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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Aristocracy of the Midwits

The consensus strikes back in the U.K.

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Dominic Raab, until recently deputy prime minister and supposedly the second man in power in the U.K. after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, had to resign, after a parliamentary report about him being a “bully” to his staffers, unelected civil servants. 

Raab’s villainy apparently knew no bounds. He called incompetent bureaucrats, among other things, “woeful” and “utterly useless.” The report further stated that Raab took a “strong view that officials should have been prepared in advance to answer his questions at a meeting”; that he never sat passively, and asked questions in a straightforward manner; that he once chastised a bureaucrat for failing to finish his policy on time; and that, when he found out that government policy wasn’t being implemented, he called out the “obstructiveness” of the civil service. Per the report:

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Another example of such an allegation was loud banging of the table to make a point. At the opposite end of the spectrum, which would be regarded as acceptable, suggestions were made of the use of a defensive gesture to suggest that a person should hold off from speaking further, accompanied by a verbal explanation, or the use of a finger extended downwards to make a particular point. 

Shocking. 

It is said that the true source of power can be determined by the evidence of who can punish whom. For the crimes of being democratically elected and then strictly demanding a strong work ethic and the timely implementation of his government’s proposals, the mighty and imperial British civil service made an example of Raab. 

This sounds comical, practically a Yes Minister skit, but it is anything but. In fact, it is the surest proof of what had been evident for a long time: that democracy in the West doesn’t strictly exist. It is a troubling precedent, but only because it is no longer sub rosa

The American national security bureaucracy might not have the centuries-old muscle memory of its British counterpart, but its members are, of course, in no way less dangerous. Obstructionism and slow-rolling, for example, is a curse on both sides of the moat. Consider the repeated leaks and derailing of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Consider the overt opposition to any restraint in foreign policy. Consider the opposition to Brexit. 

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It raises an important question to ponder. 

If we are indeed hurtling toward a neo-feudal future—we already have a functioning oligarchy, the modern lords without the noblesse oblige of the old—an increasingly broken civic society, a regime of privatized security for the affluent, a racial hierarchy related to crimes and punishment and portrayals, and if we are already living under unelected authority, why not have aristocratic authority instead of bureaucratic?

But what if that order (so to speak) simply doesn’t exist anymore and is not returning anytime soon? What if something altogether more malign has taken on the historical powers of aristocracy without its legal and cultural duties?  

Conservatives are instinctively localist. Yes, there is the High-Tory instinct of throne, empire, and altar, but left alone, conservatives mostly don’t care about governance much, as long as there is plenty of food, family around, law-abiding citizens, and clean streets. 

Most modern bureaucrats are regarded as unoriginal dimwits. Some of them are indeed activists with a certain worldview, but most are just normal middle managers by impulse and disposition. That was the same in the British Empire, as well as the Soviet Empire. Ideology is to some degree irrelevant in that case. But it would be foolish to see this issue through the lens of pure incompetence or ideology, or as the natural sociological outcome of a supposedly feminized workplace and increasing safetyism shrouded in insufferable managerial-speak. Yes, those things are true. But that is not all. 

There is a phrase especially common in the national security bureaucracy. It is called “inter-agency consensus.” No one really knows who forms this consensus, except the fact that there is this huge ether—some might call it a blob—that arguably in its most competent and ideal form is a rule by neutral and detached experts. In reality, they are often braying imbeciles with the loudest megaphone—rule by swarm, if you will. 

The most interesting part of all this, however, is that this regime is designed to have no real head and therefore no accountability. In a democracy, the accountability lies with the elected class. To channel Wellington, they can come in the old school way, and can be seen off in the old school way. In an aristocracy or authoritarianism, on the other hand, the ultimate person responsible for the wellbeing or lack thereof is the monarch or a dictator. 

In a swarm, there is no head to cut off. The swarm is simultaneously the most powerful and the most vulnerable, powerless and righteous at the same time. The swarm is both the ruler and the martyr. The quiet pursuer of benevolent policy as well as the adjudicator of norms and punisher of norm-deviants. The swarm is also unkillable

And if you cannot end something, that creates a problem. The balance of power is lost. Both the democratic accountability and aristocratic amour de la terre are absent from the swarm. And it eventually has power over your life.