Early into the Holecialism show on Wednesday night, Eric Schwartau doodled the faces of Marx and Lenin on white paper facing a crowd of a few dozen people packed into a slightly musty basement.
“All the communist leaders have been daddies,” Steven Phillips-Horst said, looking at Schwartau’s depiction of Lenin.
Phillips-Horst and Schwartau are the co-hosts of Talk Hole, a monthly queer comedy show at the Chinese-Italian fusion restaurant Asia Roma in Chinatown. Both are white, gay comedians; Phillips-Horst is also a writer and actor, while Schwartau does editorial design. They created Talk Hole together in 2015.
“We’re hoping to, through free comedy, present a compelling alternative to capitalism centered around…us,” Phillips-Horst said via text. “We believe it’s time for workers to seize the holes of production.”
Though this was the only Talk Hole show to specifically engage with socialism, anti-capitalist themes run through all of Talk Hole’s output, especially critiques of late-capitalist phenomena like ubiquitous branding. Their March event, PayHole, focused on current ideas about money and finance, like Bitcoin and payment apps. Talk Hole is part of a wave of queer comedy centered in New York, at a time when the city is also becoming a hub for newly invigorated socialist politics.
“Queer people are used to being told, growing up, that 80% of what you see is not available to you,” Phillips-Horst said. “So queer people are natural candidates to support socialism.”
It’s hard to say that new democratic socialist politics fully incorporate queer critiques and visions into their overall goals. Two democratic socialist candidates won Democratic primaries in New York this year, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will likely join the US House of Representatives next year representing parts of the Bronx and Queens. She elevated other progressive candidates, including fellow socialist Julia Salazar, who is campaigning for a seat in the New York Senate to represent a district in North Brooklyn, a stronghold for the Democratic Socialists of America. The LGBTQ positions of both candidates tracked very closely to other non-socialist, progressive candidates, advocating for anti-discrimination legislation and healthcare coverage for gender-affirming procedures.
Ocasio-Cortez does make passing reference to the intersection of queer issues with class dynamics in her platform, but does not elaborate. “The issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community are not isolated from the issues facing many of us regarding race and class,” her website states.
“She’s very branded,” Phillips-Horst said of Ocasio-Cortez.
Some critics have questioned the new wave of self-described socialists ushered in by the Bernie Sanders campaign, arguing that many of the politicians’ platforms are no different than a progressive Democrat’s, and appear far left only in comparison with the rightward shift in a US political culture that hasn’t seen sweeping social reform since the New Deal of the 1930s.
The Holecialism show picked up on this idea, extending Talk Hole’s experiments with lenses to the political realm with the idea of socialism as a brand. “Capitalism has never been more performative than it is now, with so many brands repackaging our insecurities as sleek lifestyle choices,” Phillips-Horst said. “Socialism should get off its high horse, and so should everyone else.”
The show introduced “Holecialism” as a take on socialism that engages directly with queer culture, consisting of four acts interspersed with commentary and games with the hosts.
“We’re seeing a real movement in the political sphere with the primaries of people in the Democratic Party trying to push the party to the left and push socialist ideas into the mainstream. So we’re trying to play with how much you can use the brand of socialism for your own purposes,” Phillips-Horst said.
“With communism people worry we have to go work in the field, the factory, or in embroidery,” Phillips-Horst said. “Holecialism is definitely sexy, definitely fun, and doesn’t involve too much work.”
The Holecialism hosts asked the audience to suggest ideas for the tenets of Holecialism in multiple activities, including “Holecialism or Nocialism,” where people reacted to suggestions like “dogs” and “cold brew.”
“I want the decorations, the drama, the makeup of capitalism, but not the inequality,” Schwartau said at the show.
Peter Drucker, an editor and gay socialist, writes that the American left has always fluctuated in its embrace of queer politics from decade to decade, from homophobic sentiments in the Stalin-influenced ‘50s to more radical sexual politics in the ‘70s. Now, he says, the left is less tied to queer issues since the gay marriage movement made LGBTQ issues a more moderate concern that crossed political lines.
“The left needs to purge its own culture of heteronormative attitudes and habits so that queers, for the first time, will feel equally and fully at home in its ranks,” Drucker writes.
Talk Hole’s hosts say that most of their audience rarely attends other comedy shows, though many work in other creative professions. This may be a testament to the show’s position far outside the comedy mainstream.
“I don’t usually go to comedy events,” said Elijah, whose friend brought him to the show. “I’m excited about socialism; Holecialism I know less about, but I’m excited to know more.”
The hosts returned to the stage after the fourth act to end the show. “Please go forth and dismantle the patriarchal capitalist system or just, like, go shopping, bye, love you,” Phillips-Horst said.