Alternative Editorial: Dominic Cummings tries to 'take back control'. Here's the alternative

Thanks to  Ross Atkin

Thanks to Ross Atkin

By A/UK co-initiator, Pat Kane

For this project - first imagined in the traumatised days between the murder of Jo Cox, and the victory of Leave in the European Referendum - there’s one story this week that deserves our extended attention. 

And that’s the return of the coiner of the Brexiteer slogan “Take Back Control”, Dominic Cummings, to the heart of Government (as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior advisor). 

In so much of our work here, we’ve tried - in a non-partisan way - to feel the emotional and social reality that stands behind Cumming’s winning rhetoric. 

After the industrial era, and now into the post-industrial and post-carbon eras, how many workers and citizens have actually felt any real sense of “control” over their existences, individual and collective? 

The question, perpetually posed, needs new answers. As the challenges of climate breakdown and automation bear down upon many populations, we’ve been seeking out the best techniques for strengthening citizenship and community purpose that we can find (the Daily Alternative). And proposing new ones (eg, collaboratories, Citizens Action Networks) when we can’t find them. 

But it’s worth remembering what Cummings himself, in this 2018 presentation to the marketing conference Nudgestock, regarded as his crucial message tweak: From “take control”, to “take back control”. 

Cummings says this addition played into what the behavioural psychologists call the strong human impulse towards “loss aversion”. That is, we’re more anxious about losing things than gaining them. 

“Taking back control” answers that anxiety at a primal level - and leaves the field open for a whole variety of “lost” things that might be “regained”. These could mean everything from a financial cost on the side of a red bus, to an inchoate sense of national (even civilisational) glory.

What needs to be noticed here is the kind of knowledge that Cummings habitually draws on. Nudge thinking is a body of behavioural study that regards humans as “predictably irrational” creatures (as Dan Ariely’s book had it).

Their biases and flaws can be triggered and gamed, to serve the objective of ideologists and political strategists, and using the data of our engagements with (some would say our addiction to) social media. 

And that’s Cummings’ modus operandi. Gather in as much human data as possible. Use physicists and quants, combined with the most powerful computers and software, to identify underlying patterns and themes. And then act decisively on that information, even if it seems counter-intuitive or goes against the prevailing norm. 

Not people power - but faster power

We don’t know how long the shebang of Boris Johnson’s administration will last, even over the next few months. But if they manage to gain some tenure, Cummings is expected to apply these methods to the whole of “Whitehall” (the stand-in term for the UK civil service). 

He believes Whitehall wastes money (perhaps even corruptly) on incumbent providers and clients, and should instead fund small, multi-disciplinary, high-IQ teams, who will brew up exponential, “moon-shot” like ambitions for the country. 

No more “arts and humanities”-informed hunches and guesswork. Instead, lots of rigorous testing and prototyping of daring ideas. 

You may already note the obvious paradox (maybe even hypocrisy) here. The advocate of “Take Back Control” wants to subject the wider population to the experiment-driven projects of even tinier, less controllable and accountable groups than already exist in the benighted “establishment”. 

Cummings has contempt for most existing politicians and their parties - so his move back into official politics may bespeak even bigger ambitions. 

In a recent blog post, Cummings has talked about the need for a new political party that “prioritises science and productivity”. No doubt this is the policy logic that sits behind the galumphing “optimism” and “can-do” of his blonde-haired, Latin-quoting patron. 

As the regular occupant of this column Indra Adnan might say, Cummings’ post-Brexit vision looks like an intensifying of “hard power”, involving even more top-down, “instrumentalising” policy. 

(Even on these terms, it’s not an impressive start. Johnson declaims the launching of “a golden age” - but hi-speed train and digital networks are pretty old hat. There’s no increase of powers for the people in these measures). 

Cummings retains the patriotic brio of Brexit. He seems to genuinely believe that the Leave vote (and particularly its disengagement from EU processes) represents a “break” into a new, self-providing, entrepreneurial reality for these islands. 

It’s not people power, but faster power that interests this guru - and he’s perhaps implicitly connected to that politically ambiguous creed, accelerationism. (We should also remember that Cummings turned around the campaign for a Northern Assembly in 2004, from a position of general support to ultimate a No vote, and also helped to defeat the Alternative Vote scheme in 2011. His preference for centralisation seems to be deep and long-standing.)

Cummings may not get his shot at radical reform. However, we should certainly not underestimate or trivialise him. He has proved his ability to detect the wind of change.  

But from the researches, mappings and connections we have made over the last few years in A/UK, it’s more than possible to see the points where Cummings’ reach clearly falters. 

For both Cummings and ourselves, since 2016, the political factor that has become at least an equal contender to Brexit in the public mind is climate breakdown. 

And it’s far from clear that the populace is going to be passively waiting for brilliant, zero-carbon designs for living to cascade down upon them, from Cummings’s New Model Whitehall.

We have a solid fact to prove this: the burgeoning success of Extinction Rebellion, and the Greta-Thunberg led school-strike movements. 

Their opening gambit has been to face political, governmental and corporate elites. Their direct actions challenge these powers to “tell the truth” they know about our the severity of the climate emergency; they urge “action, not hopeful words”. 

But their next move - as our blog this week on the policy coherence of XR shows- is to turn back towards communities and civil society, and develop active forms of planet-saving power and sovereignty there. This will run alongside the change strategy of “3.5% of the population ready to be arrested”, outlined by XR’s Roger Hallam.  

This more social strategy is hinted at by Roger and Gail Bradbrook’s Telegraph article:

There are many other ways to be involved [than arrest]. All are called to act at this perilous and pivotal moment in time, in any way they can… 

Now is the time to think big. We need a ‘revolution’ in consciousness to overturn the system we live in, to strengthen our democracy, to find courage. 

Soft infrastructures and weird alliances

This transformed democratic culture, propelled by our urgent planetary deadline, requires new structures of power, knowledge and resource. These will directly challenge Cumming’s centralising elitism. 

For example, why can’t we feed our own “data” on our environmental behaviour into our own, civic servers and instruments, rather that funnel them into a far-off Whitehall (or for that matter, Cupertino)? 

Precisely in this age of scepticism about elites, wouldn’t it be best for behaviour change around zero-carbon targets to be set, and legitimated, at more local levels? This would encourage people to see their progress towards targets happening in real-time, alongside fellow citizens they recognise and trust.

But this needs tech resources - the artificial intelligence crunching this data - to be embedded in new, local institutions. Ones that are designed to be as accessible and trustworthy as schools, libraries, doctors’ surgeries, trade associations.  

One of our hopes for a “Citizens Action Network” is that - through friendship, mapping and future visioning - it creates a range of new civic appetites. 

And one of these could be the demand for these “soft infrastructures” of the future to be in localized hands (maybe even commonized, as George Monbiot suggests this week) - not corporate or governmental. 

Look under the “localism”, “democratic innovation” or “futures” categories in this blog, and you can see scores of these soft infrastructures already in action, waiting to copied or deployed by movements.

Again, and to conclude, we shouldn’t underestimate Cummings. In another recent blog on how we should react to “existential risk” (not just climate breakdown, but also “runaway” artificial intelligence or bio-war), he imagines:

a weird alliance between a) technical people, b) political “renegades”, c) the public, to “surround” political Insiders locked into existing incentives…

“Weird alliances” would seem to be the order of the day in contemporary political life. If the return of Dominic Cummings to the centre of our affairs compels those interested in the generation of “alternatives” to raise their game, then we can give him a mild welcome. 

And then, apply ourselves with even more commitment to placing the “full human” - not the distantly instrumentalised - at the heart of power and politics.