Friday, 31 October 2014

Brand Management: it’s Not About Russell Brand

 

Brand 2.0 – Revolutionary Brand (October 2013)

Paxman

Twelve months ago in October 2013, following Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman, I sat down to write. Yet events moved faster than my blogging efforts. Just as I thought I had something to say, the Brandwagon would trundle on, and I’d feel the need to catch up before writing anything else.

And then it all seemed to fizzle out, and we moved on to the next media event involving another celebrity. Some times when you are so far behind in a race it can seem like the best thing to do is just drop out and quietly try to blend into the watching crowd. No longer a back marker, but a discerning viewer. In shorts.

I first wanted to write something about the way in which, to coin a phrase, Russell Brand took Paxman the fucking cleaners. If you are one of the few not to have seen the interview, Brand exposed Paxman's limitations, how Paxman’s views and his interviewing style, whatever their strengths, are constrained by the frames he accepts from established and establishment mainstream politics. A little like how traditional TV police precinct drama just seemed out-dated, following one's viewing of season one of The Wire, Paxman all of a sudden dated, as the interview progressed. As the interview ended, it was like right there, right before one's eyes, Paxman the cultural symbol was transformed. By the end of the short interview he was, he had become, a remnant from a previous era. A symbol of a culture past. His performance seemed to reinforce the feeling I’d had after watching Kirsty Wark embarrass herself, and Newsnight, when she interviewed Glenn Greenwald a week or two earlier.

Sure, there are many who would claim that Paxman's establishment credentials have always been apparent, that his famed perma-frown and affected incredulity serve as little more than thin, though theatrical, veils for a man who is as much a part of British establishment politics as those politicians who have sat opposite him. I would be one of those people, but we were always the naysayers. Paxman had an aura and authority, and it was that which seemed to be squeezed and then to drain from him as his interview with Brand failed to go to plan. In truth, the theatricality of Paxman’s professional persona served as little more than a distraction, covering up for the fact that he didn’t really ask difficult questions, but rather more often than not asked wholly expected questions, which were framed by a distinctly conservative set of assumptions about what is politically possible. His questions weren’t insightful and difficult, they were just asked aggressively.

If it wasn’t already clear that Paxman’s assumptions limited his outlook, then as Brand became visibly frustrated he concluded by fully exposing Paxman’s limitations. Brand reminded Paxman that he had appeared on the TV programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” and had shed tears when confronted with the experiences of a female relative, who was alive in the late 19th century; yet, Brand pointed out, here Paxman was pouring scorn on his arguments for change while there are people undergoing the same experiences in the the UK now, in 2013. One, a long-dead relative from the distant past, elicits tears; the other, a person undergoing the same experience in 2013 UK, elicits indifference and prompts sneers directed at those who are emotionally moved by her plight.

No sooner had I written this than Paxman published a piece in the Radio Times, where he seemed to be agreeing with some of Brand’s points in a way he had not done when conducting the interview. The significance of the actual interview seemed to recede as people began discussing Brand’s arguments and credentials. It became less about what the interview seemed to stand for, symbolise, or tell us and more about Russell Brand the celebrity persona, and what that symbolises.

Enter Nick Cohen and the BIG Mussolini idea

So, some commentators would dismiss Brand as unqualified and naive. Nick Cohen & Robert Webb looked pretty petty, and sometimes nasty, in their contributions. Cohen drew comparisons between Brand, Mussolini and Miley Cyrus. No really. Take a moment…

Perhaps Robert Webb made Brand feel like a naive fool whose plan had misfired. Perhaps not.

Webb had taken to the New Statesman to write an open letter to Brand, following the latter’s political interventions in the same magazine and on Newsnight. In that letter Webb remarked that Brand’s arguments had motivated him to re-join the Labour party. The wit. The insight. He re-joined the Labour party. . .

