Sunday, July 31, 2016

Deep State

"Deep State" is a phrase one runs into more and more frequently in recent political commentary. Several commentators have made it a popular expression, Mike Lofgren among them who spent many years as a Republican congressional aide. Spending many years in the Capitol and in Washington, DC, Lofgren knows a whole lot of people connected with government and knows a whole lot about them.

 "The deep state," argues Lofgren is "the red thread" linking the "ideological syndrome" of McMansions; DC's culture of careerist strivers; the financialization, deindustrialization and ultimate mutation of the US economy into "a casino with a tilted wheel"; the burgeoning of government secrecy even as individual privacy has been demolished; the consistency and persistence of unpopular policies regardless of which party wins elections; militarized foreign policy, "defense" and "security" establishments that thrive on failure and enjoy essentially unlimited funding whatever nostrums about the national debt and the necessity for austerity are being peddled for every other function of government; the prevalence of incompetence and ineptitude in government response to crises; unequal justice, including impunity for the wealthy and corporations, a corrupt Supreme Court and a strikingly punitive criminal legal system for ordinary people; legislative gridlock; perpetual war; political extremism and other ruinous epiphenomena.”(

The basic idea here is that government policy is not, as we usually believe, controlled by elected officials and, therefore, indirectly under the control of those who elect those officials. Instead there is an agglomeration of different groups inside and outside the government that actually determine US policy. The concept of a deep state is another iteration of the critique of democracy developed by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 1840s. Democracy, as Marx said at one point, is a method by which citizens get a chance to periodically elect the people who will misrepresent them. Lenin, writing in 1917, as the Bolsheviks were taking power in Russia, formulated the same thought more harshly: democracy is a system which allows people to periodically select their oppressors. 

Defenders of democracy tell us that democracy allows ordinary citizens to participate in running their country. But that story is false. Important government policies are made by a more or less permanent establishment, by persons who are unelected and have no need to worry about popular demands and beliefs. Marx, Engels, and Lenin all identified this secret government as the capitalist class, the owners of large corporations, the owners of banks, the owners of significant amounts of capital.

The pundits who today talk about the deep state are not Marxists. Lofgren, in fact, is a Republican. They identify the personnel of the deep state in rather different ways. An important component of the deep state are a half a dozen or so top-secret government agencies.. They are not under popular control or even under control of Congress because no one knows what they are up to. Another important components are the Military, Wall Street, some powerful persons in the media and Silicone Valley, home of the companies that provide the technology with which the government keeps a close watch over all of us. Lofgren adds some other groups such as the culture of McMansions or Washington DC careerists to the point where his list seems to be simply enumerating all the people he hates.

So we should separate three ideas: 1. The claim that our government is run directly or indirectly by the people is clearly false. It is propaganda. 2. A complex group, largely hidden, is actually running the government. They are only slightly affected by electoral events. 3. Democracy with its elections, conventions and election campaigns is theatre. It simply serves the purpose of concealing the functioning of this "deep state."

Is there a deep state? We are about to elect a new president and the newspapers and other media are indefatigable in impressing on us the importance of these contests. But now imagine you are elected the new president. On Inauguration Day you move into the White House and bring your personal laptop into the Oval Office. For several weeks you will have one meeting after another with all the leaders of different parts of the executive, with top generals, the leaders of the CIA, FBI, NSA. You will meet the people who run agriculture, who are in charge of transportation. Sooner or later you will have an interview with the postmaster general. You will also meet a lot of people who are not elected officials such as the heads of the major banks, the heads of different trade associations. In addition there will be representatives of foreign governments who will want foreign aid from you or have come to tell you how to run your business.

These people are very familiar with their small corner of government. The new President is not. Often their projects are shrouded in deep secrecy. They go about their business pretty much as they please regardless of who is in the Oval Office. That person occupies the presidency for a limited period. Bureaucrats may hold jobs of considerable power for many more years than anyone is allowed to be president.

