Russell Brand or Johnny Rotten: Which Self-styled Countercultural Icon Should We Believe?!


Lydon: Democracy in the UK


Brand: Politics is a spectacle

It’s the Russell Brand or Johnny Rotten dilemma.  Which Self-styled Countercultural Icon Should We Believe?  Polly Tonbee opted for John Lydon while Jeremy Paxman seems to have gone for a Brand approach. 

I have always had time for John Lydon. His vitriolic, caustic, Punk-as-fuck attitude and his keen lyrical wit are what makes his musical outings such an irresistible force. On the other hand, I have recently been much impressed by the off-the-wall rantings and giant-slaying kookiness of Russell Brand. They both agree that the political system is messed up, but Lydon says we must vote the current crop of failing politicians out, while Brand insists that voting is for dummies.

Russell Brand is essentially a hippie; he believes that the best way to alter reality is to change yourself. He has long espoused the benefits of transcendental meditation, so it’s no surprise that he believes that change comes from within the individual. In Brand’s world, there is no point in voting because it only encourages politicians. It legitimates their power. If you stop voting, you stop giving them that power.

If Russell Brand is Woodstock, then Johnny Lydon is Paris ’68. He is essentially a Marxist. Or perhaps more accurately, a Democratic Socialist. He believes that politics matters, that the working class need to vote for left-wing parties and through state intervention and good governance, everything will be OK. If only we had the right politics, the right government, the right policies … The way to bring about political change is more politics.

There are obvious flaws in both Brand and Lydon’s arguments. The trouble with Brand’s hippie anarchism is that you would need everybody to not vote. While there are still grannies and middle-Englanders religiously exercising their democratic right to vote, there will be a government. And one which reflects the voters’ interests (or perceived interests), not the interests of the apathetic non-voting youngsters.

The big flaw with John Lydon’s argument is that it assumes that we have somebody to vote for. The main three parties, plus UKIP, are essentially neo-liberal parties. They all want the same thing: Bail out the banks, feed the corporations, encourage austerity. Unless people actually start reading the Green Party Manifesto, which is hardly being encouraged by the media, there is no viable alternative.

The debate between Brand and Lydon is, to my mind, another manifestation of the age-old debate which has been raging in the left for over a hundred years. It began in the Russian Revolution, cropped up in (and indeed scuppered) the Spanish Civil War, was resurrected in the 60s and is now back with a vengeance. The question is whether the left wants Anarchism or Socialism. Unlike in the past, however, the nation state is no longer the unit of power. So this is why I’m going to say Russell Brand is right and John Lydon is hopelessly out of date.

Power lies in the corporations and banks, not national Governments. And banks and corporations are already answerable to us, as we are their customers. Even though their fattest customers are more banks and corporations, somewhere near the bottom is the little guy who has to pay off his debts and shop in Tesco’s. We don’t need to vote in a polling booth. We can vote with our pockets. In that sense, Brand is right: The way to change the world is to choose a better bank, to shop locally, to consume less. As the hippies say, the world is an illusion. If we stop believing in Tesco’s, it will go away. In fact, it’s already happening.

Liked this?  NOW READ: Whatever Happened To The Leisure Society?


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About kerrysmallman

4 responses to “Russell Brand or Johnny Rotten: Which Self-styled Countercultural Icon Should We Believe?!”

  1. Karen Murdarasi says :

    I can’t disagree with you about where power lies these days. I was doing a bit of research on China recently, and one thing that became apparent was that all the wicked and evil things countries such as China (other countries are available) do in terms of undercutting and driving down standards is actually at the behest, and sometimes directly as subcontractors to, big transnational corporations. If you refuse to play ball, the corporations just move to another part of the world where the government is more willing to do what it’s told. No single government can do anything to stop that process. Buying well is probably a start, but the consumer is so ignorant (and I include myself) that it’s hard to know what constitutes buying well.

    Up here in Scotland the SNP is a credible alternative to the neolibs, but of course that’s a sensitive subject just now. It does all seem a bit insurmountable sometimes. 😦

    Apologies for the length of this comment!

  2. Karen Murdarasi says :

    While we’re on the subject, the TTIP thing is desperately scary, too. I expect you already know about it, but if not:

    • kerrysmallman says :

      I’ve been campaigning against it in Oxford. It’s literally the only time I’ve ever campaigned about anything.
      I will blog on it when I have the time, as every little helps!

  3. Eva Rinaldi says :

    This is a false dichotomy. It’s possible to vote and meditate and read and spend more wisely.
    Secondly, spending wisely without activism isn’t going to do much. Especially when there are always going to be people who shop at shitty discount stores because that’s how they can get enough groceries to eat all month and still have laundry money and put gas in the car they need. But then suddenly a bunch of people get together and build a better public transport system, or raise wages, or whatever, and then those people can stop believeing in corporations, too.

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