The Burner Episode #238: Emergency Brakes

Eight weeks in, James Butler asks what kind of judgements can we make about the crisis – and what it reveals about Britain. Does the sudden global stoppage let us see what real political change might look like?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it’s Friday May 15, 2020. We are still in lockdown.

Now, we’ve been running The Burner for eight weeks during the lockdown. That’s a longer period of time than we ran it during the election. And this time around it has been with slightly longer and more complex episodes. That has meant a kind of assiduous attention to everything that has been happening during the crisis, from those small indicative moments to the really, really massive stories and interventions. That’s quite a long time to do a daily show like this.

And we’re now, I think it’s fair to say, entering a new phase of the coronavirus period, [with] governments trying to adapt to the pandemic period, [and there’ll be] a little announcement on how The Burner will handle this next phase of the crisis towards the end of this show.

But quite aside from the daily flux and spasm of politics; quite aside say from Tory MPs sharing far-right conspiracy theory videos about the leader of the opposition, as Nadine Dorries and Lucy Allan did yesterday to barely a slap on the wrist from Tory HQ; quite aside from what that might tell us about our politics, about the increasingly porous boundary between right and far-right, or the ease of propaganda and smear in the digital age, or the way the mark for a con trick is at his or her easiest when they want to believe; quite apart from all that, as we saw the working class piled into buses, while the professional classes languish at home well-protected, pursuing lockdown [and] self-improvement, like baking bread or learning a language, or berating Owen Jones about cleaners over the internet.

Have we learned anything about our politics during this period? Has the crisis revealed anything about the way we live, about our politics, about the way we’re governed? What have we learned?

Certainly, you notice things, if you pay close attention to the pulse of the news every day. Things which drop out of the story after a short while or which those in power insist never really happened that way, or that you’re remembering it wrong.

And perhaps like in most crises, this one has revealed more about what was already broken about Britain, but which is usually passed over in some sort of embarrassed silence or taken for granted. One of the things I learned from listening to Angela Davis speak a few years ago was the power of defamiliarization; looking afresh at things we take for granted in order to reveal how contingent they are or how accepting we’ve become of daily indignity, or to reveal them for what they really are and push us to judgment on things we otherwise blindly accept.

Coronavirus offers one chance to do just that. So, what has it revealed? Well, some contradictory things. You might say it has revealed these hugely contradictory impulses within the public as a whole. On the one hand, a massive urge to sympathy and solidarity, including those 8:00pm claps on a Thursday, or the huge upsurge of mutual aid at the beginning of the crisis, or simply the sheer willingness of many to take action in which they reduce others’ chance of getting the virus, even when they themselves were relatively minimal risk.

At the same time, it has revealed maybe something of a deeply paranoid and conformist vein in British culture. Have you seen Sue at #43? She’s not been out for the clapping two weeks in a row now, but I saw her out exercising twice the other day, if you can call that exercising. Cultural instinct, I think, that was exploited by New Labour very well – however, politically and socially toxic it was.

But, actually, most striking to me has been the consistent, almost overwhelming, sense in both polling and in everyday life that an enormous majority of Britain’s prioritise the health of the population and the measures needed to protect it over getting the economy going. And that, to me, says something incredibly interesting about the relatively low stakes that most people have in the economy, widely conceived. Something, I think, in essence there [that is] basically very positive.

If there have been moments where I’ve been [inaudible] to discover a basic instinctive solidarity out there, it’s a few glittering chinks of light against a miserable and increasingly dark background. Because what the crisis has uncovered – I think rather miserably – is how poisoned and how destroyed our political culture is, and the terrible consequences of that.

As you see people pressed on the bus to push back to work or read stories of cleaners or railway workers dying after contracting the virus, how can you not see that we live in a society terribly divided and unequal? Not only in terms of what people have – how much cash they have in the bank – but in the very basics of how they should expect to be treated, whether their lives are classed as expendable. But it’s worse even than that, we’re seeing, I think, the consequences of a political culture which has elevated liars and inadequates, and which has rewarded the pursuit of public controversy and pandering; the degradation of politics into spin and narrative, and has fallen for con men and political frauds.

