Pure spectacle at Last Week Tonight, courtesy $15 million in retired debt. / Last Week Tonight
Sophie Weiner, Laura Hanna,  June 10, 2016

Debt Resistance Lite: John Oliver’s Stunt

Q&A with the Debt Collective

Pure spectacle at Last Week Tonight, courtesy $15 million in retired debt. / Last Week Tonight
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Last Sunday, HBO’s topical comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver aired a segment in which the show acquired and then retired nearly $15 million of consumer medical debt. Oliver used his monologue to go after debt buyers who use questionable tactics to collect on their purchases. Like many of Oliver’s bits, the segment went viral.

But to those behind the Debt Collective and Strike Debt, groups that originated in Occupy Wall Street and that aim to empower Americans in debt to fight for economic justice, the show wasn’t a triumph for their cause. They revealed in a blog post that Oliver’s team had spoken to them months in advance of the show, to ask about using their Rolling Jubilee project, which solicited donations they used to buy off and forgive consumer debt, as a template for their prank. But a week before the show, the Debt Collective received a call from Last Week Tonight informing them that the segment had been scrubbed of any reference to their organization because of its ties to Occupy Wall Street. Instead, Oliver framed the segment as the biggest giveaway in TV history, comparing it to Oprah’s legendary free-car stunt.

We spoke to a representative of the Debt Collective about their experience with Last Week Tonight, what viewers of the show missed about the movement to collectivize debt, and why laughing at our problems may not be the best way to go about fixing them.

Sophie Weiner: How has the Rolling Jubilee project evolved?

Laura Hanna: In 2012, We started a project called Strike Debt that had an initiative called the Rolling Jubilee. Out of that came the Debt Collective. Right now the Rolling Jubilee is on hiatus. We’ll use it as a tactic should we need to, but we’ve stopped collecting money and buying debt. Now we want to organize and create a debtors’ union.

SW: When and how did John Oliver’s team first get in touch with you?

LH: About eight months ago they contacted us saying that they wanted to do something similar to the Rolling Jubilee.

SW: And did they end up doing something similar?

LH: No, they didn’t keep the debt. They transferred the funds into a charity, a nonprofit. So it was not done in a similar way.

SW: Could you tell me how that differs from what you guys did?

LH: They’re cautious, HBO. They wanted to get rid of the debt. They didn’t want to have it over their heads, they didn’t want to go through the process of IRS determination and all of the infrastructure of the Rolling Jubilee, and so they went to a charity.

SW: During your conversations with them, what was the tone? What sense did you get of their purpose in talking to you?

LH: We talked a lot about the logistics and the mechanics of the work that we’d done, why we did it, what we’re doing now. And we pointed them in the direction of the lawyers that we worked with.

We have a small core team that’s worked on Debt Collective and the Rolling Jubilee for years. They mostly talked with Tom [Gokey], but they talked with all of us toward the end.

SW: How did you find out that they would not be talking about your work in the final show?

LH: Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, [Last Week Tonight researcher] Charles Wilson contacted us and let us know that they were not going to retain the debt themselves, that they were going to transfer it to this other entity. We felt this was disagreeable because the other entity [the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt] is set up to make money and run a charity, and we had laid all the groundwork for them. They’re taking the work out of context entirely and running it as pure spectacle, without any response to the structural problem that we all know exists.

We asked them why [they wouldn’t mention us]. We asked, “Why don’t you simply turn it over to the Rolling Jubilee, just as we have done most recently with a massive judgment debt lawsuit [with the New Economy Project] where we retired $800 million [as part of the settlement]?” They said they thought it would be questionable to have some sort of association with an organization that had its founding members coming out of Occupy.

SW: Were you surprised by that?

LH: We were shocked by it and found it laughable. Especially considering John Oliver’s “content” and the fact that so much of Occupy did really mainstream the conversation around economic inequality. I mean, look at the current political atmosphere with Bernie Sanders. It was surprising.

SW: You said in your post that they “invoked the cover of journalism” to justify excluding Rolling Jubilee. What do you mean by that?

