The Burner Episode #218: Dystopia Now?

The lockdown is about to be renewed – but what do we actually know about the scientific group advising on it? Plus, why is dystopia in such easy reach in responses to the pandemic?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Thursday April 16. We are still in lockdown.

Today, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), the government body which advises on emergencies, will meet to give its recommendation on whether or not the lockdown should be lifted and when. There has been near universal briefing in the press that we should expect the lockdown not to be lifted today. And while there are signs that the lockdown has been working – slowing the rate of transmission – Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer [or] CMO has said that we are still just approaching or entering the peak period. Government ministers have praised the sacrifices of the British people with strong indications that further such sacrifices are to be expected, [to] which he has said, rightly in my view, that it would be pretty foolish to see the lockdown succeeding and then simply remove it and risk undoing the good it has done; thus storing up, after its incubation period, a raft of new infections and another surge period.

Pressure to lift the lockdown, however, has been growing from the business lobby, but especially from the right-wing press. If you were to pop over to the Telegraph website, or worse, pick up a paper copy, you would find it ridden with calls to lift the lockdown in between, of course, praise for the former Telegraph columnist – nominally at least – in Number 10, [who’s] in reality convalescing at Chequers. [It is] perhaps not the wisest decision for a paper whose readership skews well into the ranks of retirees, but perhaps a reflection of the priorities of its billionaire owners. [In any case,] I suspect we’ll see the lockdown extended at the press conference later today – the kind of thing that might once had been announced in parliament were it sitting.

The real question is how long it’s likely to last for. While the CMOs speculated in the past that it might well extend to June, with possible waves of lockdowns and public social distancing in force thereafter – as we deal with waves of the virus until the vaccine is developed – It’s unlikely that so long an extension will be announced today. Press consensus seems to be that SAGE will recommend a date sometime in early May for the next review of the lockdown, perhaps May 7 or 9, with measures to stay in place.

Until then, there are also questions about whether it will recommend the government [to] enact more stringent measures on personal liberties [like] exercise and go outside as warmer weather starts to hit. I suspect that is actually less likely. Personally, my birthday’s on May 20, and I’d like nothing more than to throw a huge party and do things that now seem scandalous – like see people in the flesh and gather them together – but I suspect at this point it would be unwise for me to book a room.

But, what is SAGE? The government has referred throughout the pandemic to the scientific advice it gets from the group frequently as cover for its shifts in policy or excuses for its failures to act in truth. We know relatively little about it. Other than that, it’s chaired by the government’s chief scientist Patrick Vallance and the CMO also sits on it. But [SAGE] does not routinely disclose either its membership or its advice. Vallance has said this is because it’s important to insulate members of the group from public pressure or more sinister pressure from lobbying groups.

Few of those who sit on [the advisory group] have made public their membership. [Although there are] some, like Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Welcome Trust, who said on Sunday that the UK could have the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe. Vallance has assured us, however, that members of SAGE and the expert groups come from over 20 different institutions and have the following areas of expertise: molecular evolution, epidemiology, clinical science and practice modelling, emergency emerging infectious diseases, behavioral science, statistics, virology and microbiology. And [SAGE] has made some moves to publish some of its minutes and papers, like those [measures] relating to physical distancing and the lockdown on – what now seems a lifetime ago – March 26. But those are at least a month out of date now and [it doesn’t seem like there are] plans to release [minutes and papers] anymore.

It’s pretty clear that the government’s direction and choice in handling of the pandemic has changed as a result of the new modelling, for instance, [the modelling] released earlier that month in the middle of March. [However,] it’s pretty clear that the government’s response was actually, at least in part, prompted by growing public disquiet over Britain strategy seeming to be so different to that pursuit elsewhere; [we can see this in] its apparent abandonment of the herd immunity strategy, the eventual admission that mass testing would in fact be necessary and the current review about whether wearing face masks in public would be a good idea.

But, at present, advice coming out of SAGE is a bit of a black box. You have evidence about what’s going on with the pandemic around the world, that goes in on one side, and government decision come out of the other side, but we’ve got very little idea about what goes on in between. It is a perfect setup for excuse-making on the government’s part because it can rely on this bit of the process that we don’t get to see to bolster its claims that it’s only following the science. [Therefore] the decision that it makes can’t be made in any other way. That is, I think, inadequate [in relation to] the kind of political decisions which are now being made, which are extraordinary and so very far reaching. How is it possible to apply any kind of scrutiny to these at all?

There are three reasons I think that knowing this stuff matters. The first is that we know that there have been shifts and changes in policy. When did they come about, why [and] How? We know that public pressure and public disquiet has been a significant part of [these changes in policy] and publicly-released modelling – as with that Imperial College model in mid-March – has produced significant shifts in government. Doesn’t this suggest that we need to see quite a lot more about what’s going on?

The second is that the makeup of SAGE matters. Most of the minutes that have been released are from the government and from the committees’ subgroups on modelling and on behavioral science, are those the two groups which are driving the government response? If so, where is the public health element to this? From what we know there appears to be few public health experts involved involved in SAGE decisions. Don’t they have a significant role to play? Have they recently come onto the committee? Is the makeup of SAGE, the right makeup for this crisis?

