Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Open Letter to Russell Brand

Dear Russell Brand: How About a REAL Revolution?
by Bretigne Shaffer

Dear Mr. Brand,

Let me start off by saying that I’m a huge fan. I haven’t seen your live show yet, but I’ve been really impressed by every one of your video appearances. You are brilliant, super sharp and I think have real empathy for people. I say this not to shower you with flattery but so you know that everything I say here comes from a place of genuine admiration and respect.

Like you, I am a non-voter, and for much the same reasons. I’ve written about that here. You say you want a revolution. I do too. But what you describe doesn’t sound very revolutionary to me.

In your interview with Jeremy Paxman, you advocate “...a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth.”

Whether you intend it or not, each of these things requires an authoritarian state to implement. Just ask yourself: How is this egalitarianism to be enforced? Who is to do the redistributing? What happens to someone who doesn’t want their wealth “redistributed”? What if somebody wants more than their neighbor has and is willing to work for it? And what if someone else is willing to hire them to work? Who is going to step in and prevent this exchange between consenting adults? And more importantly, how?

It is no accident of history that the socialist experiments of the 20th century ended in brutal tyranny and mass starvation. Both are inherent in an ideology of enforced egalitarianism, and both were entirely predictable (in fact, the failure of socialism was predicted, by economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, in the 1920s.)

To call for “redistribution of wealth” is also to misunderstand what an economy is. An economy is not a static, unchanging quantity of resources to be divided in some manner among the people who participate in it. An economy is a living, changing, growing organism. It is not a pie to be sliced up and distributed, but is more like a bakery that makes pies. When you give someone the authority to take those pies from the people who made them, to “distribute” them to others as they believe is right or just, you take away the bakers’ incentive to produce more pies. Production stops, and people starve. This is precisely what happened in the Soviet Union, China, and other countries where people were not allowed to profit from what they produced.

You say that “... profit is a filthy word because whenever there is profit there is also deficit.” No, there is not. You have badly misunderstood how economies work. I wouldn’t be so picky about this except that this particular misunderstanding has already led to so much poverty and misery in the world.

Voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial. People only engage in exchanges if they think they are going to benefit from them. So when one person profits, it is not at another person’s expense, but because they have provided something that the other person wanted. The only time this is not true is when someone is coerced into an exchange. This happens all the time (think taxes, eminent domain, highway robbery, etc.) but it is not the profits that cause the deficit, rather the coercion. It is only in a world characterized by coercive relationships that one person benefits at another’s expense.

This may seem like an odd thing to say if you are still thinking that an economy is a pie. It’s not a pie. Stop thinking that it’s a pie. It is a bakery that makes pies. There is not some static quantity of pies out there waiting to be distributed. There’s a whole system with lots and lots of moving pieces that all come together to make the pies that people want. And if it turns out people don’t want pies, then the system makes something else. So the question is: How do the people working in this system know what to make? The answer is that they get signals from the marketplace indicating what goods and services people value relative to other goods and services. And what are those signals? Two of the most critical are: profits and losses.

In a world of free people, making voluntary exchanges, profits are the way that producers know what people want, and therefore what they should make if they want to be successful. If a particular good or service is extremely profitable, it means that probably a lot of people want it very much. When other producers see those high profits, some of them will stop producing what they have been making and switch to producing the high-profit item. As more and more producers come into the market and compete with each other, more of the item that people wanted so badly gets made and the price (as well as the profits) comes down.

Again, this is a system, a living organism made up of countless individual players all connected to each other through this network of signals: Prices, profits, losses. Take away the signals and you destroy the organism’s ability to function. Treat an economy as if it is just a bundle of goodies to be divvied up, and you kill the organism that makes those goodies.

In fact, we already have forced redistribution of wealth. Through taxation and, even more so, through central banking and fiat money, real wealth is distributed from productive people into the hands of government elites and their corporate cronies. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here and here.

