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Reviews

Revolution

Paul Bickley

Russell Brand
Century, 384pp

A comedian who made his name by wading hip deep in the human sewer called Big Brother, playing nasty pranks on old men and being Katy Perry's husband, in the last few years Brand has been carving out a space as a social activist. A couple of years ago he got himself a name for campaigning for the decriminalisation of drug use and for abstinence based recovery (even addressing a parliamentary select committee on the subject). Latterly, he's lent a hand to the residents of the New Era estate in East London, whose homes have been sold to a US investment firm, which will likely lead to higher rents and evictions. After warming up with two 'booky-wooks', he's now published a treatise on revolution.

It's proved a surprisingly controversial piece of work - but why the consternation? Who cares what a comedian-actor-celebrity addict has to say about politics? Part of the answer lies in the fact that whatever he says, no matter how incoherent, has a 'bandwith' that no existing newspaper columnist, bien pensant commentator or alleged public intellectual can hope to match. And what does he do with all this influence? Whatever the quality of his alternative manifesto, he firmly refuses to deliver what he sees as the bromides of the 'Establishment' - 'just say no' or 'exercise your vote'.

So whatever his talents in acting or comedy, they are surpassed by his ability to rub a huge diversity of people up the wrong way (no doubt he'd manufacture a coarse joke out of that). As a general rule though - and if I were Brand, I'd be worried by this - he tends to tick-off the political left rather than the political right. Polly Toynbee, Nick Cohen, John Lydon and Piers Morgan are among those who have criticised him particularly trenchantly (you know you've reached a nadir when Piers Morgan calls you a revolting hypocrite).

Why? His complaints about 'the capitalist system' are too generic and vague to worry the right. Those who agree with much of his analysis - or should we say, the analysis he has borrowed from Thomas Piketty, David Graeber, and a series of others - are frustrated by his loose spiritual idealism, which puts what they see as 'real' political change at risk. With a closely contested general election six months away, and with a genuine debate about the size and shape of the state emerging from the political fog, is this really the time to be encouraging people to stay at home? Brand favours local, tangible and therefore more meaningful and immediate forms of political action. He's certainly not wrong about the need for that, though ultimately he's probably wrong to trade it off against mundane forms of citizenship like voting and party membership. He won't be convinced though… for him political parties are part of a hopelessly corrupted system.

It's odd, though, that the noise around this book has been about the most effective political method. This is only a small part of the book. Most of it sees Brand charting the intersection of his disappointment with himself and his disaffection with the world. It's a story of a man in the process of repenting from nihilistic hedonism. The gospel according to Brand is that he has achieved redemption from being a feckless, promiscuous, money- and fame-obsessed heroin addict. He's changed, so we can all change. And so can the world. And that's about it.

I'm not imposing a religious interpretation on this book. For Brand, the revolution is first spiritual, then political. He's angry at Goldman Sachs and General Motors, but he's angrier with Dickie Dawkins and his 'atheistic tyranny'. A whole chapter is given over to the Lord's Prayer, and an extended section to his experience of an Eritrean church in Kensal Green, where he accepts (under some pressure) Jesus Christ, but with some caveats. 'Christ as the end of paganism, the beginning of individualism, of idolatry… Christ as the reminder that we must all constantly die and be born again, moment to moment, to live forever in the now… Christ as the symbol that we can achieve no more, until we transcend, until we ascend into the new conscious realms and manifest the divine…'

Occasionally, Brand says something that sounds like somehow he might really have accepted Christ, but mostly the book is final irrevocable proof of Chesterton's dictum that when man ceases to believe in God, he will not believe in nothing but he will believe in anything. Brand believes in God - he tells us again and again - but his God is literally anything. He is technically, I suppose, a panentheist, and much enamoured of Transcendental Meditation, which appears so much it gets its own acronym (TM). There are moments that are, to put it gently, on the wrong side of the line between freethinking and barmy (like when he reports the results of a study which 'proved' that TM could reduce crime rates).

At the end of the book, there's a revealing mention of Eckhart Toll, Oprah Winfrey's favoured spiritual guru. It threatens to tip what is a meaningful and sometimes really moving argument about the public meaning of personal redemption into another book about a celebrity exploring his or her own navel in detail, before addressing the public regarding the amazing discoveries to be had rooting around in the fluff.

In terms of the actual quality of the writing, there's something to be said for this book. It's funny, gentle, self-deprecating, honest, often lyrical - a relief from some of the bile that characterises more 'grown-up' political discourse. There are moments where he gets things badly wrong (omitting the Terror from his jaunty retelling of the French Revolution). There are others when it's very hard not to be frustrated by Brand's extraordinary capacity to drift interminably from his point. Like or loathe it, though, it's a book suited to a distracted generation that believes that politics should not just be empowering, but also entertaining.

There is no shortage of Russell Brand 'haters', but I'm not one of them. His argument has many gaps and many flaws but there's something about him that continues to intrigue and attract - an obvious sense of justice, a desire to tell and hear the truth. Yes, he might have a big flat, a big wallet and a big gob but he's also got a big heart. Regardless of what he says about elections, he's trying to give some voiceless people a voice. I'll vote for that.