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The Long Terror

Russell Brand and the Need for Planetary Adjustment

Russell Brand’s recent political essay, viral BBC interview, and ongoing comedy tour – The Messiah Complex – raise important political and philosophical questions concerning, among other issues, the nature of justice, the importance of voting, and the need for radical, revolutionary change. These deserve serious consideration.

Since at least the time of the Athenian statesman Solon (c. 638 BC – 558 BC), whose reforms are credited with setting the historical stage for the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens, the concept of law has contained a crucial ambiguity. While the law is rightfully recognized as an instrument of Order – legitimizing and maintaining a status quo – it is not restricted to this function. Beyond this conservative function is its more vital dimension. In addition to its retentive, conservative aspect, Law has a protentive, metamorphic aspect. Law may even be likened, in this respect, to DNA; it not only clones, it mutates. For, along with maintaining Order, law (or, the spirit of the law) is also employed in pursuing that which disrupts Order (that is, Justice). This latter, law-nullifying aspect of Law is what allowed Solon to not only nullify the law of Draco – abolishing people’s debts, freeing debt-slaves, and constraining the power of Athens’ ancient oligarchy, according to Plutarch – but enabled a relatively egalitarian redistribution of the social world of the ancient Athenians as well. And while it is important to note that this egalitarianism did not extend to women, slaves, and other excluded people, and so exposes the limitations of Athenian democracy, it does not diminish this emancipatory aspect of the law. In many respects, law – as such – is constituted by this very  contradiction. Unstable, it is forever adjusting (a term which, by the way, literally means toward the just). Unlike the dead letter of the law that Order appeals to for support and legitimacy, Justice, the spirit of the law, is the living, vital aspect of the law – the truth of the law as opposed to its mere semblance.

Among other things, this ambiguity of the law has a corollary in the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s concept of the political. According to Ranciere, like law, the political has two dimensions. On one hand it is the maintenance of Order – what he terms politics as police. On the other hand, corresponding to justice, is actual politics. Actual politics disrupts the Order maintained by the politics as police. As he defines it in his Disagreement, actual politics only arises when “the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part” (11). That is, politics proper only emerges with this disruption of Order by this striving toward an egalitarian redistribution of the social sphere – the adjustment toward the Just.

It is in this context that we should situate Russell Brand’s recent statements concerning politics and justice in general, and voting in particular. While many have criticized and mocked Brand for dismissing the practice of voting, it is paramount to recognize (that is, to cognize and to re-cognize) that, according to Ranciere’s formulation, of itself voting is not necessarily a political act at all. In general it is a function of politics as police – the maintenance of Order. Indeed, insofar as it signals one’s consent to be governed, voting is a largely acclamatory gesture – applauding a particular character in what is political theater more than actual politics. While voting is intrinsically problematic, however, this does not mean that it is necessarily or essentially anti-political in Ranciere’s sense. In theory, one could acclaim (and go beyond acclamation) an entirely new type of distribution of the world – a distribution of the world according to egalitarian priorities. Instead of the priorities and rules of the inertial Order busy dividing and conquering and distributing and consuming and desecrating the world, in theory voting could acclaim a Just distribution of the world – one that subordinates the dictates of profit to the actual well-being of the people and the environment – an adjustment that does not stabilize into some new inertial Order, but rather is stable only insofar as it continues to adjust.

Needless to say, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, among the other institutions that represent and manifest the interests of the present Order, are existentially hostile to any meaningful adjustment; for such would involve a significant redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world, produced thus far by humanity as a whole, from their control. In other words, in spite of all the sanctimonious blather regarding Democracy, no such thing exists. In this so-called “representative democracy” a very narrow slice of “interests” is in fact represented. And politics in any meaningful sense is in part dream, in part delusion.

Contrary to the repeated assertions of Jeremy Paxman, Russell Brand’s interlocutor, as well as countless others, we do not live in a democracy. We in fact live in a political arrangement more properly described as a plutocracy. Ploutos (wealth), not the demos (the people), is in charge. While this claim may not jibe with the hegemonic doxa, it is a matter of simple observation that one cannot even participate in a non-marginalized manner in the political theater unless one is backed – supported – by the rich. Before votes are ever counted, money determines the outcomes of elections. It acts as a gatekeeper. Excluded from ballots, and debates, third party candidates with millions of supporters are effectively barred from participating. Millions of supporters matter less than millions of dollars. Unless backed by the rich one cannot compete in campaigns that cost fortunes. And once in office, the constant need to raise funds ensures that those who deviate from the desires of the rich are cut off, and cut out.

This is not to say that a sufficiently popular political and social movement could not overcome these barriers. It is placing the proverbial cart before the horse, however, to suppose that such support could be achieved by the ballot. In order to overcome the institutional barriers to the political stage, a person – or group, or party – would have to possess an enormous amount of popular support in the first place. And even if some hypothetical candidate prevailed in some contest for some office, unless enough like-minded people occupied comparable positions, very little could be accomplished. To meaningfully change the design of the existing Order, the laws that function to maintain the Order and preclude the Just need to be changed or dissolved. All of which is to say, if a social movement were large enough to allow for an actual takeover of congress, such a movement would already enjoy a degree of support sufficient to force congress to step down without having to step into congress’ shoes – those shoes of the old Order – in the first place.

