed to interview? They could speak to any one of the thousands of protesters in Zuccotti Park or St Paul’s or hundreds of other camps across the world. But they would all say different things. None of them could represent the movement, none of them could be the talking head journalists are used to having. The media was very poorly suited to covering the Occupy movement – not because of any ideological bias, but because it was structurally unable to deal with the way the movement organised and expressed itself.

When Russell Brand agrees to come on TV and talk about ‘creative direct action’, it seems like the problem solved. At last, there’s a figurehead who can explain just what people mean when they say “capitalism isn’t working” and who can represent the thousand blooming flowers. But he is still a figurehead for a movement that is incredibly broad and fragmented. Leigh from the Fire Brigades Union, the Focus E15 group and the workers at General Motors aren’t signed up to a common manifesto. They don’t have a shared scheme for redesigning politics or a grand vision for a changed society.

Brand gets that. When it look like he’s evading important questions, he’s in fact recognising a simple truth about the movement he wants to support and be part of. He says that what he wants to do is amplify the voices and protests of the people he talks about. It’s tempting to dismiss those as anecdotes, to call his program “piecemeal” as Evan Davis did last week. But Brand’s book, and his media presence, is about highlighting problems people face and helping them to fight those problems themselves – it’s not about trying to be a leader, or a theorist of a new and better world. When Davis asked him whether he would consider standing in next year’s general election, it’s almost laughably missing the point. But, just like with the Occupy movement, the media’s structural need to find someone who can explain what they want to change and how blinds them to a very different kind of political action.

That’s not to say we should come out staunchly in support of Russell Brand, whose aggression in interviews and bizarre views on (for example) 9/11 might not make him the best person for an amplifying, ambassadorial role. It’s not even to say that political movements without leaders and clear agendas are the best way of addressing social challenges. But they are a way, and journalists looking out only for people with concrete, overarching plans for how society needs to change aren’t very good at seeing that.