The Burner Episode #246: the Writing on the Wall

After ten weeks of lockdown, James Butler asks: what have we learned? Plus, a little announcement on the future of this show.


Good morning. This is the Burner. I’m James Butler. And it is Friday June 5, 2020. And we are still in lockdown, although you wouldn’t know it to hear Tory ministers talk about it.

And just at the top of the show here, I want to let you know that there’s a little announcement about the future of The Burner at the end of this show, so do stick around for that.

We are at a curious stage in the pandemic in the UK. It isn’t as if there isn’t news happening. There is: at yesterday’s briefing, Grant Shapps revealed that it would become mandatory to wear face coverings on public transport after non-essential businesses open on the June 15 – something that has been pushed for by Sadiq Khan, and that one wonders if it might have happened sooner had they not wanted to bow to a demand form a Labour politician. Forecasts for recovery look slow; Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates of Treasury spend creep upwards; the Chancellor’s direction over the coming months looks less certain, as he tries to choke off the temporary but enormous interventions in the economy. The new R, the rate of infection numbers which are published from two souces, also still look pretty high.That is to say, there’s much is going on that’s serious, though it is a seriousness to which we have become perhaps accustomed.

So yes, we are at a curious stage, where the torpor of in betweenness has set in, where no-one’s quite sure what’s actually happening – why we’re easing off the lockdown despite having, still, a much higher rate of infection and deaths per day than other countries who locked down harder and earlier, and who brought their death rate right the way back down before opening back up.

What had been at first denial, and then public panic, now switches, on the government’s part at least, over to almost a kind of boredom. So too with many of us: the restrictions have chafed, many of us are anxious about our jobs, or our futures, or our health; the realisation is gradually settling on us how slow the progress towards a vaccine might be. We miss people. We realise how inadequate our substitutes for actual human presence really are. And we fear – and I think this fear is very widespread – we fear a second wave, with ever diminishing confidence that the government is capable or willing or able to deal with it.

It has been 10 weeks of lockdown. Shapps was at pains to remind us it’s far from over – though it remains to be seen how the government’s breezy attitude to the lifting actually impacts on what people do, and certainly a bike ride through Central London yesterday did not show a huge number of people on the streets. As I’ve said before, my interpretation of what the government is doing here is that it expects to have to lock down again and is therefore easing restrictions for the sake of future compliance and increased economic activity in the present. That or it’s simply chickenheaded incompetence, which if also eminently plausible.

But 10 weeks. I said at the start of the lockdown period – and it’s a theme that was taken up by the extraordinary writer Sam Delany in the New Yorker a few weeks back – that such a time could well be used to think about looking towards our horizons – that the artificial constriction, a kind of perverse general strike, might allow us to consider the kind of world we want to emerge into on the other side.

Of course, we get distracted – by worry about our rent or by burnt sourdough or by the thousand incompetences of our government. We are imperfect dreamers disrupted by the obstinacy of the everyday. Nonetheless even the sudden break in routine, the disruption, the fear or boredom, or even the sense of sudden freedom, at least for some of us, has given many of us pause, to think: this relentless machine which has suddenly stopped – do I want to start it again in the same way? Might I not change it? Some things are hard to see for what they are until they’re broken.

Two things have been on my mind this week, prompted both by the uprisings in the US and the wider, longer, flagrant failings of government both sides of the Atlantic during the pandemic. One is the ancient story from the Book of Daniel – one of my favourite books of the Bible, which also contains the first locked-room detective story that I know of, but I digress – that’s the story of the writing on the wall. It’s very famous, of course: decadent king is feasting, desercrating sacred vessels, when a hand appears and writes on the wall these words: “MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN”. The prophet Daniel is sent for to interpret it, and says it means you have been weighted in the balance and you have been found wanting, and destruction is coming. And sure enough it does come, and the wicked king is swept away. And of course the story has become proverbial – the writing on the wall suggests an inevitable conclusion coming but not yet understood by those to whom it will affect the most.

Why’s it been on my mind? For obvious reasons, because I’ve always thought what the pandemic does is reveal things – make things clear which are otherwise just implied, or politely disregarded. But there are a couple of other things as well: the story asks, can you interpret it?

The message arrives, but there’s no-one, immediately, who can understand what it means. So you need someone who can read the signs – and we need interpreters at this moment, good interpreters who are not afraid to look at the signs and say what they mean, as Daniel told a feasting king destruction would soon rain down on him. Sometimes the most difficult thing to see is what’s right in front of us.

And the other thing is a line from Aimé Césaire’s discourse on colonialism: that a society which cannot solve the problems it creates is rightly called a decadent society. That is true, of course, of the coloniser states of Cesaire’s time, but how much more true, and in so many contexts of the same states and their world system today?

It has become so bad that it’s tempting to ask that of all the many problems our society creates, are there any it seems able to solve right now? From lynchings and police violence in the US, to herd immunity and the shrug-off incompetence and hollowed out state here, to the gnawing awareness that this is only the first tremor of a far greater cataclysm, of poisoned air and waters, of biosphere collapse, of climate chaos.