What you’re proposing is just another form of what’s already happening, but with different beneficiaries. Do you really imagine that it will turn out any differently? Do you imagine that it will not result in an entrenched group of powerful elites benefiting at the expense of everyone else? Again, you don’t have to look any farther than the past century to see that another inevitable consequence of enforced equality is always a very, very privileged elite. Why? Because someone needs to be in a position to enforce all this equality. And therefore, someone needs to have an awful lot of power over everyone else. Those who wield this power will be in a position to abuse it - and if history is any guide here, they will abuse it to a lavish (for themselves) and horrific (for their enemies) degree.

You say that you are looking for alternative political systems, alternate paradigms that might be of service to humanity. I hope you will let me offer you some ideas:

First, if you want real change, then start by questioning the institution of the state itself. Start by questioning the idea that it’s acceptable to use force in order to get other people to do what you want them to. Start by questioning the idea that peaceful, civilized society can ever be built on a foundation of coercion and violence.

There are many people who are already doing this. Real revolutionaries, with solid ideas that they’ve articulated pretty well: My dad is one. You might want to check out two of his books: “Calculated Chaos”, and “Boundaries of Order.” The Mises Institute does a fantastic job of publishing and educating on the topic of markets and the state. There is an entire body of very solid work on how stateless societies can and do function.

These critics of statism argue not for the redistribution of material wealth, but for the redistribution of authority - from centralized, top-down hierarchies of people ruling over others, to each person having authority over their own lives. They advocate peaceful, non-violent revolution in the most radical form imaginable: Simply rejecting the coercive institution that is the monopoly state.

You are absolutely right that democracy serves only an elite few, and you are right that our governments are working on behalf of the large corporations that prop them up. What I hope you will rethink is the idea that a more authoritarian system is going to make things better. And what you are calling for is more authoritarianism. By necessity. A more centralized state, with some people wielding even more power over the rest of us than they do today. There is nothing revolutionary about that. It is what dictators and rulers have always sought to do. And when they have succeeded it has been with tragic consequences for the people living under them.

You want a revolution? I do too. But your idea of revolution doesn’t go far enough. Rather than buy into the (intentionally) divisive rhetoric of class warfare, I urge you to look deeper. It is not “the rich” who are the problem, not capitalism that needs to be called into question, but the institution of the state itself: The toxic idea that one group of people has the right to rule over others. You are absolutely right to call for revolution. But make it a real revolution. Don’t urge people to seek solutions from the state - urge them to abandon it altogether.

Bretigne Shaffer blogs at On the Banks.


  1. There are a handful of times when I read something and say to myself "I wish I wrote that."

    This is one of those times. Wonderful piece!

  2. Butler raised her well!!

  3. What a beautiful, powerful letter. I hope it finds its way to Mr. Brand.

  4. I Congratulate the writer. Exquisite piece.

  5. I Congratulate the writer. Exquisite piece.

  6. Absolutely brilliant.

  7. I am bookmarking this, and sending it to all of my socialist leaning friends. Thank you.

  8. Nicely written but I doubt it will make a difference even if it reaches Russell Brand. If someone is, like Russell, a militant socialist well into adulthood, chances are pretty good he is deaf to arguments -- from both reason or experience -- against socialism. Russell is 38. Don't you think someone with such strong and outspoken opinions would have been curious enough to investigate these matters by now, to give a fair hearing to the opposing side? The lure of socialism is emotional. It is rooted in envy and hatred. How many people can conquer these emotions, who haven't done so by age 38? Very few, I'm afraid. Still, maybe this letter will change some younger, more open, minds.

    1. I am not being sarcastic, but how old was Whitaker Chambers when he broke from Communism? It seems that if Brand is as intelligent as people say he is, maybe there is a chance.

    2. Although I wasn't a Socialist, so maybe it's not as germane, I was a conservative up to 35, Ron Paul supporter at 36, libertarian until around 41....and now a full blown anarchist at 43.

