The Burner Episode #236: Tick, Tick, Tick – and Technocracy

Sunak softens his economic instincts: so what does that say about what’s coming? Is organised labour really in a position of strength? Plus – what does the pandemic mean for the future of technocracy?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Wednesday May 13, 2020. And we are still in lockdown.

And apologies to those of you who were left bereft at the absence of yesterday’s Burner from your feeds. A minor – well, not entirely minor – technical problem at my end, among other things. It’s sometimes difficult doing a radio show from a boat, as of course the pioneers of pirate radio in the 20th century in Britain found out.

But fear not, I’ve not drifted away down the Thames, nor have I been carried off by fearful and marauding geese. Not yet, anyway.

Nonetheless, your floating nerve centre is back in full operation twitching and humming across the ether, so let’s get on with things.

Are the wheels coming off the bus a bit for Boris Johnson? Well, if they are, they’re coming off very slowly. Regular listeners to this show will know that I’m cautious about the left’s tendency to look for hope in short-term poll wobbles – especially true here where headline support for the government of Boris Johnson remains high.

There’s certainly been a dip, [in] both opinion and [inaudible], [which] show substantial sweeps down in Johnson’s personal approval ratings. The more you dig into the numbers, the more rickety the support seems: 52% think the UK has handled the crisis worse than Germany.

Quite what the other 48% thinking is beyond me. But there you go.

That’s the British for you; always seeking out a 52-48 division wherever one looks possible.

A third [of those polled] think Britain has handled the crisis worse than Spain or Italy. That has got to look a little worrying when the tide of support for the government, replicated universally everywhere in the world during the crisis, begins its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

One reason for that wobble might be the sheer muddiness of government communications – which is never inspiring in a crisis of whatever stripe. But another reason – the reason it certainly ought to be flaking away – is the ONS number of excess deaths announced yesterday as topping 50,000; much higher than the official Covid-19 tested death toll of 32,000 people.

Remember when we looked at Italy and said “such numbers here would truly be a disaster, an inexcusable disaster, we must act to prevent this”? When Patrick Vallance said 20,000 would be an indicator of a good response?

Perhaps we have difficulty in visualising large numbers – all those zeroes, after all, what do they mean? I can tell you what 10 people look like; I can even tell you what a crowd of 300 or so looks like – having spent too much of my life in crowded rooms – but 50,000 people?

Let’s think of it another way. Imagine a clock or a metronome set to beat once a second that you set ticking. [Metronome sounds] Like that. Each tick represents a life. Let’s say you started it ticking at 8:00am. And each tick represents a death and you left it running all day.

Now, by the time the day has run its course, 12 hours later, at 8:00pm you’re still waiting for it to hit 50,000 seconds, 50,000 lives, 50,000 deaths.

In fact, you’d be waiting until 9:30pm for it to add up. [With] the UK’s actual number which has a bit over that round figure, you’re looking at past 10:00pm – each second to life, each second a person.

We need to get better at thinking these numbers because they are and they should be a scandal. Excess deaths, of course, are imperfect but good way to measure the effects of the pandemic – probably the best ultimate measure that we have, as it also measures those who died with the disease, but without testing; including in community at their private homes or in care homes. It also flags up indirect victims as well; those who’ve died because they’re unable to get or to seek treatment at a hospital, for instance.

The largest discrepancy in deaths between the daily government number and those recorded by the ONS came in care homes, where deaths are increasingly sharply concentrated although there’s surprisingly little attention on the implications of this, or even on the management of care homes, which varies wildly, and standards differ hugely.

On an international level, comparisons can’t be total and universal. We don’t have complete Italian data, for instance. But the UK’s peak is joint worst with Spain’s – from the data that we do have. And in Spain and France, access debts have come a long way down from their peak before their governments have eased the lockdown. Here, ours barely come down at all.

So, you might at this point ask, is this really the moment we should be easing off the lockdown? Didn’t other countries ease off a far harder lockdown? Only once they brought their levels of deaths, not just to a flatter plateau, but right the way down.

What on earth is the government doing? And is that unease behind some of the wobble in support? Maybe.

