Comedian Russell Brand declared all politicians liars. Sadly, few in Generation Y will raise an eyebrow.
On BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, aimed squarely at Britain’s fusty establishment, Russell Brand let rip: “Politicians are all liars”. There isn’t much wiggle room in “all”. Yet, Russell Brand’s interview struck a chord. With over 6,000,000 views on Youtube (and counting), the interview and Brand’s petulant call for revolution was viewed across the globe. The commentariat quickly condemned Brand’s views as dangerous, or as the ever-prescient Nick Cohen noted “artists have always made a show of being drawn towards fanaticism. Extremism is more exciting and dramatic”. If we take Brand’s comments at face value, every single sitting MP in the House of Commons is a liar. If you accept this to be true, as many young people now do, then why retain parliamentary democracy?
Generation Y’s faith in democracy is limited, at best. Asked who they trust, two-thirds of British young people say they have “little” or “no” trust in politicians. Why would they? For a generation weaned on the quick-fix e-petitions, politics is a series of cocaine highs (“By signing this - You changed the law!”) followed by crushing lows (“Why won’t they listen?”). Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble identified the social media filter that surrounds young people’s conception of the political truth. A 16 year old rural Texan will, due to their friendship groups and habits, see a totally different series of news posts on Facebook than another 16 year old in New York City. Our polarised politics says these two truths can’t both be right, someone is lying.
Politicians have hardly helped themselves. Trust in the British political system has collapsed. The MPs expenses scandal exposed the fact our representatives were, alongside their staid day job of writing laws, finding common purpose in stealing lots and lots of our money. The Liberal Democrat party specifically ruled out raising student tuition fees in their election manifesto. Within a year of entering government in coalition with the Tories, they increased fees from £3,000 to £9,000. Meanwhile Britain’s housing boom (central London prices are rising by 10% per annum) is robbing a generation of any chance of owning a home of their own. As Jilted Generation co-author Shiv Malik points out, while the baby boomers got free university education, could easily get a free council house (state housing) and lived in an era of full employment, all of these things have been robbed from Generation Y.
So the anger mounts. As a councillor, I’ve experienced first-hand the hatred reserved for the political class. Public humiliation, being sworn at on countless occasions, threatening phone calls: having spoken to other young councillors it’s now commonplace to be subject to a barrage of abuse if you seek political office. Why not – all politicians are liars, remember?
Russell Brand, a Hollywood celebrity, is no fringe figure fuelling this rage. He happily promotes HP touchpads – and Disney Parks. His personal wealth is estimated at $15 million. On Newsnight his rhetoric edged closer to that of a 9/11 truther than someone who has a sideline in promoting corporations. Brand said:
“I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system”
“I’m not saying – the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They’re only interested in servicing the needs of corporations.”
The anti-politics mood fuels a strong sideline in fantasies. Whether the lone extremist such as Anders Behring Breivik, or connected conspiracists such as the LaRouche movement, the internet has allowed those on the fringes of society to connect globally and feed their conceits unchallenged. Some of this infects the body politic. When UKIP candidates (the party most likely to win Britain’s European elections) quote from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion* and describe the EU as the “EUSSR” and new Home Office Minister Norman Baker MP does a star turn on Alex Jones’ podcast to reveal he believes government scientist Dr David Kelly’s death was covered up by MI5, can we still say this is the fringe? Is Generation Y wrong to get tipsy on conspiracies when they work to elect a liberal President and he says nothing of note – nothing – when the most paranoid delusions of dystopia are made to look unambitious compared to the NSA’s system of mass surveillance buried deep in the Utah desert? Francis Fukuyama predicted the “end of history” when the Berlin Wall fell. Instead we got 9/11, Guantanamo, Iraq’s non-existent WMD and Wikileaks. My former hero Blair, promised democracy in Iraq, failed and now shills for a murderous tyrant in Kazakhstan. No wonder Generation Y is so confused.
Russell Brand’s views are merely the tip of an iceberg of hostility to the political class. The complexity of the modern world and the inability of the political system to adjust to the great leap forward of the internet and social media has led to widespread disillusionment. But they have also failed to wake up to the challenge they face. Politicians are distrusted; political parties are losing activists and money, the far-right is on the rise in continental Europe. Can we really say Russell Brand’s views are no longer the mainstream?