And so, the familiar list of failings… Or not failings, let’s call them what they are, let’s call them crimes, acts of criminal negligence, of indigence, of indolence in public office, [with] the pricing of headlines over lives. And so [with] 50,000 excess deaths week upon week, as Boris Johnson sat on his holiday or failed to attend Cobra meetings, or simply just failed. [Public office] failed to act even as the news out of China and then out of Italy became clearer and clearer; failed to act even when people began locking down themselves in spite of him. [Public office] failed to act on ventilators and then reached out to UK manufacturers, only belatedly, to remember they were the party which gutted UK manufacturing capacity in the first place. [Public office] failed and is still failing on protective equipment. [It] pursued headlines on testing and met targets only by subterfuge and deceit and failed not just in the short term but failed through a decade of gutting the state. It failed through a decade of ringing the last bits out of the social safety net. It failed by leaving the cupboard bare and so many barely or only just surviving.

Failed and lied. And failed and lied joined in virtual collaboration by [the] media and [a] press asleep at the wheel; too ready and too easy to take the government line, or to shrug off any disaster as simply “nothing to see here” and “don’t the government have it so hard?”

We have been failed. We are being failed by those in power as we reap the terrible consequences of a decade of neglect and the gratuitous insult flung at the injury as well: it’s the public which are a disappointment to the government.

But we knew all that. Yes, we knew that even if we’ve never quite wanted to face it. There’s a reason, after all, that international people that look at the UK and say, well, “there’s the disaster we don’t want to happen” and bracket us rightly with the right-wing nationalist populists, governed by deception and irresponsibility.

And now, even after our partial lockdown and just barely controlling our first peak, Tory voices clamour to push everyone back into work right now. Sajid Javid tours TV studios to fill his mouth and your ears with Ayn Rand-inspired poison to tell us that we need to “run the economy hot”, apparently not even really a euphemism for “why don’t you all just burn up so we can get the profit margin rolling again”.

The twin chorus, which comes from the government throughout, is learn nothing, changed nothing, learned nothing, changed nothing and [a] kind of desperate and near manic desire to return everything to the way it was before.

But everything is changing. Maybe that’s because we’re about to hit the worst economic shock for three centuries. That’s the bank of England’s words, not mine. And we are almost comically ill prepared for it. Maybe it’s because it’s not just a national but a global crisis. Maybe it’s because it’s a crisis which has taken hold in a new way that it has struck the economy from the outside in; that it started in the real economy, that it started in the basic predicate of the economy, which is, after all, human life itself.

It doesn’t seem to me that everything is going back to normal again, however fervently the government may we wish it. And that, instead, we have some turbulent times ahead this year and after. Especially if and when the government pulls back its avowedly temporary masking of the crisis’ effects.

The politics which will result will not be business as usual, they may even become pretty extreme. Especially the far-right sees an opportunity to pursue an isolationist and xenophobic policy through the framework of the crisis. Unemployment spike? The word “Britain First” be far from any politician’s lips that I can assure you.

So, the crisis then… We on the left use that word a lot, perhaps too much and too often. But it’s certainly relevant here. Etymologically rooted, it implies also a decision, a judgment, and maybe a moment of intervention. And there are strong analyses of moments of crisis and at least the possibility of intervention on the left. Think of Stuart Hall’s classic reading of how the right used the moment of crisis to alter and shape political common sense in the 1970s. There’s much to be taken from that, not least a reminder that crisis itself does not engender positive change or change in the direction of the left. That has to be forced. It has to be made to push in that direction. Think as a counterexample of how useless neoliberal economists and thinkers looked after the 2008 financial crisis. But how in the absence of an organised political counterforce, they very easily re-established their hegemony.

Now – I think right now, despite defeats at the national level in the UK and the US – the left is in much better shape now than it was then. Believe me, I was there, and I know, and I remember. This would be a terrible moment to have a crisis of confidence; to fall into despair or inaction, or to believe the old lie that nothing can or ever will change for the good. And that means staying organised and refusing to weaken ourselves into self-isolating ghettos on the left or entrapping ourselves in really ludicrous micro-factionalism or believing that we individually and alone possess the secret recipe for real, lasting social change.

