The Rules of Unreason #2: BrandedShare
How not to argue for compassion and love.
[This essay is part of a series of essays on the use of 'covert aggression' in religion and politics. For an introduction to the series, and an explanation of the concept of covert aggression, click here]
In 2008, a BBC radio show hosted by Russell Brand sparked national outrage. Brand and his guest, fellow comedian Jonathon Ross, made some on-air phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, whom Brand had invited onto the show. Sachs wasn’t picking up his phone, and Brand was piqued by this. He and Ross proceeded to leave a series of lewd messages on the answer machine of Mr Sachs, who was 78 years old at the time.
In 2008, a BBC radio show hosted by Russell Brand sparked national outrage. Brand and his guest, fellow comedian Jonathon Ross, made some on-air phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, whom Brand had invited onto the show. Sachs wasn’t picking up his phone, and Brand was piqued by this. He and Ross proceeded to leave a series of lewd messages on the answer machine of Mr Sachs, who was 78 years old at the time.
‘He f--ked your granddaughter!’, Ross blurted out, in reference to the fact that, just before the call, Brand had bragged to his listeners about doing that very thing. In subsequent messages, the two comedians proceeded to repeat – and revel in – the allegation, while nominally ‘apologising’ for Ross’s outburst. At one point, Brand riffs that the liaison ‘was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual’. Ross imagines Sachs ‘sobbing over his answer machine… he has probably got a picture of his grandchildren when they were young and innocent right by the phone’. Brand continues, adding bizarrely and sinisterly: ‘We can keep ringing, and even after the show’s finished, kick his front door in and scream apologies into his bottom’. Later in the show, Brand makes a fake announcement: ‘The main news again… Andrew Sachs hung himself today’.
Several days later, the Mail on Sunday newspaper wrote an article about the incident, prompting tens of thousands of people to complain about Brand and Ross to the UK’s broadcasting regulator, Ofcom. (The BBC, whose controllers had approved the broadcast of the incident, was later fined £150,000 by Ofcom). Sachs himself was far from happy with the incident. ‘It was rather disgusting and terrible, awful’, he admitted. He went as far as to say that the experience was ‘the worst thing that ever happened to our family, worse than the Nazis’. This was really saying something, coming from a Jew who, at age 8, had fled to England with his parents to escape persecution in Germany.
Several weeks later, by which time the incident was being lamented throughout the media, Brand and Ross apologised. By apologising, they indicated that the many commentators who had labelled the incident as bullying had been right to do so. But the most compelling evidence for this conclusion, I believe, was the fact that the host of the show – Brand – apologised in such a weaselly fashion. By apologising equivocally – as, indeed, he had done during the incident itself – Brand subtly demonstrated that he was still in fighting mode. He was giving the impression of doing the right thing, while actually engaging in aggression. He was engaging, in other words, in covert aggression.
One particular statement Brand made about the incident was a masterpiece of covert aggression. Brand sets the tone of the statement by downplaying his wrongdoing. He explains that he left some ‘remarks’ on Sachs’ answerphone, which was a ‘really silly’ thing to do (as opposed to a nasty thing to do). He then tries being charming – ‘Andrew Sachs is an actor… that I very much admire’ – yet, tellingly, Brand fails to recognise that leaving nasty messages is nasty whether you admire the recipient or not. He feigns innocence – ‘It was certainly not my intention to hurt Andrew… or to embarrass his granddaughter’ – and he evades responsibility: ‘I got caught up in the spirit of the moment’.
And then comes an exquisite piece of rationalisation. Brand says: ‘the reason I’ve not apologised publicly up until now is because I didn’t want to be seen to be apologising for the reaction to the situation rather than the situation itself’. This is a self-justification of Escher-like convolution. If Brand didn’t want to be seen to be apologising solely because people were demanding an apology, why did he wait until the public’s demand for an apology had reached fever pitch? He was lying; in truth, he wanted to wait and see if he could get away with the incident.
