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.