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Is Russell Brand a Modern Renaissance Man or a Charlatan?

Mary Turner/Getty Images News

Last October, Russell Brand sat down with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, a British journalist famous for his intense interrogations. Brand is probably best known in this country for marrying Katy Perry in 2010, but also for his roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, in which he played a recovering, and then a relapsed, hard-partying, drug-addicted thinly veiled version of himself. (Brand has written about his colorful early years as a comedian and his struggles with multiple kinds of addition in his memoirs My Booky Wook, and My Booky Wook 2. In rough chronological order—according to his autobiography—they are: masturbation, mindless teenage consumerism, bulimia, drugs, alcohol, and sex.) Or, if you go further back, for showing up for his job at British MTV dressed as Osama bin Laden the day after September 11, 2001.

Today, Brand is something of a Renaissance man: an entertainer, a writer, an activist. He’s been a longtime contributor to The Guardian, where, after the death of Margaret Thatcher—“the headmistress of our country”—he published one of the most moving and nuanced pieces to appear anywhere. This past spring, he appeared before the U.N. as part of a campaign called "Support. Don’t Punish.", advocating for the legalization and regulation of all drug use and trade.

Paxman had brought Brand onto his show to interview him about his recent stint as a guest editor for The New Statesman.1 “Russell Brand,” Paxman begins, “who are you to edit a political magazine?” The comedian’s face lights up. “Well, I just suppose like a person who’s been politely asked by an attractive woman. I don’t know what the typical criteria is. I don’t know many people who edit political magazines.”

Five-minutes in, Brand is steam-rolling the famously ferocious Paxman, speaking so rapidly he can barely be interrupted, or understood. Paxman wants to hear the logistics of Brand’s idealized post-capitalist “socialist egalitarian” utopia, since Brand will only discuss what it won’t be. (“Well, I haven’t invented it yet, Jeremy! I had to do a magazine last week, I’ve had a lot on my plate.”) Paxman presses Brand on who will levy the taxes that fund this system. Brand admits it will need an administration. “A government?” asks Paxman. “Jeremy, don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you in a bloody hotel room and devise and global utopian system,” Brand nearly shouts.

A year later, Brand’s new book, Revolution, seems poised to leap off from where Brand left things with Paxman. The book is all his own; according to an email from Brand’s publicist, “No ghost or cowriter at all. This is all Russell.” All Russell, indeed. The book’s most prominent feature is its central analogy: our capitalist, environment-degrading, disparity-widening system is like Brand’s personal struggle with addiction. According to Brand, we are unhealthy, unsustainable, strung out, and in too deep to realize our problem, let alone how to liberate ourselves from it.

The book is ostensibly a call for revolution, even if it doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete political actions Brand would endorse or execute himself. Instead it is another roughly autobiographical account that also functions as an insistence on how things should not be, how they could be, and how he imagines they will be, if only someone else would step in to handle logistics:

It is defined and achieved by a sustained, mass-supported attack on the hegemony of corporations and the regulations that allow them to dominate us. It is the radical decentralization of power, whether private or state. It is the return of power to us, the people, at the level of community. It is the assertion of spirituality, of whatever form, to the heart of our social structures.

Each chapter follows a basic formula: Start with a historic event, or famous quotation or thought experiment (e.g. the Stanford prison experiment), add some random theory (e.g.,the Chinese philosophy of Wu-Wei), throw in a reference to heroin, make a self-deprecating joke how fabulous Brand’s life is now, then derive a pat moral. Brand wants us to “execute the perfect jailbreak,” but how, he asks, can we do that “when we have become our own jailers.” You can follow the logic, sort of.

This is typical Brand, swinging between high and low, firing on all cylinders, ranging in a dozen directions at once. On screen it can be scintillating; on the page it is mostly disorienting—an amped-up stream-of-consciousness with zero inhibitions. Consider the following excerpt:

Amazing as it is that the brain can conjure up these neurological illusions, which on some subtle level are a physical reality, like they must be made of an electrical impulse which has a charge or a weight, it’s a fucking drag when I can’t voluntarily stop it. There is no limit to what can be imagined either; we can now in this moment command the mind to play the Kylie [Minogue] track, then instead of her singing it, have the words emerge from the mouth of an elephant in dark glasses. Your mind is doing it now. It exists. Then you can put your school’s hardest kid in there, mine was Jamie Dawkins (no relation), put him on the elephant’s back dressed as bin Laden, singing the harmonies.

Right. Now, what were you saying, Mr. Brand, about us following you into in a worldwide revolution?

Ironically, the cure Brand is proposing feels very far away from his helter-skelter narrative. Mindfulness will save us, Brand believes. He offers a twelve-step program (“The Twelve Traditions”), complete with truisms like “personal recovery depends upon our unity,” and “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” (drinking, remember, is a metaphor), and “each group has but on primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”

He does make some concrete suggestions in this book, for instance that corporations give their employees 20 percent of profits every year. And every now and then, you come across an idea so plain that it’s hard to dispute: “We do need food, so we need a reassessment of global trade agreements to make them favorable to localized organic farming, not reckless profiteering.” But he also interrupts his explanation of the “Twelve Traditions” to reminisce about hearing Tom Cruise reminisce about Jerry Maguire in the back of a limo.

Is this all an elaborate performance? Loud-mouthed idealism for the sake of greater fame? Despite the messy problems of this book, it still hums with Brand’s particular strain of feverish, and genuine-feeling, commitment. And the hours and energy he has devoted to his eccentric activism—his writing, his YouTube show, his impassioned and high-speed soliloquies—suggest that he is serious about this, or at the very least, fiercely committed to it. For a comedian, that is something, even if it's not much.

  1. The New Statesman is a kind of sister magazine to The New Republic, and The New Republic sometimes shares content with the publication. Brand’s issue of The New Statesman featured pieces from Naomi Klein; the award-winning writer behind the film Juno, Diablo Cody; David Lynch on meditation; actor Alec Baldwin about Edward Snowden. Brand wrote the cover story: an argument that even those disillusioned with our current political systems have the revolutionary spirit within them.