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Brand writes: "When traveling in impoverished regions in galling luxury, as I have done, you have to undergo some high-wire ethical arithmetic to legitimize your position."

Russell Brand leads a protest on Wall Street on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014. (photo: Downtown Express)
Russell Brand leads a protest on Wall Street on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014. (photo: Downtown Express)

What Monkeys and the Queen Taught Me About Inequality

By Russell Brand, Guardian UK

16 October 14


We humans have an inherent sense of fairness. Deep down, we don’t like inequality. In a second extract from his new book, Russell Brand goes in search of ways to build a more just world

hen travelling in impoverished regions in galling luxury, as I have done, you have to undergo some high-wire ethical arithmetic to legitimise your position. If you can’t geographically separate yourself from poverty, then you have to do it ideologically. You have to believe inequality is OK. You have to accept the ideas that segregate us from one another and nullify your human instinct for fairness.

Edward Slingerland, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy at Stanford University, demonstrated this instinct to me with the use of hazelnuts. As we spoke, there was a bowl of them on the table. “Russell,” he said, scooping up a handful, “we humans have an inbuilt tendency towards fairness. If offered an unfair deal, we will want to reject it. If I have a huge bowl of nuts and offer you just one or two, how do you feel?”

The answer was actually quite complex. Firstly, I dislike hazelnuts, considering them to be the verminous titbits of squirrels. Secondly, they were my hazelnuts anyway; we were in my house. Most pertinently though, I felt that it was an unfair offering when he had so many nuts. He explained that human beings and even primates have an instinct for fairness even in situations where this instinct could be seen as detrimental. “You still have more nuts now than before,” he chirped, failing to acknowledge that all the nuts and indeed everything in the entire house belonged to me.

We then watched a clip on YouTube where monkeys in adjacent cages in a university laboratory perform the same task for food. Monkey A does the task and gets a grape – delicious. Monkey B, who can see Monkey A, performs the same task and is given cucumber – yuck. Monkey B looks pissed off but eats his cucumber anyway. The experiment is immediately repeated and you can see that Monkey B is agitated when his uptown, up-alphabet neighbour is again given a grape. When he is presented with the cucumber this time, he is furious – he throws it out the cage and rattles the bars. I got angry on his behalf and wanted to give the scientist a cucumber in a less amenable orifice. I also felt a bit pissed off with Monkey A, the grape-guzzling little bastard. I’ve not felt such antipathy towards a primate since that one in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the little waistcoat betrayed Indy.

Slingerland explained, between great frothing gobfuls of munched hazelnut, that this inherent sense of fairness is found in humans everywhere, but that studies show that it’s less pronounced in environments where people are exposed to a lot of marketing. “Capitalist, consumer culture inures us to unfairness,” he said. That made me angry.

When I was in India, a country where wealth and poverty share a disturbing proximity, I felt a discomfort in spite of being in the exalted position of Monkey A. Exclusive hotels require extensive, in fact military, security. As we entered the five-star splendour through the metal detectors, past the armed guards, I realised that if this was what was required in order to preserve this degree of privilege, it could not be indefinitely sustained.

These devices that maintain division are what my friend Matt Stoller focused on when I asked him what ideas he had that would change the world. I first met Matt in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Matt understands power: at the time, he worked as a policy-wonk for a Democratic congressman and his days were spent in the cogs of the lumbering Washington behemoth. Beneath his cherubic, hay-coloured curls and proper job, he detested the system he was trapped in.

Since then, he has regularly prised apart the clenched and corrupt buttocks of American politics and allowed me to peer inside at its dirty workings. I asked Matt for ideas that would aid the revolution; his response was, as usual, startling and almost proctologically insightful. “No more private security for the wealthy and the powerful,” he said. I nervously demanded he explain himself. He did: “One economist argued in 2005 that roughly one in four Americans are employed to guard in various forms the wealth of the rich. So if you want to get rid of rich and poor, get rid of guard labour.”

This may be the point in the article where you start shouting the word “hypocrite”. Don’t think I’m unaware of the inevitability of such a charge. I know, I know. I’m rich, I’m famous, I have money, I have had private security on and off for years. There is no doubt that I as much as anyone have to change. Revolution is change. I believe in change, personal change most of all. Know, too, that I have seen what fame and fortune have to offer and I know it’s not the answer. Of course, I have to change as an individual and part of that will be sharing wealth, though without systemic change, that will be a sweet, futile gesture.

