Is Russel Brand More Important than John Rawls?

Raymond Geuss doesn’t actually explicitly state that Russel Brand’s Revolution is more important than John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia), but Enzo Rossi is correct in his insightful reviewof Reality and Its Dreams that he implies it. Even those who sympathize with Geuss’s rejection of Rawls (and more broadly, the idea that political philosophy is applied ethics) are unlikely to take this claim seriously.1 At the same time, it is unlikely that they have read Revolution or even listened to his interview with Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman:

I hadn’t. I knew Russel Brand as a host of the MTV Movie Awards, the former spouse of Katy Perry, and for his semi-memorable role in what I believe was a romantic comedy (the movie was less memorable). I heard about his interview with Paxman and vaguely registered dismissals by pundits like Nick Cohen, Joan Smith, and others who seemed mostly appalled that he refused to vote and that he didn’t have very specific ideas for the institutions that would support the sort of revolution that he supports. (You can read Brand’s rebuttal here.) But like most people who make a living teaching or writing political philosophy, I didn’t pay much attention until I read Rossi’s review and Geuss’s book.
Why, then, take Geuss’s suggestion seriously? First, I admire Raymond Geuss and am sympathetic to his acerbic take on the state of political philosophy. Geuss is one of the few living political philosophers whom I read for pleasure. (I reviewed his World without Why a couple of years ago.) Second, no one becomes a top-notch comedian without being smart and thoughtful. The world would be a better place if more people listened to comedians. Third, I am uneasy about dismissing people whom I haven’t read or listened to. One of the worst human tendencies – which may very well be even more common in universities where people have convinced themselves that they are both well-informed and smart – is to dismiss ideas, figures, books, etc., without making an effort to understand them first.
So is Brand more important than Rawls (or Nozick)?2
Claims about importance require that we state important for what? If it is “important to be able to enter the esoteric sanctuary of political philosophy,” then A Theory of Justice is scripture. One of Rawls’ accomplishments was to define the terms of debate and supply much of the vocabulary. The danger of engaging with Rawls (and his disciples) is that he forces you to use his concepts. Criticism of Rawls is often between rival factions in the same sect debating how we should best understand scripture.
Presumably, any worthwhile account of importance to political philosophy will not be defined as “important according to the internal standards of the discipline at the moment”, so we must look elsewhere.
Regarding importance, Geuss has in mind something like raising “issues of pressing human concern” (Russel Brand, Lady T, Pisher Bob, and Preacher John in Reality and Its Dreams, 65). Important political philosophy asks questions that make a difference in people’s lives.
Part of Geuss’s judgment of Brand’s superiority is his unusual view that Rawls is a very poor political philosopher. It isn’t just a matter of objections to Rawls’ theory (of which there are many, including some important ones raised by Geuss). Rather, it is the poverty of the questions that he asks. In an earlier polemic, “Neither History Nor Praxis” from the collection Outside Ethics, Geuss refers to an autobiographical sketch in which Rawls states that his time in the US army in World War II led to his concern with political questions. This led to Theory of Justice, judged by many as the most important work in political philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century. Theory of Justice develops a theory of “justice as fairness” which sets out the fair terms of cooperation that free and equal citizens would agree upon for the basic political and economic institutions in an ideal society.
