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A Modern Utopian

Bryan Fanning

Dominic Cummings came to public attention as the architect of the UK campaign to leave the European Union, although he had previously run one against Britain joining the euro and had been one-time leader of the Conservative Party Iain Duncan Smith’s director of strategy. He managed the Conservatives’ election campaign in 2019 and became Boris Johnson’s chief of staff. Cummings first became politically influential working in a similar role for Michael Gove during his time as education secretary from 2011 to 2014. In May 2020, during the Covid 19 lockdown, Johnson spent a considerable amount of political capital to protect Cummings from the sack when he was criticised for breaking quarantine rules that he had a hand in devising.

Many media analyses have depicted Cummings as the brains of Johnson’s government and have concluded that the prime minister depends on him utterly. As chief of staff to a prime minister he occupies the kind of role that has fascinated novelists and biographers: Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell is a recent example. Cummings was played in a 2019 movie, Brexit: An Uncivil War, by Benedict Cumberbatch, who had previously taken on the parts of other outsider geniuses both fictional and historical including Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing and Doctor Strange.

A 2019 profile by Harry Lambert in the New Statesman described Cummings as the Machiavel of Downing Street, quoting one of his former Oxford professors as someone “fizzing with ideas, unconvinced by any received set of views about anything” and as “something like a Robespierre – someone determined to bring down things that don’t work.’ David Cameron once described him as a “career psychopath”. Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who won the Orwell prize for exposing the impact of the manipulation of big data on the Brexit referendum and on the 2016 US presidential election, wrote that colourful tales about Cummings drown out  the key fact about him: “that this is the man who – according to evidence published by the Electoral Commission – played a central role in a scheme that resulted in Vote Leave being judged to have broken the law. A scheme that constitutes the greatest electoral fraud perpetrated in Britain for more than a century.”

Cummings has set out his own intellectual and policy agenda in a book-length manifesto, Some Thoughts on Education and Politics (2013), which Stefan Collini has likened to Machiavelli’s The Prince. This manifesto and subsequent blog posts shine a light on how right-wing political elites who have embraced populist anti-globalisation have scrambled for a new master perspective following an unravelling of support for global neoliberalism. Unlike the neo-liberals who have dominated the Conservative Party since the 1970s, Cummings believes in the necessity of interventionist government and is an evangelist for its reinvention. His role models are innovators who understand complex systems. Cummings actively dislikes conventional politics and the requirements to abide by the rules of stuck-in-the-mud institutions like parliaments. His call for leaders capable of navigating complexity and for technocratic government capable of responding rapidly to threats and disruption breaks with previous Conservative Party neoliberal rhetoric. It also chimes with the current political influence of authoritarian nativism. Some Thoughts on Education proports to be a plan to make Britain great again. 

The original architects of neoliberalism argued that planners and technocrats could not hope to direct a complex economy as if it was an organisation. Advocates of collectivism failed to understand, according to Walter Lippman writing in 1937, that the modern economy was “world-wide, formless, vast, complicated, and, owing to technological progress, in constant change”. As such it could not be usefully conceived as a system or as replaceable by another system. Nor could it be managed as an administrative unit. Neoliberal thinkers like Lippmann, Ludwig von Mises and FA Hayek argued that command economies and centrally planned socialist systems were doomed to failure because it was impossible to comprehend the sheer number of transactions and interactions within modern systems of production and exchange, let alone regulate these. Rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding markets – a metaphor which suggested the hand of God ‑ free markets, according to Hayek, expressed a kind of decentralised intelligence whereby each individual economic decision became part of a “spontaneous order” that could never be comprehended by a central planner and that efforts to claim otherwise in support of social engineering were in no way scientific.

In contrast to this classic liberal position, Cummings is bedazzled by the potential of computer algorithms to achieve a deep understanding of our aggregated unconscious minds. He argues that governments and leaders have no alternative except to seek to understand and influence complex systems and understandings of these. His conclusions have been likened to those of Douglass North, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who argued that individual actions were in part governed by perceptions of how the world works (cognition and beliefs) and that social outcomes were not just the sum of individual actions because interactions between beliefs and decisions critically affected the behaviour of everyone. As North put it, “Hayek was certainly correct that our knowledge is always fragmentary at best ... But Hayek failed to understand that we have no choice but to undertake social engineering.”

Cummings has argued in his blog that it is not a case of “public bad, private good”, since much of the private sector is badly organised, along similar lines to state bureaucracies. In a sense, Cummings flips Hayek’s trust in spontaneous order on its head. Global free markets have unleashed disruptive tsunamis. Leaders need to be able to navigate this turbulence. Government needs to be able to comprehend and rapidly respond to changing circumstances in a complex world.

