The attacks on Russell Brand show that we are paranoid about our politics

We’ve all seen it. Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman this week has caused a stirring of the pants and a stirring of the bowels among social media patrons. And we’ve all seen the whinging.

Very few informed people – and those who did are deserving of praise – commented approvingly on Brand’s interview and essay in this week’s New Statesman, which the comedian also edited. That is, very few applauded on the argument’s own merits or its value in the context of global inequality and political disenfranchisement.

The first line of attack was accusing Brand of being too reductionist, simplifying vastly complicated processes of capital and social relations, as if in a 10-minute interview in which Paxman asked him two questions with discernably different content and a 5,000-word essay he is expected to coherently address the inadequacies of international capitalism. Paxman was not there to listen.

The second attack was that Brand was not an economist/philosopher/social scientist, etc, and so should not be making such arguments. Instead, it goes, he should not be getting involved unless he is an expert. Staggeringly undemocratic, this argument also claims it contrary to progress to have the unqualified talking on things they know nothing about. (This argument also took the form of poking fun at Brand’s ‘bad’ writing.)

This neatly leads to the third line of attack. Brand is an actor and therefore his opinion either has no value for the reasons above, or that he must guard against propagating any political thoughts of his own because people who listen – that is, idiots – will just gleefully and dumbly hoover up his words like they are greedily devouring truffles. As such, this argument goes, celebrities operate in a different sphere of influence to us mere lumpenproletariat and a different one again to the intellectuals, so Brand should butt out. Leave it to Chomsky and Žižek to duke it out. It is startling how often this argument is made by ‘liberals’ or ‘democrats’.

What do these arguments tell us about social media users, and thus about our political climate? It shows us that educated, mostly left-wing people are paranoid. They are paranoid that their cynicism is being undercut by a bubbling of optimism about the future, whether that be a revolutionary one or not. They are paranoid that they aren’t the only Marxist in the village. They trip over themselves to post about how Brand is a moron in order to trump up their own revolutionary vanguard status. Being well-read is a game. For many of those moans I noticed on my various timelines are from people who call themselves progressive and are quick to disassociate from Westminster but slow to support anything that looks like popular approval of the very ideas they profess to hold.

Moreover, this pattern of behaviour is linked to far wider social and cultural causes. This is the self-denial of an aborted search for meaning among my generation. We don’t know what we like so we say what we don’t like (usually whatever is popular) and get horribly sensitive when someone offers us an opportunity to find some truth, a bit of power, a gram of creativity. Hipster Marxism. For what Brand said is to be lauded in almost all possible contexts. Anyone who seriously considers themselves left-wing, progressive, socialist, Marxist, and so on, should do nought but delight in our arguments being shouted louder and louder. It is almost always a good thing. When was the last time anti-capitalist revolution was discussed on Newsnight?

The revolution is/is not coming. (Delete as applicable according to your cynicism.) But we certainly can’t pretend we aren’t heard when we try our hardest to stop people like Brand talking about it. Everyone agrees that politics is a dangerously exclusive discourse. Truly radical ideas are, at best, sneered at. By kicking Brand, you’re only making it worse.

‘Students must now choose between learning and earning’ – New Statesman

Here’s an article I wrote for the New Statesman’s website which can be read here:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education,” Mark Twain famously quipped. He may have died over 100 years ago, but Twain’s gag goes to the very axis of the contemporary student fees debate.

With around 70 per cent of universities expected to charge the maximum £9,000 fees from September 2012, and with universities dropping the variety of courses they offer (London Met are jettisoning some two-thirds of undergraduate programmes), we are coming to ask the question: just what use is an education anyway?

In truth, we are breaking education from learning — splitting it into personal enhancement and a knowledge commodity to be cashed in. Learning for learning’s sake is now the dewy-eyed pursuit of the super-rich. The academy doors are closing to all but the professionals. Now, one must choose between cultural achievements and economic wagers. We are seeing that battle being fought at this very moment and it will change universities forever.

It would be ahistorical to argue that this is a recent development. From the nineteenth century, the move towards specialised professions has dominated university, and the primacy of “careers” over education is hardly new. Yet, with the increase in fees and the cuts to funding, this professional culture is choking higher education in its broad form. While £40,000 is a disgusting amount to pay for a university education, it is still unclear whether the new fees will dissuade prospective students or not. The wider issue is that the government and some sections of the media are saying that arts and humanities subjects have no value unless they generate a direct economic contribution to the country.

Stewart Lee has recounted a story about Margaret Thatcher visiting his university in the 1980s. When a student told her she was studying Norse literature, Thatcher said: “What a luxury!” This is a view that many people share, and it is utterly wrong. Seeking to enrich ourselves as individuals and as a society through the awareness of other cultures, their language and their histories is one of the most profound things we can do. To say it is a “luxury” unless it has an potent, professional, cash value is short-sighted, offensive and historically bankrupt. In times of austerity, the public does not like to see the government funding degrees in fine art or French poetry, but they are as crucial as finance, law or engineering.

The effect of this is that the prospective student will be offered less choice at university: gone will be the “luxuries” of arts, classics and film; in will come the business managements, the statistics and the marketings. Universities will shift in this direction whether students arrive with bags of money or not. But those who do graduate will increasingly do so with degrees in these professional subjects precisely because reading Homer does not, in our scornful materialistic anti-culture, educate you in the right way.

The graduate job market will be awash with young people who, having paid more for the privilege, will all look exactly like each other, with the same skills and the same academic experience. This will have a knock-on effect for further education. At precisely the time when young people are struggling to decide on their futures, they are being ushered into bankable courses: law, maths, accounting — these will count for something, son.

The already hefty pressure on A Level students to pick courses that will look good to university admissions panels (and beyond) will be exacerbated even further — how many students will start to see English literature as self-indulgent dross, classical civilisation as a scentless fart? Learning and careers are being pitched against each other. We students, from school-leavers to postgraduates, are no longer scholars but consumers; we are customers, not thinkers. The degree is a bargaining chip, an entrance fee, a gift voucher — and the teaching university a mere production line.