Now let’s get back to Matt Stoller, banning private security and ensuring that I’ll have to have my own fist fights next time I’m leaving the Manchester Apollo.

“The definition of being rich means having more stuff than other people. In order to have more stuff, you need to protect that stuff with surveillance systems, guards, police, court systems and so forth. All of those sombre-looking men in robes who call themselves judges are just sentinels whose job it is to convince you that this very silly system in which we give Paris Hilton as much as she wants while others go hungry is good and natural and right.”

This idea is extremely clever and highlights the fact that there is exclusivity even around the use of violence. The state can legitimately use force to impose its will and, increasingly, so can the rich. Take away that facility and societies will begin to equalise. If that hotel in India was stripped of its security, they’d have to address the complex issues that led to them requiring it.

“These systems can be very expensive. America employs more private security guards than high-school teachers. States and countries with high inequality tend to hire proportionally more guard labour. If you’ve ever spent time in a radically unequal city in South Africa, you’ll see that both the rich and the poor live surrounded by private security contractors, barbed wire and electrified fencing. Some people have nice prison cages, and others have not so nice ones.”

Matt here, metaphorically, broaches the notion that the rich, too, are impeded by inequality, imprisoned in their own way. Much like with my earlier plea for you to bypass the charge of hypocrisy, I now find myself in the unenviable position of urging you, like some weird, bizarro Jesus, to take pity on the rich. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, and I’m not suggesting it’s a priority. Faced with a choice between empathising with the rich or the homeless, by all means go with the homeless.

He continues: “Companies spend a lot of money protecting their CEOs. Starbucks spent $1.4m. Oracle spent $4.6m. One casino empire – the Las Vegas Sands – spent $2.45m. This money isn’t security so much as it is designed to wall these people off from the society they rule, so they never have to interact with normal people under circumstances they may not control. If you just got rid of this security, these people would be a lot less willing to ruthlessly prey on society.”

Matt here explains that at the pinnacle of our problem are those that benefit most from the current hegemony. The executors of these new empires that surpass nation. The logo is their flag, the dollar is their creed, we are all their unwitting subjects.

“People can argue about the right level of guard labour. You conceivably could still have public police, but their job should be to help protect everyone, not just a special class. If you got rid of all these private systems, or some of these systems of surveillance and coercive guarding of property, you’d have a lot less inequality. And powerful and wealthy people would spend a lot more time trying to make sure that society was harmonious, instead of just hiring their way out of the damage they can create.”

Matt’s next idea to create a different world was equally cunning and revolutionary: get rid of all titles. “Mr President. Ambassador. Admiral. Senator. The honourable. Your honour. Captain. Doctor. These are all titles that capitalism relies on to justify treating some people better than other people.”

Matt is an American, so when it comes to deferring to the entitled, he is, let’s face it, an amateur compared with the British. Look at me, simpering to Professor Slingerland. I can’t wait to prostrate myself before his sceptre of diplomas. Plus we’ve got a bloody royal family. What’s he going to say about that?

“One of the most remarkable things you learn when you work in a position of political influence is just how much titles separate the wealthy and the politicians from citizens. Ordinary people will use a title before addressing someone, and that immediately makes that ordinary person a supplicant, and the titled one a person of influence. Or if both have titles, then there’s upper-class solidarity. Rank, hierarchy, these are designed to create a structure whereby power is shaped in the very act of greeting someone.”

I’m getting angry again. Matt’s right! Titles are part of the invisible architecture of our social structure. I’m never using one again. If I ever see Slingerland in the street, I shall alert him by hollering: “Oi, fuck-face!” and then throw a hazelnut at him.

What does Matt propose?

“One thing you can do to negate this power is to be firm but respectful, and address anyone and everyone by their last name. Mr, Ms or Mrs is all the title you should ever need. This allows you to treat everyone as your equal, and it shows everyone that they should treat you as their equal.”

