In 2015 Matt Buck joined a KKK march playing ridiculous songs on his giant sousaphone. The comic act seemed to destroy the racist style and aesthetic of the march and British comedy show The Last Leg repeated the act by hounding conservative politician Jeremy Hunt with the instrument. Today, this form of mockery seems to embody the tactics of progressives. From endless Trump mockery and political dank memes to Jonathan Pie and witty protest boards, the Left is laughing. Of course, politics and humour have long had a close relationship (whether we think of Boris Johnson or George Bush, Private Eye or Charlie Hebdo – it hardly needs proving) but there is nevertheless little doubt that laughter is a particularly prominent tool for the Left in this emerging age of social media politics. Laughing at the Right, and now at the liberal establishment, has become a defining characteristic of the Leftist community, but what should we think twice about concerning our new identities as individual humorist political commentators and apparent participants? Is this ‘progressive’ comedianism helping to battle the establishment’s attempts to retain or re-take power, or even to combat the rising alt-Right?
Marx wrote: “I treat the ridiculous seriously when I treat it with ridicule.” Yet we suggest here – using US and European examples – that the kind of light parodic and mocking laughter characterizing the online Left today has little of this Marxism and often comes down on the side of the very ideologies it intends to oppose. At best, such humour satiates the Left’s potential for resistance while at worst it contributes to the obfuscation of political reality, ultimately feeding the rightwing culture of alt-facts and post-truths that it attempts to counter. Finally, by returning to Marx’s own comments about comedy, we suggest how humour might work differently, to help rather than hinder the cause of the Left.
The important political point here is that while liberalism must be as much the target of Leftist criticism as the Right, it cannot be targeted with exactly the same tactics.
Political comedians like John Oliver are suddenly getting a lot of flak. Writing for Russia Today last month, Michael McCaffrey calls Oliver “a charlatan who appears to be a rebellious liberal comedian speaking truth to power” but who is really “a shameless shill for the ruling class in the US.” Seemingly radical tirades of mockery can indeed be yet another brand of conformism, espousing the very liberal values that are to blame for the current political crisis but presenting them as the solution to the problem. Weeks earlier on the BBC, Slavoj Žižek also targeted Oliver, claiming that the ‘half-joking’ attitude of such presenters who patronizingly mock the ordinary people shows “the ultimate failure of the left.” Both are necessary points, while at the same time each – along with thousands of Facebook pages over the last few months –turn to humorously target the ordinary liberal (embodied by Oliver and his viewers) in place of the elitist autocrat, structurally mimicking the humour that liberals use to take power back from the Right. Though the target of the laughter has changed, satisfying those bored of ridiculing the Right and seeking a new target in the equally complicit liberal, the effect is much the same. The important political point here is that while liberalism must be as much the target of Leftist criticism as the Right, it cannot be targeted with exactly the same tactics.
This is not a Trump-specific issue and in recent months the problem arose in Poland when liberal-leftists Michal Maleszka and Mateusz Trzeciak criticized the modern “culture of ironic distance and vulgar laughter,” using the examples of 4chan and dank memes. Both claim that dank memes are a hermetic source of laughter which creates distance between groups, thereby rejecting the ideas of solidarity and community that are crucial to organized resistance. One problem with their piece is that it is so pompous and devoid of humour itself that it offers no practical solution other than abstaining from all things funny. Another is that it inadvertently suggests abstention from all things political by alienating everyday internet users from the political realm that their memes are attempting to infiltrate. A final problem is that it wrongly assumes that solidarity cannot be based on derision and by implication insists that being nice to each other is the way to political solidarity, one of the very liberal ideas that needs rejecting. One of over-quoted George Orwell’s lesser-known and more Marxist insights was that solidarity must often be precisely with those “unpalatable bedfellows” who we want to distance ourselves from.
Such acts of comedy – themselves a symptom of the Left’s desperation, simulate a feeling of success and produce a sense of productivity and satisfaction without initiating any kind of political change.
