“The Gang Fixes 10 Downing Street”

UK political advisor Dominic Cummings has a plan to reimagine the civil service, and it sounds strikingly familiar.

“The Gang Fixes 10 Downing Street”

UK political advisor Dominic Cummings has a plan to reimagine the civil service, and it sounds strikingly familiar.

Last week Dominic Cummings, chief advisor to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, published a long, rambling blog post in which he put out a call for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos” to come work for him at 10 Downing Street. “Unusual mathematicians,” “unusual software developers,” “unusual economists,” “junior researchers” who Cummings seems to want to forbid from ever fucking (“You will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all”), and “super-talented weirdos” — all are invited to submit their resumes to a gmail address the man often assumed to be the most powerful in Westminster has set up at ideasfornumber10@gmail.com.

“People in SW1 (that is, Westminster) talk a lot about ‘diversity,’” Cummings writes in the post, “but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity.’ They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah.’ What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.” By which he means:

“We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB. If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.”

Cummings is currently plotting a major reform of the UK civil service. He now appears to be preparing to re-stock the administrative arm of the British state with a cast of characters whose general vibe is somewhere between that of a “hacker gang” from a movie made in the late ’90s and the “SuperFriends” group Bart Simpson gets invited to join in that episode where he discovers the comet.

Cummings has a long history of using blog posts to communicate his often, shall we say, unorthodox views. This posts have at times been very revealing: For instance, previous blog posts have revealed his desire to use Brexit to convince Jeff Bezos to help him build a big base on the Moon. And this most recent post is similarly revelatory: It reveals to us that Dominic Cummings is not a man afraid to ruin the email address “ideasfornumber10@gmail.com” by essentially inviting the whole world to send it pigpoopballs.jpeg in messages titled “Job application.” Perhaps still more crucially, it reveals to us that Cummings has never seen the episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia where “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis.”

Always Sunny, for those who don't know it, is ostensibly a sitcom about a group of people running a bar in Philadelphia, but in fact presents America in the 21st century as an allegory for Hell: a place where everyone always finds a way of forcing everyone else to do the stupidest possible thing, where everyone hates each other, where the rich always inevitably get richer and the poor stay poor, and where no one ever seems capable of learning anything at all. Like all the best episodes, “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” is essentially a 20-minute meditation on the comic dynamics of the show itself. At the episode's outset, Mac — a brash idiot obsessed with muscles and strength who delusionally believes himself to be an action star-level hardman — decides that the titular “Gang” (in this case comprising himself, Dennis, a coldly handsome ladies' man who may or may not be a Ted Bundy-style serial killer, and Charlie, a childishly innocent low-life who lives in squalor and eats cat food; the two other main characters, Frank and Dee, spend most of the episode pursuing a separate B-plot) are not operating at their full potential, which if actualized could (or so Mac claims) lead to them experiencing the sort of success witnessed by such organisations as the A-Team, the Scooby Doo gang, or the Ghostbusters.

Cummings is energetically focused on pursuing an institutional reform he believes is a prerequisite to sustained, Ghostbusters-style success

Mac therefore proposes a re-organization of the Gang's dynamics, based on the recognition that each member is best-suited to a particular specialized role. After some argument, they decide that Mac is “the brains,” Dennis is “the looks,” and Charlie is “the wild card.” So Mac's role becomes to devise all the plans and direct the operation; Dennis's to charm and seduce; and Charlie's to “look crazy and capable of anything” — “setting the tone” for any encounter. Having implemented these reforms, the Gang then set about accomplishing Mac's latest plan: “solving the gas crisis” by borrowing $300,000 to buy and hoard gasoline, taking advantage of rapidly rising prices to sell the gas later for a profit.

Thus far, it is easy to see the affinities between Dominic Cummings and Mac. While Cummings does not (to the best of my knowledge) claim to be able to administer an effective ocular patdown, he is nevertheless — like Mac in “The Gang Solves The Gas Crisis” — energetically focused on pursuing an institutional reform he believes is a prerequisite to sustained, Ghostbusters-style success. And, like Mac, he believes that making space for so-called “wild cards” will be a vital part of that reform.