There are other excessively familiar reasons for accepting talk about the deep state. In so far as public policy is made by elected officials, money talks very loudly and competent lobbyists with deep pockets can get anything done they want. The opinions and desires of the likes of you and me as simple voters count for very little. The opinions and desires of large businesses, domestic and foreign, carry a great deal of weight. Government policy is significantly shaped by persons who are not elected and who are not responsible to ordinary citizens.

The existence of the deep state is not really controversial. The more challenging and more interesting question is who belongs to the deep state, who actually makes policy. If we accept the idea of the deep state, we commit ourselves to paying fairly little attention to elections. The activities of elected officials are no more than a show designed to confuse us. But then who does have the power?

The deep state is largely hidden. Most of us who are not intimately familiar with what goes on in Washington DC and in many other secret sites are in no position to guess who actually governs our lives. The whole idea here is that we are not supposed to know who governs. The deep state expends considerable energy in concealing itself. We have good reasons to distrust commentators who claim to be familiar with its workings and with its leaders. We do not know who is actually running our lives. Very few people do.

Anyone who “reveals” to us the workings of the deep state is probably making it up. But the general point of talk about the deep state is important: if we consider government policy since the days of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, we see some very consistent themes regardless of whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican. Government policy has consistently favored large business and its rich owners. Republicans and Democrats have agreed to make life harder for the poor and easier for the rich. Republicans and Democrats have gone to war and have mercilessly killed people all over the globe. We have lived under a bloodsoaked capitalism for more than 35 years regardless of who we voted for.

The deep state is terribly real.

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I was recently fortunate to be with a group of young transgender persons who were explaining to a sympathetic audience how they thought about their position in the world.

Most often we think of transgender as persons who were born male or female and decided at some point to change over to the  “other sex.” The background assumption is, of course, that all human beings--all mammals, in fact--are either male or female. Yes, there are some whose sexual identity is unclear. But all “normal” mammals are thought to  have a clear sexual identity and it is either female or male.

The trans persons I listened to want to challenge that assumption. They point to the scientific discussions of what is called “intersex”--human bodies whose sexual characteristics are not unambiguously male or female. Intersex refers to a range of bodily conditions in which genitals are not clearly male or female, the result of uncommon genes, and other variations. The estimate is that one in a thousand births have such intersex characteristics.

We can think of this in two ways. We can say that 1 out of a thousand births display “abnormal” characteristics. But clearly the numbers do not justify this value judgment that only male and female sexual traits are normal, especially when we consider the wide variations of sexual characteristics, such as women with much body hair or men with breasts. Add to that the individuals who choose to leave their sexual identities indeterminate.
Why not say that there are more than two kinds of sexual identities?

“That would be weird” you say. The trans persons want to challenge that kneejerk reaction. They want you to ask yourself why it would be weird to recognize many variations on sexual difference.

And, indeed, why would that be weird? 

We take it for granted that there are only two “normal” sexual configurations. When a baby is born, the doctor, nurse or midwife who catches the baby looks between the newborn’s legs and pronounces “boy” or “girl” assuming that that is all there is. The sexual identity is imposed. It is a societal imposition.

Such societal impositions are familar. I met a woman who said she came from Poland, from a city called Gdansk. She considered hersself Polish. Until 1945, the end of World War I, that city was called Danzig  and it was a German city. The ancestors of the Polish woman may well have been Germans. Her national identity changes with the changes in global politics. What she thinks and feels about her identity, has nothing to do with it. Her national identity is socially imposed.

Male/female are external impositions, the trans person want to say. They remind us of the many little boys who want to play with dolls until adults wean them off that in order to make sure that they grow up to be “real” boys. They remind us of the many little girls who want to climb trees and fight and play with trucks but who are made to wear pink dresses and play with Barbies so that they can grow up to be “real” women.

A friend, a woman lawyer, who is exceptionally tall at 6’ 2” confesses that she enjoys playing male roles in her work and acting more in ways that men are expected to act than  playing a ferminine role. Many adults like to cross over in this manner.

It would seem natural to acknowledge that the sex/gender roles we play are often ambiguous, often flaunt the basic assumption that only being plainly male or female is “normal.” Is it then not rather “abnormal” to maintain that fiction of the two sexes in words and action forcing children and adults to hide parts of who they are or would like to be?

