Twirling towards freedom

Comfortably numb: Watching Russell Brand from Australia

Last week comedian and actor Russell Brand was called onto BBC Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman to defend his political credentials after guest-editing an issue of New Statesman, and unexpectedly tore the veteran journalist apart. Brand, best known for his heroin habits, indelicate sense of humour and brief marriage to Katy Perry, showed unexpected political nous in an excellent diatribe. Brand explained that he doesn’t vote because without dramatic, fundamental change to the prevailing political and economic system, the world is doomed.

“The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers,” Brand argued.

The interview promptly went viral, being shared millions of times globally, including in Australia. Goaded into making a statement, Brand’s call for a “revolution” struck a powerful chord with Australian voters, where political disenchantment is rising.

His television appearance was linked to an extended essay written for New Statesman, fleshing out his case for a “utopian revolution”. In an intractably corrupt, bloated and self-serving Westminster system, he says, a vote for any party, no matter how reactionary, is tacit support for rampant and globally destructive capitalism. “As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for,” he writes. “I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.”

Over in Australia, my Facebook feed was flooded with the reposts of the video, usually with the accompanying title from Gawker, “Russell Brand May Have Started A Revolution Last Night.” In a country where our leadership ranges from sinister (Immigration) to the comically inept (Climate), Brand’s blistering, verbose take down of representative democracy articulated the stagnating dissatisfaction in our citizenry. Hundreds of my Facebook friends – ranging from close real-life friends, to classmates from high school who normally only pop up to invite me to join groups like ‘Speak Australian’ and ‘Fuck Off We’re Full’ – all shared the video, and all seemed to draw nourishment from it.

Australians love to feel hard-done by, and have mastered a neat cognitive trick where we manage to do so en masse, despite the sunshine, plentiful food, untrammelled mineral wealth, boundless plains to share, etc. So when a talking head tells us that we’re being taken advantage of, and that we can fight back by doing precisely nothing, we listen.

Brand’s critics were quick to point out that despite his passion and eloquence, he didn’t offer any real solutions or visions of how this revolution might happen. The writer and comedian Robert Webb pointed out that giving Brand’s 7 million Twitter followers permission not to engage in democracy is a bad idea, as it gives “Politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.”

Political disengagement is a powerful tool. That’s why American G.O.P apparatchiks work so hard to gerrymander and lock out minority voters. In Australia, the Tories don’t even need to do that. Apathy, a longstanding weapon in the conservative arsenal in the United States, is spreading by itself here. Especially amongst young Australians who, unable to differentiate between the major parties, prefer to disengage from the political process altogether.

The problem is, as young people marginalise themselves out of their vote, they are opening up a statistical skew to older voters who, already on the books, must trudge down to the polling booth despite their disgruntlement, where they overwhelmingly vote conservative. If a democracy is an ecosystem it requires new growth to flourish, or risks being choked by old wood. By creating a political environment noxious to young voters, Australian conservatives have tacitly won their vote.

In the 2010 election, urged on by former Labor leader Mark Latham, more than three million adult Australians didn't vote for anyone - this included 750,000 donkey votes. The precedent continued this year, with 25% of eligible young voters failing to enrol for the next election. In the days after the 2013 Federal Election, The Sydney Morning Herald reported a record number of donkey votes had been recorded. In the vital battleground of Western Sydney, one in eight votes were informal.

Henrietta Hitchcock, writing in New Statesman about Britain’s own problem with young people disengaging from politics, kvetched: “They are distracted by pop culture, media and by their own lives. It is not in the interest of the government to get young people on their side but it is in their interest to keep young people distracted, disenfranchised and otherwise occupied, so that they don’t have to deal with them.”

I pre-polled this year and obediently lined up in the seat of Melbourne three days out from the election, surrounded by glum faces, distracted by my phone. When I entered the polling station, I looked up to find that some wag, politics unknown, had drawn on the walls of the polling booth, that great Australian symbol, recognisable as the Eureka flag and the light on the hill: a giant cock and balls. Afterwards, waiting for my boyfriend to finish filling out the four feet of below-the-line preferences, I glanced at my phone and found someone in my network had tweeted their voting form, marked informally with a cock and balls. I scrolled down to find it had been retweeted dozens of times along with others. My Twitter feed was cock and balls all the way down, and looking back, I can only assume that Russell Brand would approve. 


Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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