In Russell Brand’s recent interview with BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman (which is currently going viral- 7.5 million hits in less than 5 days) Brand articulated the frustration that millions of people feel toward an inherently unfair socio-economic system that’s destroying the planet. He comically mocked voting as a purely symbolic act that masks the fact that politicians are merely figureheads doing the bidding of corporations.
Brand’s critiques are difficult to disagree with. Rather than questioning Brand’s repeated assertions that governments serve corporations and that a large underclass is being exploited, the Paxman pressed Brand to offer a concrete vision of alternative society. He defers the specifics to others who are better qualified, while assuring us that the revolution is coming.
Here’s the thing: while Brand’s passionate appeal is valuable in alerting people to the reality of the world, there’s something problematic about placing blame for all of society’s ills on outside agents.
Pointing the finger toward corporations and their government cronies easily substitutes for making concrete changes in one’s life that, when multiplied, would seriously undermine the basis of the power structure.
While it’s undeniable that socio-political conditions shape and influence our lives in significant ways, we have a great deal more freedom- and consequently responsibility- than we would like to admit.
What the blame-the-system rhetoric forgets is that “the system” is not something “out there.” It is nothing more than the aggregate of millions of individual choices, all based on values, desire, and ethics.
Capitalism is really a transparent system if you think about it: every business that we see is there because consumers have “voted” for it with their money. Saddened to see the exploitation of Bangladeshi garment workers subjected to dangerous working conditions? Stop buying the shirts they make! While it may be difficult to impact government energy policy, each and every one of us (reading this) is free to choose what we put in our mouths and what we purchase.
Of course, “conscious consumption” can only go so far, and there are undoubtedly fundamental socio-economic issues that need to be addressed and reformed (Brand mentions, for instance, the tax havens that the wealthy use to avoid paying their full share).
But when I look at the pictures of people camped out overnight for iphones, or the staggering consumption of industrially produced animals- both of which produce catastrophic social and environmental consequences- I can’t help but conclude that a hell of a lot of people quite enjoy the current state of affairs (I am writing this on a Macbook, after all (although in my defense, it’s five years old:)). “The system” caters to and satisfies human desires on a mass scale.
Meat is tasty, it’s nicer to drive than to take the bus, and smartphones are cool. But ipads, designer shirts, hamburgers are all implicated in a vast web of human and environmental suffering that most of us do not see. If we did see the suffering contained in our shirts, for instance, then we might be forced to be more selective in where and how they are produced. If we saw the environmental impact of raising animals, we might think twice about consuming so many of them.
As long as consumers are unwilling to break themselves away from attachment to these pleasures and conveniences, and pay a product’s full socio-environmental cost, the money that we spend will continue to trickle up into the pockets of corporations, who will then use a portion of that money to exert undue influence on the political system.
Brand speaks of “waking up” to the way things are. Perhaps what we really need to wake up to is that the logical response to the world’s problems is not to simply drop out and throw one’s hands up in nihilism. It would be to follow the advice of Brand’s friend the Dalai Lama, who quite rightly remarks that to bring about change in the outer world, we must first bring it about within ourselves.
Imagine the combined impact of millions of people going vegetarian, carpooling, shopping in second hand stores, and putting off buying the latest phone for a year.
Or better yet: imagine what would happen if most people woke up to the fact that happiness is not really contingent on outside factors, and stopped chasing the products fueling the capitalist monster raping the planet? Imagine if we followed the idea found in many spiritual traditions that we should act as though the fate of the world depended on our every choice.
That would be the real revolution, one that would most certainly not be televised.
It’s too simplistic to sit back and complain and wish the system were different. And unfortunately, continuing to do that instead of actually changing one’s life is the conclusion that most people will draw from this interview.