The Null Device
When people refer to politicians as “pigfuckers”, they're usually speaking metaphorically. However, if recent revelations in the Daily Mail about David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK, are true, this may not necessarily always be the case. The revelations, from a biography of Cameron by Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft, allege that, as part of an initiation into the Piers Gaveston Society, a posh dining club at Oxford, Cameron had performed a sexual act with the head of a pig. (This does not come as a complete surprise: Cameron is known to have been a member of other clubs for young aristocrats behaving badly—the Bullingdon Society, who famously trash restaurants and then, sneering, throw down a bag of cash to cover the damage, and whose initiation allegedly involves burning a £50 note in front of a beggar, are a well-known one—however, until now, all such claims were considerably less sexually weird.) Charlie Brooker, for one, has denied having had any knowledge of this incident when he wrote the Black Mirror episode in which a vaguely Cameronoid Prime Minister is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on television.
On one hand, one has to feel sorry for Cameron. He brought in the bedroom tax, routed the Lib Dems, and accomplished numerous other things in office, but none call him Dave the Bedroom Taxer, Dave, Vanquisher of the Lib Dems, or Dave, Scourge of the Scroungers. And yet if you interfere sexually with one pig in your student days, you'll be living it down forever. Chances are that headline writers will be squeezing in pig-related puns into Cameron-related copy well into his occasional post-retirement appearances, much in the way that US theocrat Rick Santorum's appearances end up saddled with fluid-related puns.
The satirical Marxist tubthumper Sam Kriss (who's sort of the China Miéville of blogging) suggests that rituals such as this one serve a purpose: to forge solidarity among our rulers:
It seems that the higher up you go in society, the more cruel and grotesque the ritual becomes. There's an obvious reason for all this: for the upper classes, good connections really matter. If you're going to have a secret society, first you need to have a secret. Whether it's singing in screechy adolescent Hebrew or corpse-eating and pig fucking, these initiations help bind people together, and a student society in which everyone knows that everyone else has done something unspeakable to a piece of ham is bound to stay close afterwards. If anyone breaks ranks, or acts against the interests of the collective, they can be instantly exposed. Groups like the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston societies are not just rugby clubs for the ultra-rich, a vehicle for youthful excess; they're a way of fostering ruling class solidarity.Others have taken a more sympathetic approach, framing the entire system by which the traditional ruling elite of the United Kingdom raise their scions as a form of prolonged child abuse; from the brutal caning practiced in public schools (all the better to beat the empathy and tenderness out of a boy, forging him into the sort of steely-eyed beast of prey who would, unflinching, give the order to raze a village of fuzzy-wuzzies should it stand in the way of Empire) through to the hazing rituals in institutions, from military academies to elite university clubs.
Perhaps, once the tittering over the grotesque sexual slapstick of it all has died down, one thing that will emerge from this incident is the renewed question of what exactly our superiors, the men born to govern us, are like, and what sorts of rulers the system that forms them is geared to produce. Parts are already known; the idea of la vice anglais, the penchant for judges, officers, high-ranking politicians and other prominent Englishmen to have (as a result for having passed through puberty in a public school) a penchant for being spanked by a dominatrix, is a hoary old cliché. like something from a bawdy farce one might find in an antiquarian bookshop. This new incident brings the question beneath this trope into the spotlight, raising the suggestion that there is a secret culture among the men who govern Britain and have done so for centuries, and it is a weird, dark and disturbing one. Are we ruled by the psychologically scarred survivors and perpetrators of various forms of debauched ritualistic abuse, and if so, how else may it have affected the country and its institutions? (Some of the other recent stories—such as the allegations of senior figures protecting paedophile rings—paint a disturbing picture.)
If nothing else, this incident (let's call it “the Prosciutto Affair”) could subtly alter the British public's relationship with traditional authority; perhaps every time somebody sees a High Court Justice or a bishop in the House of Lords, a senior police officer talking about the need for new laws, or some representative of the Royal Family outlining some detail of royal protocol, the first thought that will occur will be “Did he...?” Sexual relations with dead livestock could, in the public imagination, become the new Freemasonry.
And in Australia, there is a new Prime Minister—the fifth in a decade—as Malcolm Turnbull wins a Liberal Party leadership spill, ousting Tony Abbott.
On one hand, it must suck to be Abbott right now, having become the shortest-serving Australian prime minister since Harold Holt (and yes, shorter than That Woman), and, more to the point, missing out by a few days on the generous pension former prime ministers are entitled to. It's particularly wretched timing for him; one wonders whether he chose it to escalate any disloyalty from his underlings into a personal attack on his livelihood, or whether he became so unpopular that those who deposed him decided to teach him a lesson in the process; a condemned despot so unpopular that a firing squad of his peers, without a word said between them, unanimously decided to “accidentally” aim for the wrong side of his chest. (Having said that, there is a limit to how much pity one can feel for him, given that he is bound to land, quite comfortably, on his feet. After all, the coal industry takes care of its own, and if anyone was its own, it would have been Abbott.) In any case, here's the relevant First Dog On The Moon cartoon.