One thing that has seemed especially sharp to me is that the current corona crisis is nestled inside other crises, like a Russian dole; that it emphasises and brings them all out, it brings them all to the fore. So, [there’s] of course [an] immediate corona crisis which emphasises the debased nature of our government, the wreckage of the healthcare system, the dependence on exploitation and unequal access on which so much of our government runs. And then there is a wider crisis: an intellectual crisis – but a longer-term economic and political one – of the current model of capitalism. One which had one enormous and substantial flashpoint in 2008, but which has continued kind of zombie-like since, with little to replace it. But the weaknesses of which are becoming ever more apparent as they get stressed by the knock-on effect of a sudden stoppage in circulation.

And part of that is maybe also an even more fundamental crisis at the interface between so-called social reproduction – that’s the work we do to sustain ourselves and endure as workers, as families, as peoples, as a species – and the economy itself; not least also in the kind of dynastic concentration of wealth and the weakness – that is the deliberate weakening – of the state and its inability now to stop that kind of concentration.

And then, on top of that, the dynamic that that in turn produces within individual nations in the global North, ever more increasingly unequal within themselves. And then, between those nations in the global North and hyper-exploited and casualised informalized workers in the global South, with minimal access to healthcare and profoundly weakened central States, among other things.

And then in wrapping all of that, there’s the huge crisis which does, to my mind, define our times even if we like to stuff our ears and cover our eyes to it at times. That’s the climate crisis, which is also simply a crisis of the biosphere and of the species, and our relationship to the planet.

And as we’ve traced on the show before, of course, the coronavirus is intimately related to that. It can’t be disentangled from it. All these crises speak to each other and inform each other and influence each other.

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in machinery that gives abundance and has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.
More than machinery, we need humanity more than cleverness. We need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities, life will be violent and only will be lost.
The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together.
The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out by universal brotherhood for the unity of us all.
Even now, my voice is reaching millions throughout the world.
Millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
For those who can hear me, I say do not despair.
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.

— Final Speech from “The Great Dictator”, Charlie Chaplin

All of that might feel like reason to be overwhelmed or reason to despair. I feel like that’s sometimes myself, but I don’t think it is. There’s nothing guaranteed about political progress or political change, but there’s also nothing guaranteed about the durability of oppression or the perpetual victory of those willing to waste and destroy the planet and the rest of us along with it – so long as they can profit from it.

In fact, if there’s something that really is guaranteed, it’s the claim that such a victory, as permanent and unalterable, will be blasted through by history and will be undone. Empires fall, and governments, systems which seemed as durable as granite turn to dust.

The question is how and when and how to avoid the fall making something worse, to make it a fall that frees us, all of us, and not injures us and how to make it in such time that we can avoid the worst of the ecological catastrophe yet to come.

The coronavirus crisis has given us just a taste. Just a taste of the scale of the action that will be needed. But if it has made it seem daunting, it has also reminded us that rapid change on an enormous scale is absolutely possible, that the capacity is there.

The leavers of power, when pulled hard, when pulled forcefully enough, really do work, really can shift things. And that is one great lie. The great lie that things never can really change, that the mechanisms of power don’t really work. One great lie now exposed as a lie. If you care enough to look.

Do you think after all, that they fight so hard against the left because nothing really matters?

Perhaps one other thing on the current moment, I’ve used the language of fall, crisis and change a lot here. I think sometimes this language is useful, and sometimes it can be also alienating or even terrifying for people. It’s only people on the left who think a crisis is sometimes a good thing.

One thing that has been really striking to me over the past few weeks and months is how many people have organically reached for the language of mutual support, care and solidarity, and counterposed it instinctively to brutal commands to go forth, be exploited and die. This should give us pause, I think.

While the dominant concept of political change on the left has always been one of sharp activity, of storming the best deal or the winter palace – basically an idea of the intensification of struggle to boiling point. There is a counter-concept, one which I think has become more and more important, as capitalism has become ever more identified with the cult of speed, with the need for greater and greater levels and intensities of exploitation. And that [concept is one that thinks] of political change as the kind of stoppage, of crunching on the emergency brakes.