      I feel I'm truly "progressive"...ha! (just a late bloomer)

    3. "The lure of socialism is emotional. It is rooted in envy and hatred. How many people can conquer these emotions, who haven't done so by age 38"

      Give the man a chance. He's proven himself to be a logical truth teller. Maybe this will plant a seed in his mind...and more importantly, others' minds.

  9. The problem with Russell, which is also the problem with a LOT of people in the UK, is that he has been brainwashed since birth though the public school system to believe that Egalitarian = FAIR. The longer people go through life without questioning this idea, the less likely they are to ever change.

    Egalitarianism is deep rooted in religious doctrine as well so it’s very tough for people to get away from it because most people are raised on those ideas/values since birth, albeit a secular version of those ideas.

  10. Smart and eloquent as her dad.

  11. Nice job, Bretigne. Echos some thoughts I had while listening to the interview, but much more eloquently.

  12. I don't know whether you got an opportunity to read the copy of The New Statesman that Russell Brand edited. I fear that you written this piece purely on the basis of the interview with Paxman. If you haven't, there are key articles available on TNS website. You might want to read Brand's own editorial.

    I am certain that Brand would have no arguments against your call to arms aimed at the State system.

    I didn't read that he is calling for a revolution. I read that there is inevitably going to be one. Life itself is going to rebel against this crapshoot we call existence now. What form that revolution takes is something of a mystery, but all we know is that life can't take much more of whatever this is. This is not a revolution the details of which will be hammered out while sitting around a table. When Brand talks about the redistribution of wealth he is not saying, "so lets get on with it, how are we going to do it?" He is simply calling out the inequality that exists as things stand.

    A couple of the articles discuss the massive imballance that exists regarding the world's wealth. These articles are not written with any hope that this method will be realised some time in the future, they are written to highlight how ludicrous the current situation is.

    Of course no one is going to want their wealth redistributed. Bloody hell, if that was the case we wouldn't be having this conversation. That is why nothing is going to change willingly. The revolution discussed here is going to be spontaneous, and seismic. It is an evolutionary change of consciousness. That is why they use expressions like "paradigm shift". That is what it will take to implement your Dad's ideas, too. Nobody is going to take on board his suggestions through a political discussion. Man's ego is too large.

    Mankind has to evolve beyond the ego. I'm not saying that he "has to," it simply will happen because life wants to live, and it can't live meaningfully while being continuously crippled by man's ego. When this change takes place and mankind is able to live together peacefully then his co-existence will be self-regulating. He won't need people telling him what to do. He won't be looking at what his neighbour has and wanting more.

    This revolution will not come about through the violence of man. That is an impossibility. Anybody who can render harm to, or maim, or kill his fellow, is a psychopath who has no place in a future system and will be removed by natural eradication as a detriment to the beneficial advancement of life itself. I'm not saying that will happen by Police Force, it will happen because of life force.

    This stuff is not to be thought about. It is to be contemplated. It is to be meditated upon. It is to be held in the mind, suspended in stillness, until realisation dawns.

    And, might I add, kudos to your Dad for providing his book to be freely read over at Mises.org.

    1. Rory, thanks for writing. You’re right, I did write this solely in response to the Paxman interview. Thank you for pointing out the TNS articles - I will check them out.

      Yes, Brand is saying that revolution is inevitable, however in the Paxman interview he goes farther than that and endorses a very specific form of revolution. (In response to Paxman’s question “What’s the scheme? You talk vaguely about revolution – what is it?”, Brand says “I think a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment. I think they should be ta– I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced.”) I would like to think that he embraces this particular form because it is what he knows and because it is what his culture defines as “revolutionary.” I would also like to think, like you, that he is open to turning his attention to the problem of the state instead.

      You write “Mankind has to evolve beyond the ego. I'm not saying that he ‘has to,’ it simply will happen because life wants to live, and it can't live meaningfully while being continuously crippled by man's ego. When this change takes place and mankind is able to live together peacefully then his co-existence will be self-regulating.”


