Is it time to send out the clowns? For a moment there, in the midst of global turmoil, it seemed that comedians, those holy fools, were in the political ascendant. Italy's supreme satirist Beppe Grillo led his Five Star Movement to resounding success in the country's 2013 elections, winning a quarter of the vote. Russell Brand, largely known for the height of his hair and the tightness of his trousers, created a stir last year with his call for all-out revolution. For four years, Iceland's capital city was run by Jon Gnarr, a comedian who ran on a platform of free towels at swimming pools and a drug-free parliament by 2020.
A combination of celebrity recognition and general disdain for politics as usual brought these men to new prominence (the same combination of factors led Toronto to elect its own clown mayor four years ago). But mocking something, it turns out, is not as easy as fixing it. Mr. Grillo has demonstrated the dangers of maverick populism: He recently slammed immigrants who washed up on Italy's shores, praised the Mafia for having some good ideas and is campaigning to remove the Euro as the country's currency.
Mr. Brand has just released his manifesto for a new society, Revolution, springing from a famous interview he gave a year ago in which he stated that all existing political and economic structures were fraudulent and needed to be destroyed. Coming from a man whose career in film and television was built on those very structures, this was provocative stuff. The message, delivered in Dickensian twang, caught the ear of the young, the disaffected, and even some jaded old hacks like me.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a year to create a plan for global reformation. Reading the hyper-verbose Revolution feels like being trapped in an elevator with a coke-head undergrad who's just finished the collected works of Noam Chomsky. It's such a steaming mess that it deserves a new adjective: "kooktacular," perhaps. How else to describe a passage like this: "The significance of consciousness itself as a participant in what we perceive as reality is increasingly negating what we understood to be objectivity."
The book advocates a combination of spiritual fulfilment, decision-making by plebiscite, collective ownership and agrarian reform as means to solving the world's ills. (I think that's what it says, anyway.) It's as if Kahlil Gibran and Che Guevara had an unwanted baby and abandoned it on the world's doorstep.
The thing is, Mr. Brand's combination of celebrity and outrage is an intoxicating brew. He has a following, a rather large one. The book is a bestseller in Britain, and reached No. 20 on the New York Times bestseller list. Mr. Brand has 8.5 million followers on Twitter. He turns up at anarchist demonstrations and his acolytes follow him down the street, not realizing how much this looks like a scene from Monty Python – The Life of Brand, let's say. As a story in the Financial Times recently noted, "Russell Brand may irritate but many are listening to him."
Mr. Brand's message is a bleak one: Since the current system is inherently corrupt, any participation in it is naive, dangerous and futile. He famously refuses to vote. It's a bad-tempered child's view of the world.
If he's the scary clown, then Mr. Gnarr, erstwhile mayor of Reykjavik, is the sunny, nutty, surreal clown who actually has something to say. I fear that his book, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, will receive nothing like the attention of Revolution, even though it's funnier and, despite being translated, manages to read like English.
"I had no idea what a mayor actually did," Mr. Gnarr says blithely about being elected on a wave of post-financial-crash disgust in 2010. He was a successful comedian who had never run for anything. His ironically named Best Party promised to bring a Disney theme park to Iceland and provide free towels, but it also promised honesty, transparency and inclusiveness. Mr. Gnarr became celebrated for saying "I don't know" when he didn't know the answer to a question, stumping both journalists and political rivals. Sometimes, he showed up at the office in drag.
When he left after serving one term, he could have been jaded and bitter, and mocked the political process for fun and profit. Instead, he's written a book that's actually an endorsement for the tired old game. He rejects the call to revolution, and instead praises the boring world of incremental progress: "To save democracy, politics must attract a wider range of people. We need scientists. We need artists. We need quite ordinary people who think slowly instead of quickly … We need shy people. We need the overweight, the stutterers and the disabled. Punks, bakers and manual workers. And, above all, we need young people."
Maybe it's not time to send out the clowns just yet. Let's hope one of them will stay.