Not even we at Mediolana would contest the fact that it would be absurd for us to claim – Al Gore-style – that we ‘discovered’ Russell Brand in his current iteration, but our 10th April 2011 blog post Russell Brand 1, Richard Dawkins 0: The Impermanence of Scientific Paradigms did nevertheless note that Brand had pulled off ‘one of the most compelling reinventions of modern times’; to adduce Arthur Miller, he clearly had a second act.
The best part of four years on, the transmogrification continues apace. The now-divorced celebrity has powered into a new phase of his existence as an irresistible advocate of direct, unmediated democracy. Standing up for (global) society’s poor and oppressed via the simple act of charismatic and remarkably honest indefatigability, Brand has captured the imagination of a generation who are increasingly looking to him for political direction and philosophical wisdom.
It was therefore with some interest that we recently saw Brand featuring on the front page of the United Kingdom’s best-selling daily newspaper – The Sun – no less than twice in three days – and not for the usual celebrity-type ‘reasons’. The first cover was devoted to the tax strategy of Brand’s landlord, a matter over which he has no control; the second gave an overview of a hastily commissioned The Sun/YouGov opinion poll, which claimed that 68% of the great British public view the entertainer with a social conscience as a ‘hypocrite’, though how this conclusion was arrived at is not extensively (or logically) elucidated upon.
What does this say about us as a society? After some contemplation, we think we have a few answers:
- Out with the Old. By directing ire at a single individual who possesses vastly more social media subscribers than a publication which is part of the massive News Corporation, it could be argued that The Sun’s reaction was borne of sheer fear: most UK newspapers simply do not have the power and credibility that they did even fifteen years ago; to see one’s social role rapidly usurped by a lone, self-styled recovering junkie probably hurts.
- Know Your Place. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, celebrity culture in the UK perfected Peak Vacuity. With the credit bubble having well-and-truly burst for all but the already-wealthy and the number of people resorting to food banks now in the millions, this state of affairs has never been more palpably insane, but those in public life are still meant to keep silent and keep snorting.
- New Media Revolution? For much of the last decade or so, digital media doyens and societal analysts alike have hailed increasing Internet sophistication as the biggest leap for humankind since the Big Bang. Up to now, this has instead largely amounted to a sexier way to sell pop tarts. However, Russell Brand is showing a way forward – so what could ten Russell Brands do?
Like many countries in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of the 2010s is notable for the near-complete absence of religion and spirituality in public discourse: the country has undergone a process of profound secularisation in the last twenty-five years, with many basic social values unrecognisable from their 1980s counterparts. It was therefore with some interest that our CSO read an article authored by Cristina Odone – one of a tiny number of British journalists who is even capable of writing about religious topics in anything other than media clichés – claiming that the UK is ‘on the brink of a Christian Spring’ (Despite our secularist enemies, we are on the brink of a Christian Spring, 19th November 2013).
Odone posits three reasons for a resurgence of Christianity in Britain: (i) Pope Francis; (ii) Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury; and (iii) a popular ‘backlash’ against the more gross examples of shallow materialism. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana do not find any of these to be compelling. While billions of people around the world of all faiths and none seem to find Pope Francis an unusually brilliant spiritual beacon – and his papacy has already seen a stunning turnaround in mass attendances, at least in Italy and the United Kingdom – the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church, not least systematic child abuse and eye-watering levels of financial corruption, are in all likelihood far too deep for one pope to solve. As to Justin Welby, we would bet good money that a plurality of a representative sample of the British public are more familiar with the teachings of Justin Timberlake; ‘twerking’ might be viewed as somewhat quaint in ten years’ time.
However, Odone might be onto something, at least indirectly: she could be correct in pointing to a largely-unexpected change in spiritual orientation in the UK, but for entirely different reasons – principally economic ones.
The economy of the United Kingdom is starting to show alarming signs of social distress. Mired in corruption and with no realistic prospect of experiencing any kind of meaningful growth, the British economy is essentially dysfunctional for an ever-increasing percentage of the population. This can be seen in the surreal blossoming in what is meant to be a G7 country of the food bank, an institution that was unknown even a few years ago but the utilisation of which has been burgeoning beyond the exponential: while just 26,000 food parcels were handed out in 2008-9, the figure for April-September of 2013 was over 350,000. And things are likely to get much, much worse, with inevitable interest rate rises almost certain to clobber millions of ‘middle class’ households in the years to come.
Of course, these developments are not guaranteed to produce any given spiritual outcome. But it is almost unthinkable that religious institutions, and religion and spirituality more generally, are going to take the flak for the mess – partly because they have become so marginal in the lives of most people, and partly because they tend to stand in stark opposition to the rampant materialism and wild social distancing that has helped to engender this situation. Instead, it is a set of elites which are largely defined by their alienation from religion which will be seen to have failed. It is in precisely this kind of social flux that new movements step in to fill vacua. What these will be is anyone’s guess – but to exclude some form of religious or spiritual dynamic from them, even in a macro-context of increasing secularisation – may be premature, or even incorrect.