Interview with the soul of Russell Brand
Philosophers' Mail Interview Principles
The Philosophers' Mail has secured access to the inner lives, the souls if you like, of some of the most famous and influential people on the planet. On a regular basis, we will bring you interviews with the movers and shakers defining our times.
We never work through PR agencies, we never attend press conferences and in fact we have never met any of the people we have interviewed.
We have a distinctive view of what is needed properly to get under the skin of a celebrity. Most news outlets try and get in the same room as the person, and then ask them questions, hoping thereby to work out who their subjects 'really' are. But that can be a frustrating process.
The journalist sits opposite the subject in a hotel suite and sees their questions ricochet off their armour. Most subjects don't know 'who' they are, or they don't want to tell you.
We prefer to go with the evidence that is already there. By definition, there will always be quite a lot already. We chew it over, hoping thereby to touch on a few of the essential things that make celebrities interesting.
We pick subjects to interview from whom we think there is stuff to learn. We don't think the people we feature are excellent in every respect. In fact, they are invariably a bit awful in some ways. But that does not make the virtues they do possess any less instructive.
In the past few months, Russell Brand has found a huge global audience for his radical views on politics and the economy.
He articulates widespread anger. Things seem to be wrong in many ways. The environment is being damaged. Politicians don't merit respect. Wealth accumulates in the hands of people who don't deserve it while at the same time so many people struggle. The largest commercial enterprises put profit above our collective best interests. Huge media corporations manipulate public opinion.
But Brand is also a voice of hope. He is convinced that the world does not absolutely have to be like this. Our troubles are not caused by the anger of the gods or the laws of history or misfortunes of nature. We can do something about them. What we need, he says, are changes in culture and consciousness. It's our collective beliefs and attitudes that make society. And he's right.
Captivating - but not in power
A longing to change the world is hardly unique to Brand. Many people share his desire to make a difference in one way or another. But Russell brings something very specific to the task. He is famous already. As an actor, a comic and a television star he realised a while back that he could get people to laugh. Now he's realised something far more significant: he can get them to think.
He is living out one of the key questions of the modern world: what is the proper task of celebrity? And he's directing our attention to the biggest arena: politics.
Crucially, Brand has charisma. Most people who aspire to change the world don't. They sound earnest, they induce guilt, they're annoying. Charisma is a critical commodity. Yet like its sibling quality, sexiness, we are wary of it. The move, though, isn't to condemn charisma or erotic allure. It's to harness it. Societies are not swayed purely by ideas. In order to gain traction, ideas have to come in appealing forms. It's nowhere near enough just to be right, because any thesis or view has to compete for attention in a very noisy democratic marketplace of ideas. Somehow what's important has to get heard and, more than ever, this requires artistry and skill.
Brand is edging towards forty. Where will he go from here? He could be just the guy who makes blistering appearances on the news and writes the occasional blog that excites many millions of people by defining their fears. Or he could make some big moves towards actually accomplishing some of the changes of which he has spoken so passionately.
We believe there are a couple of crucial steps he could take.
Firstly, Brand should develop his ideas into a detailed piece of political theory. In interviews, he gets slightly frustrated by practical questions. That's understandable - he's making some huge points about what's wrong with the world; and the points deserve to be heard even if he doesn't himself have all the answers. But this can't be a long-term solution.
We invite him to write a book - with a team of thinkers from the Philosophers' Mail - exploring more systematically what the causes of our collective troubles are and how these can realistically be addressed. This is about taking his ambitions very seriously. The world is listening. He's made the brilliant opening statement. Now he needs the manifesto.
Secondly, he's attacked the media, and with good cause. But - as he knows - it's not enough to point out the existing errors. He should set up his own media outlet to offer the world the kind of media he thinks we should have. From what we understand, this would mean an outlet that was both hugely popular and hugely meaningful. There isn't - yet - anything in this space. To found a media outlet is a step up in scale, it means going from being one eloquent man to being an institution. Brand probably hates the word 'institution'. But institutions are crucial. Huge social issues can't be resolved by one person. They need lots of people working on the same project at once. They need to keep going even when one person is having on off day. The issues are bigger than any particular person.
When Brand argues for a revolution of consciousness and ideas it can sound to some people as if this is pie in the sky - not what real politics is about. The opposite is true. He's on the money. And the world holds many examples of powerful shifts in thinking and feeling that have, in time, had vast consequences.
Russell Brand in the 16th century
Martin Luther didn't have Russell's flair for fashion. But his eloquence and devotion did bring about a huge shift in how people thought and felt. What started out as his own passionate, but private, convictions became a pan-European movement of ideas about how to live - the Reformation - that reshaped the politics and the economies of nations.
Russell is right - societies are built on ideas. It's how we think that shapes the world. He's made a powerful start. Now is the time for the next couple of steps.