Political difficulty was always likely at this stage, as the cold reality of the consequences began to seep into the warm delusional fog of the British press. Different priorities begin to pull against each other more sharply, as the government tries to bring the country out of lockdown.

And [the] chief tension there of course is between public health and economic activity. And as the results of that earlier disastrous handling are harder to avoid, harder to avoid seeing, harder to avoid thinking about and harder to avoid thinking about how it touches us personally, there’s obviously a greater degree of hesitation even as community transmission levels appear to have dropped substantially with the lockdown working.

With what looks like the worst death toll in Europe, and one I think substantially, if you’re ever inclined to trust this government’s competence, maybe just remember that tick, tick, tick [metronome sounds] and the sheer number of deaths it represents.

Now, elsewhere.

Yesterday, we were expecting Rishi Sunak’s announcement on the furlough scheme – the job retention scheme which has seen the government paying up to 80% of the wages of furloughed workers, up to a cap of £2,500 per month.

It had been expected that Sunak would taper off that support maybe down to 60% or lower. In fact, he announced a rather softer series of amendments to that scheme, noting it would continue until July; [it would] be amended between August and October to promote flexibility in the transition to “Back to work” – slightly vague phrase there – but allow payments to furloughed staff working part-time, which had been a key demand of trade unions and the Labour Party.

Sunak also said he’d asked employers to bear part of the cost with the state, though briefing has also suggested that the state would continue to bet the majority of that 80% payment. Treasury estimates say about a fifth of the UK workforce is on furlough and that by the end of June the scheme would have spent £49bn pounds – warning it wasn’t sustainable in the medium-term.

Now, I said that it’s softer as an announcement than had been expected and, in part, that’s because they’ve chosen to spend some of them their expected withdrawal of payments as a choice to share out the cost more with the employer. But in many cases where the employer is already meeting the additional 20% top up wages to their full rate, this will be the kind of withdrawal that we’re expecting will prompt companies to start stripping off some of those on furlough into unemployment.

It’s not completely unexpected. After all, the measure is basically a means of the state masking unemployment during a period of sharp crisis of shock on both demand and supply side. And while the state would like to avoid very unpleasant and very unflattering unemployment numbers – which are going to spike, that’s pretty much inevitable – it would also quite like to shift some of those on furlough to the far cheaper universal credit system.

So Sunak has got his headlines about continuing support until October, or starting to lay in place that ramp off and starting to encourage employers at the margin to start laying people off.

What does all this mean? That it was softer than expected? That it was softer than they had even floated test briefings about? Well, to my mind it means that Sunak and the government more widely expect, probably, a second wave of some kind during which an economy sharply pulled off support now would flounder very badly.

[Sunak] also expects the global economic shock to be profound. He also perhaps acknowledges the stronger position, which organised labour is in during the pandemic and perhaps for a while afterwards.

Now the Trade Union Congress (TUC) is right to hold this out as a victory, or at least a partial one, especially on part-time work. And look, while it has been the habit of Tory governments over the past decade to say that TUC threats about strike, or to respond to those TUC threats about strike, or its advice to members to withdraw their labour well… Go on then, try it.

That’s largely been in the context of money and pay disputes in which the unions could be painted with the collusion of the right-wing press which in this context is almost all of it as self-interested money grubbers – but in the current context, quite apart from strengthened positions of key workers and of workers more widely, issues of life and death are harder to spin off. After all, it’s quite a different thing to say our members should not work because they should not be made to risk death at work and you haven’t protected them.

There’s lots of right-wing tantrum throwing about being unable to maintain this level of support forever. Although no one, except in the overheated brains of Telegraph columnists, has talked about forever.

The intensity of the economic shock though has been noted elsewhere. With the managing director of the IMF noting yesterday that they would publish downward revisions to their global projections next month, which have already shifted to a global contraction of 3% with advanced economies contracting 6.1%.

It’s worth saying that certainly the economy is already starting to restructure because of coronavirus. It’s clear that many of the jobs people hope to return to after the period ends are simply unlikely to be there on the return. The sectors which normally take up a lot of the churn in employment – in hospitality, in non-food retail, for instance – those are now cutting jobs desperately.

It’s worth noting that those two sectors made up about a fifth of employment entries in the immediate wake of the global financial crisis.

