Recently, Chortle linked to an interview with the US stand-up Doug Stanhope. At the beginning of the piece the writer enthused: ‘Stanhope’s material ranges from true-life graphic perversion to volatile social criticism. Doug is vulgar, opinionated, brutally honest and shockingly uninhibited and is certainly not for everybody’.
In describing Stanhope along these lines the writer was merely regurgitating a widely received view that this acclaimed stand-up is an outsider on American society, sparing no person or topic from his withering humorous attacks.
In fact Stanhope is held up by many as saying the unsayable, as turning received opinion on its head, and being brutally and intellectually honest in combining social commentary and comedic assault on a whole host of subjects. Some go as far as seeing Stanhope as some sort of enlightened radical.
But what was also noticeable about this particular interview is that it was originally published in a right-wing online blog. Free Market Mojo, as it proudly proclaims, believes that ‘capitalism is the most effective economic system as well as the only moral economic system’.
For many people this would be a relatively harmless statement to make. After all, there are many varieties of capitalism out there – American, UK, Russian, Brazilian, Indian versions to name just a few – and capitalism has brought us some huge benefits. So it’s not that it supports capitalism which makes the rather funky sounding Free Market Mojo right-wing. Rather, it’s the fact that Free Market Mojo supports a particular type of capitalism.
Basically, this version of capitalism rests on the idea that governments should not intervene nor interfere with the running of the capitalist economy. The way that investments are made around the globe should instead be left to investors, and the only legitimate role of government is to support the actions and decisions of these investors.
Encapsulated in this rhetoric is the quaint notion that the way in which free markets work is highly rational, based as it on the magical ‘laws’ of supply and demand. Oh, and there’s also the idea that the wealth created by entrepreneurs will eventually ‘trickle’ down to the likes of you and me.
Governments shouldn’t worry themselves therefore about impractical ideas like maintaining a welfare state and a minimum wage. Instead, governments should privatise everything to encourage our capitalist heroes to keep investing and making profits for the benefit of all of us. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were both early advocates of this form of capitalism, commonly known today as neoliberalism, just to give you an indication of the sort of people and ideas we’re talking about here.
Unfortunately, the recent economic turmoil, along with increases in poverty and inequality in America, UK and elsewhere, has inconveniently punctured a hole in this little fantasy bubble. But, hey, this hasn’t stopped Stanhope giving an interview to those who hold fast to these ridiculous right-wing views.
In fact, the interview is very telling in what it says about Stanhope’s own political views. For example, Stanhope claims that before the last American election he initially registered as a Republican. If that wasn’t bad enough, Stanhope goes on to say that he did so in order to vote for the then Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul. For those of you who don’t know, Ron Paul is a libertarian Republican – somebody who strongly believes in the moral righteousness of neo-liberal capitalism and rigorously opposes state intervention for social goods like welfare.
But the fact that Stanhope initially supported Paul shouldn’t really surprise us. Stanhope himself has consistently claimed that he is also a libertarian. However, this isn’t a libertarianism steeped in leftist anarchist ideals. No – Stanhope’s libertarianism is associated with what amounts to a right-wing take on this ideology.
For a short while, in fact, Stanhope even ran for the US Presidency himself for the Libertarian Party. And here’s the interesting part. At first glance the Libertarian Party in America appears, like Stanhope, to be quite edgy and radical on a number of issues. For instance, the Libertarian Party wants to tackle crime by ending drug prohibition because, ultimately, it believes that current government policy of making drugs illegal helps to fuel gang crime and a whole lot of other crimes.
But on a wide variety of other issues the Libertarian Party is extremely right-wing. Take its policies on how it plans to tackle poverty and welfare in the US. According these enlightened souls, a good way to eliminate poverty is to end welfare altogether. In its place these noble Libertarians want to bring about a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to private charity.
In other words, they want to ditch welfare – even though plenty of studies show that inequality and poverty significantly decreases in those countries with good welfare systems – and replace it with private charity.
Whether or not those in the Libertarian Party find solace here from the Victorian era where charities took the role of welfare, it’s nevertheless clear that this example is an indication of how on a number of crucial policy issues they advocate right-wing neoliberal policies.
Now, there’s no doubt that Stanhope is in many ways a brilliant stand-up. That, however, isn’t the point here. The point, rather, is that Stanhope is held up by many for his fearless social commentary; commentary which many also mistakenly believe is grounded in some sort of radical rhetoric.
The reason why this is a mistaken view is not only because Stanhope supports right-wing political parties and right-wing Presidential candidates. Perhaps more importantly in respect to comedy, this view is mistaken because Stanhope often pulls these right-wing views into his own stand-up routines.
Take for example this his stand-up DVD Deadbeat Hero (see YouTube clip below). Stanhope defines ‘freedom’ in the following way: ‘You’re born absolutely free except for laws of nature… and any government just fucks you up outside of that type of freedom’.
While Stanhope and his devotees might think this is some sort of uncompromising and penetrating insight, in reality it’s merely one of the oldest justifications for keeping the status quo. After all, what’s Stanhope really saying here? Beneath the radical posture all he’s doing by making the ludicrous claim – ‘you’re born absolutely free’ – is to deny that many people are actually born into conditions of inequality which are not of their own choosing let alone their own free choice.
In other words, each person in America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, isn’t born free. Actually, the opposite is true. We’re all born into social systems that inscribe a whole range of biases, privileges (in some cases), prejudices, and injustices onto us before we even utter a word.
Stanhope therefore has a conservative take on ‘freedom’; a conservatism which is palpable in that way in which it simply dismisses the daily realities of the millions who are downtrodden and poor in America. But his reactionary tone is carried on in Deadbeat Hero as Stanhope also moans about government bureaucracy and its negative effects on daily life.
He saves particular ire for the Internal Revenue Service for daring to collect taxes. Again, this narrative – evil tax collectors imposing themselves on US citizens – is a deeply conservative one in America and is usually pumped out by apologists for the status quo and by those who believe that governments who intervene to promote social welfare are worse than child abusers.
Stanhope is often cited as an ‘outlaw comic’ and held up as the natural heir to brave and courageous US stand-ups of the past such as Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. But such comparisons are misplaced for one important reason.
Take Bill Hicks. On stage and in private Hicks explicitly related his comedy to his strongly held left-wing ideals; ideals influenced to some degree by reading leading left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. Where Hicks, then, poked fun out of people who judged a Presidential candidate of whether the candidate would raise taxes, Stanhope is obsessed with this issue, which is tied in more generally to his romanticised conservative belief that America needs to get back to her past of ‘rugged individualism and self-determination’; a past incidentally where those who suffered the ravages of the American Dream through deprivation and poverty were left to fend for themselves.
Hicks would have rejected such reactionary nonsense, believing it missed both the really important issues in politics and missed deep rooted problems and inequalities in American society. The most we can say is that Stanhope might share a similar comedy form to Hicks, but the content of what they each say is both intellectually and politically different.
Unlike the left-wing Hicks, Stanhope really is just a silly old right-winger.