Next, Brand claims a noble cause. He declares, somewhat whiningly, ‘I only do that radio show because I want to make people laugh and make people happy, and obviously it’s gone beyond the point where I do that; obviously I’m making people unhappy and angry and sad’. Granted, sometimes comedy can be pretty rough on its targets; some of them deserve it. But surely not a 78-year-old man whose only indiscretion is that he forgot to answer the telephone. In the absence of an explicit recognition from Brand that his actions amounted to bullying, one gets the impression that he actually thinks did his job too well – that he nobly went beyond his usual levels of happiness-inducement. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that, later in the statement, Brand declares that ‘it is sad that my actions have led to the BBC being attacked in the way that it’s been’. By using the word ‘attack’ to describe the legitimate criticism levelled at himself and the BBC, Brand was claiming victimhood. And by using the word ‘sad’, he was subtly guilt-tripping his critics.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that in the final eighty seconds of his statement, Brand mentions ‘the BBC’ no fewer than eight times – saying, for instance, ‘I love the BBC’, it’s an ‘absolutely fantastic institution’, ‘people are amazed by the BBC’. In Sheep’s Clothing, George K. Simon explains that people who practice covert aggression typically don’t feel any guilt about their wrongdoing – at least, not consciously – but nonetheless they hate losing. Hence, on the rare occasions when covert aggressives display contrition they typically do so as a strategic move in their ongoing attempt to win. The only time during his statement when Brand explicitly says ‘what I did was wrong’ his confession is prefaced by him conceding that he is ‘not going to work for the BBC any more’ (in other words, he was resigning, under duress). One suspects that he is pushing out the boat of contrition here, in an attempt to appeal to the people who matter most to him in all of this, namely, his paymasters, whose favour he hopes to regain.
If that sounds unfair of me, consider some remarks Brand made in an interview a few years later. Speaking about the BBC, he says: ‘Anything that damages something I love, I'm going to feel sorry for’. He adds: ‘And I'm sorry also because the story I tell myself, of myself, is not that I am a man who is rude to people who are in a position of vulnerability – but… there was obviously a pre-existing agenda in privately-owned media to destabilise, attack and diminish the BBC’. This whole statement drips with ruthless impression management – the hallmark of the covert aggressive personality. Brand even seems to be attempting to manage his impression of himself – ‘the story I tell myself’. Moreover, the statement is reminiscent of the ridiculous rhetorical question Brand had asked on air when he first heard about the Mail on Sunday’s article: ‘What's worse – leaving a swearword on Andrew Sachs’ answerphone or tacitly supporting Adolf Hitler when he took charge of the Third Reich?’. Eighty years ago, the Mail on Sunday’s sister paper, the Daily Mail, was indeed guilty of supporting Hitler before the outbreak of World War 2. But, in raking up this sordid episode, and in comparing it to a mere ‘swearword’, Brand’s only intention was to exculpate himself by offering up a melange of minimisation, shaming, vilification, changing the subject, and brandishing anger.
As for me, I have raked up the ‘Sachsgate’ affair because it sheds light on the political turn that Brand’s career took in the ensuing years. In 2014 he began a series of video blogs entitled ‘The Trews’. He also expanded upon his political views in a (dreadful) book called Revolution, and in frequent television appearances, including on serious current affairs shows. By foraying into politics, perhaps Brand was trying to redeem himself. Or perhaps he just wanted to look good. Many of his contributions to political debate gave a strong indication that Brand hadn’t learned much from the Sachsgate affair. He was still in bullying mode. He was still attacking people for his own gratification and aggrandisement. And he was still masking his intentions using the techniques of covert aggression.
The most egregious example of Brand’s use of covert aggression in politics can be seen in seen in his appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight television programme in 2012. The programme featured a debate on drugs – a severe and growing problem in Britain. A recent report showed that there are more than 320,000 ‘problem drug users’ in the UK, at an annual cost of £3.6 billion to the taxpayer. Of these, 165,000 have been reported to be registered heroin addicts; in contrast, in the 1950s there were merely dozens of registered heroin addicts in the UK. Brand himself is a reformed drug abuser. On Newsnight, he was part of a panel that included the writer Peter Hitchens. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Hitchens writes for the Mail on Sunday and is author of a book called The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment's Surrender to Drugs.