Both Cohen and Webb seemed to be picking-up on one of Paxman’s refrains in the original interview: Paxman seemed to think that we could take Brand’s criticisms seriously only if he provided us with blueprints for an alternative politics. If taking on Brand became a kind of combat sport by proxy for middle-aged professional sneerers in the media, then where Paxman had failed, Nick Cohen was determined to succeed. Unfortunately, for Cohen, determination is no substitute for ability. Cohen threw haymakers! I’ve mentioned the Mussolini and Miley Cyrus comparisons already. In addition to those, Cohen concluded his piece by invoking the putative wisdom of a late friend, so as to draw contrast between that friend’s wisdom (support for the 2003 Iraq war, for example) and Brand’s alleged Mussolini-like idiocy (advocating revolution).

To read Cohen was a little like watching an out of shape, punch drunk, journeyman boxer, one who had never been much cop (though he’d sparred with the greats, of course). There he was, standing unsteadily in the centre of the ring swinging wild haymakers and shouting at his opponent, the gifted young pretender, to come and fight. Unfortunately, the actual fight was long-over, Brand had been top of the bill, and had won; he was now in the hotel bar having a drink. Unperturbed, Cohen continued to swing his fists in an empty ring, in an empty arena, becoming wilder and wilder.

Wise Norm – Stupid Russ

How wild? Well…

…As I noted, Cohen juxtaposed Brand to his late friend, the political philosopher and Normblog blogger, Norman Geras. Why? Well, because according to Nick, unlike Brand, Geras was committed to the centrality of human rights and democracy. And it is worth reminding ourselves what such mature, reasoned commitment amounted to (particularly if we might be tempted to take Webb’s advice and join the Labour Party). So, we might note that Geras’s ‘maturity’ and ‘wisdom’ led him to his principled and sustained support for the attack, invasion and occupation of Iraq, support he maintained even after it was unequivocally established that there were and had been no WMD.

In League Against Tedium guise, the comedian Simon Munnery used to ask ‘when was a war fought in the name of war?’ War is almost always fought in the name of justice, freedom, democracy or rights. If you’re going to do something very bad and very expensive, then you best justify it by reference to very good things. Right? Well, surely then, the burden of a mature and wise, not to mention honest, commentator such as Geras is to subject to critical scrutiny the claims of politicians who take us to war in the name of justice and freedom, not merely accept the claims as stated.

Geras singularly failed in this task and he marketed that failure as a virtue.  So, while he might have asked whether the claims of those taking us to war amounted to lies, he didn’t. While he might have explored whether the stated justifications for war invoked a perverse ends-means justification, where the brutality of the means trumped any moral worth claimed for the ends, he did not do so.

Perhaps, the illegal attack and military occupation of Iraq wasn’t after all fought to find the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, as the those who took us to war claimed in the run-up. Maybe, Norm was right in telling them (Webb’s Labour Party) what they should have argued from the outset: it was fought to bring democracy and rights to Fallujah.

The problem is that in reality it brought white phosphorus. It brought death and destruction.

While Geras was busy accusing the left of an abdication of moral responsibility, he consistently argued in defence of this illegal and immoral war. But you know, one man’s reasoned, temperate defence of the supreme values of democracy and human rights might appear to another man as a defence of illegal warfare and the bombing of innocent Iraqis with rebranded chemical weapons: white phosphorus is good for lighting up darkened cities apparently, cities which happen to be in darkness because your bombs have taken out the power grid and destroyed the street-lighting.

Surely Geras had something to say about the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, right? Wrong. Just as it takes more than the claim to be a Marxist to be one (irrespective of whether one believes that to be a laudable desire) it also takes more than claiming one is a defender of democracy and rights to be in the service of democracy and rights.

So much for Cohen’s juxtaposition of Wise Norm and Stupid Russ.

Wilful Misrepresentation

It’s difficult not to get caught-up with Cohen’s nonsense, so in the spirit of laziness I am going to avoid the difficulty and say a little more. The last point I want to make is about integrity. So, here is the quote from Brand’s 2013 New Statesman article that Cohen furnishes us with so as to draw parallels between a comedian advocating greater equality and justice, Russell Brand, and a fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini:

“Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster”

‘Ouch!’, you might be tempted to say. Cohen seems to have exposed Russell in all his incoherent, “adolescent” and fascist-friendly glory there.