Geuss rages:
What, however, would one have to believe about the world to think that “What is the correct conception of justice?” is the appropriate question to ask in the face of concentration camps, secret police, and the firebombing of cities? Are reflections about the correct distribution of goods and service in a “well-ordered society” the right kind of intellectual response to slavery, torture, and mass murder? Was the problem in the Third Reich that people in extermination camps didn’t get the slice of the economic pie that they ought to have had, if everyone had discussed the matter freely and under the right conditions? Should political philosophy really be essentially about questions of fairness of distribution of resources? Aren’t security and the control of violence far more important? How about the coordination of action, the sharing of information, the cultivation of trust, the development and deployment of human individual and social capacities, the management of relations of power and authority, the balancing of the demands of stability and reform, the provision for a viable social future? (“Neither History Nor Praxis,” 31)
Geuss’s objection to Rawls is that whereas Brand raises issues of pressing human concern – gross inequity, environmental destruction, political and spiritual anomie – Rawls defines justice in a peculiarly narrow way that misses just about everything of importance.
(Geuss also prefers Margaret Thatcher over Rawls and Nozick: “Compared with the refreshingly robust and engaged, albeit callous, ignorant, and vindictive, approach of Lady T, both Pisher Bob [Nozick] and Preacher John [Rawls] cut very poor figures indeed.” [70] In Geuss’s view, Thatcher was wrong and quite possibly evil, but at least responded to legitimate questions!)
Nor is it simply that Geuss sees Rawls’ as asking the wrong questions. He also sees Rawls’ work as ideological, supporting the status quo:
It is, then, extremely striking, not to say astounding, to the lay reader that the complex theoretical apparatus of Theory of Justice, operating through over 500 pages of densely argued text eventuates in a constitutional structure that is a virtual replica (with some extremely minor deviations) of the arrangements that exist in the United States). (“Liberalism and Its Discontents” in Outside Ethics, 22)
Rawls’ book on international ethics, Law of Peoples, with its categories of “outlaw states” that are not included among the peoples who are party to agreements is even worse:
“Outlaw state” is a slightly more refined variant of the term “rogue state,” which has come to fashionable use in the context of the attempt by the [first] Bush administration to justify its missile defense program, and Rawl’s claims about “outlaw states” are the philosophical pendent of former U.S. President Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” (Liberalism and Its Discontents, 23)
A third objection is that Rawls misunderstood what politics is. The correct approach to political philosophy for Geuss involves studying history, political and social institutions, and politics itself – it is not “ideal theory”. Understanding the world better prepares us to understand what is actually possible and allows the possibility of genuine change (“Neither History Nor Praxis, 38-9). Rawls’ reliance on arm-chair reflection – e.g., deciding on principles of justice behind the “veil of ignorance”, reflective equilibrium, etc. – effectively condemns his political philosophy to irrelevance for political reform.

