This, from Notes from a Broken Society, came my way via Facebook today. Without having read Russell Brand’s piece, I can see what NBS’s Neil is getting at. Which then led me on to actually consider reading Brand’s piece, quite despite myself. So I did.
In a way, I realise now what my own readers have to deal with. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite as long as Brand’s piece – but the style is instantly recognisable. As per Neil’s succinct description:
To anyone who has studied the history of Fascism, the rhetoric is familiar (so, incidentally, is the style: the lengthy, rambling incoherence, the frequent recourse to personal experience, the use of long words to disguise the emptiness as profundity). [...]
And adding insult to serious injury, we get this as a helluva sucker punch:
[...] It’s been fascinating to see this nonsense portrayed as being a phenomenon of the left, until we remember that Hitler and Mussolini described themselves as socialists. [...]
Guilty as charged, milord? I’m beginning to wonder if this is the case. Even as by contemplating the matter, and thus reverting to personal experience, I am simply perpetuating the initial crime.
Neil does, however, go on to say some things which are simply not true. This, on “Metropolis” for example, conflating director, artwork and Nazism in one unexplaining link:
[...] Reading Brand’s torrent of words brought together a number of thoughts; most notably the ideology behind that extraordinary document of early Fascism, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – a film that today retains its visceral power, its artistic persuasiveness, while remaining utterly repellent in its ideology. [...]
Compare and contrast with these words from Lang himself, where both art and ideology are criticised:
Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film’s message of social justice. In a 1928 speech he declared that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor, to begin their historical mission”.
Fritz Lang later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (in Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, published in 1998), he expressed his reservations:
The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou’s, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn’t like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid – then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It’s very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?
In his profile for Lang featured in the same book, which prefaces the interview, Bogdanovich suggested that Lang’s distaste for his own film also stemmed from the Nazi Party’s fascination with the film. Von Harbou became a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933. They divorced the following year.
Fritz Lang was hardly an unthinking purveyor of fascism.
The reality of political and artistic endeavour is very rarely as simple as a single YouTube video can paint it.
If Neil is able to conflate, for the purposes of latterday political argument, the complex essence of an artistic path like Lang’s – in times as difficult as the 20th century too – what may be left of the alleged proto-fascism of people such as Brand, apparently portrayed so manifestly in the New Statesman piece?
Or, indeed, for that matter, on the pages of my own blog?
Maybe we are all proto-fascists by now. One of my most consistently read pieces continues to be this one on the possibly fascist nature of the current British state and Coalition government. It would hardly be surprising, were my thesis in this latter piece to be true, that the vast majority of the nation’s voters might be transmuting – under the influence – into little fascist clones themselves. Figures which Neil sadly describes may not be getting it in the following way:
[...] The “don’t vote it only encourages them” line that Brand espouses mainly shows that he just doesn’t get – and indeed has contempt for – democracy; yes, voting is at the heart of democracy but it’s not the whole story by any means. [...]
However, when Neil says this, when he argues that Brand “simply doesn’t address the concept of power; and his rantings are all about individualism, nothing to do with the collective. But at heart democratic politics is about the collective; it’s about debate, and compromise [...]“, I’m afraid precisely what Brand chooses to address, and what I have addressed so many times on these pages to little purpose, is the ability the collective left have shown to not engage with our individual experiences.
If the right have been able to burrow their way so surreptitiously into our political mindsets and voting patterns, if they have managed to “persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power”, surely it is because the left have forgotten what it is like to live one single life, one bloody step at a time. And if talking about one’s own experiences to illustrate why one feels as one does is the rankest example of proto-fascism, rather than the clearest example of amateur and individual ethics and responsibility, then I am indeed also the fascist Brand is – in some quarters – accused of being.
Even as it also demonstrates why the left is so fundamentally losing the democratic battle, so beloved of the standard bearers (you and me both) of a demonstrable moral superiority.
Curious, that. Curiouser and curiouser.
As a final reflection, I do mainly agree with Neil on what he warns against. But I understand Brand far more sympathetically than many on the left might.
The time has come not for a destructive repeat of the 20th century’s revolutions but for a very 21st century process of disruption. And far more people than Russell Brand are beginning – not only out of a little desperation but also out of a lot of considered opinion – to believe it’s a story we need to tell. Even if it is a personal one. Even if it does run the risk of cloying sentimentality.
And even if those who sincerely believe in the collective think the purpose of the collective should – in some weird way – involve the subtle shutting down of the individual.