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Many a True Word

There’s a famous phrase which states that “There’s many a true word spoken in jest”. If this is true then sometimes comedians must speak a lot of sense. I already covered a comedy routine which I thought had a lot of truth about religion in a post “A Modern Court Jester” from 2013-06-05 and in this post I want to talk about a similar (although nowhere near as indelicate) rant by comedian Russell Brand on the subject of modern politics.

The comments were made in an interview from the BBC between Brand and British journalist Jeremy Paxman. Like a lot of Brand’s material it was partly comedic (and verging on trivial) and partly quite insightful (Brand is clearly reasonably intelligent).

So without further preamble I will list some of his points and comment on them here…

First, he says don’t vote, it just encourages them. He thinks it makes little difference who you vote for and by opting in to the system you are just giving it tacit approval.

He has a point here. There is no doubt that in recent years (like the last 30 to 40) most political parties have strayed into economic ideologies based on neo-liberalism and which would normally be only favoured by right-wing politicians. If the left are going to follow similar policies to the right then there is actually very little point in voting.

On the other hand does a person have the moral right to criticise a government which they had no part in choosing? And is there even a small difference between left and right which might be worth acting on by voting? I personally tend to favour the answer “yes” for the first and “probably not” for the second question (as does Brand) but I can see how a case could be made against this as well.

Although, at least here in New Zealand, there are signs that our long and troubled venture into pure libertarian ideology is finishing and even our right wing party is far more centrist than in the past. So there is more choice available now. But the problem is that both parties want to occupy the center and the center itself lurches backwards and forwards (from far into libertarian ideology in the 80s and 90s to more moderate today).

So Brand seems to reject democracy and the natural question is what is the alternative? Well that’s where revolutionary ideas like his tend to break down a bit. Few people have any alternative ideas and he certainly doesn’t. I will repeat that famous quote from Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest.”

Here’s another controversial idea: David Cameron (British prime minister) says that profit is not a dirty word. Brand disagrees, saying profit is a filthy word.

I tend to partly agree with this as well. I know that our economic system is based on investment into new ventures with the expectation that the investment will be returned through future profits, but that is just a system which has been invented, largely for the benefit of the rich. And yes, I know that it sometimes works quite well, but I would say that on balance it doesn’t usually work efficiently for the benefit of society as a whole.

Think honestly about the “average investor”. Which would they be more likely to invest in: research into something for the good of society, like a cancer cure, which might not even work and where it might take decades to realise any payback; or a marketing campaign for a frivolous consumer product like Coke which would likely produce immediate income? I think we all know the answer to that, and I think that is the core thing which is wrong with society today.

Finally there is the idea that politicians aren’t really trying to solve the big problems. They are just papering over the cracks.

That seems obvious to me. There have been no serious efforts to fix climate change, or to create greater income equality, or to block the use of tax havens, or to stop corporations exploiting the environment. Any efforts which have been made so far have been decidedly uninspiring.

Democracies have elections every 3 or 4 years (typically) so why would a politician commit to a big change which might require much longer to complete? Governments are also often risk averse, and they would rather do nothing and end up with a bad outcome than do something which might also lead to a bad outcome which they could be held accountable for.

Then there is the problem that political parties tend to have financial support (sometimes also known as bribes) from companies and organisations who are already doing well out of the system as it is, which must make implementing change harder.

And finally governments are usually driven by some sort of ideology rather than seeking flexible, practical solutions. And the dominant ideology in recent years has been neo-liberalism (and this is only slowly changing). When you wear blinkers you can only see what’s right on front of you.

Brand seems to favour keeping something similar to the current system but taxing the rich heavily to redistribute wealth and have really strong regulations to control corporations which currently cause a lot of environmental and other damage. While this seems like a rather uninspired solution (instead of something totally new) his inability to suggest anything better means it might be the best we can really expect.

So maybe we shouldn’t realistically anticipate a revolution as much as slow, evolutionary change. That’s better than nothing, I suppose.

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