Nov 25, 2014
The political conversation on sharing is growing by the day, sometimes from the unlikeliest of quarters. And at the present time, there is perhaps no-one calling louder for a new society to be based on sharing than Russell Brand, the comedian-cum-activist and revolutionary. It is easy to dismiss much of Brand's polysyllabic and self-referential meanderings, as do most of the establishment media in the USA and Britain, but this only serves to disregard his flashes of wisdom and the justified reasons for his popularity.
His latest book is clearly not meant to be taken entirely seriously as a roadmap to "systemic change on a global scale", hence the various crude digressions and contradictions. Yet as pointed out by Evan Davies at the beginning of his second BBC Newsnight interview, Brand has probably engaged more young people in thinking about serious political issues than any politician, despite his infamous disavowal of voting in parliamentary elections. On this basis alone, there's every reason to take seriously Brand's call for a revolution based on the principles of sharing, cooperation and love. But what does his idea of a caring, sharing revolution actually mean in practice?
Sharing is fundamental to a fair society
To elucidate, Brand uses a homespun analogy in his book: if 20 school children were in a playground and a couple of them took all the toys, you would "explain to them that sharing is a basic human value and redistribute the toys". In a similar way, he says that the minority rich who are hoarding resources are misguided in their belief that it can make them happy, and we have to "be the adults" and help them. Which will require somehow dismantling the machinery of deregulated capitalism, winning over the military, and redistributing their excessive wealth.
Admittedly he's a bit sketchy on the details of how to achieve this, although he does endorse Thomas Piketty's proposal for greater transparency around the assets of the super-rich--with a modest tax on their wealth as well as their income (see chapter 19 entitled: "Piketty, Licketty, Rollity, Flicketty"). But many other implicit recommendations are scattered throughout the book for how sharing could be institutionalised on a local or national level. He is keen to point out, for example, that the "corporate world in its entirety is a kind of thief of more wholesome values, such as sharing". And thus the least they can do, he suggests, is to stop exploiting tax loopholes (which is "a kind of social robbery") and instead pay their fair share of taxes.
In describing how "Jesus is pretty committed to sharing", he also makes it clear that any British politician who claims to be a Christian should--like Jesus--try to help the poor and heal the sick, and not implement austerity policies and sell off the National Health Service. By implication, the kind of sharing that Brand upholds clearly needs to be systematised through progressive taxation and the universal provision of public services and social security. And this is best exemplified, in no particularly radical way, in the Western European ideal of the welfare or social state: the collective pooling and redistribution of a nation's financial resources for the benefit of society as a whole.
Brand's other line of reasoning is a bit more contentious: "Socialism isn't a dirty word," he says, "it just means sharing; really it's just the bureaucratic arm of Christianity". But do we have to call ourselves a socialist to espouse the human value of sharing? Or could this simple principle help us to better navigate between the divisive 'isms' that still drive much of the debate on how governments should guarantee social and economic rights for all people?
It's pretty clear what Brand is trying to say, though: that the religious faiths have all expounded the importance of sharing wealth and other resources fairly, and it's high time that this age-old moral value and ethic underpinned the fabric of our societies. As he expressed it here in an interview with SiriusXM Radio: "They said the problem with socialism is that it placed economics forever at the heart of politics, when what belongs at the heart of politics is spirituality. And socialism in a way is just a Christian principle, just the idea that we're all the same, we're all connected; we should share. We can't be happy if other people are suffering. It's just a sort of logical thing."
A fairer society, based on sharing, demands radical democracy
Here's another of Brand's sure-fire political insights: that a sharing society is dependent on mass civic engagement and truly representative democracy. Drawing on a fleeting interview in his house with David Graeber, he writes: "Democracy means if enough people want a fairer society, with more sharing, well-supported institutions and less exploitation by organisations that do not contribute, then their elected representatives will ensure that it is enacted." But this will never happen, Brand suggests, so long as we have leaders who have been "conditioned and groomed to compliantly abide by the system that exploits them", whose only true agenda is "meeting the needs of big business". Hence there can be no true form of democracy without "a radical decentralisation of power, whether private or state."
