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Wed 12 August 2020
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James Wallbank explores how Systems Thinking can help the public to understand the methods of the Prime Minister and his chief advisor – and why they must not be mistaken for buffoons

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Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are using military methodology to wage an information war – one which we must learn to fight back against.

The regime of the Prime Minister and his controversial chief advisor is a complex, hybrid, shape-changing network, only part of which is visible. Defeating it will require ceaseless, full-spectrum opposition, learning and adaptation.

It isn’t a conspiracy, nor is it a structure like dominoes, or snow before an avalanche, vulnerable to one intervention that will topple the lot. It is indicative of a global tendency with many drivers. To prevail against this sort of diffuse opponent demands a Systems Thinking approach.

This type of complex conflict is a developed methodology originating in Russia. Read Cummings’ blog and it is clear that he understands ‘operational art’. That doesn’t mean he knows exactly what is going on – it means that he acknowledges that he doesn’t know what is going on, and operates a system to learn, adapt, reorientate and respond.

He has used terminology such as the “OODA Loop” – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. This is an operational method developed for aircraft combat.

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However, ‘operational art’ has a much wider application. It was developed by the Russian military following the revolution, when the country was weak and under-developed – and had a strong, hostile, militarised neighbour: Germany.

How do you win when you’re weak?


THE TARGETS

‘Operational art’ makes use of complexity and confusion, mixes up information flows in the battlespace, and prevents a more powerful opponent from bringing its forces to bear. It suggests continuous experimentation, learning and repositioning. It can use the strength of an opponent against itself and doesn’t have spatial, temporal or conceptual boundaries.

First adopted by Soviet forces for warfare, it has also been implemented by the KGB, which incidentally trained Russian President Vladimir Putin.

‘Operational art’ is particularly relevant because governance is becoming more complex. Digital and transport technologies are linking citizens, businesses and trading partners ever more quickly and cheaply, and capital is concentrating in ever fewer hands. These links aren’t all visible or predictable.

Increasing complexity means the right policy responses to emerging issues aren’t obvious. Voters aren’t experts, so we use gut instinct and rules of thumb to decide how to vote. This situation is vulnerable to exploitation.

Johnson and Cummings see the British public as targets. They are engaging us with operational methods, with objectives in mind that are not in our best interests. The objective is to identify the regime’s critical components and disrupt its centre of gravity.

Frequently, in dealing with complex systems, transformation emerges from changes at different levels. The Coronavirus is microscopic, but it has disrupted global travel and trade. Global warming may have even more disruptive consequences. Fast events cannot always be mitigated against. Slow events may be imperceptible.

Individual efforts at a local scale can end up making a difference at a much larger scale.


THE LEADERS

The war being waged can also be understood as a battle of information.

Johnson and Cummings seem to have a preoccupation with surveillance technologies and data analysis. Their Vote Leave campaign group allegedly had connections to Cambridge Analytica, and the development of “digital transformation” bodies such as NHSX – which has been involved in the Government’s test and trace Coronavirus app – isn’t coincidental.

The plutocratic right, for whom money seems to be an important enabler, is currently much better at engaging in this type of conflict than the traditional left – which values stasis, structure, clarity and consistency.

In such a conflict, an ‘operational idea’ should be: quick to execute; deceptive; ambiguous; unpredictable and not stereotypical; creative and novel; one with multiple options.

With Johnson and Cummings, sometimes it is incompetence. Sometimes they are caught out. Sometimes their buffoonery is deliberately provocative. While their visible actions are chaotic, their intended actions are camouflaged.

It can be useful to mix up deceptions, provocations and stochastic obfuscations with undisguised actions and accurate disclosures. By making genuine intentions public, it becomes all the more difficult for an opponent to perceive what is real and what is not.

Once deployed, should an idea’s initial intent fail, or circumstances change, it can be recast as something else.

But it is possible that Johnson and Cummings are more peripheral than they seem.

Even if they are removed, their programme may be continued, undisrupted, by another leader. Their modus operandi appears to be to deliver ineffectual governance – perhaps to break down any notion of logic or good sense in the relationship between government and people.


THE FIGHT BACK

Many political impulses on the left and right seem to be driven by an urge to simplify – to provide the comfort and clarity of understanding.

On the right, simple answers are used to manipulate foot soldiers through meaningless slogans and racism. On the left, simplification takes the form of doctrine – texts that serve as holy writ.

Here are some useful operational methods:

  • Surveillance: watch and learn. Don’t forget to record and report your discoveries.
  • Demonstration: do something just because you can. It doesn’t have to be useful – you will learn about your own capacities as you go.
  • Deception: Say you’re going to do something, then don’t. Seem as if you’re doing one thing, but do something else. Say you care about something that doesn’t matter, or that you don’t care about something that does.

You may be someone who is uncomfortable with conflict analogies. If so, re-interpret these methods without military trappings, and look into Systems Thinking – the science of how to deal with confounding complexity.

But, while you may be uncomfortable with the idea of an information war, be under absolutely no illusion: the Johnson-Cummings regime is at war with democracy; with notions of transparency, honesty and accountability.

In short, it’s at war with you. Good luck.


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