This is a provocative suggestion – particularly to those of us who live in monarchies. I mean, in England, we have a queen. A queen! We have to call her things like “your majesty”. YOUR MAJESTY! Like she’s all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain. She’s just a person. A little old lady in a shiny hat – that we paid for. We should be calling her Mrs Windsor. In fact, that’s not even her real name, they changed it in the war to distract us from the inconvenient fact that they were as German as the enemy that teenage boys were being encouraged, conscripted actually, to die fighting. Her actual name is Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha!! No wonder they changed it. It’s the most German thing I’ve ever heard – she might as well have been called Mrs Bratwurst-Kraut-Nazi.

Titles have got to go.

I’m not calling her “your highness” or “your majesty” just so we can pretend there isn’t and hasn’t always been an international cabal of rich landowners flitting merrily across the globe, getting us all to kill each other a couple of times a decade. From now on she’s Frau Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Come on, Frau Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, it’s time for you to have breakfast with Herr Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. And you can make it yerselves. And by the way, we’re nicking this castle you’ve been dossing in and giving it to 100 poor families.

Actually, you can stay if you want, they’ll need a cleaner. You’ll have to watch your lip, Herr Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, some of ’em ain’t white.

We British have much to gain from Matt’s titleless utopia.

He continues: “If this became common, you’d shortly see sputtering rage from the powerful, and increased agitation from the erstwhile meek. People need to mark their dominance; that is the essence of highly unequal capitalism. If they can’t do so, if they aren’t allowed to be dominant, to be shown as being dominant, then the system cannot long be sustained.”

Matt’s ideas are like the schemes of a cackling supervillain from a Bond movie. At first, they seem innocuous, but then they elegantly unravel the fabric of society. He suggests we start now: “This is something that anyone and everyone can act on, a tiny act of rebellion that takes no money, influence or social status. You just need courage, and every human has that.” your social media marketing partner


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+12 # bmiluski 2014-10-16 09:32
I believe that the Queen married a Greek.

I wonder what would have happened had money A been given 2 grapes. Would he have shared?
+25 # Billy Bob 2014-10-16 09:51
If he was a bonobo, he probably would have. Then again, chimps solve most of their squabbles by fighting, whereas bonobos usually solve them with sex.
+10 # BradFromSalem 2014-10-16 11:53
BB, I bet sex would work real well with humans too. At least as long as we keep the morality police away from the negotiations.
+8 # Billy Bob 2014-10-16 12:20
Yep! Nothing like it to clear away the cobwebs and put a happier spin on everything!
+20 # bmiluski 2014-10-16 12:04
The bonobos also were a matriarchy. Which probably had a lot to do with it. Also, not all the disputes were solved by sex. Sometimes the females would form a tight circle around the male until he calmed down.
+2 # BradFromSalem 2014-10-16 12:33
Looks like my comment supporting matriarchy got deleted or pulled for review.
+7 # Old4Poor 2014-10-16 18:40
Supporting matirarchy in all its forms - see Pueblo "Indians", Ancient Egyptians, possibley Mayans. etc.
+9 # Nominae 2014-10-17 02:47
Quoting Old4Poor:
Supporting matirarchy in all its forms....

Yes - or how about the stunning proposition that we evolve beyond *all* "archies" into true inter-gender sharing and balance of power.

Such as the best of so-called "matriarchies" (esp. Native American), more closely resembled.

Some so-called native "matriarchies" simply meant that inheritance of physical artifacts were to be determined on the basis of maternal lineage. Not exactly the "power position" that some incorrectly assume, and blissfully long for today.

In the best of cases, neither gender claimed, nor practiced, absolute power over the other, but simply and wisely recognized the fact that a functioning, peaceful, and balanced *human* harmonic was superior to any "top-down" structure regardless of which gender may, or may not be, temporarily at the apex.

Swapping traditional gender power positions in any "top-down" dynamic is simply an exercise in re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

We are to evolve *beyond* the old dynamic, not simply to make pointless and arbitrary cosmetic changes to the fading and relatively soon-to-be defunct present paradigm.

We need to *unite*, people - as human beings sharing equally in power and resources in a system that is not a "top-down" hierarchy of *any* kind.

