A mere 80 people now hold more wealth than 3.5 billion of the world's population. The planet's ecology edges towards the danger zone of corporate-led annihilation. Millions are being murdered and more lands plundered as we spiral deeper into warmongering, neoliberal hedonism. And, all the while, our liberal classes, self-preening media and liberty-bell celebrities are urging us to get indignantly defensive about 'free speech'.
As France pursues a mass clampdown on those expressing 'contrary' views, UK Home Secretary Theresa May and Tory MP Eric Pickles demand that Muslims start showing 'true regard' for 'British identity', with mosques told to exercise 'greater responsibility' in helping to avert 'the rise of anti-Semitism'. All opportune hyperbole, of course, used to expedite more policies and funding for the imperative 'War on Terror'. And don't dare mention Israel's and the West's genocidal actions in the Middle East as obvious context for 'Islamic' radicalisation.
American Sniper certainly doesn't. Up for an Oscar, it's giving voice, rather, to its depraved subject, Chris Kyle, as well as the reactionary mindset of its director Clint Eastwood. Movie-goers are reportedly coming out of US film theatres snarling with patriotic hubris, amplifying the intended message that 'our' governments and military were right and noble, after all, in going in there to kill all those Muslim 'savages'. After so much slaughter and destruction, you've almost got to marvel that even Tinsel Town can still produce such clichéd tripe, never mind laud it as award-deserving 'entertainment'.
A more wry despair occurs in watching the 'intellectual angst' of the remaining Charlie Hebdo circle as they agonise over their 'response edition' and how to draw-out their very own little war on 'Islamic errorism'. Wasn't it amusing to see their 'anti-establishment' satire getting appropriated as 'free speech' propaganda by that very establishment and its parading world leaders? Beneath Hebdo's 'resolute iconoclasm', as sympathetically portrayed by the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy, lies a much more capricious mix of racist jibe and neoconservative subtext. None of which appears to be concerning the new 'liberty-seeking' effort to 're-situate' the old Hebdo 'situationists'. Are Hebdo now anarchic insiders or anarchic outsiders? Or might we just say to the residents of that deluded 'cartoon town', wherever it's now situated: all is forgiven?
Meanwhile, having done its own vital bit for truth and liberty, the BBC celebrates BBC Democracy Day. If only Orwell were really here to tear down their pious Orwellian front.
So much power-speak. So much corporate hegemony. So much liberal rationalisation of its systems of control. We are being lied to and deceived on a mega-industrial level. And there's no reasonable prospect of reversing any of it through conventional political means. That's the real situation.
So, if meaningful change cannot be realised from within the system, isn't the most rational and urgent recourse to stand outside it? Why do we accept so much of this dominant conditioning, while still believing it can be changed from the inside?
In Revolution, Russell Brand's joyous splash of anarcho-humanism, we get, if not a detailed manifesto, a much more valuable spiritual primer on mindfulness as a source of progressive resistance.
One of the many beauties of Brand's book is how it encourages a deep, radical consciousness from the true within, starting with nominally small but vital examples of how we might come to question our own deference to power.
For Brand, the reclaiming of our political souls can begin with little displays of dissent, like the rejection of cringing, hierarchical titles, including 'Your Majesty' - as if "she's all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain", rather than a "little old lady in a shiny hat - that we paid for." Instead of 'Your Highness', imagine if we all just started calling her 'Mrs Windsor' (Revolution, pp 117-118).
Nothing deeply radical here, you might think, especially for already-convinced republicans. But it's a useful exercise in questioning the insignia of authority and calls to obedience that stultify our capacity for nonconformity and critical observation.
In the same spirit, we might stop to reflect on the loaded lingua of consumer status. Just think, for example, about daily terms like 'VIP' (Very Important Person), as if everyone else were JUPs (Just Unimportant Persons), the social discrimination of 'First Class' travel, or the elevation of moneyed high-flyers implied by 'Business Class'. Isn't it just so good, this all tells us, to feel like an 'important insider'?
Alongside the market-defined notions we absorb about class, inclusion and aspiration, the appeal to ego also makes it difficult to resist plaudits from authority. In the craving for high recognition, the fetishism of Honours can even supersede our supposedly egalitarian identities.
We seek economic, social and emotional comfort within market existence. Yet, nothing of real human value can come from a system dedicated to elite interests, class privilege and corporate ideologies intended to keep so many competing, struggling and desiring that version of 'security'.
And while we're all being tamed through mass propaganda, many 'more knowing' activists are being compromised by more insidious forms of patronage and incorporation.
Eco-campaigner (and confidante of Prince Charles) Jonathon Porritt has finally admitted after years of postulating on 'corporate responsibility' that the giant oil companies are now incapable of change. Alas, his belated acceptance comes with no new useful acknowledgement that the system of capitalism itself is essentially psychopathic, that insatiable corporations can do nothing other than pursue destructive profit.
The same delusional mitigations are evident across liberal-minded charities. Of the new findings on mass wealth inequality, Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima says:
“The message is that rising inequality is dangerous. It’s bad for growth and it’s bad for governance. We see a concentration of wealth capturing power and leaving ordinary people voiceless and their interests uncared for.”There's obvious concern here for the poor and voiceless. But it's all pitched as worry over the dangers of capitalist inefficiency ("bad for growth") and the body politic ("bad for governance"), a concern with correcting the prevailing capitalist order, rather than serious moral examination over how we overthrow it.
