"There's going to be a revolution. It's totally going to happen." Russell Brand's tirade against the "pre-existing paradigm" and his call for "alternative political systems," which remained undefined, during an interview with the BBC's Jeremy Paxman on October 23 was promptly re-posted on the Facebook pages of young cynics everywhere.
Within a week, the interview had been viewed 8.6 million times on YouTube, and it was being gushed that Brand would be responsible for teenagers everywhere "experiencing that beautiful moment of political awakening."
As he bounces around, aggressive and defensive, delivering low blows about Paxman's beard, the most revealing moment of the interview comes when Paxman asks his intensely hyper interview subject what his revolution will be like. Brand begins his response: "Well I'll tell you what it won't be like."
This response, which knows not what it wants and only what it doesn't want, is indicative of what I've come to think of as Che Activism.
The Argentinian Marxist militant guerrilla who participated in the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara, has become the most recognizable image of rebellion in the world today, so ubiquitous as to be simultaneously a symbol of counterculture and pop culture. Notwithstanding the fashion appeal of Che's beret-capped glare, it can be assumed that when one buys a t-shirt or a hat or a sticker with the emblazoned black and white face on it, one espouses some sort of admiration for what Che symbolizes, and that is revolution.
Che did indeed participate in a revolution -- one that installed an authoritarian communist dictatorship that remains in power to this day, restricting political dissent over Cubans who make do often without basic consumer goods thanks to their planned economy. They live under a government with an egregious human rights record that includes the rampant use of torture in the judicial system, strict censorship, and the continuing detention of dozens of political prisoners. It's not a reality disconnected from Guevara's own methodology for revolution: el Che himself oversaw firing squads where dissidents were summarily executed, and led the establishment of Soviet-style labour camps, another Che "unmentionable achievement," as noted by political historian Paul Berman in his book Power and The Idealists.
The Che Activist is ignorant of this rather tarnished legacy, and is lured rather by the fashion of politics, rather than the substance. It's a romanticized, sanitized adoration of the idea of revolution, void of any familiarity with the nuances of ideology and history necessary to a proper understanding of Guevara's legacy.
But no matter, because Che Activism is activism by non-engagement, based on a refusal to participate justified by vague criticism of globalization, and a platform that lacks any coherently articulated demands. It's activism where the ends, not the means, is protest, and ideally, theatrical, gimmicky protest. One's rebellion is not to lead a trade union, reform a political system, or provide services that protect the vulnerable, but as Brand models, to not vote.
The Che Activist is an auto-cynic. They are disillusioned with the status quo, certain society is moving backwards and not forwards, and nurture an ethos of victimhood rather than agency and initiative. Nevertheless, the Che Activist wants to take a stand, and you can find many of them at anti-globalization protests that provide the ideal vehicle for acting out on a hazily defined radicalism. They condemn apathy, while simultaneously embracing it as it as their modus operandi, the use of puppets notwithstanding.
Even when there is some effort at an intellectual rationalization to Che Activism, it's equally empty, relying on the buzzwords of identity politics, parroting accusations of imperialism, hegemony, and neoliberalism. In the academic version, adoration of Guevara is replaced by adoration of Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Paulo Freire -- though these "heroes" are linked. Culture critic Bruce Bawer has pointed out Freire's eulogizing of "the bloodthirsty" Guevara, and his euphemistic acknowledgement of Guevara's mass executions when Freire wrote approvingly that Guevara recognized "the necessity of punishing the deserter in order to preserve the cohesion and discipline of the group."
Whether out on the streets or on campus, Che Activism is an ideology without education, where arguments are never formulated to their logical end, just as Brand doesn't follow through on his own thinking about replacing democracy, and what the alternative might look like.
British columnist Nick Cohen tells us what it is: "a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th-century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of 'consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system' [as Brand advocates] -- and does not want to know either."
It's no coincidence that the Che Activists can't easily express their struggle, and systematically fail to link their grievances to those voiced by actual oppressed peoples, especially if the oppressors are any other than western corporations or the U.S. Government. The Che Activists tend to come from the privileged milieux of the world, whether they're American youth studying at post-modernism infused art faculties in California, or members of Islamabad's (western-educated) bourgeoisie who chant anti-globalization and anti-imperialism slogans, while they live off the spoils of just those very systems. Meanwhile those systems are spoiled off them too: Urban Outfitters, providing the wardrobes of hipsters everywhere, has made a killing selling Che Guevara merchandise.
It's Che Activism that made the Occupy movement a confused mess, big on slogans and crowds, but dim on tangible ideas. Occupy is an embarrassment to the history of real activism -- of the kind that galvanized the civil rights or the suffrage movements. But that hasn't stopped its self-love, with commentators like journalist Chris Hedges comparing Occupy to the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. The glaring difference is that one movement overthrew an oppressive system and installed democratic ones, and the other just used the democratic system to vocally complain.
Throughout the Paxman interview, Brand keeps glancing over at the camera. At the very end, he cracks a smile, as if slipping out of a character's performance. As Cohen notes, "You suspect that half the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s supported fascism or communism just for the thrill of it. Today, the need to strike a pose is all the greater."
Posing may turn out to be the Che Activists' greatest legacy.