Brand repeatedly returns to this theme of sharing both political power and economic resources more fairly among the populace, which he sees as an obvious prerequisite to any form of true democracy and the creation of a better world. And who can deny that a solution to gross inequality and ecological breakdown will never come from the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron, who he describes as "all avatars of the same neoliberal concept, part of the problem, not the solution"?
How Brand proposes that power should be "shared, not concentrated" is perhaps a bit vague or outlandish in places, such as when he advocates for "total self-governance" via "small, self-determined communities that are run voluntarily and democratically" and without any leaders, which may eventually require nation states to be somehow "dissolved". But in other places he's entirely lucid and practical, as in his endorsement of direct democracy in Switzerland or participatory budgeting in Brazil. He concludes: "Generally speaking, when empowered as a community, or a common mind, our common spirit, our common sense, reaches conclusions that are beneficial for our community. Our common unity."
When it comes to the business world, Brand is also quite cogent in his recommendations for how to "structure corporations more fairly" and redistribute power downwards. One proposal is for Employee Investment Funds, in which a significant percentage of the company's profits are shared with workers, and controlled by democratically accountable worker management boards that have to use the proceeds for social priorities and in the public interest. Another proposal is for jointly-owned and value-driven enterprises in the guise of co-operatives, which Brand argues provide a model that can democratise the workplace and prevent the proceeds of labour from being poured into the pocket of some "thumb-twiddling plutocrat who by happy accident owns the firm". He adds simply: "The profits should be shared among the people who do the work".
Humanity must share the world's wealth and resources
From the outset, Brand makes it clear that his greatest concern is the "galling inequality" of our world, which is sustained by an economic system that continues to "deplete the earth's resources so rapidly, violently and irresponsibly that our planet's ability to support human life is being threatened." In frequently quoting Oxfam's "fun bus" statistic - that a bus carrying 85 of the world's richest people would represent more wealth than that owned by half the earth's population - he also makes it clear that he is "seriously comfortable with society getting extremely equal." As he puts it: "the practical, fair allocation of resources, the preservation of the planet must naturally be prioritised."
Although Brand does not profess to have all the answers for how we can share the world's wealth and resources more equally between countries as well as within them, he does at least emphasise that it must happen. And very quickly too, because more "important perhaps than this galling inequality is the fact that we have a limited amount of time to resolve it" (that is, unless we "plan to wait until the earth is a scorched husk then blast off to a moon-base.") He also professes his belief that "all conflicts... are about resources or territory and the theological rhetoric merely a garnish to make it more palatable." Which clearly means, in Brand's commonsensical worldview, that sharing land and resources is a prerequisite for peaceful co-existence - an egalitarian approach that he specifically endorses when discussing the economic alternatives long practised within Cuba.
Decrying the fact that profits and wealth are increasingly consolidated within a mere fraction of the world population, Brand's simple observation about the need for a new economic paradigm is again difficult to disagree with. He actually says this a few times, in so many words: "There is another way. There is the way. To live in accordance with truth, to accept we are on a planet that has resources and people on it. We have to respect the planet so we can use the resources to nourish the people. Somehow this simple equation has been allowed to become extremely confusing." What is being demanded is not whimsical, he adds later, but "pragmatism, systems that function." Yet none of this happens, and "can't because they [i.e. rich elites, big corporations and those who serve them in governments] have prioritised a bizarre, selfish and destructive idea over common sense."
Brand's light-hearted book may be forgiven for omitting to mention ecological limits or the end of economic growth, which is imperative for any serious discussion about how to achieve greater equality on a planet with finite resources. But he does draw upon the ideas of various progressive thinkers for how to "reapportion money and power" and share the world's wealth more equitably and sustainably. This includes "the peaceful establishment of a fair global alternative" through the cancellation of unjust debt; the rolling back of corrupt global trade agreements; a return to localised and ecological farming; the revocation of corporate charters "for businesses that have behaved criminally" (or handing over their resources to the workers and turning them into cooperatives); and the incorporation of measures other than GNP to judge a nation's success.
