Just under a decade ago, Russell Brand was going through his revolutionary leftist phase and had gotten into anarchism, a topic which he characteristically used for the benefit of his own hype but which also prompted “interest” from the mainstream media.
By interest, I, of course, mean ignorant denunciation from centrist talking heads, who inevitably used Brand’s voluble public persona as a good means of showing off their in-crowd credentials with a bit of sneering at the Dumb Celeb Being Political trope.
This flirtation with left and radical politics can be placed a little ahead of Brand’s decade-long fall out of the mainstream and reinvention as a conspiracy theory-laced YouTube Questions Guy. But it was clear even at the time where he was trying to head with it, casting around for a position which could put him back into a prominent role following Sachsgate in the UK (2008) and fleeing the US after breaking up with Katy Perry (2012). Could he pitch as the voice of a new generation of radicals?
The anarchists weren’t terribly helpful for an ego of that magnitude, however (his appearance at an occupation at Sweets Way in 2015 won him few friends – “superficial co-option of our ideas” and “God complex” were the words of another participant). His vague interest lasted longer (he interviewed Ruth Kinna on anarchism in 2019 as part of his hairy Joe Rogan podcasting shtick), but he swiftly moved on first to Ed Miliband’s doomed bid with Labour, then Corbynism. Despite an initially warm reception from the pressed electoral left as it cast around for celebrity allies however, his main involvement there lasted only two years, fading off well before the disastrous 2019 election. His post-2017 output moved towards what, most notably during the pandemic, is now recognisable as his conspiracy theorist era.
In this mould he seems, in some ways*, to still court the general idea of political leftism, an understandable holdover from his earlier dalliances and presumably a useful bridging mechanism for the left’s own conspiracy-minded hinterland. But Covid and lockdown seems to have been the bedrock of a move into tin foil hattery that draws directly from the extremes of US social conservativism. Videos of varying quality with, sometimes, a degree of insight morphed into his current mix, a vague appeal to independent thinking with constant hectoring about his main target “the dying mainstream media” – a focus that at least one of the women who came forward thinks might have been intended to insulate him against what’s happening now.
Allies and enemies
One thing that’s interesting about the situation today is what it reveals about differences in approach between the radical left and right.
In the wake of the Times/Dispatches expose on his behaviour in the 2000s, at the height of his TV power, the left has been largely** picking up the theme of “are we ready to do something systemic about this yet”, if it gets talked about at all. Because let’s face it, no-one was really surprised by a story of the self-proclaimed sex-addict with a long history of unpleasant behaviour taking advantage of his power while at the top of a notoriously sleazy industry. It’s hardly unfamiliar, and unlike in the fever dreams of the far right, we’re not actually big into groomers. That’s not to say the left is always better, the pass given to Julian Assange, in part to facilitate the campaign against his extradition under the Espionage Act, being one example. But it appears some of the worst-behaved men have clocked that help is harder to find from this quarter, and misogynist ideology is rarer from radical left sources.
By contrast, the most militant elements of the right have been astonishingly motivated in their fury over the expose. Everyone from Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson (Brand’s post-Fox interview with the far-right presenter, in which they bond over softball questions, sits front and centre on his channel), to Andrew Tate and GB News regulars have weighed in. Not to decry rape, or the disturbing alleged manipulation and abuse of a 16-year-old by a man twice her age, but to defend Brand on the tissue-thin excuse that The Establishment must want to silence him.
For what reason, one might ask?
Brand has plenty of peers in his particular sphere who have never been Targeted By The Deep State, and of course that’s the case. These people pose no threat at all to the status quo with this weird mix of vaccine poison mongering (yes still), jabber about Bill Gates’ microchipping ambitions and UFO speculation alongside through-the-looking-glass versions of things the left would be generally be perfectly on board with – attacks on big tech, liberal hypocrisy and billionaire power. None of Brand’s output over the last couple of years is particularly new or of much concern to actual billionaires, who’ll take a loudmouth wannabe guru rattling on about conspiracies any day over genuine investigation and challenge. Spectacle acting as flak to misdirect the public is their bread and butter. Not a single one of them, including the CEOs of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, are losing sleep over some guy shouting into a microphone about media conspiracies or peaceful revolutions against the Covid vaccine.
