A few days ago, well known English comedian and actor Russell Brand was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman of the BBC’s Newsnight. Here’s the video (yes it’s long and no it’s not absolutely necessary that you watch it, but trust me, it’s worth it):
So for all of you guys who decided to skip the video, I put together a literary highlight tape of some of the more note-worthy quotes from the interview:
If you didn’t watch the video, Brand has been hired as a guest editor of the left wing British publication The New Statesman. Early on, Paxman asks Brand what gives him the authority to talk about politics, to which Brand replies,
I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm, which is quite narrow and only serves a few people; I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity…alternate means; alternate political systems…”
I’m cool with that answer. I don’t really think you need any kind of authority to speak on politics- I would say the only real qualification is a reasonable level of knowledge on whatever topics you choose to speak upon. As far as the current paradigm only serving a few people- that’s pretty vague so we’ll get back to it.
Paxman then proceeds to ask Brand what these alternative political systems would look like. Brand responds,
Well I haven’t invented it yet Jeremy! I had to do a magazine last week I got a lot on me plate! But, I say, here’s the things we shouldn’t do: shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.”
Yes, it’s definitely easier to say what you wouldn’t do than what you would, but I also think all of these are reasonable goals for a modern society. As far as the validity of these issues (ie. does data support the claims that these issues actually exist), we will save that analysis for later as well.
Later in the interview, Brand tells Paxman he’s never voted in his life. Paxman then asks him how he expects to change things if he doesn’t even bother to vote, to which Brand replies,
It’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy, I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now- and has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent under-class that are not being represented by that political system; so, voting for it is tacit complicity with that system.”
I don’t totally agree that voting is “tacit complicity” but the overarching point here is very spot-on. The people at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder see very little tangible change in their daily lives, regardless of which party happens to be in power at any particular point in time.
Paxman continued to press Brand on what his “revolution” would look like. Finally, Brand said,
I think a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment.”
Had to pump the breaks on that one. I’m all for egalitarianism (defined as: the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities), and if we were designing a system where the past was completely irrelevant and we could use the neuralizer from Men in Black to wipe everybody’s memory, massive redistribution might work, but within our current structural framework there is no way that that will ever happen without some sort of conflict.
You’ve never seen Men in Black??
Ok back to the matter at hand. The people who are well off in this world are not going to let go of that wealth without a SERIOUS fight. And I don’t blame them. Why should they be penalized for their good fortune? If the money is inherited who are we to say it should be taken away. And if the money is truly earned through hard work, business savvy and cleverness it is downright uncivilized of us to demand the redistribution of this wealth. However, I’m ok with having high levels of responsibility for companies exploiting the environment. That too, will be more deeply examined later.
Elaborating on what his system would look like, Brand says,
I think the concept of profit should be hugely reduced. David Cameron said profit isn’t a dirty word, I say profit is a filthy word. Because wherever there is profit there is also deficit.”
To me, this is one of the best points he made in the interview. The capitalist system is basically a big game of musical chairs- the only way for it to work is for a portion of the population to be in debt. There’s not enough money in the money supply for everybody to be debt free. Also, the more wealth an individual has, the faster he or she accumulates it, so there are fewer and fewer “chairs” in the game as time goes on.
Towards the end of the interview, Paxman asks Brand if he thinks there’s any hope for his revolution. Brand responds that it is a cerntainty, and that it is already happening, citing the recent Occupy Wall Street Movement,
The Occupy Movement made a difference, even if only in that it introduced to the popular public lexicon the idea of the 1% versus the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive corporate and economic exploitation.”
I think it’s good that a much larger percentage of the population is now aware of this economic disparity, but I don’t think it’s productive to view the situation as us against them. Some of the 1% are some are brightest and most innovative minds in the world, and we do not need to be persecuting them because of their success.
Ok. Now that the highlights are out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this argument, focusing on the three issues he points to as being most important: the destruction of the planet, the creation of massive economic disparity and the lack of attention to the needs of the people. Brand was speaking globally but for our sake, I will be focusing on America- we’re a pretty good microcosm of the developed world and it’ll be more relevant to the majority of you guys reading this. I’ll start from the top.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PLANET
Do I think we are responsible? Partially. How responsible? I couldn’t tell you, I’m not a climatologist. However, a significant majority of published experts in this field believe we are at least somewhat responsible for global warming so I will trust them. Honestly, I think the extent to which we’re causing it is somewhat irrelevant. Whether it’s natural or not it poses a threat to our well being, so we should be doing everything possible to reverse it. So I agree that any corporation exploiting the environment and contribution to its destruction should be heavily taxed for doing so. In fact, I’d take it a step further and say let’s tax them at the average rate for other companies, but make them completely financially responsible for maintaining the smallest possible net effect on the environment in which they do business.
The driving force behind many of these destructive practices is profit. Let’s look at the patent encumbrance of nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for example. If you’re not familiar, these batteries are used in hybrid or fully battery operated vehicles. The Ovonics Battery Company created them in the early 90s in a project that was funded partially by the government and partially by the Big Three auto companies (GM, Ford and Chrysler). According to the founder of Ovonics, Stanford Ovshinsky, the Big Three falsely maintained the position that the batteries were not ready for widespread use, despite the fact that the batteries performed excellently. When Ovonics tried to share the ideas with other companies, the Big Three stifled their efforts by claiming rights to the patent as a result of their initial funding of the project. Then, in 2001, Texaco purchased GM’s stake in Ovonics, and was three months later acquired by Chevron, who maintained veto power over any sale or licensing of the NiMH batteries, as well as the right to seize all intellectual property in the event that Ovonics did not “fulfill their contractual obligations”. Chevron filed suit for this very issue in 2008; the case is still on going.
From a logical standpoint, going fully electric in cars makes total sense. Why would we choose to burn a finite resource that is more dangerous and more damaging to our environment when we have a rechargeable clean alternative? Profit. That is the only factor that tilts this equation the other way. The oil and automotive industries are megaliths who, as a result of their massive financial influence, can maintain illogical practices like this simply because it makes them money.
CREATING MASSIVE INCOME DISPARITY
This one is hard to argue with and I know you’re probably tired of reading so here’s some charts that say it all.
and finally, NOT SERVING THE NEEDS OF THE PEOPLE
I guess this depends on who “the people” are. The numbers do indicate, however, that the people with the most need (those below the poverty line) are definitely not being served.
Since falling below the 15% mark in the late 60s, the percentage of people below the poverty line has stayed pretty consistent. But this isn’t really surprising when considering the musical chairs analogy- some people are always just going to be left standing in a capitalist system. Of course, this is not to say that we should just ignore the other 85% of the population, but it is harder to objectively quantify whether their needs are being met. So here’s a few charts illustrating how people feel about their own financial situation.
Another interesting discovery from the GALLUP data above: Both lower-income Americans making less than $36,000 a year and higher-income Americans making at least $90,000 are significantly less likely than those in the middle-income group to say the economic system is fair.
So Brand’s three most important issues check out pretty well, but as I said earlier- it’s much easier to say what you wouldn’t do than it is to say what you would. Brand’s vague reference to a socialist egalitarian revolution with massive redistribution of wealth is just not plausible in my eyes, nor do I think it would be the best solution to these issues. But I do think there is a better way to address them than the current system we have in place. If you’re interested, I will be detailing it in my next piece. Until then, keep expanding your perspective.