Or, a theory about the mess we’re in.
The UK is about to finally leave the EU as the transition period finishes at the end of the year. Leaving the EU was always a terrible idea, based on appealing to a combination of the bigotry of mostly-older voters1 and falsified memories of a golden age of English glory which never existed. But the decision is made: the UK has chosen to fade into irrelevance and poverty2 and that can’t be undone any time soon.
What it could have decided to do was to minimize the damage by agreeing a trade deal on good terms with the EU to minimize the harm done by brexit. It will almost certainly fail to do that: the EU, very reasonably, wants to ensure that a country granted privileged access to its markets can’t then undercut the EU’s own members by lowering standards. This position was clear before the referendum and has not changed since then. The UK government, having pretended to be unaware of this position, now finds it unacceptable: I suppose because undercutting the EU by lowering standards is exactly what it wants to do. And there is some stupidity about fishing as well.
So, at the end of the year when the transition period ends, the UK will probably leave with no deal at all3, which will be an immediate catastrophe: there is a quite serious possibility of food shortages for instance. Almost no-one who voted leave in 2016 voted for this, even those who understood what they were voting for.
How did we get into this mess?
There is a theory, well-described by Charlie Stross and others that what has happened is that a small group of clever-but-evil people have taken over the Conservative party and, with the support of a larger group of bigots, have consciously tried to achieve this outcome, so that they can profit from the resulting chaos. This is disaster capitalism: the idea that small factions are deliberately causing disasters so that in they can force through measures which will benefit them in the aftermath, and which people will not notice amongst all the smoke and rioting.
That sounds plausible: there are certainly plenty of bigots and xenophobes, particularly in the British tory party. And certainly the original brexit vote was driven very substantially by bigots and xenophobes. So, well, this is a situation ripe to be exploited by a small clique of disaster capitalists, isn’t it? Perhaps this clique is headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg who is certainly evil, certainly a financier, and also an important member of the European Research Group which was one of the groups which helped drive brexit.
Well, this all sounds very reasonable, then: there is a conspiracy by a small hidden group of financiers who have gained control of the tory party and are driving the UK into the ground to enrich themselves. How obvious.
Except, wait. Didn’t some other group of people once believe a theory a bit like this? That there was a group — a cabal in fact — of financiers who were working behind the scenes to cause chaos and destruction (and there certainly was chaos and destruction) to enrich themselves at the cost of the good, honest, ordinary folk of the country? What was the name of that country, again, and who were the people who believed this? Ah, yes, it was Germany, and the people who believed this were the nazis. And it didn’t end well, did it?
Of course, the theories are not identical, and I am very sure that many people who believe the disaster capitalism theory are not antisemites4, let alone nazis. One crucial difference is that membership of the supposed cabal of disaster capitalists is something a person can choose of their own free will, while if you are Jewish you are so because of your ancestry which you can not choose. The lies the nazis told about a mythical cabal of Jewish financiers, along with all the other lies they told about Jews, were clearly a lot more toxic than the idea of a cabal of disaster capitalists within and behind the tory party.
But they are both conspiracy theories: they both assume there is a small group of people working, mostly in secret, to cause chaos and disaster from which they will benefit hugely at the cost of the ordinary, honest, working folk. And Something Must Be Done about this, and that Something might include an uprising and, perhaps, in due course, camps of some kind where the conspirators could be, well, processed.
The nature of the conspiracy
It’s in the nature of conspiracy theories to be false, because people are not very good at conspiring, and when they do conspire they’re not very good at keeping the conspiracy secret.
But the disaster capitalist theory also relies on another common notion: the idea that, somewhere very close at hand but always just out of sight, there exists a group of people who are enormously more competent, or machines that are enormously more capable, or drugs that are enormously better than anything to which we have access. Sometimes it is also clear that we are being actively denied access to this superior technology, perhaps by these invisible superior people. I call this notion the myth of competence.
Just sometimes, the myth of competence is not a myth: the people who put humans on the Moon were actually pretty good at what they did, even if they only became as good as they were by going through an awful and unnecessary accident. The people at Bletchley Park during the second war were also pretty good. And there are other examples, of course.
But almost always the myth of competence really is a myth: something people want to be true which is not actually true.
