Notes on Cummings, Brexit and Russia

Colin Gordon 8 Aug 2020

  1. Cummings and “Central Asia”: the geo-imaginary of a “behavioural mercenary”.

    The development of Brexit from a fringe movement into a dominant political project coincided
    chronologically not only with a long period of patient and sustained campaigning and lobbying,
    and with a lucky sequence of favourable shifts of circumstance and forces, but also with the
    internal development of one key external force, the politics and ideology of the Putin regime.
    In June 2017 Dominic Cummings gave a talk about his conduct of the Vote Leave referendum
    campaign at an event called #Nudgestock 2017, billed as “the UK’s biggest Festival of
    Behavioural Science”. A short passage of Cummings’ 15-minute address enjoyed viral circulation
    because of some extremely candid comments it contained on the Tory party and its attitudes to the
    NHS and the poor. But it contains much else which repays attention.
    In setting the context of the Referendum, Cummings identified three key forces acting on UK public
    opinion, the first of which was the high level of immigration to UK, something which was now
    coming to be blamed on the European Union. Cummings continued: ‘and at the same, people could
    see on TV the fact of this historic movement of people from out of North Africa and out of Central
    Asia… and very visibly neither the national governments nor the EU seemed to know what on earth
    to do about it. That was one big thing’.
    Cumming’s representation as a political technician of the reasons for his victory, and specifically
    of the facts acting on UK public opinion, uses descriptive terms which are not neutral or free of
    spin. The ‘historic movement of people’ mentioned sounds like one of the mass historical
    migrations, invasions and conquests over the past two millennia of world history, usually unfolding
    from east to west across the Eurasian landmass, of peoples such as the Huns, Magyars, Mongols
    and numerous others. Cummings’ context-setting here makes no reference, on the other hand, to
    more specific contemporary details about terrorised refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing civil wars
    in Libya and Syria also involving military interventions from a number of world powers. Also of
    course unmentioned in Cummings’ tightly compressed nugget of context-setting narrative is the fact
    that few of the refugees leaving Syria or Libya were able at this time to arrive in the UK, because
    UK’s non-membership of Schengen exempted it from the requirement to receive refugees arriving
    elsewhere in the EU. Here Cummings, although elsewhere conspicuously and fastidiously
    distancing hiself from the ugly and repellent politics of Nigel Farage, paints a picture in a few
    words identical to Farage’s notorious ‘Breaking point’ poster, in which a column of displaced exiles
    driven from their cities by Russian bombs could be rebranded as a conquering human tide of
    nomadic invaders, soon liable at the result of the UK’s EU membership to arrive on our ashores..
    However to my mind the most interesting, and as far as I know previously unnoticed detail in this is
    the words ‘Central Asia’. Syria is a state in the Middle East. On the shore of the Mediterranean, at
    the western limit of the Asian continent. It is not in Central Asia. Central Asia, according to
    common usage as documented by Wikipedia, “consists of the former Soviet republics of
    Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” The term has also been used
    historically to designate wider areas, all of which are however well distant from the Mediterranean.
    One might still wonder how and where Cummings happened to pick up and use this term. What
    contemporary political context and perspective would spontaneously pick ‘Central Asia’; as a named
    region or departure for movements of people which might alarm a western public. One answer
    would seem to be the Russia of Putin and certain of his key favoured ideologues and sometime
    advisors. Timothy Snyder covers this background brilliantly in The Road to Unfreedom.
    Central Asia, a group of former Soviet republic lost to imperial Russian control in 1991, is a major
    arena and target of Russian foreign policy, and a key region in the ‘Eurasian’ imperial imaginary of
    several nationalist, fascist and neo-Nazi Russian thinkers (Gumilev, Ilyin, Dugin and others) whose
    ideas fed into Putin’s strategic thinking, which swung towards outright hostility to the EU following
    his return to the Russian presidency in 2012 when, as Timothy Snyder writes, “Putin presented
    Eurasia as an instrument to dissolve the EU”. It is well known the Cummings spent two years in
    Russian after university, but the nature and extent of his later Russian connections are scantily
    documented. Known indirect links include the employment of Cummings’ aristocrat brother-in-law
    Jack Wakefield for five years as a director of a foundation created by the Ukrainian oligarch and
    Putin associate Dmiytro Firtash, whose extradition has been sought since 2014 by U.S. law
    enforcement authorities. According to Wikipedia, “U.S. federal prosecutors described Firtash in
    2017 court papers as an associate of Russian organized crime. [….]As a middleman for the Russian
    natural gas giant Gazprom, Firtash funneled money into the campaigns of pro-Russia politicians in
    Ukraine.[4] ) Wikipedia states that “Links between Firtash, Paul Manafort and President Trump’s
    administration continue to make headlines ”; Firtash is alleged to have been requested to assist
    Trump by procuring fake Ukrainian evidence against Joe Biden’s son.