A more convincing critique of the patterns of humour prevalent among the online Left as well as among the liberals they criticise could be provided via French Marxist Henri Lefebvre. In his Critique of Everyday Life Lefebvre joined Marx’s idea of alienation with comedy, using Chaplin as his prime case study. While appreciating Chaplin’s potentially subversive comedy, Lefebvre concludes his discussion with the realization that “on leaving the darkness of the cinema” after a Chaplin movie, “we rediscover the same world as before, it closes round as again.” Since, “the comic event has taken place, we feel decontaminated, returned to normality, purified somehow, and stronger.” Lefebvre’s work points to the problem of satiety in the kinds of comedy prevalent on social media today. Such acts of comedy – themselves a symptom of the Left’s desperation, simulate a feeling of success and produce a sense of productivity and satisfaction without initiating any kind of political change. Proving the relevance of the point, the UK Left expressed surprise that Cameron could overcome ‘Pig-gate’ and that Hunt could retain political dignity after the Sousaphones, but the widespread online mockery and derision ultimately caused neither much trouble and indeed may have assisted them by satiating a desirous anger that might otherwise have ended up on the streets outside of Westminster.
Oliver’s mockery of both Clinton and Trump can be seen in this light. When comparing Hilary Clinton’s flaws to a cookie “with a couple of raisins on it” and Trump’s to “a raisin monsoon,” Oliver is missing the point. Extolling the liberal idea that elections are a case of picking ‘the lesser of two evils,’ he avoids the reality that other candidates did not get enough screen time on his own brand of liberal media. This trick can be explained by Robert Pfaller’s idea of interpassivity (on which his book is forthcoming) – an illusory action which in reality serves to preserve the status quo. In this case the viewer is redundant as Oliver’s position is not that of dialogue but of idea enforcement. He mocks other candidates and supposedly mocks Clinton, only to present her as the only reasonable choice at the end (even now that it’s too late).
In finishing Last Week Tonight with a call to arms to his viewers, demanding the use of hashtags as political action, Oliver implies knowledge that something else must occur otherwise his comedy would be rendered useless. For Oliver, whether people use the hashtag or not marks the difference between active participation and active spectatorship. Lefebvre argues that “people who look at life – purely as witnesses, spectators – are not rare […] There really is no substitute for participation.” In reality, the more viral the use of the hashtag, the more satiated the Left becomes and the less likely true participation and a genuine resistance is. In place of a desire to enact change is a simulated satisfaction. In this sense such liberal shows, as well as much satiating online humour, may indeed reveal the failure of today’s Left.
This parodic and endlessly repeated humour may do worse than satiate feelings of discontent and discourage political activity. Memes may be something like the modern form of caricature, functioning to repeat the original so many times and in so many variations that the original itself is lost and a new reality comes into being. The result of this process is the creation of aforementioned dank memes – so overused that they require another meme to be relevant again, which in turn leads to an accumulation of images that are meaningless on their own. Nineteenth century artist Honoré Daumer – the father of modern caricature – anticipated the meme with his caricature set of Louis Phillipe, published in Charles Phillipon’s Le Caricature in 1831. In that image he drew four caricatures of Phillipe, each one increasingly resembling a pear.
An image is repeated until the original can no longer be viewed except through the prism of the copy and Louis-Philippe appears to have always-already been a pear. A comparable near-contemporary example is Steve Bell’s famous Guardian cartoons of David Cameron as a condom, which forever changed the connotations of his forehead for the UK population (though it did nothing to effect his vote count).
This may show us a great danger with such comedy and with memed politics. In Daumier’s context this could be seen as a subversive gesture, showing the ability of caricature and humour to have a concrete effect on politicians and their presentations of themselves. Today it is a more dangerous act, as pointed out recently by two other Polish liberal-leftist writers. In separate articles they recently questioned the validity of the humour in Youtube comedy series Ucho Prezesa, which caricatures the Polish government. The premise of the show is that the hero of the series – based on party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski –runs the country from his office. The show is popular mostly among anti-government liberals, although even Kaczynski himself has reportedly spoken fondly of it. This is exactly the issue that both Grzegorz Rzeczkowski and Jakub Dymek have with the show. The show presents the cabinet ministers as harmless and not particularly smart, while Kaczynski is the intuitive mastermind, playing everyone like pawns from behind his desk. The series does criticize the party’s leader as being ignorant, arrogant and backwards economically, but it also humanizes him to the point that viewers actually warm to him because of the portrayal. Ultimately, viewers may start to appreciate Kaczynski via his warm portrayal. What is more, just like Baldwin’s Trump, the Kaczynski from the show hides the original’s monstrosity via a meme-like separation between the original and his portrayal. As Samantha Allen argued in Paste Magazine, the portrayal might actually soften the image of the president in the long term.
