I think perhaps the best way to describe the actor, comedian and writer Russell Brand is as "a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk … a tree-hugging, Hindu-tattooed, veggie meditator."
It's the best way, because it happens to be his own description of himself -- in a 4,750-word revolutionary rant in this week's issue of the New Statesman, guest-edited by, you guessed, Russell Brand.
The Brand manifesto has caused quite a stir in some circles, not just because of his celebrity and skill in making waves, but because of a probably well-founded suspicion that his anger and contempt directed at the entire political class is widely shared among young people who care about the country they live in but see no way to do anything about it.
I imagine there are a lot of people who can identify with the Brand view of politics: "Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."
So I propose to take what he says seriously -- which may be a mistake, but what the hell. A lot of it will be curiously familiar to anyone who remembers, as I do, the hippies of the 1960s: "Make love, not war … down with the man … Power to the people." Beguiling, attractive slogans, with their wonderful certainty that there are simple answers to complex questions.
What Brand says is not only daft but dangerous. It's dangerous because he is a clever man with influence, and when he says: "Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people", there is a real risk that some people -- especially young people -- will take him seriously.
The core of his message is: "I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either." He presents it as a message of hope, when in fact it is precisely the opposite. It is a message of despair.
Voting doesn't change anything? Tell that to the millions of Americans with no health insurance who, once the Obama administration have sorted out their IT problems, will, for the first time, have access to decent health care. They wouldn't have it if no one had bothered to vote.
Tell all those tens of thousands of British workers on the minimum wage (yes, I know, it's disgracefully inadequate, but it's still better than no minimum wage at all), introduced in the face of fierce opposition by a Labour government after the Blair victory of 1997. And it wouldn't have happened if no one had bothered to vote.
Tell the millions of black South Africans who voted for the ANC in 1994 and elected Nelson Mandela as their president. It wouldn't have happened if they hadn't bothered to vote.
Apathy is cowardice. It's a way of saying "I take no responsibility for what happens in my country." I can understand people being reluctant to vote because they feel a sense of disgust, but the rational reaction to that is not apathy, but to find candidates -- or become a candidate -- in whom one is more prepared to have faith.
Brand brands himself a revolutionary. "Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster ... Take to the streets, together, with the understanding that the feeling that you aren’t being heard or seen or represented isn’t psychosis; it’s government policy."
I wonder if he's noticed what's happening in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Libya, where hundreds of thousands of excited revolutionaries took to the streets to topple hated dictatorships. They achieved their goal -- and then what? So far, it's not easy to argue that what has followed is any better than what went before. I would have thought that the lure of the barricades might have taken a bit of a knock -- but perhaps careful consideration of other peoples' experiences is not Brand's style.
In a hilarious, but also deeply depressing, interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight on Wednesday night, he demonstrated his utter inability to offer any concrete example of what he believes we should do instead of vote. He wants fundamental change but has no idea how to achieve it.
The closest he comes in his New Statesman manifesto is: "To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power." At which point, I can merely offer another quote from the same piece: "First and foremost I want to have a f***ing laugh."
Indeed. And here's what worries me most. If Russell Brand was content to be a highly successful comedian, a jester with a pig's bladder and bells on his multi-coloured hat, I'd leave him alone with his mashed up mind and pantechnicon of platitudes. (Oh yes, I too can write as if I've swallowed a Thesaurus -- it's neither as difficult, nor as impressive, as Brand seems to think.)
But by writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he'll never go hungry or be without a home.
If he really wanted to encourage the development of a genuinely revolutionary movement, he would start organising one. He would knuckle down to do really, really boring things, like handing out leaflets on street corners, lanching petitions, holding meetings, just like the early trades unionists and labour activists he professes to admire so much.
But of course that's not what he's about. "First and foremost I want to have a f***ing laugh." Which is fine, as long as no one is tempted, even for a moment, to take him seriously.