Hug a Tory
‘From the early records of Greek and Latin slang, where [words for pig] were used to describe the female genitalia through to modern uses of ‘pig’ to mock the police, the fascist and the male chauvinist, pigs seems to have borne the brunt of our rage, fear, affection and desire for the ‘low’. [But] it was precisely the ambivalence of the pig, at the intersection of a number of symbolic thresholds, which had traditionally made it a useful animal to think with.’ – Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression
As I said earlier, it is hard not to enjoy the ridiculing of Cameron. But if we take a step back, it should be clear that an atmosphere of sexual humiliation is one that favours current forms of power rather than dismantles them. Robin James points out the role of hazing in sexual abuse, and in some ways we can consider the whole range of ways in which the English haute-bourgeoisie initiate children into its ranks as a form of abuse. This is one of the points I was trying to get across in my piece on humour in the latest New Humanist (below). Boarding school and the top end of Oxbridge are environments designed to produce the very hardening and insensitivity which allows Tories to dehumanise and demonise the poor. Class wounds everyone, especially the ‘privileged’.
The Strange Death of British Satire
(reposted with permission from the Autumn 2015 issue of the New Humanist)
Watch one of the BBC’s political programmes – such as the Daily Politics and This Week, both fronted by Andrew Neil – and you encounter a particular tone. British television viewers are unlikely to take much notice of this tone because we take it for granted. Take a step back, however, and it is really rather curious. These ostensibly serious programmes are conducted with an air of light mockery, which Neil, with his perma-smirk and smugly knowing air, personifies. The tone, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England. (The situation in Scotland is now rather different: the popular mobilisation after the independence referendum has reversed the trend towards cynicism about politics that still dominates south of the border.)
Take This Week. The whole show is conducted in a lamely comic style that it is hard to imagine any sentient creature finding amusing. Guests are required to dress up in daft costumes and present their arguments in the form of limp skits, pitched at an audience whose implied level of intelligence is imbecilic. The atmosphere is matey, informal, and the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes. While Neil’s dog pads about the set, former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo chats on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson – no class antagonism here, only mild disagreements. Politics appears as a (mostly) gentlemen’s club where everyone is friends. People from working-class backgrounds, such as Johnson, can achieve entry to this club, provided they accept its rules. These rules are never actually stated, but they are very clear. Parliament is not to be taken too seriously: it is to be treated as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected. On no account are any intellectual concepts to be discussed, unless to be sneered at as pretentious nonsense. It has to be accepted that nothing very significant will ever change: the basic co-ordinates of political reality were set in the 1980s, and all we can do is operate inside them.
If you were designing a programme specifically to put people – especially young people – off politics, to convince them it is a tedious waste of time, then you could hardly do better than This Week. The programme seems to be aimed at literally no one: if you are staying up late to watch a programme devoted to politics, then presumably you are pretty serious about politics. Who wants this unfunny froth?
It would be bad enough if this tone of mirthless levity were confined to This Week, but it increasingly dominates political coverage of all kinds on the BBC. It thoroughly permeated the BBC’s election-night coverage this year, which Neil anchored. This trivialising tone is perhaps even more troubling than the problem of bias (as is well known, former Murdoch editor Neil was a Thatcher cheerleader; Nick Robinson, the BBC’s former Political Editor, meanwhile, was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association). The election-night coverage was notable for the disconnection between the shock and alarm that many in the audience felt about an unexpected win for the Conservative Party, and the guffawing banter of Neil and his associates. Reading out tweets and sharing gossip, the grinning Laura Kuenssberg, who has recently replaced Robinson as the BBC’s Political Editor, seemed to treat the whole evening as a jolly good laugh. Perhaps there isn’t that much at stake for her – she was, after all, born into immense privilege, the daughter of an OBE and a CBE, and the granddaughter of a founder and president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
But where does this tone – with its strange mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent – come from? The quick answer is class background. The tone of light but relentless ridicule, the pose of not being seen to take things too seriously, has its roots in the British boarding school. In an article for the Guardian, Nick Duffell, author of Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion (Lone Arrow Press), argued that, from around the age of seven, boarders are required to adopt a “pseudo-adult” personality, which results, paradoxically, in their struggling “to properly mature, since the child who was not allowed to grow up organically gets stranded, as it were, inside them.”
