When I was first recommended John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. Oliver had the benefit of coming from The Daily Show, which became a cherished liberal institution under Jon Stewart and had a unique power to shape conversations among a lot of progressive internet users. If anything, Oliver has the potential to be more influential than the show that birthed him. “That John Oliver’s weekly video(s) will go viral is a given,” wrote John Herrman in a post on a clickbait ritual he calls the “John Oliver video sweepstakes.” John Oliver is “winning the internet.” More than just a content factory, though, on his HBO show Oliver is getting credit for something like prime-time activism—Time lauds what they call the “John Oliver effect.”
He’s really, really, popular. When I watched the first clip I HAD TO SEE from his show, though, it was obvious why it’s gotten so much traction. The clip I saw, covering the election that would make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India, was from Last Week Tonight’s 1st season, back in June 2014. The election of Narendra Modi was consequential, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are:
- Modi and his party are fascists.
- The BJP’s electoral efforts were supported by American oligarchs who, in turn, received material benefits in the form of increased exploitation of over 1 billion people.
- Members of a paramilitary ultra-nationalist group were put in charge of one of the world’s nuclear arsenals.
Modi’s election proved all sorts of points, from capitalism’s extremely cozy relationship with the militant far-right to the way that the media whitewashes fascism when the fascist in question advances the ruling class’s interests.
According to Oliver’s widely shared reckoning, though, the important aspects of India’s 2014 election are:
- It was big.
- It was under-reported.
For something ostensibly journalistic, the segment was light on specifics. Between jokes about Modi’s holograms, Oliver makes one brief point about Modi’s culpability in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms, which he diminishingly describes by saying that Modi “arguably failed to stop a massacre.” The problem here, according to Last Week Tonight, is just that The People need more information. “Our cable news has been ignoring India” is the segment’s leitmotif, and it offers nothing deeper than hand-wringing over the vapid US media. The only intervention to inject something of substance is a whitewash of Modi’s participation in racist mob violence. All viewers need to do is just know about the election, which puts Last Week Tonight’s viewers miles ahead of the bovine Faux Snooze-watchers in the flyover states. The fetishizing of information for its own sake, the low-context bathos, the whitewashing, the signaling that lets liberal viewers feel superior to their Republican relatives—I could tell this was going to be bigger than The Daily Show!
When Stewart announced his retirement a few months ago, amidst the slew of identical thinkpieces praising his show was another more measured response. Stewart, the alternative consensus went, had done a lot of good satire but gotten soft following the departure of George W. When he held his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” he had gotten too high on his own supply of above-the-fray centrism. Since I stopped checking Salon sometime around their billionth listicle of epic Tea Party fails, I hadn’t kept up with Oliver’s show, besides occasionally seeing his clips ricocheting around the internet. Based on the fact that many came to see Stewart’s “jester liberalism” shtick for what it was—toothless and overly servile—I had assumed, naïvely, that there would be some latent skepticism to Oliver. At least, instead of restarting at square one like every time a new vaguely leftish celebrity comes along, we could start from an understanding that radicals don’t make it on TV, and moderate hopes for late-night hosts accordingly.
I was a little too starry-eyed, judging from a piece that Jacobin published yesterday by Thomas Crowley. Titled “John Oliver Should Be More Like Mad Max” for maximum zeitgeisty-ness, the subheader explains that “John Oliver is mad at corporations but not capitalism.” So far, so true. The piece begins by explaining how Oliver favorably compares to Stewart and Stephen Colbert, since “Oliver was exciting because he took on corporations so directly, and with such gusto.” However, Crowley is disappointed that Oliver limits his criticism to extreme corporate excess, rather than the capitalist system itself.
[H]e excels [at] exposing corporate chicanery, making clear the human costs of companies’ insatiable thirst for profit.
Then towards the end of the segment, he invariably steps back, and fails to follow his investigation to its logical conclusion. Despite the scale of the problems he has exposed, he suggests that they are specific to one industry (whatever it happens to be that week), and that they can be addressed with some regulation here, some public outcry there. He rarely raises the possibility that there may be a more systemic rot, even if that’s what the sum of his episodes suggests.
This is all an accurate summary of Oliver’s shtick, and the racket that brought fame to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. However, just like Oliver, Crowley fails in the prescription stage–when it comes time to draw larger conclusions about the evidence in front of us, he can’t see how the problem is systemic. Crowley decides that Oliver “doesn’t seem to know what the central target is,” while speculating that “Perhaps he feels that he is already pushing the boundaries of political satire in the United States.” Instead of advocating small changes in the form of legislation, Oliver should “draw connections between the many issues he has raised and to question not just individual industries, but the larger system that drives them. Instead of endlessly riding through the salt flats, Oliver could take a chance and dare his audience to storm the Citadel.”