He is also under no illusions about the international politics that renders these broad proposals somewhat utopian. More than one chapter is devoted to the tenets of America's 'Manifest Destiny' and the Monroe Doctrine, which he describes as the ideological pillar of the U.S. government's imperialist strategies and perpetual war-mongering. And there is of course nothing new about today's geopolitical reality of global dominance and control by powerful countries, he suggests, as reflected in the erstwhile vagaries of the British Empire which was built by "vicious thugs using violence to get their way, reneging on deals and nicking the resources of whole nations". The whole thing was a "swizz", he says, and deceptively based on a Christian mythology which is in truth about "empathy and sharing", and not a false authority achieved "through coercion and violence."
Hence his inevitable conclusion that "real change will not be delivered within the machinery of the current system - it's against their interests"; so "change has to be imposed from the outside"; and "this change will not come without cohesive, unified resistance. We all need to come together and confront our shared enemy."
The sharing revolution begins within ourselves
Yet for all of Brand's braggadocio and posturing about chopping off the Queen's head, killing corporations and overthrowing the establishment to "take our power back", he is also passionately convinced that the revolution must be peaceful. He says that all "revolutions require a spiritual creed. It doesn't matter who is doing violence or to what end. Violence is wrong." Therefore the only way to end conflict and change society for the benefit of everyone is through a new revelation about our purpose on earth, a revolution in our understanding about who we are as human beings.
Spirituality, he says, is "not some florid garnish" but "part of the double-helix DNA of Revolution. There is a need for Revolution on every level - as individuals, as societies, as a planet, as a consciousness. Unless we address the need for absolute change, unless we agree on a shared story of how we want the world to be, we'll inertly drift back to the materialistic, individualistic magnetism behind our current systems."
Perhaps this is a major reason why Brand's silver-tongued musings are so popular, as he is arguably at his best when describing how social change will never happen without inner, personal change. He also has the courage to share candid insights from his past ignominy and his own spiritual journey, even if it sometimes comes close to proselytising: "My love of God elevates the intention of this book beyond the dry and admirable establishment of collectivised communities."
Brand is often inspiring when he describes the alienating effects of commercialisation and "the impulse we all have for union" that has been misdirected into our worship of shopping malls, material comfort and possessions. Our longing for revolution, he says, is really "our longing for perfect love." And our true salvation lies in the "acknowledgement of our unity. That we are one human family. One consciousness. One body." The last chapter of the book reads like a poetic entreaty to that awareness of the Self which lies behind all form and comprises the true spiritual reality we all share. No doubt purposefully, the last word in the book is "love".
While such ideas can be easily dismissed as New Age truisms, Brand has a deft ability to weave his spiritual convictions into a case for wholesale political and economic transformation. For instance, in contemplating how it is that humanity can endure the needless poverty and suffering of others, he neatly examines how "an extraordinary attitude [of complacency and indifference] has been incrementally inculcated" in our societies.
He asks plaintively: are we really doing all we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves? And why does the old maxim 'From each according to his means, to each according to his needs' still linger in our conscience, even after all the "capitalist lies and communist misadventure" of the past century? By retelling a story about a spontaneous act of goodwill in helping a stranger, Brand points to the obvious answer: because empathy, kindness and sharing is hardwired into our human nature. To share with one another is to be who we really are.
The implications of this simple truth are far more radical than any historical revolution based on ideology or violence, which is arguably the overall message of Brand's book. "The agricultural Revolution took thousands of years," he writes, "the industrial Revolution took hundreds, the technological tens. The spiritual Revolution, the Revolution we are about to realise, will be fast because the organisms are in place; all that needs to shift is consciousness, and that moves rapidly."
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