The Burner #242: ‘And You Have to Do It All the Time’

Cummings survives: but what’s the wreckage? Lockdown eases, but R is high: so why? Plus, James Butler wonders about political hope in difficult times.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I am James Butler and it is Friday May 29. We’re still in lockdown and when will I stop saying that?

Over the course of the last week, measures have gradually been brought forward to ease parts of the lockdown in places – somewhat shambolically and ill-preparedly, certainly, but nonetheless real – easing with certain schools and certain year groups slated to return on Monday, and the prime minister announcing yesterday that people would be permitted to meet in groups of up to 6 people outside including in private gardens – so long as social distancing is maintained.

Outdoor markets and – for some reason – car showrooms can reopen from Monday as well. And one thing this tells us is that the ease off of lockdown is going to be informal and patchy, partly because it’s ill communicated and partly, I think, at least when it comes to human behaviour, [because] it’s going to be locked into a weird position where it’s, in some ways, ahead of but in a lot of ways responding to the ways in which people are already behaving or starting to behave.

But we’ll talk a bit more about the wisdom of easing off a lockdown and what’s likely to happen in response in just a bit because it’s also true that it certainly feels like the announcements on this stuff are a bit rushed. Let me certainly clear that the new track and trace programme operated in apparently most of the country now is operated by that by-word for incompetence that is Serco.

That’s not really ready to be implemented, but it won’t be fully operational at the local level until the end of June; when, actually, the more suspicious members of the public wonder if this has been brought forward because of the scandal embroiling the government and the prime minister over Dominic Cummings. A moment which seems to have finally tipped the Tory ratings, including those for those Tories who normally do quite well in public opinion into the negative.

There was, of course, that quite remarkable moment last night in the briefing where the prime minister intervened to stop again and again questions being asked of the government’s chief scientists about whether the medical and scientific elements of the Cummings affair were medically risky, or perhaps more importantly, what impact they were likely to have on public health. Johnson intervened to stop those questions being answered. The journalist’s follow-ups were motivated quite reasonably by the sense of prime ministerial censure, [which] suggests that there’s still quite a serious question on public opinion over this issue. It does look like it’s the court of public opinion rather than the courts proper in which it will be decided, and it looks even like he might have got away with it through sheer, uh, obnoxious obduracy – unless anything more comes out. All eyes on the Sunday papers there.

But the last few things on Cummings, and then I want to avoid talking about that bargain basement-Machiavelli for at least a little while. I wrote a piece for The Guardian yesterday, which argued that the Cummings affair was important, not for what it told us about Cummings’ own breach of regulations itself, but about the structure of British politics. Not so much that the breach took place but, for one, that the prime minister and government ministers were willing to lie in order to defend him, and two, that such lies were obvious and cynical and made little pretence of being much more than lies. And therefore three, this is another piece of evidence that there are few, if any, consequences at the top of politics anymore. That politics without consequences is a dangerous place indeed.

Now, all that argument of course will be familiar to anyone who’s been listening to this show over the last few weeks though I do recommend you go and read the article because it goes down some interesting byways from Ben Johnson’s 1603 play Sejanus His Fall to Adorno on the knowing wink of the cynic. So, lots of stuff in there.

But I want to expand on something I alluded to at the end of that piece. When consequences disappear in politics, we’re in danger. Democracies are a bit more resilient than some of the power-clutching prophets of doom suggest, but they’re still pretty fragile things, nonetheless. It is a truism to say that they rely on popular consent and that the nature of the power that we give our leaders is conditional on their being bound by the same laws as the rest of us. It’s the law that they get to decide on and to make, and that the vanishing of consequences on the top of politics chips away at that consent.

But it’s more than that. [Consequences disappearing in democratic politics] causes trust in the political process to wither entirely. More than consent, democratic politics depends to a certain degree on faith. Although the political system may be imperfect, it is at least responsive. If politics, in Max Weber’s very famous phrase, is a “strong and slow boring of hard board” then the drill isn’t blunted, and the boards are actually capable of being drilled. It’s not a given that people keep faith with democratic politics. Indeed, the history of democracy as an idea is replete with moments in which popular faith is extinguished through corruption, tyranny or oligarchy.

Now, obviously there are all these surveys; you see news stories on them every so often, which suggest a kind of petering out of faith in democracy, at least in parts of the West and a growing attraction to strongman politics. That’s up Dominic Cummings’ alley, of course. None of this wishy-washy deliberation or debate nonsense. Despite these, of course, being in fact the basis of democratic politics.

I think the less obvious dangers are actually two-fold, [with] two kind of possible trajectories. I’m not an idealist about actually existing democracy. I never have been. But it seems to me one of its continuing malaise is, at least in its current form, is its gradual cartelisation; because the nature of political cartels is politics’ gradual insulation from being renewed from below.