The Newsnight presenter Stephanie Flanders opens the debate with a question: ‘Russell Brand says… we should treat drug addiction like a disease. Do you agree?’. Hitchens responds:
"No. It’s a crime. It involves the possession of a Class A drug, which is a criminal offence, which people do voluntarily, and they do it for pleasure. And if we continue to treat it as if it is a disease for which they should be sympathised with, there will be more and more of it, as there has been over the past many years. We do not any more enforce our own laws on this subject. The very word addiction assumes that the person involved has no free will."
This is a concise summary of the typical conservative position on drugs, emphasising, as it does, law and order and personal responsibility. Hitchens elaborates:
"I have sympathy for anybody who gets themselves into trouble, but sympathy isn’t the point… If [drug users] were punished for this, they would by and large not get into the trouble they get into, and there would be many, many fewer of them. But we don’t do that. You can look at the figures for arrests of people, even for possession of Class A drugs which we supposedly view most seriously. Of the ones who are convicted, fewer than one in ten are actually sentenced to imprisonment."
A balanced, common sense view, you might think, expressed articulately, and backed up by facts and figures. The tone thus set by Hitchens, Brand immediately lowers it. He responds:
"I understand [Peter’s] frustration, and as a person who has to deal with drug addicts in my life, they’re a frustrating type of person to deal with. But I think Peter if you can find in yourself to look at human beings with compassion and love rather than with aggression you’ll find there’s more of an opportunity for progress."
This statement is comparable to a martial artist’s opening flurry of offensive moves. In drawing attention to Hitchens’ alleged ‘frustration’, Brand subtly guilt-trips him and downplays his concerns (by parodying them as being a fit of pique). And in urging Hitchens to ‘look at human beings with compassion and love’, Brand claims a noble cause. He then backs this up with some shaming, accusing Hitchens of ‘aggression’. All of these moves are designed to undermine Hitchens’ views – by belittling him as a person – without actually engaging with them.
Hitchens, however, seems to be wise to covert aggression. He shoots back: ‘I don’t want to be lectured on aggression by you. You’ve been extremely aggressive to me in the past when we’ve met’. I’m not sure which specific incident Hitchens has in mind, but perhaps he was referring to a run-in he had with Brand a few years earlier at a public debate.
In that debate, Hitchens can be seen deriding Brand for having insisted that ‘he’s not responsible for his own drug taking’, as Hitchens’ puts it. (Hichens also, it must be noted, refers to Brand rather provocatively as ‘the alleged comedian’). The lack of responsibility shown by ‘rich Western kids selfishly following their pleasures’, Hitchens continues, creates the economic demand that fuels the international drugs trade. To this serious allegation, Brand responds flippantly:
"It’s nice to receive your bigotry from another medium other than the hate rag the Mail on Sunday through which you normally peddle hatred, insular thought and lack of love for human beings."
"What’s next? Criminalise people for being a bit brown? Is that your next policy from the Mail on Sunday? We can’t listen to people like you any more. We’re too evolved as a species."
I suspect you’re beginning to see a pattern here: in the face of a coherent argument, Brand has little to offer other than abuse, only this time with a random insinuation of racism thrown in. Hitchens responds with admirable restraint, pointing out:
"I notice that you don’t actually answer my argument. Are you responsible for your actions, or are you not? Do you take drugs because you have to, or because you want to?"
It’s a fair question – which is precisely why Brand evades it. Instead, he offers some noble cause mongering:
"Peter, in spite of what Margaret Thatcher said, there is such a thing as society. We are responsible for one another. If we treat people compassionately and with love, then people will benefit."
Then, revealingly, Brand adds:
"People, of course, are responsible for their actions: you’re responsible for writing for a bigoted newspaper."
By way of these words, Brand indulges in a bit of scapegoating. Having wriggled out of the question of his own irresponsibility, he arbitrarily accuses Hitchens of being irresponsible.
Whatever the source of the previous bad blood between the two men, on the Newsnight programme in 2012 Hitchens was surely justified in objecting to Brand’s ‘aggression’ – especially in the light of the comedian’s immediate response to the accusation: ‘That’s just because of the bigotry, Peter. I don’t mean it. I’m only having a bit of fun’. Read: vilification, claiming innocence, noble cause.
