Inequality, political capture, disruptive change… and Russell Brand

Inequality

In October, we launched our Even It Up campaign – calling for an end to extreme inequality. With almost half of the world’s wealth owned by just one percent of the population, this isn’t an issue unique to Oxfam and it is no surprise that extreme inequality is something of a hot topic. Here, Katy Wright looks at extreme inequality through a different
narrative – that of Russell Brand’s Revolution

You get a lot of attention reading Russell Brand’s book in public. It’s still in hardback so that intense stare and provocative title on the cover are very big and very visible. I’ve been asked several times what I think of it by total strangers. And this requirement to come up with an opinion on the spot, combined with an interest in communicating these complex issues after Oxfam launched our own campaign on inequality, started to
take the form of a full-on review in my head. 

So here are my thoughts written down: 

Without addressing gender it is impossible to understand inequality

It’s only fair to judge the book by what it sets out to do. Firstly, it’s a ‘wisdom of the stairs’ response to Jeremy Paxman, listing all the things Brand wished he’d thought of when asked what his revolution should look like on Newsnight. Secondly, it’s a bit of My Booky Wook 3: This is how I got all spiritual. But most importantly it is a very instinctive, emotional, and bloke-on-the-street-eye-view of what feels wrong with society today and some of the
more interesting theories around to change things. 

You need to try to get over the style. Yes, it reads like it was written by… well… by Russell Brand, but I suppose that would be the point of buying a book by him. Those who want Piketty can buy Piketty. I have both books. I have only read one. 

For those of you who have read, critiqued (or are) Thomas Piketty – put aside your natural annoyance for someone who comes to the party later and louder than you.  It is irritating to have someone shout “why is no-one talking about this?” when you’ve been earnestly talking about little else, but if you want to be effective and not just quietly right then you need this Brand message to take off. 

For the politicians a vote is an important mandate for legitimate power, but what they really want is power

Do take issue with the casual bloke-ism. I won’t say misogyny – there’s too much really purposeful misogyny around for that – but too little care has been taken to speak to women as allies in this vision of a better world. I’m not sure there is a sexual anecdote that does not include two women for each man – a ratio of human worth that is troubling and pernicious. Furthermore, as Oxfam’s report makes clear, without addressing gender it really is impossible to understand inequality. You can’t adequately diagnose the problem until you map its gender
dimensions. (Only three of the 30 richest people in the world are women, meanwhile women make up the vast majority of the lowest-paid workers and those in the most precarious jobs.) Furthermore any policy solutions that don’t understand the particular situation of women and girls threaten to simply give with one hand while taking away with the other, such as promoting women’s employment but simultaneously increasing women’s unpaid care burden. 

Take seriously his questioning of formal structures for change. That offhand command not to vote seemed irresponsible to me a year ago, but it makes more sense as part of a wider argument that radical change demands disruptive (though not violent) actions. One of the core arguments of Oxfam’s report on inequality is that wealth buys economic and political power. This capture of the policy making process by wealthy elites leads to policies tilted in their favour, thereby increasing inequality and also preventing reforms to address it. When you’re talking about
systematic change and challenging those who benefit from the status quo (which the Even It Up report does in spades) then your success will ultimately depend on your ability to disrupt. This disruption could come from taking advantage of external shocks such as the financial crisis; it could come from campaigning and mass mobilisation which tries to tip the balance in favour of people-power; but it could arguably also come through a passive refusal to take part in the
current system as it is.

So why not question the vaulted position of voting (wonderfully described by Brand in the book as the “infertile dry hump of gestural democracy”) as our sole means of having a say in things? For the politicians a vote is an important mandate for legitimate power, but what they really want is power. As ex-Number 10 adviser Matthew Taylor said on Newsnight recently:  they all want high voter turnout but “politicians would rather win an election on 10 per cent turnout than lose on 80 per cent”.  And if real
power is shared out so cosily between elites, and if a vote these days is less for one distinct political vision over another but an indication of your compliance with a hierarchical, orderly, passive form of governance, then I can see why it would be low down Brand’s list of tools for revolutionary change.

I welcome Brand’s eccentric book and his role in making more people political

Ultimately, though, I come down on the side of being pro-voting. Not because I necessarily think the act does much to express the tapestry of my political views, but because the looming threat of the vote is still our best chance of forcing real dialogue with decision makers. For those pre-election months the possibility of tipping the balance of power from plutocrats to people, and the threatened shock of a change in government, should be a rich time for disruptive campaigning (this is why I have such an issue with the lobby act – something that really does serve to make an election period more like that infertile dry hump of gestural democracy).

Of course I can’t say all this at the bus-stop when asked what I think of the book, but perhaps the short answer is as follows: I welcome Brand’s eccentric book and his role in making more people political – really political – at a time when we need it more than ever. Oxfam found this year that just 85 people have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. We should be driven slightly crazy by the injustice of that
statistic. Russell Brand clearly has been driven completely hopping mad and that, to my mind, makes him sane as anything. 

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Author: Katy Chakrabortty
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.