Rejecting the discredited world of party-machine politics, Brand declared his refusal to participate, calling on others not to vote, much to the seeming incredulity of Paxman.
Paxman's indignation and lofty-sounding dismissal of Brand as "trivial" was somewhat mitigated by later admissions that, indeed, "people are sick of the tawdry pretences" of politics, and that he himself had, once, elected not to vote. But these were token concessions to Brand's more profound indictment.
Like most media outlets pitching for 'cool attention' in a crowded field, the 'flagship' Newsnight editors were likely on a ratings hunt, coupled with Paxman's own probable fascination with Brand.
It's also notable that the BBC previewed the Newsnight piece at their 'Arts and Entertainment' section, presumably not considering it 'seriously political'.
While Paxman seemed stimulated, if uncomfortably challenged, by the exchange, Newsnight may have calculated that by leaving Brand to 'rant', in some 'entertaining' way, he might just expose his own 'naivety', while helping to cast Paxman, and the system he upholds, as reasonable and rational.
Yet, it seems that Brand's own alienation towards a bankrupt system, and his eloquent searing of it, has registered much more closely with many more than Paxman, the BBC and other service media think.
Cue damning reaction from a senior journalist circle who dismiss Brand as an ill-informed circus politico pronouncing fanciful rhetoric and irresponsible calls to join him as an electoral refusenik.
Their 'mission', we're assured, is to keep faith with the hard-won franchise and 'realistically-deliverable' system of party democracy.
Thus was fellow comedian Robert Webb given dutiful media applause for his denunciation of Brand's 'outpourings'.
Webb's main argument, like theirs, is about 'protecting what we have', the safeguarding of a system that, for all its faults and token policies, can still realise useful reform and welfare. In openly endorsing Labour as the ready 'corrective' to those 'democratic deficits', Webb urges Russell to consider his relatively privileged position in our 'advanced liberal democracy':
And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.Yet, of increasing concern to an elite and the spooks who monitor the political-cultural zeitgeist, Brand's point here is far from frivolous or nihilistic. It's dangerously subversive.
Brand's response to Webb includes a reminder of the latter's own privileged place in the class system:
If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They're not coming for you if you're from Oxbridge.The case for non-voting may not seem immediately class-based, but it encompasses the truth of both political and economic alienation, as Brand intimates in his New Statesman piece:
"There’s little point bemoaning this apathy. Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people."And when that realisation reaches a tipping-point, might the decisively political act of no longer validating a grossly-fixed system serve a more potent political purpose?
As Jonathan Cook notes in some highly-appreciative blogs on Brand:
One only needs to do a small thought experiment to answer the Webbs. What is the worst that would happen if 80% of us decided to withdraw our vote at election time? The Conservatives would get in with 10-15% of the popular vote. In other words, we’d have the same corrupt politicians ruling over us as now but – unlike now – they would have not even the pretence of a democratic mandate to legitimise their actions. It would be clear they were simply in power to promote the naked self-interest of their class.With over 7 million Twitter followers - not necessarily, of course, all adherents of a 'political messiah' - Brand's kind of populist discourse doesn't go unnoticed by the establishment.
That alone would be a dramatic improvement on the current situation. It would also set up a dynamic of confrontation between the disenfranchised majority and the minority ruling over us. That would provoke new kinds of popular political organisation and engagement, threatening the current power structures and possibly impelling us towards real change.
Again, such deepening elite concern over political 'disengagement' is compounded by Brand's savaging of the associated economic system:
"Profit is the most profane word we have. In its pursuit we have forgotten that while individual interests are being met, we as a whole are being annihilated."Predictably, the cry goes up: who are you, with your lavish wealth and Hollywood home, to lecture us on political and economic liberation? The irony of a comfortable liberal media class speaking as 'us' shouldn't be lost here.
It's a smear-laden distraction serving to deflect minds not only from the core issues Brand is raising, but the instinctive threat liberal politicians and journalists feel and lash out against when their own inadequacies as challenging vanguards and reforming radicals are so glaringly exposed.
