Russell Brand hates "Morning Joe" and Sean Hannity as much as you do. No one will confuse his new book "Revolution" with books by Thomas Piketty, Noam Chomsky or David Graeber. But Brand spent time with each of those brilliant leftist thinkers while writing this book, and he's translated those ideas into something sly and radical -- a passionate call for genuine change and real action on inequality and militarism that works as a sound bite on David Letterman's couch. Push past some of the celebrity dreck and some spiritual mumbo-jumbo and Brand articulates a pretty impressive progressive agenda, and knowingly savages the right-wing media machine.
His argument is a simple one: The system works, but for the rich. Both parties defend the economic interests of the elites. Politicians and the media distract and divide the rest of us, keeping people fearful but entertained. Voting is a charade that makes people feel they have a voice, but given the narrowness of the options and the rules of the game, that's merely an illusion.
"We are not trying to supplant a perfect system," he writes, "we are not competing with justice, we are intervening in a gallingly unequal and corrupt system on the brink of Armageddon."
Brand's an imperfect messenger, to be sure, and just last week he spouted some 9/11 truther nonsense. But that was after our interview took place earlier in the week in New York; we talked Fox News, Bill Maher, nonviolence and Noam Chomsky, and the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
It’s been interesting watching you make the media rounds this week. On the "Today" show yesterday, Matt Lauer wanted to talk about your marriage to a pop star and to shame you about how every vote really does count. David Letterman asked mostly about your history with drugs and rehab. In both cases, you had to talk excessively fast to sneak in the political points you wanted to make. Has this reinforced your thoughts on the role of the mainstream media in limiting the bounds of accepted debate?
That’s very interesting how it does that. As you implied in the question, it's as if they all have the same agenda as one another, which is basically “we don’t want things to change.” When it comes to the idea of introducing a new epicenter into the way we govern, are governed, and organize our society, then I suppose there is a natural resistance because fear is such a major component. But I’m not worried because I don’t feel like this is something that I’ve got to, brick by brick, build myself. I just feel like I’m communicating something people feel already.
I think it’s amazing that you can go on the Letterman show and you can say that there’s no point in voting because both political parties in our countries represent corporate interests -- and people will applaud. And you can go on “The View” and quote Chomsky — encouraged to do so by one of the hosts! And you can go on the "Today" show and say that a revolution is required, and yet it doesn’t really puncture the …
There’s this smooth, shiny media facade almost no matter what’s being said.
Right? Yeah, I feel like there’s some people watching that think there’s that guy, that Katy Perry guy, and a lot of people will go, “Hey, that’s that dude from that movie!” But it’s like how normal advertising works. You see Coca-Cola. You go walk past the store. You see it on the TV. You see in a magazine. And now, it’s like every time you see a homeless person, every time you hear about another natural disaster, every time you hear that another bank is propped up by state funding, more and more, the message — “Change! Revolution! Change! Revolution! Change! Revolution! Change! Revolution!” — the message has new relevance to it. It doesn’t already exist in people, whether it’s Coca-Cola, a new boy band, or overthrowing the government.
So I don’t feel worried. At the beginning of yesterday, to tell you the truth, I thought, how am I going to go into these different environments and convey information? I’m obviously hamstrung by the fact that I’m in the aquarium — I’m in the aquarium. I’ve got money. I’m on the TV. I’m not starving. I’m not a Marxist puritan. So I’m vulnerable. But I sense that it’s all kind of OK if you keep checking in with truth.
Why do you think it is that your message can get applause on the Letterman show -- which is probably American tourists from all over the country -- and yet the revolution that we have had most recently is a Tea Party revolution, that essentially started with CNBC and a talking head who was outraged that homeowners were getting bailed out. He blamed all the wrong people, and we’ve not exactly had the equivalent revolutionary movement on the left.
I think I understand. Could I borrow your paper? (starts drawing) I think it’s because of the way the energy must move. I think it’s selfishness. Say that Republicans run on selfishness and greed — which is in all of us -- I think the way that that energy travels is fast and in short journeys. I think altruism might have a longer journey. I think it might move more slowly. So I think if you’re trying to fire people up on this sort of fear circuit – these ancient systems of anatomical survival, of selfishness and greed, they’ve been functioning for a long, long time. Now we have a culture that is predicated on those things. We’ve acculturated aspects of our nature that are required only for our survival. And if they are overstimulated, fear and desire create a kind of primeval prison.