Have these 10 weeks allowed us to draw up a balance sheet, or a charge sheet, for a decadent society? What have we learned?

We have learned here that we are governed by a class of incompetents and hypocrites, of venal narcissists and sycophants, cranks and dilettantes, but this is not so shocking a revelation. We have learned that when they lie, they stick by the lie, even when the lie is flagrant, and dare you to do anything about it. Thinking that you can’t.

We know they were complacent, reluctant to act, and that for too long – maybe even still an instinct – their approach was to let it rip through the country and who survives, survives. Herd immunity. We have learned that they are hypocrites, but then we knew that too — but, perhaps more usefully, we had some very clear demonstrations that the hypocrisy is motivated by basic contempt, both for us as a whole, and for the basic expectations of democratic politics in general.

But we have also learned that we are not who our masters think we are. They think we are made in their image: self-involved, self-interested, venal, uninterested in other people, solipsists seeking only our own reward. But the instinctive pronoun of the human being is We, not I. Think of the millions locked down not because they are themselves at risk of the virus, but in order to support and sustain others in the community – to save lives.

Think that the numbers on movement, work, transport all indicate that we did much of this before the government instructed us to. What a power that is. Think of the networks of mutual aid groups, which sprung up like sudden flowers in the desert after rain.

What does this tell us about our power? About what is possible? About our instincts in a crisis?

But it has also revealed to us – or perhaps reminded us – the extent to which everything is subject to political contention – not only the rafts of odd conspiracy theories, from 5G to nanobots to George Soros and so on – but, more prosaically, the pressures brought to bear on Sage by the government, or the willingness of particular scientists to bolster a government line – it is a salutary reminder that as soon as science touches politics, it is no longer simply a question of detached rational inquiry but much else besides.

And it has, of course, been used to insulate the government from all political criticism – even to make political decisions appear simply as technical ones. Despite those decisions being profoundly at odds with, well, everywhere else. We know that move of old, of course.

And where do we know it from? Economics. The huge interventions into the economy which have characterised this period – although temporary – reveal to us the way in which Tory economic policy is likely to transform both during a prolonged crisis period and a depression, and outside of it as well – that it will likely be presented in technocratic rather than democratic terms, that is, not subject to contestation and insulated from debate.

The initial strategic and avowedly temporary use of the state is likely to become more frequent and less controversial. Strategic support for politically important national industries – like planet-choking aviation subsidies – are likely to remain. In the British case in particular, subsidy to inflated asset prices, especially housing, remain crucial in propping up its hollowed out and financialised economy.

But they will look for places to exploit in recovery too, where jobs are likely to go over the next decade – thus the likely capture, defanging and evacuation of the Green New Deal, gutted of all its transformational aspects. As there have been briefings in the papers over the last few days, Rishi Sunak is looking for something like a green industrial revolution to undergird his vision of recovery after the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking about it like the NHS: some kind of public health provision was inevitable after the war, whichever side came into government. It took a government of the left to nationalise the hospitals and lift healthcare out of the market model entirely – thus, incidentally, making it far more durable than a particular market arrangement, which of course is much easier to shift. So that’s the point – you recognise the inevitable shift coming here and trying to occupy that terrain.

It has also revealed specific, conjunctural things about our political moment and parties here in Britain. the Conservative Party is ideologically exhausted and surprisingly empty. Its victory has not led to a new Toryism. Its leadership has increasingly concentrated at the very top, and has had a knock on effect of strengthening the power of the executive in our political system as a whole – both in terms of minimal parliamentary scrutiny and Johnson’s own isolation from his own cabinet. Remember he’s withdrawn into a far smaller groups, with MPs and cabinet ministers have been complaining about a lack of consultation of any kind.

The Tory Party remains and has become even more so overwhelmingly an English party. It lacks any meaningful renewal from below, given the generational split in political allegiances. But it is also overwhelmingly still a Brexit Party, with very paltry vision beside or beyond that – and has elevated, perhaps fatally, these solipsists and mediocrities who now run the government in a moment of profound crisis.

Thus the slow return of Brexit rhetoric in, for instance, Rees-Mogg’s exhortations to return to parliament. The pretext of Brexit has not sparked a new Tory vision of the country, of its political or economic settlement. It’s odd in that sense, it speaks about freedom, it speaks a lot about freedom from the European Union and the ability to determine our own laws. But, actually, when you look at it, the propositions are really, really marginal. That’s has been enough, more than enough, for now, to ride to wave into power – but in the longer term, it’s hard to see that it will really be sufficient.

As for Labour, well. The party has been twisting in the wind a bit. It is obvious that Keir Starmer intends to reap the rewards of patience – that he calculates the electoral benefit will be obvious and sharper if the government’s failure cannot be blamed on the Labour Party. I think he might be a little optimistic but he might be right. But for now though, there are people crying out for representation and support – which has not always been forthcoming.

Equally, the moment of emergency has displaced – frankly, perhaps somewhat beneficially – the circular firing squad of conversations over who’s to blame and how to keep policy commitments alive. The current moment might also be a salutary reminder that there is not another general election for 4 years – and that however weak a Tory government might become, it is unlikely to produce one. The last few years have misled us on that.