A good example of the myth of competence is the NSA. The NSA, obviously, is staffed by the most elite mathematicians and computer scientists: people who are just better than everyone else. People with a deep understanding of the security of computing systems, working for an organisation with hugely deep pockets. The NSA is just spookily good as well as, conveniently, just out of sight. And yet in 2013, a contractor to the NSA was able to acquire a vast trove of sensitive data from them, something that would not be possible if their security was at all competent. The NSA, in fact, are incompetent, or at least they were so in 2013 and almost certainly they still are.
And this isn’t surprising, in fact. Let’s imagine that you’re a smart person with an interest in sifting through big data to look for patterns. You have a couple of career options.
- You could go to work for a web company, where you will get to deal with as much data as you want, where you get to go to parties with other nerds and talk about the cool stuff you are doing, and where you stand a chance you can persuade yourself is reasonable of getting rich. You can probably also fool yourself that what you are doing is ethical5. If the job doesn’t suit you you can move to another company, or you could start your own, giving you a rather smaller chance of getting very rich indeed.
- Or you could get a job with the security services. You will not be able to tell anyone outside your workplace what you do. You will not get rich (you might not even get a decent pension nowadays). You won’t easily be able to change jobs, at least not outside the organisation you work for. Given who your ultimate masters are and what they do to people who they don’t like, you might have worries about your safety in the longer term, and you certainly would when you realize just how unethical what they are doing is and decide to tell someone about that.
Which career sounds more appealing? Well, clearly some people are attracted to the whole cloak-and-dagger aspect of the second option. Those people tend also to own rather too much camouflage clothing and take paintball games altogether too seriously. For the rest of us the chance to do things which are just as technically interesting while fooling ourselves that we might get rich is probably rather more compelling.
And so it turns out that the NSA isn’t, in fact, staffed by super-intelligent super-competent people after all: it’s staffed by the people Google and Facebook didn’t hire.
The disaster capitalist theory assumes that there is a cabal of evil super geniuses — the disaster capitalists — who are working in secret to destroy the country for their own benefit, probably from their sinister supervillain lairs in hollowed-out volcanoes. Somewhere, behind the incompetence and stupidity of the tory party we can see, exists a group of evil geniuses who, somehow, we never can quite see. This is both a conspiracy theory and a classic example of the myth of competence. I suggest that it is not true, and that there is an alternative, simpler, explanation.
There is a famous thought experiment about an imagined artificial general intelligence (AGI) whose goal is to maximize the number of paperclips in the universe, and which proceeds to to that, with bad consequences for humans and, ultimately, probably itself too, as it turns everything into facilities for making paperclips.
This seems like a fairly silly idea, not least because of the G in ‘AGI’: general intelligence is, generally, not associated with this kind of monomania. It is quite close to the way that genes work: the ‘purpose’ of a gene, or replicator, is to make as many copies as possible of itself, and this drives evolution. But, well, we do seem to be dealing with monomaniacs of one kind or another, and it’s an interesting idea to explore.
The first fairly obvious thing is that maximizers can lead to quite nasty consequences: the paperclip maximizer destroys everyone and everything in order to make more paperclips, for instance, and 2020 has shown that packages of genes which replicate at the costs of the organisms hosting them can be quite bad news, in case we had forgotten that.
The second thing is that maximizers can run into a nasty problem: local maxima. You can think of a maximizer as something which is walking around on the surface of some function which it is trying to maximize. An obvious approach is to calculate the gradient of the function and then move in the direction where it is steepest. At the point where the gradient is zero and the second derivatives are all negative then you’ve reached a maximum. This technique is called gradient ascent, or, equivalently when used to find minima, gradient descent. It seems like a good strategy if you don’t think about it too hard. But consider what would happen if you were trying to maximize your altitude on Earth using this strategy, and you started in Scotland. If you were very lucky indeed you might get to the summit of Ben Nevis, from which all directions lead down. But Ben Nevis completely fails to be the highest point on the Earth’s surface: it’s a local maximum, not a global one. And more likely if you start where I used to live, you’d end up at the top of Lady Fife’s Brae on Leith Links which isn’t even the highest point on Leith links.
