BBC: The Philosophy of Russell Brand

A recent segment on the BBC radio show Analysis is titled “The Philosophy of Russell Brand”. The audience is warned ahead of time to hold on to their hats as “Jeremy Cliffe enters a world without rules, without government, but with plenty of facial hair”. Following this introduction, and the expected sound bites from the Brand-Paxman interview, the segment talks about the attention Brand received, the Occupy/Indignados protest movement and features interviews with Paolo Gerbaudo, David Graeber, Michael Hardt, Peter Turchin, Daniel Pinchbeck, and a few friends of Cliffe.

Gerbaudo says that Brand represents anarcho-populism – “an uncanny marriage between anarchism and populism” – which draws on classical 19th century Anarchical thought. David Graeber, who is credited by Cliffe as being a major influence on the protest movement, says that the movement breaks with classical anarchism by embracing “immediate direct democracy”. He says that he believes in

the idea of horizontality, as we sometimes call it, that you don’t need a leadership structure to make democratic decisions, [which] often goes with elaborate ways of finding consensus rather than using majority voting, those kind of tactics, those kind of sensibilities, pre-figurative politics, as we sometimes call it. Pre-figurative politics means that the form of your organization should pre-figure, should be a model of the kind of society that you want to create.

Cliffe claims that Brand’s anti-voting message expresses “the theories of people like David Graeber”, and talks about “the Anarchist call for direct democracy”. Graeber recalls the history of the usage of the term “democracy” as follows:

For most of Western history “democracy” was a bad word. In fact “democrat” and “anarchist” were used almost interchangeably as these sorts of insane, crazy people who thought that ordinary people could organize their own lives without leaders, and it was this kind of coup in the late 18th century when people said: “I know, let’s define elections as being the basis of democracy,” and they created these constitutional systems that they at first thought were ways of suppressing democracy and then renamed them “democracy”.

Cliffe then talks about assemblies being an anarchist tool for decision making. Graeber describes how a friend his and himself organized an “assembly” by recruiting people who showed up for what purported to be an assembly but turned out to be “a rally”. Cliffe challenges Graeber about him acting as a leader on that occasion despite his claim for striving for a society without leaders. Graeber answers:

You always need someone to take the initiative at any given moment. But if it is always the same people taking the initiative then you’ve got a problem. I made a point actually of playing a great role in the beginning and then I stepped back. The way I like to think of it, we are not against leaders. We think everybody should be a leader – we’re a movement with 40 thousand leaders.

[…]

One of my favorite proposals from Occupy Athens is they argued the actual number of people who vote keeps going down, the number of people who are registered is quite high. They said not voting is clearly a form of expression so why don’t we have a law saying that let’s total up the number of registered voters who don’t vote and take that percentage of the seat in parliament and appoint people by lottery. Like a jury. In a way that is what democracy used to mean. That’s what they did in Ancient Athens or even in places like medieval Florence – you just have a lottery. Give them a literacy test, make sure they are not crazy. After that, they want to do it? Fine.

The proposal that Graeber mentions seems to be that of Filimon Peonidis. At this point Cliffe promises that “Analysis will be looking at this particular radical idea later in the series,” and puts the idea of sortition aside. He moves to discussing traditional anarchist localist ideas. He then has Peter Turchin point out an obvious flaw of those ideas:

Hunter-gatherer societies were organized in a very egalitarian non-hierarchical manner. But that’s because you living in a typical hunter-gatherer society of 50 or maybe 100 or 200 individuals could know everybody else there. The problem comes at the next level. So when you have 7 billion people now divided by even 3,000, so how many politically independent groups we will have? Well, the bad news is that when you have anarchy at the level of between-group interactions inevitably what happens is war. Because basically as soon as somebody starts it and there is no over-arching authority to stop warfare, the warfare spreads because those groups that are pacifist, they basically get selected out.

Cliffe moves to other matters and interviews one of his friends who explains that she feels that the electoral system doesn’t manage to generate policy that addresses the issues that she feels are important – housing being the one explicitly mentioned:

You ask me to engage with this democratic system as it is presented to us now: “vote, engage, you should do it, it is the responsible thing to do”. We speak about people who aren’t voting as underrepresented groups, but really, in a sense, I see it as a form of resistance almost to a structure that you can see is just not working or not for you, is not representative for you. […] The political conversation is […] about little tiny sound bites, and meanwhile we see people in housing lists for three years and no houses are being built. You can’t afford a house. You ask yourself, really, if this is what politicians are talking about, why should I vote?