    We know, thanks to whistle-blowers, about coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave enabling
    an illegal overspend on campaign digital social media message; there is reason for suspicion, but
    not proof, that campaigns were indirectly funded by Russia; there is evidence that Russian actors
    conducted an intensive covert social media intervention to influence British voters in the
    referendum. We do not appear to know whether there was messaging coordination between the UK
    Brexiters and the Russian state actors; little data seems to have been preserved or published on the
    content of the respective messaging campaigns.
    It is tempting to speculate, as many have done, that Cummings came into contact with right-wing
    Russian thinkers during his years in Russia immediately after graduating from Oxford. Cummings’
    right-wing mentor at Oxford, the historian Norman Stone, may well have supplied him with
    introductions. In later years Stone was himself an appreciated participant in Eastern European
    right-wing circles, in particular Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s racist-libertarian offshoot of the neoliberal
    Mont Pelerin Society, the Property and Freedom Society. Stone was a regular speaker at their
    meetings; Peter Thiel , the founder of Palantir (the company which Cummings hired to manage
    NHS pandemic data), was another guest. One is reminded of Cummings at moments in reading
    Snyder’s description of the ideologue Lev Gumilev, “a typical Soviet autodidact, an enthusiastic
    amateur in many fields”: Gumilev created a “theory of ethnogenesis: an explanation of how nations
    arise. It began from a specific understanding of astrophysics and human biology.” Cummings blogs
    are replete with such cross-disciplnary speculations, and Cummings was later to claim that he had
    hired a team of astrophyicists for his Brexit data-crunching exploits.
    Recent speculations that Cummings may have intervened or meddled in UK scientists’ SAGE group
    deliberations and/or the policy implications of their advice to government about COVID-19, tend to
    highlight the importance of establishing Cumming’s level of scientific competence and
    understanding, which is not derived from academic formation or training, but apparently acquired
    largely during a two year reading retreat in 2005-7. There is added reason to ask this since it has
    transpired that Richard A Bernstein, a high-profile right-wing American economist who intervened
    in support of Donald Trump’s negligent pandemic policies, on the basis of unscientfic speculations
    mixing neo-Darwinian and economic theories, happens to have been a guest speaker invited to
    London by Cummings to give a lecture for his anti-EU thinktank in 2004. Evidence of Cummings’
    role in SAGE remains scanty, but it seems increasingly necessary to wonder whether Cumming’s
    whole political business model could be steeped in an ambience where fake news, fake science,
    pseudo-science and autodidact charlatanism can come to impinge of the world of high government
    policy. Cummings certainly resembles Gumilev in his taste for mashing up biology, epidemology,
    physics and organizational theory. Cummings got a first class degree at Oxford and in addition to
    studying Bismarck under Strone, was taught Thucidydes by the eminent classical scholar Robin
    Lane Fox, who recently told a BBC documentary that Cummings was “extremely aware of his own
    abilities and had every reason to be”. However the Bismarck expert Chistopher Clarke has queried
    Cummings’ transposition of Bismarck’s playbook from 19th century Germany to 21st century UK: “
    when you trawl the past in search of timeless power plays, the differences in context are apt to be
    lost to view”. The clearest opinion on Cummings’ grasp of science comes from Dr Philip Ball, for
    20 years an editor with the premier scientific journal Nature, commenting on Cummings’ recent
    blog-posted recruitment advert seeking data scientists to work on policy at Downing Street. Ball
    “While to outsiders Cummings’ blog might seem like sheer geeky gobbledygook, the truth
    is that, for anyone familiar with this field, it reads more like the efforts of a rookie postgrad
    spouting a breathless stream of buzzwords and random citations, devoid of depth or context,
    in the hope of convincing his supervisor that he knows his stuff. I mean that as no disrespect
    to postgrad students, but at least they are not pulling the strings of the prime minister.