Lastly, there’s the matter of public confidence. So far, the public has been largely willing to go along with recommendations and restrictions, which ultimately come from advice from SAGE, but retaining that confidence depends on retaining confidence in the body itself. To my mind [this] is best done by making as public and available as possible all the data on which these decisions are being made, and in which they rest, which [in turn is part] of the necessary process by which democratic governments make and justify their decisions.

Now, Patrick Vallance has already pushed back on these suggestions saying that the most senior members of SAGE can be scrutinised and questioned by the press at these press conferences. But that relies on two articles of faith. One, that such officials don’t also feel compelled to act politically – something I think that is under significant question when you see people like the deputy COO do things like brush off suggestions from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that we actually do need to test. Two, [that] the nation’s press and broadcast media are capable of asking the right questions and following them up to the level actually needed. If you have such faith, well you’re definitely a more optimistic person than me.

We will hear a bit more about the lockdown extension later today and there has been much noise made that lockdown restrictions are lifting elsewhere. For instance, Germany will ease its restrictions on schools and some shops. Belgium has extended its lockdown but is reopening garden centers and DIY stores. [However,] there is a danger in too easy [a] comparison; most of the states now lifting their lockdowns are ones that locked down harder and earlier than Britain, and many of which are now only lifting to more or less the level that we are at here. Angela Merkel said yesterday that we must learn how to live with the virus as long as there is no vaccine or medicine against it. That’s true. And one way to make it tolerable is transparency where we get it.

All right. Just a brief something: dystopia.

Welcome to the American apocalypse. There are lines outside the gun shops after they’ve just reopened, having been deemed essential businesses. There are bootleg mass sellers on the street corners…

Here’s Liam Young, speculative architect and film director [a sound clip from a video conference]

LY: Hello everyone. My name is Liam Young and I’m a speculative architect and [film] director. I’m here under lockdown in my studio in downtown Los Angeles. So, welcome to the American apocalypse. There are lines outside the gun shops after they’ve just reopened, having been deemed essential businesses. There are bootleg mass sellers on the street corners and the entire film industry here in LA has been put indefinitely on pause. [This] means a town of predominantly freelance creatives can no longer pay the rent or buy groceries. LA, so often the setting for so many sci-fi films, is now a live action dystopian film playing out in real time.

For a town of so many world and storytellers, I’m sure the scripts for a new genre of virus fiction or vi-fi already in the works. Perhaps that is the real opportunity of this present moment, to imagine the potential fictions and futures and to prototype the new worlds that we all want to be a part of when the viral cloud lifts. In many ways we must recognise that there is no return to normal because our default setting is what created these conditions for collapse in the first place. Thank you and I’ll see you all after the end of the world.

JB: That was Liam Young, who is a speculative architect and director who teaches at the Master of Science in Fiction and Entertainment at South California Institute of architecture in LA, speaking to launch a virtual design festival just a couple of days ago.

Dystopia seems much on people’s minds these days, including around the left as people sit and think about how to respond to the pandemic crisis around us. It’s certainly a tempting mode of thought. As we see economic charts plunge and falter, exponential curves explode, shop shuttered and become almost deliriously familiar with every nook and crevice of the four walls around us day by bloody day. And [as] we fear that the government is failing and failing to tell us it’s failing, or that the official press seems hypnotised by the health of one man, there’s a lot of fear about.

But, if it’s dystopia, it’s not equally distributed. Within any individual country, it breaks down different neon class lines between those still forced to work, even in nonessential jobs because they can’t work at home and fear for their employment, versus those able to work at home or who may even find some freedom in lockdown that they hadn’t before; between those with functioning internet and ease of navigation of the digital world and those without; between those with stable homes and those very much without, or for home for whom home is a place of fear or violence, or simply which doesn’t exist at all; between those with time and those without; between those of us for whom that crisis is still far off happening maybe in hospitals and care homes and those for whom it is very much up close; and then there is the global dimension between those countries with functioning health systems and enormous resources and those without; between effectively the developed and developing world, between global North and global South. Perhaps, in that context, speaking of dystopia can look a little vain and self-indulgent, but the dystopian instinct [I’m thinking of] is particularly of the postwar 20th century and post-crisis 21st century.

It is definitely there and is definitely at play. We can see it, not only in the way that we process what was actually going on in the immediate wake of the crisis, [for instance] as Young said in that clip about lines outside gun shops, [all of which speaks] to something deep and fearful and hostile in the political psyche, but also in the way that happily embrace some of the solutions posited. We might be speaking about systems of medical surveillance in response to the crisis, biological surveillance and testing medical passports or longer on/off impositions of social distancing, with friendships mediated more than ever before through the flat blink of a digital screen. We might [also] look to the virus as it tears through some of the refugee camps, the prisons of the stateless, as just a vision of a segmented and deeply unequal future.

Like all dystopias, understanding the present moment as dystopic says something about our own fears. It brings sharply into focus things we value are things we fear slipping away from us. Humanity is a gregarious animal, said Karl Marx. Yes, something we realise as we police our two meter boundary and wonder at the sheer insufficiency of our virtual substitutes of presence and affection. And the fear, sometimes shapeless and formless, maybe even much more general than really what is prompted by the crisis itself which seems to underlie much of this.

