Reactionary Branding

Much has already been written about Russell Brand’s recent downfall, and it is crucial to understand Brand and the context that made him. But a deeper problem is opened up by Brand, the problem of the reactionary left. Rowan Fortune charts the fall of Brand, and then tackles what makes the left converge with far-right conspiracists.


What do Glenn Greenwald and George Galloway on the left hand, have in common with Toby Young, Laurence Fox, Tommy Robinson, Andrew Tate, Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, and Katie Hopkins on the right? Despite the former two professing to belong to the left, all are reactionary bigots with a penchant for misogyny, divisive politics (lately especially dehumanising of trans people), and odious geopolitical bugbears, and every one of them rushed to the defence of a man accused of various sexual abuses who is also ostensibly of the left: Russell Brand.

This list of names constitutes a who’s who of some of the worst political actors around. From straightforward fascists to failed actor-musicians hobbying as would-be gurus for the human dust of late neoliberalism. Galloway and Greenwald, however, are different in a trivial sense. They are much like Brand himself, representative of a type of radical liberalism entwined with the complex histories of the reactionary left, whether in the guise of regressive social democrats or geopolitically compromised Stalinists.

In its most extreme form this politics takes an outright red-brown, Strasserist fascist guise, as with the recent MAGACommunist cosplay movement in the US or the more seriously malign Putin regime, but more typically, it’s a politics that prefers to fudge its prejudiced, nationalistic compromises behind an air of plausible deniability. What the reactionary left has in common is a fondness for conspiracy and a loose aesthetics of workerism borne of a fetishized, petit bourgeois static caricature of workers often taken from a reconstructed snapshot that’s at least half a century old.

A Brand Too Far

There has already been much (virtual and literal) ink spilt over Russell Brand. In part, his comedic persona celebrates a libertinage the left should not abandon simply because of Brand; in an alienated capitalist world that claims to value sexual freedom but is nonetheless mired in conservative repression and moralistic shame, there is value in finding a human joy in playful intimacies and the myriad means by which humanity navigates life’s travails, including its traumas, through sexuality.

But the larger part of his persona, and the reality behind the libertine, is increasingly in evidence in his demonstrable abuse and hatred of women. That is why the voices of reaction and repression have come out in their multitude to defend this “anti-establishment” man. Brand as libertine found joy in putting down women, confused (intentionally or not) coercive sadism for liberation, and ultimately, in his essence, was everything his persona ostensibly rejected: a petty bully from the mould of every bastion of power, the very places where he operated and flourished.

There is not much to add to the many takedowns already aimed at Brand. Private Eye noted that some of this content has been astonishingly self-serving and hypocritical (although Private Eye is also a rag with its own reactionary whims, such as a persistent hatred of queer people). Three of these takedowns are worthy of attention. Aleph Skoteinos on the blog Aleph’s Heretical Domain notes that the trajectory of Brand’s recent career in conspiracism can be seen as positioning himself to withstand the allegations he now faces, anticipating them:

You’ve heard of the conspirituality pipeline, right? You know, the well-documented phenomenon of New Agers slowly adopting far-right conspiracy theories that are also peddled by New Age influencers? No doubt Russell Brand is himself part of that. But what if the wellness guru phase, as much as it aligned with Russell Brand’s own interest in vague New Age spiritualism, was also just Russell Brand setting the stage to become part of the world of conspiracy theory, conspirituality, and right-wing populism, where he could find a new audience that would automatically be primed to defend him from the rape allegations he knew he was going to face sooner or later?

To this can be added the point, also made well by Aleph, that Brand was often courted and enabled by the British (and sometimes even American) left, including during periods when people should have known better. The most prominent (but not unique) example is Mark Fisher’s much overrated and misread essay “Exit the Vampire Castle”. And finally, Aleph makes the astute insight that:

Every mainstream media conversation about Brand’s “promiscuity” or “sexual addiction” has done nothing but obfuscate the actual nature of his behaviour under a shroud of pearl-clutching Christian-esque morality in which we’re supposed to be appalled at some kind of libertinism or promiscuity instead of the rapes and sexual assaults and the fact that he was [a] paedophile.

In his blog, “The Meaning of Russell Brand”, James Bloodworth succinctly sums up the problem with much of the response to the revelations and allegations about Brand that we are now encountering through the very outlets that created him as a media persona:

The noughties culture in which Russell Brand rose to prominence was certainly grim – sleazy magazines such as Nuts and Zoo, Little Britain with its poor-baiting, a preponderance of Oxbridge-educated men pretending to be working class. But it’s too convenient to outsource blame for Russell Brand entirely to ‘the culture’, which is a synonym for everyone, which can so easily become a synonym for no-one.

And while Aleph posits a plausible opportunistic reason for Brand’s recent reinvention as a reactionary, Bloodsworth also helps us to contextualise the social circumstances that facilitated Brand’s success in this reinvention. He notes:

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a form of epistomological breakdown in lots of people. It felt at times as if otherwise sane people had emerged from lockdown having been brushed by madness. I suspect this was a result of extra time spent on the internet against a sustained backdrop of dread and uncertainty.

Another piece worth reading is Claudia Canavan’s “Watching the wellness world defend Russell Brand has been a gut punch”, which explores a more close-up perspective to the rise of Brand the conspiracist. As the title suggests, she examines the social forces that most directly allowed Brand’s reinvention. That is, the post-2020s “ugly love child [… of] the far right and some aspects of the wellness scene.” (A new social force gravitating around a medley of conspiracies about vaccination, Ukraine, 5G, transgender people and the often-antisemitic canard of “Globalism”.)  

