Off Brand, the problem with Ego, Charisma and Conspiracy

Welcome to the Twilight Zone, our new series looking at the wonderful world of conspiracy, the far-right world of populist paranoia. Read previous HERE.

For some time now the charismatic and hyper-articulate Russel Brand, who for a long time seemed to speak to and from the dispossessed and marginalised has been shifting ever rightwards. It’s a phenomenon of paranoia that can be seen by high-profile men online for whom hidden forces are at play to undermine them. All these men talk of dark forces and conspiracy against them: Andrew Tate (the Matrix); Craig Murray (sex-negative feminism); Neil Oliver (the Silent War), Jordan Peterson (woke moralists), Douglas Murray (Cultural Marxism).

The debate is on about the extent to which these people are grifters or ideologues flirting with the alt-right algorithm. But some of these people matter and what their success reveals matters too. Brand operates his YouTube channel, publishing daily videos to six million followers. If Tate and Peterson are at the intersection of toxic masculinity/fragility and hyper-misogyny, Brand operates at the point where contaminated hippiedom meets anti-lockdown paranoia and the dubious libertarianism propagated by the far-right.

I have some real problems with George Monbiot’s takes on – particularly food and energy – but on Brand he is spot on, today arguing that “conspiracism is fascism’s fuel”.

Here he monitors Brand’s descent (‘I once admired Russell Brand. But his grim trajectory shows us where politics is heading‘):

“In 2014, he was bursting with new ideas and creative ways of presenting them. Today, he wastes his talent on tired and discredited tales: endless iterations of the alleged evils of the World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwabthe Great ResetBill GatesNancy Pelosi, the former US chief medical adviser, Anthony FauciCovid vaccines, medical data, the World Health Organization, Pfizer, smart cities and “the globalist masterplan. His videos appear to promote “natural immunity” ahead of vaccines, and for a while pushed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for Covid (they aren’t).”

Here he rails against the organic movement, which he claims is a gigantic scam …

As Monbiot explains: “Brand is repeating claims first made by far-right conspiracists, who have piled into this issue, claiming that the nitrate crisis is a pretext to seize land from farmers, in whom, they claim, true Dutch identity is vested, and hand it to asylum seekers and other immigrants. It’s a version of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, itself a reworking of the Nazis’ blood and soil tropes about protecting the “rooted” and “authentic” people – in whom “racial purity” and “true” German identity was vested – from “cosmopolitan” and “alien” forces (ie Jews). Brand may not realise this, as the language has changed a little – “cosmopolitans” have become “globalists”, “aliens” have become “immigrants” – but the themes have not.”

Some of this is funny and ridiculous and harmless – some of the UFO chat is hilarious – as is the Bill Gates stuff: “Some of his many rants about Bill Gates are illustrated with an image of the man wearing a multicoloured lapel badge, helpfully circled in red. This speaks to another widespread conspiracy theory: those who wear this badge are members of a secret organisation conspiring to control the world (so secret they stick it on their jackets).”

But we know from Nancy Pelosi’s husband being attacked with a hammer, or the grotesque debacle of Alex Jones trolling the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre – and the general atmosphere cultivated by hate-blogs and conspiracism that this isn’t just ‘funny and ridiculous’.

Nor can you suggest that the current surveillance state isn’t rich and fertile ground for paranoia and the unprecedented conditions of war and virus adds to the mix with the background of political failure.

Now, instead of these groups fading with Covid into the background, they are so virulent they just get transferred to other crises.

There are other culprits at play other than just the narcissist grifters outlined above. The failure of western centrist political leaders to provide coherent radical alternatives to the populist right’s simplism is one, as is the demise of the mainstream media in public trust and standing.

Beneath much of the fear and paranoia is an idea that has come to take hold – that of the unity (or collapse) of any meaning between right and left, as portrayed here by Glenn Greenwald:

This in itself is a central myth that needs challenged over and over in an attempt to re-instate rational discourse intro the public realm.

Comments (23)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. Given the origin of this quote in the mists of antiquity, the kind of behaviour exemplified here by Russel Brand, is something that has been present in societies ‘since Adam was a boy’, as my father used to say.

    History is replete with reports of charlatans, witches and deluders. And, of course, we know of the atrocities arising from the actions of people inflamed by them.

