Notes on a hogiography: the teachable moment of #piggate

animalBy now everyone will have certainly heard about the deliciously amusing claims regarding prime minister David Cameron and the things he got up to as an undistinguished university student. If you haven’t, feel free to look it up – I won’t repeat the details here (the newspapers will inevitably call the details “salacious,” but heaven help me if I can think of anybody who would find this salacious). Suffice it to say that it involves a useless animal doing a horrid thing to a useful one.

The whole business derives from a desire to settle some intramural scores among a community of lavish beneficiaries through public humiliation, and that desire has certainly been fulfilled. And it has paid off – every possible variation of jokes and puns, ranging from the guffaw-inducing vulgar to the actually sort of clever, has made a rapid journey through social networks. Peppa, Piglet, Miss Piggy and the rest have experienced media revivals. We found out about another group of ill-behaved heirballs hanging around institutions where other people receive education, the Piers Gaveston Society (apparently it was named after the 1st Earl of Cornwall, 1284-1312, and not the excellent old Jimmy Webb song). And we affirmed again that elitist “traditions” are pretty modern – the Piers Gaveston Society, for example, was founded in 1977, indicating that this phenomenon has more to do with the assertion of class dominance in the Thatcher era than with its maintenance or curation.

Since the story involves a prominent person and that person’s genitals, there has been a strong impulse to euphemise the activity involved as a “sex act.” It is a sex act only peripherally, though; at bottom it is a class act. That is to say it involves a ritual in which people are invited to perform, and together with this affirm, a class identity. It fits into a complex of “secret societies” characteristic of unequal social environments. Into these “secret societies” enter beneficiaries of privilege who generate instances in which they will have the opportunity to perform for one another their exemption from compliance with laws (especially narcotics laws, which tend to be enforced against the lightly resourced), their unconcern with problems like scarcity of food and basic life requirements, and their sense of themselves as a small group inherently superior to other people.

This kind of clique formation is hardly unknown to sociology. Pierre Bourdieu would put it all under the rubric of the “ideology of charisma,” in which beneficiaries of a market system that produces inequality ascribe their privilege to innate qualities of the self rather than to material factors. The added element of humiliation in a restricted social context is meant to contribute to future class solidarity, creating an environment where people will refrain from exposing one another because everybody has the capacity to discredit everybody else. This becomes important when the issue is not who made a fool of themselves sexually or who stole the MDMA from the cookie jar, but who has access to the cartel that controls interest rates and insider privatisations. A parallel can be drawn another mechanism designed to assure mutual trust in closed and secretive business environments, the Mafia practice of omertà. As Diego Gambetta explains:

  • “While secrecy is the most elementary means of practicing self-protection, vis-à-vis both rivals and the state, it is primarily a requirement for selling protection to others, for if our customers know anything that can be used against us, our position as a guarantor is weakened since it is difficult to control someone who can fight back. Leading a discreet life, allowing only creditable information to filter out – these are essential prerequisites for selling our product. Omertà is not, as many have suggested, merely a traditional code which has matured over long periods of foreign domination and is now inertially retained, nor is it simply a means of keeping the state out of our business. It is a crucial part of our ability to serve as an entrepreneur of protection” (The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection. Harvard UP 1993, pp. 38-39).

Less crucial than omertà itself may be the mystique it produces: it is intended to contribute to bonds of class solidarity that will, in the future, prove stronger than tensions created by competing interests. Like any mystical bond, it functions as long as the material conditions that place the unity of the ruling class over its internal rivalries continue to obtain (as they do most of the time). The bond created by rituals of mutual humiliation were strong enough to constrain David Cameron, a nonentity who has never wanted or accomplished anything, but not Michael Ashcroft, a backroom bounder righteous in his belief that he had purchased more influence than he received.

That the scandal has produced a lot of sardonic joking and very little surprise suggests that this week’s Porkotopia has a Dolphin Square root. Laurie Penny has helpfully pointed out that “weird sex stuff is as British as weak tea and racism,” and the fact that a lot of it is abusive will already be well known (but not much spoken about) to anyone who has followed the decades-long coverups of serial highly-placed abusers from prominent politicians to pop music hangers-on. Lawrence Richards has made clear that much of the popularity of this sordid little item derives from people’s happiness to take an opportunity to stop pretending that they don’t know the “ideology of charisma” when they see it.

There is another element, of course. Part of the reason that the incident has been met with pretty much no disbelief is that the image of our ruling class as distasteful, abusive schoolboys is entirely consistent with their conduct during their adult lives. The same week that this “revelation” came out, the government announced that they would eliminate the budget for providing free school lunches to poor children, but that got nothing like the reaction. But at least we got lots of funny pig jokes, those were nice.