    The sad thing is that, not only could some of these ideas be useful for good governance if
    imported with care, knowledge and wisdom, but also that there is plenty to be sympathetic
    towards in the suggestion that government and the civil service are not always the most
    meritocratic, dynamic, mathematically literate or up-to-date of public institutions. Yet it’s
    hard not to conclude that anyone tempted by this weird job advert is precisely the kind of
    person you wouldn’t want within a million miles of the levers of power and influence.”1
    As is well known, Cummings has swritten on one occasion (in the piece for his wife’s magazine,
    explaining how he won the Referendum) with apparent professional respect for Vladislav Surkov,
    the ideologue-fixer who played a role in Putin’s regime not wholly dissimilar to Cumming’s
    function in the Johnson government. Cummings calls Surkov “Putin’s communication maestro”,
    and implies a close acquaintance with Surkov’s repertoire of “tricks”. Surkov is also credited with
    being the “maestro” of the hybrid war strategy waged by Russia in the Ukraine, which some now
    identify as the model of the warfare now waged by Jjohnson an Cummings on UK democracy.
    Christopher Clarke sees similarities of mindset between Surkov and Cummings, “whose blogs fizz
    with amoral scenarios in which recondite branches of knowledge and counterfactual scenariodesigns
    intertwine to produce unexpected ‘hybrid solutions’ rich in suggestions for the present. The
    advent of such thinking at the apex of politics is not a uniquely British phenomenon: in certain
    respects, Cummings resembles the sometime theatre director and senior Putin adviser Vladislav
    Surkov, composer of geeky dystopian fictions and prophet of ‘non-linear warfare’. ” (Though this
    is now forgotten in recent profile articles, Cummings’ earlier role-model as a British political fixer
    for the defeated Conservative right, under the high noon of New Labour, was the ‘prince of
    darkness’ of those days, Peter Mandelson, who subsequently became an EU commissioner, a
    business associate of Russian oligarchs and an HQ string-puller of the People’s Vote campaign.
    Another former prime minsterial advisor said to be admired by Cummings was the IT entrepreneur
    John Hoskyns, who advised Margaret Thatcher).
    There is a possibly more direct source for Cummings’ notions on Brexit and Central Asia: the rightwing
    historian Niall Ferguson, like Cummings a student taught by Norman Stone at Oxford.
    Ferguson had tweeted in gushing praise of Cummings’ earlier account of his victory published in
    the Spectator. Cummings may well in turn have been aware of Ferguson’s comments after an
    Islamist terror attack in Paris. To cite his Wikipedia entry, “Ferguson wrote the mass influx of
    refugees into Europe from Syria was a modern version of the Völkerwanderung when the Huns
    burst out of Asia and invaded Europe, causing millions of the Germanic peoples to flee into the
    presumed safety of the Roman Empire, smashing their way in as the Romans attempted
    unsuccessfully to stop the Germans from entering the empire.[98] Ferguson writes that Gibbon was
    wrong to claim the Roman Empire collapsed slowly and argues that the view among a growing
    number of modern scholars is that the collapse of the Roman empire was swift and violent;
    unforeseeable by Romans of the day, just as the collapse of modern European civilization would
    likewise be for modern Europeans.[98] ”2
    2) Independence, Russian style.
    The House of Commons Select Committee on the Future Relationship with Europe conducted its
    last oral session before the summer recess interviewing three experts on the future of UK foreign
    and security policies after Brexit, and the scope for future coordination in these areas with the EU.
    [November 2015.]
    The experts were presumably chosen in part for their insight, if not empathy into current UK
    government thinking. Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the invited expert from the Royal United
    Services Institute gave the committee the following clear and quasi-official answer: the post-Brexit
    UK, as a self-consciously independent and sovereign nation, would pursue a foreign and security
    policy designed to maintain and affirm its independent sovereignty. Broad, deep and enduring
    relationships with other nations and groups of nations were therefore and in general, perhaps with
    the exception of the NATO military alliance, in future to be avoided.
    “Strategically, I think most of all the Government want to have an independent foreign
    policy, in which they have clear legal sovereignty, unconstrained by any arrangements with
    the EU, and then, from that basis, they can agree, case by case, on the basis of equality, what
    to do in terms of co-operation.”
