If you’ve not seen Russell Brand perform his creditable sort of comedy live, what you have missed most is not dazzling jokes but the glow of pure celebrity. When viewed in the flesh, his is clearly one of those luminous persons celebrated for reasons as rare and real as they are ineffable. You could take a stab, of course, and say that this slight beast honed by extreme yoga suggests to his broad and young audience an answer to desire as decisive as it is unclean. In other words, he’s the sort of bloke you suspect of being able to sweet-talk his way into any and all of your orifices. Which is nice.
But Russell has begun, first in the New Statesman last October, to sweet-talk his aroused army into anti-politics. And now it seems the man who declares that he has never voted and urges his sex-cadre to follow suit will run on an anti-politics ticket to take on the gig of retiring London Mayor Boris Johnson.
An old grump could easily object to the sale of political detachment through sex. Laudable old grump John Lydon, nee Rotten, recently did and said “you do have to vote. You do have to make a change”. I am also an old grump, but I don’t know if Brand, likely to be absorbed into any number of pursuits from celebrity marriage to dharma wheel practice to infomercials between now and the 2016 mayoral election, makes enough of a difference for us to worry about.
That celebrities can ever really sell us anything other than merchandise and tickets is in doubt. There is a broad view that celebrities are important moral leaders, and this is why media outlets celebrate their good behaviour and mourn their bad. The internet spent the last week, for example, discussing the responsibilities of actress Renee Zellweger to cosmetic surgeons and all the women of the world. As though one mildly altered face and its reception could save a gender from millennia of physical abasement. This is a sort of buoyant pessimism that holds that people are as easily redeemed by stars as a Catholic by confessional. And that we are such a shitty species that celebrity morality and thinking is something by which we should be led.
Fucking seriously. The more we insist that celebrities can change the world by moral example, the more we endorse this terrible possibility. I do hope not to live long enough to see that the people we peculiarly call “role models” actually have a real-world impact.
The “news” industry now so fixated on celebrity as meaningful and moral currently doesn’t change a thing. Well, other than to speed the death of faith in journalism. People like Brand, so manifestly part of the orthodox entertainment industry, can never really provoke a change. But they can reflect one.
Brand is hardly the first to reflect anti-politics. It’s long had a place in politics itself. Although young fans of the hypersexual “radical” might not care to entertain the thought, Brand’s anti-political appeal has less in common with, say, The Pirate Party than it does to Pauline Hanson. Like Lambie, Palmer, Katter and other minor party or independent locals who rose to power on a platform of detachment from the political process, the shiny-eyed Brand is accumulating his cultural capital based on the appearance of a deep, and likely genuine, distrust of the political process. His naivete is real, and when he says, “I can’t get my head around economics”, I believe him. This real ignorance sets him apart of course from the false ignorance of Clive Palmer, who has done a bang-up job of appearing to hate politics despite his long fascination for it. But otherwise, Brand is indistinguishable, save for a few cosmetic differences, from Jacqui Lambie. Even his sexy shtick is a little like the woman who has talked, while in office, of her admiration for men who are “well hung”.
Lambie, like Brand, makes no effort despite her new privilege to “get her head around economics” and understand the mechanics of capital, which has more of an effect on our lives than any other system. And this includes, of course, the good and bad morals of celebrities.
“Talking about ideas like love, human connection and hurt feelings gets you noticed. Talking about economic cycles is something you only do when you’re pretty sure you’re going to be ousted by Kevin Rudd.”
There is nothing to stop Lambie or Brand from asking people who do know about market controls to explain a thing or two. But the understanding is useless to the assembly of their power because who is going to listen to a speech on demand-side economics? No one is who. Late in her term as prime minister, Julia Gillard gave an excellent speech on the deficit and monetary policy. It’s an instructive guide to former treasurer Wayne Swan’s Keynesian techniques and as a document of just political intention, it poops all over her famous “misogyny” speech. But the anti-political misogyny speech, which talked of the prime minister’s own experience and not at all of her hopes for the nation, is the one for which she is remembered and the one for which she got a spike in the polls. Politicians have known for a while what Brand is just discovering. Talking about ideas like love, human connection and hurt feelings gets you noticed. Talking about economic cycles is something you only do when you’re pretty sure you’re going to be ousted by Kevin Rudd.
It’s peculiar that Brand, and Lambie, are seen as “real” while Gillard, the numbers nerd, is dismissed as a boring out-of-touch politician when she talks about the most real thing in the world: an economics she had managed to get her head around. For mine, Gillard became “the Real Julia” when she explained the deficit strategy to a nation. She was a fake Julia playing to the emotions of an imaginary everywoman on the day she tut-tutted at Tony Abbott for picking on her.
Anti-politics is as real as the real Julia, and data from the Australian Electoral Commission bears this out indicating that three million Australians did not vote in recent federal elections. In a June study, the Lowy Institute showed the high and rising ambivalence of Australians toward the very idea of democracy. When asked to choose between a strong democracy and a strong economy, more than 50% chose the former. Perhaps this is why politicians, especially the overtly anti-political kind like Palmer, choose not to talk about the economy in anything other than the crudest of terms. People don’t want politicians, but they do want strong economies. Even if they can’t be bothered to get their heads around them.
And this is Brand’s great failing. It is not so much that he feels detachment from politics — that’s a valid impatience. It is that he thinks that we should abandon political control of economies. Like those powers haven’t withered away in any case.
Whether, like Palmer, one’s shtick about “all politicians but me are crooks” is strategic or, like Brand or Lambie, one’s view of political control is the product of authentic stupidity, it’s a dangerous game to believe the world as it is would be better without what remains of economic political management. You can stop voting, sure. You can vote for defiantly ignorant anti-politicians who can’t get their heads around their core business of collecting and distributing revenues. But what you can’t do with this sort of tantrum is take a look at the material conditions in which we are doomed to live. Love and infant-Marxism and quasi-Buddhism aren’t going to save us from increasing poverty. But Brand believes, like so many on both sides of politics do these days, that good feeling and a market freed from constraint will save the world.
Lambie says compassion for the men and women of the armed forces and “real Australians” will make a difference. Brand is really not saying anything that different when he asks for compassion of a more tie-dyed and acceptably progressive order. They’re both asking for us to abandon authority of any kind and allowing compassion to lead.
People like Lambie and Brand who believe in a more just world mean well. But they do not think well and when they hold a mirror up to the world and ask it to have a long hard look at itself; they are so dazzled by compassion, they cannot see the world is blind.
The world is blind and deaf to the matter of compassion because the world as we have built is not human. It is bigger than us and bigger than the individuals we indolently blame for its injustice. The world is a machine now so large and complex that it cannot respond to compassion. I can’t see compassion fixing climate change. That’s a matter for totalitarian control. That is a matter for absolute politics. Just being nice is not going to stop global warming. Which is why we’re probably going to have to rely on the not-nice Chinese authorities to do something more than wring their hands at polite conferences if we’re all to avoid being boiled.
This is not an argument for absolute politics. It is, however, an argument for politics which must survive to the degree it can be radically reshaped.
Even if he did get his head around economics, Brand will not reshape the political future. Celebrities don’t, and thank god for that. All they can do, and what they must do if they are to be as well known as Brand, is take our crude suspicions about good and evil and give them a voice. Like Lambie, he is selling our fear right back to us. Even if he doesn’t last the distance to the mayoral elections, he’ll at least amass himself a pension with this posturing that’s every bit as good as a politician’s.