This is something that happens within political parties as well as political systems. I think the Labour Party is a great example of this in some ways. So, you get these political parties, these political systems, which become increasingly ossified and completely unresponsive to pressure for political change, effectively rebuffing those pushing for it, who are often, of course, young.

This is a story, by the way, of various European democracies about 20 years after the end of the Second World War and either, [as a first option, it] produces a wave of people who become then very cynical about the democratic process and who are effectively disengaged. One of the things I said in that Guardian piece is that so-called populism is often better thought of as a kind of cynicism about democracy, about the possibility of politics in the first place. [As a second option, it produces a wave of people who, still determined for social change, are increasingly drawn to anti-democratic and anti-political measures, like revolutionary armed-terrorism or withdrawing from the world into dropout communes and the like. Two very different outcomes there, but that have some structural similarities. Neither of those two options are a good outcome. Either cynicism or the choice of a kind of antidemocratic anti-politics.

Neither is a good outcome, but political systems can live very happily with disengaged and discontented populaces for a good long time. Eventually though, they start to come apart at the seams. And the way I think about this stuff is that oligarchy has always been the greatest enemy to democracy. Right all the way back to the invention of the idea of democracy itself in ancient Greece.

It’s less my fear that we’ll see the rise again of the classical tyrannies, which defined the corruption of democracy in the 20th century, but that we’ll see the gradual evacuation of democratic polities and politics so that they become increasingly managed democracies – with elections still every few years for a strong man-ish leader with all the oligarchs and the wealthy behind him and a disenchanted, populous compliant press. All of that as we face a world which surely demands more politics, not less as we face threats far greater than this pandemic and this virus. That’s why all of this matters.

I just wanted to flag a piece by the super writer and co-host of the excellent Bad Gays podcast, Huw Lemmey, on his Substack newsletter. It’s the piece which jumps off from the heckling of Cummings by neighbours in his own street to consider the role of the heckler in politics, especially in British politics. And Huw has always been superbly attentive to this stuff. Distant voices and the encounter with the unexpected in politics. I think of it as in the same tradition as a lot of British Marxist historians who pay kind of quite careful attention to unauthorised and instinctive acts of dissidence among ordinary people in British history.

And tangentially, I often wonder if these are so present and so remarkable a part of the history of resistance in Britain partly because Britain’s Republican moment was early and abortive. The language and theory of liberty made available for much of British history was either foreign and relatively confined to those interested, while still cast in strange and antique terms like the Norman yoke.

Anyway, the question from it that I’ve been running around in my head is this one: “Why is a neighbour of Cummings, hanging from his window, able to offer a stronger interrogation of the anoracked Richelieu than the country’s main political editors?” It’s a good question. He goes on to ask about why there’s been so virulent reaction to Cummings being heckled in the street by his neighbours, with commentators calling it a mob – effectively [asking] why it has taken as a sign of political breakdown rather than as of a a sign of a strong democratic culture? And I agree, actually, that it’s odd. Now, admittedly, as someone who wants chased fence cable around parliament square with a megaphone, I think a bit of heckling in now and then it’s very good for politicians.

And there are difficulties here about where the boundary line is on this stuff. And there are important boundaries and we do need to be aware of them. But the idea that politics should be confined only to meetings, chambers, councils and parliaments. Well, I think that’s a very dangerous idea indeed. Up the hecklers.

And you can subscribe to Huw newsletter on Substack and I really, really recommend it.

All right. The Cummings stuff aside and the decay of the political system that it represents, the major news is that some schools are supposed to reopen from this coming Monday, with primary schools opening for reception – Year 1 and Year 6 children. Though this plan has been on the cards for a while and schools have been pushed towards it for a couple of weeks, I think it’s right to see a political impetus here in a wider sense out of economic compulsion to try to lift the lockdown and to stick to plans during a week beset by political scandal.

Two things on this.

One is that other countries that have eased their lockdowns in Europe locked down much harder and much earlier than Britain and have seen their excess mortality rates return close to their average. By the best estimates, Britain’s rate is still quite high, though it’s spatially concentrated in major metropolises and in care homes. And its R the infection rate number also remains perilously high.

Here’s David King, the former government scientific advisor and chair of independent Sage, which is a group of eminent scientists who aren’t on the governance panel but who are trying to enhance what they see as a stunted and politically warped scientific conversation and a body that is limited by the fact that it’s an official government body.


David King: The R factor for the disease across the country is between 0.7-0.9. It’s quite close to 1. If it goes above 1, we’re back into exponential growth of this epidemic. And we also know from the calculations published by Sage that opening up the schools has the potential to raise the R factor by up 0.3. So, we are really concerned that level of infectivity across the country as a whole is too high at the moment to open the schools and even leaving it for a couple of weeks would reduce the onset of the disease in the country by probably a factor of 2 from opening the schools up.

