Published on November 7th, 2014 |
by Bill Burton
Image © russellbrand.com 2014
The age of celebrity politics – Russell Brand to the rescue?
The age of celebrity is here, it has been for a while in some form or another. It has no tangible meaning other than being a reference to someone who is relatively popular. Tom Cruise and Confucius may not have a great deal in common but the tag of celebrity is one they share. Tom will presumably have a slightly smaller footprint on the world as time passes on, depending on whether Scientology are taking applications for a new prophet or not.
Politics does not escape celebrity and the grubby connotations that come with it. The sex scandals, character assassinations and the inevitable decline that a film star experiences are strikingly similar to that of a politician. The only difference the impact of liking politicians has slightly more important consequences. Liking is exactly what it is, not a detailed and serious attempt to understand issues and the best course of action to take.
Princeton professor Alex Todorov undertook an extensive study of an individuals response to politicians faces. Simply asking people to say which candidate they prefer based on a one second look at a photograph, the participants chose the eventual winner 73% of the time. The study highlighted the approach of most people to politics in real life, people vote for who looks more attractive or likeable. The renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman has coupled decisions into system one, whereby we act on national impulses and system two, which is more rational. Todorov’s study shows politics is not a thinking mans game.
Obviously this has a fairly damning impact on how politics functions in any democracy, whilst at the same time not being overly surprising. I would doubt anyone is under the impression most people take political decisions seriously enough to give them considered thought. How many people would read all party manifestos, or take a detailed look at the the issues surrounding immigration before casting thoughtless platitudes about people taking ‘our jobs’? The childish squabbling at Westminster is so far out of 99% of the electorate’s field of vision it makes you think, what is the point when all it will come down to is who can eat a bacon sandwich most normally.
Which brings us to Ronald Reagan. A famous actor who crossed the short road from pretending to be other people in generally convincing manner to leading the most powerful nation in the the world. I put this largely down to what can only be described as an excellent head of hair, surely this played an integral role in his initial breakout success. Reagan went on to conjure up feelings of seriousness respectability and solidity that so resonated with the American people. What is massively increasing inequality, causing havoc around the world and arming drug smugglers when your leader can smile so well with a real high quality combed head.
One part of politics that is often underestimated is all the small elections that take place before any actual elections. Call them mini primaries if you will. These range from winning a student election to convincing a person with quite considerable funds, hence influence, that you are the man [as it generally is] into supporting their interests once in office. It also involves screwing over friends that have been instrumental in rising up the ranks. It is reasons related to these that makes laughing at George W Bush a mugs game. Rising up to be president of the US requires some serious personal qualities, from kindness and warmth to ruthless opportunism which Bush clearly had plenty.
The proliferation of information thanks to glass screens will have many consequences, not least ‘for the man’. One is that is will lead to increasingly personal politics, leading to the inevitable influence of other celebs who have had a chip on their shoulder about never being taken seriously. Film stars are generally popular and liked by people leaving a gaping hole full of potential for someone or something with an axe to grind.
George Clooney might just be the man. After his wedding to professional justice campaigner Amal rumours are afoot that George will aim to follow Reagan’s hair into the California Governor’s chair. Some seriously strange people have suggested that whole wedding was a sham for a future career in politics, which seems one of the most piss poor conspirational pieces of thinking in recent memory. George would likely be successful if he did move into politics. A random member of the public would do a reasonable job of representing reasonable policy decisions, god only knows what the world’s once most eligible bachelor could achieve. Israel and Palestine arguing again, a wink and a nod from ol’ Georgy boy and that 65 year problem is no more. Perhaps Defence Secretary Matt Damon could have played some role in helping smooth things out. At least they would not be won over by money from corporate giants or have any real desire to do what is right. Respected film stars already often have mass fan bases and critical acclaim, maybe it could lead to politics being about representing people after all.
The obvious elephant in the room here is Russell Brand, a man who has taken it upon himself to fight for justice. Brand has just released a book with the title ‘Revolution’ which calls for an uprising against corporations, the political elite and the destruction of the environment. The response has been fierce from the media, mainly attacking Brand for his personal failings – being rich and not being qualified to talk on such matters. Such a response, based an ad hominem attacks is specifically the type of anti-intellectualism that they are rallying against. Brand makes largely the same point as Thomas Piketty, inequality is the issue of our time. Yet anyone who has tried to read Piketty’s Capital knows it lacks a certain popular zeal. Brand is a fine communicator – possessing the ability to convey complex issues in a simple way that normal people care about.
Progressive ideas and politics need leaders. Fighting against basically money and greed requires organisation and a clearly defined message. The specifics of forming a Kibbutz does not have that appeal. A comedian with millions of fans, passion and the ability to articulate ideas to ordinary ‘comrades’ or ‘future comrades’ has huge potential in this technological age. The clock is ticking, the century of corporations has ended. The proliferation of information via the internet means the race is over, people will become increasingly aware of how they are being screwed over and organise against it. After all then, the notion of celeb politics is not overly worrying. Im sure there will be plenty of experts around to check the details anyway.
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