Science is important to Cummings. Scientific thinking is his magic bullet, even if his own version of this appears at times like magical thinking. He supports a massive scaling up in government funding for cutting-edge research (such as quantum computing and molecular biology) aimed at turning Britain into an educational and scientific superpower. In a June 2017 blog post manifesto he imagined a future in which Britain has left the European Union but has the knowhow to build a base on the moon and is everybody’s most desirable strategic partner because of its leadership in scientific research:

If Britain were to focus on science and education with huge resources and a new found seriousness, then this regulatory diversity would help not just Britain but all Europe and the global science community. We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future. Like Alan Kay and his colleagues, we could create whole new industries. We could call Jeff Bezos and say, ‘OK Jeff, you want a permanent international manned moon base, let’s talk about who does what, but not with that old rocket technology’. No country on earth funds science as well as we already know how it could be done – that is something for Britain to do that would create real long-term value for humanity, instead of the ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘special relationship’ bullshit that passes for strategy in London. How we change our domestic institutions is within our power and will have much much greater influence on our long-term future that whatever deal is botched together with Brussels.

Cummings appears utterly impatient with and dismissive of politics, even though his greatest claims to success have been as a manipulator of political opinion. In Some Thoughts on Education and Politics he lamented that twenty-first century politics was “still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe”. The wrong types, he argued, acquire political power: “chimps” with some ability to dominate or persuade others, rather than his own ideal type: the highly intelligent and scientifically-minded long-term thinker. The kind of politicians for whom Cummings worked were, in his view, generally incapable of long-term or strategic thinking because, generally, they were the wrong kind of people for the job. They often possessed verbal ability and psychological cunning rather than the kind of intelligence that was required to solve complex problems. Many political institutions, according to Cummings, were biased in favour of “those who pursue prestige and suppress honesty and against those with high IQs, a rational approach to problem-solving, honesty and selflessness”. Cummings has nothing but contempt for what he describes as the prevailing “chimp” political culture. As he put it in a June 2017 blog post:

Westminster and the other political cultures dotted around the world are similar to these traditional cultures. They think that they are living in ‘reality.’ The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’. Like traditional cultures they are wrong. They are living inside a particular perspective that enormously distorts reality.

Cummings wrote in his 2013 manifesto that these so-called political experts often have little training in, experience of, or temperament for managing complex processes or organisations: “They often have little feel for how decisions will ripple through systems (including bureaucracies) into the real world.” He added that bureaucracies operated as “if designed” to avoid senior decision-makers having to confront reality and discuss hard choices. He has advocated the replacement of elected government ministers by suitably qualified chief executives selected by the prime minister, a system which resembles the cabinet model of the United States.

He claims that neither the civil service nor the political caste placed over it have the intelligence or skills to manage the demands placed on government in an increasingly fast-moving and complex world, considering both to be full of poorly-skilled mediocrities who are incapable of running complex projects. He has argued that the current elite of Oxbridge graduates with Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) first class honours degrees are spectacularly unfit to rule. In a December 2014 blog post he declared: “We should stop selecting leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as a spin doctor.” Of course Cummings himself graduated with a first class honours degree in ancient and modern history from Oxford before going on to work as a political advisor.

Cummings argues in Some Thoughts on Education and Politics that there is a need to make radical changes to schools, universities and to political and other institutions to enable societies and their leaders to manage the inevitably unpredictable complexities of the challenges these will face. He also emphasises how the tools available to leaders have become more sophisticated as the world has grown more complex:

Humans have made transitions from numerology to mathematics, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, from witchcraft to neuroscience, from tallies to quantum computation. However, while our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

Much of Some Thoughts on Education and Politics focused on how to educate an elite capable of leading twenty-first century Britain. These should be drawn from those whose IQs fell in the top few percentiles. Cummings argued that that IQ differences can be inherited and that this needed to be studied in the same way diseases are researched in order to develop an equivalent to preventative health care. He criticised efforts to explain gaps in educational attainment between rich and poor children in terms of environmental factors (as due to “privileges of wealth”) while ignoring genetics.

He argued that improved education would not remove genetic influence over the variation in educational outcomes or “close the gap between rich and poor”. Rather a good school would accentuate individual differences by giving children the opportunity to make the most of their genetic inheritance. Acknowledging this, he emphasised did not mean giving up on the less fortunate (“the fear of the left”) or giving up on personal responsibility (“the fear of the right”). A “scientific” approach to education might even, he suggested in Some Thoughts, motivate increased spending on the less fortunate. He also considered that there was no obvious reason why rich people should not use in vitro fertilisation to select eggs with the highest prediction for high IQ and that, if this was possible, the NHS should fund everybody who wanted to do this.

