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Talkin' about a revolution

By: 
John Bell

December 7, 2013

Donald Sutherland, Russell Brand and Pope Francis walk into a bar… Well, if they did they would have something to talk about: all three have become media sensations for launching withering attacks on capitalism.
 
The Pope doesn’t go as far as Sutherland and Brand, and toss around the “R” word, but his recent pronouncement has been called “pure Marxism” by no less an authority than Rush Limbaugh.
 
“I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution,” veteran actor and erstwhile activist Donald Sutherland recently told the Guardian newspaper. Anyone familiar with Sutherland’s support for the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement back in the 1960s won’t be surprised. His statements are more Puckish than programmatic, but we appreciate the sentiment.
 
Russell Brand the weather vane
Until now comedian Russell Brand has not been on my radar. But a recent string of essays and interviews has made him a media sensation. As guest editor of New Statesman magazine he wrote, “Imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics.” I tactically disagree with his argument on refusing to vote, but I agree with his assessment of “democracy” under capitalism: “Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.”
 
Some of what he says is total crap, like his sexist comments. Some of his statements are the product of thinking fast but not deeply, like when he says that “capitalism is not real; it is an idea.” Come on lad, how did that idea come about? After a few millennia of feudalism, did some folks philosophizing over their ale suddenly declare: “Enough of this rot, let’s have some of this capitalism I just thought of.” But he’s far from unique falling into the trap of idealism. And Brand rightly identifies the challenges facing the left: how to change consciousness; how to convert apathy into “righteous rage”; how to reconcile individual imperatives with collective action. I think he’s dead wrong that humans are more strongly “wired” for selfishness than for altruism, but arguments about human nature are crucial.
 
All this ignited a grass-fire of debate on the left blogoshere, with responses ranging from uncritical anarchist group hugs to stodgy tut-tutting from the dogmatic end of the Marxism spectrum. All, I think, miss the point, and no one, I bet, is more amused than Russell Brand. Brand did not, as the Gawker website gushed, “start a revolution”, but he is an accurate weather vane. He senses which way the wind is blowing and his words act as a fan to push it along. He’s not the only one to feel the breeze, but most of those who do are scrambling to calm it, rather than fan it into a gale.
 
The Pope's fetters
Which brings us to the Pope. In a recent statement Pope Francis attacked “unfettered capitalism” as “a new tyranny”: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
 
That’s great by Pope standards and enough to send shudders through a swathe of the ruling class. But Francis is not for overturning capitalism, just for fettering the “unfettered” variety. Like a lot of people at the top of the pyramid, he fears capitalism has gone too far, that the gap between rich and poor has grown too wide, and that the scandals revealing the true nature of the capitalist beast have become too frequent and too obvious.
 
The myth of ethical capitalism
Consider a recent essay from The Atlantic magazine entitled “Is Capitalism In Trouble?”. While touting the attempts of a small band of petty capitalists–called B Corps–to behave ethically, the author writes: “Society as a whole is realizing the capitalist system itself is quite dysfunctional. We have created an economy and corporations that in many ways have become unethical. One response is to go out on the streets, like Occupy Wall Street. Another is the B Corp movement.” This so-called “movement” consists of 830 high-minded entrepreneurs. That’s a mighty puny counterweight to Occupy.
 
The author isn’t completely stupid: “Most businesses are constrained by the way their competitors operate. The decisions of individual CEOs won’t stop what’s new about capitalism in the 21st century–the job-hollowing impact of technological change and globalization.” But there is nothing essentially “new” about this year’s capitalism. A cursory reading of The Communist Manifesto (1848) proves that. Cutthroat competition, economic crisis, imperialism and war are bred in capitalism’s bone. The profit imperative–growth for its own sake, the very definition of unsustainability–is viewed as holy commandment.
 
Throughout capitalism’s history there have been sections of the ruling class that recognize that the essence of system breeds the “righteous rage” Russell Brand celebrates. And so they turn to the state as a supposedly neutral body and cry, “save us from ourselves.” The author writes of “newfound openness some have toward a greater role for the state. They want the government to help them–and their rivals–do the right thing, like raise wages or repatriate taxable profits.” Can the leopard legislate a change of spots? When pigs fly. By the way, the author of this Atlantic essay in none other then Chrystia Freeland, newly minted Liberal MP from Toronto Centre.
 
I am reminded by a quote from revolutionary writer Leon Trotsky: “Long political experience has taught me that whenever a petty-bourgeois professor or journalist begins talking about high moral standards it is necessary to keep a firm hand on one’s pocketbook.” Reform or revolution? Who has a firmer grasp of capitalism’s “trouble”: the blasphemous, working class comedian or the unhistorical apostle of a born-again capitalism? Give me Russell Brand every time.

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