LAST week, in a now famous interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC, the controversial comedian Russell Brand gave voice to the frustrations and hopes of a generation. He slammed the political system as being a servant of big business and bankers, suggested voting was a waste of time and said nothing short of a revolution was needed.
"The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass and exploiting poor people all over the world. And the legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political powers," he said in an interview filled with passion, drama, humour and urgency. The response was explosive. Social media erupted in support. Someone had said something that many were thinking but didn't have the words, the platform or the courage to say. Russell had stoked a fire, stirred the rabble and given a voice to the voiceless.
Brand's message was straight forward. But as Orwell once said: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." In a world where climate change isn't being addressed and where the wealth of the world's richest grew by 8pc last year as the rest of us struggle, Brand's contribution is timely. His call for us to "wake up" didn't seem to convince a sceptical Jeremy Paxman and he appears to have been largely dismissed as a crank by politicians and pundits, including many on the left who see him more as a self-promoting, childish celebrity showman than as someone who has something of substance to offer. Regardless of the dismissals, Brand has succeeded in making politics appealing in a way that most politicians couldn't dream of. He has injected honesty, edginess and colour into an otherwise grey political landscape. On my last count, various YouTube versions of the interview had over 10 million hits, growing at a rate of around one million a day. A Facebook fan page 'Russell's Revolution' has also sprung up, attracting over 130,000 followers in a matter of days. It's clear that his message is resonating.
In dismissing voting as a waste of time, Brand has touched a nerve and ignited a timely debate about whether our democracy as we know it is working. On the one hand, our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote and there's no doubt it's a system that has achieved much.
However, judging by voter turn-out rates, especially among young people, it seems more and more are inclined to see elections as a choice between tweedle dum or tweedle dee.
They feel too many politicians, once in power, inevitably abandon their promises and principles and end up serving the demands of unaccountable power interests. Meanwhile, many who do vote do so out of duty and pick what they see as the 'best of a bad bunch' rather than feeling they will be genuinely represented.
From my experience, working with youth and community groups, and interviewing hundreds of people on my hitching trip around Ireland this summer, it is clear that democracy is in crisis. People are interested but they do not want to be part of a game that they see as rigged in favour of an elite. They're turning off or turning to other ways of creating change – not out of ignorance – but often out of disillusionment, frustration and mistrust, resulting from years of spin and broken promises.
They are fed up being told to share the burden when it's clear that there are two sets of laws: one for the rich and one for the poor.
Whatever your take on Russell Brand is, he did us all a favour. He sparked a flame that got people talking, especially many who were starting to give up and drift into depression and despair. He has helped politicise a generation and opened up a conversation, not just about politics but also, through his manifesto in the 'New Statesman', about meaning and spirituality.
A revolution is needed. Not a revolution that causes bloodshed but rather a revolution of attitudes and ideas, a truly democratic revolution of systems and structures, a revolution of how we think and how we organise ourselves. Perhaps it's more of an evolution; an evolution beyond the destruction of the planet, the chronic rates of poverty and inequality, and the suffering of the soul through stress, depression, suicide, obesity and addiction that are screaming at us to wake up and change our ways.
How we achieve this 'revolution' isn't clear and we shouldn't expect Russell Brand nor any one individual to come up with the answers. How we each go about creating change is up to ourselves – but we should get busy making it happen rather than arguing the toss on whether the likes of Russell Brand is right or wrong.
When we the people start to lead, the leaders will be forced to follow.
Ruairi McKiernan is a youth and community worker, founder of SpunOut.ie and member of the Council o f State. He is on Twitter @ruairimckiernan, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/hopehitching and his blog is www.community.ie.