Dominic’s Basilisk, Part 1

or, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”

As of Saturday (17 October 2019), my Prime Minister Boris Johnson (good grief) said in a couple of letters a few things about extending Article 50 in an amusingly petulant way to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council which would blah blah blah you can check the news for yourself. The point is that he likely did so with the encouragement of his head bitch Dominic Cummings, and if he didn’t – because it is characteristically Johnson to so misbehave – then it wouldn’t have played out exactly as it did without the behest of Dominic Cummings. Cummings is a rationalist, a true-believer in a weird human-perfectibility cult, generally going under the misnomer “rationalist”, which emphasises the importance of being right all of the time, even when you’re wrong.

So onto the ridiculously long preamble about Nazi legal theory.

—–

It’s a cliche to kick off a cultural critique with a reference to dead German philosophers, especially those Current with performatively edgy scholarship in the humanities, but in this case it’s apposite. So with a deep and very real sigh:

The German legal theorist Carl Schmitt proposed two related political and legal doctrines in the service of a Teutonic conservativism which would later bloom into some of the legal basis for Nazi German law. (For the pedantic crypto-fascists who may turn up in the comments, this is not an exhaustive account of the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, it’s just two doctrines applicable here).

One was “political theology” (Politische Theologie). This was the notion that politics conducted without direct reference to religious authority in the aftermath of the 18th century and liberalism was and is the transposition of foregoing religious law into a secular framework. This being the case supposedly entailed that the supposed originary functions of religious law – the ordering of individual morality and maintenance of order in society – would, or should, be the functions of secular politics.

The second doctrine was the “state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand), which flowed from similar precepts: secular law is, or should be, at times overridden by the capabilities of a sovereign to maintain order and morality in society, when those are at risk of decay or moral corruption, and when the law is not so capable.

Dominic Cummings, along with the Johnson govt. of which he is Field Marshal [1], has been happy at least implicitly to espouse both doctrines. The role of the current government is to deliver order – in what form your guess is as good as mine – and moral authority, in the troublingly inchoate but undeniably straightforward form of “Get Brexit Done”. This, insofar as since the present state of things is a state of decay, and moral corruption. It remains up to whoever decides such things to decide whether that “insofar as” is true.

In the mouths of the European Research Group, and their cowed fellow travellers on the “moderate” end of the Conservative and Unionist Party, “Get Brexit Done” was under Theresa May a mewling soundbite without much consequence. In the mouth of Dominic Cummings, videoed casually wittering with whoeverthefuck against some pillar, before nonchalantly accosting an elected MP who has been suffering death threats for opposing the government’s position, “Get Brexit Done” is an extraordinary declaration of moral authority which deliberately runs roughshod over the notion that UK politics should be secular or run according to democratic norms.

We don’t need to rehash the irritatingly obvious and true objections, moral and constitutional, to this interpretation of the referendum which is now itself a toddler, because “Get Brexit Done” stands for a lot more than whether or not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland remains a part of the European Union or even remains simpliciter.

“Get Brexit Done” means what Schmitt meant when he put it to the secular law herself that her purpose in life was the maintenance of social order and the dictation of public and private morality. It means that if the law played politics wrong, too egalitarian, then the vestiges of religious law would have to rein her in and bring her under control. Specifically, those are the vestiges which represented the violent and unrestrained id of Homo Xenophobicus. That id as represented by the Catholic Church, Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Thomas Hobbes, Caesar Augustus, Tony Blair, Enoch Powell, or Chris Evans. It doesn’t really matter so long as somebody is representing a violently jaundiced id somewhere.

Of course with respect to Schmitt’s point about “order”, to suggest that “Get Brexit Done” is a call to maintain the social order would be ridiculous, given what we’ve seen. But it was ridiculous when, in the 1930s, Schmitt’s ideas were put towards Nazi chaos. The part about order is easily abandoned if you have an imagined future order of your sectarian own to work towards, as Kolakowski pointed out was the case in the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, or as The Troubles will tell you on their own. What mattered then, as it matters now, was the imposition of a quasi-religious morality onto society and onto the individual by the state, howsoever the Premier and his orderlies – or svengalis – saw fit. It’s the same in millenial Russia too, where Vladislav Surkov’s “Sovereign Democracy” deliberately makes a paradox of the idea that the Russian Federation has a demos: the people get what they want as long as it’s what we want to give them (and we’re not giving anything to the gays). For a primer on how I conceive Surkov’s Russia and its relevancy here see [2], a previous post of mine which reworks some of my graduate research.

