This piece was first published on January 14, 2021
It is painful to remember, one year after the beginning of the Covid pandemic, the early claims that the virus would prove to be China’s Chernobyl moment. One year on, while the virus runs rampant across Western societies, sending deaths climbing and economies plummeting, China’s brutally efficient state bureaucracy has more or less eradicated Covid from the Middle Kingdom.
Nearly all liberal democracies have performed poorly, Britain’s rather more poorly than most. Perhaps the West’s model has been superior at developing vaccines; yet the Chinese model is clearly better at utilising the resources of the state to enable a swifter return to ordinary life. Is there a lesson in this dispiriting state of affairs about state capacity in liberal democracies, and if there is, how should our systems be reformed?
In any analysis of Western dysfunction, the political thought of Dominic Cummings deserves renewed attention, not least because he represents a fascinating, and unique figure. He was, essentially, a dissident, technofuturist, accelerationist blogger at the heart of British governance, as if Nick Land or Mencius Moldbug had somehow scored a seat at the cabinet table. His eventual, lobby-led defenestration removed from the heart of government surely the most acerbic critic of British state dysfunction to have reached No 10 in decades. Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.
Over the course of two Conservative governments, Cummings savaged in his blogposts the “broken system” of “Whitehall’s profound dysfunction”. We place “too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much,” he warned; “politicians thrash around with no priorities and fundamentally little idea about what to do other than try to stay a step ahead of the media with badly implemented gimmicks and avoid blame for our institutionalised dysfunction”.
In the event of a national crisis — Cummings explicitly cited a pandemic as an example of looming threat — “the current system is absolutely bound to respond with sloth/panic, chaos, and blunders”. This is the direct consequence of “our inability to develop political institutions able to think wisely about the biggest problems in order to pre-empt some crises”. Our system of governance is as dysfunctional in addressing and defusing urgent threats as it was in 1914 or 1939: when crisis hits, he warned, the disaster will be as total.
The distilled insight of his writing is that bureaucracies stifle creativity and freedom of action, enervating governance; talented outsiders, left to their own devices, will inevitably produce better results than sclerotic state administrators. There are, by his reckoning, two models of functioning systems superior to state bureaucracies: the hands-off, scientist-led innovation of the Apollo space program and of ARPA, and that of the free market, the Darwinian competition of which, he believes, outcompetes centralised state planning in a manner analogous to an organic system.
And yet, there is a certain ambivalence to his understanding of the bureaucratic state that is worth teasing out. He notes, correctly, that both the Apollo program and ARPA depended on the vast defence budgets of the American state, locked in competition with a statist rival, to function; behind the glamorous innovation of the scientists lay the unglamorous pen-pushing and paper-shuffling of countless tax-raising, policy-devising bureaucrats who made their work possible.
He observes also that, at least in the field of mathematics, the Soviet Union produced higher quality theoretical work than the United States, as “the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers.” There is, perhaps, an unconscious extrapolation of the failures of Anglo-American bureaucracies or the British Civil Service to a general, dismissive theory of bureaucrats and centralised states in general: yet, sadly, Britain’s problems in this area may be uniquely our own.
After all, technological innovation and competition only get you so far. The governance of Nazi Germany was typified by extreme, Darwinian competition in Hitler’s inner circle, and its record of scientific advance over the course of the war — the invention of the rocket, of advanced jet fighters and of the modern assault rifle — laid the groundwork for the postwar military and scientific innovation of the war’s victors. Yet Nazi Germany was crushed by the Soviet Union, which chose good, basic designs of tanks, artillery, aircraft and guns and devoted the full resources of the state towards producing them in vast numbers. The USSR was a system so bureaucratic it embedded ideological commissars in even the smallest fighting unit: and it won. There is a strong counter-argument to be made for the state, and even for bureaucracy, that Cummings does not squarely address.
It is with China that this tension becomes most clearly apparent. In early blogposts Cummings made the dramatic claim that the West’s rise in the Early Modern period was a result of free markets, and China’s decline the result of “the strong central control of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy”, which “imposed a rigid and static intellectual outlook” and strong system of state monopolies. Yet later posts showed a greater appreciation of the Chinese model, observing that “China erects skyscrapers in weeks while Parliament delays Heathrow expansion for over a decade. The EU discusses dumb rules made 60 years ago while China produces a Greece-sized economy every 16 weeks.”
Moreover, “China already has an aggressive space program. It has demonstrated edge-of-the-art capabilities in developing a satellite-based quantum communication network, a revolutionary goal with even deeper effects than GPS. It will go to the moon.” Cummings’ admiration for China’s state capacity is as clearly apparent as his displeasure with our own system of governance: it is difficult to imagine that the events of the past year will have changed his mind.
Surely, then, this is a dramatic argument in favour of strong, state-directed planning? How does Cummings’ analysis account for this seeming discrepancy? After all, it is difficult to imagine that the Chinese Communist Party is a less bureaucratic organisation than the Department for Education.