JB: So, if R is high and the reopening of schools could boost it and we still have a huge spike in excess deaths, why do it at all?

Well, first I think it’s worth acknowledging that this is likely to be a kind of Potemkin reopening given opposition from teaching unions, staff, many local authorities and parents. But I think this is rather like the other loosenings of restrictions that have, inadvisable as it may be, being done partly as a way of easing and managing headlines and the public mood, but it’s also done as a bit of a gamble and that gamble is that the rates of community transmission are reasonably low outside of particular hotspots, that social distancing will be abated [by] and that the benefits of permitting limited social contact outdoors outweigh the dangers.

And all of this is consonant with the calculation that (1) a vaccine remains far off, (2) the government expects there to be a second wave, possibly a third, and thus (3) in order to ensure compliance with re-introduced and sharper lockdown measures in such a wave in the future, some degree of relaxation is essential now, especially if that wave comes, as it’s likely to do, in a winter crisis alongside winter influenza – which would necessitate a very strong and very rigorous lockdown.

Now, this is an especially risky gamble because if the R tips above 1, we return to exponential growth in cases – it doesn’t look like the government’s track and trace program is anywhere near ready – but that’s my reading of the rationale. So, at the very least, I would say that if you’re meeting people socially, and I do think it’s actually valuable for people’s sanity to do so, do take the social distancing measures seriously, wear a mask or a face covering where appropriate and possible and don’t think suddenly everything’s just all right.

As for schools themselves, I’ve said before that I think the NEU is in an interesting position here and you should go back and listen to discussions in the past about trade unions. We should be hearing more from teachers’ voices as we go into next week on this show. It’s a genuinely interesting situation where teachers and parents seem overwhelmingly on the same side, which isn’t always the case for teachers unions.

But one thing that the return date is set by government does reveal is how balkanised and weird the education system in this country has become, with the Academy chains being outside local authority control, some schools still run by local authorities. So, even if your local authority has stood up to the government, you’ll still find some schools trying to open. It’s a strange and unequal mosaic-like system.

A couple of things which could be useful here. Local authorities can promise, this thing they can do, can promise not to prosecute or pursue parents who are too concerned to send their kids in. That would be genuinely, I think, very helpful in some councils. Some local authorities has done that already.

Second, the teaching unions have seen a bit of a spike of recruitment, as teachers including those at academy schools – some of which have in the past operated informal but very strong anti-union policy – are concerned about their own health while being pushed back to work, thus joining the union. I think that’s promising, but a paper membership is just that: a paper membership. But if they were to become more active, well that might make things very interesting indeed. More on that as schools return early next week.


John Boyega: I hate racists with a passion. It’s very important at this time that we ignore ignorance. That we ignore people who come through and try to make these situations what they’re not. I’m not even apologising first of all, you lot better f**king believe that, there is no way that I have the opinion that there are no other forms of racism. Of course there are other forms of racism. But, a black man was just murdered in cold blood in the street Stateside again, while saying that he can’t breathe. That’s a continuous cycle going on – although I don’t live in the States, I’m black. F**k that.

That was John Boyega, Star Wars star and good South London boy, reacting to racist fans as he spoke up over the protest exploding over the racist murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in the United States.

Last night saw the third night of protests, including the cities beyond Minneapolis, including attempts – partly successful – to burn down a police station there and very widespread civil unrest, prompting and intervention from Trump, effectively threatening extrajudicial murder of protesters. There is something profoundly difficult in seeing 6 years after Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the police, whose last words were “I can’t breathe”, another black man murdered in the same way saying those same words as his last words. No wonder they’re in the streets over there.

I saw one commentator wringing his hands over the dystopian scenes after the protest, ash and broken glass. But it seems to me the indication of dystopia, the real dystopia, is a police officer slowly, not with a gun, but by asphyxiation, murdering a man in the street. His 3 fellow officers looked on and in front of witnesses. Yeah, I hope I break some windows too.

I was watching those protests last night and watching all the typical debate grow up around them: it’s an election year, don’t upset people, protest is okay, but this is counterproductive and so on and so on. All the debates, which always, always, always come at a time like this.

I was thinking of James Baldwin, and about his line where he was recollecting his experience as a young boy in Harlem first seeing all the wealth that was in the stores strewn in the streets after the riot there. It was the first time he’d seen actually the wealth that was there on offer on the shelves. He writes in a reflection many years later, a careful acknowledgement of what would have been desirable, but what was only possible and required: “It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores. It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.”

Or perhaps his more famous line in one of the great essays on why uprisings like this happen: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer”.