It’s there in the very best of ecological thought on the left, which faces the destruction of the world squarely in the face: instead of whaling in despair, asks itself, who will build the arc?

It looks at the wreckage and the waste and says “how can this be repurposed? How can it be remade? How can it be salvaged from the current disaster?” It’s that gold thread which runs through disaster communism – that immediate instinctive mutual aid and support, which has always characterised social responses to disaster, much, much more than the all against all, imagined by dystopian fantasists.

Where, as Walter Benjamin put it in Paralipomena on the concept of history: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.” And as we barrel ever quicker towards disaster, I think we need to find it and pull it harder than we ever thought we could together.

Okay. So, here’s that announcement then. A kind of emergency break all of our own. This edition of The Burner has now been running longer than we did in the election, and it’s a phenomenal amount of work, and one which in very large measure – and this is absolutely no fault of the Novara Media team – has fallen largely, not exclusively, but largely on my own back. And I enjoy it and I hope you’ll agree that it’s useful and worthwhile. Certainly, I’ve been occasionally overwhelmed by how very kind some of you have been about it.

And while we initially said we’d only want to run The Burner again for a short duration, in part because of the work involved in daily show of this kind – and I should say other daily podcasts have teams of 30 or 40 people working on them – I think we’ve all realised that we do want to see it stick around.

So, here’s what’s going to happen for the coming week. We’re going to pull The Burner off the air, and just for that week, only for that week, as it seems the best time to do it. I’m sorry if that’s a bit of a disappointment to you, but we really do need to do it. We’re going to spend the week thinking about how to make it sustainable for the long run; what kinds of things we should be talking about, what voices we need, where we should be covering and how to do that kind of work and how to do it sustainably. And yes, I might also get a line or two. And then we’ll be back the following week. And so, here’s my invite to you. Because one of the things I want to do is get more and more listener involvement in what’s coming out on these shows and what we’re covering, I know some of you have written in already and if you haven’t yet, this is an invitation to you:

Send me your thoughts on the future of the show and what you’d like to see us touching on and doing over on [email protected]. I can’t wait to hear from you.

All right, ahead of us today.

London Renter’s Union comes out fighting with demands on housing during the crisis and organisers to take action around them. The demands they’re making are suspended rent and no-rent debt, to make the evictions ban permanent, to introduce rent controls and no borders in housing. Lots in there to talk about and I’m sure we will as the crisis wears on. But something perhaps that the Labour Party could also try listening to.

Boris Johnson faces the 1922 Committee today, that’s the committee of Conservative backbenchers. And the assorted ghouls within the conservative party will press him and press very hard on reopening the economy. And perhaps also push him hard towards austerity: still the favourite politics of much of a Conservative Party. But Johnson is less subject to the whims of small groups of Tory backbenchers than any Tory MP in recent years with his substantial majority. And though the shine has come off him a bit for some Tory MPs, they don’t seem prepared to knife him, or at least not yet.

The ONS releases data on the crisis in the care homes, which is likely going to be very, very, very grim. That’s due at 9:30am. Also, due this morning data on company insolvency for April, which might look pretty unpleasant.

And Brexit, remember that? Michel Barnier, remember him? He’s due to give an update on the latest talks, which is probably going to look a bit bitter and pretty bleak. That’s due midday today.

Meanwhile, news this morning: 77% of Britain support an extension to Brexit because of the coronavirus. Such a thing, I’ve always said, seems inevitable, but it’s possible, just possible, the government might pretend otherwise right up until the last minute.

But that’s it. That’s it for the day. And that’s it for the week. And as I said, we’re going to be away for a week and as it happens, it’s a week that happens to include my birthday – though I promise I didn’t engineer it that way. But please, please, please get in touch with your ideas and your thoughts for the show as it continues, which it will.

You know where I am. I’m on [email protected].

Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick.

That’s it. I’ll see you very soon, I promise.

Bye. Bye.

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