Hitchens, for his part, responds with a plea-cum-admonishment: ‘Learn to use some reason in this matter’. Alas, Brand, it seems, only wants to use covert aggression. He asks: ‘Peter, why are you so angry? What happened to you mate?’ This (seemingly) nice question nicely illustrates the way covert aggressives throw their opponents on the defensive. However, once again Hitchens skilfully refuses to let the discussion become all about him. He says: ‘I’m angry because many, many young people are being betrayed by a feeble government’.
At this point, Brand makes a rare attempt to engage rationally with Hitchens. If we follow Hitchens’ advice, Brand wonders, won’t there be ‘more people in prison?’. A reasonable concern, perhaps, to which Hitchens has a reasonable response: ‘I don’t want more people in prison, no. I want people deterred from taking drugs’ – the idea being that a proper deterrence effect will, in the long run, reduce the prison population by reducing drug use. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear this claim subjected to the scrutiny it deserves, because as soon as Hitchens starts to defend the claim, Brand goes back to his old tricks, blurting out: ‘banal, prescriptive bigotry’. He follows this up – interspersed with further attempts by Hitchens to bring the conversation back to a rational plain – with a flurry of ad hominem remarks: ‘you’re like a peculiar child’; ‘you’re like someone from Wind in the Willows’; ‘you don’t understand the type of people or class of people [who take drugs]’; ‘Peter, did you come here in a time machine from Victorian Britain?’; ‘That kind of foghorn madness from a bygone era is not going to help anybody’.
‘There you go again’, says Hitchens in response this last remark; ‘no reason, just abuse’. He continues – doggedly – elaborating his case, but Brand again interjects, this time making it quite clear that he sees Hitchens as someone not to be reasoned with: ‘I don’t even think you’re a real person’. Later, Brand is asked by Flanders whether it’s important to ‘care’ for drug addicts, and once again he quickly digresses into covert aggression against Hitchens, by offering another random false allegation: ‘I’ve learned to love you Peter, and in a minute I’m going to give you such a kiss on the lips I’m gonna challenge a few other of your prejudices. Let’s get into the homophobia; it’s just under the surface there’. Then Brand adds: ‘Peter, I think you’re a lovely man; I think you’re a Harry Enfield character’. By flipping repeatedly between charm and vilification Brand is seeking to maximise – by their mutual contrast – the impact of each of these rules of unreason.
‘How does one deal with a person who cannot debate seriously?’, sighs Hitchens, surely echoing the thoughts of any honest viewer. Brand responds: ‘there’s more to debate, Peter, than acting all serious and posh’. Brand could hardly have made a more self-condemnatory utterance. Despite the rhetorical flourishes that are often used by debaters, the fundamental point of arguing with someone is to get at the truth. By deriding this aim as equivalent to ‘acting all serious and posh’, Brand shows that he is not serious about the problem of drug abuse. And he shows that he is more interested in being a name-calling bully than illuminating the truth.
A similar evaluation could be made of Brand’s performance on BBC Question Time in 2014, when he clashed with the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage. The format of the show involves panellists responding to questions from the audience, and, in the process, responding to each other. On this occasion, a member of the public asked the panellists whether Britain is ‘overcrowded’ – a reference to immigration. In the last few decades, UK immigration has reached historically unprecedented levels. Annual net migration – the difference between the number of people leaving the country and arriving in the country – has soared way above 100,000 people every year since 1998, reaching a high of 336,000 in 2015. These figures contrast with an annual net migration figure that was in the tens of thousands for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and mostly below zero in the 1960s and 1970s.
Various theories have been offered to explain this recent surge in immigration. In 2009 Andrew Neather, a former speech writer for the Labour Party, stated that Tony Blair’s government deliberately slackened the immigration rules so as to expand the electoral constituency for Labour, and ‘to rub the Right’s nose in diversity’; tellingly, during Blair’s first term, the minister for Asylum and Immigration, Barbara Roche, described the immigration constraints of the day as ‘racist’. Another theory is that the number of new arrivals was simply way higher than anyone in the government foresaw. No-one seemed to anticipate, for instance, that Britain’s membership of the EU, which came with an obligation to accept ‘free movement’ of European migrants, would lead to so much immigration, especially from former communist countries, many of whose residents seized upon the opportunity to earn higher wages in the UK than they could at home.
