Monday, October 28, 2013

On Russell Brand's Interview

I heard Brand's interview late last week, and I've been stewing on it ever since.  

On a lot of topics, I have to say that I agree with Brand's frustration.  The existing power structures are not healthy - in fact I would argue that they have been subverted by a series of forces and factors over a very long time.  

Yes, there are enormous problems with environmental destruction, income inequality and political power distribution in general.  I agree with Russell Brand on these principals - these issues deserve our attention, and to be addressed on the political stage.

To some extent the early signs of the population recognizing what has evolved, and how broken it has become.  The "Occupy" movement is one example of a broad-based recognition of the links between money and power.  In Canada, the Idle No More movement has rightly brought a unique focus on the treatment of First Nations in Canada.  

Where Russell Brand lost me (and it happens quite early in the interview) was in his justification for not voting:

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 a fever pitch, where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that [is] not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system.
First of all, I have a fundamental problem with Brand's approach here.  He is essentially saying "I won't vote unless somebody changes things to something I like".  That is pushing the responsibility for the change outward and away from him.  It is one thing to say "things have to change", and have some ideas as to what shape you want things to take, quite another to take the stance that Brand has taken.

Second, I call out Brand's "standoff" stance for making the ever critical mistake of choosing not to use all of the tools available to him.  No democracy I am familiar with tries to factor for the opinions of those who do not vote.  Given the nature of Brand's grievances, a failure to vote is all the worse for his position - it all but guarantees that the "keys to power" are handed straight to those that would do the most damage in his eyes.

We have seen this happen quite clearly over the decades in Alberta since Peter Lougheed stepped aside.  Alberta has one of the worst voter turnout rates in the country - largely because the internal power structures have been so effective at dismissing inconvenient opposing opinions, and generally putting in place politicians who are (just) smart enough to step away from implementing the most destructive policies (Klein tried repeatedly to put in place the pieces to privatize Health Care in this province, but never fully implemented it because of the public resistance to it).

In many respects, this is the "boil the frog" approach to issues.  Take a long range approach and very carefully undermine things in ways that are not immediately obvious.  When the right crisis occurs, the public will accept the desired change as "necessary".

While I can agree with Brand that there seems to be a degree of "futility" in trying to vote against the power structure, it is utterly essential to vote.  You may end up voting for someone/something that is still distasteful to you (I've done it more than a few times), but symbolically it remains important because it is one of the mechanisms available to challenge the power structure that you object to.  It is not "being complicit in the system" as Brand accuses it of being, but rather using one of an arsenal of weapons to confront them on their own ground.

If voting is inadequate, then another option is to stand for office yourself.  Be the change that you want to see.  Stand for what you believe is right.  Certainly in Canada and the UK, there is no legislative impediment to doing so, and no legal consequences.  Again, this is using one of the tools of the system, against itself.  It can be a long, hard struggle to be heard.  In Canada, I have to give the Green Party and its leader Elizabeth May a lot of credit for the hard work that has been put in trying to become recognized and legitimate in the minds of Canadian voters - but they have come a long ways from their start in the early 1980s.

When we look to the United States, I will say that there is an exceptional problem evolving in the form of overt voter suppression laws.  In a number of states, Voter Id laws, in conjunction with a series of amendments to laws related to the acquisition of appropriate identification documents have created an environment where a significant number of otherwise legal voters are unable to vote because they cannot acquire the appropriate documentation.  This is a very serious problem, and one which may require drastic action to correct.

Brand seems to think that revolution is near, if not imminent.  I am not so sure of that.  Protests such as Occupy have done more to make the general public more aware of what is happening behind closed doors.  I do not think that they have gotten anywhere near mobilizing the collective mass of population to take up arms in revolt.  As much as I have railed against the rise of Corporate Feudalism on this blog, I for one am not about to demand armed revolt either.  Protests on the streets have little impact on those whose power base is found in the boardrooms of our nations.

In Calgary, we got a lovely little taste of that when a video recording of a Real Estate Developer's conference session was leaked to the media.  Make no mistake about it, the people behind that organization, and the Manning Centre, don't give one whit about groups on the street.  It doesn't even enter their consciousness.  What got their attention was when in 2010, their candidate for Mayor - Ric McIvor - got roundly trounced by Naheed Nenshi.  They then spent the next couple of years trying to put together a counter-strategy to undermine a Mayor that apparently isn't sufficiently compliant to their wishes - to the extent of spending over $1 Million to "train" candidates through the Manning Centre.

While Brand might want "revolution", that is very short-sighted of him.  First of all, revolution will create more shadows in which undesirable power structures can evolve and seize power - and those powers can often be as bad or worse than what is to be overthrown.  We should not ignore that reality.  The best disinfectant for corruption is light, not more shadows.  Additionally, Brand's call for revolution overlooks the fact that a new power structure has emerged in the world that renders the nation-state impotent.  The multi-national corporation is able to supersede or subvert nation level laws.  This has been the case for decades, but it has only come to light as a significant political power since the late 1980s, as Neoliberal policies enabled economic "globalization" and corporations started moving work to countries where labour was cheap.

Do things need to be changed in the Western democracies?  Absolutely.  I think that the changes that are needed require people to see the would-be puppet masters for what they are, and then to take steps to undermine them.  At the level of the Nation-State, that can mean more rigorous accountability and legal structures which weaken the ability of the multi-national corporations to subvert the powers of national governments.  At a higher level, the world needs to develop a coherent legal / governmental structure that protects the citizens of all nations from the predations of multi-national power.  I do not believe that the world is ready for that yet though.  There are enormous cultural and logistical barriers yet to be overcome.  Structures like the EU to a certain extent reflect what I believe the long term direction will be, but they are far from a complete implementation which will successfully overcome the psychopathy of corporate interests.

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