I recently attended Russell Brand’s stand-up show, ‘Trew World Order’ in Sydney, Australia. Brand provided his usual bawdy comedy alongside anti-capitalist and new-age spiritual messages. At the end of the show, he gave a plug for a number of local causes, including that of public housing tenants facing forced evictions from historic Millers Point in Sydney, a public housing project that the New South Wales state government wants to sell to private buyers. He also made a surprise visit to Millers Point, and the tenants were grateful for the publicity his visit brought. Brand is no stranger to public housing activism. He has supported groups such as Sweets Way Resists in their fight against redevelopment of their public housing estate in North London, where he organised a sleepover occupation protest which helped to bring the issue into public consciousness. Brand’s involvement in these issues seems to have been welcomed by most of the housing activist groups.
Celebrity activism is not new. Hollywood has a history of actor activism, and more recently in the UK, stars of television and stage, such as Benedict Cumerbatch, have shown their activist credentials.
Brand does divide people, though. Some commentators have applauded his turn towards activism and see him as an important figure in social justice issues. Others have dismissed him either as an attention-seeking celebrity or as an irritating idiot. Brand might not appeal to everyone, but I think the majority of dislike is class-based. He has been mocked for his accent, his lack of restraint, and his lack of formal education. Brand often uses long words and is criticised for being pretentious as a result. His status as an auto-didact, or even an organic intellectual, is not often celebrated. When a middle-class or upper-class commentator uses a long word, it is expected and accepted. When a working-class background person uses the same words, they are ridiculed.
It is true that Brand does sometimes appear to take over and speak for the people he is supporting, and this could be frustrating for activists wanting to talk about their issues on their own terms. And some of his commentary has been arguably misguided or counter-productive. He famously stated in an interview prior to the most recent British general election that voting was not useful, and this may have influenced some working-class people (particularly young people) to not vote, which was against their interests.
Brand also doesn’t always acknowledge his privilege – particularly his white privilege. In an episode of his YouTube web series The Trews, he suggested that anti-austerity protestors should show some love for the police in order to bring them into the fold. This might be fine for a white man with resources to fight police charges, but not so easy for people of colour who are subject to police harassment. This demonstrates a level of naivety and the cushioning effects of his fame and fortune.
Despite this, the class-based criticisms of Brand point to the threat he poses as a working-class background celebrity activist. His fame allows him a platform and his popularity among his fans means many people listen to what he says and are potentially influenced by his views. At the Sydney show, fans cheered at his mention of causes which mainly affect working-class people.
The mainstream media is very middle-class. Journalists and commentators tend to be privately educated. There has been a ‘gentrification of the left’, and few working-class voices are heard in politics and the media. Most Left-wing commentators are middle or upper class and despite their good intentions and commitment to social justice causes, their voices dominate. There’s much to admire in the work of Owen Jones, for example, but his social and educational capital means he is not likely to be ridiculed due to his accent or choice of words.
When Emma Watson made her gender equality speech in the United Nations she was applauded for her restraint and simple eloquence. When Brand speaks he is accused of being verbose. The combination of working-class accent and intelligent speech is one that seems to particularly irk middle-class commentators across the political spectrum. Brand has the kind of visibility and fan adoration that most political commentators or journalists will never experience. Dismissing him as a narcissistic loud-mouth is arguably a way to silence him and to diminish the working-class causes he has championed.
Brand is a comedian, and comedy is a powerful weapon. Comedy can educate, enlighten, and empower. Comedians often speak truth to power, and a celebrity comedian with a political message for working-class people has the potential to be quite powerful indeed. Brand deserves the same respect as middle-class commentators. His ideas should be discussed, debated, and even dismissed at times. But not because he doesn’t have the benefit of an expensive private education or a university degree or because he is loud (or ‘mouthy’ as English people say). He has as much right to occupy the public sphere as any Oxbridge or Ivy League graduate. Brand might not be responsible for starting a working-class revolution, but he might just inspire some of his working-class fans to get involved with politics, to join activist groups, to demand social justice.