It is almost time to sum up and Cliffe has Hardt agree that

it [the protest movement] doesn’t yet have the power to offer an alternative social arrangement. What it has is enormous power of critique of the present situation. I think that part of the agenda is to figure out how to be effective, and effective at what, of course.

To conclude, Cliffe has a message of co-optation, a formula that is standard in elite political discourse:

I think we still need some sort of state. Preferably, in the classical republican tradition, one that frees the best in human nature and restrains the worst. But for the state to work properly, you also need a public spirited democracy, a civic realm that is experimental, energetic, and engaging. Yet, the scourge of our age is political disengagement.

So what do we do about that?

The anarcho-populists in the universities, the Occupy movement, the people who’ve sat in parks and squares, and, yes, maybe even Russell Brand, they may not have the answers, but at least they are asking that question. Their pre-figurative politics rejects all those things like bureaucracy, process and labels that have put people off politics. Joyfully, stylishly, they have rallied many to mainstream political causes like living standards. They have brought thousands onto the streets and broken into the national political debate.

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20 Responses

  1. Perhaps Yoram would explain the relevance of this post to a blog on sortition. The BBC clearly think these are separate topics as they are currently preparing a programme on sortition for Analysis which will be broadcast in March. The trouble is, as Ahmed and I pointed out to Yoram offline, drawing an explicit connection between sortition and hard left politics will put of those who do not share that political perspective, and will therefore conclude that sortition is not for them. I can only conclude that this must be the reason for posting this piece, as it suits the moderator of this blog to keep those of a conservative inclination in a small minority.

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  2. Actually, they informed me that the show on lotteries would be broadcast on February 24 on BBC Radio 4. (Mark your calendars!) They’ve interviewed a number of experts on the topic, including Barbara Goodwin and yours truly.

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  3. > Actually, they informed me that the show on lotteries would be broadcast on February 24 on BBC Radio 4.

    Looking forward to this!

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  4. Keith,

    Your clumsy attempts to dictate the range of allowed conversation are both obnoxious and silly. I know this is the kind of censorship is taken for granted in commercial and government media, but as far as I am concerned this forum is democratic meaning everybody can have their say as they see fit (within very broad limits).

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  5. My understanding was that the topic of this blog was sortition (a balloting mechanism), rather than being a showcase for the political prejudices of the moderator. The problem is guilt by association — sortition will be seen as an element of anarcho-populism. For those of us who are serious about the political potential of sortition this is a good example of shooting oneself in the foot.

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  6. I took the post as centered on the Graeber reference to Filimon Peonidis’ sortition approach to the nonvoting electorate. The post as a whole contextualized how Graeber’s reference was being dealt with by BBCs somewhat mainstream perspective. I found it useful for my thinking about how to frame sortition in various contexts. No one message will convince people about sortition. It will take many different messages grounded in different worldviews and concerns to diverse audiences. We’ve barely started to sort that out. And this post seems a contribution to our thinking about it.

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  7. Tom,

    That’s a fair point. I would be more relaxed about this kind of post if it were balanced by an equal volume of material advocating sortition from other perspectives, along with some additional commentators who did not automatically assume that elected politicians were self-interested scumbags (a perspective shared by Russell Brand).

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  8. I must admit the piece was so annoying (in tone, framing, style) that I could not listen to much of it. It seemed to brand anyone with a political innovation as dreamer, anarchist, or worse. So, my initial reaction was, “Let’s not give it attention, because it might encourage this type of reporting.” Another approach could be to complain to the show’s host about not taking an entire segment of society seriously.

    Moreover it seems media (or even most of us) label as “populist” what they disagree with and “democratic” what they deem worthy of attention.

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  9. > I must admit the piece was so annoying

    If we moved to the “ridiculing” stage, i.e., we’ve moved past the “ignoring” stage, then we are making great progress.

    > Moreover it seems media (or even most of us) label as “populist” what they disagree with and “democratic” what they deem worthy of attention.

    Good point. Personally, I am not sure what “populist” really means, and why it is considered bad. I am also unsure how Gerbaudo’s “anarcho-populism” is different from simple “anarchism”. I think anarchism always aims at “populist” goals.

    This seems related to what Graeber claims above about how “democrat” used to be as much of the derogatory term as “anarchist”. Since now “democratic” is good, we need “populist” as a derogatory term with the equivalent content. The mindset this expresses seems like a throwback to older times when the official ideology was more explicitly oligarchical.