Cummings wants all those with the very highest percentile IQ to receive a specialist education resourced to the level of Eton or equivalent elite schools in other countries. This should focus on problem-solving skills using maths and physics. He argues that standard modernist social science and economic models are far too simplistic to capture the complexity of the interdependent systems they seek to influence. He is an evangelist for scientific approaches to modelling policy options that require understandings of mathematics and probability theory and the use of AI technology and algorithms as instruments of government.

Cummings is very taken with Edward O Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998). Wilson, a socio-biologist, uses the term consilience to refer to joining up the dots between different kinds of scientific and social scientific theory and knowledge to create a common framework of explanation. Consilience, he explains, was the great aspiration of the Enlightenment, a grand intellectual project that most thinkers no longer think is realisable, the ongoing schism between science and the humanities being but one example of the fragmentation of knowledge human beings have developed about themselves and the world they live in. Wilson, and Cummings under his influence, argue that the world is drowning in information and that a greater degree of synthesis is both possible and necessary to use this to tackle various kinds of social problems. One of the things that “synthesizers” need to learn is how many issues cut across different scientific disciplines and that developments in computation, physics, maths, logic, biology have made sophisticated modelling and analysis increasingly possible.

Some Thoughts makes some seventy-seven references to algorithms. The future according to Cummings will be interpreted and reshaped by ever-improving scientific understandings of how the mind perceives, thinks and acts. Throughout the book Cummings argues that leaders need to be trained to become synthesisers who have an overall grasp of the connections between complex systems and are capable of understanding information about these. Leaders, he emphasises, need to be able to grasp the big picture.

Given the immense complexity of the numerous interlocking issues facing humanity, foresight demands the ability to identify and gather great quantities of relevant information; the ability to catch glimpses, using that information, of the choices offered by the branching alternative histories of the future, and the wisdom to select simplifications and approximations that do not sacrifice the representation of critical qualitative issues, especially issues of values.

Beyond such an education the qualities required for leadership emphasised by Cummings would be recognisable to subscribers to the Great Man theory of history: intelligence, but also decisiveness, ruthlessness, determination, pragmatism and creativity:

They have ‘coup d’oeil’ (understanding at a glance) and Fingerspitzengefühl (finger-tip feeling) from aims and strategy to operations and crucial details. They plan obsessively (‘chance favours only the prepared mind’) and adapt to adversity: ‘everybody has a plan until they get hit’, and many forget it afterwards. They focus on strategic priorities amid chaos. They see how to ‘win without fighting’ (Sun Tzu) and how to connect to sources of power. They ‘make everything as simple as possible but no simpler’ (Einstein). They learn from how others solved similar problems or failed (‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’) and they innovate instead of losing within established rules. They are fast, fluid, unpredictable, and seize the initiative: ‘If revolution there is to be, let us rather undertake it than undergo it’ (Bismarck).

Cummings’s heroes include ruthless and decisive leaders who grasp complexity and do not get boxed in by ideology, the rules of politics or the views of the masses. The two who have come closest to his ideal are Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor who unified Germany during the late nineteenth century and, ironically, Jean Monnet, the technocrat who became an architect of the European Economic Community. Some Thoughts features a quote from a speech Bismarck gave to the Reichstag in 1888. In a 2017 blog post Cummings wrote admiringly of the chancellor’s ruthlessness and flexibility in pursuit of political goals:

Bismarck contained an extremely tyrannical ego and an even more epistemological caution about the unpredictability of a complex world and a demonic practical adaptability. He knew events could suddenly throw his calculations into chaos. He was always ready to ditch his own ideas and commitments that suddenly seemed shaky. He was interested in winning, not consistency. He had a small number of fundamental goals – such as strengthening the monarchy’s power against Parliament and strengthening Prussia as a serious Great Power – which he pursued with constantly changing tactics. He was always feinting and fluid, pushing one line openly and others privately, pushing and pulling the other Powers in endless different combinations.

The chancellor, he added, was not impressed by the ignorance of British politicians of European and world affairs. In a September 2017 blog post Cummings described Jean Monnet as “one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’”. The story of how Monnet wrangled the creation of what became the European Union through the chaos of postwar politics was “a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done”. Monnet was a technocrat, not an elected politician. During the Second World War he coordinated and drove the expansion of the Allies’ armaments industries. In its aftermath he was preoccupied with removing future risks of conflict between Germany and France over control of the Ruhr and Lorraine regions that provided the coal and steel needed to manufacture armaments. Monnet argued that peace between both countries could be best secured if each yielded sovereignty and pooled control of these industries across frontiers.