Moralism and Convergence

The convergence between the left and the right has a common explanation, one rooted in a liberal critique of the far left and the far right. It is a theory that lacks much substance and has largely been reduced to a silly meme: the horseshoe theory. This is essentially a visual metaphor, in which the charge is made that the radical politics of the left, and those of the right, by dint of their very extremity away from the liberal centre, organically join up. It’s an example of the excessive formalism of liberal thought to explain left right convergence in a manner so devoid of political and contextual content.

The problems with horseshoe theory are too numerous to comprehensively list. It offers a pseudo explanation for far left and far right convergence, but cannot explain liberal and fascist convergences, centre-left and far right convergences, etc. It fails to credibly establish what centrism is beyond the lowest common denominator politics, a clear nonsense when applied in this horseshoe-guise to any place or time where and when such a politics is not liberalism. It fails to offer any coherent reason why some on the far left might converge with the far right, while others do not.

But there is one point in favour of the horseshoe theory: it at least does grapple with a real phenomenon, the left and the far right do indeed sometimes converge. And for those of us who are socialist antifascists, there is a need to offer a rival explanation. To simply deny that left-brown configurations exist, or that reactionary tendencies have at various points undermined the politics of emancipation and freedom that should be a point of commonality between all socialists, is to deny reality and render ourselves no less ridiculous than liberals claiming that all politics that is not theirs is some vague Nazi-Stalinism.  

The bitter irony of “Exit the Vampire Castle” is that Fisher’s ostensive target, moralism, is indeed at the heart of everything that has gone wrong in the case of Brand and that goes wrong with all left reactionaries, including Galloway and Greenwald. Moralism is a peril for liberatory movements, but it is theoretically poorly understood and Fisher did little to add clarity. We must start with a vulgar clarification: moralism is not ethics. Moralism substitutes analysis for moral condemnation, and in so doing divides the world into categories of good and bad. Its condemnations may or may not be ethically valid, but that is irrelevant. It arises due to failures of agency, and moralism becomes a collective consolation for those failures.

Moralism is partly organic. As marginalised and class forces first emerge, they moralise their situation to create a space for their own humanity. Such groups encounter a world in radical opposition to their flourishing, and intuitively take that world to be utterly debased and evil. However, as such forces start to change the world to better accommodate a more universal humanity, the crucial next step is replacing that moralisation with a fuller understanding borne of struggle and theory, which is what marxists call Praxis. The marxist-humanist philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon talks about the specific articulation of this in anti-colonial struggles, and he uses the term ‘Manichaean’ as a reference to the dualistic clash of good and evil in Manichaean faith traditions.

In Marx’s scheme of class consciousness, the working class in itself happens when workers seek to change capitalist society to accommodate their social reproduction. However, Marx was primarily interested in the class in and for itself. This stage of development of workers’ consciousness seeks to abolish class society as such and become a universal class, i.e. no class at all; that step necessitates a move beyond the moralism inherent to the class in itself, which still sees itself wholly in class terms, without any belief in a world beyond the present one.

The class in itself is moralistic because it encounters the limits of its projects in the limits of the social world without surpassing its project. But even if it remains in this conundrum, it still must find a way to resolve the tension that this gives rise to, the inability of the capitalist world to accommodate working-class life. From this, we can see that if moralism is not surpassed in struggle, it is a poison. As Fanon recognised, moralism is rooted in destructive forms of consciousness. These forms of consciousness cannot just be bypassed; indeed, it is moralistic to argue that they can, as it assumes some vantage outside of the world by which to morally judge it; however, if unsurpassed, moralism will always undo struggles.

What of the right’s relationship to moralism? In fact, it makes less sense to talk about right-wing politics and moralisation. That is because right-wing ideology, insofar as it is uniquely of the right (i.e. cannot be absorbed in its content into anything emancipatory or radical), is only an attempt to ideologically ease the unbearable tensions thrown up by class society. Essentially, the right is moralisation writ large, which is truer the further right one looks; right-wing thought, such as it is thought at all, is only a set of condemnatory pseudo-explanations for problems created by the very social arrangements the right defends.

But if the right is just moralisation, this showcases the peril of moralising for the left. Horseshoe theory is nonsense, but there does indeed exist a mechanism by which the left can converge with reactionary belief: moralisation. Red-brown configurations and radical liberal moralists emerge precisely in the stagnant mire of left moralism. History is a process, agency is a development of consciousness, and when those processes, that development, is arrested, it results in a crisis that can easily become a vicious circle.

In many ways, the rank opportunism of Brand, Galloway and Greenwald is secondary. Foremost, they all channel the subjectivities of many people whose tortured situation has trapped them in a terrifying world of demonic forces and shadowy intrigues, where the obscenity of such clownish demagogues can be contorted into something like salvation. It is the task of more genuine socialism to illuminate a path through such obscurantism, a path of solidarity. The answer to Brand, Galloway and Greenwald as people is to remove them from the left, but the broader answer to moralism is not more moralism but the clarity of class struggle.

From that struggle can flower an ethics fit for humanity, one won in the sensuous world of everyday life and not a binary sorting of everything into good and evil, imposed by a fictitious view from nowhere. Such an ethics is the truest antidote to moralism, but unlike the poison, the antidote is difficult to acquire. It certainly will never be the gift of a grifting celebrity accused of untold sexual abuse, however charismatic or apparently amusing. 

Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

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