Dominic Cummings has been in the news lately, you may have noticed. He drove, whilst infected with COVID-19, from Islington to County Durham, with his family. He then took them on a tour of County Durham, whilst infected, and after having been discovered defended his actions, supported by the PM and the government he advises.
This has broken the trust between government and people during an existential crisis when the government is asking people to sacrifice their normal lives, abstain from seeing family outside of their households and travel as little as possible.
Cummings did this, thought he could do it, thought he had a right to do it and is being defended for doing it because he is part of the elite and people are angry: Heckling Dominic Cummings: A How To Guide
There have been lots of comments on his £1.6m house in Islington (see images of his manor above), his wife the Baronet’s daughter, his position of power at the centre of government: Cummings is Exceptional But actually elite privileges run deeper than this and so do Cummings’ privileges.
Elites – the British aristocracy for instance – have the privileges of transgression and of exceptionalism. Historically they transgressed ‘normal’ dress, manners, levels of violence, sexual habits and a host of other realms of human behaviour.
They did this because it was/is an intrinsic part of being ‘elite’. Cummings’ little trip to the north, (which has proved less popular than Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s one: The Trip), was a transgression. The rules we live by are not for him because he is not one of us, he is one of them.
Exceptionalism is also key to this. Historically the British aristocracy actually had very few legal privileges, but their position delivered them a different life to the majority of British people.
In the late nineteenth century Veblen noted that the key privilege that elites held was that of time – allowing leisure: Thorstein Veblen ‘Theory of a Leisure Class’ They didn’t ‘work for a living’ and instead indulged their passions and interests whilst others worked. Also the aristocracy travelled for pleasure a long time before any other social group could: Chard, ‘Pleasure and Guilt on the Grand Tour’
In some senses Cummings’ indulgence of his desires fits this wider entitlement to indulgence.
As a historian that has spent his career studying elites in Britain it always surprises me that people are surprised by elites and elite behaviour. It’s a strange quirk of the English class system that it has made us all believe we are equal!
Of course Cummings is part of the elite and of course he was going to do this – he did it because he is part of a governing and political elite (especially the present incumbents!!) who’ve been schooled in the rules of hierarchy, deference, privilege and power.
Cummings thinks he’s smashing the system: The System Bites Back. He said he wanted to change the Tory Party: Cummings Becomes What he Hates He dresses differently, his manners are different. He wants to bring down Whitehall and replace it with ‘weirdos and misfits’: Cummings Breaks Law with Recruitment Policy, which it turns out was just a way to recruit like-minded eugenicists: !!!
The interesting things about elites is that, at any given fixed point in time they seem unchanging, carved from stone, very unlikely to shift or budge. But they are and always have been very unstable – they don’t actually last all that long and throughout their tenure they tend to be very anxious about maintaining their grip on power and status.
The British aristocracy are a good example. The medieval nobility installed after the Norman Conquest seemed quite alien to the Lords of Saxon England. Their monopoly of violence was gradually eroded by the growth of the state so that by the sixteenth century the country houses of the new gentry became ornamental and symbolic of power rather than defensive strongholds as the houses of nobles had been previously. The power held by the oligarchs of eighteenth century aristocracy seemed a world away to the declining aristos of the late nineteenth century, surrounded on all sides by decay and new forms of ‘elite’ who, largely, despised them in the way Cummings is currently despised.
All of this is transitory and Dominic Cummings, too, will be replaced by someone who thinks wearing t-shirts to Downing Street meetings is old hat and ‘establishment’. What always remains is the idea and the ideology of an ‘elite.’ When we stop being surprised by that and start thinking about closing the spaces of privilege, transgression and exceptionalism we might make some progress towards equality. The real shock of the Cummings affair was that the illusion of equality generated by the pandemic was smashed. Elites often do this too when they let their guard down: they remind us that there is no such thing as ‘equality’.