Originally published by Ceasefire 16th November.
Last week’s encounter between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight created a Twitter storm, became a YouTube sensation and gave rise to an outpouring of political commentary from all sides of the political spectrum. And yet, few seem to have picked up on the fact that Paxman’s line of questioning, and the subsequent belittling of Brand’s answers as “vague,” or embodying “style over substance,” provided a revealing insight into the ways in which the status quo engages with challenges from those advocating revolutionary change.
In most instances, this is to simply to ignore them, and it certainly is a rarity for Newsnight or any BBC programme to give airtime to such views. However, when they do engage with those articulating revolutionary ideas, Paxman’s two main lines of attack sum up the wider discourses adopted by the holders of the dominant paradigm. Namely, they attempt to shut down the debate by asking the infinitely complex and loaded question “What is the alternative?” and/or they attack the legitimacy of those advocating revolution by asking, in Paxman’s words, “How do you have any authority to talk about politics?” This framing is consistently deployed to undermine and intimidate anyone suggesting an alternative; and reflects the wider culture of elitism enshrined in our political processes.
Probing Brand further, Paxman exclaimed “I’m asking you what [a revolution] would be like,” to which Brand responded with a list of things it would not be like: “A huge disparity between rich and poor…where there is an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually exploited and ignored”. Much commentary has picked up on this; some would argue it is typical of the left to say what they don’t want and to criticise without offering an alternative.
The Occupy Movement was accused of the very same thing. Its greatest weakness, we were continually told, was that they “didn’t know what they wanted”. This is symptomatic of the Post-Cold War era, with the fall of Soviet-style communism and “the end of history”. Communism as an alternative has been demonised, discredited and has become a dirty word, so much so that most of those advocating an alternative to Capitalism are loathed to invoke it.
Brand, in fact, did put forth an alternative: “a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment…the concept of profit should be hugely reduced.” He even suggested that this would still have to be “centrally administered” but not called a government: “Call them the admin-bods so they don’t get ahead of themselves”.
Similarly, whenever the left do offer alternatives, as in Brand’s case, these are invariably labelled as “vague”. And yet, whilst Brand’s answer was succinct, it did present a basic outline of what an alternative political system might look like. The scale and complexity of the question of an entirely re-imagined system is overwhelmingly vast, which makes invoking it it such an effective tool of shutting down debate; it is a question that simply cannot be answered with sufficient detail in a ten-minute interview, or a short article or blog post, or through any popular mode of mass media communication.
Even if Brand had delivered a more in-depth presentation of an alternative system, it would have been edited down into its most entertaining soundbites. A coherent alternative worldview requires a whole culture of its own to articulate all the complexities a new political system would entail for it to be compared fairly and meaningfully to the system it seeks to replace, given that the dominant paradigm already has its own culture, education system, and media, developed over decades. Saying that revolutionaries “don’t know what they want” or, when they do, that it is “too vague” ignores the fact that they are rarely given a sufficient platform to present a coherent alternative.
The second common line of attack aimed at those advocating real political change is to question their “authority” in making the case for change, thereby undermining the legitimacy of their claims. This leaves anyone who feels disenfranchised or disillusioned with the current political process in a Catch-22 situation: either they say and do nothing and are therefore branded ‘apathetic’, or they speak out and call for an alternative, in which case they are derided for lacking the prerequisite ‘authority’ to do so.
It is truly a lazy democracy that asks us to only be involved in the political process once every five years by putting a cross on a ballot paper. One might just as easily ask what makes politicians qualified to run the country, besides their disproportionate levels of privilege. As cabinet reshuffles demonstrate, ministers are not ‘experts’ in the fields they are responsible for; a minister can be heading the department for culture one minute and be shifted onto health the next.
What both of these narratives illustrate is the exercise of power on the part of the status quo. Typically, the status quo ignores alternative views altogether, but on the rare occasions that it engages with them, it employs these discursive methods of discipline and belittlement. Those in favour of social change should not lazily accept these narratives, and instead must question them, for example by acknowledging the limiting nature of the current entertainment and news media sectors.
People advocating alternatives cannot allow such discourses to intimidate them out of articulating their vision for a more positive future. We must recognise the rare instances like the Brand/Paxman interview for what they are: the starting point for a much deeper and broader discussion about alternatives, not a platform to articulate those alternatives in full.