Channel 4 News took the same mechanical-economist view, with Jon Snow overseeing a truly anodyne discussion of the wealth issue with the Spectator's Fraser Nelson and (Blair-awarding) Save the Children's Head of Inequality [sic] Faiza Shaheen.
Neither was pushed to discuss the moral obscenity of mass wealth inequality, nor the futility of trying to achieve meaningful change via appeals to our political leaders.
Channel 4 News also quoted the 'crusading' Byanyima:
In the past 12 months we have seen world leaders from President Obama to Christine Lagarde talk more about tackling extreme inequality but we are still waiting for many of them to walk the walk. It is time our leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world. [Emphasis added.]All spoken as if our leaders aren't really part of that same system of powerful, vested interests, even if they don't all hold the same higher levels of corporate wealth.
As reported by the Guardian, that same Davos elite have now, predictably, invited Byanyima to their cosy summit, a standard act of incorporation that she, in turn, predictably extols:
Byanyima said: “I was surprised to be invited to be a co-chair at Davos because we are a critical voice. We go there to challenge these powerful elites. It is an act of courage to invite me.” [...] Speaking to the Guardian, Byanyima added: “Extreme inequality is not just an accident or a natural rule of economics. It is the result of policies and with different policies it can be reduced. I am optimistic that there will be change. “A few years ago the idea that extreme poverty was harmful was on the fringes of the economic and political debate. But having made the case we are now seeing an emerging consensus among business leaders, economic leaders, political leaders and even faith leaders.” [Emphasis added.]Are we really? And what kind of consensus? Does her ego extend to the same summit heights in believing that their invite and her presence is all part of some courageous act and meaningful engagement?
Like so many liberal 'reformers', Byanyima exhibits an inability to stand much more usefully, and with real courage, outside the big power tent; to see, expose and do something radical about the dire situation of capitalist 'democracy'.
Alongside system apologists like Oxfam and Save the Children, key opinion-forming outlets like the Guardian and Independent play the same vital role in maintaining the great illusion of the 'critical insider'.
For example, George Monbiot has just delivered a searing indictment of the BBC from the pages of the Guardian. But what of the Guardian's own vital role as a power-protecting organ? Couldn't Monbiot's demolition of BBC bias be matched with similar criticism of the Guardian, Independent and other liberal-establishment outlets, all stated more effectively from outside the domain of compromised media?
Likewise, from the same Guardian pages, Seumas Milne has been dispensing damning truths on the Davos oligarchs, showing how, in the case of Latin America, it really is possible to achieve progressive advancements and checks on inequality by standing defiantly outside much of the neoliberal system. Yet, how more hitting might that message be if Milne, with Monbiot and others, were operating outside as a truly independent media of the commons?
The same problem of compromise and adherence is evident, too, in Owen Jones's continual effort to promote, trouble-shoot and save the Labour Party. Jones's Guardian column has been urging Labour to steal a lead on Green policies. But all this ultimately does is give sustenance to a bankrupt neoliberal party, a loaded parliamentary system and that same boundaried media, none of which can ever deliver meaningful change because they're all, essentially, part of the same corporate-serving network.
Indeed, political-corporate taming of the mainstream green lobby should be a landmark lesson here.
As Media Lens lament:
What about green groups, many of whom look to the Guardian for favourable coverage of their campaigning and concerns? Will they ever recognise the folly of working with so-called 'responsible' elements of state and corporate power?Just as it's painfully apparent that 'working with' or 'inside' the prevailing 'agenda' on climate change - accepting the delusional narrative of 'corporate social responsibility' - has been a disaster, so too are many 'critical' journalists hopelessly misguided in believing that working with, or inside, the corporate media can ever bring about radical solutions, most urgently, environmental ones.
None of this should really take much deduction. As Brand, with humble clarity, puts it:
I'm not Noam Chomsky; I'm happy to be Norman Wisdom. All I'd like to do is dispel the idea that there are no alternatives to the systems we are currently using to organise society (Revolution, p191).Wise and elementary words, even if the commendable Russell himself has a little way to go in questioning kindred, supportive voices like Monbiot and Jones on their participation within the prevailing system, and whether this - indeed, for Brand too - is the most effective way of realising serious alternatives.
The key, if uncomfortable, question for many such figures proclaiming system change, thus, is how ready and willing are they to stand outside the interconnecting systems of power they themselves inhabit, showing real radical commitment to systemic change?
The institutional pressures, career disincentives and self-regarding antipathies to this are, of course, huge. It's no coincidence that raising these issues with such figures can invoke the most hostile forms of response - or, more usually, non-response.
This is the exquisite functionality of the system. Without any need for conspiratorial closure, it reproduces its own defensive armour.
Which should only compel us to keep asking the central question: is it really worth being a 'campaigning' voice or fig-leaf 'dissident' within organisations that continually prop-up power, reinforce illusions and help sustain the dominant, corporate system we're supposedly striving to overcome?