This is probably the major thing your average managerialist commentator gets wrong about the chaos of authoritarianism, and if you don’t get what I mean by that you probably never will.

I don’t know whether Dominic Cummings has ever read Carl Schmitt (I imagine it’s very likely he’s approvingly skimmed some of the material) but I have a few clues as to why he so crassly resembles the Nazi law-giver par excellence.

—–

Cummings is if not a card-carrying then a card-secreting member of a cult [3]. His blogroll includes key players in the “rationalist” subculture: SlateStarCodex; Eliezer Yudkowsky; MIRI (i.e. Eliezer Yudkowsky); OvercomingBias etc.

Currently that cult’s most febrile platform is a subreddit called /r/TheMotte, but for reasons connected to the proliferation of commentary, the second law of thermodynamics, and the heat death of the universe, I won’t go into details about that. Suffice to say that under the influence of Scott Alexander (the author of the SlateStarCodex blog) the cult has a fetish for Chesterton’s Fence [4], “data analysis” (no matter how tendentiously or disingenuously presented); and the avoidance of and identification of “cognitive biases” (whatever those, in the tortured and disrupted imagination of the rationalists, are supposed to be).

The basic idea of the Scott Alexander strain of the “rationalist” cult is that you can overcome our human, all too human, failings by reading a lot of other people talking about books and datasets you haven’t read, and using that reading to complain about hubristic lefties like me. You will often find them citing dad-centrist Jonathan Haidt alongside the bizarre racist pseudo-science of people like Emil Kirkegaard…as well as, now and again, Carl Schmitt.

It’s fun to be a fly on the wall there, but you can look at the footnotes and do your own research: if you have a lazy Sunday and despise your own self-satisfied belief in the ascendancy of human reason I recommend it.

It’s natural that Cummings should be of a piece with such a cult. A central proposition of “rationalist” discourse is that there exists a “red” and a “blue” tribe in political discourse. Over and above those two there is a sadly neglected “grey” tribe who actually think about how life should be organised (generally a complicated mixture of techno-libertarianism, eugenicism, and fascism; “data analysis”) who unlike the other two live somewhere outside the “culture war” and are motivated by higher ends than the mere internecine squabbles of liberal democratic society. Willing to listen to any and all ideas, so long as they are techno-libertarian, eugenicist, and fascist, unlike the Tories or Labour or even centrist dads, they will entertain any scientific or ethical proposition so long as it is as edgy as possible.

Cummings is, correspondingly, proud that he has never been a member of a political party. His is a higher ideal, with no regard for the small-mindedness of those who look to engage with their fellow human beings as if they are deserving of recognition as human beings. Party association, it is implied, and sometimes – though judiciously – made explicit, isn’t a matter of principle but a matter of tribal allegiance: a primitive hangover from an imaginary stone age when all that mattered was clubbing the other side to death if they came after your nuts and berries [5]. Now, a rationalist like Cummings doesn’t endorse this state of affairs, but with Schmitt he will accept political realities and shape them from on high. So it is with the “grey” tribe, who exist outside the tribal realities of politics, biding their time. Older readers will recognise this as a Trot strategy, although it’s doubtful whether the entryists themselves would see it that way.

Furthermore, Cummings’s connection with this lot could have been predicted even if you knew very little about them if, when you first noticed him, as I did, he was a SpAd for Michael Gove, when Gove was Education Secretary. At the time, Cummings became briefly notorious for taking time out to write a baffling pamphlet, posted on his blog, promoting an “Odyssean Education”. Much has been written about that so I will again avoid details and entreat the reader to do their own homework.

Overwrought nomenclature aside, the “Odyssean Education” was on its face a reasonable idea: educated people should have a broad base of understanding, from mathematics to literature, in order that they can best comprehend a complex and disordered world, growing increasingly complex (though whether it is increasingly disordered is, in this author’s opinion, very much up for debate). He did after all get the silly name from Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant physicist who also had the literary nous to name the fundamental particle “quark” after a passage in James Joyce’s (brilliant, impenetrable, ineffably relaxing) Finnegans Wake. In Gell-Mann’s formulation, any individual should through their education be capable of penetrating self-examination by recognising that they were an individual trapped in an almost impossibly complex universe, and so understand to the best of their ability how to navigate the complexity without doing harm and with doing good.