We should perhaps just highlight that both the lockdown itself and its economic consequences are sharply divided along class lines. Yesterday’s ONS figures showed pretty clearly that men, and especially men in low-paid occupations – construction laborers, security guards, cleaners – are dying at much higher rates than their managers or those in professional occupations. Many in those jobs haven’t been working from home at all during the lockdown of course. So the lockdown for them has only been a very partial experience. And as the push return to work mounts, it’s people in jobs like this who will be at the sharp end, and they will be without any statutory right to have distancing enforced at work or to have PPE provided. That’s at least true for those in England, laws are different in Scotland and Wales.

I’ll just point to an excellent piece in Tribune by Charlotte Bence, a union organizer, on what to do if your boss is forcing you back to work and if you feel unsafe.

But if you doubt the seriousness of all this, I’ll just point to the case of Belly Mujinga, a railway worker in London who has died of the coronavirus after being spat at while on duty. She was a railroad worker who had been forced to work on the concourse of Victoria station. Despite raising her own respiratory problems with her employer and asking for PPE if she was going to be working on that concourse. She was spat on by a man who said he had Covid-19 and fell ill along with a colleague who was next to her shortly thereafter. That’s how serious, that’s how important. [Metronome sounds]

Okay. Lots more hysterical nonsense on much of this stuff: especially the new angle that young people should be more outraged by the lockdown – largely pushed by columnists well into their dotage, gibbering about the debt and so on.

We should mostly shrug this off as unimportant were it not for the fact that The Telegraph is also pushing the worst case scenario from elite treasury documents this morning, again outlining various worst case scenarios and noting one recommendation for a combination of austerity and tax rises in response in order to pay off the debt. And lots of pushback there already, rightly noting that emergency interventions of this kind don’t require saddling everyone with impossible debt to be immediately paid back, with examples from the WWII and the debt from the abolition of slavery and so on and so on.

There’s a bit of sleight of hand from those whose preferred response to everything is austerity, who want to paint it as an inevitable outcome of the lockdown in order to push for it to be lifted immediately, universally and very sharply indeed.

Maybe we should use this moment to talk about intergenerational solidarity and settlement. Now, I’m usually wary to talk about generations rather than classes, especially because it conceals vast disparities in wealth and provision for older generations. Poor older people do exist. This is a fact that is sometimes lost on the younger left.

But it might be a moment to frame this as the moment for cross-generational support. The young have observed the lockdown in order to protect those older who are most at risk from the pandemic. Perhaps the older should push for measures to support those young now most at risk from the economic crisis; that might include, of course, jobs guarantees and a more generous state support than currently exists, but it should also go further than that; looking at emergency wealth taxes to support rebuilding and adapting after the pandemic – not for paying back the debt, but for building up the future. That might be the only politically useful way to deploy the generational divide: if older voters, who really matter to the Conservative Party, now stand up for those younger who have defended them and reject vehemently those test balloons now being floated by the treasury.



Throughout around this crisis, I’ve been thinking a bit about technocracy and the way technocracy changes, and it’s been on my mind a bit because of the constitutional crisis brewing in the European Union; as the German Constitutional Court has – in what I think is a first – overruled a nominally higher court, the European Court, and demanded the European Central Bank (ECB) justify some of the actions its taking. It demanded legal accountability from it, in other words. Whether it can do so? Whether the ECB will even recognise it as being able to do so? Well, who knows? Lots of technical detail in there. One for a later and longer show. I think [there are] lots of incredibly interesting questions about sovereignty and where it really resides in the European Union. And what exactly the limits and powers of a sovereign court are? And how far they can be reasserted against the European level? More to come on that.

But it made me think about the way technocracy shifts and evolves in a crisis. You can see that in the way Christine Lagarde has been talking about all this: as a new form of shock. More widely, as technocrats – quite differently to what they did in 2008 – declared they’re going to be flexible, that they’re going to change the toolkit, that they’re going to adapt; essentially implying that they’re possessed of the wisdom which allows them to set aside their ordinary formulas and respond to the emergency.

There’s lots of you could talk about here about the way pro-technocratic movements emerged in the wake of the Great Depression in the 20th century and the way it kicked off debates about socialist planning; the way you can intervene and structure an economy or the way that Keynes later would represent his desire to make economics much like calling a domestic engineer, or a plumber, a kind of technician for the economy.