As for concerted cancellation, none of the most powerful social media or trad media sites is controlled by anyone on the left, or even by liberals. Zuckerberg is no Marx. Musk himself owns Twi/X. Youtube is in fact Brand’s preferred platform and quite clearly is not suppressing his videos (though they have demonetised him following the scandal – always trigger happy when saving money that lot). And neither Dispatches (owned by the Tory-controlled government) nor The Times (owned by Rupert Murdoch) are particularly liberal-left strongholds. In fact if the Times has any special agenda here beyond making a buck from a standard celebrity scandal it is most likely the usual one of highlighting the BBC’s poor record over enabling predators, to soften public support for a rival.
So why the right-wing leap to defend the indefensible as a liberal Establishment-led anti-free speech cancellation? Because it fits certain needs.
The spectre of an amorphous conspiracy of powerful liberals controlling popular conversation under the banner of Cancel Culture has become a core part of the hard-right victimhood pitch. It gets pulled out again and again as the excuse whenever their morality drum-beating rubs up against the actual behaviour of their leading lights. It has in fact been one of their most powerful recruitment techniques for people prone to bad behaviour, for whenever an “independent thinker” is caught out they are there, directly beneath, with a big net marked “we support you against The Establishment”. And by We, they mean a slightly different set of billionaires – Musk, Trump, the Kochs – alongside a mutually reinforcing ecosystem of grifters.
In this case they ran in perhaps a little too fast. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that Brand has acted appallingly badly towards women and he appears to have no intention of honestly facing up to the allegations against him, instead blaming it on “a serious and concerted agenda to control … my voice”. But it took only that initial Poor Me to pull them from the woodwork, and now they’re there, standing tall for the immoral Id.
This position isn’t new for them, of course. Trump himself is an example of the willingness of the hard right to jettison its supposed probity for the sake of a victimhood stratagem. But by doing so habitually the scene has also put itself in a bind. By presenting itself as specifically anti “cancel culture”, ie. fighting for the right of deeply unpleasant people to not just have a voice, but have that voice amplified, it has drawn in a great number of charismatic and manipulative carpetbaggers.
Such folk don’t suddenly straighten up and fly right simply because you’re providing them with an income. So the excuses have to keep coming. More and more of them, more and more surreal. Tucker didn’t fuck up by pitching obvious inaccuracies and getting his firm sued, he was Targeted By The Establishment. Musk didn’t fuck up by trying to forcibly overlay a hard-right agenda on Twitter and scaring the advertising horses, he was Targeted By The Establishment in the form of er … the Anti Defamation League, for some reason. Lozza Fox didn’t fuck up his career by being an unmitigated arsehole to everyone around him, he was Targeted By The Establishment.
These are obviously ludicrous excuses, taken on their own. The reason these grifters have millions of reasonable folk judging them is because they’ve done things worthy of judgment. But with enough people running interference for you the most blatant foolishness can easily override good sense, and even win a majority victory, aided by the genuine truth that the mainstream media often does have an agenda, often lies for the benefit of the status quo.
The big difference when it comes to the media’s treatment of left and the right though is that in the former case, the media has something to gain from cutting us out. The left calls for systemic economic change that redistributes wealth away from the people who own it, and is comprehensively sidelined from the national conversation as a result. How many socialists do you actually see on TV, let alone anarchists? With the right, on the other hand, it does not. When Tucker is “cancelled” it’s because he cost his bosses money, his odious demonisation of migrants had nothing to do with it. Musk never has been cancelled, despite his complaints. Lozza has his own TV show. Trump became President with a vote which, economically, skewed wealthier than that of Clinton. The right ain’t cancelled, it merely whines about it.
And it does so because this fits a narrative which aims to persuade people who gain nothing from right-wing values and economics that conservativism is on the side of the little guy. The reactionary scene needs to reinforce the idea it is constantly under attack, specifically because it isn’t. The so-called “independent thinking” outriders of the right will thus have another go with this case, potentially pushing Brand to ditch the last of his leftist pretensions in the process.
But that won’t be to do with an Establishment Agenda to curb free speech, it’ll all be part of the grift.
Pic: Brand at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity rally in June 2014, by David B Young
* He often places himself as a “left voice” on the other end of a right-wing spiv, eg. Tucker, Candace Owens or Jordan Peterson, but crucially, never actively challenges what they have to say, merely positing in his initial spiel that they are mutually respecting each others’ differences. This is a “have your cake and eat it” tactic which has made him popular in right-wing circles eager to build legitimacy with appearances beyond their own echo chambers.
** No doubt a handful of people nominally from the left could be found, George Galloway for example, and especially from the anti-vaccine end of things, but they’re not representative let alone topping any bills.