“Boarding children,” Duffell continues, “invariably construct a survival personality that endures long after school and operates strategically … Crucially, they must not look unhappy, childish or foolish – in any way vulnerable – or they will be bullied by their peers. So they dissociate from all these qualities, project them out on to others, and develop duplicitous personalities that are on the run.”
Now that the working-class perspective has been marginalised in the dominant British media and political culture, we increasingly live inside the mind of this psychically mutilated adolescent bourgeois male. Here, ostensible levity conceals deep fear and anxiety; self-mockery is a kind of homeopathic remedy that is used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation. You must never appear too much of a swot; you must never look as if you might like or think anything that isn’t already socially approved. Even if you haven’t attended boarding school yourself, you are still required to operate in an emotional atmosphere set by those who did. Andrew Neil, who came from a working-class background and attended a grammar school, attained access to the top table by simulating the mores of the privately educated elite. Thatcherism depended on the conspicuous success of people like Neil – if they could make it, so could anyone.
No programme did more to normalise the mode of mandatory light mockery than Have I Got News for You. In a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.
No one typifies this more than Boris Johnson. Coe points out that Johnson’s success crucially depended on his appearances – sometimes as guest presenter – on Have I Got News for You. The atmosphere of generalised sniggering allowed Johnson to develop his carefully cultivated, heavily mediated persona of “lovable, self-mocking buffoon”. The show allows Johnson to present himself as a hail-fellow-well-met everyman, not a member of an old Etonian elite. In this he has been abetted by his sometime antagonist Ian Hislop. Hislop always has the guffawing, self-satisfied air of a prefect who’s caught out some slightly posher kids stealing from the tuck shop. No matter what the infraction, Hislop’s response is always a supercilious snigger. While this snigger might be conceivably appropriate to MPs being caught with their trousers down, or even with their over-claiming on expenses, it seems grotesquely out of kilter with the kind of systemic corruption that we now know has occurred over the last thirty years in Britain, in everything from Hillsborough to the phone hacking scandal to paedophilia involving major establishment figures – not to mention the behaviours that led to the financial crash. As the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has played an important part in exposing these abuses. But on television his mocker-in-chief persona serves ultimately to neutralise and cover over the extremity and systematicity of the abuse: one snigger fits all situations.
Coe’s discussion of Johnson is strikingly similar to the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.
In the UK, this concept of a “spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle” goes beyond politics in the narrow sense. The populist right-wing celebration of this energy is surely what kept Jeremy Clarkson in his job as a presenter of Top Gear for so long, and its appeal is what must have motivated over a million people to sign a petition calling for Clarkson to keep his job after he had punched a producer in the face. The prevailing media culture in the UK allows the privately educated Clarkson to come off as a plain-speaking man of the people, bravely saying what he thinks in the face of an oppressive ‘political correctness’ that seeks to muzzle him. The success of Top Gear is another testament to the power – and, sadly, international appeal – of the English ruling-class male mentality. Who, more than Clarkson and his fellow presenters, better exemplifies this bizarre mixture of the middle-aged and the adolescent? What, after all, is it safer for a ruling-class adolescent male to like than cars?
Clarkson is just one of a range of British television celebrities who play the role of pantomime villain; a persona entirely devoid of compassion for others. Except this is a pantomime with real blood. Take the former Apprentice star and Sun columnist Katie Hopkins, for instance. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned her likening of refugees to “cockroaches” for its obvious echoes of Nazi rhetoric. Hopkins is allowed to get away with this because of what we might call the innate postmodernism of the English ruling class. Both she and Clarkson say hateful things, but with a twinkle in their eye and their eyebrows ever so slightly raised.