Neoliberals, as well, like to talk about rules and laws of the market and their basic stability. All that gets thrown up in the air in a crisis, of course. The self-description of the technocrat becomes less like that theoretical physicist trying to describe laws of the market and so on, than that other frontline field engineer trying to patch together an engine in a war zone.

Two things here. The implicit shift back to recognising the economy as something that can and should be intervened in – the shift back i.e. to the figure of the engineer – that’s a good thing. And it’s better than the theoretician anyway. Though technocracy’s positioning in a crisis, in its crisis mode, might not indicate a more permanent shift.

We should distinguish between mere recognition of technical skill and technocracy here: it’s good to have people with technical skill who can intervene in things, after all.

Technocracy though. Is something different. It’s the claim that technical skill is itself beyond politics and the area in question is, or ought to be, beyond political contestation. And, in fact, expertise in that technical area ought to set the bounds for what’s politically acceptable and ought to be insulated from democratic vote or decision.

But one thing we saw in 2008, and that we’re seeing now, is that justifications like these work outside crisis periods. When the crisis bites, we soon discover that actually these things aren’t beyond politics at all. And we began to see the enormous personal power of many technocrats and start to ask questions about whether such a setup is really politically justifiable.

This sort of question, which is very, very risky for heavily technocratic institutions, like the European Union for instance, in a use case. One might also wonder about that very foundation of expertise on which authority is supposed to rest.

I could say much, much, much, much, much more about this, about the empty utopia of technocracy, but how it connects to freedom or about how it raises questions about the way in which fundamental political decisions have been put increasingly outside the range of democratic politics throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

But I wanted to just note that while thinking about this, I also found myself thinking about the way the technocratic cast of mind changes the way that people do politics. I found myself thinking, as I so often do, about the Labour Party and the Labour Party’s approach to opposition during this pandemic. It struck me that, so far, the party has been behaving rather like a lobbying NGO, whose role is to supplicate the government on key issues to get them to change their stance a bit. Yeah, fundamental agreement on the principles, but a difference in execution.

As I said, that’s how many NGOs rightly approach lobby and government but, within the political system itself, can an opposition really endure on that basis? Shouldn’t it be recognising that not only are there differences in execution and administration, but on the things we believe to be fundamentally important on how the world should work; not only on the outcome of decisions made, but how you make those decisions in the first place. Who counts and who doesn’t? Towards what end we work? The world that we want… That should be present in everything. It should run like a red thread through every piece of policy, every piece of thinking, every statement. I wonder, do you think it is?

Lastly this morning, this.

[Amy Hart: We’re in a really uncertain time when it comes to work and your rights and legislation. So, I would say, if I can give you one piece of advice, join a union. They were my absolute saving grace and safety net when I was employed by a big company and they know so much. So, go enjoy it.]

That is a person called Amy Hart, who was on Love Island, which is the show I’ve never watched and whom I’m afraid I didn’t know when she trended on social media last night. Nonetheless, her advice seems pretty sensible to me, so she seems pretty switched on. So, go on and follow it.

Ahead of us today, much confusion about what the government’s muddled new slogan actually means. Plus, various stories of people trying to navigate what they can actually do under the new measures.

New data on GDP: services, output and trade are coming out this morning. I expect those to drive the substance of the data. To put it mildly, they’re not going to look very good at all and those are just the figures for March.

Expect Labour to attack on any hint of austerity in the response. Press attention will begin to turn to care homes more sharply. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph carry substantial pieces on the really dire, really grim situation in them.

Jacob Rees-Mogg indicates that he expects parliament to return in person after May 20 – it’s my birthday, in fact: terrible present – when regulations allowing the virtual parliament expire. An incredibly risky move for an incubator like the palace of Westminster, and especially for so many of its support staff. I reckon he’s going to have to walk that one back.

But that’s it. As ever, do get in touch with me [email protected]. It’s always useful to hear what you’re thinking.

Otherwise my message remains the same: stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, and don’t be a prick.

That’s all for this morning. This is The Burner.

We’ll be back tomorrow.

Bye bye.

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