    However, the fact that the human race is still around to read such histories, is evidence of the fact that many people were not deluded and eventually, took action against them. The human race survived and has continued to do so.

    As the human population increased, due to the fact of human ingenuity and mainly cooperative actions for the common good, the numbers perishing and suffering in such horrors increased, but, as a percentage of the population, it DECREASED.

    Such a perspective is often decried as ‘complacency’ or ‘misguided optimism’. It is also indicative of a jaundiced view of human society held by a minority of people, which can be summarised as ‘the human beast’.

    Most of us actually get on with each other pretty well for almost all of the time and will readily give assistance to strangers and will have received kindness from strangers. Most of us can detect bullshit pretty well and, sooner or later bullshitters are identified as such and are shunned socially, usually before they have caused too much harm.

    The encouragement of modern day Savonarolas is mainly by a few wealthy individuals who see it as a way of creating fear and uncertainty amongst the general populace and of dividing and ruling. Essentially, they are seeking to undermine the trust within societies which binds us together. We are a gregarious species who have, largely got along together, by virtue of cooperation and the creation of social institutions. It is the destructions of these that the Savonarolas are focussed on, for their own distorted reasons.

    So, while we must be wary of the potential for such oddballs to cause problems for some, we must also continue to trust others and show them love and respect. It is why there are 8billion of us on the earth today.

    1. John says:

      When cultures and civilisations died there were always more around, developing in a world where they mostly were disconnected and separated by great distance.

      Now the world is connected, distance is only milliseconds digitally and missiles have been developed to reach great distances in minutes. There are probably weapons already hidden on the borders of threatening states or on satellites even.

      The bad actors of this world may be fewer than decent human beings but it only takes a few to possibly unleash armageddon.

      Not sticks and stones now but
      nuclear missiles, satellites and drones.

    2. Collie Dog says:

      “However, the fact that the human race is still around to read such histories, is evidence of the fact that many people were not deluded and eventually, took action against them.”

      By burning them. Like all the reasonable people always do, eventually.

      The reason there are pushing eight billion people on the planet today is not because we suddenly became nicer to each other, or more ingenious. It’s because of fossil fuels ingeniously exploited to create catastrophically miraculous technology. Sadly, there’s a time limit on that one and normal service will soon be resumed.

      In those circumstances, we will indeed need to be kinder to one another.

      Not seeing much hope for that, including from ‘extreme centrists’.

  2. John Barrett says:

    Conspiracies do exist in politics and government. We know that as there have been those that have been uncovered and proven. Unfortunately it is a concept that is easily manipulated to very cynical ends.

    In the social media, communication society of today, the truth for most people has become an opinion rather than actual fact. It can become very honestly hard to know the real truth and such deceit is a tool of bad actors

    I am now going to talk about what I now see as the greatest conspiracy of our time. Unfortunately whether it is true or not is also easily manipulated and I could be called a malevolent conspiracy theorist.

    The terms right and left are completely inappropriate. The problem is people use labels in whatever manner they want. Imagine if you insisted on labelling a bottle of poison, Cola and to substantiate this by pouring some cola into it.

    In my opinion the terms right and left wing were designed by those with selfish and bad intent so good and bad can be relabelled in such a way bad becomes just an innocuous alternative to good.

    Even good and bad are not efficient labels because they can be argued. On a basic level though and without doubt we do need to identify intent and action.

    Hitler was far right but he was to all intent and purposes bad. By replacing bad by the label far right takes someone that is identified as having overseen cruel, destructive, inhumane acts and almosr verify those as an alternative political choice.

    Also by labelling mindful, well intentioned, compassionate, acts as left wing takes something that is distinguishable as good and makes it seem a political choice void of the original intent.

    Doing this allows the right wing to say left wing is bad, wrong, cruel or weak whilst right wing means strong, justice driven and realistic.

    This is core to understand because some conspiracy theories are a way to manipulate and condition people with bad intent, relabelled right wing and seemingly valid and maybe even good intent. To all intent they have become the conspiracy.

    Take away the conspiracy of the Left and Right wing and bad actors will just label those with intent do-gooders as if that’s a bad thing. Today though the real fake term, used for manipulating people against others with good will and doing good acts is “Virtue Signallers”. Its as if doing good, mindful things and promoting good behaviour has been identified as selfish.