The plea of trans persons for tolerance of different sexual identities and by implication different of sexual practices is hard to hear for many persons. But that is what transgender persons are asking for. They are asking that their sexuality not be denigrated as "abnormal" but that they be allowed to be who they are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

And Liberty and Justice for All

It is the first week of July and once again time to congratulate ourselves on our love of freedom, on our democracy and dedication to equality. Reminding ourselves of our wealth and power, our preeminent position in the world, we can fill all our hearts with genuine satisfaction.

It is also a good time to reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in the Atlantic Magazine of June 2014, "A Case for Reparations." (You can easily find it on the Internet.) By telling the stories of a few African-Americans who succeeded in buying and holding on to their houses in spite of being all their lives exposed to fraud and robbery by whites, Coates reminds us that American dedication to liberty and equality has some large exceptions. It only very intermittently applies to African Americans.

Coates stresses the pain caused African-Americans, especially young ones, when they themselves are insulted and denigrated or when they see others treated without respect. It is extremely difficult to grow up with a healthy sense of your own capabilities and merit, if you find yourself, your family, your friends consistently treated shabbily and the society as a whole refusing to acknowledge that.

This psychological damage of racism reminds those of us whites who are trying genuinely not to participate or support anti-black racism, that the damages will continue to be done regardless of our resistance to our own racism. As long as American society accepts the denigration of African-Americans by some of its members and by its government, the best and most well-meaning efforts of some of us will not be enough to achieve genuine justice and equality.

You may point to the passage of civil rights legislation, you may point to a black president, but the second class status of African-Americans has not changed. If you have any doubt about that, read the stories told by Coates. 

If you have any doubt consider the consistent denial by white people that there is any problem for African-Americans, which is not of their own making. The diagnoses change over time: African-Americans suffer because they do not manage to form families in the same way as white middle-class Americans. They do not do well in school. They get involved with drugs. Black Americans are disproportionately imprisoned or under the supervision of the parole system. None of that, many whites insist, is our fault.

In his article, Coates documents impressively how housing segregation is the result of government regulations of the home mortgage market and the work of white real estate speculators. White home buyers cooperate, for instance, by buying repossessed houses cheap in this process of segregating where people live by race. Lanie Guinier offers example after example of municipalities, counties and states manipulating the rules governing elections so as to make quite sure that black voters will never elect a black representative. Amy Goffman and  Michelle Alexander demonstrate how the criminal justice system is set up to catch and absorb young black men, often when they are barely in their teens.  But whites keep denying their complicity. What else do lawsuits over affirmative action say but "the second-class status of African-Americans is not my responsibility. I have nothing to do with that." 

But we should know better.

To confront that consistent denial, Coates asks for reparations. By that he does not primarily mean that someone, most likely the government, should pay money to African-Americans, or support them in buying houses, or help them get a college education, or in other ways distribute money to them they have not earned by working. Instead the demand for reparations is intended primarily as an opportunity for all Americans to reconsider the history of African-Americans on this continent from their first arrival in 1609 to today. Asking for reparations is asking for white people to consider seriously whether they are in fact as innocent as they claim to be of the second-rate status of African-Americans.

Next year, on 4 July, we could perhaps dedicate the day to considering seriously whether white people, who deny that the condition of African-Americans has anything to do with them, are speaking the truth or are not rather implicitly admitting their guilt by protesting their innocence too much.

It is high time that we reconsider what it means to be generally dedicated to equality and what we need to do if we are to take equality really seriously.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Capitalism, populism and the revolt of the working class.

A few days ago, I was cooking dinner and listening to the radio. A talk show was on where the host invites professors and knowledgeable journalists to discuss current issues. That day the conversation concerned industries that, for years, have used inferior parts in their products even after they understood that these defective parts cost human lives. The examples where the GM ignition switch which malfunctioned and killed more than a hundred people. Other examples are the Takata airbags whose malfunction claimed a number of lives. The Volkswagen diesel engines that were set to give false emission information did serious damage to the environment and thereby increased human illness.

