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Dominic Cummings

Photo: Flickr/duncan c

Not as stupid as was hoped, ordinary working people can resist Cummings and his super-weirdos, writes Sean Ledwith

In the science-fiction television series, The Expanse, a profit-driven corporation, conspiring with rogue elements of the state, presides over a catastrophic pandemic with a view to observing the effects of the pathogen on human populations. The Johnson government’s handling of the current coronavirus outbreak increasingly resembles this scenario thanks to a lethal cocktail of misguided and ill-informed scientific analysis merging with a callous political ideology to create a calamity of unprecedented proportions.

Herd immunity

Johnson’s recent comment that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’ must surely go down as one of the most cold-hearted and thoughtless announcements ever uttered by a British Prime Minister. Flanked by his acolytes, the Chief Medical and Scientific Officers of the government, Johnson’s initial response to the outbreak of relying on a supposed herd immunity to shield us from the worst impact has been rapidly exposed as probably the worst political miscalculation of modern times, one that may yet cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the UK.

Hapless

Johnson’s hapless Health Secretary Matt Hancock performed a characteristic U-turn on the herd immunity notion in a matter of hours but the fact that the concept has been common parlance in the senior levels of the Prime Minister’s team tells us everything we need to know about their perception of the British public.

At the heart of this senior team sits Johnson’s eminence grise, Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings. Even before this crisis, Cummings has acquired the reputation of being Johnson’s alt-right Rottweiler but now thanks to coronavirus, we have all become the unwilling guinea pigs for a disastrous bio-political experiment. Few will be re-assured to read on Cummings’ notoriously idiosyncratic blog that he is 'particularly interested in public health and the field of epidemiology’.

Nudge neoliberalism

A core component of the Downing Street response team to the crisis is the Behavioural Insights Team, a shadowy entity, co-run by the Cabinet Office and the ‘innovation charity’ Nesta.

The BIT is a private sector think-tank headed by psychologist and former civil servant, David Halpern, operating on a £14 million budget and with subsidiaries across the developed world.

The BIT has pioneered the ideology of ‘nudge theory’ since being elevated to a position of influence in Whitehall by David Cameron as part of his 2010 coalition. Nudge is essentially an off-shoot of the overarching neoliberal framework that the free market is the best mechanism for delivering services, that the role of the state needs to be minimised in social and economic activity and that our fundamental human nature is to be fearful and suspicious of others. The concept of nudge is that it is counter-productive of the state to direct people to achieve certain goals and more productive to coax them in a more low-profile manner.

One critic of nudge summarised its preconceptions in the New Statesman last year, with uncanny prescience, noting how it ‘became ubiquitous among Westminster policy wonks. Its central idea was that making small changes to the environment in which citizens take decisions – such as placing healthy food close to supermarket checkouts – could incentivise better behaviour. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Nudge offered fiscally constrained governments a benign cattle prod to herd citizens into acting in their own best interests.’

Outsourcing

The fruit of nudge theory was revealed in 2015 when Halpern’s team devised a questionnaire to be sent to primary school children in Walthamstow, devised to identify the potential there for Islamist radicalisation! The questionnaire was promptly withdrawn after complaints from affected schools that they had not been consulted and the BIT had approached children directly. The Islamic Human Rights Commission also accused the survey of being Islamophobic and of jeopardising the mental health of children involved.

The BIT has evolved into a typical neoliberal outsourcing outfit, supposedly helping in running public services such as a Housing Association in Australia and Job Centres in Essex. Halpern has also courted controversy thanks to his extravagant salary as a government advisor, estimated to be £200 000 per year.

Laissez faire lunacy

The influence of nudge theory can be detected in the government’s initial reluctance to adopt the aggressive approach of China and other Far Eastern states to the virus, which have been proven to drive down infection rates. Halpern, along with Chris Whitty and Patrick Valance, the government’s Chief Medical and Scientific Officers respectively, in the early period of the crisis based their response on the premise that the British public would be incapable of following the required social distancing techniques for a prolonged period.

Whitty claimed ‘If you do things too early, you could get the negative consequences without affecting the flow of the pandemic’. Vallance, last week, made a similar point with his now infamous remark that one of ‘the key things we need to do...build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission’.

Missing research

They sought to contextualise this position by alluding to alleged behavioural research that people would not be able to comply with Chinese-style restrictions for sufficient time. Pointedly, however, they did not clarify which pieces of research they were referring to. We can reasonably assume that it is actually the highly contentious research of Halpern and his ilk that we are fundamentally stupid and incapable of following instructions. Writing in The Guardian, Tony Yates, Professor of Economics at Birmingham University rightly queried the whole foundation of Johnson’s initial strategy:

‘Predictions are based on analysing past episodes of human behaviour, a process that is often fraught with error, to draw inferences about future behaviour, which can be highly uncertain. Which analyses of human behaviour are government scientists relying on? And how comparable are they? Why is fatigue such a problem for new coronavirus measures, which we might expect would command the same kind of support as a war effort, when the state lives with this “fatigue” in the design of the laws and norms that permanently regulate our lives?’

Bollocked

Fortunately for all our sakes, a timely intervention last weekend by Professor Neil Ferguson and others from Imperial College London caused such horror with its forecast of 200 000 deaths based on the Johnson plan, that the government was forced to bring forward more radical social distancing measures a few days ago.

It will provide scant consolation to the millions around the country experiencing unprecedented anxiety that Halpern was reportedly ‘bollocked’ (no doubt by Cummings) for his loose talk of ‘herd immunity’ recently. The Daily Mail reports Johnson’s team of so-called experts is currently looking ‘haunted and exhausted’ after its mauling by the media for this public relations debacle.

Mindless Mantras

Cummings’ own role in this unfolding nightmare should not be overlooked. His penchant for mindless mantras such as ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ was instrumental in the government’s initial and pitifully inadequate strategy of simply telling us to ‘Wash Your Hands’ or ‘Stay at Home’.

Cummings’ personal predilection for pseudo-science was displayed when as Michael Gove’s advisor at the Department of Education in 2013 he argued, ‘There is strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting scientific evidence on genetics. Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless.’

Super-weirdos

Earlier this year, Cummings called for ‘super-weirdos’ to join government decision-making. One of the those who responded to his summons was Andrew Sabisky, an alt-right blogger responsible for such insights as ‘There are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly . . . genetic in origin’ and trialling new medications is ‘probably worth a dead kid once a year’.

Sabisky lasted less than 24 hours in Downing Street but the fact that he was at first regarded as suitable indicates how dangerously detached from reality Cummings and the Downing Street cabal have become.

Socialism or barbarism 2020

The crucial fallacy of the nudge theory nonsense that has brought us to the precipice of calamity is that human beings are incapable of doing what is in their best interests.

Recent events demonstrate that, actually, we can often see through bullshit when it is presented as science.

A recent poll indicated only 36% of British people believe Team Johnson’s corona advice. This is authentic evidence of our collective ability to know what is in our real interests and to fight to stop the super-weirdos who would be happy to push us over the edge.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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