Russell Brand describes himself as a “comedian and campaigner”. While we might wonder at the first epithet, we can’t argue with the second. The man has built up a huge following among the angry teenage Lefties who dominate Twitter. His theme is that all politics is corrupt, all MPs are plutocrats’ stooges, and all rich people – except him, naturally – are part of a racket.
So why, someone asked him on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, didn’t he stand for Parliament? “Mate, I’m scared that I’d become one of them,” came the feeble reply.
Think about that for a moment. Russell Brand’s quarrel isn’t with the people who have more courage than him; it’s with parliamentary democracy itself. A chap might be making an honest living as, say, a “comedian and campaigner”; but the very fact of bothering to ask his countrymen for their votes would turn him into a shyster.
OK, Russell, so if you don’t like representative democracy, what’s your alternative? Anarchy? Fascism? Monarchical absolutism? An Islamic Caliphate? Because you can’t have a functioning democracy without politicians; and politicians, in every parliament, tend to group themselves officially or unofficially into parties.
You might think that Brand’s contention is so puerile as not to merit serious refutation. The chap is, if nothing else, brilliant at promoting his book by courting controversy. But, listen to the ululations of the studio audience when he speaks; read the ecstasy of his Twitter followers. Russell Brand may be cynically boosting his sales, but there are millions out there who take him seriously, parroting his line about parliamentary government being a scam.
I remember hearing the same remarks in South America during the 1990s. Democracy is a sham, all politicians are crooks, voting only encourages them, blah blah. Such disillusionment was the prelude to the populist authoritarianism than has since spread across the continent, knocking aside parliamentary rule in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and elsewhere. The new caudillos aren’t exactly dictators: they were more or less fairly elected. But, once in office, they set about destroying every check on their power, from opposition media to independent courts, justifying every power-grab as a way of getting even with the old elites.
Could something similar happen in Europe? Well, look at what has already happened. In 2011, Brussels imposed civilian juntas on Italy and Greece, toppling elected governments in favour of Eurocrats. What was the justification for these Euro-coups? Pretty much the same as Russell Brand’s: that democracy had failed. As the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durrão Barroso, had put it a few months earlier: “Governments are not always right. If governments were right, we wouldn’t have the situation we have today. Decisions taken by the most democratic decisions in the world are very often wrong”.
As a matter of fact, I’d argue pretty much the opposite. It is the infantilisation of voters, their loss of any sense that they control their destiny, that leads to breakdowns of the Greek kind. Give people more democracy, à la Suisse, and they’ll use it to keep their rulers under control. As the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen once put it, “Don’t ask whether a nation is fit for democracy; it becomes fit through democracy”.
Let me put the question again: what is the alternative? Dislike of party politics has been the justification for every autocrat in history: Cromwell, Bonaparte, Lenin, Mussolini, Franco. And it always starts in the same way, with the arguments now being put forward by Russell Brand.