Whatever the causes of Britain’s mass immigration, and whatever the benefits brought by many of the migrants, there are legitimate concerns about the ongoing situation. Critics have argued that mass immigration has caused social tensions, wage suppression, unemployment, and population displacement, as well as increased pressure on housing, public services, infrastructure and the environment – all of which, note, tend to afflict Britain’s poorest people above all.
Farage, who led the successful referendum campaign in 2017 for the UK to leave the EU, has been one of the few British politicians consistently willing to candidly discuss immigration. On Question Time he gave the following response to the audience member’s question about overcrowding:
"If you have a country in which the population goes up as a direct result of immigration… you find a shortage of primary school places, you find a shortage of GP surgeries. We have fewer GPs per head than any other country in Europe today. You find congestion, whether its on the roads, or the London Underground, or wherever you go. And what you find is that, actually, you’re constantly playing catch up, and really the general quality of life for the mass of population has gone down… In 1990 the population of this country was 55 million. It is now between 62 and 63 million. That is a massive, massive increase, and I think ordinary folk going about their lives are feeling it. I think having a proper immigration policy… doing what nearly 200 countries in the world do, namely controlling the numbers that come, and the type of people that come, is the answer."
In other words: ‘yes, because…’. Farage responds to the audience member’s question by giving various reasons why he believes Britain is indeed overcrowded.
Is Farage right? It falls to Russell Brand to give his answer to the overcrowding question, and, in the process, accept or refute Farage’s comments. Predictably, Brand does none of the above. He starts as he means to go on – covert aggressively: ‘I sometimes feel worried about you, Nigel Farage’. This is another masterful piece of covert aggression. Combined with his sanctimonious tone of voice, the content of Brand’s opening utterance is ambiguous in a way that perfectly encapsulates his intentions. He wants to convey the impression that Farage is somehow a threat, but also to convey that he – Brand – is a nice person who is concerned for Farage’s well-being. Brand is both shaming Farage and allocating himself a noble cause.
We soon discover the reason for Brand’s high-minded concern. He goes on: ‘I know a lot of people are frightened in our country; I know a lot of people are feeling afraid and frustrated’. Ah, that devilish word ‘frustrated’ again; it exonerates Brand from having to engage rationally with Farage’s comments; these comments become mere sounds, mere animalistic cries of frustration, or – even more patronisingly – of fear. By offering this grotesque caricature, Brand is guilt-tripping Farage, downplaying the issues and – in effect – lying. Farage’s argument was essentially about the mathematics of immigration – not the sort of topic on which you’re going to hear a frightened animal discoursing any day soon.
Having dismissed Farage and his supporters as beyond reason – so as to justify his own refusal to reason with them – Brand proceeds to change the subject, albeit cleverly. He rationalises away the issue of mass immigration; it becomes another issue entirely:
"There is a sense that there is a corrupt group in our country using our resources, taking away our jobs, taking away our housing, not paying taxes, exploiting us. And there is. There is an economic elite that this man’s party is funded by… This man comes from a background working in the city… Let me tell you something, there was an economic crash and a lot of money was lost. His mates in the city farted, and Nigel Farage is pointing at immigrants and the disabled and holding his nose. Immigrants are not causing the economic problems and suffering we’re experiencing… He’s a poundshop Enoch Powell, and we gotta watch him."
Where does one begin to assess the contents of this Pollock-like splurge? The ‘disabled’? In dropping in this reference, Brand is ludicrously insinuating that Farage holds disabled people responsible for Britain’s overcrowding problems. Where did that random lie come from? It came, of course, from Brand’s desire to vilify Nigel Farage: someone who deserves to be vilified, so it goes, doesn’t deserve to be listened to. Layering on more vilification, Brand then compares Farage to Enoch Powell, the late British politician who has been roundly ostracised since 1968 when he prophesised, in his notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, that excessive immigration would cause racial tensions in Britain. Powell has – some would say, unfairly – been tarred as a racist for making this prediction; in turn, Brand is clearly hoping that some of that racist tar will unfairly rub off on Farage.
Mixed in with all this pantomime meanness, Brand appears to make some sort of empirical claim, namely, that ‘the city’ caused ‘the economic problems and suffering we’re experiencing’, by ‘using our resources, taking away our jobs, taking away our housing, not paying taxes, exploiting us’. Farage responds by seeking clarification of Brand’s position: ‘That’s all well and good, and you’ve got your point of view. The question was: is Britain overcrowded? Do you think I’m wrong?’