I’m sure that there are dozens of outlets that would pay to run such a piece, and America’s premier leftist magazine happened to be the taker. Judging by the piece’s positive reception on Twitter, most readers have found the piece to make cogent points about Oliver, his politics, and his place in the ruling class’ media ecosystem. This, then, is an object lesson in the power of popular liberal celebrities. By my count, this piece demonstrates total cluelessness about 1) the difference between liberalism and radicalism 2) the basic function of the culture industry & 3) how the establishment media operates. The piece is so clueless that it’s necessary to recapitulate these basic points, if only because Oliver’s popularity makes him a typically good example of what purpose liberal media celebrities serve.
What Crowley is describing, evidently having never encountered one before, is a liberal. Though there’s some difference between liberals—some are avid war-mongers, for example, but some are more anguished—liberals seek to maintain the capitalist system, while occasionally stemming some of its worst excesses with minor course-corrections. Someone who advocates for the abolition of the wage-system and private property has politics substantially opposed to someone who just wants corporate taxes restored to 35%. Oliver, like his old boss Stewart, will never call for the overthrow of capitalism for the simple reason that he doesn’t seek the overthrow of capitalism.
Oliver’s centrist politics aren’t just evident in his apologia for capitalism. Of the Last Week Tonight segments I’ve watched, Oliver never seems to miss an opportunity to contain the implications of his argument with a minimizing, incrementalist framework. Segments on the police usually include calls for better training, more equipment, and the removal of Bad Apples. A segment on the CIA focuses almost exclusively on ineffective PR and “excessive secrecy,” as though those things matter in discussing an organization that has contributed to the deaths of millions of people. A segment on America’s prisons repeats the exculpatory idea that the “prison system is broken,” rather than the more damning reality that the prison system is functioning perfectly in its intended role as a system of social control.
If these things sound too depressing or complicated to delve into during a 30-minute comedy show, keep in mind that the willingness to be dark and deep is what’s supposedly so great about John Oliver in the first place. A crucial elements of the show’s success, according to one breathless review, “is choosing topics that are hard not because they’re controversial but because they are, often, deadly dull.” So when Crowley speculates that Oliver’s prescriptions are so tepid because “he doesn’t want to alienate his audience,” it doesn’t hold water. Viewers of Last Week Tonight watch 15-minute segments on FIFA’s backroom dealings and civil asset forfeiture, so it’s not time constraints dictating Oliver’s politics. Given that Oliver’s material is firmly within the centrist mainstream, and the fact that he and his crew seemingly have free reign over their subject matter, it may be time to consider another possibility: that Oliver is exactly the capitalist, center-right liberal he plays on TV.
A good indicator of genuine opposition to corporate power is how supportive someone is of Latin America’s Bolivarian revolutions, the most powerful socialist institutions in the world and current targets of Washington. On his podcast, The Bugle, Oliver has spent years smearing Latin American socialists as deranged dictators. A few months ago, at the same time that the US was attempting another coup in Venezuela and declaring it a human rights violator to lay the groundwork for regime change, Oliver did several segments on Last Week Tonight targeting Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa. The US is following a similar course of action in Ecuador as it is in Venezuela; like Nicolás Maduro, Correa is being painted as a despot—one who has it out for cartoonists, even, like those al Qaeda guys who did Charlie Hebdo! Though Oliver’s segment was more superficial rather than overt red-baiting (unlike his podcast), it was contiguous with a larger campaign to paint South American socialists as tyrants. The message was clearly received by the US press, and “the John Oliver effect” was praised for attacking “Ecuador’s troll-in-chief.”
As in the case of Correa, Oliver reserves his biggest guns for those perceived to be America’s enemies. His vaunted interview with Edward Snowden, for instance, was extremely reactionary even by his standards. Tom Allen points out that in contrast to Snowden, Oliver’s interview with NSA chief Keith Alexander provides the spymaster a series of opportunities to regurgitate Deep State propaganda. Understandably so, since Oliver is by his own accounts an American patriot. Oliver’s wife, whom he met at the 2008 Republican national convention, was in the US Army, and he says that this makes him “a little more defensive of how America is perceived overseas.” In a Boston Globe interview, he explains that he views the US military as a force for good, and that despite the often-justified criticisms of America, it is the world’s stabilizing force.
Oliver isn’t going to be Mad Max, nor will he be Howard Beale, Eugene Debs, or Spartacus. He’s going to be John Oliver—an employee of the Time Warner media empire who’s valued highly enough as a corporate asset to make millions of dollars a year. If he or any other celebrity threatened the corporate bottom line rather than serving it, he wouldn’t have his own show, he’d be stuck writing media criticism for free on a WordPress site. If that isn’t obvious, then someone needs to read more Chomsky and watch less John Oliver.