But on closer examination the Cummings formulation was quite a mad idea, like much of the ideas in the rest of the Cummings blog. A soporific arena of cherry-picked graphs and stats battling hifalutin rhetoric for pole position which (I think?) aimed to establish that some people are just better than others, better flute players [6], and that the better flute players should get all the cake. Read “power”. The basic proposition was more or less twofold, with emphasis on the latter: (1) progressive education policies which emphasised skills and critical thinking were insufficient to produce really serious thinkers out of the general population; (2) education policy should create Odyssean “leaders” capable of guiding the skills-and-critical-thinking proles through a vastly complex world they couldn’t possibly understand with their heroic understanding of both how to do data-analysis and how to read The Brothers Karamazov.[7]

This is human-perfectibility distilled to its essence. Imagine a heroic ideal of what a man can be, and devote your best years to inventing him. Never question whether you might have been conditioned yourself to believe in such an ideal. You are, after all, above the fray of bias and the partible masses…

The critically attentive reader will have begun to see the problem at this point. Why “leaders”? Why the insistence on having people like that, and why so little thought about how to pick them? Dominic Cummings picked Boris Johnson! And that is the unparadoxical paradox at the heart of the rationalist cult.

Picking a loser can result in picking a winner. It doesn’t actually matter whether your pick meets the standards you claim to uphold, because what matters is the political reality that they can get what you want done done. It may be the case that you think that what you want done is informed by your ideal of a rational man, but at this point all that matters is that you’re headed in the (obscure, increasingly difficult to grasp) direction you think such a man would be headed in.

The same reader will have, at the same time, noticed that The Brothers Karamazov is not necessarily the moral guide a statistician should be asking after. It’s obviously all too easy for an Odyssean dilettante to garnish a trivial, uninteresting, and misleading statistic with a reference to whoeverthefuck they so choose and thus lend it a literary veneer of nonsense credibility. It’s very easy with a literary education to lie.

——

The central problem with a cult that promotes the perfectability of the human race is that it creates an image of the perfected human to which members of the cult aspire. You can see it as much with hippies and anarchist communes as you can with Nazis, although hippies and anarchists may not be as effective as Nazis in terms of naked efficiency. Members of the cult know that they aren’t the ideal they’ve invented, but they can further invent troubling hierarchies which rank individual people and worse, groups of people [8], according to the degree to which they approach that perfection.

The associated problem is that, as with Cummings, members of the cult start to do things as if they at least know what that perfection entails and so can approach even if not attain such a perfection…where that perfection is something as drab as knowing a bit of maths and reading a good novel now and again. I’m running the risk of psychoanalysing here, but it’s not exactly unborneout that people who get very into the idea that they have the right idea start to develop odd ways of Othering some of their peers and reifying others. An “Odyssean” education is little more than a handful of minimally graspable bits of rote learning. That happens to appeal to a particular and partial vision of what an Ubermensch might look like, while an Untermensch is anybody not on board, but why should I care? I’m still not convinced that the English are up to the task of running a cheap airline, let alone curing cancer or picking a good translation to read Dostoevsky in.

Such a vision has little grasp of ironic detachment or self-reflection.

Back in the real world – a world I am unfortunately not allowed currently to live in – what matters isn’t a conspiracy against human perfectibility by progressive education, but the much more difficult task of letting people live good lives on their own terms. But then it would be outside the scope of a cult of most all kinds to imagine that Amartya Sen has anything worth saying on the matter of social justice, because that notion is written off from the beginning as getting in the way of The Man over all.

—–

To explain this piece’s title: the “Basilisk”, known to “rationalists” is “Roko’s Basilisk”, a thought experiment which proposes that an ideally rational Artificial Intelligence would torture resurrections or simulations of those who knew that it would eventually be created, but who still failed to help create it themselves, as a form of “acausal trade”. Look it up for yourselves. It was first proposed by the titular user of the LessWrong (“rationalist”) website, of which Cummings is an enthusiastic follower, and it lines up closely with his apparent political strategy. Crudely acting as the corporeal agent of an invented force majeure, Cummings is using rationalistic threats to enforce the Premiership of his chosen mark (Boris Johnson, if you’re feeling slow today) in the service of a State of Exception, and therefore Brexit, along with everything else therefore to follow. The story of why this should be a thing an allegedly reasonable man would do is already admirably told by the story of General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but I will follow this piece with a second and maybe third which will explain in more detail how it is that this obscure cult has made it so materially.