To his credit, Brand manages to muster up a logically relevant response to this question: ‘yes’. Unfortunately, his honeymoon period with reason doesn’t last long; he is soon contradicting himself. ‘We need more money for public resources’, he intones, before adding: ‘Our country’s not overcrowded’. Patently, this is not a position that can be held without self-contradiction (not if one understands 'overcrowding', as Farage clearly does, as a reference to overstretched public resources). If there is a lack of money for public resources then there is a discrepancy between, on one hand, the size of the public and, on the other hand, the extent of the available public funds. (For instance, in 2017 the UK’s total public spending was £780.3 billion, which would obviously be plenty for a population of, say, 780,000 people: there’d be £1m spent per person). Brand is simply restating the problem of insufficient public funds while simultaneously evading any discussion of immigration.
Naturally, Farage responds by trying to prevent Brand from wriggling away from the issues: ‘Well, where’s [the money] going to come from?’. It’s a pertinent question. Indeed, it’s the question in the debate about immigration. In 2014, the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London published a paper called ‘The fiscal effects of immigration to the UK’. The paper estimated that between the years 1995 and 2011 immigrants to the UK received around £114 billion more than they paid to the exchequer in taxes: in other words, mass immigration has cost the UK over a hundred billion pounds. (Interestingly, the report also separated out the figures for EU immigrants and non-EU immigrants, estimating that the former had had a net benefit to the exchequer of £4 billion pounds, although this figure doesn’t reflect whether or not that benefit has translated into adequate provisioning in areas such as infrastructure, public services and housing; we may be, as Farage puts it, ‘constantly playing catch up’ with immigration from the EU, too).
Russell Brand is comfortable with this overall situation (it’s the comfort of determined ignorance, one suspects), because he gives the following reply to Farage’s question: ‘I’m so glad you asked mate. Since the financial crash, banker bonuses have exceeded £80 billion… There’s money. I’ve got money now. I’ve seen rich people. There’s plenty of money out there. It’s just not being distributed.’ In other words: Brand is proposing to fund mass immigration through a policy of forcing rich people, especially bankers, to pay for it.
In advocating for this policy, Brand presumably believes he is being radical. But, in fact, he is advocating for a continuation of the status quo. Since the 1970s, the tax burden on the rich in the UK has trebled: the richest 1 per cent now pay twice as much tax as the poorest 50 per cent combined. Concurrently, public spending in the UK has risen almost constantly in real terms, including a surge under Labour prior to the financial crash, a surge partly funded by an increase in government borrowing. While the Blair government was indulging itself – adding almost a million public sector jobs and overseeing a ‘boom’ in the funding of unelected quangos – consumer borrowing surged too, as did the UK’s total welfare spend, not all of which went to worthy causes: for instance, when new assessments were subsequently introduced to the disability benefits system, almost a million claimants were found to be fit for work, and more than a million others withdraw their claim. Yes, some bankers behaved badly prior to the financial crash. But they weren’t the only ones. A harsh contraction of the economy was inevitable when so many people were living unproductively off the public purse. By pinning all the blame on bankers and the ‘rich’, Brand is scapegoating these people for other people’s sins, including the government’s sin of admitting more immigrants into the country than the exchequer could afford. Indeed, Brand doesn’t seem to notice his own hypocrisy when he declares ‘I’ve got money now’. By the ‘logic’ of his covert aggression, Brand should donate his own money to the government.
At the very least, he should donate his time. During Brand’s clash with Nigel Farage, an audience member says to Brand: ‘If you’re going to campaign, then stand! Stand for Parliament!’. A pertinent remark. Brand’s response is a beautiful piece of rationalisation and evasion: ‘I’d be scared I’d become one of them’. Read: I’m a still good guy, but I’m not putting my money where my mouth is, and I’m not even putting my conviction where my mouth is.
Until recently, Brand regularly declared that he doesn’t even vote. But in the run up to the 2015 UK general election, he suddenly changed his tune, urging people to back the socialist Labour candidate Ed Miliband. Brand was riding a wave of support for socialism in the UK, a surge which continues to gather pace today.
