I ratify everything Lorenzo has written in this post, which by way of examining Daily Show alum John Oliver’s Last Week, superbly lays out the problems of ostensibly “left” media celebrities and their confused fans. Just about everything Lorenzo has written about Oliver applies to any left media star, including the ones with by-lines: that they’re effectively centrists and liberals, when they’re not outright reactionaries; that they promote imperialist propaganda; that they whitewash things like Indian Prime Minister Modi’s fascism while stigmatizing Latin American socialists; that they foster a fetish for information to the exclusion of analysis; and that they don’t genuinely oppose corporate power, for reasons that should be obvious.
Lorenzo’s jumping off point is this Jacobin article by Thomas Crowley, which disappointedly observes that “John Oliver is mad at corporations but not capitalism” and then wishes it were otherwise, as if it actually could be. By Lorenzo’s lights, people to the left of Oliver like Crowley, give Oliver and his ilk a pass for working within a difficult system, and for sometimes producing real, if modest, change. But as Lorenzo points out, their political shortcomings are not “anywhere as benign as their supporters make them sound” and illustrates with Jon Stewart’s avid promotion of imperialism and ruling class criminals, which his audience wouldn’t buy “if coming from a different salesperson.”
In his concluding paragraph, Lorenzo writes:
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.
This is another way of saying — correctly — that the professional left is effectively astroturf. It doesn’t lead toward partisan politics the way old school astroturf does; instead, it leads people away from systemic critique and genuine opposition and points them toward information consumption, handwringing, hero worship and passivity. Perhaps it’s no accident that so many of our most celebrated professional dissidents are represented by a PR company specializing in astroturf.
This idea is, I think, the real dividing line between people who criticize the professionally leftish and people who criticize people who criticize the professionally leftish. I’m assuming, of course, there actually is an analytical, tactical side to the latter group, though too often it doesn’t amount to more than, There are The Bad People and The Good People. We must never criticize The Good People.
But if we are differing less on politics than on tactics, what I want to know is: What makes people like John Crowley think that Time Warner (or Vice or First Look or Fusion or MSNBC) will ever be a partner in undermining capitalism? What makes people say that anyone pointing out the extreme unlikeliness of this ever happening — because a tactical alliance with capitalism to defeat capitalism is absurd on its face — is a kooky conspiracy theorist? Finally, what, exactly, are the benefits of giving a pass to smirking, self-pleased, fascism-minimizing, socialist bashing twerps like Oliver just because they take the odd swing at some Bad Apple or another? What’s in it for anti-capitalists?
I’ve been asking a similar question about Sy Hersh, to people who think I’m peddling conspiracy madness when making reasonable inferences about Hersh’s lifetime dependence on senior officials in the Intelligence Community, the State Department and the military. Even if I am overstating Sy Hersh’s service to professional imperialists — I’m not, but let’s pretend — what, exactly, are people seeing in this OBL story? Why doesn’t it matter to people that Hersh’s source for 90% of his blockbuster is an anonymous senior intelligence official? Why doesn’t it matter that his story is simply an embellishment of a story a security analyst published in 2011? Why doesn’t it matter that every time he’s interviewed he does a sales pitch for imperialist meddling and extols the essential virtue of imperialist meddlers?
Rewinding a little more, what does Greenwald contract troll Mona Holland mean here, with the suggestion that Snowden’s shitty politics are irrelevant to an assessment of his whistleblowing? More specifically, why is it irrelevant that the Snowden Affair is an extended lesson in obedient disobedience, the overall worthiness of The Intelligence Community, and the private sector’s immense usefulness as a partner in fighting surveillance? That, under its influence, what passes for a Left is morphing into a neoliberal campaign for transparency and internet privacy that readily makes common cause with defense contractors, oligarchs, Apple and fascists? Does it mean the differences between Snowden and, say, Philip Agee — who wedded his disclosures to a withering critique of capitalism that called for its dismantling — are insignificant? If so, why? I honestly can’t imagine.
Unless, of course, our differences aren’t tactical, after all. They’re political. Hence, Holland finds Snowden’s politics irrelevant because she agrees with them. Perhaps when Holland’s colleague Greenwald says shit like this —
— it’s because he agrees with Snowden’s politics also, and is simply astroturfing against radicalism, by marginalizing it as inauthentic, and playing to a crowd that, despite some affectations, doesn’t like radicals any more than he does. He does this quite a lot, and I’ve mostly just laughed at it. But I’m going to dispute it now because words mean things, and as neoliberalism colonizes the left via astroturfing celebrities, it’s important to recall what those meanings are.
I am not a pseudo-radical. I’m a radical, which is a political orientation that has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I’ve stolen government files or whether or not a whistleblower ever made me rich. I’m a radical because I oppose all forms of domination and exploitation, including capitalism and imperialism. I think radical change, not fetishized secrets, better cryptography or beneficent oligarchs is the answer to the world’s woes. As a radical, I critique infotainers like Oliver and Greenwald through a radical lens — which amounts to no more, really, than lifting Chomsky’s exemption from his own analysis — and conclude that they serve power. If you think that’s pseudo-radical, you’re probably a liberal.
As a friend wrote recently, “we are at a point in human civilisation where anybody trying to justify capitalism should be dismissed as a joke.” Good advice. Let’s get serious.