Followed by Part 2: https://irrationallyspeaking.home.blog/2020/01/03/dominics-basilisk-part-2-the-age-of-social-capital/

  1. Perhaps an inappropriate metaphor: Rega never held an Argentinian military rank.
  2. https://irrationallyspeaking.home.blog/2019/08/22/stock-beckett/
  3. I was amused to discover that my write-up for academic philosophers on the subject was tepidly but not entirely acrimoniously received by one of their subreddits (the worst one, in fact), this was a good bit: “I have no patience for dark hinting and insinuations. Say what you dislike directly, don’t constantly nod towards it and suggest there’s some great evil lurking just below the surface.” I found this particularly funny for it’s paranoic tone: in the piece itself I’m only trying to make it clear that I don’t like these people, making a disclaimer. That it was taken as a dark insinuation is characteristic of the subculture. Here are the links to see for yourselves: https://irrationallyspeaking.home.blog/2019/04/09/a-guide-for-the-perplexed-philosophers-jesse-singal-and-the-rationalist-subculture/ and https://www.reddit.com/r/TheMotte/comments/bbnqaz/a_guide_for_the_perplexed_philosophers_jesse/. For any further enquiries about the particularities of this stuff I suggest you browse /r/SneerClub or RationalWiki, or use google, because I don’t have the space of your attention to do yet another explainer in this piece.
  4. For those not in the know, this is the novelist and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton’s principle that you should not in the name of progress remove a fence the need for which you do not understand. It’s not a complicated or especially interesting idea, essentially Burkean conservative: there might be a reason you don’t fully understand for some law, rule, or principle (“fence”) to exist. If you get rid of the fence you might have buffalo stampeding all over your land you didn’t know exist or something like that, who cares…
  5. It is worth pointing out the amusing fact that, thanks to the American origins of these types, “red” corresponds not to the left, but to the US Republican Party, while “blue” refers not to the Tories but the Democrats. As for “grey” or “gray” all I can think of are the so-called Tory “rebels” who are now listed as “Independent” MPs thanks to the dick, Dom himself.
  6. https://www.dead-philosophers.com/?p=959
  7. Full disclosure: I had a private education which did all of that, have two degrees, and am unemployed at the time of writing, with the prospect of a full time bar job on the horizon (I hope)
  8. (black people, gays, the working classes)

9 thoughts on “Dominic’s Basilisk, Part 1

  1. Pretty bad load of malware on here, and this is without JS. Only posting this because I had to make a new rule, one to get rid of the fixed frame (90s style, but done worse with CSS) nagging me to sign up for a blog full of ads

    ||widgets.wp.com/like
    ##.marketing-bar
    ##.sharedaddy
    ##.widget_eu_cookie_law_widget
    ##.wpmrec
    ##a[id$=”facebook”]
    ##img[alt^=”Facebook”]
    ##img[alt^=”Twitter”]
    ||pixel.wp.com^

    Now I’ve cleaned up this page in my browser I can start reading this piece. The modern web is so shitty and toxic!

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  2. This post starts off fairly accurately, but then I think goes badly wrong when it tries to understanding Cummings.

    “This is human-perfectibility distilled to its essence.”

    No, it is human-imperfectibility. Most people are not perfectible. This is Cummings’ claim, and he is right.

    “Why “leaders”?”

    I have discovered a remarkable rebuttal of anarchism but it is too small for this margin, er I mean comment box, to contain.

    “why so little thought about how to pick them?”

    We already have systems for picking leaders which work quite well, and indeed are being improved. For example, Boris Johnson was democratically elected by members of the Conservative Party to lead that party, and then was democratically elected Prime Minister by virtue of winning a majority in the House of Commons. Quite recently, neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party democratically elected its leaders, so that’s an improvement over the old system. Yes, Proportional Representation (which the Scottish Parliament already has) would be better, but it’s not a terrible system.

    “Members of the cult know that they aren’t the ideal they’ve invented, but they can further invent troubling hierarchies which rank individual people and worse, groups of people [8], according to the degree to which they approach that perfection.”

    Those very words could be used, unchanged, but sarcastically, to describe CEOs instead of members of a cult. A good leader, or advisor to a leader (as Cummings is), recognises that he is not perfect, but he seeks to hire people (or have people hired for him) and place them in a hierarchy in relation to how good they are, partly in general, and partly in relation to specific roles.

    I wonder why some people seem to fail to understand basic things like this about leadership. I know in my case my excessive skepticism about authority as a teenager was a result of my never having had a “real job”, and I wonder if this lack of first-hand experience could also explain why other people “don’t get it”.