    All I can say is don’t rely on labels and that many conspiracies can be actual fake conspiracy theories.

  3. Peter says:

    Conspiracy world doesn’t sound very wonderful. Also – is all populist-paranoia far-right? Asking for a friend ✨

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Due to a timetabling class, I took Urban Politics instead of the more popular Ideology model in Political Science/Social Policy, so I have had to catch up a little on the subject, but perhaps most people would recognize it to be multi-dimensional, otherwise they would not understand phrasing like “this person is socially liberal but economically conservative”. And a Left–Right is a commonly-used shorthand for one dimension, typically framed as how hierarchical (theo-monarchical at one end) or flat (completely egalitarian at the other) one wants society to be.

    There are many other dimensions of ideology. Oddly, I haven’t been able to find a better demonstration model than the old Hearts of Iron games, with their Hawk–Dove, Open–Closed, Free-Market–Central-Planning, and I think isolationist-internationalist and other dimensions.

    Many formal historical ideologies have been theist or humanist, but there are others, old and new, that place the living world above humanism, and perhaps reject theism entirely. That is, they recognize that the human world is part of Nature, and dependent on it. These include environmental ideologies. Of course, just as they are humans who want to promote and protect the interests of the living Planet, there are those who wage war on it, and those who want to replace biology with technology and upload themselves into immortal form in the Cloud.

    Note: ideologies do not have to be planetary-realistic. They can be religious-supernatural-mythic or techno-futurist-fantasist, for example. They can also feature both core and outer, more optional or variable tenets.

    Does Left include and give value to non-humans? Does Right mean conquering Nature or Conserving it? It isn’t always clear how such alignments work.

    Niccolò Machiavelli was interested in the hidden and public arts of political manipulation. If I recollect, he wrote that conspiracies of his time were difficult but not impossible to achieve, and tended to break down as the interests of co-conspirators diverged. In the Discourses on Livy, Book 1.12 he wrote:
    “But when the oracles began to say what was pleasing to the powerful, and this deception was discovered by the people, they became incredulous and inclined to subvert any good institution.”
    And this was centuries before the birth of the BBC.

    So, the characteristic of right-wing ideologies is a hierarchy with potentially a contest for upward positions and fights between rivals and their factions, which Machiavelli witnessed in Italy. Disagreements between right-wing factions and struggles for power are more built-in than between left-wing factions (in theory at least). But equally, goal-aligned factions are capable of closing ranks against larger threats.

    As usual, political theorists will look at ‘who benefits’ from the kind of cacophony and contradictions that the Brand example represents (I haven’t been following his arc but did read the Monbiot article). It is more difficult to talk of a ‘status quo’ in our accelerating times with looming existential threats, but there are even those who appear to play politics as much like a game as in Machiavelli’s fractured Italy.

    One of the main problems of conspiracy-theory-as-ideology seems to be that it denies the existence of common solid ground on which to build a planetary-realistic ideology. Paranoia feeds paranoia. Some way of breaking that cycle, finding the path from the Cave of Shadows to the Sunlight of Understanding is needed. Descartes’ Evil Demon may be a conceptual possibility, but a poor assumption if you think the living planet matters. You can accept that conspiracies exist without accepting that conspirators are superhuman or all-powerful (possibly a hangover from theist times). Like Machiavelli’s angry Oracle-repudiators, many of us may be rebounding from a loss of faith in some idol or other. But we can cast down our idols without losing our ideals.

  5. John Learmonth says:

    Wasn’t it a ‘right wing conspiracy’ that claimed the covid virus came from a leak from a Wuhan laboratory?
    Go figure

  6. Paul Packham says:

    The Russel Brand’s book that the left waved about as a bible is now forgotten, I too have forgotten it, because it was arubbish. RB called for revolution to solve the problems of the world, but it would only be won by a sort of huge collective ’love fest’ while leaving the people and the system that created the problem in the first place intact.
    The left (I was south of the border at the time), were so desperate to follow RB because ‘that is where the students and the class are going’.
    Today he might have 6 million followers on social media while some left organisations have thousands but the left can still mobilise more people to defend their rights, neighbours and communities against any of his kind of conspiracy theories.
    The question I have it though why but why did you think RB would be a leader of the revolution in the first place?
    Are we so desperate to really want to wait for a messiah?

