We humans have an inherent sense of fairness. Deep down, we don’t like inequality. In a second extract from his new book, Russell Brand goes in search of ways to build a more just world
When travelling in impoverished regions in galling luxury, as I have done, you have to undergo some high-wire ethical arithmetic to legitimise your position. If you can’t geographically separate yourself from poverty, then you have to do it ideologically. You have to believe inequality is OK. You have to accept the ideas that segregate us from one another and nullify your human instinct for fairness.
Edward Slingerland, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy at Stanford University, demonstrated this instinct to me with the use of hazelnuts. As we spoke, there was a bowl of them on the table. “Russell,” he said, scooping up a handful, “we humans have an inbuilt tendency towards fairness. If offered an unfair deal, we will want to reject it. If I have a huge bowl of nuts and offer you just one or two, how do you feel?”
The answer was actually quite complex. Firstly, I dislike hazelnuts, considering them to be the verminous titbits of squirrels. Secondly, they were my hazelnuts anyway; we were in my house. Most pertinently though, I felt that it was an unfair offering when he had so many nuts. He explained that human beings and even primates have an instinct for fairness even in situations where this instinct could be seen as detrimental. “You still have more nuts now than before,” he chirped, failing to acknowledge that all the nuts and indeed everything in the entire house belonged to me.
We then watched a clip on YouTube where monkeys in adjacent cages in a university laboratory perform the same task for food. Monkey A does the task and gets a grape – delicious. Monkey B, who can see Monkey A, performs the same task and is given cucumber – yuck. Monkey B looks pissed off but eats his cucumber anyway. The experiment is immediately repeated and you can see that Monkey B is agitated when his uptown, up-alphabet neighbour is again given a grape. When he is presented with the cucumber this time, he is furious – he throws it out the cage and rattles the bars. I got angry on his behalf and wanted to give the scientist a cucumber in a less amenable orifice. I also felt a bit pissed off with Monkey A, the grape-guzzling little bastard. I’ve not felt such antipathy towards a primate since that one in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the little waistcoat betrayed Indy.
Slingerland explained, between great frothing gobfuls of munched hazelnut, that this inherent sense of fairness is found in humans everywhere, but that studies show that it’s less pronounced in environments where people are exposed to a lot of marketing. “Capitalist, consumer culture inures us to unfairness,” he said. That made me angry.
When I was in India, a country where wealth and poverty share a disturbing proximity, I felt a discomfort in spite of being in the exalted position of Monkey A. Exclusive hotels require extensive, in fact military, security. As we entered the five-star splendour through the metal detectors, past the armed guards, I realised that if this was what was required in order to preserve this degree of privilege, it could not be indefinitely sustained.
These devices that maintain division are what my friend Matt Stoller focused on when I asked him what ideas he had that would change the world. I first met Matt in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Matt understands power: at the time, he worked as a policy-wonk for a Democratic congressman and his days were spent in the cogs of the lumbering Washington behemoth. Beneath his cherubic, hay-coloured curls and proper job, he detested the system he was trapped in.
Since then, he has regularly prised apart the clenched and corrupt buttocks of American politics and allowed me to peer inside at its dirty workings. I asked Matt for ideas that would aid the revolution; his response was, as usual, startling and almost proctologically insightful. “No more private security for the wealthy and the powerful,” he said. I nervously demanded he explain himself. He did: “One economist argued in 2005 that roughly one in four Americans are employed to guard in various forms the wealth of the rich. So if you want to get rid of rich and poor, get rid of guard labour.”
This may be the point in the article where you start shouting the word “hypocrite”. Don’t think I’m unaware of the inevitability of such a charge. I know, I know. I’m rich, I’m famous, I have money, I have had private security on and off for years. There is no doubt that I as much as anyone have to change. Revolution is change. I believe in change, personal change most of all. Know, too, that I have seen what fame and fortune have to offer and I know it’s not the answer. Of course, I have to change as an individual and part of that will be sharing wealth, though without systemic change, that will be a sweet, futile gesture.
Now let’s get back to Matt Stoller, banning private security and ensuring that I’ll have to have my own fist fights next time I’m leaving the Manchester Apollo.
“The definition of being rich means having more stuff than other people. In order to have more stuff, you need to protect that stuff with surveillance systems, guards, police, court systems and so forth. All of those sombre-looking men in robes who call themselves judges are just sentinels whose job it is to convince you that this very silly system in which we give Paris Hilton as much as she wants while others go hungry is good and natural and right.”
This idea is extremely clever and highlights the fact that there is exclusivity even around the use of violence. The state can legitimately use force to impose its will and, increasingly, so can the rich. Take away that facility and societies will begin to equalise. If that hotel in India was stripped of its security, they’d have to address the complex issues that led to them requiring it.