If, for example, a political movement enjoyed enough popular support to change the constitution (to include such mild, though necessary, alterations as a positive right to housing, education, a guaranteed universal income, health care, debt forgiveness, not to mention more radical, structural changes) – if such a movement had a measure of popular support sufficient to overcome the onerous hurdles placed before amending the constitution, why even bother? For the sake of tradition (i.e., the old Order)? Why not just write a new constitution altogether? Perhaps this is what Jesus of Nazareth meant when he reputedly said that he would not change a jot of law. Rather than changing the law of Order, he would leave it to rot. The actual law, the law of justice, is a different matter.
Notwithstanding the above, and in spite of the fact that it has received so much attention, it is important to consider the fact that Russell Brand’s main point was not “don’t vote.” In his New Statesman essay, and in his BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand’s position vis-a-vis voting was ancillary to his main argument: political change must be preceded by a change of consciousness; before an actual politics can even arise a recognition of not only the pure arbitrariness of the existing Order, but its concrete harmfulness and injustice, needs to take place. People must see the cold hard fact that poverty and profit – the infernal conditions of the slums of Kibera, outside Nairobi, not to mention the slums of the Bronx, and the decadent excess of plutocratic luxury – are two sides of the same coin. Each creates, and recreates, the other. Just as profit is not generated without a corresponding loss somewhere, wealth creates poverty and vice versa. Beyond the horrors inflicted by the inertial Order on billions throughout the world, there is also the fact that, in a world with finite resources, it is patently self-destructive to maintain a political-economy based on waste and exploitation. The net result of our collective work, our “economic production,” is a world that is being steadily deformed into toxic refuse. And, contrary to the reigning ideology, it does not have to be this way. Existing conditions are neither natural nor inevitable. Slums, poverty, war, third world as well as first world indentured servitude – these things are made by people, and as such can be unmade by people.

Among the many reactions to Brand’s argument for revolutionary change, a particularly pervasive one is that revolutions are dangerous and reap more harm than good. In advocating radical change, these people maintain, Russell Brand is little more than a dangerous fool. For example, in Russell Brand: Good Pundit, Bad Thinker, Parker Brown argues in The Atlantic that revolutions are generally accompanied by terrors, and that these terrors tend to leave people worse off. Citing multiple horrors, Brown argues that radical change is too dangerous to seriously consider. Best to forego such radicality. Aside from the esteemed historian Arno Mayer’s findings inThe Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions that, more often than not, the resistance to revolutionary change is what heightens violence, contrary to Brown’s contention, many revolutions do not experience any terror phase at all. Indeed, the US revolution is only one among many revolutions that experienced no revolutionary terror. Of course, one must not overlook the fact that after the US Constitution was ratified, and the ongoing terror of slavery was cemented into law (a body of law that also paved the way for the systematic removal and annihilation of the continent’s indigenous population), terror abounded. From this perspective, “reign of terror” takes on a decidedly different meaning.

It is a gruesome irony that Brown raises starvation as a key example of revolutionary harms, noting that during the Chinese Revolution hunger was so severe that the exhumation and consumption of corpses was widespread. Because, while horrific levels of starvation did occur in China, as well as in Stalin’s USSR, among other places, the spectacular nature of eating corpses should not blind us to the fact that, as these words are being written, extreme starvation is rampant throughout much of the world today – and this is caused, in large part, by the very neoliberal economic Order that people like Parker Brown defend. In Haiti, for instance, systemic famine is so severe that people regularly resort to eating dirt. And though malnutrition has been rising precipitously in Haiti in the years following the massive 2010 earthquake, it remains less severe than in Guatemala, and parts of Africa, among other places.
As Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, as bloody as the terror of the French Revolution, and other revolutions’ terrors, may have been, there is another terror whose horrors far surpass these. Of these two types of terror, one, like that which sprouted from the French Revolution, is short. Lasting months, it claims thousands of lives. The other type of terror is long. Lasting thousands of years, it enslaves and brutalizes and reaps the lives of hundreds of millions.
While both of these terrors are anathema to justice, Twain raises an urgent point – a point that is largely congruent with what Brand refers to when he writes of his trip to the slums of Nairobi. The long terror that Twain described is by no means over. Neither anomalous, nor an aberration, it is necessarily produced and reproduced along with the rest of our political-economy, and inextricable from the present Order.
While Russell Brand is by no means perfect, and among other things exhibits a considerable deal of disturbing behavior - rape jokes, and other forms of sexism that both stem from patriarchal privilege, and reproduce the existing patriarchal Order of domination – he is nevertheless entirely correct in pointing out both the need for what the ever-problematic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as a “revaluation of all values,” and a radical deviation from the present, ecocidal Order. Though characterized as a sort of simpleton savant spouting the need for violent change, rather than advocating violence, Russell Brand may be more accurately characterized as agitating for the recognition of the need for an end to what the philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to as the systemic “law-preserving violence” of the present violent Order.
Without raising him to the status of anything above a fellow fallible human being, we ought to support Russell Brand’s call for replacing the political-economy cannibalizing the planet with an actual politics. While remaining critical of his shortcomings, and the power his celebrity visibility wields, we nevertheless ought to encourage and support the popularization of his call for a radically egalitarian redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world.
Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached and on twitter @elliot_sperber