  7. Stan Reeves says:

    The thing that all these “Commentators” have in common is that they only analyse and criticise those in power, or those they imagine have the power, as if their critique will somehow miraculously make them change their minds. Or they think by voicing their critique folk will rise up and take some action against them. Both of these outcomes are unlikely, and it is naive to think other wise.
    Having made a critique they have the satisfying illusion of having acted. “That’ll show them” Actually, it never has.
    These folk are all opposition and no proposition. Action removes the doubt that theory cannot solve.
    “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Marx famously said. “The point, however, is to change it.”
    They make no propositions as they are bereft of vision, and to make propositions would then require them to get from behind the keyboard, and lead folk in transformative action.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Aye, Stan.
      We need more leaders.
      Gaun yirsel.

  8. Alvin Vertigo says:

    “Now, instead of these groups fading with Covid into the background…”

    Mike Small’s credibility is destroyed with this one sentence, as he shows himself just as vulnerable to Libertarian propaganda as Brand himself. Only the most ableist in society have allowed Covid to “fade into the background”, as it continues to kill and disable the Scottish population at an alarming rate.

    Small is evidently unaware of his own drift toward Libertarian Extremism, as he rails against the same flaw in others: “Oh, wad some Power…” indeed.

    1. Wul says:

      “Fade into the background…” as in fading into the background of daily news media. It’s off the front pages (at least for now) so Mr Small’s assertion stands.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Al Jazeera’s UpFront has a stab at this vexed question, possibility worth watching for astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the ‘perimeter of ignorance’ (roughly the more we discover about our world or universe, the larger our perception of the unknown). If we do discover new life out there, that could be one of the most contested questions of the next news cycle. And then in turn Tyson is put on the spot for supporting the USAmerican militarization of space whose business is death.
    The view from space gives us an easily understandable appreciation of our planet as a system, or rather system of systems. The arrival of social media has enlarged our perimeter of ignorance about ourselves, and raised new questions about conducting sane politics in an interconnected world still enmeshed in backward, corrupt and insanely destructive traditions as in the UK, which we can see from space is still the British Empire.

  10. John Wood says:

    Well, sorry, but I completely disagree on this. A former supporter of Monbiot and as someone who has read and enjoyed several of his books, I am with Jonathan Cook on this.

    The problem is that this endless cognitive warfare we are subjected to creates false dichotomies and casts everyone into either a ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ silo. And the terms no longer mean anything.

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything Russell Brand says, but he has an absolute right to say it, and the only people who really have anything to fear from ‘conspiracy theorists’ are conspirators.

    It’s too easy to reject any dissident as mad, bad, and dangerous. Anyway here’s Jonathan Cook’s take on this. See what you think.

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Worth reading, thanks.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Alistair Taylor, well, it is also simply the case that Monbiot answers to the Guardian editors, and who are they answerable to? I’m sure Bella’s readers are familiar with the five editorially distorting filters model. More specific examples:
        I wonder if any narrative contesting Individuals-as-Brands just fits too neatly into the Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History, itself a right-wing trope. As Herman and Chomsky argue, it is systems that matter. The temptation to be seen as a Player may ever threaten to cloud one’s judgement. Which reminds me, I haven’t posted on my blog for while. These Culture Wars won’t win themselves (until they’re fully automated, of course).

        1. Alistair Taylor says:

          Post a link tae yir blog. Would love tae hae a gander sometime.
          (Semi-retired as ah am. Time on ma hauns.)

          Btw, if anyone can develop predictive text for Scots/Doric, ah’m in!

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Alistair Taylor, I’ll resist the temptation to write myself into this story, taking example from Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who in “The Mind Robbers”, where as Wikipedia puts it:
            “The aliens’ plan is to control everyone on Earth and bring them to the land of fiction, leaving the Earth itself empty for easy colonisation.”
            However, if you have time on your hands and looking for an amusing distraction, I can recommend this Guardian piece on an unfinished game promising to satirise the whole shooting match of what-just-happened UK:
            “‘Keir Starmer just ordered an alpaca airstrike!’ The game that holds up a dystopian mirror to the UK”
            The creator certainly has a lot of ammunition.

