Capitalist Pig 2: This Time It's About Cancer


Slabs of bacon fresh from the smoker and resting in the author's kitchen.

Hey pig. Yeah you. Hey pig piggy pig pig pig. All of my fears came true. - Nine Inch Nails, “Piggy”

Amidst the defiant application of early Kubler-Ross stages to the recent news that bacon causes cancer was this collection of Islamophobic Twitter ravings, which, like any conspiracy theory, is right about everything except for any of the details whatsoever. The truth is more fundamental; the entire biomechanical edifice upon which bacon rests has once again been uncomfortably revealed to be wallowing in its own shit.

Religious prohibitions serve multiple overlapping ideological purposes. Among them: religious leaders are public health officials, a fact visible in the way in which local religious leaders and traditional healers have been successfully used in the apparently successful fight to eradicate polio in Nigeria, the last country in Africa to suffer from it - and note how Nigeria is part of the supposedly “uncivilized and barbaric” world of Boko Haram, the Taliban and ISIS. Even at the furthest edges of social collapse religion provides a public health service. (Consider also the way in which the American hospital system is to a significant degree church-owned, although this fact is more likely to deprive women of endometriosis treatment than to pay for their breast cancer treatment.)

And the Islamic prohibition against pork is a prime example of this function of religion. It’s rooted in the historical conditions of the Near East; similar prohibitions exist in Jewish law. Pigs, as literal urban shit-eaters, were unhealthy, parasite-ridden nightmares. Convincing poor people to not eat them in spite of their obvious cost efficiency was an important goal. Indeed, the cultural prohibition against pork extends far beyond the Middle East and into India, a fact that doesn’t fit Islamophobic biases and so is conveniently forgotten.

Obviously this is not a problem that still meaningfully exists. Or, at least, it’s one that can easily be overcome in a globalized economy. Its persistence is thus a mark of conscious difference. In modern Islam, the prohibition on pork is like the Hindu prohibition on cow or the American Catholic obligation to go to McDonalds on Fridays in Lent - an act of cultural solidarity. As, to be fair, is the Western tradition of pigfucking, derived as it is from Roman pig sacrifices and the basic fact that the forested terrain of Europe made for a food unmatched in succulence and efficiency.

Which is why the news that bacon causes cancer is so existentially unsettling to the West. Bacon is culinary technology; its efficiency, especially in its gruesomely industrialized modern incarnation, is profit, and, for that matter, military superiority, hence the Disney-made propaganda cartoon that reminded World War II housewives that “a skillet of bacon grease is a little munitions factory.” Bacon is capitalism made flesh.

And now that flesh betrays us. Moreover, it’s a specific property of bacon that does the deed. In order to preserve the meat longer, some of the salt used for bacon is what’s known as pink salt or curing salt. The pinkness is not an innate property of the salt, but a dye added to immediately distinguish it from table salt. An internationally respected public health measure to warn that this is actually toxic salt. That’s because it’s 6.25% sodium nitrite, which is toxic in large quantities to humans, but its toxicity helpfully scales down to bacteria. So if you’re making bacon at home, you use about .1 gram of it per kilogram of meat, thus killing bacteria without causing ill effects on humans. Except, funny thing, it turns out even small amounts of sodium nitrite increase the risk of cancer over the long term. (And I assume industrially processed bacon, as opposed to pork belly bought from the local butcher, cured in my refrigerator for a week, and then smoked in my backyard, goes somewhat further with the chemical processing.)

It’s actually legitimately not a huge increase in risk - about an 18% increase if you eat two slices of bacon a day for your entire life, versus a 2500% increase if you’re a heavy smoker. And poor reporting that treats the World Health Organization classifications, which are based purely on the amount of confidence in the link, as risk assessments has been a major part of fanning the populist flames around this story. But just like the dodgy sourcing failed to undermine the essential truth of David Cameron fucking a pig, even the great capitalist balm of pricing risk fails to remove the sense of existential threat. It unsettles in the same way as the equally certain link between sunlight and cancer unsettles: because we are reminded of the fundamental presence of disjuncts in our relationship with nature.

Cancer is scary for two basic reasons. First, it kills you. More than that, it’s the thing that will probably kill you. The phrase “cure for cancer” is one of the most absurd in the cultural lexicon, not least because it supposes that there is a singular “cancer” to be had. But more than that, cancer is a seeming limit point for the act of medicine. Hearts and lungs lend themselves to tinkering and tuning. Cancer, however, is an implacable inevitability. It’s just a particular way in which the body wears out. The process by which our cells reproduce loses the plot and they accidentally kill us.

Worse, it often kills slowly, and with pain. We die poorly in the west. It is too easy to sell us on the idea of a few more months, and too hard to sell someone you love on letting you go. The result is that we rarely go with dignity or grace, even when the option is available to us. And with cancers like pancreatic cancer (one of the ones caused by bacon) you don’t really, instead getting to live with phrases like “vomiting fecal matter” as a reality of your day-to-day life, followed by not getting to live at all.

The other reason cancer is scary, however, is that it kills us with a perverse parody of the basic logic of capitalism. It is not an external contagion but an internal malfunction. Our cells go haywire and begin producing malfunctioning copies of themselves en masse. The resulting tumor grows at all costs, without concern for the consequences on their host organism which, after all, is merely themselves. And because of this, they are savagely efficient in their growth. But unlimited growth is, as ever, unsustainable, and so the system fatally crashes.

So the revelation that bacon is inherently carcinogenic is the very image of the Western biomechanical engine seizing up. The literal animal spirits of the market turn out to have been eating us alive with every bite. Our breakfast rises like the sea level in our throats. We’re gonna be sick.


Froborr 5 years, 2 months ago

This is a good piece, but one niggle: the question of whether religious food prohibitions have their origin in public health concerns is controversial at best. There isn't really any evidence that (for example) the pig-eating neighbors of ancient Jews had lower life expectancies or worse health, and AFAIK pigs aren't any more or less likely to carry parasites in the Middle East than in Europe, or Polynesia for that matter.

Most likely, religious food prohibitions have always served the same purpose as they do now, as a ritual means of defining and enforcing an in-group.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

I don't think the public health concerns need to be framed in terms of evidence-based medicine. The objection in Islamic and Jewish law was the same as the practical prohibition in India: these were unclean and unsafe animals. That's clearly a public health function, however accurate the science behind it.

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David Brain 5 years, 2 months ago

I think I'm with Phil on this one. For instance, the classic one that is trotted out about the Israelites and Leviticus is the "ban" on seafood, especially shellfish.
Well, to be honest, if I was a member of a nomadic race that was travelling through a desert with no access to modern refrigeration techniques, I'd stay away from shellfish too.

Whilst there are certainly injunctions that exist to enforce the tribalism, the food ones (and, to be fair, a lot of the sex ones too) don't appear to be such; they really do appear to be early attempts at public health education.

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plutoniumboss 5 years, 2 months ago

The Islam bashing is getting old, for sure. It's ever "Mosaic religion", or "monotheism." Just Islam. And no examination of the history behind the Mediterranean decline, nope.

I anxiously await Ann Coulter's suggestion to just kill 'em all and convert them to atheism, for Confucianism.

We're gearing up for a war, and this is the de-humanization process. And its not just us plebes. There are five or six leading leftist intellectuals I could name, who should know better, but are bored, for lack of a better term, and think war is fun

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Jake Wilson 5 years, 2 months ago

" kills us with a perverse parody of the basic logic of capitalism."

This is, of course, the equation at the heart of Breaking Bad, where the reference to “veggie bacon” in the pilot now looks weirdly prescient. Terrific piece.

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