What is necessary now in the case of Trump, Pence, Le Pen and Kaczynski, is that the original be kept firmly in focus, and indeed in these cases, the original is quite funny enough.
As such, this process may function even in the case of Trump, who unlike Kaczynski, Boris Johnson and George Bush, doesn’t laugh at his own comic identity. As Trump parodies and memes – despite their good intentions – flood through the internet, they gradually remove the horrifying political reality of the original, moving further and further away from real politics and into the realm of ‘post-truth’ that serves the political right. One prime example would be the now-famous GIF of Trumpunveiling of his first executive order with a range of drawings and scriblings – from cats to smiley faces and the alphabet – replacing the original text. Trump as silly unprofessional juvenile – even charmingly so – replaces content of the liberty restricting power of the horrifying executive order itself. Such humour, then, can even help enamour the public to the subject of caricature. Caricature may always run this double risk of (a) as obscuring the original and (b) adding to the charm of it. In memed politics the reality is not only hidden but transformed. What is necessary now in the case of Trump, Pence, Le Pen and Kaczynski, is that the original be kept firmly in focus, and indeed in these cases, the original is quite funny enough.
The answer is of course not to avoid humour. Writing on Prussian censorship in 1842, Marx wrote of a fine line between comedy and seriousness, asking “where does seriousness cease and jocularity begin?” Here he comments: “I treat the ridiculous seriously when I treat it with ridicule.” Ridicule has a role to play for the Left and for Marxism proper, since “too great seriousness is the most ludicrous thing of all.” Looked at from this angle, the sousaphones could have an oddly Marxist quality.
Yet, this is not quite the whole story. Marx warns us not to simply switch our comedy from one target to another but to consider the relationship between subject and joke:
Should not the manner of investigation alter according to the object? If the object is a matter for laughter, the manner has to seem serious, if the object is disagreeable, it has to be modest. Thus you violate the right of the object as you do that of the subject.
The Right is comfortable with such humour, and it is no coincidence that politicians on the Right have a history of appearing on comedy panel shows whereas centrists never make such appearances.
To be properly Marxist in our humour, our attacks on liberalism and the establishment require different tactics to our attacks on the Right. Rightwing figures from Hunt to Trump to Kaczynski, despite the severity of the damage they do, are ‘matter for laughter’ in so far as they leave themselves open to easy humour, seem immune to its effects and make jokes of their own. As such, they should be treated seriously, keeping the reality of their politics firmly in focus and preventing a light-heartedness that obscures the reality and enamours us to the object of mockery in the long term, as happens with caricature and parody. The “modest” approach is what is needed, not attacking how vile and stupid these identities may be (which is how the Right attacks others) but ‘violating the right of the object’ by refusing to treat it on its own terms. The Right is comfortable with such humour, and it is no coincidence that politicians on the Right have a history of appearing on comedy panel shows whereas centrists never make such appearances. It may seem that his hypermasculine and supercapitalist ego makes Trump-mockery a particularly appropriate attack but such attacks help rather than hinder his long-term image. While there is a huge temptation to use ridicule to attack Trump, Cameron, Hunt and Kaczynski, they always weather that approach. The way to combat the Right today, and humour can indeed play a role, is to avoid such parodic caricatural mockery, or direct it to the establishment rather than the Right.
On the contrary, the Democrats present themselves as serious and extol the ‘agreeable’ establishment values which are ultimately to blame for the political crisis in which we find ourselves. Such targets are the ones who may be affected by mockery and ridicule, and indeed such mockery does not risk enamouring us to the liberal in the way that it does to the tyrant. The Right have always been ripe for parody but have also long been highly skilled at avoiding the damage it can cause. While Nigel Farage could overcome any humorous mockery imaginable (UKIP leaders even eat the eggs thrown at them), Clinton could hardly have lasted after her shimmy and the dancing GIFs. If the Left is to use this kind of humour to its advantage in the crucial year to come, it should target not the seriously destructive and ideologically despicable but joke-friendly Right but instead turn to the apparently serious and agreeable liberal. Here it could function not divisively – as it tends to in the sousophoscene – but to construct solidarity, breaking through apparently agreeable accepted liberal norms to keep politics in focus as the basis of solidarity rather than to obscure it.