Oliver’s fans might object to this critique on the grounds that he’s doing important work. He may shy away from criticizing capitalism as a system, but he’s doing vital stuff in the meantime—making a difference, even! A Time magazine write-up backs this up, claiming that the “John Oliver effect is having a real-life impact.” As a high point, Time singles out a segment on the civil forfeiture laws that enable police forces to take law-abiding citizens’ things by fiat. “After the increased exposure given to the issue by the [Washington] Post and Oliver, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would enact major limitations on the law.” This seems like an unqualified lefty success story on first glance.
However, civil forfeiture laws are a particularly unpopular externality of the War on Drugs, not least because they target middle-class white peoples’ possessions. Furthermore, opposition to these sorts of high-profile negative excesses of the drug war is quite common, rather than transgressive. As The Wire creator David Simon said while telling Baltimore’s protestors to go home, opponents to the War on Drugs include Newt Gingrich, countless Republican governors, and Koch industries—to say nothing of mass-incarcerators Barack Obama and Eric Holder. Even Tom Tancredo, possibly America’s most racist politician and an advocate of bringing back poll taxes, supports ending the War on Drugs. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about how the groundwork for mass incarceration was being laid as the consensus for Jim Crow was falling apart. Whatever “stand your ground” proponents are planning behind closed doors in a tactical alliance with liberal jailers, it’s easy to predict that it won’t lead to material benefits for America’s underclass. Elite opposition to the drug war is fully bipartisan, and it’s not going to be anti-capitalist or even radical. Into this fray steps John Oliver, piggybacking off a WaPo report, accumulating a liberatory sheen largely by repeating conventional wisdom. Like many other liberals held up by leftier-types as something more, Oliver’s politics are mainline centrism remade as radicalism through some empty signaling and a tough-talk exterior.
Even though Oliver’s politics are conventional and his successes overblown, many fans argue that figures like him and Jon Stewart are doing their best and deserve some slack. “Jon Stewart shouldn’t have to be more than an entertainer,” according to one account; “his prominence in the liberal imagination is a symptom, not the disease, which is the way in which Democrats, both moderate and liberal, have worked so hard to smother nascent left-wing reform movements within the party.” In other words, these celebrities aren’t the real issue, and their imperfections are just manifestations of bigger problems originating in the Democratic Leadership Council. Consequently, there’s no point in criticizing them. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
This might be fine, if the political shortcomings of these shows were anywhere as benign as their supporters make them sound. However, Jon Stewart wasn’t just a talented satirist who occasionally descended into excessively circle-jerky self-regard. He was also a Viacom employee who consistently whitewashed state murder when committed by Team Blue, sold his viewers imperialist propaganda, helped burnish the reputations of ruling class criminals, and cordoned off war crimes as the sole domain of third-world despots. Stewart didn’t just fail to do some good deeds; he was actively engaged in propaganda. Furthermore, by virtue of being Jon Stewart, he sold these messages to audiences that wouldn’t buy it coming from a different salesperson.
Similarly, maybe John Oliver isn’t a proto-Marxist who’s a few entreaties away from calling for the return of the guillotine. What does it say that Oliver runs interference for a system of exploitation, consistently minimizes ruling class crimes, and pushes a flag-waving nationalism that wouldn’t be out of place on Fox & Friends? Maybe the media is highlighting Oliver as a liberal success story precisely because his semi-radical trappings are wrapped around this reactionary core. Maybe the exact reason that Oliver enjoys his success, fame, and iconoclastic reputation is because he fails to identify capitalism as the engine of human exploitation.
Maybe “nascent left-wing reform movements” aren’t just smothered by Rahm Emanuel, but by a whole ecosystem of pseudo-left figures. Held up as examples of robust dissent, they’re actually a vital part of the mechanism for co-opting discontent and steering criticism away from the capitalist system. Rather than being symptoms of anemic mass-movements, these celebrities actively help kill resistance by pushing tepid centrism on disenchanted Americans and injecting reactionary ideas into liberal discourse. That’s why they’re rich and famous: because they serve the ruling class more than they hinder them. Consequently, they don’t deserve passes because they’re helping preserve an exploitative system.
Maybe Jon Oliver will never be Mad Max, because he and his ilk are part of the problem.
The excellent twitter account A Big Fan pointed out that The Atlantic magazine just called comedians like John Oliver “the new public intellectuals.” Whose interests does a development like this serve?
If comedians are the new public intellectuals, this means that instead of coming from academia or activism, for instance, the “truth-tellers” who act “as guides through our cultural debates” will first go through countless stages of corporate vetting before they reach the public eye. As Jon Stewart has attested countless times, when criticized for their political shortcomings, comedians can also respond by saying that they’re “just” comedians. All this means no more pesky Cornel Wests, with their inconvenient demands for justice and wealth redistribution.