The guru has nuclear war on his mind
Our deadliest problem, said Dominic Cummings last night, in his first public appearance for a year, has five parts.
We have a state built in the Fifties. We have pre-1914 crisis management systems. We have “pre-Newtonian” educations for leading public figures. We have Darwinian lizard brains that fill each of us with latent violence. And then there is 21st century technology, which can turn half the world into a furnace in the space of an afternoon.
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Quite simply, he said, “we are doomed”.
So: it was not going to be an evening’s light entertainment at the Orwell Prize Festival.
The panel, Cummings, the excellent Katja Hoyer and Richard J. Evans, and the slightly less excellent Gideon Rachman, were there to discuss Otto von Bismarck and political power. The audience were there for Cummings. I spotted hacks from the Sunday Times and the Guardian. Oh, and the Spectator. But that was Cummings’ wife.
He was nervous initially. Rubbing his hands and face, introducing himself squeakily into the microphone. It showed that he cared. Aside from Rachman, who admitted he didn’t really know that much about Bismarck (lol), Cummings was on a panel with real grandees. If there is something Evans doesn’t know about German history it probably never happened. Hoyer recently wrote the best book on Prussian history for many, many years.
Unlike — presumably — many, many meetings with civil servants and drooling MPs, Cummings was surrounded by intellects he might actually defer to, people who actually knew more than he did. There were times when Cummings’ public image as the brain box who chewed up lesser minds was broken; he was even intellectually modest — he yielded to the greater expertise of Hoyer and Evans.
Bismarck was a hobby for Cummings, a figure he wrote and thought about in his spare time. For Hoyer and Evans, Bismarck was part of their profession.
It was a real discussion. Evans spoke of Bismarck’s astuteness, and the “baleful precedents” he set for German culture. Hoyer talked about Bismarck as a manager of events, rather than a mover of them. Faced with an “unpalatable reality”, the unending churn of events, all the politician could do was muddle along with them as best they could.
Bismarck is a north star for Cummings. He said that the world would have been a better place if Otto had been assassinated in 1866, but he also compared him to terrifying chess-playing AI systems. Inside Bismarck, he said, was “a vast world of calculation” utterly unknowable to mortals. (Was Cummings speaking autobiographically, I wondered?) Hoyer and Evans told stories; Cummings spoke in numbered lists. He wanted us to use this information.
Cummings approved of Bismarck’s “extreme epistemological scepticism”. It was this wariness of the world — where crisis could explode randomly, at any moment — that he approved of in Bismarck, and in himself. All of us were potentially “a sorcerer’s apprentice”. We could never be certain how, or when, or why our plans might come to fruition, and what their consequences might be.
This brought Cummings to Covid. He talked about May 2020. Watching the Prime Minister “trolley” between policies, between keeping the economy going and keeping people alive, many times in the same meeting. Key people, said Cummings, didn’t know what their priorities were. He sat at baize tables in old rooms surrounded by old men holding pencils and paper, men who didn’t know what “exponential growth” was, and despaired.
The evening ended with Cummings’ devoted male following asking him long, technical questions. He frowned when Liz Truss was mentioned, and we all laughed, even though we were all thinking about nuclear war.