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    1. I’m afraid I and others don’t see the comparison you’re making with leadership or democracy. For a start, it really doesn’t matter how either Labour or the Conservatives elect their leaders, because that isn’t relevant to the question of what Cummings’s goal is at all. It really doesn’t matter whether improvements have been made in democratic elections within parties because this isn’t a discussion of whether or not the major parties have democratically elected leaders so I’m surprised you brought it up in the first place.

      The same goes for CEOs.

      What the piece points out, a point which was reinforced not long afterwards when it became apparent that Johnson’s government (that’s GOVERNMENT, not party leadership) intended to create a force majeure sanction against the courts to force through Brexit without judicial oversight, is that Cummings and the government in power intend to get their way by any means necessary.

      This is a problem, and suggesting a la Steven Pinker that because things have gotten better that we shouldn’t criticise them does nothing. Is, in fact, totally immaterial.

      My engagement with the rationalist cult has frequently thrown up examples of people who espouse the idea that they and we are imperfect and should trust to epistemic humility who then position themselves as the arch-human whose example must be followed. Indeed this is part of the point of referencing Carl Schmitt, who did almost exactly that.

      And with respect once more to those final comments about leadership, I find it interesting that you heavily suggest that somebody who has had a “real” job would see things differently than this. That is surprising, given that the vast majority of the positive reception that this article has had has been from people with very real jobs, often very well remunerated ones. To suggest that the whole analysis is premised on such a deluded misunderstanding on my part seems like a stretch.

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      1. I never suggested that them trying to get their way by any means necessary wasn’t a bad thing, or shouldn’t be criticised. My comment wasn’t about that aspect of your post.

        I was trying to explain why someone like Cummings might justifiably think that leaders are important, and nurturing potential leaders at an early stage in their lives might be important. Note the word “potential” – educational policy generally is not, and should not be, predicated on the idea that teachers are infallible judges of where a child will end up in life.

        However, *having said that*, there are indicators that can be used, have been used, and are well-established in the literature as being useful indicators of future socioeconomic position, in that the higher they are the more likely someone is to “go far in life”. Now, they are quite noisy so they will generate quite a few false positives and false negatives. This is of course because socioeconomic success is not just a matter of individual qualities, it also involves things like luck, and sometimes social connections. These indicators include IQ tests and “aptitude tests”, which are really basically IQ tests by another name. But IQ tests aren’t really necessary, because the results of some types of standardised examinations correlate quite well to IQ test results (coursework, especially if subjectively-judged, perhaps correlates less well).

        So even though teachers are not infallible judges, as I have acknowledged, by using measures which are statistically “good enough” one could still hope to achieve better results by targeting than by assuming “one size fits all” and educating all children as if all of them had an equal chance of becoming important future leaders in the Britain of tomorrow. Which is nonsense, of course. A child with severe learning disabilities is not going to become the Prime Minister, or anything of that nature.

        So whether you are worried about the means that might be used to select potential leaders as adults in practice, or – as it sounds like you are – the means by which schools might select “potential future leaders” to focus their Cummings-ist leadership preparation measures on, my point is that we already have tolerably good systems for identifying both leaders and potential leaders, so Cummings doesn’t necessarily *need* to worry about that aspect. While both types of selection mechanisms have room for improvement, they are not terrible, and I don’t think they would present massive problems for Cummings’ plans.

        That’s the first point.

        The second point is that the fact that Cummings picked Johnson (even assuming for the sake of argument that he did – hiring is usually the other way around) is immaterial. If Johnson had not won the general election and Corbyn now had an 80 seat majority instead of Johnson, Johnson (and hence Cummings) would now have very little influence on the future of this country, and in fact would probably no longer be even leading the Conservative Party. It is the voters who pick our political leaders, not the svengalis like Cummings.

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  3. It is odd to imagine a world in which a Johnson who loses by a landslide fails to hold significant influence in the Conservative and Unionist Party. This is the man whose entire political energy has always been directed at the irrelevancy of the party political system. He would not have been mayor of London if he had attempted to make himself an avatar of the Tories.

    As to leaders I simply don’t share your intuitions (for that is what they are, mere intuitions). We have intolerably bad setups for identifying “leaders” (an already fraught concept) in politics and it appears that Cummings is going to make that bad situation worse. A much better system would involve shooting insane jobsworths like Cummings into the Sun, along with power-hungry nutcases like Johnson, and starting all over with – at the very fucking least – proportional voting and a constitutional requirement that you don’t get a political mandate out of an ad hoc and stupid 50 versus 50 referendum.

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