There is an immense complexity at work in this ruling-class mummery. The humour allows Clarkson and Hopkins to be conduits for a racism that has very real, very tragic effects, whilst also letting them off the hook. The humour reassures them, and their audience, that they don’t really mean it. But the problem is that they don’t have to “mean” it: they help define the terms of debate, and allow migrants to be dehumanised, whatever their “true” feelings about the issue might be.
However, Hopkins’s persona was troubled when she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother earlier this year. While much of the time she stayed in role as a spiteful, hard-hearted bigot, there were inevitably moments when the facade cracked, and she could be seen caring for others. While this increased her popularity – she almost won the show – it was also in danger of destroying the Katie Hopkins brand.
Most tellingly, her greatest moments of vulnerability came when she was asked to accept tenderness from others. In order to survive in the harsh and emotionally retarded world of the English ruling-class male she was trained for in private school and at Sandhurst, Hopkins has clearly been required to forgo any public acceptance of warmth or kindness from others. Sadly, the wearing of such character armour is not now confined to Hopkins and the rest of the privately educated elite.
Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.
Reposted with thanks from the New Humanist.
Piggies – The Beatles
We Are the Pigs – Suede
Pigs (Three Different Ones) – Pink Floyd
Maggie’s Farm – The Specials
All Pigs Must Die – Death in June
Stand By Your Ham – Pig Aid
(a 2008 charity song made by pig farmers to raise awareness of high feed prices)
War Pigs – Black Sabbath
Fascist Pig – Suicidal Tendencies
Ham n Eggs – A Tribe Called Quest
Itsu – Plaid
September (accidental) – Matthew Herbert
Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag – Pigbag
Piggy – Nine Inch Nails
Dear Diary, Men Are Pigs – Finally Punk
Pigs in Zen – Jane’s Addiction
Making Bacon – The Pork Dukes
And, of course, Cassetteboy – Getting Piggy With It
This is the edited text of a talk given by Alex Niven at the NewBridge Project, Newcastle-upon-Tyne last week.
I’d like to start with a quotation from Dubliners, James Joyce’s first work of fiction, published almost exactly a hundred years ago. It was written largely in the Edwardian period, in the last days of British colonial rule over Ireland; that is, on the eve of the Irish Revolution:
That night the city wore the mask of a capital
Dubliners is a collection of realist—some might say magic realist—stories about residents of Dublin in which almost all of the characters feel disillusioned or constricted in some way; paralysis is a word that echoes throughout the book. But Dubliners isn’t, in the end, a pessimistic work. Even though the characters in Joyce’s stories are paralysed on the one hand, there is also a sense that something is about to happen, a sense that Dublin is about to break free and come into its own. Within five years of the publication of Joyce’s book, Dublin was indeed the capital of a newly independent nation. And, a century later, it still is.
This is not to say that capitals and nations don’t bring with them their own kinds of problems and responsibilities and limitations. But I think something in the music of that quotation does help to emphasise the fact that radical change in the
circumstances of a city, a country, the world, can happen very quickly. Revolutions are possible. Political campaigns are not futile. Big collective projects can succeed. At certain moments in our history, we are able to take significant steps towards the creation of the ideal city, channelling utopian ideals, even if utopia is by definition unrealisable.
I wanted to begin with the example of Dubliners and this quotation, not necessarily because I think we’re on the eve of a revolution, but because there does seem to be something about the present moment that is analogous with the world, and perhaps the British Isles in particular, a hundred years ago. Like then—the post-Victorian, pre-WWI period—there’s a sense that the previous era is coming to an end, but that it’s coming to an end slowly. The political consensus of the last 30 or 40 years, let’s call it neoliberalism for the sake of argument, is splintering apart. But it hasn’t yet disintegrated. Lots of you are no doubt familiar with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s descripton of the post-2008 global economy as a bit like the train in a Road Runner cartoon—it careers over the precipice but carries on for an implausibly long time, before suddenly plunging vertically into the valley below.