So I think why it’s easier to get a Tea Party message, a Republican message, across is because they function on fear and desire. These are fast-moving circuits. It’s very hard for me to motivate myself to meditate and do yoga. It’s very easy to motivate myself to eat chocolate or pursue attractive women. There is a lot of fire for those things. So I suppose what we have to do is look at the methods of communication. That’s why I have to go on “Today.” That’s why I have to talk a certain way. That’s why, I suppose, I haven’t yet left, entirely, this aquarium or arena. Because it’s not time yet.
You write about how effective Fox News is in this country at pushing those buttons. How would you describe the impact of Rupert Murdoch on the political conversation in both this country and your own?
I think it’s powerful. He’s bloody powerful. He’s pushing to the right and it drags us farther. Look, the last time I watched something on Murdoch's British news channel they were saying something like, “We don’t want immigrants coming over with HIV taking up resources in our hospitals,” and my first reaction was “Yes! That sounds good! Why would you want an immigrant coming over with HIV, taking up resources in a hospital. My mom needs to go to that hospital, right?” Then I thought, hold on a minute! You can’t catalog and categorize people on the basis that they’ve got HIV. That’s like saying people with HIV have no contribution to society. Have no value. That’s like saying the prescriptive boundaries of a nation, which are just conceptual, are more real than the human desire to be supportive and loving to one another. So the idea of tribalism is a more immediate circuit. Fear, desire, selfishness, greed -- those circuits fire quite quickly, because if you keep someone a little bit nervous and full of desire it’s very hard for our brains to function. It’s very hard for us to be in the flow of a more communal and loving consciousness.
You've argued with Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, even appeared on Hannity's show. It sounds like you marvel in some ways at their entertainment skills, at the ease with which they distract and manipulate. They're good at it.
They are. I love them a bit. Bill O’Reilly, I love because he’s so (impersonates O'Reilly) curmudgeonly. I like his certainty. I find it attractive. Hannity, I like how put out he is (impersonates Hannity). I find those as attractive energies that they have. So I guess for comedic characters, I sort of love them and would want to hang out with them for a bit. I bet both of them, on a human level, they’re all right. I bet if you went, “Oh, my arm really hurts!” [they would say] “Oh, I got some paracetamol here somewhere. Do you need a massage?” You know? They’re not going to be like, “Fuck you!” It’s only on a conceptual level. So I do. I like that energy. I’ve got it in me. You've got it in you. I want to sleep with people. I want to eat bad food. But what I try and do is not do that all the time. Otherwise I’d be ugly.
How did you discover Noam Chomsky, who you spend some time corresponding with in the book? That first time you read him sometimes cracks something open in the teenage brain.
I think I was about 19 when people told me that principle of the manufacture of consent. People vote to stay in prison because the information we’re given tells us that we are better to stay in prison. So Chomsky argues that we are not even free to be free. We’ve got the correct apparatus. We haven't got the correct information to make the right decisions. Chomsky really brilliantly breaks down the objectives of gender and of priorities of our governments, particularly the American government. That when they say, for example, that data capture is for our protection and preservation. I like the way he breaks it down so rationally. Like, “If what they care about is our safety, well, let’s look at the things that are the biggest challenge to our safety on the planet today — climate change and nuclear weapons. Now what is the government doing about climate change and nuclear weapons? They’re speeding that up. So wow. They don’t care about us, because someone who cares about our safety would care about those things. So we know it’s not for safety, so why are they stealing our data?” And then he breaks down that they are actually interested in taking care of themselves -- and who they actually regard as their enemy is us.
You write that: "All the good things about America either came from the counter-culture or are already there when the white people arrived. What they’ve really mastered, like all good racketeers, is the business of scaring the shit out of people and telling them that they’ll take care of it." So you're arguing that there is a system in place that exists to confuse and befuddle, and people believe that they are free by marking an X on a ballot, even though rational participation in the process has been rubbed down to nothing.
Yes. Yes. Yes. See, you and I can have this intellectual chat for a liberal, left-leaning website. But if someone runs in here with a gun, are we going to shut the fuck up and have a new set of priorities for survival? What are we going to do? I don’t know. But nobody is going to run in here with a gun. No one is going to. I guarantee it. But what Fox News does is create a psyche where we think that someone might come in here with a gun at any minute -- so just be fucking grateful. Don’t start changing anything because at least we’re not getting our head cut off in the desert.
You can see in the coverage now of ISIS, as the American war machine begins to crank itself back up -- two beheadings in Iraq and everyone gins up a danger that we're all in danger of the same fate, that suddenly ISIS is sneaking across the border in Texas, maybe bringing Ebola. And yet the polls turn on a dime, and a suddenly war-weary public gets angry and opinion turns toward getting involved in this fight.
