Against Robert Webb: Give “Tree-Hugging, Hindu-Tattooed, Veggie Meditators” a Chance, Again

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'At least Russell has recalled imagination back to the mainstream political discourse'
‘At least Russell has recalled imagination back to the mainstream political discourse’

Attacking Russell Brand’s prescriptions for revolutionary indifference, Robert Webb offered a wise and worldly resuscitation of the obvious. In last week’s New Statesman, Webb smugly dismissed Russell’s calls for a voting boycott, proposed in the previous issue of the magazine which Brand had guest-edited under the theme of ‘Revolution’. In reply, Webb chose to remind us of the great, “unfathomable privilege” of living in a twenty-first century western democracy. He asserts that the “bored … ache” for revolution has only, and would only result in “death, gulags, repression and murder”. Instead, perhaps this dreary piece should have been entitled, ‘In defence of ‘getting what you’re given: An Ahistory’.

It’s not that Webb’s scepticism is entirely unfounded. The intrusion of hippy-esque figures into serious conversation usually falls somewhere between tedious confusion and harmful intellectual laziness. They tend to get a little too excited about the virtue of ‘open-mindedness’, having ironically ignored Ferlinghetti’s common sense maxim, “if you’re too open-minded; your brains will fall out”. There’s also the foetidness of a Hollywood harlequin sermonising about the oppressed underclass. But to embrace such predictable ad-hominems would be my cliché, and not Russell’s. He should be measured by the weight of his argument and not the flamboyant ironies of his position. As should Webb, for that matter. But it is appeal to the cliché that reduces the Peep Show actor to such lazy mediocrity.

In fact, assuming the pretension of ‘seriousness’, at the crescendo of a decade in which the tenets of conventional dialogue emerged as little more than the taboos of our self-(pre)serving political class, is worse than laziness. It’s wilfully dishonest. By that I mean that such frowning tones simply applaud the exhausted lie that the British political discourse, which currently resembles an elitist pantomime, can bring about socio-economic justice. Solemnity is no guarantor of progress; it’s rarely even a facilitator.

Politicians are smoke-screening the discussion over economic inequality with superfluous squabbles; as if our EU membership is the crux of disparities that offer over half of Britains less than 20% of the wealth. Are the parameters of British political economy really a mere case of ‘should I stay or should I go’? Be serious indeed. Brand even pre-empted, apparently unsuccessfully, such austere criticism in his interview with Jeremy Paxman:

 

“Facetiousness has as much value as seriousness … I think you’re mistaking seriousness with solemnity … We’re not gonna solve world problems with the current system; at least facetiousness is funny”. 

Russell Brand

Russell’s case against voting, he insists, does not come from “apathy”, but “out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies”. He posits that voting amounts to no more than a “tacit complicity” with the illusory false distinctions drawn between a group of Etonians. Of course, these ideas are not, exclusively, the ravings of a glib and contrarian comedian, but the basic premises of some of the world’s leading thinkers.

In fact, our disengagements with established processes formed the basis of Max Weber’s legitimacy theory, which attempts to explain power shifts. Marx’s socialist tradition, on the other hand, is still alive, but it isn’t faring that well amongst the public’s sympathies. It’s not that people aren’t seeking it out, but that the defamations of the Cold War have robbed the British working classes of a word that many of them once valued. Despite this, socialism, and its kindred schools of dissident thought, have enjoyed a steady revival in the world of letters, (see Owen Jones, Laurie Penny, Slavoj Žižek, Richard Seymour). So Russell Brand, while not particularly original, has at least recalled imagination back to the mainstream political discourse.

Even so, socialism does not necessitate abstinence from voting. A drier-eyed criticism than Webb’s would have focussed more on Paxman’s warning that by the time Russell’s alternative presents itself, “it may be too late”. In other words, that refusing to vote is, in effect, to vote for your gravest enemies. And indeed, Russell sometimes betrays the uncomfortable signs of one who wants to feel, or “meditate” his way to a fairer system, rather than bring one about forcibly. There’s also his cavalier sexism, or ‘brocialism’, which should not, and has not been ignored. It must be acknowledged, however, that for a self-described, “tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator”, he is impressively conscious of his own fallibility, and the fallibility of his ideals. “All I’m trying to say, is that there are people with alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am” he admits, and “far better qualified, more importantly, than the people currently doing that job”. Even then, he recognises that “socialism has become in practice quite exclusive” and that “The same could be said of the growing New Age spiritual movement”, which he covets.