Why did these companies not improve their products once the evidence pointed to serious damage done to consumers? The discussions on the talk show pointed out that companies want to improve their profit margin and using cheap parts was one way of doing that. Were these companies--Takata, GM, Volkswagen-- led by particularly greedy CEOs? Here the discussants faltered. Increasing the profit margin in any way possible is the job of the CEO. These and other companies operate in a capitalist system where companies are primarily supposed to make as much money as possible and not to hesitate to injure consumers in order to improve their bottom line. But in this discussion no one wanted to say that.

I mention this as one example of the extreme reluctance of public intellectuals and pundits to point to the damages that capitalism does to us every day. Bernie Sanders who is willing to say this openly is characterized as "extreme" and most people don't want to be extreme.

To be sure, capitalism is enormously productive. But what no one talks about is that capitalist enterprises need constant supervision to make sure that they do not harm consumers. We need elaborate government supervision of food to make sure that the supermarkets does not sell us meat or vegetables that are no longer safe to eat. We need elaborate supervision of appliance manufacturers to make sure that our toaster or hairdryer will not electrocute us. Pharmaceutical companies cannot be trusted to produce medicines that are safe without careful supervision by the government. Workers need to be protected by the government against unsafe working conditions, against overwork. Their employers cannot be trusted to look out for the workers' welfare.

Why is capitalism so dangerous to our life and limb? Are capitalists less moral than the rest of us? Of course not. But they are under systematic pressure to make more and more money, or lose their job. The imperative to make more and more money is often best satisfied by producing unsafe appliances, saving a few pennies on an automobiles switch or airbag, or selling meat that is no longer fresh.

Instead of being very clear about this downside of our economic system, people on talk shows, people on TV, in the newspapers never tire of singing the praises of capitalism.
The Donald Trump phenomenon, the exit of Britain from the European Union, the growth of various right-wing organizations, including the Ku Klux Klan in the US, are a result of this misrepresentation of the facts.

In our country, in Britain and in Europe, many working people are genuinely suffering. Their wages are stagnant, while prices go up. Government support for people whose income is not sufficient for a decent life, is constantly being cut while businesses get better tax deals, or are allowed to not pay any taxes at all. In a recent poll, the majority of persons asked agreed that the economic system is rigged. Matters are arranged so as to increase corporate profits at the expense of ordinary working men and women whose economic situation is steadily deteriorating.

The explanation of this development is clear. The capitalist system demands greater corporate profits and is willing to achieve that goal at the expense of the public. But for most people that explanation is not available because they are being told every day how great capitalism is. So they are faced with the unquestionable evidence that their lives are becoming more difficult and their economic outlook is quite negative, but they don't understand how that could happen. The correct explanation that this is the result of capitalism is not available to them and so they are willing to accept any explanation whatsoever.

The favorite explanation is: Immigration. Working people in the United States and in Britain are being persuaded that their living standard is going down due to competition from immigrants and thus their enmity and wrath is is turned on immigrants. They support Donald Trump’s hostility to immigrants and his promises to keep them out. In England working people voted to leave the European Union because they too believe that immigrants are the source of their problem. They are willing to believe that Donald Trump will bring jobs back from Asia and Latin America because they don't understand that outsourcing of jobs is a central capitalist strategy for increasing profits. As long as capitalism is sacred, jobs will be outsourced to low-wage countries and to robots. Should immigration be reduced, capitalists will find other ways to lower their production costs at the expense of working people here and in Britain.

People in the know believe that England will be worse off once it leaves the European Union. Many of us in the US believe that we will be much worse off with Donald Trump in the White House.

But working people will support Trump in the US, as they supported an anti-immigrants stand in England, because the people whose job it is to inform the public have systematically lied and concealed the destructive effects of capitalism. If the voters are not well informed democracy will not have good outcomes.

It is high time that pundits, journalists, professors, so-called experts tell everyone the truth. Capitalism, however productive, needs to be very tightly supervised if it is not going to do large damage to the majority of the population. The fully justified discontent of working people in the Western capitalist democracies is largely the fault of capitalism and the failure of governments to regulate it much more tightly.