To deal with this problem maximizers need to be able to explore bits of the space far from where they currently are, so they can see whether they would do better by moving far away. This requires various clever tricks: a dumb maximizer will end up getting trapped on local maxima most of the time.
As well as being close to the way genes work, the idea of maximizers is also fairly close to the way that a lot of economists think about people: people are assumed to spend their time trying to maximize their utility. Well, this is true, but usually it’s vacuous because ‘utility’ for most people has a definition which is unknown but certainly extremely complicated, and the maximization method they use is also unknown but almost certainly complicated. So saying people are trying to maximize their utility means, really, nothing: it just helps economists feel as if what they are doing is science.
But sometimes, for some people, it does mean something. Some people have a utility function which is obvious and relatively simple. Conveniently, these people often also only have very rudimentary maximizers.
The Boris maximizer
Boris Johnson is such a person. Boris Johnson’s utility function is Boris Johnson: his only purpose in life is that there should be maximum Boris: more power, more glory, more worship for Boris. He cares about this to the exclusion of all else: he is the Boris maximizer. And like many people with utility functions this obvious and simple his technique for achieving maximum Boris is also rather simple: it’s either gradient ascent or something very close to it.
The standard term for people like Johnson, of course, is narcissism, and there is a lot written about narcissists and narcissism. Since I want to understand how narcissists end up driving themselves and others into bad places, I’m going to stick with the notion of narcissists as rather simple maximizers of themselves rather than get lost in a wash of made-up pop psychology.
Another important thing about Johnson is that he’s a very pure example of what he is. Trump is a narcissist of course, but Trump also is full of fear, resentment and bigotry: Johnson isn’t. Johnson is upper-class, rich, went to the right school and university and has exactly the belief system you would expect from his background: he has never questioned anything, never thought deeply about anything, and he is not envious of anyone because why would he be? He is not, in fact, able to think hard enough about anything to even see that there might be a problem: doing so would require thinking about other people as more than tools for maximizing Boris, and he certainly is not able to do that.
Boris Johnson has nothing in his head but maximizing Boris: he is the paperclip maximizer made flesh.
The mess we’re in
Firstly, there is no brexit cabal: there is no secret group of disaster capitalists scheming to destroy the UK, and still less is there some hidden group of clever brexiteers in the tory party: the closest they have to that is Dominic Cummings, who is at least not stupid, but is also a crank: someone who does not realize that there are things he doesn’t understand and who certainly is not as clever as he thinks he is. For the rest of the brexiteers in government, well, the people we can see are the people there are, and they are not pretending to be incompetent and stupid: they are incompetent and stupid.
Secondly Boris Johnson doesn’t care about brexit: Boris Johnson cares only about Boris Johnson. He is purely a machine for increasing the glory and worship of himself: a Boris maximizer.
Thirdly, while there is no cabal, there are a significant number of people in the tory party and elsewhere who are xenophobes and bigots and who believe in an invented idea of a golden age of England6 which is now, as it always has been, just beyond living memory7. These people want desperately to leave the EU because it is full of foreign people and is holding back their imagined restoration of the golden age of England8.
In 2016, David Cameron made the disastrous mistake of calling a referendum to make these people go away. At that point Johnson had to make the only decision a maximizer ever makes: what should he do to maximize Boris? Competent people understand that allowing maximizers access to power is extremely dangerous: no competent group of people would ever select Johnson for high office. In a tory party run by competent people he would never achieve the glory he deserved. But he might achieve it in one run by incompetent people. So he threw in his lot with the brexiteers.
And the brexiteers won: there really are a lot of aged bigots in the UK, it turns out.
The government then spent nearly three years falling about, as it became apparent that the brexiteers who had nominally won had no plan at all for what to do because they were simply not smart enough to think through the consequences of what they wanted. Indeed the only idea they had seemed to be that the remainers should do their planning for them, in much the way that adults do the planning for their children.
During the period of falling about the attitudes of the brexiteers hardened: as it became more and more clear how confused and stupid their aims were, they became more and more rigid in their thinking: they turned into fanatics. As fanatics they are unwilling, ever, to consider any ideas in contradiction with their fanaticism and unwilling, ever, to give up, whatever the cost. These are not people you want in government9.