Socialists can be identified by their vehement dislike of profits, privatisation, inequality and prejudice, and by their vague insistence that these things are caused by too much capitalism and not enough government spending. Socialists boast that they want to live in a more ‘caring’ society. The way to achieve this, they say, is to have a more ‘caring’ government, a government that spends more money and exerts more control over the economy. Both these outcomes can be achieved, so it goes, by expropriating the wealth of capitalism. Poor people and minority groups are, supposedly, mercilessly exploited by wealthy people; hence, socialists say, the wealthy should be taxed more. Unfortunately, the wealthy tend to be uncooperative in this noble scheme; they vote for (and fund) conservative politicians who, socialists insist, care only about preserving the status quo. Moreover, wealthy people own most of the mainstream media, by which they supposedly exploit – dupe – poor people into voting conservative. Socialists, by these lights, are dogged defenders of truth and justice.
It goes without saying – or, rather, it ought to – that a defender of truth and justice will counter the arguments of his opponents fairly and convincingly. As we have seen, conservatives do offer arguments. Central to these arguments is the fact that escalating government spending tends not to bring about the prosperous, egalitarian society that socialists promise. For one thing, services and industries run by the government tend to be less efficient and more expensive than their private sector equivalents; wasteful businesses end up laying waste to themselves, while scant pressure of this kind exists in the government. Businesses are incentivised above all to provide a good service to their paying customers, whereas government employees are incentivised above all to impress their political paymasters. Here in the UK, this divergence of interests is at the root of the problems that socialists complain about most: the perennial underperformance of the health service, the housing sector, and the education system. The massive, sluggish state bureaucracies that dominate these sectors contrast strikingly with the dynamism of the commercial sector, wherein the drive to attract custom and investment encourages innovation, quality and affordability; consider, for instance, the tech sector, not to mention the superior quality and value for money of private education, private healthcare and private housing in the UK. In general, conservatives say, too much government regulation is a bad thing: it suppresses economic activity, causes unemployment, kills innovation, and gives an advantage to established businesses at the expense of plucky upstarts. Under the pressure of socialist governance, big businesses collude with government employees. In such an environment, the people who prosper the most are the people who – whether in the private or public sector – are drinking from the government trough, into which the diminishing resources of the wider population are steadily drained.
Socialists are guilty, say the conservatives, of underestimating the beneficence of capitalist economies. Money is a mind-bogglingly brilliant catalyst for the productive activity of billions of people. When we collectively recognise the value of money, all of us can, as individuals, conveniently and rapidly release the value of what is ours, and exchange this value for what we need. Exchange on a massive scale implies cooperation – that is, mutual profit – on a massive scale. For this reason, the much-maligned competition fostered by capitalism is, in fact, a competition to be the most cooperative; hardly something to lament. And almost anyone can benefit from this system of competitive cooperation, including poor people and minorities. After all, exchange doesn’t discriminate. And even if some people get rich through capitalism, the logic of exchange ensures that poor people tend to benefit simultaneously. Across the generations, capitalist countries have enjoyed improved living standards at all levels of society.
Even when socialists are apparently on firm ground, there are conservative counterarguments. For instance, conservatives argue that the much-lauded welfare state backfires horribly. State welfare encourages idleness, unemployment, promiscuity, recklessness, irresponsibility, malingering and fraud. The principle of ‘need’, by which the welfare budget is allocated, encourages an arms race of misbehaviour; welfare claimants are incentivised to screw up their lives (and the lives of their dependents and neighbours) the better to prove that they ‘need’ state welfare. In the meantime, genuinely deserving people are deprived of what they genuinely need.
Conservatives emphasise that people who are capable of acting responsibly should always be encouraged to do so. At a minimum, people should be discouraged from behaving irresponsibly; indiscriminate welfare removes the deterrence effect of being forced to face up to the effects of one’s own choices. Socialists downplay the role of choice. They fixate on the fact that people are sometimes exposed to unfortunate social circumstances, circumstances which can lead to bad behaviour. In this way, socialists make excuses for people, which has the effect of trapping them in bad behaviour; when people believe they have no freedom, they don’t believe they can change. Worse, the excuses socialists make for misbehaviour can also lead to lenience in the criminal justice system, thus perpetuating crime. In contrast, conservatives believe that the sympathy of socialists is wholly misdirected. Yes, unfortunate social circumstances exist, but this is precisely the reason bad behaviour should be deterred – to provide protection to the public, especially the poor, who tend disproportionately to be the victims of crime and anti-social behaviour. As for the socialist theory that poverty causes crime, conservatives point out that this theory is insulting and false. Not all poor people are criminals, and higher levels of poverty don't always equate to higher levels of crime.