On the other hand, while Malcolm Turnbull seems like a breath of fresh air compared to Abbott (a small-minded reactionary authoritarian evoking, more than anything, the demented bush patriarchs of outback gothic films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Welcome To Woop Woop), he is hardly progressive or forward-looking in the grand scheme of things, and has made clear that there will not be a sudden change of direction. There will be no carbon price, no same-sex marriage, no renewal of environmental or research funding, no reversal of restrictions on wind turbines, and no review of the mass surveillance and “national security” laws rushed in; there's even money that the federal government will keep trying to restrict environmental challenges to coal mines, and push Los Angeles-style freeways onto an unwilling Melbourne as well, because we don't do socialist public transport here in 'straya. And, of course, Australia will keep torturing refugees, but then again, that is bipartisan policy, so that is to be expected. There is the possibility that, in the fullness of time, Coalition policies will gradually drift towards pragmatic moderation, or at least that future policies won't be littered with unhinged “captain's calls”, but that's probably as much as one can hope for.
One thing Turnbull is more likely to do, however, is lead the Coalition to victory in the next election. Over the past few months, the opinion polls were looking disastrous for the government, with each poll getting worse. Had things kept going as they did, then come the next election, the Labor Party could have nonchalantly bumbled to victory through the wreckage, all but unnoticed. Now, it looks like the ALP won't win without actually convincingly arguing its case to govern, which means that, short of the Coalition imploding again, it's unlikely to win.
The current leader of the ALP is Bill Shorten, a man without qualities who's mortally afraid of showing any difference from the government. Shorten, who came out supporting Abbott's massively unpopular paramilitary stop-and-search operation in Melbourne after the government actually called it off in the face of protests. Shorten, who spent four hours drafting a tweet in response to Abbott's ouster. Shorten, whose party rubber-stamped every bad Coalition policy passing through the Senate, as if afraid of what the Murdoch press would say if he didn't. Shorten, who put the “loyal” in “Loyal Opposition”.
Were Shorten to face his own spill over the next few months, it is not clear that things would change; none of the other potential candidates acceptable to the factions seem to show any more promise. Beyond that, it is not entirely clear what the Labor Party actually stands for, other than wanting to win elections. It is not the party of a mass industrial proletariat, because no such thing exists any more. It is not a new progressive party or a radical libertarian free-market party or an old-school socialist party, or, indeed, any other specific kind of party, because the interlocking stand-off of factions preempts any commitment to any direction or other. It is, quite simply, an enterprise which has outlived its original reasons to exist, leaving only one goal: its own self-perpetuation, the ultimate sole purpose of any bureaucracy. A pointless, self-perpetuating bureaucracy riddled with warring factions: the Ballmer-era Microsoft of politics.
Perhaps Labor's electoral loss will, in the long run, be for the best, especially if it is by a large margin. A resounding defeat for Labor could hasten the old party's euthanasia, and, with that, perhaps increase the likelihood of a progressive alternative government more fit for purpose emerging. Of course, the price of that would be more years of uninterrupted Tory rule, though, in the current situation, can that be helped?
In news that wasn't entirely unexpected, Jeremy Corbyn has been elected to lead the Labour Party in Britain. Corbyn, a left-wing veteran backbencher and frequent parliamentary rebel, had originally been entered into the contest shortly after Labour's crushing election defeat for the purpose of “broadening the debate”, and possibly generating some ideas that could help towards the next campaign of whoever won. The tones of the sensible post-ideological managerialists in the party began to darken when Corbyn started leading the polls; why would an ancient weirdy-beardy lefty given to wearing shabby home-made jumpers outpoll all those polished talking heads, with their extensively tested motherhood statements about “social justice” and “aspiration”, about doing something about “inequality” whilst giving no quarter to unworthy scroungers, balanced in the optimum proportion given the most recent polling? Whatever hope remained of “shy Blairite” tendencies prevailing in the actual ballot were annihilated when the results came in: Corbyn got 59.5% of the vote in the first round, almost three times as many as his nearest challenger, Andy Burnham. Meanwhile Liz Kendall, a Blairite candidate representing the notion that, following its electoral defeat, Labour must move to the right, came in last with a dismal 4.5%. (Tony Blair himself, meanwhile, phoned in from whichever despot's yacht he is currently staying on, urging the Labour faithful to vote for anyone but Corbyn; the fact that, from Blair's point of view, all the other candidates were interchangeable, is telling. In any case, it's not unlikely that a significant number of people voted for Corbyn partly to give Blair a kicking.)