Surely we can all go home now, maybe even take Robert Webb’s advice and join the Labour Party. Nothing to see here…

… but wait on; things are not quite as Cohen presented them in his selection from Brand’s article. Here is the quote as it actually is in the New Statesman:

“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone. The Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years, the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years, the Technological Revolution took tens, the Spiritual Revolution has come and we have only an instant to act.”

I trust I need comment no further. No advocating of suicide bombing there. Odd how Nick did not quote either: “Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately…” or “We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone”. I guess the big Mussolini idea would have lost much of its rhetorical force.

Postponed View.

The Brand commentary wasn’t all bad. There were the more serious pieces. Natasha Lennard wrote a very insightful piece at Salon, which looked more closely at what Brand has said in the past, how he interacts with and communicates about others, particularly women, and in the process made some very good points, which really took the whole discussion to a higher level.

Should I write on this, I wondered? Should I write on the sexism? Or should I write on how Brand’s revolutionary politics might sit with the revolutionary tradition? Or write on both, and ask how his revolutionary politics sit with his apparent, or past(?), chauvinism? He hasn’t seemed too progressive or revolutionary from a gender politics perspective. Is that a problem? Is this a sustainable position: revolutionary emancipatory politics without feminist insight? 

One question might be whether Russell seeks to combine a revolutionary socialism in public life with libertarian personal politics, and whether this is sustainable or simply inconsistent. Maybe an exploration of that would be interesting. Perhaps.

This was where, back in 2013, I just shelved my thoughts, and they didn’t make it to the point of becoming a View.

 

Brand 3.0  Revolutionary Pamphlet (October 2014)

Then, one year later, the Brandwagon came to town again, promoting a book titled Revolution. October 2014 saw another Newsnight interview, this time with Evan Davis; another article from Cohen, this time a book review; and another wave of commentators for and against Russell, this time including John Lydon.

This time I decided not to bother.

Russell Brand is smart, he is charismatic and his career as a successful comedian and actor means he has access to media platforms which enable him to use his intelligence, eloquence and charisma to publicise overlooked, ignored and under-represented issues. He often does so in ways that make difficult points accessible and radical proposals persuasive.

He might have chosen not to do this. He might have just glided into a comfortable life of acting, party-going and silence on issues that might upset sponsors and casting directors. He might have taken the Gary Barlow route, and campaigned for the Tory party while avoiding paying taxes on his millions. He might have taken the Bono route, and appointed himself spokesperson for the world’s disadvantaged, while ignoring and shouting over their voices, and while avoiding paying taxes on his millions.

Is he more than merely better than Barlow, Bono and the silent celebs?  Yes, he’s obviously better. But, is he more than merely better than a tax avoiding Tory, tax avoiding neoliberal apologist and celebs who stay silent? My thought is that this is the wrong question. I really don’t think it matters.

The thought that this question might matter is based in an assumption that to be worthwhile he needs to be more than he is. We seem to want him to be a leader and a sage, not just a celebrity who cares, is passionate and wants to make a contribution to change for the better. But the thing about political change for the better is that it cannot come from following someone, but only from the people—us—bringing it about. Looking for the leader is to look for the wrong thing. Looking for one person to provide all the answers is also to look for the wrong thing.

We don’t need a leader. We don’t need a sage.

We are not waiting for the ideas, we already have them. We don’t need a leader, we need to organise.

So why Brand? Well, we do need more exposure for marginalised ideas. Maybe that is why Brand can work for us prior to transition beginning. Celebrity can work as a transitional device. But really, that’s it.

 

Brand 4.0 Post-Brand, Post-Celebrity, Post-Spectacle.

So, I kind of like Russell Brand. I like that he pops up all over our airwaves promoting greater justice and equality. I’m irritated by those who sneer because they judge him unqualified to speak on such matters. Who are they to decide and why don’t they instead just say it better, rather than sneering at Russell?

I am, however, also irritated that it takes celebrity endorsement to gain wide exposure for views that are already out there. 

Why do we look for, hope for and dare to expect events and individuals to be trigger-events, which will alone bring about the political transformation we desire or believe is required? I suspect we have a tendency to be guilty of a little wishful thinking, which is bolstered by our wider political culture, where the cult of the individual and the pervasiveness of brand management combines in the production of the cult of celebrity and spectacle. On this model, Russell Brand could not have been a more obvious candidate if he had been a character so named in a piece of contemporary political satire.

