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Russell Brand: on the side of those who fight back
But how can we change things?
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, Socialist Party national organiser
Everywhere you go, if there is struggle against austerity you'll probably find people talking about Russell Brand. His book Revolution describes itself as "the beginning of a conversation that will change the world". We are in an era of gross inequality, dysfunctional political systems and seemingly endless austerity. Every day in the campaigns the Socialist Party participates in and leads, we are having this conversation.
This is particularly the case among young people. Little wonder - recent figures show that the median pay of 22 to 29 year olds is 9% lower in 2014 than in 2008. In general, despite talk of economic recovery, incomes are still below where they were in 2010. And across the world poverty, inequality and wars dominate the lives of the 99%.
In September 2013 we wrote in the Socialist that: "Below the surface a volcano of anger is bubbling up, fuelled by many issues." Two weeks later Russell Brand appeared on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. He smuggled news of that anger into the Westminster-bubble-dwelling, pro-capitalist media. And he struck a chord. The interview clip has had over ten million YouTube views.
There is anger at the establishment - that includes the big business-owned media that doesn't challenge the austerity lie. The popularity of Russell Brand's Trews - 'True News' - internet broadcast, is a reflection of this. Young people and workers are searching for the truth about the super-rich 1%'s domination of the world, including the wealth they hoard and how their interests are represented by pro-capitalist governments in legislation, both domestic and foreign policy.
Anger is particularly felt towards those capitalist politicians. The latest 'MPs for hire' scandal only adds to the well-established sense that they are in it for themselves. However, experience of austerity is the major factor. "Angry" was the word chosen by 47% of respondents when a Guardian/ICM poll asked for the single word best describing "how or what you instinctively feel" about politics and politicians in general.
In 2010, around 29 million people out of an eligible population of around 50 million cast a vote and less than half the population voted for the Tories and Labour combined. Polling indicates this could be even lower in May, almost certain to result in some form of coalition. The next government of whatever political stripe will attempt to carry on with austerity but it will be unstable and therefore unable to do so if opposition is organised.
When he appeared on Question Time (QT) it was a scandal that Russell Brand was the only one who represented the widespread view that the working class shouldn't pay for the economic crisis.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage who was also on that QT panel (appearing for what feels like the zillionth time) likes to be seen as a fellow 'comedian'. In reality his divisive party represents the same big business interests as the Tories. At Ukip's spring conference in February policy chief Suzanne Evans said that she had already identified up to £35 billion a year of cuts.
Labour is also a capitalist party that accepts the austerity lie. The lie is that cuts are necessary. The bankers have had over £100 billion in bonuses since their leading part in the economic crisis. But instead of saying that the super-rich should pay, Labour has agreed that more years of austerity are necessary. In January only five Labour MPs voted against Tory plans for £30 billion of extra cuts over the next three years.
In the capitalist media, it was therefore down to Russell Brand to, for example, defend the firefighters union FBU fighting against vicious cuts to their pensions. But the people looking to Russell Brand need a choice at May's election in terms of a party that would stand on the side of the millions suffering austerity. In the biggest left-of-Labour stand in 60 years, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) aims to provide this.
Brand has been attacked from many directions. Murdoch's viciously anti-working class Sun tried and failed to discredit him. A right-wing BBC journalist said he was "not only daft but dangerous". The bishops have been having a go at Con-Dem inequality but also piled in attacking Russell's comments on voting - probably motivated by his popular call for revolution. There have also been attacks on his voting stance from others in the comedy industry - including those who seem to be more liberal, such as Robert Webb who said Brand's plans would inevitably lead to "death camps" and "repression".
Brand told Paxman: "The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change." Snubbing his call for a challenge without an 'alternative alternative' is fundamentally to invite acceptance of the status quo - austerity. And if the alternative to not voting is to invite a Labour vote, that amounts to asking people to back austerity-lite. On 8 May, or whenever a new government is formed, if the leader is Ed Miliband he will make cuts and say that the votes he received are a mandate for that.
Russell Brand also wrote: "A system that serves the planet and the people. I'd vote for that." And that is the point. Following the election in Greece of the first anti-austerity government in Europe in decades, Brand tweeted: "I would vote for Syriza." We need an anti-austerity choice in Britain.
In Seattle, Socialist Alternative (co-thinkers of the Socialist Party in the US) member and city councillor Kshama Sawant gave a glimpse of what that could mean in power. Her election campaign took up the demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage that fast food workers and other campaigners had started to popularise.
Kshama's election meant this struggle, taken up by unions and the 15Now campaign, had a determined and reliable representative in the council chamber where legislation is passed. Her presence revealed that it was the Democrats in that city who brought the interests of big business to the table, fighting on the bosses' behalf for delays in implementation of $15 and for tips to be included. As a result of tireless campaigning of activists, strikes of workers and also of Kshama's role in the city council, $15 is becoming a reality in Seattle.
We need a mass party in Britain that would act like Kshama has - that is accountable to our interests. TUSC is fielding over 100 candidates pledged to vote against cuts in the general election and is inviting working class fighters to help it reach its target of 1,000 no-cuts candidates for the local elections.