“These systems can be very expensive. America employs more private security guards than high-school teachers. States and countries with high inequality tend to hire proportionally more guard labour. If you’ve ever spent time in a radically unequal city in South Africa, you’ll see that both the rich and the poor live surrounded by private security contractors, barbed wire and electrified fencing. Some people have nice prison cages, and others have not so nice ones.”
Matt here, metaphorically, broaches the notion that the rich, too, are impeded by inequality, imprisoned in their own way. Much like with my earlier plea for you to bypass the charge of hypocrisy, I now find myself in the unenviable position of urging you, like some weird, bizarro Jesus, to take pity on the rich. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, and I’m not suggesting it’s a priority. Faced with a choice between empathising with the rich or the homeless, by all means go with the homeless.
He continues: “Companies spend a lot of money protecting their CEOs. Starbucks spent $1.4m. Oracle spent $4.6m. One casino empire – the Las Vegas Sands – spent $2.45m. This money isn’t security so much as it is designed to wall these people off from the society they rule, so they never have to interact with normal people under circumstances they may not control. If you just got rid of this security, these people would be a lot less willing to ruthlessly prey on society.”
Matt here explains that at the pinnacle of our problem are those that benefit most from the current hegemony. The executors of these new empires that surpass nation. The logo is their flag, the dollar is their creed, we are all their unwitting subjects.
“People can argue about the right level of guard labour. You conceivably could still have public police, but their job should be to help protect everyone, not just a special class. If you got rid of all these private systems, or some of these systems of surveillance and coercive guarding of property, you’d have a lot less inequality. And powerful and wealthy people would spend a lot more time trying to make sure that society was harmonious, instead of just hiring their way out of the damage they can create.”
Matt’s next idea to create a different world was equally cunning and revolutionary: get rid of all titles. “Mr President. Ambassador. Admiral. Senator. The honourable. Your honour. Captain. Doctor. These are all titles that capitalism relies on to justify treating some people better than other people.”
Matt is an American, so when it comes to deferring to the entitled, he is, let’s face it, an amateur compared with the British. Look at me, simpering to Professor Slingerland. I can’t wait to prostrate myself before his sceptre of diplomas. Plus we’ve got a bloody royal family. What’s he going to say about that?
“One of the most remarkable things you learn when you work in a position of political influence is just how much titles separate the wealthy and the politicians from citizens. Ordinary people will use a title before addressing someone, and that immediately makes that ordinary person a supplicant, and the titled one a person of influence. Or if both have titles, then there’s upper-class solidarity. Rank, hierarchy, these are designed to create a structure whereby power is shaped in the very act of greeting someone.”
I’m getting angry again. Matt’s right! Titles are part of the invisible architecture of our social structure. I’m never using one again. If I ever see Slingerland in the street, I shall alert him by hollering: “Oi, fuck-face!” and then throw a hazelnut at him.
What does Matt propose?
“One thing you can do to negate this power is to be firm but respectful, and address anyone and everyone by their last name. Mr, Ms or Mrs is all the title you should ever need. This allows you to treat everyone as your equal, and it shows everyone that they should treat you as their equal.”
This is a provocative suggestion – particularly to those of us who live in monarchies. I mean, in England, we have a queen. A queen! We have to call her things like “your majesty”. YOUR MAJESTY! Like she’s all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain. She’s just a person. A little old lady in a shiny hat – that we paid for. We should be calling her Mrs Windsor. In fact, that’s not even her real name, they changed it in the war to distract us from the inconvenient fact that they were as German as the enemy that teenage boys were being encouraged, conscripted actually, to die fighting. Her actual name is Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha!! No wonder they changed it. It’s the most German thing I’ve ever heard – she might as well have been called Mrs Bratwurst-Kraut-Nazi.
Titles have got to go.
I’m not calling her “your highness” or “your majesty” just so we can pretend there isn’t and hasn’t always been an international cabal of rich landowners flitting merrily across the globe, getting us all to kill each other a couple of times a decade. From now on she’s Frau Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Come on, Frau Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, it’s time for you to have breakfast with Herr Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. And you can make it yerselves. And by the way, we’re nicking this castle you’ve been dossing in and giving it to 100 poor families.
Actually, you can stay if you want, they’ll need a cleaner. You’ll have to watch your lip, Herr Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, some of ’em ain’t white.
We British have much to gain from Matt’s titleless utopia.
He continues: “If this became common, you’d shortly see sputtering rage from the powerful, and increased agitation from the erstwhile meek. People need to mark their dominance; that is the essence of highly unequal capitalism. If they can’t do so, if they aren’t allowed to be dominant, to be shown as being dominant, then the system cannot long be sustained.”
Matt’s ideas are like the schemes of a cackling supervillain from a Bond movie. At first, they seem innocuous, but then they elegantly unravel the fabric of society. He suggests we start now: “This is something that anyone and everyone can act on, a tiny act of rebellion that takes no money, influence or social status. You just need courage, and every human has that.”
• This is an edited extract from Revolution by Russell Brand, published by Cornerstone. To order a copy for £13.50 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846