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  10. […] Two weeks ago I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis that was aired on Feb. 3. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog. […]

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  11. *** Ahmed RTeleb writes « it seems media (or even most of us) label as “populist” what they disagree with and “democratic” what they deem worthy of attention. » And Yoram Gat « Since now “democratic” is good, we need “populist” as a derogatory term with the equivalent content. The mindset this expresses seems like a throwback to older times when the official ideology was more explicitly oligarchical. »
    *** Much truth in these sentences, sure. But we must consider a possible historical sense for « populism ». « Socialism » included all the thoughts in reaction against capitalism, or its abuses : Fourier, Proudhon, the « northern » social-democrats with the Welfare State, Leninism and Stalinism – very different things, actually. « Socialism » had only a negative meaning. « Populism » may include all the contemporary reactions to oligarchising phenomena. Often it is against a precise elite, and it can be driven by another (competing) elite.
    *** The standard populisms in France (« Front National », rightist ; « Parti de Gauche », leftist) – who have very hard words each against the other – both propose the same « democratic » formula : huge use of referenda and proportional representation. Both reject sortition. Clearly their institutional proposals would lead only to an updated kind of polyarchy.
    *** If we use « populism » with an extensive negative meaning, the « sortinistas » favouring « democracy-through-sortition » are a kind of populism.
    *** In sixth century Athens, there were two kinds of populism, both against the traditional aristocratic rule : the « Pisistratist » kind, proposing a « popular » tyrant, and the Clisthenian kind, which led to the founding of the Athenian Dêmokratia. Very different models, even if there was a common negative element. Dêmokratia saw itself as antipodal of tyranny, but it is quite possible that a lot of common citizens, before the Clisthenes undertaking, did not even imagine dêmokratia, and liked the Pisistratist regime rather that the aristocratic rule. « Populist tyranny » was given up by theses citizens when dêmokratia came up as a possible model.

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  12. > it can be driven by another (competing) elite.

    Part of standard democracy dogma is that “the people” sometimes fall prey to populist demagoguery and irrationally support would be tyrants. In fact, supporting such a person – or as you put it more accurately, a competing elite – can be a perfectly rational line of action as a way to improve government policy.

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  13. >In fact, supporting such a [tyrant] – or as you put it more accurately, a competing elite – can be a perfectly rational line of action as a way to improve government policy.

    Yes that’s true, the Nazis worked wonders on the unemployment rate, built some excellent motorways and were well on the way to creating a society that treated the mentally and physically disabled (and inconvenient minorities) in a “perfectly rational” way. Huzzah!

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  14. *** Keith Sutherland’s comment could be misleading. We must not confuse « populist tyrannies » like the Pisistrate tyranny, which was rational and relatively soft, somewhat like « bonapartism », with the sectarian tyrannies like the « totalitarian regimes » of last century, prone to extreme brutality and madness.
    *** But a part of the popular support for totalitarian regimes could be of the same kind as the popular support for pisistratism or bonapartism (French Second Empire) : not « surrendering of people’s sovereignty », but distrust of a « moderate » regime which was actually seen as rule by oligarchies.
    *** When the dêmokratia appeared in Athens as a real possibility (not a dream of marginal thinkers), after Clisthenes, any popular support for tyranny did disappear. The one tyranny in further history of classical Athens, the rule of the « Thirty Tyrants », was the result of an attempt to substitute democracy by an oligarchy.

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  15. Andre,

    >Keith Sutherland’s comment could be misleading.

    It depends what Yoram meant by “improve government policy”. In previous posts he has consistently defined this to mean policy that is [or at least appears to be] in the interest of the masses, so I suppose sortition or a benign dictatorship might well realise this goal (or even some form of computerised felicific calculus**). But those of us who are also concerned to implement the wisdom of crowds would rule out dictatorship, as would those of us who seek to implement Rousseau’s requirement that we should all consent to the laws under which we are governed. Sortition has potential for all three desiderata, dictatorship only for the former.

    ** This is a serious suggestion, as Yoram has previously indicated that some government policies are self-evidently in the interest of the masses and some in the interest of the elite. If this is true, then it would be a trivial task to put all this information into a knowledge engine, thereby saving us all the cost and inconvenience of the process normally referred to as “politics” (which, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, takes up far too many evenings). I believe Wilde’s contemporary C.S. Peirce suggested something along similar lines.

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  16. […] Two weeks ago I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis that was aired on Feb. 3. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog. […]

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  17. […] message, although originally announced in 2013, continued to resonate and generate largely outraged responses throughout […]

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  18. […] I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis a few years ago. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog. […]

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  19. […] I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis a few years ago. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog. […]

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  20. […] Two weeks ago I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis that was aired on Feb. 3. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog. […]

    Like

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