In contrast, there's a good deal of honest self-reflection in Brand's own 'hypocrisy':
"The hypocrisy – me, working for MTV with my fancy shoes – is a problem that can be taken care of incrementally. I don’t mind giving up some of my baubles and balderdash for a genuinely fair system, so can we create one? We have to be inclusive of everyone, to recognise our similarities are more important than our differences and that we have an immediate ecological imperative."In a further intoxicating interview, hosted by Mehdi Hasan, Brand expounds more fully, and with trademark vim, on his humanitarian political thoughts, indictment of corporate-ordered life and the emergency of planetary disaster.
In a subsequent Guardian essay, Brand also reiterates the possible positive fallout of not voting, again getting to the core point of the prevailing political system and what it serves:
The reason not voting could be effective is that if we starve them of our consent we could force them to acknowledge that they operate on behalf of The City and Wall Street; that the financing of political parties and lobbying is where the true influence lies; not in the ballot box.It's a view this writer has also come to endorse with regard to the whole Westminster facade.
The key qualifier, and one Brand might likely uphold, would be to vote only where there seems a strategic and positive purpose. Thus, for example, I'd urge people to vote Yes in the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum - a non-party issue - specifically because it does present some strategic opportunity for advancing a viable, if still to be fought for, alternative to the very Westminster cartel Brand rejects.
Otherwise, not voting on the grounds expounded by Brand is a distinct act of political consciousness, the very antithesis of political apathy.
There is no credible choice or meaningful alternative under this sovereign political-corporate order. It's not just Hobbes's political Leviathan. It's Hobson's political choice: ConDem neoliberalism and austerity or New Improved Labour (NIL) neoliberalism and austerity.
Again, to those who snipe that he is protected whatever the political-economic arrangement, Brand meets the charge of 'affluent hypocrite' full-on:
Some people say I'm a hypocrite because I've got money now. When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter, now I'm rich and I complain about inequality they say I'm a hypocrite. I'm beginning to think they just don't want inequality on the agenda because it is a real problem that needs to be addressed.And he also alludes neatly here to the psychology of incorporation, with this exquisite nugget on understanding people like Paxman, the amiable, institutionalised person:
It's easy to attack me, I'm a right twerp, I'm a junkie and a cheeky monkey, I accept it, but that doesn't detract from the incontrovertible fact that we are living in a time of huge economic disparity and confronting ecological disaster.
I like Jeremy Paxman, incidentally. I think he's a decent bloke but like a lot of people who work deep within the system it's hard for him to countenance ideas from outside the narrowly prescribed trench of contemporary democracy. Most of the people who criticized me have a vested interest in the maintenance of the system. They say the system works. What they mean is "the system works for me".A perfect summation of the self-sustaining and institutional-preserving system.
Throughout these inspiring appeals for a Brand New Politics, I've hoped that Brand would say something more specific about the power of the corporate media as a propaganda agent and key impediment to radical change. This, quite vitally, includes the corporate-minded Guardian, BBC and other liberal media that, while hosting Brand and other 'controversial' figures, serve to hide, rationalise and mitigate capitalist greed, warmongering and planetary destruction.
Alas, Mehdi Hasan didn't think fit to specify this core media issue among his thirty questions to Brand. Media Lens, also highly approving of Brand's inspiring words and motivations, have made just such an encouraging appeal.
Perhaps Brand still sees the media factor through the lens of his own personal experience and exposure as celebrity rather than, as yet, with more focus on its system-sustaining role, and the need for a genuine alternative media.
Still, in seeming evolving awareness, here's Brand concluding his Guardian piece with a call for real options and this wary eye on his host:
If we all collude and collaborate together we can design a new system that makes the current one obsolete. The reality is there are alternatives. That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal. Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I've fucked up.The language might seem coarse, but it's of the street, and a lot more genuine, instructive and, yes, political, than the dressed-up speech that passes for faux democratic politics and parliamentary representation.
I like the open mood of Brand's political energies, their raw motivation, the self-questioning, the admission of ego, indeed all the real 'character defects' a uniform commentariat deride as untenable and 'contradictory' to 'measured' political development.
So, what if all that conviction turns out to be a transitory urge or indulgent moment. What matters most is the message being imparted, something that remains irrespective of Brand's involvement.
The political and media custodians who attack Brand, all those with a protected part in the pretend democratic order, claim that he and other 'infantile radicals' are seducing the public, pulling the rug of 'proven', if problematic, democratic engagement from those who most need it.
On the contrary, Brand is merely articulating what a gathering, marginalised and alienated populace now deeply feel about the charade of party politics and accountable governance.