Here is what one of the great 20th century practitioners of dystopia had to say about fear. He said:

Fear, my good friends.
Fear is the basis and foundation of modern life.
Fear of the much touted technology which, while it raises our standard of living, increases the probability of our violently dying.
Fear of the science which takes away with the one hand even more than what it so profusely gives with the other.
Fear of the demonstrably fatal institutions for which, in our suicidal loyalty, we are ready to kill and die.
Fear of the great men whom we have raised by popular acclaim to a power which they use inevitably to murder and enslave us.
Fear of the war we don’t want and yet do everything we can to bring about.

That was Aldous Huxley in Ape and Essence, an essay from 1949. Of course, there’s very long and interesting traditional political theory about fear, which stretches at least back to Hobbes. I’ve written about it before and I won’t bore you with all the details here, but Hobbes was the great theorist of fear, both in the state itself and its uses in producing awe and submission, as well as [the fear as] the fundamental driving force which pushes us into making a state and driving politics itself in the first place.

But this is [a] slightly different kind of fear. This is the kind of fear which emerges at the other end, which emerges from the very way we do life itself and the way we live. The fear which arises as we look at the way we conduct our lives and our societies, even as we don’t any longer seem to have any of the leavers to pull to change its direction.

This can reveal something about why the dystopian response comes so easy in contemporary politics and culture. Dystopia isn’t something merely bad; it’s not just some bad or tyrannous state, but so often it’s a failed utopia. Huxley’s most famous dystopian novel was about just that: utopian dark sides. No wonder, of course, that this was so common in the postwar period.

But what kind of utopia is failing around us now? It seems to me that some of the basic premises of economic and social life under neoliberalism – especially its individualism, its hollowing out of the state or its reliance on market principles – has always had an element of the utopian to them: the perfection of a kind in human beings is what it hankered after, even if individual market-oriented, free-of-commitments thinking might pull against the logic of commerce. [But] even in that failure, its logic is exposed as ghouls line up on the TV telling us we’ve got to chow down on death to get back to work. There’s a great deal about contemporary society which becomes clear if you think of it as a failed utopia.

But here’s a note of caution. The dystopia industry, which produces films and so on about dystopian worlds and especially heroic individuals in dystopian worlds, is not always our friend. I think it can emphasise too strongly the personal and individual desire to survive, stressing the idea that such a collapse is, in some degree inevitable, and [that] the most one can hope for is simply to see the other side of the crisis [and] to engage in the tedious, individual, heroic and central [of] such fictions.

There’s something almost consolatory about them: Yes, there is nothing you can do to influence history. Yes, things are falling apart, but maybe you can simply endure long enough to see it happen and see through the crisis and see the horrors that come after. Or perhaps you can come and see this film resigned to things coming so bad and sit through it with a little apocalyptic frisson.

What if we were to take things the other way perhaps and use all this tense and turbulent dystopianism and use it as an opportunity to turn it back against conditions as they currently are. If we were to push back against the most pernicious and most permanent double lie of the failed utopia for something better. That double lie that there is no agency in history, that it’s all just a process initiated far above you and which only ever happens to you, and [that] human beings are ultimately only ever out for themselves, especially in a true crisis.

But is that actually true? Does it seem entirely true to you if you look around at the mutual aid groups or even something so simple as the applause protests on Thursday evenings? The pots and pans, the simple gestures, what if, what if? That’s the central start and premise of a new utopia.

Headlines this morning

In more news, as the day rolls out scandals about care homes are likely to emerge through the day for the lack of PPE [and] especially [as] the number of deaths in them gain more and more attention.

Meanwhile, Matt Hancock somewhat bizarrely launched a badge for people who work in care – which says “care” on it – as some kind of response to the crisis. That wouldn’t be adequate in itself [but] it’s even less adequate because it was first launched a year ago in March 2019. Tit.

[The Cobra meeting chaired by Dominic Raab] meets today at 11. At 3:30 pm we can expect the lockdown announcement.

The G7 also meets this afternoon by video. One wonders if anyone would say anything to Donald Trump about his defunding of the World Health Organisation.

Keir Starmer continues his demand for an exit strategy from the lockdown, which I can’t help feel is a little misjudged, and the strategy politically remains completely opaque to me. It’s true that no government strategy exists, but no such strategy really exists anywhere and the government will [back its] bromides about following scientific advice. If it’s smart, there are other countries further along than us, so we’ll learn from what happens as they lift their lockdowns and all this is brand new territory for everyone. The only reason they might not do that is… You might ask questions about why they didn’t do such learning a few weeks ago at the start for this.

Meanwhile, the real problem areas around testing and PPE, both of which are actually going to be essential to any actual exit strategy, don’t seem to get a look in. They don’t seem to be emphasised despite there being actual urgent crises affecting people’s lives right now. There must be something I’m missing here. Maybe I’m just not forensic enough.

All right, more tomorrow as ever. Do be in touch on [email protected]. Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands – and moisturize them too – but don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

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