Pat Stack reviews two recent books trying to get to grips with changing the world: Russell Brand’s Revolution, and Owen Jones’ The Establishment. Owen Jones will be speaking at rs21’s event They Don’t Represent Us on 16 May, Friends Meeting House, London.
This review was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.
Although in the upcoming General Election the largest voice of dissent will come from the radical right (UKIP), it would be a mistake to believe that there isn’t a significant constituency to the left of the mainstream.
That minority lacks coherence and confidence, or indeed any single unifying organisation, but it exists, and in different ways Russell Brand and Owen Jones could be seen as two of the most prominent figures that give voice to that discontent.
Brand has become a figurehead for many young people who believe that big P ‘politics’ is a waste of time, Jones a significant voice against austerity, and much admired by those that want a break from the neo-liberal consensus.
Both argue that a ‘revolution’ is needed. Brand argues voting is a waste of time, while Jones, though he doesn’t state it explicitly, essentially sees a democratic revolution fought for by popular movements and brought about through parliament.
Brand has taken much flak for his book, having been dismissed as either without substance, or as hypocritical given his own wealth and fame.
However as he says himself: “When I was poor and complained about inequality they said I was bitter; now I’m rich and I complain about inequality they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want to talk about inequality.”
The book is a mixture of snippets of autobiography, a study of the world as it is, and a process of discovery through looking at alternatives.
Brand’s exposé of the horrendous injustice of the capitalist system is vivid and written in ways that are easy to remember and repeat. In a similar fashion he takes on the ridiculousness of patriotism, racism and homophobia.
Brand also attempts, with some success and imagination, to look at what the world might be like in a post capitalist society.
To get to this part of the book, Brand has consulted or studied anarchist, situationist, and autonomist views, looked with great regard at the Spanish Revolution, and, albeit more critically, the Cuban experience, the pioneering work of the economist Thomas Piketty, and so on.
He has also looked to various mystics and mysticisms as well as his own belief in God as an important part of the inner change he believes to be necessary.
Marx and Marxism, however, are more or less dismissed in one sentence: “The problem with Marxism, is that it placed economics at the heart of socialism.”
The real weakness of the book (ironically given its title) is its vagueness about the revolutionary process itself.
Leaving aside the question of revolutionary organisation, the key questions of how do ideas change, the state and how you get rid of it, and the role of revolutionary violence are either hardly dealt with at all, or deal with in ways that are inadequate responses to key challenges.
Brand understands very well that the capitalists themselves make up a tiny proportion of the population, and as he himself frequently shows their system and the ideas that bolster it are illogical in the extreme. Yet those ideas dominate to a greater or lesser degree the world that we live in.
The struggle to challenge those ideas as a whole, to bring about revolutionary change, is tied up with the experiences people have themselves, the greatest revolution of the individual tends to coincide with the general fight for revolutionary change.
A prominent argument in the 1960s was whether in order to change the world, one first had to change oneself. In fact of course the most profound changes to ‘self’ came when attempting to change the world.
Brand in some ways rehashes that debate. There is little doubt that religion and spirituality has been important to him in his various battles with addiction, therefore he tends to see changing self as a pre-condition for change.
Brand and Jones share a view that their revolution must be ‘peaceful’. Brand explicitly rejects armed struggle, is a great admirer of Gandhi and gets into something of a dilemma over the role of the police and army.
Where Brand went looking for opponents of the system to talk to, Jones goes to some of its champions to tell their tale. Writing with his usual entertaining clarity he looks at the various institutions that make up the establishment: politicians, the media, the police, big business, the banks, the civil service etc.
He locates the book in the role of the establishment since the rise of neoliberalism, and in a truly fascinating first chapter looks at ‘the outriders’ – the ideologues of neoliberalism, who rose from complete obscurity, isolation, and ridicule to become the vanguard of an ideology that dominates today’s world.
Jones has a programme of reform, proposing a ‘democratic revolution’ that would bring about change: get rid of the anti trade union laws, democratise the workplace at board level, bring key utilities back into public ownership, allow control of the movement of capital and so on.
Most importantly from Jones point of view we have to learn from the neoliberal outriders. We have to build our own think tanks, wage an ideological war, and lay the ground for the situation where we can seize the opportunity for the democratic revolution.
Like Brand, Jones is a great voice standing out against the horrors of today, like Brand he has an interesting vision of how things could be so much better, but like Brand, if from a slightly different perspective, he provides no real answer as to how this power can be taken.
The capitalists do not and will not cede their power and wealth to popular protest, dissent, or indeed parliamentary majorities. The rule with the fraud of a great ideological tapestry, and if ever that fraud is not enough they rule with force: the power of the state.
These elements remain the missing pieces in the jigsaw for Brand and Jones, but both are clearly seriously trying to get to grips with the dilemma.