Moreover, as far as Webb’s charges of vagueness are concerned, Russell actually strays worryingly close to a constructive political model; “a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility of energy companies”. He even permits a “central administrative system” in this portrait, but suggests that we call them “the admin-bods”, rather than the government, so that they “don’t get ahead of themselves”, (although as far as renaming goes, Webb’s clumsy nod to Orwell might find a soft-target here).

Utopia isn’t … the teddy-bear of hopeless romantics, but the conceptualisation of progress

Meanwhile, Webb’s entitled assertion that, “choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is”, is to resign all too readily to impotence and then, as it goes, flaccidity. Utopian thought has been wrongfully construed as naive and futile and dangerous. Of course, it’s all of those things if you declare perfection, or declare that perfection can be achieved with violence and repression. But the true nature of utopian thinking is that of progress, or, as Oscar Wilde put it inversely, “Progress is the realisation of Utopias”.

If, as human beings, we stop imagining solutions to our issues which fall beyond the frontiers of existing institutional frameworks, then the process of civilisation itself is forestalled. This is not hyperbole. It’s what Wilde meant when he went on to say, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing”. Utopia isn’t then, the teddy-bear of hopeless romantics, but the conceptualisation of progress, and the imagination of its potential. And so, to do without it does not only imply the redundancy of Geography, but of all the sciences, and social sciences, which attempt to measure human impetus. Webb would have us believe that our best hope is a choice, which he admits, is limited to a ‘best of the worst’ scenario. This is an amusing self-defeat, because if this is the case, which it is, then the game is in fact ‘up’; we no longer have a representative democracy, if indeed we ever did.

And therefore, to scoff at demands for a better world is to capitulate to the worst kind of snug, smug armchair snobbery, that offers nothing and deflates everything. It has never been put better than by Phil Ochs who sang of liberals that they flock “to the left of centre in good times, and the right of centre when it affects them personally”. In fact, Webb’s entire argument could be reduced to Ochs’ parody; “Love me I’m a liberal … but don’t talk about revolution, that’s going a little bit too far”. In a bid to remain sensible, Webb and his stripe are repeatedly sacrificing those who are less ‘enlightened’, and of course, less well off than they are, to the humiliating failures of the existing system.

 

An ugly embryo of this prison of thought presents itself in Webb’s article. Namely, the go-to, ‘don’t you know about Stalin?’ undertones, and overtones, that are getting so painfully old. What’s worse, is that this rhetoric allows a blue’s-red-herring to those slovenly liberals who preserve the right to be offended and appalled, alongside the detachment that keeps their hands clean and their sudokus thrilling. As mentioned, Webb’s historical assertion that all revolutions end in oppression is ignorant. His remedy for the malady of “corporate, global, military-industrial conglomerate ba*****s”, that we should throw our electoral weight behind “national parliaments and supernational organisations such as the EU”, makes a laughable dichotomy. He first supposes that our votes would give these bodies more “legitimacy”, and then presumes that they’d combat the corporate complex if we did.

Finally, his absurd claim that, “we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want” betrays nothing more than a pitiful, big-brother-loving, delusion, or more probably, a big-brother-loving collusion that is convenient for him as a heterosexual, Oxbridge educated, white-male celebrity. And even then he’s exhibiting an optimism that would be sobered by a glance at that radical-leftist rag, BBC news. Mention of big-brother brings me to another of Webb’s circularities: his resort to that shallow understanding of Orwell, which casts the author as an anti-revolutionary prophet. Orwell was an anti-authoritarian democratic socialist, who fought within a Marxist syndicate in the Spanish Civil War and argued that, “ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance”.

Liberal democracy has acquired ‘absolute power’ … selling freedom as a ballot and creativity for as little as a police-censored twitter account.