So which contemporary leader comes closest to Cummings’s ideal? Boris Johnson seems to exemplify everything he would see as lacking in British politicians while Angela Merkel, with her doctorate in quantum chemistry, claims the mantle of leader of the free world. Yet Johnson won power against more cerebral rivals like Michael Gove. And of course he has, it is widely believed, come to rely on Cummings to interpret complexity and come up with ruthless schemes on his behalf.

Cummings is an enthusiast for Big Science and Big Data technologies that allow for unprecedentedly complex projections of policy options. In January 2020 he published an advertisement on his blog seeking data scientists, mathematicians and physicists as well as the project managers and economists more typically found in such roles to work for him in the prime minister’s office. His aim was to apply a data-driven computational approach (the science of prediction) to government. Candidates for these posts were expected to familiarise themselves with a reading list of research papers on data science and artificial intelligence.

Early in 2020 Cummings became embroiled in controversy when it transpired that his recruitment drive resulted in the employment of Andrew Sabisky a “superforecaster” who had previously proposed enforced contraception to prevent the creation of an “underclass”. Sabisky had also claimed that black Americans had on average lower IQs than white people. Amidst the controversy Sabisky resigned.

Cummings is at odds with mainstream thinking on eugenics in the UK. His views on the cultivation and manipulation of IQ as well as his faith in the ability of science to fully comprehend the world recall views of HG Wells and other idealistic reformers a century ago. Eugenics became popular in democratic countries at a time when these had recently expanded their electorates to include some of the poorer classes and the more poorly educated. In A Modern Utopia (1905) and in several other books and pamphlets Wells outlined his vision for a future society which might be achieved through social engineering and eugenics. His Utopia would not, however, permit the reproduction of inferior types. His “sound and happy World State” was to be ruled by an ascetic caste of specially educated and intellectually superior administrators, the Samurai. It was partly from these that Aldous Huxley derived the technocratic caste of Alphas who administered the world government depicted in his novel Brave New World (1932). Wells was adamant that his ideal society could not be run along democratic lines.

In Britain and in other democratic countries eugenics came to be intellectually challenged by arguments that social problems could be better explained in terms of environmental factors rather than biological ones. It was also the case that much of what passed as science amongst supporters of eugenic population control came to be regarded as bad science. JBS Haldane, a pioneer of genetics, in Heredity and Politics (1938) argued that much eugenic theory was unscientific in its claim to be able to disentangle nature from nurture in explaining social phenomena.

During the early 1900s eugenicists had sought to develop statistical methods which would enable them to substantiate their claims and settled on a system of standardised intelligence testing, devised by Alfred Binet, colloquially known as IQ. It was adapted in the United States by Henry Goddard, a professor of clinical psychology, into a system for classifying the so-called feebleminded. Goddard was preoccupied with preventing morons (a term he used to denote adults with mental ages of between eight and twelve) from reproducing because of the ease with which they could pass for normal. The main premise of Goddard and his successors was that measured intelligence (IQ) was largely inherited and that socioeconomic success or failure were largely genetically caused.

Claims that IQ tests accurately distinguished between the intellectually fit and unfit, or the underclass as the latter came to be called, have remained prominent among libertarians in the United States. Notably, in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray contended that there were racial and ethnic differences in average IQs and that such differences partly explained why African Americans fared worse economically than white Americans. Again, their justifications for such claims appear to have been bound up with an unwillingness to consider other explanations for high levels of inequality. Stephen Jay Gould in The Mis-Measure of Man (1981), a critique of statistical methods and cultural presumptions underlying biological determinism, argues that complex human beings cannot be evaluated using a single numerical score. When it comes to IQ and social policy more generally Cummings appears, like some others on the right, ideologically predisposed to simplistic rather than sophisticated modelling of social problems.

Cummings appears to be entirely impatient with the role that democratic politics plays in thinking things through (as distinct from getting things done). He argues that effective government needs to be led by qualified experts, trained in mathematics and scientific thinking. He seems to believe that many politicians and voters are not qualified to participate in decision-making. In nineteenth century Britain a generation of civil servants and reformers influenced by the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham played an important role in developing public policy responses to the industrial revolution at a time when voting was restricted to the better off, who tended to be the best educated. Bentham’s utilitarianism proposed a calculus for determining what the aims of public policy and legislation should be without recourse to politics and the opinions of the uninformed masses. Utilitarian liberalism as an engine of reform relied on administrative rationality and expertise rather than electoral politics. Followers of Bentham like John Stuart Mill called themselves philosophical radicals. Like Cummings they maintained that institutions or practices should be swept away if these failed to pass the test of utility. Bentham himself proposed utopian for-profit institutions to replace inefficient societal responses to crime and poverty. Whether liberals championed free markets or saw themselves as institutional reformists they generally resisted giving the right to vote, and therefore extending political influence, to the working and poorer classes.