These targets are in part motivated by the threshold set by the BBC and other broadcasters for a party to receive 'fair media coverage', including a TV broadcast, of standing in one sixth of the seats up for election. TUSC is denied a voice in the national media.
As a TUSC press release announcing the latest tally of 111 Westminster candidates reports: "we were contacted by a journalist working for BBC One's Election Night programme with David Dimbleby, asking if one of our candidates would be available for interview on the night of 7 May. An interview before the ballot boxes had closed, on the other hand - or, God forbid, a panellist on Dimbleby's Question Time programme - was obviously impossible."
Bear in mind that, while TUSC has had a press blackout, the divisive Ukip got a helping hand from the capitalist and state media. In 2013 prior to Ukip's electoral breakthrough, winning the Euro elections and two byelections (with Tory candidates) it received 23,000 press mentions. Between 2009 and 2013 Farage had more appearances on Question Time than any other politician.
In his interview for the Guardian (which was streamed into 200 cinemas in October 2014), Russell Brand referred to himself as an attention seeker who brings attention to important campaigns. He championed the tenants on the New Era estate in Hackney, east London, who successfully fought against sell-off and rent hikes. This is not insignificant. But no amount of 'attention' would have helped without the tenants' own organisation, determined campaigning and wide support including from the Socialist Party. One of Russell's first public mentions of the New Era campaign was when he tweeted a photo of a Socialist Party campaign leaflet in the summer of 2014.
These housing struggles go on. They have benefited from Russell Brand's support but to be successful and part of the campaign for a decent home for all requires more than he can offer. There is definitely a case to link up the current housing struggles and future ones that will erupt as workers find the gap between low wages and sky-high housing costs force them into action. TUSC stands for the immediate implementation of rent control and investment in a mass programme of building and refurbishing council homes.
Russell Brand has also stirred up discussion and thinking about the concept of revolution. Experience of capitalism in crisis, particularly the "galling inequality" and "ecological destruction", he describes, has prepared a receptive audience. The big movements in recent years, including the Arab Spring, Occupy and the election of Syriza in Greece, have provoked discussion about what is needed to challenge capitalism.
In his book what's clear is that Russell is on the side of the suffering, that he is compassionate and understanding about the ravages on humanity that living in a brutal unequal society exact. And that change is needed and wanted. But he's not so clear about what that change will be and how it will be brought about.
Karl Marx, still the most famous bearded proponent of revolution, was the first to explain that capitalism is a system based on class divides and exploitation. One of his most famous lines is possibly the kind of thing you wouldn't be shocked to hear Russell Brand say: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it". But unlike Brand, Marx and Engels and many since, including the Socialist Party, have ideas about how to change the world.
In capitalism's early days Marx showed the potentially powerful role of the working class because of its role in the economy - as the producers of wealth. Marx also explained that capitalism is a system that is based on short-term profits for the minority at the top and is therefore not rational. The alternative he put forward is socialism - a system based on democratic planning to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority. To get that, Marx explained, requires mass struggle with the working class playing the leading role.
Decades of propaganda tell us that the working class is no longer capable of playing this role, but experience of austerity shows that it is and must be. The magnificent millions-strong public sector strikes in 2011 gave a glimpse of the potential power the working class has. In 2012, a London bus workers' strike won an Olympic bonus that the bosses had no intention of paying.
The Socialist Party organises to assist the working class because, when organised and acting independently, it is the biggest social force. It is capable not only of resisting austerity, but also of promoting a different type of society, one where the wealth is democratically planned to meet the needs of all not just the super-rich - a socialist society.
History gives us confidence that the working class will take action. But not just history - look at Ireland today. Austerity has hit that country hard. Youth unemployment has resulted in famine levels of emigration. Public sector pay has been slashed. For many years it has appeared that the bankers and the bond holders who caused the crisis and then got bailed out were getting away with it. But a proposed water charge, a double and unfair tax, has been the straw that broke the camel's back and massive anger erupted.
Russell Brand's Trews featured this movement. An episode that included Paul Murphy, member of the Socialist Party and of the Irish Parliament for the Anti-Austerity Alliance, has had over 160,000 views. Paul and the Socialist Party in Ireland are giving a lead and a strategy based on the democratic and mass organisation of the working class and non-payment - like the movement that defeated Thatcher's poll tax that was led by Militant, now the Socialist Party. Now it's Paul and other socialist TDs who are on the talk-show couches.
Recently Paul gave a speech at a 10,000-strong march where he outlined a clear strategy to defeat both water charges and the government: "This is about who rules in Irish society. It's about the possibility of a massive, left movement in this country for an economic and political revolution. It's about the possibility of ending the rule of the bankers and bondholders.
"It's about the possibility of fundamental and socialist change and about bringing about, for the first time in this state - together with our brothers and sisters across Europe - the rule of the majority, the rule of the 99%."
Inspired by revolutions?
In his book, among many issues he chews over, Russell Brand looks at a number of revolutions. He quotes George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and writes: "I'd never heard of this [Spanish] Revolution; the reason for this is of course because it's so fucking inspiring." He recognises that the history most people learn in school and through the media side-lines and distorts such events. Discussing and drawing lessons from revolutions and working class struggle, as well as organising to build the struggle now are just some of the things we do at Socialist Party branch meetings - and reasons you should come along!
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