The Emperor’s New Clothes asks the right questions but offers little beyond vague uplift
Populism, like art, is the protest of romance against the commonplace of everyday life. It is the politics of heart over head where being technically correct is of less importance than eliciting a cheer from a spellbound audience.
The Emperor’s New Clothes, Russell Brand’s latest film, is an interesting work in that it stands as a monument to the rise of left-wing populism. For several years now journalists and politicians have obsessed over the rise of UKIP, but away from the cameras (or not, in Brand’s case) there has also been a discernible growth in left-wing populism.
Brand does not claim to be the leader of any movement, but as his defenders never tire of pointing out, he does have a large following and is therefore able to reach people who would sooner turn off a television set than listen to a ‘stuffy’ social democratic politician ‘drone on’ about something incomprehensible. Politics in Britain is boring, and social democracy with its prevarication, gradualism and compromise is about as stale as it gets to the sort of person who probably enjoys watching videos made by Russell Brand.
Thus as a primer on inequality in twenty-first century Britain The Emperor’s New Clothes is a worthy endeavour even if the message is at times rather confused. Brand is often criticised (and I have criticised him for it) for stating the obvious. And the message of the film is obvious: Britain is witnessing a resurgence of a Dickensian level of inequality. But the film is not aimed at people who know this already – i.e. those who follow politics like a cat chases a piece of string. Like Brand’s so-called ‘revolution’ more generally, the film is aimed at a larger audience; and when considered in this context it is probably rather important.
Highbrows will undoubtedly scoff at Brand’s efforts in the same manner they scoff at anything which gives off a whiff of popularity. But those with an interest in maintaining the passivity of the apathetic will also dismiss the film, which ought to make you take notice of it even if you can’t stomach Russell Brand.
A genuine populist must like people, and unlike most self-proclaimed revolutionaries Brand does appear to enjoy the company of working class people. Rather than spending his time with prolix professors and their fossilised theories, during the film Brand talks to supermarket workers and cleaners about how it actually feels to live on seven pounds an hour in a city of seeming abundance like London. This is more revolutionary than it sounds: loving humanity in the abstract is easy enough; it’s the poor who take a real effort.
A good deal of the film consists of Russell Brand hanging around banks asking taciturn security guards (bank bosses themselves refused to be interviewed by Brand) why no bankers have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis. One suspects however that it is politicians who Brand ought to be confronting: bankers have not gone to jail because most of what they did in the lead up to the 2008 crash was perfectly legal. Politicians set the laws – or in this case they failed to set the laws – and therefore politicians are to some extent responsible for what happens within the law. Far from being revolutionary, blaming individual ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bankers for the crisis smacks of moralising conservatism.
There are a number of similar stunts in the film – Brand turns up unannounced at the owner of the Daily Mail’s house – and in this respect it resembles one of Michael Moore’s better productions. It also appears to have taken inspiration from Moore’s scattergun approach to narrative, although fortunately with none of Moore’s charmless solipsism – Brand comes across as a genuinely warm and witty character throughout.
Importantly, the film will hammer it into even the most impenetrable skull that inequality is, over the long-term, on the increase. But the other message the film seems to want to convey is that globalisation is the biggest problem we face. Not the wrong sort of globalisation; but globalisation per se. A section of the film is set in Brand’s former hometown of Grays in Essex, where the halcyon days (before Margaret Thatcher) of flat caps and framed pictures of Clement Attlee on the mantelpiece are contrasted with a grim and spartan present day, where payday lenders and bookies exist on every street. Grays was once a good place to live because “everything” – money, people, work – “stayed in Grays”.
Again, Brand is being more conservative here than he realises. As with most venerations of the past, much of this is probably down to sheer romanticism; but at root this is an anti-globalisation message which is at odds with most intelligent left-wing arguments of today, which recognise that global capitalism requires a global response. Nigel Farage, coming from a very different place, would probably like ‘everything to stay in Grays’ too, but we don’t indulge him and nor should we indulge Brand.
Throughout the film, and in common with other high profile left-wingers, the twentieth century with its 90 per cent income tax rates and relative egalitarianism is held up by Brand as an ideal (“it worked in the sixties and they were great”). Yet like his comrades Brand fails to ask why today it might be easier to avoid taxes than it was 50 years ago. It isn’t purely because social democratic politicians have sold out or lack backbone; the globalisation of technology has made it much easier to pay less tax and move a company abroad in the blink of an eye. The solution to this is cross-border collaboration and the globalisation of things like tax collection; what it is not is a retreat into an imagined comfort zone of anti-globalisation slogans and pamphleteering.
The Emperor’s New Clothes will prompt viewers into asking the right questions, but beyond vague uplift it offers little in the way of answers. Russell Brand has no practical programme to offer and one suspects that the very idea would vaguely disgust him. The other danger with populism of this sort is that simplicity is part of its appeal. Recoiling from any compromise, this feels like the creed of permanent opposition. It may be wrong to ‘sneer’ at Russell Brand, as many of his supporters claim, but one need not sneer to find aspects of Brand’s politics callow and wearying.
It’s more likely of course that Russell Brand has simply not followed his thoughts beyond acceptance of the idea that ‘inequality is bad’ and that something ought to be done about it. This is certainly ‘simplistic’, as his critics never tire of pointing out, but it’s also considerably more advanced in its own way than the bean counting we get from most of our politicians.
James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.