Anyway, I donated last night to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which pays bail for arrested protestors. I hope you will too: Minnesota Freedom Fund:

All right, last thing, and it’s kind of related to everything I’ve been saying today, and it comes from someone saying to me yesterday after reading that piece on Cummings. “You know, that’s a very depressing prospect, if you’re right, what do we do? What if all the avenues for renewal, the mechanisms of democratic control of the emergency breaks that we’ve talked about on the show before, what if all of those are actually just broken? What if the cords have been caught? Are we all just mad for trying to change things? We will have to become centrists”

Now, I don’t think so. Not least because – and I’ve said this elsewhere – I think the generation now can’t repeat the false lesson of the 1960s’ radicals: that you can either that you have to move to the centre, that you can only try incrementalism, and you can try either corporatist balancing act or just try to ride a long credit boom until it crashes.

We’re in a very different situation now, unlikely to draw the same lessons from defeat, not least because we knew defeat was always possible, we knew that it was even perhaps likely, not at least because the political system is so hostile to renewal that it can’t even bring itself to try the very effective method of co-option and absorption, which [has been] done in the past. But simply because we knew that defeat was possible or likely, doesn’t mean that we’re going to take it as a lesson to give up.

In any case, thinking about this, I had on my mind a phrase usually attributed to Angela Davis – although I’m not sure where it actually comes from in her work, I haven’t been able to find it, it kind of floats free from context is very popular online. It’s this: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically change the world and you have to do it all the time.”

Now you might say that’s the kind of thing you put in a dodgy font over a pixelated graphic and circulate as a boomer inspiration meme or that it’s a nice sounding but meaningless phrase, but I don’t think it is. I think it identifies something really essential and it’s this: for all our pretensions, lots of us are whistling in the dark. We don’t know because it’s tremendously difficult to know exactly what effect our actions will have.

If history shows us that successful social movements exist, it also shows us that they’re often beset by failure, that they even often look like failures to people involved in them while they’re slowly heaving the world off its access.

And how do you keep that going in that moment? You have to act as if it were possible to change the world and you have to do it all the time.

What if we were to take that more seriously than just fake inspiration? When we say “act as if”, we’re acknowledging that we don’t know that there is that uncertainty there, but also that there is a power to acting with or claiming that agency which is formerly attributed to the people in democracies but which sometimes feels very absent. Claiming that agency, even if it feels absent, is a key part of ensuring that it actually exists – even bringing it into being.

Let’s go deeper as well, what would it mean to hold the possibility that it really is possible to radically change the world? It would mean, for instance, thinking that the overwhelming majority of people you meet aren’t your enemy or aren’t un-persuadable and that your view shouldn’t be a minority view but should resonate with many, many, many people. That they’re equally participants in a political process just like you.

That means you have to be convinced there is a way to talk to them as an equal about how you think the world is and how it can change. And let’s get maybe a bit deeper even than that. If it were true that it is possible to radically change the world, then it would mean that it’s profoundly wrong to settle with injustice. The nags in your conscience that say “this is wrong but it’s just the way the world is and I can’t change it”, that abandoning principle is somehow the mark of political adulthood… That would be wrong.

It’s also a call among other things to comradeship, to recognise that to translate the possibility of changing the world into reality requires you not to think cynically about those on the same side as you but that they’re also working sincerely to the same ends and act as comrades and that is a discipline.

It’s not always natural, especially not in the world we live in. It’s an acquired habit, but one that has to be practiced. You have to do it all the time because it doesn’t come naturally, because doing it all the time is what makes it a reality. It doesn’t mean living on the protest or working for the party, whichever party. It means an attitude that runs through all your interactions, everything you do as best as possible; that human beings turn to freedom like leaves turn to the sun. You have to act as if it were possible to change the world and you have to do it all the time.

It’s like all ethical injunctions, impossible to live too perfectly. It isn’t telling you not to doubt. We will doubt. It isn’t telling you not to fear. We all fear. It’s not telling you not to disagree. We all disagree. And God knows that it says nothing really about how we get from here to there. It’s saying something far simpler than that. We will get seized on by these things and they don’t magically go away: fear, doubt, uncertainty. It’s just saying that underneath all that you have to embed that conviction: it’s possible to change the world, it’s possible to radically transform the world. That’s where you come back to and that’s where you set out from and you have to do it all the time.

Headlines today

Sunak is to give details on that roll back and taper off of the furlough scheme, which will of course have its knock on effects from, as many of those who were furloughed find their job start to disappear from underneath them.

A bit of a brew brouhaha developing over parliament’s return, with only 50 MPs in the chamber at a time. There are serious concerns about the stifling of debate, the voting system and so on.

There is, however, more seriously a slow burning scandal of care homes, which looks like it’s going to ignite further with evidence of a formal plan to discharge corona cases on mass into nursing homes now coming to light, more on that on Monday as well.

And if you’re working in a care home, do you get in touch with anything interesting and your experiences.

As ever, I’m on [email protected] Do stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, mask up and don’t be a prick.

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

Bye bye.

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