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In praise of Russell Brand's sharing revolution

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From flickr.com/photos/58820009@N05/5622506846/: Arthur Russell Brand
Arthur Russell Brand
(Image by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer)
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For all of Brand's joking and braggadocio, a sagacious theme runs through his new book: that a peaceful revolution must bring about a fairer sharing of the world's resources, which depends upon a revelation about our true spiritual nature.

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The political conversation on sharing is growing by the day, sometimes from the unlikeliest of quarters. And at the present time, there is perhaps no-one calling louder for a new society to be based on sharing than Russell Brand, the comedian-cum-activist and revolutionary. It is easy to dismiss much of Brand's polysyllabic and self-referential meanderings, as do most of the establishment media in the USA and Britain, but this only serves to disregard his flashes of wisdom and the justified reasons for his popularity.

His latest book is clearly not meant to be taken entirely seriously as a roadmap to "systemic change on a global scale", hence the various crude digressions and contradictions. Yet as pointed out by Evan Davies at the beginning of his second BBC Newsnight interview, Brand has probably engaged more young people in thinking about serious political issues than any politician, despite his infamous disavowal of voting in parliamentary elections. On this basis alone, there's every reason to take seriously Brand's call for a revolution based on the principles of sharing, cooperation and love. But what does his idea of a caring, sharing revolution actually mean in practice?

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Sharing is fundamental to a fair society

To elucidate, Brand uses a homespun analogy in his book: if 20 school children were in a playground and a couple of them took all the toys, you would "explain to them that sharing is a basic human value and redistribute the toys". In a similar way, he says that the minority rich who are hoarding resources are misguided in their belief that it can make them happy, and we have to "be the adults" and help them. Which will require somehow dismantling the machinery of deregulated capitalism, winning over the military, and redistributing their excessive wealth.

Admittedly he's a bit sketchy on the details of how to achieve this, although he does endorse Thomas Piketty's proposal for greater transparency around the assets of the super-rich--with a modest tax on their wealth as well as their income (see chapter 19 entitled: "Piketty, Licketty, Rollity, Flicketty"). But many other implicit recommendations are scattered throughout the book for how sharing could be institutionalised on a local or national level. He is keen to point out, for example, that the "corporate world in its entirety is a kind of thief of more wholesome values, such as sharing". And thus the least they can do, he suggests, is to stop exploiting tax loopholes (which is "a kind of social robbery") and instead pay their fair share of taxes.

In describing how "Jesus is pretty committed to sharing", he also makes it clear that any British politician who claims to be a Christian should--like Jesus--try to help the poor and heal the sick, and not implement austerity policies and sell off the National Health Service. By implication, the kind of sharing that Brand upholds clearly needs to be systematised through progressive taxation and the universal provision of public services and social security. And this is best exemplified, in no particularly radical way, in the Western European ideal of the welfare or social state: the collective pooling and redistribution of a nation's financial resources for the benefit of society as a whole.

Brand's other line of reasoning is a bit more contentious: "Socialism isn't a dirty word," he says, "it just means sharing; really it's just the bureaucratic arm of Christianity". But do we have to call ourselves a socialist to espouse the human value of sharing? Or could this simple principle help us to better navigate between the divisive 'isms' that still drive much of the debate on how governments should guarantee social and economic rights for all people?

It's pretty clear what Brand is trying to say, though: that the religious faiths have all expounded the importance of sharing wealth and other resources fairly, and it's high time that this age-old moral value and ethic underpinned the fabric of our societies. As he expressed it here in an interview with SiriusXM Radio: "They said the problem with socialism is that it placed economics forever at the heart of politics, when what belongs at the heart of politics is spirituality. And socialism in a way is just a Christian principle, just the idea that we're all the same, we're all connected; we should share. We can't be happy if other people are suffering. It's just a sort of logical thing."

