“I will never vote and I don’t think you should, either.”
This is what comedian, actor, and author Russell Brand concluded in his editorial essay last month in the New Statesman, a British news magazine. The theme? Revolution. He followed it up with a BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman that went viral, where he declared that the reason he doesn’t vote is because to do so is to be complicit in a broken system:
“I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere, for alternatives that might be of service to humanity....Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot.”
Like many who watched and shared the video, I felt an affinity with the comedian. He provided a cathartic release for a growing number of us who are isolated by our current political institutions and processes. A political and economic paradigm that expects us, the people, to risk our collective future for private profit-margins that perpetuate inequality, go to war for oil, accept environmental devastation, and go along with systemic discrimination. This is what we are offered, and often for no palpable rewards beyond the freedom to go shopping.
Russell Brand’s words were significant because they let discouraged people know we are not alone in feeling our leaders are indifferent to us. His call for revolution was alluring. It reached a great deal of people, many of them young and desperate for real change. But attractive platitudes about revolution and defiant calls for disengagement, couched in a narrative of “don’t vote and start a revolution”, is both a missed opportunity to deepen wider engagement and a misguided attempt at solidarity.
Firstly, telling a lot of young people not to vote is a very bad idea. It gives politicians the green light to continue to neglect our concerns because they’ve been freed of the responsibility of earning our votes. It also negates the young leaders in politics who are fighting to make real change and representing issues important to young people. Politicians like provincial MLA David Eby and federal MP Charmaine Borg, both under 40, who stand up against online spying, protect programs for at-risk youth, support access to education, and fight for environmental protection—all issues of importance to young demographics.
Secondly, calling for a socialist utopia, without putting forward any ideas of what it would look like or how we might get there, discredits our movement as superficial and naively romantic. Brand expresses valid points, but by sidestepping practical action, he misses a powerful opportunity to deepen the discourse with new (and old) ideas about what participatory and cooperative social change looks like.
There isn't a lack of potentially revolutionary and transformative projects out there he could have referenced—crowd-sourced policy reform projects, the Robin Hood Tax, permaculture, participatory budgeting, decolonization. The problem is that the media does not give these projects the attention they deserve—which is why we need people like Russell Brand to talk about them. Had Brand acknowledged the specific acts required to change society, he could have brought attention to the diligent hard work it takes to manifest a peaceful revolution.
Millions of young people are already engaging in the work. They are bypassing partisan political gridlock and facilitating new social relations, generating ideas, and coordinating mobilization around a myriad of different issues. As the creative director of a media-based civic engagement agency, Gen Why Media, I have worked collaboratively with the next generation of political, social, cultural, and media leaders in Canada and there is a sea change in the nature of public engagement for contemporary youth. The massive youth-led social movements of 2011 and 2012 (Idle No More, Quebec student strikes, Occupy Movement, the Internet Freedom Movement, et cetera) demonstrated that Canadian youth are able to organize and sustain public protests, engage media, persuade mainstream politicians, and effect political change, albeit in unconventional ways. These young community organizers, artists, comedians, journalists, filmmakers, designers, activists, programmers, and non-profit workers aren’t just pushing for more progressive policies around issues like the environment, de-colonization, government spying, and income inequality; they want to change the way politics works and ultimately reshape how we participate in society.
The emerging patterns of political engagement may differ from previous generations, but they are no less valid. A recent study from political engagement think tank Samara reveals a curious trend in civic engagement among young Canadians. Although they are participating at lower levels in formal politics (voting, volunteering with or donating money to political candidates or parties, et cetera), they are participating in much greater numbers (than older cohorts) in nearly every area of alternative politics. Driving this participation is the use of online technologies and face-to-face public discussion, volunteering, petitioning, boycotting, collaborating on creative projects, organizing political demonstrations, joining a non-profit group, or starting a community organization.
We don’t have to look very far to see examples. The emergence of new participatory political ecosystems in Canada is happening right here in B.C.:
- OpenMedia.ca is currently running a participatory process to develop a crowd-sourced vision for copyright policy—new rules, created by the public, that will manifest in a report they will use to lobby the federal government on behalf of people who believe in copyright reform.
- Leadnow.ca regularly consults its Facebook community for what they should say to the media, what their campaigns will focus on, and how organizational decisions will be made.
- ShitHarperDid.ca recently raised enough money using small donations from crowd-funding campaigns to buy TV ads that call for greater accountability by exposing the frivolous overspending by the Harper government.
- Newly formed organization Groundswell brings together youth under the age of 35 to rethink the logic of our economic paradigm. Inspired by Mondragon Cooperatives and the autonomista movement in Argentina, the vision is to build a lasting community of cooperative enterprises that support a more equitable and sustainable economic system.
Russell Brand did not start a revolution; he tapped into a widespread and understandable dissatisfaction with the status quo using spectacle, celebrity, and a sharp tongue. But our movement is not looking to celebrities for direction; it is informed and organized from below. By combining net activism with meaningful political engagement, young people are working across issues, strategies, and identities to build bridges between old paradigms and new ones. They are opening up portals to the future where alternate scenarios can respond to social conditions, unconstrained by orthodoxies.
Ultimately, if Russell Brand’s endorsement wakes people up and gets them thinking, it’s a step in the right direction. But after the spectacle is over and the celebrities move on, we’ll still be here—nurturing the revolution that is well underway.