Right now we’re probably still in the phase when the train is gliding along in the air on its horizontal trajectory. In the immediate post-2008 period—the years either side of 2010—there was a flurry of populist insurrectionary activity, which peaked in 2011 with the Occupy demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the fallout from the Murdoch phone-tapping scandal, the London riots, and so on. But afterwards, things settled down remarkably quickly. The Occupy movement seemed to quietly pack up its bags, and in Britain at least, the fervour of 2011 was replaced with the torpor of a country drifting inexorably to the right under the auspices of a Conservative-led coalition government.
But now, ironically, in the wake of an outright Conservative victory, and perhaps compounded by more momentous events further afield, the mood is changing again fairly rapidly. Tomorrow Jeremy Corbyn will be elected leader of the British Labour Party, which at the very least, will signal the end of the cross-party neoliberal consensus in the UK parliament, and might just possibly lead to a further radicalisation of the British political landscape. This hot on the heels of the Sun, a notoriously right-wing, habitually racist newspaper, publishing a headline last week in support of the Syrian refugees. Even if the Sun quickly managed to grotesquely torque the death of Aylan Kurdi later in the week so that it became a justification for air strikes on Syria, this was a major about-turn. The writer Mark Fisher was surely right when he argued that the Sun’s support for the refugees was a clear sign or at least premonition of the death of what Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’, the pervasive, deeply embedded belief that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Throughout the west, the conservative establishment is everywhere on the defensive, and is daily being forced to reconsider, change its tone, express uncertainty, shift its feet uncomfortably.
We are clearly, then, in the midst of a moment of change—if perhaps not of outright crisis. But I think the important thing to emphasise about this particular moment is that it’s qualitatively different from the sort of energetic populist mood witnessed, for example, in 2011. And perhaps indeed it’s a very different moment from much of what we’ve come to be familiar with politically over the last half century. By that I mean that, while in 2011 and in countless previous years the protests seemed to be scattered, emotive, spasmodic, energetic, but usually relatively short in length and often directionless (the London riots in particular), the changes we are seeing right now seem to be of a more structural kind—they have an air of seriousness, of deliberation, of constructiveness. The spirit of change in the air right now seems like it might just amount to permanent shifts in the way we are governed and in the way political debates are conducted.
It’s probably the case that the leftist experiment in Greece is now in tatters, with the socialist government led by Syriza looking increasingly beleaguered and at risk of defeat at the upcoming Greek elections. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the huge significance earlier this year of a radical leftist European government achieving a solid democratic mandate, and then coming very close to undermining the entire economic grounding of the European Union. This is a very different occurrence from Occupy, for instance.
In the British context, the election of Corbyn will be a moment of genuine organisational breakthrough for the Left. Even if things go awry for Corbyn’s project, as they are bound to in some shape or form, there is no mistaking that his victory represents a kind of generational handover. The mistake of the elder statesmen and women at the Guardian was to view the Corbyn surge as a rehash of the 80s. More fool them, because it actually represents the coming of age of a much younger leftist demographic—the opponents of neoliberalism who have been filing away at the gaps in the brickwork for the last decade: radical theorists who subsisted for many years on the fringes of the internet, journalists like Owen Jones who have been gradually building leftist influence and hegemony in the mainstream media, the new feminists and LGBT campaigners looking for an outlet for their struggles, ordinary people angry about housing or militarism, or having to pay 30 grand for an undergraduate degree, or the fact that their once-proud town on the edge of the world’s 4th richest country is suddenly full of food banks.
These people have been surging for years. For these people, and perhaps for many people in this room, the time is now. A window of opportunity is opening for us to build, rather than merely dismantle, to construct rather than merely deconstruct. As William Blake once said:
I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s
The current mood of radicalism is distinguished by its emphasis on systematic thinking and acting, which is something quite different from the emotive but ultimately ephemeral radicalism of 2011.