    In the initial period after Brexit, a number of leading Leave campaigners suggested that the UK on
    leaving the EU would turn, or return, to a political and trade alliance comprising its former settler
    colonies – the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand – a notion which had been popular,
    known as the “Anglosphere”, among imperialists of an earlier generation around the turn of the 19th
    and 20th centuries. This policy vision, in some ways a simple reversal of trade policy choices
    implied by UK entry to the Common Market in 1973, has faded somewhat in the years since 2016,
    mainly because of the distinctly limited reciprocal interest shown in this arrangement by the other
    Anglospheric nations. Theresa May’s policy set out in her Florence speech – no doubt, like all UK
    Brexit policies after the referendum, an impossible and incoherent exercise in wish-fulfilment –
    proposed an ostensibly hard Brexit in terms of trade and sovereignty, but with much of its trade
    impact softened for an indefinite future by the effects of the Irish backstop, along with extensive
    negotiated regulatory convergence and policies of deep closeness and cooperation in foreign and
    security affairs. Johnson, on taking power after May’s removal, broke with the backstop
    arangements for the island of Britain at the (mendaciously concealed) price of a new customs
    border in the Irish Sea, and decisively hardeded the trade terms of Brexit by a new red-line
    insistence on untrammelled rights to regulatory divergence. This change was accompanied by a
    harder, more aggressive and polemical turn in negotiating rhetoric, trumpeting the UK’s dinfference
    from the EU in terms of its affirmation and prioritisation of the values of democratic sovereignty,
    freedom and independence (values which it was implied the EU27 nations had abandoned by ceding
    supranational powers to Brussels). While constantly insisting on the sovereign equality of status of
    UK and EU as negotiating interlocutors (defiantly ignoring the practical reality of vast inequalities
    of the respective populations and economies), the UK awarded itself moral and political bonus
    points and rights as a truly legitimate sovereign and democratic entity, fully entitled as such to insist
    on the non-negotiable status of whatever basic rights it deemed essential to its its independence.
    There is little doubt that Brexit’s backers in both America and Russia supported Britain’s exit not
    only, and even not so much for its own sake, but as an instrument and step towards the break-up or
    decisive weakening of the EU, which they perceived as a stone in their shoes in terms of various
    business, regulatory, governance and/or geopolitical interests. On the morning of June 24th 2016,
    Gove and Johnson celebrated the event as ‘Independence Day’ for the UK but also as the first
    domino of many, the beginning of the end of the EU and the dawn of coming freedom for other EU
    member states. The recent negotiating line under Johnson and Cummings has returned to this
    openly aggressive subtext: the EU’s claims to affirm and defend its legitimate principles or core
    values are dismissed, and its failure to concede UK demands considered mere symptoms of obtuse
    ill-will. However, when the EU responds that the UK’s cherry-picking demands would have the
    effect of undermining the principles of the Single Market, it would probably be entitled to suspect
    that such effects are actively sought and desired by the UK, and by the offshore sponsors of Brexit.
    British commentators of all persuausions readily forget that the language of anti-EU polemic is far
    from having been the unaided creation of British Eurosceptics. Much is the product of US interests
    and lobbies, the Right-wing market poliical machine of the Kochs and others, training, cloning and
    bankrolling its ideological clients and compradors in the UK. Dark money has flowed into the
    making of Brexit from America, Putin and some other sources. Some money is likely to have been
    flowing in 2003-5 from the Heritage Foundation to the New Frontiers Foundation
    website/thinktankette founded by Cummings and his ally James Frayne (recently awarded an
    £840,000 contract by Cummings to work on Covid-19 and Brexit communications); for its part,
    New Frontiers Foundation arranged a platform in London for lectures by US academics close to
    Heritahge and hostile to the EU.
    None of these offshore backers are likely to have been primarily motivated by concern for the
    interests of the UK and its citizens. Neither, one may reasonably infer, are some of their UK clients.
    For them the spoils of Brexit may already be offshore, or can easily be taken there. If Brexit, as a
    battering ram to damage or destabilise the EU, causes some collateral damage to the UK, this may
    not unduly worry Koch, the Mercers, Putin or Bannon. For Putin’s zero-sum strategy, a degree of
    damage to the UK is positively welcome and intended, as long as the outcome ensures the
    maintenance ongoing and reliable UK money-laundering service, secured from the encroaching
    threat of EU surveillance and policing. For global business players, there is a clear expectation that
    an ‘independent’ UK will have neither the strength nor the motivation to impede the agenda of the
    business giants. The ISC Committee’s Russia Report (at least in its public version) had the one key
    merit of properly recognising the structural and strategic importance to Putin’s state mafia of
    London’s “laundromat”.

  1. Military Philosophers and Mercenaries.

    Two striking discussions of Dominic Cummings have described him as “mercenary”. The
    Newcastle social scientist and child poverty expert, the late John Veit-Wilson, wrote in the Guardian
    that “it has long seemed obvious that Cummings was a highly articulate chancer and mercenary for
    neo-liberal US billionaires ”.
