When he was mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus hired 420 mime artists to control the Colombian capital’s horrendous traffic. When the city faced water shortages, he appeared on television taking a shower and turning off the head while he soaped himself. To highlight the extent of violence against women, Mr Mockus launched “Night for Women”, encouraging men to stay at home and mind the kids. Hundreds of thousands of Bogotá’s female population turned out in a mass display of public safety. The former mayor also dressed up in a costume he called “Supercitizen”.
I thought about Mr Mockus while reading Russell Brand’s haphazardly interesting essay on revolution, ingeniously commissioned by the New Statesman. The boy Brand can write, albeit with a loquacious hysteria that makes a Boris Johnson column seem like an Ernest Hemingway vignette. (The comedian’s columns on football are fantastic. And the BBC Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman is fun.)
Summarising the piece is like using a fishing net to catch gas. However, the gist is that the world is on the brink of something bad but since reality is only a psychological construct, we must emancipate humanity through a “spiritual revolution”.
In the meantime, we should not vote because “it seems like a tacit act of compliance”.
Here are some excerpts:
Along with the absolute, all-encompassing total corruption of our political agencies by big business, this apathy is the biggest obstacle to change. We can’t alter the former without removing the latter. Can this be achieved? Obviously this is a rhetorical question and without wanting to spunk the surprise ending the answer is yes.
First, though, I should qualify my right to even pontificate on such a topic and in so doing untangle another of revolution’s inherent problems. Hypocrisy. How dare I, from my velvet chaise longue, in my Hollywood home like Kubla Khan, drag my limbs from my harem to moan about the system? A system that has posited me on a lilo made of thighs in an ocean filled with honey and foie gras’d my Essex arse with undue praise and money.
Capitalism is not real; it is an idea. America is not real; it is an idea that someone had ages ago. Britain, Christianity, Islam, karate, Wednesdays are all just ideas that we choose to believe in and very nice ideas they are, too, when they serve a purpose. These concepts, though, cannot be served to the detriment of actual reality.
The reality is we have a spherical ecosystem, suspended in, as far as we know, infinite space upon which there are billions of carbon-based life forms, of which we presume ourselves to be the most important, and a limited amount of resources.
The only systems we can afford to employ are those that rationally serve the planet first, then all humanity. Not out of some woolly, bullshit tree-hugging piffle but because we live on it, currently without alternatives. This is why I believe we need a unifying and inclusive spiritual ideology: atheism and materialism atomise us and anchor us to one frequency of consciousness and inhibit necessary co-operation.
And so on.
It would be easy to dismiss this all as “undergraduate” but I had a lot of fun as an undergraduate so that does not a priori rule out that way of thinking. Moreover, the problems of inequality and a lack of social mobility are all too real.
It would also be reasonable to point out that Mr Brand is narcissistic. But then he knows that. Self-awareness is his schtick. It can make for great comedy. And it offers a shield against the inevitable accusations of hypocrisy. Q: “Aren’t you part of the problem?” A: I know. Q: “You love materialism as much as anyone else.” A: True. Q: “This is really all about attracting women, isn’t it?” A: Of course.
However, whenever I listen to Mr Brand I am always left thinking that this self-awareness is a little superficial. In part, this is because he seems to think it is only his celebrity that affords him an audience. But it might also be because – in no particular order – he is (self-) educated, eloquent, rich, white and male. It is easy for the powerful to be dismissive about the exercise of power.
My worry is that if influential people say that practical politics is unimportant then apathy will only increase. In his own theatrical way, Mr Mockus’s time as mayor of Bogotá was a sign that politics did not have to be serious all the time (a problem Mr Brand says he has with the system) and yet it could still do good and make tangible improvements to people’s lives. One could even say it had a spiritual dimension, expanding the public space and civil discourse. Douglas North and Jürgen Habermas, innit. I could also make a bad joke here about Mr Brand and Night for Women. But instead here is Mr Mockus on what he saw as the philosophy behind his antics:
“The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task. Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules, and are sensitised by art, humour,and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”
So come on, Russell, get involved! Surely it would be fun to be Britain’s Beppe Grillo?