The Burner Episode #232: Get Free?

Papers are awash with stories of the ‘bonking boffin’: but with the highest death toll in Europe, is that what matters? Plus, what does the pandemic reveal about the nature of the state and what might it really mean to be free?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Wednesday May 6, 2020. And we’re still in lockdown.

There are some days that there is so much news you scarcely know what to do with it. Of course, at the top of everyone’s minds today should be the news that should be on every frontpage, but instead occupies only two. Those of The Guardian and The Mirror. Britain has the worst official death toll in Europe. The government’s tally of fatalities across the UK reached 29,427 for those who tested positive for coronavirus, exceeding the 29,029 recorded in Italy, which had been up until now, the worst effected European country.

Now, I don’t like this grim league table of death, and I don’t like the comparison with Italy. Not least because Italy, and we should always remind ourselves of this, was the first badly affected European country. Italy did not the luxury of warning. It did not have the time as we had the time ahead to prepare. It didn’t have the time we had which was squandered by government ministers. Not every death here was inevitable, whatever the government says.

There’s also worth noting that this is about 150% of the number 20,000 that the chair of Sage, Patrick Vallance, said would be a good outcome. That number, as so many, is really arbitrary but it’s maybe a good indicator that things have really been going very badly wrong indeed.

And it’s really very simple. People have died unnecessarily because the government failed to act sufficiently, or in time, or in the time that they were given. We need to know why. There is blame here and there are people to blame, and they have names.

The Guardian calls this morning for an inquiry, and one does seem inevitable. But what’s crucial, as people in the Labour Party are realising at the moment, [is that] inquiries can be both ways of kicking things into the long grass and are as strong only as their terms of reference, whereas the people chairing them.

I reserve in this special contempt for the role the press has played here. First, from its near terminal vacuity and incuriosity at the beginning of the pandemic; the braying halfwit contempt of lightweight columnists and their defence of the government against so-called hipster analysis – that is those of us who said – rightly – that the government was handling this disastrously. And, of course, [special contempt for] the apparent conviction that it is their job to deliver above all hope, rather than truth, to their readers or viewers.

I’ve spent the last week and a bit wondering if much of the British press isn’t just the compliant and vapid embarrassment that we’ve always known it to be, but instead [is] actively detrimental to our democracy. Because if you turn to most of the front pages this morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything else was fine.

Festooned as they are with news of the “bonking boffin”, the revelation – and I use that word advisedly – that Neil Ferguson, the prominent scientist and modeler who sat on Sage, received two visits from his lover in late March, breaking the lockdown. She, in turn, is married, though apparently in an open relationship. A fact which, nonetheless, causes much heavy breathing and prurient stupidity in the reporting in both The Telegraph and The Mail.

Ferguson has resigned from Sage citing his poor judgment. And poor judgment it certainly is. But is it really a story? No one’s doubting, of course, that Ferguson was stupid, reckless, and irresponsible. But it doesn’t invalidate his scientific advice; many scientists find it hard to abide by recommendations that they know are right. My GP smoked for years, for instance.

Nor is Neil Ferguson a politician or a lobbyist. He didn’t make the decision to impose the lockdown and the details of his sex life, or his hypocrisy, are not of the slightest interest to me, nor should they be to you.

What matters is the quality of his modeling and the advice to Sage, and the extent to which the government listens to it and the parts on which he chooses to act. And, frankly, I don’t think it’s an accident that this story, which The Telegraph appears to have been sitting on since late March, hits the front pages on the same day that Britain’s death toll becomes the worst in Europe.

That is where our attention should be.

There are a couple of other things though that are important here. How far we should expect the distinction between public and private life to hold in cases like this? [How] a man – who is not an elected official, and who might rightly be held accountable for his advice but much less his conduct, however wrong it is, and one wonders how much now that he’s resigned – might provide a convenient fall guy for the government should they need one? The press treatment of the story so far has been to continue the government line of the last few week’s – that its political responsibility can be purely externalised and shifted onto the shoulders of its scientific advisors – and I think we should be wary of that.

But perhaps, above all, it brings front and centre a dimension of human weakness. Which, incidentally, has always been one of the assumptions of scientists modelling the effects of the lockdown, and the curious way human beings can often act against their own interests even while knowing that they’re doing so.

And perhaps it highlights some of what we were talking about on the politics of freedom yesterday.


Now, yesterday I talked a little about the way right-wing populist in Italy were trying to gear their politics to a kind of freedom that they see imperilled by the lockdown, against the restrictions, against the paperwork, so on. While the British public remain overwhelmingly in support of the lockdown, there are certainly a bit of push among various unorthodox elements of the right to push very hard against it for ending the lockdown rapidly and returning everyone to work now and so on and so on.

