Columns / Discourse / November 6, 2013

So you say you want a revolution?

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.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

Tags:  ideal Marxist New Statesman nihilism passivity revolution Russell Brand solution technocrat utopia

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Nov 12, 2013

My opinion is that, if you really wanted to be constructive, you could spend 20% of your column critiquing Brand and the other 80% proposing (or reiterating) your own proposals for improvement.

I’ve committed some of the same fallacies as Brand in my own writing (note: my first two columns) but if you’ll notice, both of them are more about combating popular perception than presenting a road map. That’s something I plan to do in future columns, and with on-campus campaigning.

I also firmly disagree with your characterization of Occupy. The Occupy movement worked hard to re-frame the political debate around our country to reflect the reality that the massive majority of the country has been dispossessed by a small minority, something that’s occurred over the last three decades especially. What is it they say? “They call it class warfare when we fight back.”

May 02, 2014

“Politics needs to be the field in which serious solutions to these problems are sought.” — and this is coming from someone who dismisses the revolutionaries for being unrealistic!

If “politics” is the best chance for reform, then forget about it; it’s everyone for themselves.

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