On the positive side, conservatives recognise the importance of encouraging people to develop qualities like self-control, prudence, conscientiousness and ‘get-up-and-go’. Inequality itself can be framed as a source of inspiration to poor people, rather than as a hindrance to them. Poor people can be motivated to get rich, the inverse of the tendency of rich people to become complacent and get poorer. When this cyclical mechanism is disrupted – when the poor are demotivated by welfare and by the dispiriting propaganda of socialism – the rich disappear further into the distance.
Of course, even the most responsible poor people need help sometimes. But conservatives also point out that insurance schemes, charities, communities, friends and families can all provide a safety net. Unlike the welfare state, these alternative methods of welfare provision operate on a more local, human scale. This makes them less prone to corruption and inefficiency, and – above all – more genuinely ‘caring’. The more local the scheme, the more it provides the kind of social cohesion that socialists profess to value. In extracting money from citizens then spending it on state welfare, socialism ironically ends up undermining people’s wherewithal and motivation to genuinely care for each other.
In turn, this emphasis on real social cohesion informs conservative views on immigration. The mass immigration seen in recent decades in the UK has placed a strain not only on public services but on the ability of existing communities to integrate newcomers. The ensuing ethnic ghettoization of large swathes of society has been exacerbated by the socialists’ rhetoric of ‘multiculturalism’, as well by their relentless insistence that mainstream society is prejudiced against minority groups. In general, say the conservatives, the socialists’ obsession with prejudice tends to sow divisions within society. Socialists stoke resentment within minority groups, whether these groups are demarcated by religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.
In sum, conservatives argue that when it comes to the failure of socialism the proof is in the pudding. Over the last half century, government spending has steadily increased in real terms in the UK (including under self-styled ‘conservative’ governments). The increasingly shrill complaints issuing from the socialists are complaints about problems largely caused by socialism.
Conservatives wonder where it will end. We know – or we should know – from the history of the twentieth century what happens when governments become too unwieldy and intrusive. Fascism and communism – both of which were forms of authoritarian socialism – led to economic decay and sectarian murder every time. Against this backdrop, it can clearly be seen that privatisation is not a dirty word. The government’s duty is to protect, not expropriate, our privately owned goods and enterprises. In doing so, the government protects our incentives to trade with each other and create widespread wealth. In turn, the protection of property is part of the government’s wider duty to protect our human rights as individuals, whether through the provision of law and order or through upholding our freedom of speech. In so doing, the government also protects us from itself, enabling us to criticise and influence the government so that it suits our ends, not its own. In this sense, capitalism is inextricably bound up with democracy. We vote with our ballot cards and our wallets – both are expressions of our right to freely influence our lives. Meanwhile, the free press, that is, the ‘privately owned media’, is another indispensable mechanism for holding governments to account – or, indeed, for holding government-funded organisations such as the BBC to account.
The arguments of conservatives are powerful. Socialists could go a long way towards degrading the power of conservativism if they could refute these arguments. But, by the same token, socialists know that if they cannot refute these arguments then conservativism will remain intact, and socialism itself will be proven to be a dangerous delusion. With this risk in mind, many socialists eschew rational engagement with conservativism. They treat conservativism as beyond reason, so as to mask their own refusal to reason with conservatives. In doing so, socialists demonstrate that they are not interested in the viability of socialism. They are not interested in proving that socialism is efficacious. They are not interested in whether or not their ideology is genuinely caring. They are interested only in defeating the enemies of socialism, so as to preserve its good reputation. These socialists engage in covert aggression: they relentlessly bully conservatives while giving the impression of being the good guys.
No wonder Russell Brand, with his talent for bullying and covert aggression, sought redemption in socialism.
Ben Irvine is author of Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling, Scapegoated Capitalism, and Mindfulness and the Big Questions. www.benirvine.co.uk