Sepia Rebels: What Russell Brand and Antonio Gramsci Have in Common

Despite assaults against actions (voting) and concepts (atheism) that don’t seem as entirely terrible as he would contest, Russell Brand’s leading article in his guest-edited edition of the New Statesman is actually quite good. Many commentators have been eager to attack the piece as vague, rambling or imprecise in what increasingly seems like a professional closing of the ranks: ‘Don’t tread on our turf!’ Though, while it may be all those things to a greater or lesser extent, shouldn’t we encourage this sort of thing more often?  A man who enjoys mass cultural appeal and attracts a lot of attention has started speaking passionately about the rampant inequalities and injustices that ought to be at the heart of discussion in the West, ahead of, say, Apple’s latest built-in-obsolescence product launch. Even the slightest dent in the armour of apathy so many people encase themselves in at the moment is a welcome one in my book.

Antonio Brand

While it tackles many burning issues from the London riots to climate change in a genuinely poetic way, the point Brand is arguably best on concerns the ‘Revolution of Consciousness’ tagline that he chose to be New Statesman’s sub title for the week. In a nutshell, he argues, quite accurately, that we’ll never get true progressive change, never tackle mass poverty and injustice, without changing the way we all think: ‘we are enslaved by old ideologies, be they theological or economic…’. This is a perspective he shares with a dead Italian Marxist called Antonio Gramsci, who was locked up for most of his adult life by Mussolini’s fascists and so had a lot of time to think about these sorts of things. Gramsci called this ‘enslavement’  ‘Hegemony’. Why are genuinely revolutionary changes so difficult to achieve in the Western world? Because, he wrote, the ruling elite, through institutions like the government, corporate mass-media and so on, deliberately limit society’s horizons. The current (grossly unequal) state of affairs, so they will say, is essentially the only possible order of things. It can’t be changed, it IS the real world, everything outside it is meaningless, undesirable, impossible.

So hegemony makes genuine change extremely difficult in capitalist countries because, with limited horizons, many people’s appetite for it isn’t there. Material appetite and attention is stronger; for new things or even just necessities everyone needs to get by. Each to their own individualism has led to widespread acceptance that the current way of doing things, i.e. the liberal-capitalist way, is really the only possible, desirable approach. Many don’t appreciate that things could be different, are different elsewhere and have been different before. On this point Brand was lyrically impressive, highlighting how many great achievements of social movements that fought the status quo here in the UK often go uncelebrated these days:

A potent, triumphant leftist movement is a faint, idealistic whisper from sepia rebels. The formation of the NHS, holiday pay, sick pay, the 8-hour day…were not achieved in the lifetime of the directionless London rioters. They are uninformed of the Left’s great legacy as it is dismantled around them.

I came to a similar conclusion recently. After watching Ken Loach’s wonderful film Spirit of ’45 with some flatmates, I was shocked to learn that some, undergrads like myself at the time, had had no idea that key industries used to be in public ownership, or that higher education was essentially funded by the State and not just huge student debts. Ignorance like this stifles moves towards progressive change since it makes it so difficult for people to imagine alternative ways of doing things; other realities, in a sense.

Challenging this collective amnesia and its accompanying apathy is therefore absolutely vital if we want to fight the unprecedented disparity between rich and poor that exists in the Western world; engineered and maintained by the 1%, for the 1%. In making this point, Brand (whether knowingly or not) aligned himself with Gramsci and the idea of hegemony, and also helped renew that challenge. His article, together with the melodramatic accompanying interview with Paxman on Newsnight last week, has stoked up debate about inequality, corporate greed and mass poverty, propelled by Brand’s global celebrity. This discussion, as Gramsci said, is exactly what must happen on the road to changing our current, immensely unbalanced and unjust society for the better. For all his imprecision and haziness, Brand injected some radicalism into the daily political discussion that is much needed and most welcome. Long live the Revolution of Consciousness!


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