You can't think straight if you’re frightened. You can't think straight if you’re full of desire. They want to prevent us from reaching the conclusion that we should be governing ourselves, that we should be in charge of our own destinies, that we should be running our own work spaces, that we should be autonomous, communal, collectivized individuals that run our own lives, not the subjects of a few potent corporations and elitist institutions. That’s obvious. So, to prevent us from reaching that rational conclusion, which we should inevitably reach, we have to be constantly jarred with fear and desire. As long as we’re frightened and full of desire we can’t go, “Hang on a minute. My objectives are pretty much the same as that guy’s objectives, as your objectives. Let’s cooperate with each other.”
You were involved and interested with Occupy Wall Street. Why do you think it sputtered out?
I wonder why. I don’t know why. I think they probably, like any alternative movement, were subject to such scrutiny and pressure it’s hard for it to remain organic and positive. When you’re being bombarded with negative publicity, you’re on the constant attack. I think it’s challenging. To return to God, that’s why I believe that spiritual component is absolutely necessary.
Why God? The political left tends to be less religious, and much more suspicious of the role of religion. But you were once an atheist, but now believe not only in God but that there has to be a spiritual element to political change. How is that?
I do believe that. I think it needs to be the heart. And I also think, in an unspoken and unaddressed way, it always is and always has been “to each, according to his needs, from each, according to his abilities.” That’s a spiritual idea because it's sharing, caring. I mean, you can get all esoteric and you can start getting into the Sufis and approach spirituality from this beautiful, poetic or esoteric perspective. Or you could just say, "The natural tendency in your life is that you want to look after your family. The most important people to you are the people you love and your relationships with them.” Now those things are under assault from the dominant value system that wants you to behave as a consumer, that wants you to behave as a selfish individual, that wants you to live constantly in the lower aspects of your being — the fear and the desire. So spirituality, really, is just a way of transcending that. Of acknowledging that, of course you’re frightened. You’re alive and you're going to die and you’re running this machine that’s going to die. So fear is necessary. And of course you’ve got desire, you’ve got to procreate, you’ve got to eat food. That’s necessary, but that’s not all we are. We are all a part of the living garment of God. And we have forgotten. We have forgotten because we live in our individualistic, materialistic consciousness governed by fear and desire. But actually it’s really evident when you spend some time breathing that we’re connected to one another and when you think about your own life and where you get your happiness from, it’s from your connections, it’s from your union, it’s from your love. So always reset to that. It’s not airy, fairy crap. It’s brutal rationalism.
How do we stop that from becoming just a different kind of religious authority?
Well, I don’t know because that’s a hard question. But my idea is with some irrefutable principles -- don’t harm the planet, don’t harm other people -- any group is fully autonomous and self-supporting. Golden rules. And then our leaders are servants. They do not govern. So if you’re in a position of authority or a police officer or you’re a senator or a government minister, that is a position of servitude and you acknowledge that. You’re there to serve the people. The amazing thing, I think, is that stuff’s all there. It’s just no one’s doing it. We have democracy, but no one is using it. Really the revolution is not bringing anything new. It’s using the shit we’ve already got instead of living at the behest of tyrants.
Have you followed the Bill Maher, Ben Affleck, Sam Harris argument about Islam?
Peripherally. Ben Affleck stuck up for Muslims because they are vilfied in the media. I’ll tell you, Reza Aslan, he’s the guy to listen to on that subject. That man knows the stuff. You see, it’s Islamaphobia. I like what he said — stop vilifying Muslim countries, when one of the Central African countries where the majority of female circumcision happens is Sudan, which is Christian. So shut up. Stop saying it’s Muslim. Stop saying that. That guy knows the score. I think that’s the voice I would promote in that one.
Something else you write: “One of the myths that America built itself on, and perhaps any nation builds itself on, is the idea that it has sublime, even divine reason to exist. ... no one wants to belong to a nation that overtly and critically states this land mass / concept having a pinnacle that is controlled by an elite ... so shut the fuck up and salute. Better to tell people that God likes your land mass, your mountain ranges and flag." That’s not something Americans hear very often. Neither party wants to tell you that. Both of them revert to these founding myths, and the president of either party is going to say God bless America at the end of every single speech. We have wrapped ourselves up in so many patriotic myths that it seems very hard to escape. The seventh inning of a baseball game, people stand up and sing “God Bless America.” I’m not exactly sure why that’s necessary -- but it certainly reinforces a mindless patriotic authority. Stand up and salute in the middle of the ballgame, or some drunken idiot will yell at you.