LH: So in [Wilson’s] response, when we pressed him, he said, “Well, it might look questionable for our journalism to be associated with OWS.” To which we said, that’s funny, some of us here are journalists and plenty of people have made mention or association—especially when lifting someone’s entire work—to the source. And secondly, in other pieces you’ve tried to distance yourselves from journalists, and been “pranksters” or done political acts—well, political lite.

SW: Did you get the sense that it was something that was a unanimous decision? Did it come from a specific person, or did it come from HBO?

LH: I don’t know, but I do get the sense that their had been conversation about it, extensive conversation.

SW: What do you feel like John Oliver viewers missed out on by your exclusion from the piece?

LH: You can see a little bit of what they missed out on by looking at [fans’] remarks on social media to us. They claim that we were just “butthurt” from not receiving credit, and they said things like “You share the same mission!” and “Why doesn’t the left collaborate better?” yadayada. “Why this heavy ideological bent?” Then we have to explain that the ideology is the difference, and the fact that you don’t even know what we’re doing is the problem. You think that we’re just in it to forgive debt all day long, apparently. So I had a couple of back and forths.

Those are fans reacting to our piece and basically calling us spoiled children. Which is an amazing thing when you’ve worked for years on collective organizing and debt resistance. You have “progressives” responding to a two-minute-blip TV show and telling you that you’re a whiny baby.

SW: John Oliver has made his show famous in part by talking about structural issues. Even in this episode, he made an attempt to do that, but obviously stopped short. The sound bite for this show was “There are some people buying and selling your debt, and that’s unethical. They’re doing it in unethical ways. We’re going to demonstrate how unethical it is by doing it ourselves.” Why do you think it might have been scarier or harder for John Oliver to address something like debt resistance than some of the other stuff the show has dealt with: problems with the justice system, for example.

LH: It’s a good question. It’s really baffling to me that you would go and lift a tactic, take it out of its context. [Perhaps it’s because] if he were to reference us, he wouldn’t really be the great innovator who’s pulling off this amazing spoof; he wouldn’t be able to claim it. So he had to cut [us] out entirely to create the magic.

SW: What do you think of John Oliver’s brand of activism? Does it have any potential to be a force for good?

LH: I’ll reference a piece The Baffler published [by Steve Almond], called “The Joke’s on You.” I agree with that critique. Awareness is not enough. If I wanted to get cranky about it, I would call it the awareness industrial complex. People are talking about problems all day long, but that does not translate into any change. Look at the comedians that have been on television since, I don’t know, the Bush administration. They’ve been going at it, but has it achieved any results?

SW: If Rolling Jubilee in itself is not the solution for the problem of debt, what is?

LH: Before we started the Rolling Jubilee, we had a theory of change that we’re now implementing. We’re collectivizing indebtedness as a place of potential power. People alone feel vulnerable and have no way to challenge creditors. If they come together and see themselves as part of a common-interest class, they can then make demands upon creditors. They can look at debt as other people’s future income; they can look at debt as something that’s of value, rather than as an individual, shameful burden. At the Debt Collective, we think about it as taking some of the best lessons from labor history and applying them in the space of finance. We’re looking at the current reality of precariousness and the fact that people move between jobs eight or nine times in their lives, if they’re lucky enough to have one. We think we can challenge the way we access and finance our basic necessities.

SW: Oliver says very clearly at the beginning of the segment: If you have the money to pay your debts, you should pay them. What’s your response to that?

LH: I was nearly barfing—that was my response. It was so blatant. He took time to say that up front, to impose this phony morality: Be a good person and pay your debts back, but if you can’t, I’ll be nice enough to give you some relief.

SW: To some people, that “phony morality” might seem like common sense. Why isn’t it? Why is it not a morally reprehensible thing to not pay your debt?

LH: We’ve been debt-financing access to basic necessities for a while. If you look at trends from the 1970s on, wages have stagnated, worker protections have unraveled, the cost of living continues to get more and more expensive, going to university is more expensive, the living wage is being challenged, and the health care system is a mess. People aren’t seeing that because access to credit obscures it. Meanwhile, the only thing comedians—and charities, to a certain extent—offer is catharsis. People think: I’m so much more aware! I’m so depressed, but I know, and that’s so much better! And comedians think: I can make a joke about it! I can speak the truth on HBO! At a certain point, you have to wonder how useful that is.  

Sophie Weiner is a writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and Vice.

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