The language of social change is shifting

The increasing number of voices articulating a positive vision of the future – including Russell Brand’s call for “a peaceful, effortless, joyous revolution” at London’s march against austerity – are a welcome antidote to the ‘anti’ approach, says Lucy Purdy

Beardy, dressed in skin-tight grey and barely pausing for breath, Russell Brand addressed the crowd at the People’s Assembly march on Saturday with customary rock star zeal.

Striding onto the stage, charmingly flirtatious and studiously dishevelled, it was difficult to gauge what reception he might get. Because among the estimated 50,000 people who had turned up were families I spoke to who can’t afford to spend any time together, people who told me they were making choices between paying for heating or food; men and women feeling worn out, afraid and fed up.

The day felt engaged, but largely ‘anti’. This was about anti-austerity and angry placards. Music and togetherness yes – but against something, not for something. Last to speak on a line-up of mainly trade union bosses and stalwarts, it was uncertain how Brand would relate to this crowd. But he did.

Russell Brand at the anti-austerity march, London, 21 June 2014

© Lucy Purdy

“I know there are no answers in fame, fortune or superficial pleasures,” he said. “I know that the answers and happiness come when we connect with one another, when we join together to look after one another. It’s time for us to take back our common unity. This will be a peaceful, effortless, joyous revolution.”

Several of the other speakers anticipated Brand’s focus on the positive. Disability rights campaigner, comedian and author Francesca Martinez said: “We need to redefine what is sacred. To me, life is beautiful and precious. We are not economic commodities. We are all here for, and we have an equal right to, happiness, health and opportunity.”

“We must have a message of hope, of courage and of solidarity,” added author and political commentator Owen Jones.

Brand helped cement this vocabulary, and in doing so, he changed the tone. He reinstated the importance of having a positive vision for the future, not simply a denunciation of what we’ve got. He wasn’t ignoring people’s suffering – Ann from Cardiff who told me her benefits had been cut, or Angela from Liverpool whose son can’t afford the bus to college – but actually coming at the problem from the most human of angles. The best way to reject a system that allows these things to happen is to envisage a new and better one, and nurture the values that will underpin it.

It isn’t just Brand and others from the anti-austerity march who are making these connections; the language of change is shifting. Author and environmentalist George Monbiot proved himself capable of painful self-reflection last week when he said that saving the world should be based on promise, not fear.

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“I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years,” he wrote. “Almost everyone in this field is motivated by… the love and wonder and enchantment nature inspires. Yet, perhaps because we fear we will not be taken seriously, we scarcely mention them. We hide our passions behind columns of figures.”

Whipping up people’s fears, Monbiot explained, triggers an instinctive survival response, nurturing self-interest instead of the common good. He now realises that hope inspires people and is most likely to prompt positive action.

Many people seem to exist in this precarious spot: feeling a profound love for our world, but with horror and fear often eclipsing their joy

What a simple, yet game-changing shift. Because this negativity epidemic is evident in so many areas of life: in the mainstream media, in a political system which seems incapable of articulating any sort of positive vision, even in schools, when the food chain is taught in terms of the accumulation of pesticides instead of the beautiful diversity of life and where waterways are taught through our pollution of them.

My own experience tells me this is true. When I think about a lot of protests, the aims of which I often share but which hang heavy with the language of rejection and anger, I feel hopelessness. When I think about things I love, walking in a beautiful wood, being outdoors with friends and family, I feel hopeful and excited about the future. Many people seem to exist in this precarious spot: feeling a profound love for our world, but with horror and fear often eclipsing their joy.

Brand is not the answer, but he might be a fast-talking, hip-waggling conduit to an answer for some. But for most, the shift to believing in a more beautiful world will come from deep inside ourselves. From doing what we love, from cherishing the people and the planet we hold dearest, and from acting from our most human and intrinsic values.

Done with each of our own deeply personal, sexy brands of rock star passion, much seems possible.