We exist in a world where people and events, beyond our face-to-face interactions and direct experience, often register as of interest only in so much as they have been given a brand image and gain the status of fetish objects. Celebrity and spectacle are the fetishes of our time, standing proxy for people and events. As such, they are events and people, which transformed into spectacles and celebrities, have a power that transcends their being. We might say their power as abstract objects, as celebrities and spectacles, transcends by orders of magnitude their power as concrete individuals and events. And Russell Brand knows this. He is open about his desire to make good use of his celebrity, and the extent to which that enables him to reach many.

There is much one might say about this, but what I am interested in here is the extent to which this leads to an expectation on our part, because it has become normalised. We seem to expect or require celebrity endorsement or spectacle so that we might be motivated to act. If a person does not have a carefully managed brand image and is not presented to us as a celebrity then they often barely register. If an event is not brand managed, transforming it in the collective imagination, in to a spectacle for our entertainment or wonder, then the event struggles to even figure in our thoughts. Perhaps there is something inevitable about branding in a world where face-to-face encounters are no longer the dominant mode of encounter between people. Introduce the logic of the market and, perhaps, this takes us some way toward understanding why the manufacture or production of identities and the manufacture of spectacle from the raw material of events is so pervasive.

Let’s look at an example. The reasons for going to war in Iraq in 2003 were cited as 1. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities and 2. links between Iraq and the attack on the World Trade Centre. This was buttressed by 3. the identification of Sadam Hussein as a brutal dictator. So, according to these reasons, Iraq was a threat, it had been involved in an attack on US soil and in any case, bombing Iraq would serve to free Iraqis from Sadam’s brutal dictatorship.

The problem with this is that 1. & 2. were lies and there was clear evidence to show this prior to the launching of the attack. The third point is based on truth, but doesn’t quite serve as a justification for dropping tonnes of ordinance on innocent people. And if it did, then we are owed an explanation as to why there is such a lack of consistency on such matters. There are many brutal dictators, and not only do we not attack them all, we often form alliances with some of them. 

Consistency aside, there is also the means-ends problem, mentioned earlier. Call me a dyed-in-the-wool secular humanist devoid of a spiritual sensibility, if you will, but I just don’t think that killing people amounts to either freeing them or saving them. It is, of course, a good way of taking control of stuff that’s theirs, like their oil fields, but that’s another story.

What the politicians knew in spinning the lies, was that as soon as the war began it would stop being a hypothetical policy decision and a hypothetical war to be argued over; the war would be transformed into a spectacle, presented to us as such on our screens in our living rooms, in bars and gyms.

Where hypothetical wars generate argument about their merits or otherwise, actual wars, in addition to being foul things where people are often needlessly murdered en masse, become spectacles, relayed to us via a variety of media. Our emotions are triggered and we become invested in the spectacle in a way in which we weren’t in the hypothetical war. Politicians know this, because it is well understood. They manage it: emphasise the spectacle of bombs hitting key targets, minimise the footage of maimed human beings. Magnify the spectacular, minimise the up-close and personal (unless you can use that, carefully selected, to stimulate support for ‘our boys’). In the same way that a film director can influence, if not manipulate, the viewers’ emotional responses, their investment in some characters at the expense of others, and so on, so the spin machine allied with a compliant media can produce for the viewer a filmic war. War-as-spectacle stands to war as the individual-as-celebrity stands to the individual.

Wars can be presented in many ways, eliciting different responses. They can be presented as spectacles designed to stimulate our emotional responses in desired ways or they can go un-presented and remain mere events that don’t register or matter to any but those directly effected. Individuals can be presented in many ways, eliciting different responses. They can be presented as celebrities designed to stimulate our emotional responses in desired ways or they can go without any brand management and remain mere individuals that don’t register or matter to any but those they directly effect.

The power of celebrity and spectacle is both open to extreme manipulation and results in a diminution in the status of (now mere) individuals and events.

Russell Brand should be applauded for trying to take control of his celebrity persona and use it for good. That this leads to sneering and to attempts to manipulate and manage that persona by certain interest groups should not really surprise us.

