I want to speak this week about Russell Brand.
That’s not a statement I make all that often, but the British comedian is by far the most interesting thing to have happened in political theory in recent weeks, which is not a field in which interesting things generally happen with any frequency.
His guest editorial for the New Statesman last week has gotten a lot of attention and a fair deal of criticism.
At least some of that criticism is misplaced. There is nothing wrong with a comedian taking a serious political stance. It often provides a perspective that cannot be obtained otherwise (and explains why The Onion is one of the most insightful newspapers published today). The jester, remember, was once the only one who could speak the truth to the king.
The problem is what Brand is calling for: revolution. Not revolution of the storming-the-Winter-Palace variety, but instead what he calls “Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system.”
My high school debate coach used to teach us that the way to defeat any argument coming from the tradition of radical critique is to force your opponent to commit themselves to a stable alternative. Do not let them talk airily of revolutions in consciousness and paradigm shifts. Make them to tell you what the first Monday after the revolution looks like.
The reason this strategy was effective is that it hones in on the essential problem of the post-Marxist radical left: steadfast refusal to lay out a concrete vision for an alternative world order.
At least the Marxists were upfront about what they were calling for: dictatorship of the proletariat put in place through revolutionary terror. Mao famously noted that revolution is not a dinner party and the Communists were honest enough that few pretended otherwise.
Brand, meanwhile, is tapping into the same nihilistic leftism that animated so much of Occupy, the sort that says “The system is intrinsically evil. Smash its foundations and let us build anew. But don’t ask us what the new world looks like. We simply ask you to trust it will be better.”
This sort of reasoning is intellectually dishonest. Revolutions are hijacked all of the time, often because those who led them were unable to translate their visions into a real plan for governing. Iranian leftists managed to smash the system pretty well in 1979, which did them little good as they rotted in the prisons of the theocracy they helped midwife into existence.
Identifying the world’s problems is the easy part. The average child can tell you that there are too many people who can’t find meaningful work, that the gap between wealthy and poor is unacceptably wide and that the environment is being destroyed too fast.
Politics needs to be the field in which serious solutions to these problems are sought. Embracing utopian ideals lures one into passivity. It allows one to feel as though (s)he is doing something while the world’s problems worsen.
Technocratic solutions certainly aren’t as sexy as revolutions are, but they usually do a lot more good. To take a timely example, is it better to abolish a system that leaves millions uninsured and start from scratch, or to find a way to give the uninsured insurance?
Those sorts of solutions are what we need now. Utopian revolutions should stay in the pages of political journals where they belong.