America is very powerful at the moment so it’s more interesting. But it's no different than England or France. I think there’s nothing wrong with “God Bless America” but first let’s decide what America is before getting God to bless it. And if America is the values of the American people, understanding that each person is to be free and autonomous and in pursuit of happiness and all that stuff, if that is, I’ll sing “God Bless America” for that. But what “God Bless America” has come to mean is Coca-Cola draped in a flag, Monsanto draped in a flag, Exxon draped in a flag. They did the same thing in my country.
And all of that draped around the military.
Yes, then drape the whole thing around the military industrial complex. I spent some time, as you know, in the Marines …
Right, about 20 hours for this book!
But I was tough! You weren’t there! You weren’t there! (laughs) I respect those organizations and I respect the sacrifice that them people were willing to make. And I just would like it more if they were making it for the reason that people were saying — for the people, for the people, the people! Not for a few people that benefit from things staying the way they are. Staying the way they are. There’s nothing wrong with tribalism. There is nothing wrong with patriotism as far as that goes. But again, the way that fear and desire, and I suppose this falls under how fear and desire is used, is stimulated, to prevent us from doing what we would naturally do — form communities, form tribes, form organizations to protect ourselves, to protect one another, to distribute resources fairly and justly. And once in a while, if someone gets out there, perhaps, and starts going, “I want more than everyone else,” and then the group goes, “No, no, no! We’re all a group! We’re the same as you, idiot!”
Billions of dollars were spent to bail out big banks. You talk about in the book about how it would be just as easy to wipe out all credit card debt or all student loan debt in the same way ...
We should do that. We should do that. That’s a better idea. That’s a better idea.
It is! And there more of us than there are of them ...
(laughs) But the people that make the decisions are friends with Goldman Sachs. The same way as like … if like, in a situation where I have to be nice to you or someone I don't know at all, I’ll intuitively and immediately be nicer to you. I’ve recognized your humanity now. I mean, the reasons behind it sort of are quite beautiful. They all like each other. They want to help each other. They just have forgotten everybody else. We have to remind them.
Do you have sympathy for people who were disappointed in Barack Obama, who expected after a campaign of hope and "yes we can" that we might have some of that change, and not simply a different face on many of the same economic and military policies?
No. People say to me a lot: “If you don’t vote, you shouldn’t complain.” I say, “If you do vote, you shouldn’t complain.” You participate in this madness. We were the same when Tony Blair became prime minister because we had years of right-wing government -- and then we were all excited, but Tony Blair turned out the same way. It’s the system. Individuals are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what charming, smiling chump you put in that chair, they’ll behave like any other charming, smiling chumps in the chair -- because that’s the smiling chump chair. Don’t expect anyone in that chair to go, “Oh my God! I want to share everything. I’m not going to operate under the service of corporations.” They can’t do that from that position.
So how can this revolution you'd like to see be nonviolent?
I think this has to be extremely local. Think about the issues that affect you. Do you think you’re paying too much for your mortgage? Do you think you’re paying too much for your rent? Do you think you’re paying too much taxes? Do you think you’re not being represented fairly at work by not being given enough money? Find out what other people around you think and organize -- because the chances are, and I know this already, everyone feels the same. Or it’s such a large number that the people that don’t feel it are almost not relevant. Form relationships like the fast-food workers of America are now doing. The way they keep us down is they make us go in on our own. We’re not on our own. Come together on issues that affect you, whether it’s your housing, your working conditions, or the challenges you’re facing you’re facing with your family that needs healthcare. Connect with people on these issues. Whatever is affecting you, collectivize and say what you want -- and then don’t obey people until you get it.
Laura Ingraham, the conservative pundit, famously wrote a book called "Shut Up and Sing," essentially telling celebrities who have political opinions to go back to being the dancing monkeys that she thinks they ought to be. How difficult is it to get around that kind of contempt and to be taken seriously, when you're an actor and comedian with political opinions?
She wants things to stay the same. I mean, look at the source of the information. I don’t know Laura Ingraham personally, but does she want there to be revolution? I don’t think she does. I imagine she’s happy with how things are now. She might want a few less immigrants, a few less homosexuals. But she’s basically happy with the way things are. Look, if you can’t attack what I’m saying, you have to attack me. If what I’m saying is true, you’re like, “Ah! Yeah, but look at his hair!” Yeah, look at my hair. Look at my job. Look at my past. But that doesn’t change what I’m saying. What I’m saying is true. I’ll be dead in 50 years no matter what happens. So I don’t care. I don’t care. Either what I say is true or isn’t. So I just keep saying it and the results will happen.
Is there a different responsibility to be active that comes with a celebrity platform?
No. There is a responsibility that comes with being a human being.