The new politics of comedy

Liam Mullone explains where Doug Stanhope is coming from

Doug Stanhope has no need for me to defend him, be I ever so humble in the meritocratic (and therefore perfect) world of comedy.

But Jay Slater’s tirade against him in Chortle’s Correspondents section turned, somewhere in the middle of his essay, into an attack on libertarianism. As a libertarian I would like to clear up a few of his errors, and maybe by doing that I’ll help anyone else trying to answer the increasingly urgent issue: Is it OK to like Doug Stanhope?

First, it should come as no surprise to Jay Slater - or anyone else - that the US Libertarian Party appears to be ‘quite edgy and radical on a number of issues’ while in other aspects being ‘extremely right-wing’. Libertarianism is socially left-wing and fiscally right-wing. This, in a nutshell, is libertarianism.

It isn’t that Stanhope is following a type of libertarianism, or bending his libertarianism to a dodgy, Republican agenda. Mr Slater must simply remove from the word ‘libertarian’ the soggy detritus he has accumulated around the word ‘liberal’, and approach it anew.

The maxim of libertarianism is: ‘Do whatever you like, but don’t expect me to pay for it.’ If Mr Slater knows any other type of libertarianism, then he owns a different edition of Atlas Shrugged [Ayn Rand’s hugely influential novel exploring the themes of libertatianism]

Put another way, Britain’s Libertarian Alliance states that a Libertarian has three wants: ‘He wants to be left alone. He wants to leave others alone. He wants others to be left alone.’

The territory encompassed in this statement is huge, which is why libertarians are as varied today as communists were in the good old days of left and right. Stalin would not have agreed with Billy Bragg, and David Davis probably thinks that P J O’Rourke is a prick. But libertarianism as a force in politics - and in comedy - IS relatively new and IS entirely radical.

The people who publish Spiked, Britain’s online libertarian newspaper, used to edit Living Marxism. It has about 300,000 readers, which is (so they claim, they could be lying) rapidly increasing. So thank God for Doug Stanhope, if only to make comics grasp this crazy libertarian thing while it’s relatively fresh.

On several issues all libertarians agree: Less laws, less interference, less monitorism, less tax, less spending on defence, less benefit payments, less obstacles to business, less local government, less big government. We all get what we earn and we spend what we make, and we don’t get told not to spend it on Chicken McNuggets and cigarettes, or have to watch Jenny Eclair telling us not to eat so much salt, or Rhod Gilbert telling us to visit Wales (much as I like Rhod Gilbert and can tolerate Wales).

This sort of Britain will frighten many. Just a small dose of libertarianism would force the NHS to go back to healing the sick, instead of spending millions on advertising campaigns, posters, ‘preventive measures’ and other means of social engineering.

They would have no choice as to whom they treated. They would have to allow the terminally ill to die if they could express that wish, instead of being told not to play God in a world that has no God. They would have to sack some of the 12,000 middle managers empowered by New Labour, and - we can only hope - use the money to employ more doctors, and buy cheaper drugs on the open market, instead of through the NHS contracts system.

Smoking would return to pubs as the choice of allowing it returned to the landlord. Dancing and music, too. Bummer. Tax would be put at 10 per cent for everyone, without disincentives. Anyone capable of work, who doesn’t do any, would starve to death. There would be no more incentives for having children. There would be no curbs on immigration. There would be no crime where there is no identifiable victim. In law, there would be no such thing as ‘vice’.

Could this lead to a hell on earth? Of course it could. There is a very good computer game, Bioshock, that sets its story in an undersea dystopia where the ideas of Ayn Rand are extrapolated to their absolute extremes.

The player enters the game just as everyone has become either very mental or very dead. Because, just as unchecked authoritarianism ends in fascism and extreme license ends in anarchy, libertarianism at its most lawless is anarcho-capitalism, or railroad capitalism as it was known, and existed, in America.

But even moderate libertarianism is a world before health and safety. For every bit of not sucking the lifeblood out of people, there is a large chunk of allowing idiots to blow themselves up, smoke themselves to death and dance in unlicensed venues. Banks would have been left to collapse, along with the Millennium Bridge and Cherie Blair’s face, without our money to support them. Libertarianism is terrifying, and, like Mr Stanhope, not for the timid.

But please check your prejudice. You may feel, Mr Slater, that you can call Mr Stanhope ‘a silly old right-winger’ because you are hearing him voice an American desire for freedom from an elevated, British perspective. You may tell yourself, as countless smug, self-satisfied Britons have before, that we are more advanced than our stateside cousins. More civilised.

You may feel that many of their preoccupations - like the argument for gun control - belong in the 19th century, and that, because we spend millions of pounds extracting millions of pounds from millions of people and then pay millions of pounds more to pay most of it back in benefits, we in the Old World sit at the very apex of social evolution.

We fucking do not. Americans have lost none of their civil rights in the last 15 years, whereas we have lost the right of assembly, the right to protest, the right to a free and fair trial whatever the charge, the right to habeas corpus, the right to representation abroad, the right to express unpopular ideas, the right to drink and smoke where we please, the right to remain free where there is no charge, the right to defend ourselves and - before much longer - the right to our own identity.

We have had years of it. This is the only country in the world where, thanks to the Tories, it is illegal to ATTEMPT to enter outer space (The Outer Space Act, 1986). It’s like they’ve seen our dreams and, decades before they can be realised, banned them just to be safe.

And when we realise that, as Mr Stanhope says, we are left with only one freedom: ‘The freedom to float around the system’, we will deserve nothing more. We thought New Labour meant happy liberalism, and now we are fucked.

Mr Slater despairs at the fact Mr Stanhope has voted Republican. Instead of working around this with some sort of apologia, let’s go straight to the most backward of Republican beliefs, the one that so excites the likes of Marks Steel and Thomas and any one of our thousand less capable comedic proselytisers who do a ‘political bit’ that adds up to saying ‘America is shit’.

Let’s look at the right to bear arms. This right exists because the US Constitution states that, should the government become destructive of any ‘self-evident’ right, the people are guaranteed the higher right to remove that government. With guns. The US is the only nation on earth where the right of the people to rise up in bloody insurrection is actually enshrined in law.

You may find this distasteful, or unnecessary. I find it beautiful. Anyway, a libertarian is someone who asks him or herself, simply: which is more democratic - to be under the gun, or to own one?

Finally, I must disappoint you. Bill Hicks was a libertarian. Look at what he said about mothers on welfare (‘ker-thunkkk!’) Look at his attitude to the illiterate, the lazy, the stupid. For every left-wing parry at ignorance, racism or the right of women to abort (all ideals upheld by libertarians) there’s a right-wing kick in the bollocks for anyone (poor white trash, in particular) who brings down the average lap time in this disparate human race.

Yes, he liked Chomsky. I like Chomsky. There is much in Chomsky for a libertarian to love. Like Hicks, libertarians also love pornography, smoking, Hendrix, leaving Branch Dravidians the fuck alone and seeing a black guy driving a Ferrari. These things are our daily bread.

Attack libertarianism, by all means, when you attack Doug Stanhope. There is plenty to attack. But please take the time to understand what it actually is. Libertarianism will, I think, become more relevant - in comedy as in politics - as the world slowly realises that the old Left vs Right model is irrelevant, and adapts to the new polarity of the individual vs the State. Those few comedians that have recognised this new world, and the challenges it holds - primarily Stanhope - are precious indeed.

He’s also pretty funny.

Published: 21 Feb 2010

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