  11. J Galt says:

    What I don’t like about this line of thought or argument, is that there is no room for nuance – if you look at history and have concluded, not unreasonably, that President Kennedy was likely killed as the result of a conspiracy (definition – two or more persons working in secret to carry out illegal acts) then you must also believe the Royal family are reptilians, in effect you are a stock character.

    Well to hell with that, I’m afraid I’m going to continue picking and choosing what to believe based on my own common sense, with a healthy disrespect of authority and caring nothing for the labels that pundits bandy about.

  12. John Monro says:

    I’m having huge difficulty following so many of these arguments. Commentators, pundits, web based opinionators who I follow, that’s people ,who are on the moral side of the political and social spectrum, (I have long since abandoned left wing/right wing analysis of politics or of social thinking) seem, like the Ukrainians in Bakhmut, to have constructed deep defensive lines, silos of thought; all I see, gazing Earthwards from my orbiting satellite, or perhaps nowadays it’s a balloon, are human beings who should be sharing the same trench shooting at each other over some imaginary no-mans-land and not thinking the rather more important, and existential question, “why the hell am I here?”

    Jonathan Cook’s very long article dissecting George Monbiot’s dissection of Russel Brand, and pretty well everything else about George Monbiot, am I the only one feeling verbally punch drunk? Does Mike Small’s earnest article bring me any enlightenment? Do I even know what to think any more?

    There’s only one conspiracy worth talking or writing about now, and that’s the conspiracy that has abandoned moral and ethical behaviour and simple humanity and charity in nearly every powerful state institution (through law and the practical application of force), in private institutions and corporations (with the power of obscene wealth) and the captive media (who facilitate both). Power without morals is not just corrupting the people who control us, but is corrupting the societies and citizens who they control, a sort of trickle down of moral and ethical sociopathy.

    I wish I could provide an answer, but there used to be a movement called “Moral Rearmament” Now, I am as ignorant about MRA as the next man, but Wiki provides an overview. Here’s a small snippet “Buchman ( was a pioneer in multi-faith initiatives. As he said, “MRA is the good road of an ideology inspired by God upon which all can unite. Catholic, Jew and Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Confucianist – all find they can change, where needed, and they can travel along this good road together.”. The very name, Moral Rearmament, suggests the two most important principle – the moral stance, and the willingness to fight for it.

    I am not religious, but I strongly suspect if our economic system does collapse and enough people are impoverished, that such a movement and a religious revival might supplant the more dangerous push to totalitarianism and fascism. It might additionally provide a sufficient and effective moral partnership with our planet that we might even survive. .

    1. Alistair Taylor says:

      Thank you John!
      That’s the best comment that I have read in a long time. Totally concur.
      (Thus feeding my own echo chamber, of course).

      I met George Monbiot a few years back at an event at Celtic Connections. Have always enjoyed his writing, particularly the environmental stuff.
      Not so many strong investigative journalism around these days. (Though check out the Walrus, in Canada).

      Russell Brand is an entertainer. Good on him. I think that he freely admits to being “bipolar”. Me too.
      But he sure as heck ain’t Jesus.

      Anyway, enough tippy tappy cellphone blah. Off to meet a dear old friend, walk to pub, have beer, enjoy rugby. Couldn’t care less who wins. Just enjoy the game with our Celtic siblings. Curry afterwards. Life is beautiful.

      1. Niemand says:

        Nice comment (and John’s too). Have a good day and evening Alistair. Life’s too short to not find time to enjoy the things that actually make life worth living.

        Our heads are full of so much talk these days and I agree that often it doesn’t help much and it is a self-perpetuating world – online mouths talking to each other and the more one ups the ante, the better so another can do the same in apparent opposition. But despite the disagreement, both sides need each other and they need to not agree to justify their own pontifications, so there is no sense of moving towards agreement and thus solutions. The old word ‘cant’ comes to mind.

        1. Alistair Taylor says:

          Thanks Niemand, indeed.
          My pal is just ready to retire this summer after 40 years of teaching in Scottish high schools.
          A fine man, and a socialist, from Clydebank.
          We had a great catch up.

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