Human beings have "been there - done that", (the top-down power hierarchy) literally to death.
0 # Billy Bob 2014-10-17 09:33
+3 # bmiluski 2014-10-17 08:26
The Ancient Egyptians (I'm assuming you're refering to the reign of Cleopatra) did not have a matriarchy even though women were allowed to rule. That's like saying Israel is a matriarchy because Golda Meir was a Prime Minister.
+4 # Old4Poor 2014-10-17 12:55
Cleopatra? Good grief. No. I do not even think of her as ancient. The Ancient Egyptians - Cleo was a Greek- saw the right of kingship passed through the blood of Ra, meaning via the daughters of a reigning Pharaoh. The successor, had to marry one of these royal women to be qualified, even if he was a Pharaoh's son. Brother Sister marriages were thus encouraged.

Matrilineal is about descent not necessarily ruling.

An interesting example was Amenhotep III who was the son of a lesser queen and had no royal sister to marry, so as soon as he had a daughter he also married her, the Princess Sitamun, thus creating his own right to rule and making himself divine via her.

There were a number of Egyptian Queens who ruled independently and others who served as regents during minorities or were co rulers with their husbands.

I suggest you check out the Tao Queens (End of the 17th Dynasty).
0 # Joe Bob 2014-10-17 01:46
Yeah, pulled by the matriarchs.
+2 # Nominae 2014-10-17 02:01
Quoting bmiluski:
The bonobos also were a matriarchy. Which probably had a lot to do with it. Also, not all the disputes were solved by sex. Sometimes the females would form a tight circle around the male until he calmed down.

I wonder at the use of the past tense.

Bonobos still exist. Just like Jane Goodall.
+2 # bmiluski 2014-10-17 08:36
Sorry Nominae...... a slip of the tongue. They are, however, on the endangered list.
+1 # Old4Poor 2014-10-16 18:39
Yes, but that Greek Royal family was something else from Northern Europe - Danish,perhaps? All descendedd from Ms. Victoria Regina.
-2 # arquebus 2014-10-16 09:46
Here is the question unasked. Who is going to decide how many hazelnuts Hilton gets? Who is to decide how many hazelnuts you get? How is to decide how many hazelnuts I get?
+23 # BradFromSalem 2014-10-16 09:52
Certainly NOT the person receiving the nuts and NOT the person distributing the nuts. Thus the role of 3rd Party arbiters.

In the world of people that is the role of government through minimum wages, global benefits, and progressive income taxes. Not perfect, but then fairness is not an objective term, it is actually subjective.
+5 # Rick Levy 2014-10-16 19:00
This is a legitimate question. Why was arquebus down voted? It looks as though the RSN lynch mob is at it again for the crime of political incorrectness.
+31 # Wally Jasper 2014-10-16 11:55
He's absolutely brilliant. He's gut-wrenchingly funny. He's unequivocally honest. And he has idealism with heart. Thanks for bringing Russell Brand to RSN.
+15 # margpark 2014-10-16 11:59
One needs search no further than small children who definitely have an innate sense of unfairness. "That's not fair!" is heard frequently in any home with more than one child in it.
+2 # randrjwr 2014-10-19 10:01
Quoting margpark:
One needs search no further than small children who definitely have an innate sense of unfairness. "That's not fair!" is heard frequently in any home with more than one child in it.

Who needs more than one? Even an only child will claim "not fair" to its parents who "unfairly" want him/her to clean his/her room, help with the dishes or be home by midnight, for examples.
+21 # intheEPZ 2014-10-16 11:59
"All of those sombre-looking men in robes who call themselves judges are just sentinels whose job it is to convince you that this very silly system in which we give Paris Hilton as much as she wants while others go hungry is good and natural and right.”

Nailed it again. I love this guy, (and the chap he quoted). He makes me laugh, he makes me cringe. Brilliant. And the bit about the queen Mrs. Saxe-whatsherna me-Gotha. I thought I'd split my sides laughing.
+15 # 6thextinction 2014-10-16 12:05
Thanks, Mr. Russell Brand, for teaching me about inequality and its support by our language.
+12 # Old4Poor 2014-10-16 12:22
Was not really aware of Brand until seeing him on The Last Word two nights ago. Brilliant and provakative, stretching the mind - refusing to simply accept the "givens" of his society.
+6 # PeacefulGarden 2014-10-16 12:38
Wait, just a minute Russell! The whole monkey A and B thing is meangingless in a standard monkey tribe. What often forms, and sometimes not, is an alpha male. The alpha males dominates by displays of strength and aggression, and the females acquiesce to him, but the acquiesce has its price; he must protect the woman. Oddly, it could be that the alpha male in all his glory is actually serving the females. But, the price the other males pay is despair; they get a layer of fat around their middle, a sign of too much cortisol in the blood.