In 2016, Johnson failed at his maximization project: there were enough competent people left, then, to keep him well away from any real power, at least for a while. But this didn’t last: in 2019 the fanatics won, and Johnson finally achieved maximum Boris: he became prime minister (or as he probably thinks of it, ‘world king’). But even as he was annointed he was in terrible trouble, although he did not realize it then and probably still does not.
The trouble he was in is that he can only operate by gradient ascent and he had achieved this on the back of increasingly fanatical brexiteers with a serious competence problem. If he started listening to the competent people (there still were some, then), and doing what they suggested — for instance cutting a good deal with the EU — the fanatics would hate him for betraying their cause, and even if they did not do what fanatics often do to those who betray them, their hatred alone would certainly temporarily reduce the amount of Boris. Gradient ascent will not allow this, and so the competent people were systematically driven out of government, to be replaced by fanatics whose endless chants of praise would further maximize Boris. Never mind that they were also grossly incompetent: competence is not relevant to maximizing Boris.
He was now stuck on top of a local maximum.
And there he remains: all around the little hill he is sitting on are deep valleys, the crossing of which means a temporary reduction in Boris which gradient ascent will not allow. A little way away, in clear view, there are other, much larger hills, on top of which there would be far more Boris. But he can not reach them, because he can not, ever, reduce the amount of Boris.
And so there will be no deal with the EU: not because of a cabal of evil disaster capitalists somewhere just out of sight but because of the incompetence and fanaticism in full view in the government. And that incompetence and fanaticism is sustained by Johnson’s goal of maximizing Boris and his inability to do anything to reduce the amount of Boris, however temporarily, and even if doing so would ultimately increase it.
Well, he can not, but history will. Boris Johnson could have chosen to be the prime minister who minimized the damage to the UK from brexit, or even the person whose decision in 2016 to support remain led to the UK staying in the EU. But he will not be: he will be the prime minister who oversaw a no deal exit, whose actions led to the break-up of the UK and who, because he had surrounded himself with incompetent fanatics, caused many thousands of unnecessary deaths from CV19. Perhaps he even dimly knows this.
At the time of the referendum 27% of voters then aged 18—24 voted to leave, rising to 60% of voters then aged 65 or older. The younger voters, of course, will be most affected by the decision as they will live more years with their life chances restricted by it. Indeed many of the older cohort will already be dead and thus will have voted purely to damage other people’s chances, having themselves benefited from membership of the EU for most of their lives. The demographics is such, in fact, that there is almost certainly now no majority support for leaving the EU and has not been for several years. ↩
And it hasn’t only chosen that. As I’ve written previously: the consequences of brexit — even a ‘good’ brexit — will be that the administrative part of the UK’s government (probably, soon, this means the government of England and Wales, after Scotland secedes and rejoins the EU) will be working at or beyond its capacity for a decade. That decade, of course, is the decade which action must be taken if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming. The UK, therefore, will play no useful part in dealing with global warming, and thus further increase the chances of a catastrophe which will kill billions of humans, mostly not yet born. Conveniently, almost all the brexit voters will be dead by the time this matters. ↩
As I write this, there is still some fading hope that a deal will be struck, but neither the EU or the UK sound at all optimistic, and there is very little time left. ↩
Although the UK Labour party, where there will be many believers in the disaster capitalism theory, has had a rather serious problem with antisemitism recently. These two things may not be related, of course: but they may be. ↩
Or you could in 2013 when I wrote the text from which this section is extracted: not so much now, I think. ↩
Not Scotland, not Wales, certainly not Northern Ireland: England. ↩
This, of course, is related to the myth of competence: somewhere, just before we were born, there was a golden (or, in fact, a white) England where flowers bloomed, birds sang, and everyone was happy. And the fact that flowers don’t bloom and birds don’t sing and everyone is miserable is nothing to do with our actions in systematically poisoning the land. No, it’s someone else’s fault: probably it’s those Europeans, in fact. ↩
There are also a very small number of people — Douglas Carswell for instance — who believe in brexit for reasons which are not simple bigotry: they’re wrong, but they’re not bigots. But these people are in a small minority of brexiteers, of whom the great majority are, like it or not, bigots. ↩
To repurpose an old joke about guitar players: what’s the difference between a brexiteer and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist. ↩