Off Brand

Russell Brand’s grim trajectory shows us where politics is heading

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 10th March 2023

In 2014, the Guardian asked me to nominate my hero of the year. To some people’s surprise, I chose Russell Brand. I loved the way he energised young people who had been alienated from politics. I claimed, perhaps hyperbolically, he was “the best thing that has happened to the left in years” (in my defence, there wasn’t, at the time, much competition).

Today, I can scarcely believe it’s the same man. I’ve watched 50 of his recent videos, with growing incredulity. He appears to have switched from challenging injustice to conjuring phantoms. If, as I suspect it might, politics takes a very dark turn in the next few years, it will be partly as a result of people like Brand.

It’s hard to decide which is most dispiriting: the stupidity of some of the theories he recites, or the lack of originality. He repeatedly says he’s not a conspiracy theorist, but, to me, he certainly sounds like one.

In 2014, he was bursting with new ideas and creative ways of presenting them. Today, he wastes his talent on tired and discredited tales: endless iterations of the alleged evils of the World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab, the Great Reset, Bill Gates, Nancy Pelosi, the former US chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, Covid vaccines, medical data, the World Health Organization, Pfizer, smart cities and “the globalist masterplan”.

His videos appear to promote “natural immunity” ahead of vaccines, and for a while pushed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for Covid (they aren’t).

He championed the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa, which apparently stood proudly against the “tyranny” of Justin Trudeau’s policies. He hawks Graham Hancock’s widely debunked claims about ancient monuments.

A wildly popular clip from one of his videos about the Dutch nitrate crisis offers a classic conspiracy theory mashup: a tangle of claims that may be true in other contexts, random accusations, scapegoating and resonances with some old and very ugly tropes. He claims that “this whole fertiliser situation is a scam”. The real objective is “to bankrupt the farmers so their land can be grabbed”. This “shows you how the Great Reset operates”, using “globalist” regulations to throw farmers off their land. He claims it’s “connected to the land grab of Bill Gates” and the “corruption of companies like Monsanto”.

In reality, the Dutch government was forced to act by a legal ruling, as levels of nitrate pollution, largely from livestock farms, break European law. Its attempts to curb this pollution have nothing to do with the World Economic Forum and its vacuous rhetoric about a “Great Reset”. Or with Bill Gates. Or with Monsanto, which hasn’t existed since 2018 when it was bought by Bayer. So why mention them? Perhaps because these terms have become potent click triggers.

Brand is repeating claims first made by far-right conspiracists, who have piled into this issue, claiming that the nitrate crisis is a pretext to seize land from farmers, in whom, they claim, true Dutch identity is vested, and hand it to asylum seekers and other immigrants. It’s a version of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, itself a reworking of the Nazis’ blood and soil tropes about protecting the “rooted” and “authentic” people – in whom “racial purity” and “true” German identity was vested – from “cosmopolitan” and “alien” forces (ie Jews). Brand may not realise this, as the language has changed a little – “cosmopolitans” have become “globalists”, “aliens” have become “immigrants” – but the themes have not.

On and drearily on he goes. He manages to confuse the World Health Organization’s call for better pandemic surveillance (by which it means the tracking of infectious diseases) with coercive surveillance of the population, creating “centralised systems of control where you are ultimately a serf”.

Some of his many rants about Bill Gates are illustrated with an image of the man wearing a multicoloured lapel badge, helpfully circled in red. This speaks to another widespread conspiracy theory: those who wear this badge are members of a secret organisation conspiring to control the world (so secret they stick it on their jackets). In reality, it shows support for the UN sustainable development goals.

Such claims are not just wrong. They are wearyingly, boringly wrong. But, to judge by the figures (he has more than 6 million subscribers on YouTube), the audience loves them.

Some of his theories, such as his recent obsession with UFOs, are innocuous enough. Others have potential to do great harm. There’s the risk to the people scapegoated, such as Fauci, Schwab and Pelosi: subjects of conspiracy theories often become targets of violence. There are the risks misleading claims present to public health. And false stories about shadowy “elites” protect real elites from scrutiny and challenge.

While I’m not suggesting this is his purpose, it’s a tactic used deliberately by powerful people to disarm those who might otherwise hold them to account. Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had a term for it: “flood the zone with shit”. As Naomi Klein has shown, the Great Reset conspiracy theory was conceived by a staffer at the Heartland Institute, a US lobby group that has promoted climate denial and other billionaire-friendly positions. It’s a bastardisation of her shock doctrine hypothesis, distracting people from the malfeasance of those with real power.

Worse still, conspiracism is fascism’s fuel. Almost all successful conspiracy theories originate with or land with the far right. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Brand is sympathetic to fascism, but his videos are likely to assist its spread. As for his own politics, while he claims to have transcended left and right, I see a clear rightward shift. He concentrates his fire on centrists – Biden, Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Trudeau – while appearing to support Trump. He extols Trump’s “virility”, which he contrasts with “Biden’s senility”.

So what’s going on? Brand has yet to reply to my questions, so I can only guess. I have seen other people drift into absurdity by telling their followers what they want to hear, and I wonder whether it’s happening here. At one point, he tells his audience: “We are amplifying the voice that you give us. We are feeding back to you the truth that you have long understood.” Of Ron DeSantis, the extreme rightwing Florida governor, he says to his viewers: “I know a lot of you guys like him”, which might explain his weirdly equivocal reporting of DeSantis’s vicious state censorship, which is everything he claims to oppose.

Until recently, I thought younger people, demanding a fairer, kinder world, would transform our politics. Now I’m not so sure. I believe Brand and others are helping to confuse and distract them in their millions, shutting down meaningful engagement. He has, in this respect, become the opposite of what he was.