However, in some monkey tribes there is no alpha male, all the males protect the woman, and there is no elevated cortisol in any monkey.

You cannot use animal behavior to correlate to human behavior. It never works as one would assume or conclude. There is always some weird other factor.

But the thing with the guards it funky. If you havent noticed, guards always have this layer of fat in their middle section, the sign of elevated cortisol.

Yeah, as a musician, I am sick and tired of social status and the arts. I just keep my music to myself at this point in my life. Capitalism has destroyed music. Gosh, what does NPR call it: the Music Industry. Now there are two words that go together.
+2 # Radscal 2014-10-16 13:04
"You cannot use animal behavior to correlate to human behavior."

Exactly. One can find a species that exhibits most any behavioral trait that one wishes to claim is part of "human nature."

Some commenters here have remarked on the extremely different behaviors of Common and Bonobo Chimps. Yet humans are exactly equally closely related to both.

Those who wish to defend aggression and hierarchy as "human nature" can point to Common Chimps, while those who wish to see humans as cooperative and mostly peaceful can point to the Bonobos.

But we're not Chimps. We're humans, and it appears to me that the most powerful genetic behavioral trait we have is plasticity.
+2 # PeacefulGarden 2014-10-16 18:20
Plasticity; you mean epigenetics. Evolution is wild stuff. It is so difficult to understand!
+7 # Old4Poor 2014-10-16 18:44
Love your comment about the guards having the layer of fat around the middle. So true. Look at "Sheriff" Joe Arpaio.
+20 # Ivan Toby Happy 2014-10-16 12:54
Well done again Russell. Words fail me. Brilliant will do.
Some folks make the world a nicer (more amusing) place to be. You sir (sorry mr.) are one of them.
0 # bmiluski 2014-10-17 08:40
Ivan....Isn't mr. a title as well?
+4 # jwoods2 2014-10-17 09:06
I believe the queen's husband's name is Schleswig-Holst ein-Sonderburg- Glücksburg (a German-Danish family, who currently reign in Denmark and formerly in Greece). The queen is thus Mrs. Schleswig-Holst ein-Sonderburg- Glücksburg (nee Saxe-Coburg and Gotha). Quite a mouthful, but hardly on a level with "Mrs Bratwurst-Kraut -Nazi." On the issue of titles: I wonder what my doctor will say when I call him Smith?
0 # bmiluski 2014-10-17 14:18
I was watching a PBS Masterpiece series about a British doctor in the 60's and he was refered to as mister instead of doctor.
+3 # PCPrincess 2014-10-17 11:04
I shall start right away with referencing my instructors via email as Mr. or Mrs. rather than Dr. or.......hmm, maybe I should wait until after grades have been published? /wink
+3 # dbohj5l 2014-10-17 12:17
1) Titles are as much a method of control on the person bearing them. If I call you Your Majesty it is a reminder to behave with majesty. I on the other hand am a free man and remember that without saying a word.
2) We employ security for the ideal that a trained individual dealing with strangers will be impartial, that is why we do not have tribal war here.
3) We submit to a group based on individuals trained to listen, to a higher standard than a basically untrained person for fairness' sake so that you are not so able to pull the wool over ones eyes and so you are less likely to fool yourself and to protect your family/neighbou rs from you. It provides more protection for a lone theory against a multitude too.
4) You bet we are misinformed and we need reform, but whatever system you promote you have to do it with more care than calling monkeys wise.
5) They are a part of the wisdom of God, Who has warned us against relying on ourselves and not God in every religion that promotes the idea of God.
6) Russell Brand is doing his (and probably some of His work): but I wouldn't want to live in a world run with the ideas he presented here, he has his own problems and whilst on the face mostly absent here probably wouldn't take too long to make themselves known.because:-
7) Inequality is also part of nature and successful groups co-operate rather than bitch. Re-balance rather than revolt.
+2 # bmiluski 2014-10-17 14:31
Interesting ideas dbohj51 - however,
1) - "Titles are as much a method of control on the person bearing them. If I call you Your Majesty it is a reminder to behave with majesty"
The title of majesty is to remind YOU that the person you are calling your majesty is MAJESTIC. If you call someone Mr./Mrs. President do expect them to behave with president?

