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Russell brand and making politics palatable

Oh what’s that? Is that Russell Brand’s name hovering atop these words? Then I suppose you know what time it is. That’s right it’s time for “Russell Brand Article Bingo”. Yes, with so many pretentious politicos weighing in on the millionaire messiah’s particularly wacky brand of revolution, you’re probably expecting all the same boring criticisms that have plastered the Independent and the Guardian and the Telegraph alike for weeks. “Confused”, “longwinded”, “naïve”, “hypocritical”. For those of you playing along with your Russell Brand bingo cards at home, I suggest you put them back in the cupboard with the “George Bush public speaking flub bingo” we all miss so much.

This is not going to be another one of those articles.

Because, unusually enough, I have some degree of admiration for Mr Brand. Is he the second coming of Tony Benn for beleaguered lefties? Not a chance. Is he a serious, studied political intellectual who will deliver to all of us from on high the perfect solutions to all of our political problems? No way. Is he even a particular effective writer? Not from the many articles and columns I’ve seen him pen.

But he is doing some important for politics, especially for youth voters: He’s making politics interesting.

For too long politics has been about nitty-gritty, pencil-pushy issues. It’s very difficult for your average Leaving Cert student to get animated about an issue like the relative functioning of the civil service in our Department of Justice and Equality. I mean, did you just see that sentence? I’m snoring already.

No Brand is not one to have long and rational discussions about the need for systemic reform of local government. But neither are most people who aren’t political obsessives like me, who don’t feel the need to write five articles on what Labour leader Ed Milliband had for breakfast.

The time is right for “big question” politics. Keeping political discussion to bland, nitty-gritty subjects makes politics the preserve of an elite class who can speak in those terms. Big questions and engaging political topics allow us to break political discussion free from the realm of suited robots who speak in smoke and mirrors about the merits and demerits of the retention of 9% VAT on the hospitality sector.

Big questions like, “are our abortion laws outdated?” or, “is poverty an issue in modern society?” or just “who does everyone hate in politics?” allow everyday people to jump right into big discussions about our society and have their say. I’m beginning to wonder whether the reaction against Russell Brand by so many of the “oh-so-informed-and-oh-so-engaged” political writers has just been because they are terrified that without cloaking politics in the mire of mystery and mystique, they’ll be out of a job.

Certainly Brand doesn’t provide very many clear road maps for the political future and when he does it’s quite clear he’s just been cogging his sums out of the copybooks of much more studied and interesting political and economic thinkers like Thomas Piketty and David Graeber. But in a society where “anti-politics” political sentiment is the norm, especially among young people, maybe the last thing we need is some oaf like myself legitimising the ridiculous circus performance we call politics by actually taking the whole thing seriously. The more we do that, the more we alienate ordinary people from getting involved in the political discussion, the more we make politics the reserve of the powerful and the pretentious and the privileged, then we kiss any kind of real democracy goodbye.

Russell Brand has an energy, a charisma and a notoriety that allows his political views to be heard by millions, unlike the leftist academics who he expresses interest in, reserved for an audience of a few hundred or thousand. Russell Brand has done something I’ve never seen before: he’s gotten ordinary people seriously engaged with questioning the legitimacy of our political order, how our society distributes wealth and the degree of control large, multinational corporations wield in our society. 

Russell Brand may not be giving us clear and prophetic answers to our big political questions, but most people can’t hear anyone else even asking them