If we’re to invoke history, it should be noted that radical social change has, for the most part, taken a little more than voting pragmatically for the best of the worst. It is true that MLK encouraged people to vote for John Kennedy, but, quite famously, he didn’t just return to Montgomery and leave the fate of civil rights in the straying hands of a white president. Other heroes from our canon of justice were, almost invariably, revolutionaries. From Cromwell and Thomas Jefferson, to Mandela and Vaclav Havel, history celebrates those who refused to be satisfied with the system they had, and whose express demands were for the overthrow of the meagre electoral rights they’d been offered. Indeed, had the suffragettes buckled meekly before the batons which insisted they smile prettily at what they had, women would not even enjoy the unhappy suffrage from which we suffer today.

This is not to say that we are experiencing an oppression even remotely equivalent to those above. But where would we be if these activists had said the same about injustices before their own time, such as slavery and absolute monarchy. We have no right to claim, or even celebrate these figures, if we can’t share in their relentless, revolutionary spirit; (it was Jefferson, the hero of North America’s not so ancient ancien régime, who enjoined future generations to inflame revolution “at least once every twenty years” as “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government”).

"revolutionary spirit" aflame on Tuesday's 'Million Mask March'
“revolutionary spirit” aflame at Tuesday’s ‘Million Mask March’

In other words, our fight for the right to vote shouldn’t have meant a total surrender to our own victory. This is the false, Fukuyama-ist utopia; an oligarchy masquerading as democracy, where the brackets of our decisions are limited not just to who we elect, but to who we may elect. This shouldn’t imply that the only solution is not to vote, nor that a foolproof or incontrovertible solution currently exists. Nonetheless, Russell’s critique, that the status-quo is incontrovertibly and terminally bad for a great many people, and that we’ll have to work outside of it, at least to some extent, if we want to improve such conditions, is substantial. Attempts to improve failed systems from within are the real victims of history. They often emerge, upon inspection, as the false consolations of those who are not truly beleaguered by such failings.

Our democracy has ceased to increase our incentives and individualism, and, while we sleep, it narrows the margins of individual potential. Liberal democracy has acquired ‘absolute power’, and now stands as a vast, bloated asylum, selling freedom as a ballot and creativity for as little as a police-censored twitter account. Resisting this false prospectus requires either boycott or hijacking, or a combination of the two. As the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei said in Russell’s New Statesman, “revolution … is necessary, unpredictable and inevitable”. The question is not whether such a resistance will occur, but whether it will simply mirror, or mature from its haphazard predecessors. This, but little else, it seems, is in our hands.

it would take a “massive redistribution” of our weight in wealth before we were threatened more by scented candles than we are now by the banker’s keypad.

Gore Vidal’s famous analysis of the American free-market as “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich” was made in the context of the disillusioned Beat movement that had preceded him. It was the Beats’ circumvention of politics in favour of an unfettered individualism that inspired several advancements in the broader political sentiment. While the discourse has moved along, the disparities remain. When we think about social change, we still cling nostalgically to the sixties, and indeed, to the hippies. In fact, the ‘secular’ British public is so riddled, apparently incurably, with horoscope columns, clairvoyants and other such gaping-mindedness, that we might as well convert it into social force. We might as well give “tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator”s a chance, again. Especially since the incumbent alternative, propitiated by Robert Webb, appears as inanely circular and static as the reiki-healing he would probably, and rightly deplore.

Sure, the next utopian vision might hum for fewer kumbayas and a few more fiscal models. But if politics is an art, it is gymnastic; a balancing act of sorts. With this is in mind, and clinging precariously as we are to the current paradigm, it would take a “massive redistribution” of our weight in wealth before we were threatened more by scented candles than we are now by the banker’s keypad.

 

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Third year, History BA, Southampton Uni. https://twitter.com/James_Mowatt

Discussion5 Comments

  1. avatar

    Great article, great argument made… But the over-zealous use of vocabulary presents a barrier of turgidity that the average reader would find difficult to penetrate.

    My father struggled with this and he’s no village idiot.

    James Mowatt
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    Apologies for any opacity.

    James Mowatt
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    But thanks!

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