    A reviewer of Cummings’ talk at “Nudgestock 17” [see above] commented:
    “Whilst certainly an example for a successful practical application of behavioural science,
    Dominic’s talk also pointed to an ethical problem of the use of behavioural and analytical
    techniques for political goals that might or might not be aligned with social good. After the talk
    several discussions were picking this issue up by questioning the ethics of “behavioural
    mercenaries” and asking for effective ethical limitations of the use of behavioural science principles
    in the social and political space.”3
    If one looks beyond Lord Mandelson for an illustrious and topical historical model for Cummings’
    career, one might go for Thomas Cromwell, the royal advisor who crafted and used Henry VIII’s
    “Henry VIII powers” to break with Rome and launch the English Reformation. Cromwell began his
    career, like Cummings, with a thinly documented spell abroad, as a political and business freelance
    in Italy, and is said to have been present with the French army at the battle of Gargliano near
    Naples in 1503. Part of Cummings’ personal brand-identity has been ostentatious non-membership
    of formal politics (and of the Conservative party in particular), generic contempt for politicians and
    public oficials (not necessarily excluding his own customers and employers), and a carefully
    signalled avoidance of (and lack of need for) any long-term professional identity. A Cummings
    reminiscence typically begins with the words; “ I was happily unemployed when…” Cummings’
    career has brought him into close contact and alliance with some high profile politico-military
    mercenary organizations – Cambridge Analytics and Palantir, to name but two. In the deleted back
    catalogue of Cummings’ writings preserved on the Wayback machine, there is on the website of his
    New Frontiers Foundation (2003-5) an enthusiastic introduction to a long anonymous essay entitled
    “New frontiers in defence: between global opportunities and continental policing”. Given
    Cummings’ new responsibilities and interests, this piece may be due for closer attention.4 The essay
    has a foreword and afterword by Cummings. On its second page the foreword breaks into excited
    italics to cite one of the author’s military concepts:
    “… he argues that Britain should
     take advantage of technological developments in aerospace technology such as the
    legendary designer Barnes Wallis’ vision of the Fractional Orbital Transportation Concept
    – a hypersonic drone “capable of hitting any target on earth within sixty minutes with
    bombs, sensor swarms, autonomous vehicles etc”, which would provide a non-nuclear
    deterrent post-Trident, provide the UK with an effective warfighting capability at the edge of
    future technologies, and enhance UK global influence;”
    Cummings’ afterword namechecks Nietzsche, Gödel and Schrödinger’s cat, and counterposes the
    English philosopher Locke to the continental philosophers Sartre and Heidegger to explain the need
    for a US-centric British foreign policy. It reads more like a clever student essay than serious
    political analysis. In the quote above, inspired by the legendary scientist-inventor hero in the
    British WW2 technico-military propaganda epic of the Dam Busters and the bouncing bomb, we
    seem to be in the 1950s space science-fiction world of Dan Dare and the Mekon. Cummings is
    currently reaching to take control of budgetary and policy-making powers to invest serious state
    funding in this imaginary. Since around the time Cummings wrote this in 2004, an extensive post-
    9/11 privatisation of military and anti-terror functions in the Homeland Security state and the
    versatile diversification of technology and business between military, civil and political applications
    (chronicled by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine and No is Not Enough) has continued to blur the
    boundaries between business, politics and war. Those who like Cummings linked a neoliberal
    agenda to the continuing vision of a military-imperial Anglosphere (his think-tanking and
    technocratic aspirations have usually been based American models, preferably characterised by
    unlimited budgets and powers to spend: Apollo, DARPA, the Lockheed skunkworks). But alongside
    and complementing their model, Cummings and his sponsors now have the example of another exempire
    and ideological ally successfully punching above its global weight, thanks to technical
    innovations and the bold projection of military force: Putin’s Russia.
    I began by suggesting that there may be more Russian geopolitical philosophy lurking in
    Cummings’ bizarre mind that is generally supposed. One might similarly suspect that the
    solipsisitic and nihilistic Trumpian deal-making, laced with strutting post-imperial exceptionalism
    (the presumption of a natural entitlement to national wealth, power and the right to ignore rules),
    which characterises the UK’s current posture in international affairs, has in part been groomed and
    encouraged by the regime’s Russian paymasters.
    As Timothy Snyder astutely commented in a book published in 2018:
    “For some time, Russian politicians had been urging Britain to separate from the European
    Union. […] Pervyi Kanall, the most important Russian television station, soothingly
    confirmed the myth that Britain could go it alone because it had always done so: “For the
    nation it is important that none of its alliances or commitments are binding.”
    The UK may find out in due course whether there is honour among pariah states, and who will be
    the winners and losers in a national life under the tutelage of a Mafia state.

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