“Homelessness is a bit of a scourge on our society, a shrill whistle from the canary in the cage of our collective conscience that all is not well… We know it’s wrong, we feel a bit of a cramp of entanglement when we walk past a rough sleeper, especially when alone, like it’s an ex-lover or something. Is there anyone who strides mightily by, untroubled with a smile?” - Russell Brand, Revolution.
Homelessness. Of all the problems discussed in Russell Brand’s latest book, Revolution, homelessness is one I cannot push to the back of my mind. Brand’s short yet insightful chapter on America’s rising homeless population created imagery of an early Apocalypse, creeping “into the present like a fog”.
“All about us we may see the shipwrecked harbingers foraging in the midsts of our excess. What have we become that we can tolerate adjacent destitution? That we can amble by ragged despair at every corner?”
Every morning on the way to work I pass at least five people sleeping rough. They are often drunk. The smell of alcohol may produce an easy scapegoat for some: ‘don’t give them money, they’ll just buy booze’. True, maybe, but no less sad. Allocating blame doesn’t make the problem go away.
Every morning I keep my eyes to the pavement and walk quickly. Sometimes they reach out, say good morning, yearning for acknowledgement. I always reply with a smile. But I never stop, and I never initiate a conversation. I walk faster through a wave of sadness and unease, towards sanctuary in my air-conditioned office.
These people on the street are strangers. I have no idea where they have come from or how they have ended up without shelter, family or love. But I feel guilty about not giving them money, food, conversation or respect. I feel that I need to do something, because I am in a position to help. Occasionally I drop a gold coin in a collection bucket. But the gesture feels hollow, insincere. I know my generosity is not enough.
Russell Brand believes homelessness jars us because deep down, we are all connected. That we are all in this together. And that we have a profound aversion to injustice.
“If… we are all invisibly connected, then this suffering is dragging us all down. We don’t even need to look at academic studies: just feel what happens to you when you walk past, some inner alarm goes off to remind you that there is a problem, and it’s your problem.”
Feelings and problems: these are two key themes that run through Revolution. Brand has a lot of thoughts and feelings. He prompts readers to look inside themselves, to ask themselves: “Are we happy with things the way they are?” and “Do you believe things could be better?” His writing spirals from one passionate thought to the next, often in chaotic fashion. And as he writes he presents problems.
One particularly memorable line: “Literally almost everyone is getting fucked.”
Overall not the most optimistic view of current society. But upon finishing the book I was inclined to agree with him: injustice and inequality have a negative impact on the majority of the world’s population, homeless or not.
It doesn’t matter how much you earn or where you live or what you’ve achieved: if the ‘system’ does not benefit the whole, if it puts the environment at risk and perpetuates conflict, then everyone has something to lose.
Unfortunately, although problems are a dime a dozen in Revolution, solutions are sparse. Brand is incredibly adept at drawing your attention to issues. He uses humour and wit and intelligence to highlight the ridiculousness of current societal norms. But he does not claim to have all the answers.
It appears his primary objective is to raise awareness. To plant a seed in our minds. To capture our attention. So that we, as connected individuals, can begin to tell ourselves new stories, stories that will overwrite the habits that no longer serve us.
“The only Revolution that can really change the world is the one in your own consciousness.”
This is where Brand enters self-help territory. His book is a blend of autobiography, advice and aggravation. He both educates and provokes. He calls for love but he also calls for people to wake up and acknowledge some hard truths.
“Drag your past around you if you like, an old dead decaying ox of what you think they might’ve thought, or what might’ve been if you’d done what you ought. That which needs to burn let it burn. If the idea doesn’t serve you, let it go. If it separates you from the moment, from others, from yourself, let it go.”
This piece of advice can be applied to yourself, as an individual, but it can also be applied to society as a whole. What no longer serves humanity? Who is benefitting from things the way they are, and who is suffering? These are the questions that Brand repeats over and over again, drilling the hard truth home.
“The truth. The truth is: there are on this frequency, from our human perspective, a planet, some beings, some resources; would it not be sensible to employ systems that benefit the planet, the beings, and the resources? Not needlessly revere artificial constructs that only benefit a few people?”
When it comes to talking about a Revolution, it’s hard to ignore Russell Brand’s irrefutable logic.