Most of these are sort of third hand capitalistic ideologues. They have very little interesting to say. But it’s more interesting when it comes from a retired Supreme Court judge, in this case from Jonathan Sumption, who was again across the airwaves at the start of the lockdown period, warning of police overreach, totalitarian police state, and so on.

He was back in the press again this weekend warning against the lockdown, and particularly the loss of freedom. He argued effectively that all life carries risk and that life is more than merely surviving; that sociality and conviviality – effectively freedom – of many kinds are as important and are at risk.

Now, I rarely agree with Sumption, but I do generally find him interesting and useful to think with. He’s one of the very few establishment figures in this country who hasn’t been effectively lobotomised. He’s also pretty rare political figure as well. He’s a retired judge, who because he went straight to the top of the judiciary from working as a barrister, he hasn’t internalised the judicial habit of public silence. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you to decide. His extremely interesting previous work as a historian makes him all the more unique in perspective.

The logical problem, broadly stated, is this. Whether, or rather, how far we should worry about state-imposed limits on freedom. He’s not, to my mind, completely wrong that this is something that we should have an eye on. It’s also true that a combination of historical and legal mentalities are the right way to look at this question. Not least because they allow us to see how apparently temporary and contingent measures often hang around for the longer term and shape the way states conduct themselves much further than emergency periods narrowly considered.

And perhaps it also reveals something of the way the gradual creation of the democratic state over the course of the 20th century has changed our expectations about the power and capacity of the state to act; what it’s responsible for in the lives of its citizens.

Many of the things we expect from the state are historically pretty unusual. Perhaps one thing that Sumption misses is the general sense – though it’s not universal – that the lockdown is both necessary and, at least to some degree, voluntarily entered into, especially among the many who took on social distancing measures long before the government actually enforced it. So, there is at least some degree of two-way traffic here, between popular desire and national policy, law and sentiment.

Maybe these questions of freedom also tied up intimately with questions of what the state is, what it’s for, what it can be or should be expected to do.

One thing that’s striking when you stand back and look at some of the responses to the pandemic, is less its exploitation by people we tend to think of as authoritarians, but by their strange reluctance or difficulty in exploiting it.

Of course, there are various immediate political reasons that declaring states of emergency could be unappealing, to a Trump or a Bolsonaro, but one would expect the latitude it offers to be perhaps especially appealing to those with authoritarian instincts.

There’s a long left-wing tradition of thinking about emergency and emergency powers and the way they get exploited. [This] descends sharply from Walter Benjamin’s argument about emergencies, which that there’s a gap between the form that an emergency takes when declared by authoritarian governments and the state of real social emergency, which can underlie them and in which so many live – and that one might forestall the other. Therefore, the task might be to make one into the other.

Maybe, this too, gives a way into thinking about why the pandemic state of emergency is less easy for the new authoritarians than it might otherwise be; it reveals a kind of disjunction between the imperatives of a capitalistic economic system – very obvious ones [like] work, profits, exploitation – and the dimensions, capacity and obligations of state power – two things which are, in normal times, pretty much entirely aligned.

[A] pandemic emergency, unlike a state of war, has no natural enemy. It highlights how many things are, in fact, collective concerns and collective responsibilities, including health and how far away our lives are from being lived as kind of isolated monads or as simple vectors of economic auto-maximisation and pure cost rationality.

Natural disasters, and the pandemic is a natural disaster, don’t lend themselves too easily to the friend/enemy distinction that other political emergencies do. That’s partly why the Trump unit attempt to find some kind of enemy, whether it’s China or the World Health Organisation, can be understood as an attempt to get politics back on the rails, [those] which best favour him again; an enemy to rail against rather than anything that highlights the failure of the administrative state or the absurd and dangerous colonisation of basic requirements for human life by the debased profit motive.

But perhaps all this still fails to get close to that key question. What is it to be free? How does it relate to the state? What’s the state for? Come to think of it, what even is a state anyway?


JB: Well, as [it] might not be surprising, you’re not going to get all the answers here. It’s one for a much longer discussion. Such a discussion might touch on the Leviathan, that great figure of 17th century political thought, which arises, sways and awes those of us below it with its apparent and figured power.

You might also touch on the 20th century debates about the state on the left; its relationship to civil society and how those two are distinguished, for instance; whether it’s simply a vehicle for class rule or whether it has some other internal logic and prioritisation as well.

Personally, I think these debates are important. I find the historical approach in some ways more useful. One might think about how the current model of the state emerged from absolutism, or [think about] the establishment of bureaucracy and bureaucratic reason in the 18th century – not least around the French Revolution – or [about] how the state gained powers over ever-increasing aspects of life over the course of the late 19th and 20th century.

