Maybe you saw this interview circling around the social-media stratosphere a few weeks ago. In the clip, BBC’s Jeremy Paxman interviews actor/comedian Russell Brand, who spends 10 minutes advocating for a revolutionary overthrow of the current political system. The shaggy former-drug-addict-turned-celebrity is verbose but sharp, eloquently espousing a vision of egalitarianism — first laid out in his lengthy New Statesmen feature — in which the masses cooperate to remedy global wealth disparities, remove the influence of big business from politics and end the devastation of planetary resources. When Paxman presses for details about just how this would be achieved, Brand responds, “Jeremy, darling, don’t ask me to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.”
I suspect that this response ticked a lot of people off. In a scathing critique, Conservative commentator Lord (ha) Norman Tebbit notes that, “What was totally missing … was any vision of how Mr. Brand would like to see our social, economic and political system in his post-revolutionary era,” before concluding that Brand is, “no more than a self-important self publicist.”
For those of us who generally favor the three main components of Brand’s proposition — redress growing income inequality, get corporate interests out of politics, quit fucking up the environment — Tebbit’s critique of Brand’s motive and lack of strategy poses two important questions. First, in challenging the dominant ideology of globalist capitalism, is it required to have a preconceived alternative with methods of creation and implementation already laid out? And second, what right does someone with no background in economic or political theory have to call for reform — or even revolution — of our current political and economic system?
Enter Pope Francis. In only eight months, the sovereign of Vatican City has achieved a viral popularity with his call for a more relaxed stance on birth control, his admonishment of lavish spending by bishops and his suggestion that persecuting homosexuals is maybe not the most Christian thing to do. “Nice work, new Pope,” applauded the reasonable humans of the 21st century. “Keep it up.”
But then last Tuesday, in his first papal pronouncement, the pontiff took a direct shot at supply-side economics that left many wondering if the leader had overstepped his role as non-partisan theologian. Lashing out at “trickle-down theories” and “the absolute autonomy of markets,” Francis spoke of the proverbial little guy, rendered “defenseless before the interests of a deified market.”
In a column for Yahoo’s finance section, Rick Newman dismisses the remarks as liberal idealism, before observing that, “the pope doesn’t have much to say about what would be better.” He goes on to add, “What has been a lot more effective at raising the living standards of billions, however, is cold, hard-edged capitalism.”
Though the religious leader and the comedian could not be more different, there are telling similarities — both obvious and less so — between Pope Francis’s call for reform and Russell Brand’s call for revolution. On the surface, both are criticisms of laissez-faire economics, concerned that our obsession with growth has created a power elite with an ability — and tendency — to exploit the underclass. Both flirt with socialist-based solutions, while never actually addressing the ideology’s essential tenet — that is, public ownership of the means of production. And both statements have been ridiculed for the fact that neither figure appears capable of devising an economic system more favorable — or at least more profitable — than free enterprise without restrictions.
What may be less obvious in this tedious comparison of the two figures is the fact that both the Pope and Brand are rallying as much against capitalism as they are apathy, employing their high profile platforms to offer an emotional appeal directed squarely at a younger generation. Consider Brand’s recommendation that, “the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political,” and his qualification of spiritual as, “the acknowledgement that our connection to one another and the planet must be prioritized.” Similarly, consider Pope Francis, speaking in an interview about the growing culture of exclusion: “What I would tell the youth is to worry about looking after one another and to be conscious of this and to not allow themselves to be thrown away.”
There’s an important parallel in the Pope’s carefully worded criticism of “deified markets” and Brand’s discourse on “spiritual revolution.” In the two decades since the fall of global communism as a serious threat, the increasing reliance on free-market solutions has been married to the prevailing notion that we’re each entitled to our individual excess, and that cutting social programs in the name of austerity will permit the market to eliminate this abstract concept of human suffering. In attempting to terminate the creeping plague of apathy, I’d argue that it’s first necessary to present an alternative mindset to a system that has left so many disillusioned and even more impoverished.
Pope Francis calls this the “dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” Brand calls it “a system predicated on aspects of … greed, selfishness and fear.” The respected economic minds of our time — the Paul Krugmans and Paul Ryans of the world — would have a more technical assessment of this system; perhaps an analysis based more in policy than emotion. Still, Brand and Pope Francis have successfully presented an alternative ideology — one focused on eliminating the exclusionary, individualistic ideals that precipitate widespread apathy — and for that alone their remarks should be taken seriously.