On the eve of a Corbyn victory, I would suggest that we need to start thinking in a systematic, ambitious way about how a radical political campaign might affect and improve every aspect of the city we live in, and how this might be joined up with a systematic programme for reform in the rest of Britain, Europe, the world. What would the Corbynite city look like? I don’t pretend to know, but I think the current moment is a moment for a kind of systematic idealism, for large-scale, intellectually ambitious thinking about the way society is constructed rather than the small-scale rebellions and countercultural deconstructionism that has dominated the left over the last three decades, and arguably merely offered a mirror-image to neoliberalism’s belief that states, councils, funding bodies, universities and unions should be disempowered until they disappear.
Corbyn has created a rupture in the ground we know, signalling that society might suddenly begin to change, and change fast. In five years time, our capital might be anywhere.
This is an edited extract from Smile if you Dare: Politics and Pointy Hats with the Pet Shop Boys, by Ramzy Alwakeel, which will be published by Repeater next year.
Two decades on, there’s something implausible about Very.
The Pet Shop Boys’ fifth album snuck posthumanism and panic sex into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Its arrogant title said: here is our essence; an easy reference point; a convenient definition. But once you probed it, touched its bright orange case with trembling fingers, the conceit started to unravel.
You looked at the sleeve inlay and saw giant eggs, conical hats and beach balls before you spotted any human faces.
Then there was the music. Very didn’t so much showcase the Pet Shop Boys as reinvent them. The 12 career-best songs Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded for the album glinted awkwardly like CGI skyscrapers in the artificial sun for miles – and years – in all directions. Somehow they were too near, or too large.
Even Very’s packaging was curiously oppositional. CD cases were meant to be shop windows, dressed by fancy designers to sell the silver discs’ invisible contents. This one was opaque. To date, the album has been sold in no fewer than seven different sleeves, but Very’s first edition remains one of the most recognisable items in British recorded music history.
Tennant and Lowe were bored of compact discs. Their pocket-sized artwork was a snivelling apology for the glorious 12-inch sleeve it had replaced, its pathetic scaled-down images shielded by flimsy transparent plastic. This was the conundrum they took to Pentagram.
Pentagram, which also designs buildings, gave them an orange box with three-dimensional polka dots on the front. It was a gamble – each of these unusual objects cost the Pet Shop Boys 40p – but Very’s limited edition was a success, rendering the album instantly visible in the racks: a flash of colour among hundreds of anonymous see-through cases.
The album’s vinyl and cassette versions mirrored the relief on the CD cover by arranging tiny photographs of Tennant and Lowe’s heads in the same polka dot pattern. It looked a bit like it was designed for babies, but novelty is sometimes the vehicle for genius.
As it happened, the CD case was an appropriate metaphor for what lay within: Very is rather difficult to miss. It’s a synth-pop obelisk, a wall of sound built from Tetris blocks.
After four smash hit LPs and a multi-platinum singles collection, one could have been forgiven for thinking the Pet Shop Boys had achieved everything, reshaping British pop music and surviving to tell the tale. Their 1990 studio effort, the stately Behaviour, had suggested a band whose members were growing old gracefully as they meditated on absent friends and Shostakovich.
Pop fans aren’t known for their attention spans, so by June 1993 it’s likely Tennant and Lowe’s 26-month absence from the UK top 10 had all but erased them from memory. They’d popped up as guests on a couple of tracks by Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s Electronic project in 1991, and produced a version of ‘The Crying Game’ for Boy George the following year – but in real terms the Pet Shop Boys were already a catalogue act, the stuff of TV retrospectives and pub quizzes.
This made it even more satisfying when Very’s impertinent lead single put them back on Top of the Pops. Rubbing shoulders with Lisa Stansfield, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ was an undercover policeman at a children’s party, its five o’clock shadow an instant giveaway. The song was a blinking night sky of whirring, motion-blurred synthesisers that, even when Tennant started singing, was every bit as unreal as the costumes. In the spaces between orchestra hits, he spun a cautionary tale of humiliation, innuendo and denial while – incredibly – Lowe danced with three women holding cricket bats.
The next few months would see them achieve their only number one album, make a string of iconic videos, and score a career-defining hit with a song someone else had already released.