So, what do you do in four years of opposition? That is the strategic question.

Two conjunctural notes on that. We have very obviously returned to a period of two party politics. That could be really beneficial, at least in England, if understood properly. Second – the generation gap in political demography is real. How can it be used? What does it mean? Is it temporary? How can it be built on? Answering those questions will reveal a lot.

And I think the longer question here – at least one of them, as I have emphasised it throughout the show, talking about England rather than Britain – is that the way in which this pans out is going to bring the new stress – I think particularly by the end of this year as Brexit rolls down on us – on the constitutional arrangements of the UK and will involve the Scottish question in particular. So, perhaps the English left ought to think a little bit more, a little bit more sharply, about that question.

Of course, this crisis is truly global, and as such poses questions not just for us here, but everywhere else as well. The horror show in Brazil, or in the US for instance, tells us a lot. The US in particular is increasingly advanced in its decadence – its insulated political system, the two cheeks of the same arse as people like to say, or the truly shocking nature of its healthcare system, or the power of the state manifest not in emergency programmes to tend to the sick, but in police riots as state forces erupt in fury that they have failed to get away with lynching another black man.

Two things that the US reveals to us, perhaps: that there is no sitting out the culture war, there’s no transcending it – because culture war is a representation of real political tensions and issues, which can and do erupt.

In any case, ‘culture war’ as a term really does tend just to designate parts of political struggle that are awkward or disliked — not just the methods that are used in that struggle. It doesn’t just refer to a particular kind of rhetoric, or a particular kind of argument, but very often the kind of issues – those are often to do with race, to do with gender and sexuality – that are brought up in culture wars especially. So, these are real political questions. Why wouldn’t the culture war matter, when it’s really a conflict about who’s allowed to use public space, who’s allowed legal protection, who’s allowed to be recognised as legitimate?

Second: the kinds of politicians we get matters. It matters when socialists hold office, and it matters when offices are held by people like Trump. Sure, the inertia of a wider system might constrain him, and there are internal politics and internal barriers – but at a moment like this? Who has political power changes the entire scope of what is or isn’t possible.

And there are bigger, more global questions as well. What will a pandemic-related global depression do to debt-bonded countries in the global south? What happens when the virus strikes countries with weak and unequal healthcare systems? Who gets to own the vaccine? Will a crisis reshape the global order, and what will China’s role in it be? Is the US’s position as a global hegemon crumbling?

And behind all this are lurking the more profound questions. How will we deal with climate change if this is our response to the pandemic? In over a decade since the financial crisis, how is it that we’re facing another global crisis with the left still on the back foot? Is it possible to look back over the past decade and see, from the perspective of the left, a fabric woven with different threads, from riot to strike to Occupy to electoral politics, each of them with different limit points, each feeding back into the movement? Perhaps.

When trying to think in these expansive terms, I’ve been reaching for something that Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright do in their brilliant book on the climate crisis, Climate Leviathan – to try to deduce the contours of a movement by determining what’s missing in the things we’ve done so far, both the strategies that have failed, and the obvious absences from the movement; as well as trying to think backwards from the end states we want to avoid.

If you think about it that way – where do we not want to go, what has been missing, what have been the limit points? can they be overcome? Do we need to smash some idols? where have we found hope? Can we lift our heads to the horizon again?

Then you start, at least to begin to lay out further coordinates for the future. It is hard to see what is right in front of us, sometimes. But we need to read the writing on the wall.

Ok, so, I promised you an announcement on The Burner’s future here at the end of the show. It’s become obvious to me, running this show daily over the past 10 weeks or so, that its’ found an audience and a niche I wasn’t really expecting. It is also a lot of work – maybe more than is obvious in the final product, which I hope has a degree of ease and elegance, and even, is occasionally funny.

But following everything so closely and interpreting daily is a huge task. So, we need to think a bit more about how to make it sustainable, a bit more than we have done already. I know I’ve said we needed to think about it, but we need to think about it some more.

I don’t mind confessing to you, as well, that I’m very tired. So, we’re going to take a couple of weeks more off the air – maybe until the end of the month. Of course, if anything truly epochal and dramatic happens, I’ll reach for the microphone.

But we need time to think – and to think, especially, about how to fit this show into a wider, retooled Novara audio offer. You’ll like what’s coming, I think. And please do get in touch about it – I really do mean that.

And just a note of thanks here at the end. It has truly been an honour, and much more fun than I expected, to do this show over the past few weeks – even if it’s also been stressful and tiring at times.

There are huge questions at work in politics at the moment, and huge possibilities too. Thank you to all of you who have been in touch – even those to whom I’ve struggled to get back, I do read every email. So, please do continue to get in touch while we think about this show’s future. You know where I am, [email protected]

Otherwise – stay safe, stay home, wear a mask, solidarity with the uprising in the US, and don’t be a prick!

That’s it. This is the Burner. I will be back soon — I promise — so stay tuned.

Bye bye.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.