Marie Lyndon reviews The Emperor’s New Clothes, a new documentary starring comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand, which acts as a megaphone for the normally untold stories of the young, the unemployed, the disabled and all those marginalised by the capitalist system – and it’s a megaphone that’s not falling on deaf ears.
The Emperor’s New Clothes, a new documentary starring comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand, acts as a megaphone for the normally untold stories of the young, the unemployed, the disabled and all those marginalised by the capitalist system – and it’s a megaphone that’s not falling on deaf ears.
“All in this together”
The film, a collaboration between Brand and esteemed filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, was screened in over 200 cinemas across the UK on Tuesday 21st April, along with a live-streamed Q&A with both director and protagonist: it has an audience who are listening, watching and, judging by the probing questions at the film’s premiere (live and through Twitter), ready for change.
“We’re all in this together” is George Osborne’s mantra that often precedes and supposedly justifies the cuts that are then outlined in his so-called “reforms”. The film’s main success is in showing the huge hypocrisy of Osborne’s words. Through interviews and analysis, Winterbottom and Brand demonstrate the gross injustices suffered by the majority of people at the hands of the bankers, the politicians and the media moguls, and proclaims the massive ruse that has taken place: the bankers have run the country into the ground in their attempts to maximise profits, and it is taxpayers who have been presented with the bill. The bankers’ problem has become a problem for ordinary people; private debts have been turned into public debts; and the poorest and most disenfranchised in today’s society are taking on the brunt of the cuts.
The ironic thing is, Brand asserts in the Q+A after the film’s screening, we are actually all in this together – just not in the way Osborne proclaims. Brand and Winterbottom weave analysis from interviews with economic journalists like Paul Mason and simple, visually effective techniques involving the distribution of paper bars of gold among primary school children to reflect the distribution of wealth in the current system. Asked if the way the wealth’s been doled out is fair, the children’s reply is a unanimous “No!”.
Language of the unheard
Brand cuts an unconventional figure when he revisits his hometown Grays, in Essex, at the film’s start. It is a place of food banks, Wongas and high street chains – typical of any modern British (or even Western) town Brand asserts. The rock star comedian says he spent the first half of his life trying to escape the Essex town, but now he’s spending his second half trying to be let back in. Why? He tells us it’s because of wanting to belong to a community, to society; to be a part of something bigger than himself.
In making this film, Brand stands against what he tells us is “the triumph of the free market zealots [:] that we no longer believe in collective action”. In his interviews with the people of Grays, to the families of those imprisoned during the London riots, to the John Lewis night-shift worker outsourced as cheap labour, to those in danger of losing their homes to private property developers, Brand shows his commitment to listening to people from different communities and showing the many different forms injustice and exploitation takes; the different ways it can ruin people.
One such way occurred during the London riots, when more than 1,200 people were jailed, many of them youths who had committed petty thefts, but who would then as a result have a criminal record for the rest of their lives – their combined jail sentences added up to 1800 years. The film pits this against the state’s leniency on bankers such as Andy Hornby and Fred Goodwin, who stole from the state in the reckless, self-serving banking procedures they oversaw and got off completely sentence free. In doing so, Brand and Winterbottom demonstrate with crystal clarity who the state ultimately represents under capitalism: not the 99% – the most vulnerable within society – but the 1% of bankers and bosses. Far from being a neutral adjudicator in society, it can be clearly seen that the state – in the final analysis – exists to protect the private property, profits, and class interests of the ruling elite.
Which way forward?
The film, in this sense, shows injustice in its manifold forms – the vital question, however, is how to unite and fight against it. It is here that the film’s – and Brand’s own – limitations become apparent. The Emperor’s New Clothes shows the necessity of collective action; but when asked by Brian May (the famous musician) in the Q&A how, at a practical level, we can participate in and drive that collective action, the quick witted comedian merely referred people to the demands put forward in the film’s concluding section: a 90% tax on the highest incomes; a wealth tax; a tax on financial transactions, etc..
The film – although providing an important perspective on the state of capitalist society today – does not provide a way forward for those wanting to fight for a change from the status quo. A direct question of what a person should do today, tomorrow, and the next day to end the tyranny of wealth and profit we see in our everyday lives deserves a direct answer.
As the Q&A showed, Brand’s own empirical approach is limited. On several occasions, Brand has stated that he merely wants to act as a megaphone and amplifier for the struggles that are already taking place – struggles, such as that of the New Era tenants, which are highlighted in the film. However, by only repeating the demands of others and simply giving a voice to existing movements in society, Russell Brand is in danger of tail-ending consciousness rather than raising it. The presence of so many militant, radicalised movements in society demonstrates that people are acutely aware of what they don’t want. What is needed is a genuine alternative that provides a way forward.
Revolution – but how?
With a large audience following him and listening to his regular commentaries and thoughts, Brand has an enormous influence and powerful voice that could be used to unite these different struggles as a part of a common, revolutionary struggle, by pointing out their common cause – the capitalism system.
When pushed about his personal decision not to vote, Brand correctly stated that it’s not just about what box you put a cross in on 7th May, but also what you do and what you fight for on all the days following. However, rather than justifying a “don’t vote” position and rejecting all the current political parties by simply saying “a plague on all your houses”, as Brand does, he should be pointing out the need for a political party – not as a vehicle for career politicians, but as a means for democratic organisation, collective action, and revolutionary change; as a means by which the various particular issues highlighted in the film and elsewhere can be linked together within a common socialist programme, as part of a general struggle against capitalism.
For example, the demands put forward at the end of the film by Brand – to tax the rich – are demands within the programmes of many of the trade unions or Green Party; why, therefore, does Brand not encourage people to join these organisations? And not to stop there, but to push these organisation further to the left by calling for a revolutionary, socialist programme? In short, if Brand – correctly – calls for a revolution, why does he not use his extremely influential position to build a revolutionary party? To paraphrase Karl Marx’s famous aphorism: the filmmakers have only documented the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.