On a certain level, the appeal of having a “wild card” (or wild cards) form part of your organization seems obvious. There are two big justifications here. The first, which the Always Sunny gang seem drawn to, is a version of the “madman theory,” which formed part of Richard Nixon's foreign policy. The idea being, that if you can convince your enemies that (e.g.) Richard Nixon is a dangerous lunatic who would sooner destroy the whole world in a nuclear holocaust than allow even the slightest concession to communism, you should be able to make them do whatever you want. “Wild cards” are not bound by the ordinary laws or decorum or common sense. So more conscientious individuals will inevitably find themselves needing to tip-toe around them. The Tories, it seems, attempted this during their Brexit negotiations.

The second justification is that wild cards can help “shake up” organizations otherwise prone to malaise, simply by doing something (or thinking something) that no one else could have anticipated; that everyone else would have missed. Elite organizations are often given to hiring from very narrow talent pools: people who've just graduated from a small number of elite universities, for instance. This helps select for an equally narrow range of backgrounds, approaches to knowledge, etc. Cummings is, we can surmise from the blog post, very much aware of this problem — even if his idea of what it looks like (chatting about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers) does not necessarily bear a great deal of resemblance to what elite in-group conformity looks like in the real world (or, hey, who knows, maybe I've got it all wrong. I've never been to any of these parties. Maybe when they log off for the day everyone adjacent to the people who run the world in fact spends their time studying the Écrits). Hence why Cummings wants to lead a team characterized by “genuine cognitive diversity” — fewer Oxford humanities grads, more artists who never went to university who may or may not have a shady past with some drugs gangs.

But as a work of managerial theory, “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” offers an important lesson in the dangers of the wild card. Throughout the episode, whenever Charlie decides to do any “wild card” stuff, this only has the effect of undermining the rest of the Gang's work (the Gang, of course, are engaged in a project which is essentially very stupid, but Charlie's interventions only force them into stupider and stupider situations). Charlie brings about a situation where the Gang all have their shirts off in a bank while applying for a loan; twice threatens to blow up a gas station while the Gang are attempting to negotiate with its owner; sets Mac on fire by blowing fireballs from the Gang's big bins full of gas; insists on dressing up as a Texas oilman while the Gang are selling door-to-door gasoline, then gets the police called on him by (inadvertently) making it seem as if he is trying to coerce a potential customer into sex. Finally, he cuts the brakes on a van filled with gas, jumping out the back while screeching “wild card, bitches! Yeee-haaa!”

In the Always Sunny universe, as perhaps in the world of Dominic Cummings, the promise of a hiring a “wild card” is to help one solve seemingly intractable problems without having to reflect on them carefully and at length.

Crucially, in none of these interventions does Charlie ever do anything like productively “shake things up.” Instead, under the liscense given to him by being named the group's “wild card,” he simply takes it upon himself to leap to some logically extreme version of whatever the Gang is already doing. Dennis cack-handedly attempts to seduce the bank's loan manager by unbuttoning his shirt — Charlie takes his whole shirt off. Mac starts blowing fireballs to attract customers to the Gang's gas stand — Charlie blows one directly into Mac's head.

Of course cognitive diversity is a good thing — Cummings isn't wrong about that, although as others have pointed out, his professed commitment to cognitive diversity may not be all that meaningful given that he also insists he'll “bin you within weeks if you don’t fit.” But the idea that this diversity can be glossed as “we need more wild cards” is laughably flawed.

In the Always Sunny universe, as perhaps in the world of Dominic Cummings, the promise of a hiring a “wild card” is to help one solve seemingly intractable problems without having to reflect on them carefully and at length, to figure out they might be resolved in the best interests of the whole. Thought becomes unnecessary, because some disruptive force can be relied upon to come along and solve the problem for you. In fairness, that is how Brexit has worked out for the Tories — a party with no positive ideas, with a long record of malicious incompetence in office, with no real moral authority to govern, has just been handed a landslide election victory off the back of a disruptive culture war event masterminded, as it happens, by Dominic Cummings. But as Margaret Thatcher might have said, the problem with governing by repeatedly trashing the country and hoping to somehow muddle through a perceived victory from the wreckage of your own clown car, is eventually you run out of other people’s shit to trash.

The Always Sunny Gang are completely incapable of working together in the interests either of themselves or others (So too, of course, are the British Conservative party). To fix this, no one really needs more wild cards. What we actually need is people capable of looking at the various problems we face (as a polity, as a planet, as a species) in a holistic way, with a sensitivity to both their practical causes and moral implications. But that, of course, would require a level of intellectual seriousness that seems to beyond most of the people who now govern us.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.