I am very wary of solutions that involve waiting around for the rest of humanity to get over its ego, or its lust for power. I believe that our flaws are a part of the human condition and that there will always be some people who have no problem harming others or even killing them in pursuit of power or wealth. Rather than wait around for the Dick Cheneys, Ben Bernankes and Lynndie Englands of the world to find enlightenment and change their ways, I would find ways to protect the rest of us from their violence. The best way to do this is to dismantle the system that allows them to harm, kill and impoverish others with impunity: the monopoly state. And yes of course you are right, that is not going to be accomplished through more violence.

    2. I hope Brand reads this, and engages you in a dialogue. I think it would be fascinating.

      Any chance you know people who know people who might be able to contact his staff?

      Lovely article- you make your father look even better than I thought possible! Boundaries of Order is an amazing book.

    3. That's right, Bretigne. I remember Brand summarising it in that way. However, I'm not always sure how realistic the interview arena is. Interviewers tend to hound away at an issue until the interviewee is forced to respond. There is also a one-hour Huffington Post interview with Brand doing the rounds at the moment (I confess to having no desire to sit through the whole hour) in which the interviewer pokes and pokes at the voting issue until he invents a politician who ticks all the boxes and says, "Would you vote for him?" and you can see Brand basically giving in and responding with a resigned oh-gawd-yeah-mate-then-I'd-vote answer. Interviews are good copy and entertaining. As time goes by, and the latest weekly copy of The New Statesman pushes the old into the past, it turns what has happened with Brand into a flash-in-the-pan.

      But perhaps this is the way Brand really feels about a revolution. (I might also be viewing the interview technique through my own personal lens: I'm not very good at answering spontaneously. I need to take a question and turn it over for a while.)

      You make a thought-provoking point about not sitting back and doing nothing, waiting for the system to change (which is how I am interpreting your "waiting around") - but there is a whole sea of difference between 'flaws that are part of the human condition,' and 'harming, killing, and impoverishing others with impunity.' I wonder, however, whether there are other ways of "not sitting back and doing nothing". I wonder whether there are ways in which we can personally refuse to participate in this system of things. Buck the system, causing hairline fractures, so to speak.

      I'm interested in hearing how you see a non-violent revolution unfolding. How do you envision the dismantling of the monopoly state? (I have a funny feeling that we will be in agreement on a lot of things.)

    4. I suspect we might be in much agreement too. I think rather than asking how we can dismantle the monopoly state, the more productive question is: What do we build in its place, and how do we do that? In many ways, the monopoly state is already crumbling under its own weight, and in many ways, people are already building their own bits of civil society to replace it (or rather, to provide the things the state promises to provide but generally fails to.) 

      Some examples: “Anarchy” in Detroit; doctors operating outside of the insurance system; independent groups providing disaster relief and establishing mutual aid societies; people holding abusive police accountable through the simple act of recording their actions on cellphones; nullifying federal laws at state and local levels; the growing homeschooling movement and I think most importantly, crypto currencies (yes I know, BitCoin isn’t “there” yet and maybe it never will be. That doesn’t diminish the potential for crypto currencies to undermine the monopoly state.)

      My point about “not waiting around” for everyone to find enlightenment was simply that the answers to humanity’s problems will not be found in trying to reform our flawed nature. Rather, we need systems that protect peaceful people from the violent ones. This is what the state promises, but in reality it just creates a class of people for whom the laws prohibiting violence do not apply.

      I’m planning to write in more detail about this in the coming year, and would be happy to keep you updated if you’re interested.

    5. I imagined your answer would run along those lines.

      I already subscribe to "On The Banks," thank you, Bretigne, because I am interested in what you have to say. It's been lovely having this short discussion with you, and I appreciate you taking the time to answer.

    6. Thanks Rory.

      Rick, yes, there is one very very very long shot that I am pursuing in the hopes of getting this in front of Mr. Brand. I'll update here if it works out.