A fairer society, based on sharing, demands radical democracy

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Here's another of Brand's sure-fire political insights: that a sharing society is dependent on mass civic engagement and truly representative democracy. Drawing on a fleeting interview in his house with David Graeber, he writes: "Democracy means if enough people want a fairer society, with more sharing, well-supported institutions and less exploitation by organisations that do not contribute, then their elected representatives will ensure that it is enacted." But this will never happen, Brand suggests, so long as we have leaders who have been "conditioned and groomed to compliantly abide by the system that exploits them", whose only true agenda is "meeting the needs of big business". Hence there can be no true form of democracy without "a radical decentralisation of power, whether private or state."

Brand repeatedly returns to this theme of sharing both political power and economic resources more fairly among the populace, which he sees as an obvious prerequisite to any form of true democracy and the creation of a better world. And who can deny that a solution to gross inequality and ecological breakdown will never come from the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron, who he describes as "all avatars of the same neoliberal concept, part of the problem, not the solution"?

How Brand proposes that power should be "shared, not concentrated" is perhaps a bit vague or outlandish in places, such as when he advocates for "total self-governance" via "small, self-determined communities that are run voluntarily and democratically" and without any leaders, which may eventually require nation states to be somehow "dissolved". But in other places he's entirely lucid and practical, as in his endorsement of direct democracy in Switzerland or participatory budgeting in Brazil. He concludes: "Generally speaking, when empowered as a community, or a common mind, our common spirit, our common sense, reaches conclusions that are beneficial for our community. Our common unity."

When it comes to the business world, Brand is also quite cogent in his recommendations for how to "structure corporations more fairly" and redistribute power downwards. One proposal is for Employee Investment Funds, in which a significant percentage of the company's profits are shared with workers, and controlled by democratically accountable worker management boards that have to use the proceeds for social priorities and in the public interest. Another proposal is for jointly-owned and value-driven enterprises in the guise of co-operatives, which Brand argues provide a model that can democratise the workplace and prevent the proceeds of labour from being poured into the pocket of some "thumb-twiddling plutocrat who by happy accident owns the firm". He adds simply: "The profits should be shared among the people who do the work".

Humanity must share the world's wealth and resources

From the outset, Brand makes it clear that his greatest concern is the "galling inequality" of our world, which is sustained by an economic system that continues to "deplete the earth's resources so rapidly, violently and irresponsibly that our planet's ability to support human life is being threatened." In frequently quoting Oxfam's "fun bus" statistic -- that a bus carrying 85 of the world's richest people would represent more wealth than that owned by half the earth's population -- he also makes it clear that he is "seriously comfortable with society getting extremely equal." As he puts it: "the practical, fair allocation of resources, the preservation of the planet must naturally be prioritised."

Although Brand does not profess to have all the answers for how we can share the world's wealth and resources more equally between countries as well as within them, he does at least emphasise that it must happen. And very quickly too, because more "important perhaps than this galling inequality is the fact that we have a limited amount of time to resolve it" (that is, unless we "plan to wait until the earth is a scorched husk then blast off to a moon-base.") He also professes his belief that "all conflicts" are about resources or territory and the theological rhetoric merely a garnish to make it more palatable." Which clearly means, in Brand's commonsensical worldview, that sharing land and resources is a prerequisite for peaceful co-existence -- an egalitarian approach that he specifically endorses when discussing the economic alternatives long practised within Cuba.

Decrying the fact that profits and wealth are increasingly consolidated within a mere fraction of the world population, Brand's simple observation about the need for a new economic paradigm is again difficult to disagree with. He actually says this a few times, in so many words: "There is another way. There is the way. To live in accordance with truth, to accept we are on a planet that has resources and people on it. We have to respect the planet so we can use the resources to nourish the people. Somehow this simple equation has been allowed to become extremely confusing." What is being demanded is not whimsical, he adds later, but "pragmatism, systems that function." Yet none of this happens, and "can't because they [i.e. rich elites, big corporations and those who serve them in governments] have prioritised a bizarre, selfish and destructive idea over common sense."

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Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World's Resources, an independent civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations.


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