Clown Time, Again. And again and again…


The Court Jester, William Merritt Chase, 1875

by Jenny Diski

It is the time of the comedians. Western politics as it is perceived by populations and portrayed by the media of every kind is in such a parlous state, that it is not a metaphor but a reality developing before our eyes. The comedians in this country are arguing amongst themselves, but in full public view, about the state of the nation and what is to be done to resolve and redeem its moribund condition. It has already happened in Italy where the comedian Beppe Grillo launched his Five Star Party several years ago, and in the general election of 2013 it received 25.5% of the vote, coming second to the Democratic Party. Nobody has sent for the clowns, they arrived already on stage when the people understood that clowns disguised as responsible politicians have been running the country all along. Italian politics has often been seen as a joke. Now the joke has taken hold and become a political reality. Why wouldn’t the clowns do as good a job as the present day parliamentarians, bankers, civil servants, shady hedge fund managers and directors of multinational corporations who can be seen to be carving up national economics, justice and welfare according to their own need and greed? Miles and miles of print articles in serious papers throughout the world and online comment have been devoted to the meaning of Beppe Grillo’s rise in Italian national politics. He is a king-maker holding the balance of power, a populist, a rabble rouser, a demagogue, far right, far left, the voice of the people demanding direct democracy in which politicians are responsible only to the electorate. It caused perhaps only a little fright to those who know that they control the world, whatever speeches are made in parliament. But he is taken as a sign. And, over here, a few funny men have sat up and taken notice.

Now England’s clown time has arrived. We have a scrawny, ragged stand-up comedian called Russell Brand. He hits the headlines from time to time with practised pranks in the media that cause outrage or amusement. He specialises in going over the top and then apologising with as little grace as possible. He is more interesting that most fame chasers and youngish (he is 38) comedians, because although he has had a minimal education, he is highly articulate, decidedly over-wordy, and has an ability to cut through the cant of politicians and TV journalists who find it difficult to deal with his directness. He isn’t afraid and doesn’t care about doing things the right way. He freely acknowledges all the things that he thinks he could be accused of: he’s open about having been a drug addict, an alcoholic and suffered bulimia. With all this, he has brought himself to the nation’s attention and has become the grubby, long-haired loud-mouth the tabloids love to hate.

He hit the news most recently by being guest editor for an edition of the New Statesman. In a hideously long (4500 words) and apparently unedited Forward to his edition, he gave an overview of the state of the nation, berating politicians and those who pull their strings, for corruption, greed and self-interest. He said that he has never voted, because to vote is to collude with the fantasy that those in power are spreading while continuing their corrupt, self-serving ways. Democracy is a con, it is a lie that anyone in power cares about what people think. None of the parties are better than any other in this regard. Finally, he called for people to stand with him and refuse to vote as a positive political act in order to show that we were no longer going to allow ourselves to be fooled into quiescence.

This resulted in another stand-up comedian, Robert Webb, writing a response to Russell Brand, not quietly in a private letter or conversation, but in an open letter that appeared on the front page of The Guardian. Webb said that Brand was wrong about non-voting and encouraging others not to vote. It was our democratic birthright to vote and to participate in politics to change it if we didn’t like the way it was going. As a direct result of Brand’s suggestions, Webb joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party didn’t say whether it was delighted by this or not.

Political commentators and academics were very sniffy about the upstart, naive Brand and his childish view of government and politics. Many of us looked on unimpressed as famous people took up column inches and gained publicity for themselves, their only qualification for pontificating seeming to be that people knew their names and paid money to attend their gigs around the country. But the ball kept rolling. Jeremy Paxman, TV political interviewer in chief, had a long discussion with Brand on BBC’s Newsnight, berating Brand for decrying democratic politics before himself getting on to the front pages of the national press to announce that actually, he hadn’t voted in the last election because he thought it was pointless.

Then Brand wrote another 3 or 4 thousand words in The Guardian to respond to all this.

‘I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.’

Over-stuffed as his language might be, the truth is that I pretty much agree with Brand. He is certainly saying things that I have felt for a long time. A lot of people feel the same way. There is a cynicism and angry apathy among all of us as we watch the games being played. I haven’t voted since Tony Blair stood for re-election, there being no one and no party I believed or whose promises I trusted. The years since, culminating in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have confirmed to me the simple truths that Brand speaks. The idea that there should be a nation effort not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers en masse strikes me as being a pretty effective message to all the parties that the electorate is no longer prepared to be fooled or to play along and pretend it is acting out some holy freedom when we put our cross by a candidate’s name. The puppets are in revolt. More importantly, it would mean that no party and no coalition could claim, as they all have, no matter how small the percentage vote, that they have a mandate from the people for running the country or putting their policies into law.

I feel the pull of Brand’s populist anger and call to act quite strongly. He speaks of wanting a fairer society. Of giving higher wages to nurses, teachers and those who clean up our messes, than to those who sit in boardrooms selling oil or arms or surveillance equipment. All he wants, he says, is change for the better and if we collaborate in refusing power to those who think they are entitled to it, we can effect change.

The rhetoric is appealing as the rhetoric of the new broom demagogue sweeping the corrupt past away has always appealed. I don’t think that Brand is insincere or has, at least a conscious, desire for personal power. But I read his final words and tremble, not just at them, but at my own attraction to the popular words of a cheeky, honest stand-up comedian:

Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I’ve fucked up. Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws. This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.

While the comedian tells us honestly what we know about the world, there are always the others, the ones who do consciously want power and wealth, and they know very well how to manipulate populist feeling in a power vacuum. What is more, one of the worst things about Tony Blair, when he forcibly, with deceit, took us into the Iraq war that was to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people, was that he was sincere. He claimed his sincerity as the bedrock of his right to act, as if only belief in what you were doing was required to act against a population’s wishes. And then I also worry about the population, that not only knows how corrupt the rich and powerful are, but, according to the polls, want to bring back hanging as a punishment for murder, and believe the country is being overrun by immigrants, and that the majority of those on welfare benefits for the low paid and unemployed are skivers and scroungers. And so I return to anger and apathy, and worry about a popular revolution led by comedians as well as no revolution, and the misery in the world getting ever more miserable.

Russell Brand in The Bill, ITV

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Originally published in Swedish in Göteborgs-Posten.