I think there is a great deal to be said for these objections (see my earlier blog post on Charles Mill’s rejection of Rawls), though I suspect Geuss is somewhat harsh. Rawls can be leveraged for more radical purposes and I’ve seen students shaken out of their complacency by reflecting carefully on his original position.

Whatever we ultimately conclude about Rawls’ merit, a negative judgment of his work isn’t enough to establish Brand’s superiority. Geuss also thinks that Brand’s revolution is “an impressive contribution to political philosophy, a field that during the past thirty years or so has not been overly populated with interesting work.” (“Russell Brand, Lady T, Pisher Bob, and Preacher John, 64) He detects a ten step argument within it (64-5) that is quite compelling. The first four steps (reconstructed by Geuss) are:

(1) Our lives are structured by economic practices and institutions that (2) have caused extraordinary inequality and (3) will soon make the earth uninhabitable (4) so we need a revolution (i.e., we have to radically change these practices and institutions).
The next steps concern what to do if revolution is impossible. The upshot is that excessive drug use is as good a solution as any (Brand brings considerable expertise to this topic). If revolution is possible, then we need to think carefully about what this revolution might entail. Brand offers many thoughtful and reasonably well-informed reflections and anecdotes about his own search for what revolution might entail.
Here are some that stood out to me. This passage about waiting in secondary immigration in an American airport with a Buddhist monk captures the ethical problems of immigration better than most philosophy:
In the secondary immigration, as I await processing, I sit with people for whom I imagine the experience is less of a novelty. To be blunt, non-white people.
            Mexican and Arabian people, mostly – I assume, I don’t look at their passports; they don’t have them, they’re behind the desks with the border police, equally trapped and obese, behind the counter, often the same color as the people they’re casually harassing. “Who does this notion of nation most suit,” I wonder as I sit there, unable to use my phone. Proper rich people don’t encounter these rooms, these borders, these problems. For them the world is as it is when seen from space, without boundary, without limitation, full of fluid possibility and whispering wonder. (Brand, 22-3)
His reflections on overcoming addiction through meditation aimed at getting beyond individualism and materialism are worth contemplating:
The stuff I learned in order to make me better at my job has taught me that my job doesn’t matter, that no individual job matters when compared to our common good. When we as individuals collectively access this frequency, we will realize that we have a shared destiny and that we can design a fair and rational system that does what it’s supposed to do: enhances the whole and respects the individual. (Brand, 32)
Here is Brand on Jesus:
We must promote the pertinent truths, the way that bigoted Republicans have Frakensteined the perfect Christ for their cause. Their Jesus has pulled off one miracle further to those documented by becoming some sort of gun-toting, homophobic, Rasputined-up Donald Trump.
            Bible Jesus, who, let’s face it, has probably been through several prejudicial edits to reach the King James whitewashed version, is still a considerable theological distance from the vicious prick that them lot are so into.
            For a kick-off, he doesn’t give a toss about sex or pushing misogyny or homophobia. He in fact seems much more interested in the corruptive power of money: “Give to the poor and receive treasure in heaven.” (Brand, 52)
To his credit, Brand was on to Trump before 2014:
I met Trump once and was surprised mostly by his daftness. He was peculiarly juvenile; I thought at the time that he was like a dimwit with a prodigious skill that happens to be highly valued – in his case, making money. He had no curiosity about consciousness, spirituality, interconnectivity, the micro or the macro, or anything, except how it might relate to making money (235).
On democracy:
Democracy means if enough people want a fairer society, with more sharing, well-supported institutions, and less exploitation by organization that do not contribute, then their elected representatives will ensure that it is enacted (101).
On inequality:
It is a troubling indication of how low our expectations have sunk that even the modest economic reform as proposed by Thomas Piketty is met with whoops of delirious rapture on one side and an international smear onslaught on the other. (165)
On Gandhi:
Gandhi is a bit of a placeholder hero for me, a kind of unthinking grab for an easily identifiable brand of hero. Einstein said of him: “Future generations will scarce believe one such as he ever existed.” My own love of him is founded upon early exposure to the film; in which scene after scene he challenges authority and stands up to corruption and bullying. Gandhi knew too that defiance had to come from somewhere other than rage. That you can’t build love from hate, that the world we live in is the manifestation of a sublime source. The most practical application of what a lot of people would regard as wishy-washy claptrap was his popularization of nonviolent protest (266-7)
Does this add up to an impressive work of political philosophy? Yes and no. No in that little of what Brand proposes – however thoughtful – is particularly original or deep. He draws a fair bit on David Graeber and Noam Chomsky, as well as people rejecting capitalist globalization. Anyone looking to understand capitalist globalization or the political system will not find much help in Revolution. It’s hard not to cheer Brand during the obnoxious Jeremy Paxman’s condescending interview, but also hard not to admit that Paxman has a point about a lack of well-thought out alternatives. In Brand’s defense, he’s aware of the limitations of his vision – he is honest about knowing what he doesn’t know.
Nonetheless, I suspect that Brand’s basic point is right: things cannot keep going on as they are, at least if most of the people in the world are to have a hope of a decent life free from violence, penury, and a poisoned environment. Revolution includes nearly 300 pages of reflection on what’s wrong and what might be changed. I don’t know if it is an impressive work of political philosophy, but if somebody were to ask me to recommend a book that could potential make the life of that person and of her community better, I would recommend Revolutionover Theory of Justice.
1 Many philosophers prefer to reject Geuss’s attacks on Rawls as naive, simplistic, and failing to meet scholarly norms such as citing Rawls’ texts and consulting the secondary literature. (See some of the comments on the Leiter Report: Geuss’s Skepticism about Rawls)
2 I don’t take up the additional question of Brand’s superiority to Nozick, though I suspect many of Geuss’s objections to Rawls also apply to Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s