Of course, it is easy enough to get elected to be leader of the opposition; as leader of the Opposition, Corbyn's mandate is to lead the party into the next election, and into government; whether that is possible is an open question. One common narrative says that Corbynmania is a purely emotive movement, grasping for the comfort of a fantasy, or the righteousness of the lost cause, much in the way that the hopeless embrace apocalyptic religion or conspiracy theories, and that, in the dozens of Tory marginal seats Labour will have to win back, it's unlikely to find traction. The implication of this narrative is that the opposite, a skilful rightward-triangulating neo-Blairism, cheekily ambushing the Tories on their own ideological turf, whilst offering the slightest essence of a brighter alternative—socialism diluted to homeopathic proportions, so not one particle remains—to somehow push the feeling that a Labour government implementing neoliberal privatisation/austerity policies will be ineffably better. This neo-Blairite model would place the running of the country in the hands of technocratic management, operating under a neoliberal free-market framework (as There Is, after all, No Alternative), communications with the fickle masses in the hands of spin doctors and, essentially, disinformation specialists, and whatever policy is not dictated by the markets and the needs of corporate stakeholders would be subject to focus groups and opinion polls. Standing for something is for losers, after all.
There are several problems with this argument; not least of them the fact that the Labour Party fielded three candidates who were driven by such calculation, who did dismally. Indeed, the one who did the worst was the one who most honestly articulated a Blairite centre-right position of the sort that, we are told, is catnip to the ordinary voter (the ordinary voter; that sharp-elbowed aspirational creature that reads the Evening Standard and is concerned primarily about their property values). The other two kept it artfully vague, avoiding committing to anything that might be held against them, hitting the talking points like pros, and even tacking to the left when it became evident that Corbyn had shifted the party's internal Overton window; it didn't do them much good. Had one of them won, it is hard to imagine their warmed-over, cobbled-together message stirring the electorate; especially whereas none of them had Blair's Mephistophelian charisma. (On the other hand, it can be argued that Tony Blair's uncanny election-winning power has been somewhat overstated; in 1997, the Conservative government was in such disarray, with a series of scandals and misfortunes topping a general sense of malaise and decay, that chances are anybody could have led Labour to victory.)
Anyway, it is now Corbyn's task (along with the newly elected deputy leader, Tom Watson, who's more of a pragmatist, whilst simultaneously passionate about issues of civil liberties) to lead the party into the next election and win. And one thing we can expect is that they will come under withering fire; from the Tories, the right-wing press, and even the more Blairite elements of their own party, should they sense the opportunity for a spill. From now on, the press will be full of hit pieces of varying degrees of hyperbole (look for mentions of “the Chavez of Canonbury”, for example). And perhaps the public will, after enough repetitions, start to believe them; polls will show Labour's support deteriorating; perhaps they will go into the next election and be thoroughly annihilated, swapping places with the Liberal Democrats; or not even get that far, as MPs, facing the loss of their seats, stage a spill and hurriedly put on their best Blairite act. But perhaps this time it won't work; if the Tories miscalculate, if too many of the public know people who have been thrown on the scrapheap by austerity, if the idea that those hit by welfare sanctions or the bedroom tax are the “unworthy poor” who have made their own misfortune through fecklessness suddenly loses its power, if millions of people realise that they're not temporarily embarrassed buy-to-let multi-millionaires but rather the deeply indebted precariat, and that the windfall they anticipate is not about to trickle down to them any time soon, the scare stories will be dismissed, and, being inured to them, the public will dismiss any concerns about Corbyn's views as similarly concocted.
Personally, I agree with some of Corbyn's views, but not all. He is my local MP, and I have, on occasion, written to him about various issues, and generally found my concerns well received. I'm not so keen on some of his other cited positions, such as, for example, withdrawing from NATO or the EU, or spending public health funds on ineffectual mystical quackery such as homeopathy. More significantly, Corbyn's idea of reopening coal mines seems backward in this day, when China and India are slashing their coal imports, coal-fired power plants are being deprecated and not replaced, and even coal-mad Coalition-ruled Australia is having a hard time funding its new coal mines. Corbyn's hope of reopening coal mines seems similarly ideological, only rather than impressing the bogan voters by punching the inner-city latte-sippers, it looks to be about avenging Arthur Scargill and the martyrs of Orgreave and sticking one up at Thatcher. Indeed, Corbyn doesn't seem to have said much about the environment or the threat of climate change, or the need to radically change our infrastructure to reduce its environmental impact.
However, Corbyn is not the autocratic leader of the Labour Party, and it seems that these positions are less likely to prevail than more popular ones (such as building massively more public housing, renationalising the railways, easing off on austerity and such).
In any case, we live in interesting times; as the last election (in which the SNP took almost a clean sweep of Scotland) showed, we can no longer rely on safe assumptions of how things will unfold.