2) We employ security for the ideal that a trained individual dealing with strangers will be impartial, that is why we do not have tribal war here.
Have you never heard of gang wars? Gangs are nothing more than tribes.

5) They are a part of the wisdom of God, Who has warned us against relying on ourselves and not God in every religion that promotes the idea of God.

Who is they? And not relying on yourself......i s that not just another form of dependence and dependent thinking?
+2 # socrates2 2014-10-24 15:12
dbohj51, interesting comment with room for disagreement. Merely let me challenge you on one assertion, "Inequality is also part of nature and successful groups co-operate rather than bitch. Re-balance rather than revolt."
Pray tell, where "inequality is also part of nature?" Harmony and a constant struggle for balance appears to be more the rule. Hyenas and lions winnowing the weak, slow and sickly from an otherwise tight-knit herd serves as an example. Both groups, predator and prey, grow healthier in the process. That's equality, if you ask me. But "equality" is such a broad concept, we may argue till the Apocalypse and never agree.
Successful groups co-operate, rather than bitch. That is Brand's and Stoller's point. The domineering/wea lthy close ranks against everyone else! You don't see the Kochs, the Duponts, the CEO's of Bank of America, Chase, etc., posting at this site, do you?
The call by Brand and Stoller for a way (and means) to break through the semi-hermetical ly sealed, domineering-cla ss "bubble" extends to tid-bits such as disregarding "titles" and other labels of cultural subordination.
Those lofty-existence individuals seldom roam the same mean streets you and I do, unlike the wise sultans of the "1001 Arabian Nights."
So we "take" the mean streets to them. That's by way of seeking re-balance. Peaceful assembly and demonstrations sure seem more acceptable than torches, pitch-forks, and madame Guillotine...
Be well.
+3 # ruttaro 2014-10-18 10:25
Titles not only confirm the structures of power in a capitalist society but also affirm Marx's claim of false consciousness that keeps us divided. We are complicit in creating and maintaining the hierarchies. In the US, our monarchies are the corporation, CEO's the royalty. No matter how poorly they perform or how little they really do, because of the power bestowed upon them by the system, we pay homage and deference to them. They control our economic system which means they also control the political. Decisions on who gets what, when and how are in their exclusive realm and we bow to it because we are told that everything done in their interests is also ours. How can that be? From a tax system that privileges wealth to defense policies that protects it, we, the workers, the staff and the servants of capitalist interests pay for it either with accepting less public services, plundered public space or losing our lives in wars over resources. We fight their wars and they give us medals or other symbols for demonstrating our loyalty. They create a system of exclusion and then alarm us to fears so they can keep it. We fight for them but they are never by our side. There is too much to lose. Under the guise of nationalism, patriotism, religion, or democracy, false consciousness controls us and predicts how we will react to any threat to the wealthy and their corporate interests, regardless of how real or not and we do it without question.
+1 # babalu 2014-10-19 16:32
This title discussion helps explain why Republicans call President Obama every mean name in the book: to take down his status.
Then they recently crowed that he is not respected overseas - Duh! If "we" don't respect him, why should foreigners?
0 # socrates2 2014-10-24 14:38
Sadly, the human nervous system, thanks to evolution, is hardwired for hierarchy. But every culture establishes the rites of passage and the iconography of "dominance." Spengler tells us that in western civilization it is money. Anthropologist Graeber labels it "debt." The more your society "owes" you by way of the tokens we call "currency," the more dominant you can consider yourself in the culture's hierarchy.
Pavlovian conditioning and indoctrination- -via educational bureaucracies rigidly structured by the top hierarchs--take over to maintain the status quo over the generations.
Memes, anyone? Or as an infamous journalist-phil osopher labeled it over a hundred years ago, "false consciousness."
Be well.

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