David Runciman describes this view of politics as epistocracy: the rule of the people who know best. These could be technocrats, the experts who understands how the machinery which runs society actually works. However, technocrats tend to see themselves in the service of this machinery rather than of the society it is meant to serve. “What makes epistocracy different (from technocracy) is that it prioritises the ‘right’ decision over the technically correct decision. It tries to work out where we should be going. A technocrat can only tell us how we should get there.”

Gunnar Myrdal, Sweden’s great technocratic public intellectual, exemplified the kind of progressive elitism that promoted the betterment of the working classes while still doubting their fitness to rule. As a young man he proposed the formation of a “party of the intelligent”, a meritocracy of high-minded and brilliant men who would manipulate the masses and provide rational leadership to a Sweden that had now acquired universal suffrage. The crude masses, he argued, had historically been bound by tradition and were conservative in their political opinions, but with the expansion of literacy and the decline of religion “they had become increasingly ‘suggestible’ and open to manipulation by demagogues”. “Democratic politics are stupid”, Myrdal declared, and voters lacked a sense of responsibility. The masses were “impervious to rational argument’’ and could only be influenced by politicians who made “intuitive appeals to emotion”.

But what to do once ordinary people had the vote? How might the intelligent elites retain their influence? Myrdal concluded that men of intelligence would have learn to speak the language of the masses, “to translate the reasonable to the emotional, thought to slogan”, to shape public opinion using the insights of psychology and marketing to benevolently control public opinion from above. He also argued that eugenic social policies would be necessary to preserve democracy. Such arguments turned on the proposition that if unfit people were going to be allowed to vote it was time to engineer a new kind of people.

As Cummings puts it in Some Thoughts, democracies are “notoriously unable to cope with long-term strategies and commitments”. Technocracy without the impediment of democratic politics can be good at getting things done. For example, authoritarian China was more decisive than some democracies in responding to the 2020 pandemic. Epistocracy has come back in fashion at a time when the right no longer trusts global free markets and politics in some democratic countries have dumbed down considerably. Populism thrives on an unwillingness to consider problems in detail and it rewards politicians who describe the world in simplistic terms. Epistocrats like Cummings seek to insulate policy-making from unqualified voters. Whether protected from the messy compromises of democracy by authoritarian regimes or by populist leaders they say, in effect, “leave the complex stuff to us”. With the Brexit referendum, Cummings, according to his critics, sought to manipulate the electorate using the black arts of harvested online psychological profiles and targeted advertisements. Some such critics, according to David Runciman, have been no less patronising in arguing that Brexit only happened because the wicked people lied to the stupid people.

Note: This article references a number of sources, including David Chandler, “Beyond neoliberalism: resilience, new art of governing complexity”, Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses, 2.1 (2014), 47-63; Stefan Collini, “Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings”, The Guardian, February 6th, 2020; Bernie Devlin, “Galton Redux: Eugenics, Intelligence, Race and Society: A Review of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life”, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 90.432 (1995), 1483-1488; Aitha Reddy, “The Eugenic Origins of IQ Testing: Implication for Post-Atkins Litigation”, De Paul Law Review,  7 (2008), 667-678; and the following books:
Sherrill Brown Wells, Jean Monnet: Unconventional Statesman (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2011)
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mis-Measure of Man (New York: Norton and Co, 1981)
JBS Haldane, Heredity and Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1938)
FA Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London, 1944)
Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: The Free Press, 1994)
Walter A Jackson, Gunnar Myrdal and America’s Conscience: Social Engineering and Racial Liberalism 1938-1987 (University of North Carolina, 1990)
Walter Lippmann, The Good Society (George Allen and Unwin, 1937)
Douglass C North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)
David Runciman, How Democracy Ends (London: Profile Books, 2018)
Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920 (London: Macmillan, 1983)
Herbert George Wells, A Modern Utopia (London, 1905)
Edward O Wilson, Consilience: The Unity Of Knowledge (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998)

1/7/2020

Bryan Fanning is the author of Migration and the Making of Ireland. He is professor of Migration and Social Policy at University College Dublin.

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