Citing Fukuyama’s The End of History, Cummings argues that China’s rise is a product of economic liberalisation, and that its relative decline, or a crisis of political legitimacy is fated — he predicts this with 80% probability within 20 years — due to the Chinese regime’s lack of “openness” to the rest of the world: “developing hi-tech businesses cannot be done without a degree of openness to the rest of the world that is politically risky for China.” China, he argues, will be forced to move closer to a Western political and economic model to continue to survive and thrive.
Yet Fukuyama himself now takes a different tack: he cautions against emulating China due to its totalitarian nature, without suggesting that the arc of history will force its political system to liberalise. He notes that throughout history, “Chinese regimes have been centralized, bureaucratic, and merit-based,” and observes that “there is no true private sector in China” and that “the state can reach into and control any one of its supposedly “private sector” firms like Tencent or Alibaba at any point” (as rumours of Alibaba’s imminent nationalisation indicate), clearly a powerful and surely now dominant countervailing tendency to any emulation of ARPA or the Apollo programme.
The subordination of Western corporations and governments to the diktats of the Chinese government also highlight another powerful trend, under-analysed by Cummings: when forced to, the market kneels at the feet of the state; all the innovation of the Western world ends up in the armoury of the Chinese state through either purchase or subterfuge: in the grand battle between decentralised innovation and bureaucratic statism, it is far from clear that statism is losing. Perhaps the Western model may be superior, taking the long view: yet China looks on course to win this contest in the meantime.
For Fukuyama, the cautionary lesson from China is that “the world looks to Xi’s totalitarian model, rather than a broader East Asian model that combines strong state capacity with technocratic competence, as the winning formula”. Fukuyama does not, then, see a powerful state bureaucracy as an inherent weakness, but rather as a model worthy of emulation, if stripped of China’s uniquely authoritarian tendencies, which seems to contradict Cummings’ central assertion that state bureaucracies are inherently sclerotic and dysfunctional.
The free market states of the West are clearly being outcompeted by China, yet as the analyst Samo Burja notes, China’s growth is “powered primarily not by advanced technology, but by party discipline and organization — paper-pushing not too dissimilar to that of the U.S. federal government of the 1940s.”
Is there a synthesis to be found between Cummings’s argument for “a complex mix of centralisation and decentralisation,” where “we replace many traditional centralised bureaucracies with institutions that mimic successful biological systems such as the immune system” and the Chinese model? Cummings argues that “while overall vision, goals, and strategy usually comes from the top, it is vital that extreme decentralisation dominates operationally so that decisions are fast and unbureaucratic” — so the essential question becomes, is this actually achievable within a state bureaucracy?
The China analyst Tanner Greer observes that “even now both the Party and the state bureaucracies that canvas the Chinese hinterland are highly decentralized; these government and Party units are given a great deal of room for experimentation and in many realms are practically independent from outside control. This causes endless frustration to centralizers in Beijing, but the benefits are clear: it is not wrong to think of these units as ‘labs of communism.’”
This seems to hint at a solution: yet Cummings has insisted that the British Civil Service is essentially unreformable, leaving the free market and decentralised scientific innovation as the preferred alternative models. Perhaps, within the framework of liberal democracy and the inherited structures of the British state, he is right.
Beyond technological innovation, the great tension within Cummings’s wrestling with the essential nature of state bureaucracy is that between a Hayekian faith in the wisdom of the free market, and a scepticism of “‘Conservatives’’ and “‘The Right’” (the quotation marks are his) who ignore the vital role of state planning and resources in enabling scientific advance. Free market conservatives tend “to ignore that the high tech market ecosystem depends on government funded basic science. Politicians, think-tankers, pundits etc on ‘the Right’ tend to be ignorant of the contribution of government funding to the development of technologies that appear in markets years later.” He also notes, accurately, that the incentives of the market are structured to provide investors what they want, and not what they don’t yet realise they need. Behind everything, then, looms that wasteful, frustrating yet irreplaceable entity: the state, composed, like Hobbes’ Leviathan, of its indistinguishable multitude of functionaries.
The scale of Cummings’ ambition, the high modernist vitality and his penetrating critique, from an insider’s perspective, of Whitehall’s deathly torpor is both admirable and necessary. Brexit provided the opportunity for a “hard reboot” of the British state, an opportunity “to change the basic orientation of the country and to improve normal government bureaucracies and policies more radically than has happened since World War II”.
Yet perhaps he has over-engineered the solutions; perhaps the answers lie not with the tiny cognitive elite of scientists spurring technological advance, but with the unglamorous thousands of pen-pushers and administrators enabling their work.
There is, in the end, no way out but drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall while simultaneously preserving the wealth, power and majesty of that awful and irreplaceable entity, Leviathan. Can we weaken Whitehall’s grip while simultaneously boosting the state’s capacity at the local level, constantly refreshing the state with new blood and new ideas, and allowing administrators far greater autonomy from central government?
Imagine local government with far greater powers and responsibilities than currently allowed by our simultaneously over-centralised and incapable state: where each local authority functions as both an experiment in governance and a school for administration, selecting and training a class of competent administrators to replace the Whitehall mandarins.
It surely cannot be the case that it is easier to build a base on the moon than reform the British civil service. Whatever the resistance from Whitehall, if we are to survive the coming decades as a nation, we have no option but to try, as urgently as possible.