“One thing is for certain: there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.” This classic Simpsons gag, in which an insect crawling over a camera lens panics Kent Brockman into reporting on an unstoppable takeover of the earth by giant space ants, is surprisingly relevant when understanding the most notorious architect of our current political crisis.
Now, instead of a parody cartoon newsreader, we have a media fixated by their own projection of a diabolical genius; rather than an invasion of extra-terrestrial insects, we have the myth of an unbeatable Svengali pulling the strings of discord and division.
So, while there seems to be no stopping the obsession with Dominic Cummings, the unelected chief advisor to Boris Johnson, we must not join the establishment media in welcoming our new Brexit overlord.
Making the myth.
Even by the low standards of the British press, who lauded the political genius of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, former joint chief of staffs to then Prime Minister Theresa May, before their catastrophic 2017 electoral failure was rewarded – in true British fashion – with CBEs, the construction of Cummings as an ‘iconoclastic’, ‘quasi-Leninist’ ‘disruptor-in-chief’ is truly remarkable.
Cummings is given more column inches than most of the cabinet combined. We regularly see him on our TV screens, fighting to leave his doorstep through a swarm of cameras in true celebrity style. He has become not just a major character, but the story of this government, which is proving a useful distraction from their unprecedented defeats and casual law-breaking.
His reputation as a rule-breaking mastermind was cemented in popular culture by a bizarre HBO re-enactment of the Vote Leave campaign. In the film, Cummings was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor famous for playing other mega-geniuses including Sherlock Holmes and Dr Strange – a literal magician with reality-altering powers. If his apparent ego is to be believed, Cummings must feel he deserves his place in the public psyche alongside such mythical figures. But should we believe the hype?
Much of Cummings’ mystique stems from his Joycean blog, which frantically hops around a dizzying range of theories and ideas. It’s easy to be impressed by the scope of his thinking and his willingness to quote T.S Eliot at length whilst cursorily name-checking incongruous STEM theories. But once you scratch beneath the surface, his grand ideas tend to fall into familiar categories of disliking the civil service and wanting to run government like a Silicon Valley start-up.
Judging by his blog, Cummings has suffered from a similarly inflated intellectual reputation as fellow right-winger Jordan Petersen. Like Petersen, the sheer volume, self-certainty and haphazardness of Cummings’ writing enables it to function as a sort of confirmatory Rorschach Test for those searching for evidence of his prodigy. Take his reasons for supporting Brexit:
“1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration … 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration … 4) this requires getting out of the EU, 5) hopefully it will prod the rest of Europe to limit immigration and … extremist forces.”
His ‘I’m going to prevent the return of the 1930s by designing a racist, isolationist Brexit campaign’ line of argument is almost a parody of the expanding intellect meme. Yet multiple journalists have cited this quote as proof of a galaxy-brained defence of democracy and his concealed moderation.
Cummings’ latest three-dimensional chess move was to circumvent the anti-No Deal Brexit legislation by sending the EU two contradictory letters – one asking for an extension and one undermining the government’s own request. Most of our media did not bat an eyelid at what is basically the legal equivalent of a child making a promise with their fingers crossed behind their back.
The new Sun Tzu?
This takes us to the heart of the Cummings mythology, which reveals more about the ideological blindness of the establishment media than it does about the advisor’s ability. For many people invested in neoliberalism and opposed to any potential alternative, the only way they can square the circle of illogical or unreasonable political events is to credit their opponents with an intellect that simply cannot be beaten.
Cummings’ reputation strongly echoes that of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former Chief Strategist, who has also been presented in the tradition of great men with ruthless political instincts like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli – figures who Cummings and Bannon are often compared to for no other reason than that they claim to have read them.
Yet Cummings and Bannon’s most notable triumphs, Brexit and Trump, were not achieved with any remarkable political ability but rather through tried and tested reactionary techniques of racism, division and message discipline – all with the support of capital and powerful vested interests. Their improbable successes were largely due to the ideological bankruptcy of their opponents, who, to varying degrees, had embraced or were associated with the neoliberal project.
For a media who generally ignored the role of Hilary Clinton’s campaign in Trump’s victory, or the unpopularity of the Remain campaigns’ most vocal leaders in their 2016 referendum defeat, it is easier to project an aura of enigmatic invincibility upon your opponents than it is to interrogate the flaws in your own politics. It is this refusal to accept the failings of the status quo, and their own complicity within it, which has led to the liberal construct of Cummings and Bannon as all-conquering dark forces.
Yet amid the impending general election and the Cummings-led constitutional chaos, we have a unique opportunity to end this collective delusion. By electing a transformative Labour government, on the wave of an unprecedented grassroots mass movement, we can smash through the neoliberal realism which has produced the mirage of Cummings’ genius – as well as untold misery for working people over the last 40 years.
Joe Duffy is a Labour Party activist in Camberwell and Peckham CLP and a campaigner for Unite and Momentum.