 

Brand 4.0 Go Open Source

However much events like Brand’s interview with Paxman can seem to have the kind of significance I suggested, however much they seem to resonate, however much they might seem to have shifted our way of looking at things, there is inevitably, it seems, of a general reversion to how things were. A reversion to the mean.

The establishment frames remain in place as Paxman’s failure serves as a rallying call to other figures whose job it is to preserve the ‘natural’ order by sneering and sowing the seeds of fear at the possibility of radical or revolutionary change. The fear grows, and blocks out the light. The idea is to cancel-out Brand’s rallying call to those who are unrepresented by our political establishment.

The point about both Newsnight interviews that should be borne in mind is this: whatever was good in what Russell Brand said has been said thousands of times, it can be found in books published in many languages, it has been argued in detail. If Evan Davis’s questions about Brand’s remarks on dissolving corporations causes problems for Russell Brand, if he struggles to adequately answer or even evades the question, then so what? Is he the only critic of corporate culture, power and law? Of course not. There are many people who could answer that question easily and many more who could provide Evan Davis with a comprehensive reading list, that might make him realise the extent to which his question serves to demonstrate his conservatism. Ideas such as dissolving corporate charters and democratising workplaces might be currently marginalised ideas but they are not unusual, embryonic or flawed. They have a rich, long history.

The choice is not, as people like Davis would imply, between our present early 21st century version of corporate capitalism and a 1940s Soviet-style centrally planned economy. It’s not iPhones or no phones. The choice is between injustice, inequality and destruction of our planet and justice, equality and flourishing ecosystems. Do we want to say there is no alternative to the the former or strive to bring about the latter?

So, I don't need Russell Brand to explain to me on Newsnight how a (dynamic) steady state economy might work. They can turn to the numerous authors who have discussed such in detail.

I don't need Russell Brand to explain how a combination of deliberative democratic institutions, worker ownership of means of production and a democratised workplace would re-invigorate our existing degenerative, corporate-strangled, barely democratic political institutions and public sphere. There are many activists, political philosophers and activist-philosophers who could do that.

I don't need Russell Brand to explain to me precisely how we can transition to a post-carbon world. There are many who can do that. And

I don't need Russell Brand to outline a blueprint for a new way of resolving conflicts without resort to violence. Non-violence movements have a long history.

If Russell Brand might serve a need, it is to bring many of these ideas to mainstream attention; not so that people like Cohen, Davis, Webb et al have someone to sneer at and patronise; not so he can be presented as if he is the authority on and spokesperson for these ideas by Davis, implying that the ideas stand or fall with Brand’s ability to defend them in detail; because, in the absence of celebrity these ideas don’t currently achieve the air time they merit.

Put another way, we need Russell Brand and others like him, because our mainstream news outlets continue to give jobs to myopic, apologists for the status quo like Davis and Cohen. 

I am happy to hear Brand’s contributions, not because they are original, they’re often not; nor because he makes them particularly well, sometimes he might put things better. I am happy to hear his contributions because it is good to see someone making such points on such platforms, irrespective of that person’s credentials. Russell Brand will have really achieved his political goal if the story transforms from being a story about Russell Brand and his politics and instead becomes a story about alternatives to the status quo. If, after the media move on to another celebrity and another spectacle, we start seeing more prominent discussions of post-growth political-economy, then we will have made a little progress, and Russell Brand will have had a part in that progress. If the thought of dropping more bombs in the name of freedom becomes an outrageous thought, apart from in very rare and exceptional circumstances, then we will have made progress. And Russell Brand, and not Nick Cohen and Norman Geras, will have made a contribution to that progress.

Join the Convoy to Change

So, the Brandwagon continues its journey, its quest even. But it is crucial to understand that it is, and needs to be, part of a convoy. Sometimes it might lag behind, sometimes it might vie for the lead. But the important thing to note, unlike those who frame discussion of Brand in the celebrity-spectacle mode, is that it is the convoy that is important and needed to bring about the required change. Whatever impression snapshots taken by programmes like Newsnight might appear to tell us about this convoy, no one wagon is its essence or its determinant of success or failure.

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