Perhaps what’s most useful at the moment is thinking about that classic definition of the state, that it has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. It’s true that when we think about the state, we often end up boiling it down to at base: who gets to hit or imprison whom? I think that can actually reveal quite a lot, not least about the first acts of enclosure and ownership in the first place; where the state comes from at the bottom of all. If you go back far enough, there’s always violence. The history written in letters of blood and fire, as Marx once put it.

That can seem especially true during the pandemic where the police have been busily extending their powers, even beyond the law, and where there’s a great degree of public deference. So much of the nature of the state seems completely isomorphic with the same shape and contours as police power itself.

Is that it then? Should we disregard all the other stuff that the state does and think of it as, basically, at bottom, [as] a night watchman above all interested in sustaining property relations? Maybe.

But two caveats. One is that the other stuff the state does is not nothing and is in fact very powerful. One might think of it in its regulatory dimension here, [it’s] a really important and badly undertheorised part of the state in contemporary society.

But perhaps, above all, one might think of it in its social welfare aspect. I’ve often been critical of the uncritical labourist view of the state as basically a good; a nice thing as opposed to the private sphere, which is rapacious and bad. But where that is true is that it recognises the dimensions of responsibility for social life that the state has accrued over the course of the 20th century, indeed the position has been forced into by movements of the left. It recognises that those responsibilities are actually not any longer easy to disclaim or redraw the boundaries of, even though administrators of the state often want to.

That kind of responsibility for the welfare of its citizens really matters. It highlights the powerful coordinating, ordering and redistributive powers of the state which arose in part as a consequence of that desire, that need, for it to take care of social welfare, of the demand that it take care of social welfare. Those powers which have often been hidden away or claimed simply not to exist any longer over the past few decades.

Second, relatedly – and important in a moment where there’s a lot of deference and obedience going around because of the pandemic – there is a danger in thinking of the state as, at bottom, a kind of big policeman because it makes all social problems into police problems. This is a trend which is already long underway in advanced economies, especially those which have pushed austerity over the past decade. But it’s both wrong and dangerous. What if we were to start from the assumption that many of our problems are not in fact police problems, or that the police are not in fact the right mode through which to deal with them?

One thing this crisis might offer us, then, is the ability to step back from the automatic assumption that police power defines the state, that it defines effectively all forms of social problems and all modes dealing with them.

Instead, perhaps, there are models of collective care and support, organisation of resources, distribution and labour, which are quite otherwise. Which have nothing to do with police or police power. One is, of course, the National Health Service. Others [are] less official, less formal – less easily thought of therefore – modes of political and social organisation like mutual aid groups, for instance. They might also allow us to rethink our vision of the state, what it’s for or how it might act.

That perhaps loops us back to the question of freedom itself, and the realisation that freedom is not a solitary endeavour. That it’s not actually about the lone individual, somehow free of social ties or obligation. That freedom is as much about collective endeavour and collective relations which permit and undergird that freedom as it is about personal choice. And that’s the other thing perhaps that we might do while our freedoms are limited, as they are right now, we might be thinking about what it means to be truly free.


Alright, not much else this morning.

Headlines today

Other than that, the other major news story of the day is that Rishi Sunak has declared that everyone is addicted to furlough. Yes, those words. Taking about addiction, the same words that the conservatives always use when talking about state support of any kind. Sunak plans on tapering off furlough support very quickly indeed.

[There’s] a kind of latent contradiction in a lot of what’s being said here. They’re beginning to talk about people seeking other jobs from furlough, a kind of tacit acknowledgement that a lot of economic destruction is going to be arriving. But one of the chief rationales of furlough is to hold off much of the destruction because it would be in the longer term unnecessary – it’s only brought about by a sudden drop in demand. There’s lots of extremely confused messaging about this, but one thing is clear for all the plaudits for Dishy Rishi, his instincts are still to cut at the first possibility.

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer finally meet at prime minister’s question time today. Will that death toll light a fire under Starmer? It’s [a] difficult question and it’s difficult to know exactly how he’s going to act. I certainly find it difficult to predict, but I will be watching. I might even stay awake through it.

Expect lots of fights over the detail of how the lockdown might be lifted and the financial support pulled away as details of that emerge through the course of the day and in the coming week.

We will of course carry more on that as it continues, especially as Sunak is likely to make major announcements in the next few days, not at least because he’s going to have to give firms room to make workers redundant under statutory or contractual notice periods.

So, as the medical crisis eases off, are we about to hit the economic one instead?

But enough this morning. As ever, do get in touch please [email protected].

Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, even if you’re a government scientist or sleeping with one, wash your hands and don’t be a prick.

That’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you later.




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