Activism

Russell Brand’s Anti-Voting Revolution Makes Sex Pistols' 'Johnny Rotten' Want to Puke

"Vote. Stand up. Be counted. I’ve always voted. You have to.”

Photo Credit: TheGuardian.com

England’s most famous punk rocker is not impressed with one of its famous comedian-turned-revolutionaries.

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols, is all for making life better for working class people. But he thinks that one of the central prescriptions in comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand’s new book, Revolution—to not vote—is not only stupid, but ends up giving the powers-that-be exactly what they want: yet more reasons to ignore protest.

“It’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. So damn ignorant,” he told Guardian.com’s Polly Toynbee in a video interview. “You have to vote. You have to make a change. You’re given lousy options, yes. But better that than nothing at all.”    

Brand has been promoting his book and calling for a popular rebellion that takes the money, power and influence back from corporate titans. He just made the rounds in New York City, where he was on the David Letterman show, MSNBC’s On The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and led a small protest in lower Manhattan, where he spoke strongly about how democratic institutions are failing everyone everywhere.

“I am very grateful to the Occupy Movement for their contribution to my own awakening,” he said. “I’m in a weird position, because I’ve written a book and the book costs money. But I’m dedicated to and devoted to change and I’ve already agreed, decided, and established the pattern of how the profits of this book are going to be spent: creating social enterprises, that are not-for-profit to represent people, and in my own small, humble way, represent a demonstrable alternative to some of the systems we currently labor under.”

Brand speaks very quickly and throws out figures that aren’t new in progressive circles. Ninety percent of Americans don’t approve of Congress. Eighty percent believe that big businesses runs the country. Six WalMart heirs have as much as 150 million Americans. Brand concludes that a revolution is called for. “The last time this country was taxed by an elite group that didn’t represent them, there was a revolution and they threw those people out,” he said. “That is what you should do.”

On MSNBC, Brand said that voting was a waste of time and only led to disappointment.

“Where I’m from, it’s normal not to vote. Normal, like 50 percent of Americans don’t vote,” Brand said. Why is that? Lawrence O’Donnell asked. “Because there is a tacit acceptance that the people you’re voting for don’t care about you, won’t represent you, and only represent the interests of an economic elite. Like you just know it, it’s not part of a conversation… It’s just understood.”

Brand told O’Donnell that the alternative was Occupy-style protests, where individuals don’t wait for leaders but instead create collective institutions to represent their values.

“I always say to people, become active and collectivized in your own life,” he said. “It’s not that I say don’t vote. It’s just that there is no point in voting. It won’t make any difference. It won’t make any difference. There’s no one to vote for…

“What I would urge is for a political mobilization that genuinely represents people,” he continued. “I would say that what we require is democracy. We have democracy in name but not in practice, because in my country—of which I am more qualified to speak—we see increasing poverty, increasing inequality, ecological disaster on the horizon and nobody saying, ‘Oh, we’re the political party that’s going to stop that. Vote for us.’ ‘We’ll stand and represent you against corporations. We’ll make sure that the most vulnerable are looked after, that ordinary working people are represented, and we’ll regulate big business, we’ll control big business, we’ll control corporations in the way that they were designed to be controlled.’ Not as these infinite dieties that have ultimate dominion over our lives.

“If there’s any issue in this book that I try to convey, it’s that only unified do we have any power against corporations,” he said, when asked him to summarize ghe book’s message. “They’ve got the guns, money, the political power. All we have is one and other, and it’s time for us to collectivize and become active in these issues.”

Back in England, the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Lydon, who has long been a national symbol of protest and defiance, said that Brand’s rejection of voting was “the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. He told The Guardian, “ You must not forget, 100 years ago, who could vote here? And to have that so easily and flippantly ignored, in that lazy-ass ‘I take drugs and tell not-funny jokes’ way, it’s just—very poor… You have to vote.”         

Lydon, ironically, would probably agree with most of Brand’s social critique, but not his understanding of politics and what to do about it. For example, he rejected the assertion that all politicians are the same—all worthless regardless of party—as Brand has said.

“There’s a huge difference,” Lydon said. “It’s just the representatives of these parties are bland. And I suppose that’s deliberate. It’s clear, that if you have a pile of money in the bank, you will go vote for the party that loves people with the pile of money in the bank. And if you are like the rest of us, well, you are going to vote differently.”

Brand’s revolution would push people to the margins, he said. “If you don’t contribute, and in some way try to reshape the society around you, you’re going to have no effect and therefore become ineffectual, ignored, condemned. Really, what he’s preaching there is a lifestyle of cardboard boxes down by the river. He’ll make you all homeless.”

Lydon also said that taking yourself out if the political mix “just demanding that you be ignored. And that’s not very smart at all.” He said, “My advice to any member of the working class is get smart. Read as much as you can. And find out who’s using you up… Vote. Stand up. Be counted. And I’ve always voted. You have to.”    

Lyndon also said that he never preached anarchy while in the Sex Pistols—despite a somewhat famous song called “Anarchy in the U.K.”

“The older you get, the more you learn. You have to be able to put yourself in a position of going, ‘Oh, I was wrong there. Or there’s room for flexibiliy,” Lydon said. “And by the way, I never preached anarchy. It was always a novelty in a song. I always thought anarchy was a mindgame for the middle classes, really, impractical… Anarchists can’t get anywhere without motorways.

And if anarchy is a mindgame for the middle class, what does Lydon think this version of revolution is?  

“He’s preaching all this from the mansion. Lovely, isn’t it?”

Brand Responds

Brand posted a YouTube video responding to Lydon's comments, saying he thinks the rocker misunderstands him.

"John Lydon for me is a great cultural figure. I adore the Sex Pistols, I adore his music and I adore him, but it's a common misconception that I told people not to vote," Brand said.

"If there was a party worth voting for then I'd vote for them… and I would urge you to as well, but it's difficult to create those kind of global political parties because of trade agreements preventing that kind of thing from happening on a national level, which is a complicated issue and I can see why John Lydon might have trouble fitting that into a tiny little interview." 

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).