You say you want a revolution

English comedian Russell Brand stirred the pot last week with an interview he did on BBC Newsnight. He was being interviewed because he had been guest editor at The New Statesman and wrote a political essay in which he said that he has never voted. When questioned about that, Brand took off on a diatribe about voting, the current corrupt political system, and the need for a revolution, which by the end of the interview he said was inevitable.

I don't need to post a link. Either you've seen the video already, or you've read about it, or you don't care and are not reading this anyway.

Brand was articulate, if not always coherent or consistent. For instance, he noted that the current system is causing the destruction of the ecosystem, but during the interview he sipped from a plastic bottle. He seemed not to have started with a plan, and told the interviewer that he couldn't come up with a new paradigm (a frequently repeated word) on the spot, but by the end he was calling for a socialist system with massive redistribution of wealth.

It's anyone's guess at this point whether Brand was being serious, comedic, or both. He was certainly being provocative. What is more important is how many people posted the video with favourable comments.

Do those people really want a socialist system with massive redistribution of wealth? It's not that it couldn't be accomplished. It's only that the track record for such things is quite poor. In the past, socialist systems have resulted in everyone being equally poor, except for those at the top. Also except for those on the black market. When individual enterprise is stifled or discouraged, black markets flourish. That's because with some exception, people are not socialists by nature. They are creators and sellers and traders and buyers. Free enterprise is as old as humanity.

When Brand made sense, he made a lot of sense. Maybe those are the parts that people are responding to. The current system has certainly reached a level of corruption that is threatening us all. Especially in the US, but probably in the UK as well, and certainly in other countries, including Canada, the gap between rich and poor is still growing. And even though everyone who counts (or can count) understands that human activity is contributing to climate change, governments are pretty well united in doing little or nothing.

When things get really bad, as in many ways is true now, there is always a temptation to want to wipe the slate clean. Incremental change is slow and often does not fix fundamental problems. But as tempting as it may be, the "year one" approach also has a poor track record. The first years of the French Revolution were hell for many people, not just aristocrats, and it took a long time for real democracy to establish itself in France. Pretty much every year of the Khmers Rouge was bad. People eventually realize that muddling through and making small changes, however unsatisfying that might be, is preferable to a scorched earth policy.

And the trouble with saying that voting legitimizes the current system is that the current system is not a result of too much voting but rather too little, and too little political engagement. In any democracy, the people who are in public office were put there by the few who bothered to vote. In Canada, imagine if the groundswell of enthusiasm among young people during the last federal election had translated into enthusiastic voting. Do you think Stephen Harper would be prime minister if enough people, especially young people, voted in elections? And the turnout gets progressively worse at the provincial level and then at the local level. We get the leaders we vote for and don't vote for.

If the system were squeaky clean after this putative socialist revolution, would Russell Brand vote then? Because unless the socialist utopia is a dictatorship (which they all seem to have been so far), there need to be elections. It's hard to get someone who has never voted to vote. Voting and feeling that voting matters are the habits of a lifetime.

It's also easy to call for revolution and proclaim that it's inevitable. It's quite another to make it happen. That takes even more engagement, more planning, and more energy than any amount of involvement with electoral politics.

I totally agree that inequality is reaching extreme levels. I agree that none of us, governments included, are doing nearly enough to stop destroying the earth. And I submit that there are far too many men (usually men) who hold massive power that has nothing to do with being elected, and our elected leaders are doing nothing about it because of the corruption of money in the electoral system. It's no wonder someone like Brand feels it has all become a bad joke. But the answer is not to disengage and say a revolution has to happen. The answer is to engage more, to demand campaign finance reform, to demand reform and regulation of the financial system, to demand meaningful action on climate change and to participate in that action.

Words are cheap. It's easy to imagine change. It's easy to march or demonstrate for change. It's a lot harder to make it happen. And we are the only ones who can do so.


Stace said...

The first thing I would really like to see changed is the chance to day "None of the above".

The problem, at least as I see it, is that there isn't a choice. The parties are more or less the same. And more or less as bad as each other.

Until there is the chance for people to say "You are all useless!" I am not sure what voting for any party will do...


MgS said...

Well said, V.

That is very much what I have been arguing about Brand's tirade on other forums.

Véronique said...

I agree that often we are presented with poor choices when voting. The solution to that is to get involved earlier in the process. Party members produce candidates. And if no party does it for you, time to start your own. Not easy, but if enough people are fed up with the current choices and decide to take action, it can happen. Every party started somewhere.