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Russell Brand and the Need for Planetary Adjustment
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.
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.
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.
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.