Russell Brand and the vote fetish
Before I say anything about The Video, let me say this: I vote. Like a motherfucker, in fact. I can virtually guarantee that I vote more than almost anyone whipped into a superior frenzy about Brand’s anti-voting postulations. I don’t mean this in the Tammany Hall, election-rigging, “vote early, vote often” sense. I mean that in addition to voting in every federal, provincial, and municipal election since I’ve been eligible to cast a ballot, I also vote: in the leadership elections of various either hopeless or morally compromised leftish political parties; for the board of the credit union with which I do my banking; as a member of a housing, and several consumer, co-ops. I don’t vote in televised singing or dancing competitions, but only because I’m so proud of everybody. Otherwise, to borrow the slogan we used when we ran my pal Graham Clark for public office as part of a TV show we were working on, I spoil my ballot rotten.
I’ve also never had much time for the optimistic view of non-voters being a bloc that, in its non-participation, makes known any coherent displeasure with things-as-they-are. Failing to show up is, as a political action, too ambivalent and easy to spin to be effective in and of itself. I also look at the frantic efforts made by plutocrats to keep people from exercising their franchise — pursuing patently racially motivated “anti-voter fraud” legislation in the US; using robots to prank call voters into showing up at non-existent voting places up here in Canada — and think to myself: why make it any easier for them? I’ve always hated Emma Goldman’s “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” quip — when she said it, for most people, it was. Still is, in far too many places.
That said: I think that Brand’s video has racked up more than 5 million YouTube views — and nearly twice as many Tsk-Tsks from Those Who Know Better — precisely because the core of what he was saying is so obviously and uncontroversially true.
Whenever mainline pundits aren’t waxing sacrosanct about the responsibility to vote if you want to change the world, they’re telling us to grow up and be-fucking-reasonable-for-Chrissakes and accept the paper-thin range of the politically possible. The media commentary on the Federal NDP leadership race of 2012, to take an example, was an extended exercise in shaming the Unreasonable (left) factions of the party into being Reasonable, and culminated in its duly electing its most right-leaning leader in history. Colouring (in orange) outside of the lines proscribed by what Tariq Ali has called “extreme centrism” was cast as a problem that the party would have to overcome if it wanted to sit at the grown-ups’ table of Canadian electoral politics. In Serious Politics, we all agree a priori to uphold Canada’s uniquely maple-glazed neoliberal consensus, and restrict all conflict to basically window-dressing (ATM fees, say), clashes of personality, and the occasional attack on outright wrongdoing, venality, and criminality.
This isn’t, of course, just a Canadian problem. On Pericles’s own home turf, Greek voters have confounded Those Who Know Better by repeatedly choosing to vote for the wrong stuff or for the wrong people. Stuff and people who wont see bondholders get all their shit back, for instance. And in Russell Brand’s homeland, voters have been offered up an ever-narrowing scope of political choices to make since the mid-1990s, when Margaret Thatcher’s erstwhile opponents committed themselves ideologically to carrying out Thatcherism with a human (and by ‘human,’ I mean ‘imperfect, and by ‘imperfect,’ I mean ‘Tony Blair’s’) face.
All this to say: it’s not the guy with the perfectly-manicured stubble-beard who ran our franchise through the shit; it was all the Rich, Powerful Dudes who also happen, conveniently, to embody the whole horizon of our possible politics, at least in the electoral realm. Brand himself, in his very thoughtful essay on the London Riots of 2011, suggested that the reason some young rioters acted as though they had no responsibility to society was because “[David] Cameron’s mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there’s no such thing.” Similarly, Brand might just think it’s stupid to vote because those of us who want a wider range of political and economic options at the ballot box have been repeatedly told that we’re stupid for wanting them.
Brand isn’t the one posing a menace to the democratic sensibility, threatening the imposition of Forgetting Sarah Marshall Law (sorry). As someone who broadly desires much of what Brand does (he hints at socialism with an ecological sensibility, which sounds about right to me), I’ll keep voting in every election just like my fellow Charlie keeps taking runs at that football, hoping that this time he gets to connect. But if Russell and I and millions of other people end up getting any of the change that we want, I’m afraid he’s mostly right: at the very least, the first stirrings of what brings it about won’t happen in the voting booth — or, in Canadian terms: behind a sensible piece of folded cardboard.