What Is the Deep State?

What Is the Deep State?

Even if we assume the concept is valid, surely it’s not useful to think of the competing interests it represents as monolithic.


“We see the government of God over the world is hidden,” Francis Bacon wrote in 1605, describing the deepest of deep states: the lord’s reign over us, which Bacon thought a good model for earthly rule. “Obscure and invisible” was how Bacon thought government worked best, and King James I agreed, instructing, in 1624, a too inquisitive subject that none shall “meddle with anything concerning our Government, or deep Matters of State.”

Until recently, the phrase “deep state” had been mostly consigned to the bowels of the conspiratorial deep web, but over the past few weeks, since Donald Trump decided to take his fight with the intelligence community public, it has witnessed a remarkable florescence. The “deep state” apparently has Trump in its sights, at least according to former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler, who tweeted that a friend in the “intelligence community” told him that Trump “will die in jail.”

What is the “deep state”? The New York Times has given us an explainer on the concept, which doesn’t explain much. Things are bad, but not as bad as Turkey or Egypt, the Times says, which really do have deep states; and besides, leaks from the deep state will save us from the deep state.

If you do a search on a scholarly database, like Jstor, for the term, you’ll get lots of returns having to do with hypnosis, psychology, and spiritualism. This, in a way, is appropriate, since these activities have to do with the “obscure” interior life of individuals—that is, the opposite of collective categories such as the “public” and the “social,” realms that are presumed in modern democracies to be subject to procedural scrutiny and “freedom of information.”

But what we call modernity didn’t just create the public realm subject to public law. It created the private sphere, centered on the ideal of the property-owning individual and private corporation, and which during our modern times have enshrined Bacon’s and King James I’s ideal. “Good luck researching a private firm,” writes the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. (Even the dogged Seymour Hersh didn’t have much luck when he tried to investigate “the private sector,” as opposed to his métier, the national security state: “The abuse of private power” proved “a much dicier subject for many editors even than the CIA.” Hersh gave up, and wrote his book on Henry Kissinger instead.)

So at least as long as there has been private property, there has been private plotting, and talk of a “deep state” has been a vernacular way of describing what political scientists like to call “civil society,” that is, any venue in which powerful individuals, either alone or collectively, might try to use the state to fulfill their private ambitions, to get richer and obtain more power. The first use of the exact phrase I managed to find is this: In 1817, John Fitzgerald Pennie’s “The Varangian, or Masonic Honor,” offered this dialogue of two servants working a large banquet hall filled with contriving earls and knights.

Second servant: “Oh, could I but pry into these deep state secrets! I would give my very head to—

Third servant: “Thus mayst, for aught ’tis worth.… Would I could pry into a venison pasty…. I will see what cheer the buttery yields.”

Second servant: “Then art thou come in right good time: there’s glorious feasting here. But thou, dull fellow, hast no great regard for plots and state affairs.”

Third servant: “No; but I have for the sad state of my deserted bowels.”

Trump might not have control of the deep state, but he does preside over a very sad state.

The problem with the phrase “deep state” is that it is used to suggest that dishonorable individuals are subverting the virtuous state for their private ambitions. A good Marxist, and even an intelligent liberal, however, knows that under capitalism, ambition is considered a virtue, not a vice, and that the whole point of government is to collectively organize subversion. What do you think the “pursuit of happiness” means? It’s this public virtue/private vice false opposition that makes so much of the “deep state” writing slide into, if not noxious Bilderberg anti-Semitism, then “we are a republic, not an empire” idiocy.

But the concept resonates, especially since the modern state is not just an instrument to execute elite ambition but a site of popular demands and class struggle. The private, organized backlash to those demands and struggles is often understood as a “deep state” conspiracy, and that understanding is more often than not correct. The Koch brothers know this, at least according to Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. Kevin Ovenden tells me the term “deep state” was regularly used to discuss Turkish politics in the 1990s, especially the secretive power exercised by the military, bureaucracy, and courts against democratic action.

Over the last few decades, with the concurrent rise of finance capitalism and the privatization of many facets of national security associated with what we call neoliberalism, “deep state” conspiracies have grown. Some of them are nutty and only add to the fetish, as described (three years before 9/11) by Fredric Jameson: “conspiracy, one is tempted to say, is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content.” Slippage between theme and content seems like a nice way of describing the hope held by many liberals that a CIA program of domestic destabilization will save us all from Donald Trump.

By my count, the current usage of “deep state,” as it supposedly relates to Trump’s troubles, entails three overlapping understandings: The first has to do with war, militarism, and intelligence, the secret institutions that have deep roots but were fused together in a powerful way under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama (Marc Ambinder’s book, Deep State, along with this recent essay in Foreign Policy, are good guides); the second with private corporate power, especially associated with finance, the arms trade, and fossil fuels; and the third with the many embedded bureaucrats of the US government’s many administrative agencies, who, we hope, are leading a passive resistance to Trump’s program of privatization and deregulation. “When the great lord passes the peasant bows deeply and silently farts”—and then tweets about it from a rogue NASA account.

There’s a fourth way the term is used, to refer to an almost hereditary covert caste, running from the men who in the early days of the Cold War set up the modern national security state to the elite who make up today’s “intelligence community.” In 1964, Random House published the bestselling The Invisible Government, by journalists David Wise and Thomas Ross (here’s the CIA’s declassified review of the book, which takes exception to its thesis). More recently, Michael Glennon’s National Security and Double Government updated the argument. Peter Dale Scott was the first, as far as I know, to use the phrase “parapolitics” and “deep politics” to discuss what is now described as the deep state, and he’s the author of numerous books on the dense connections between illegal drugs, covert action, and finance. I’ve always been a bit agnostic about Scott’s work, overwhelmed by the sheer detail, but then I remember that Iran-Contra really did happen. As Michael Parenti likes to point out, conspiracies do in fact exist, both in legal theory and in politics: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s/90s, “described by the Justice Department as ‘a thousand conspiracies of fraud, theft, and bribery,’ the greatest financial crime in history” (that we know of).

Much of the writing frames the question as Trump versus the Deep State, but even if we take the “deep state” as a valid concept, surely it’s not useful to think of the competing interests it represents as monolithic, as David Martin in an e-mail suggests. Big Oil and Wall Street might want deregulation and an opening to Russia. The euphemistically titled “intelligence community” wants a ramped-up war footing. High-tech wants increased trade. Trump, who presents as pure id wrapped in ambition motived by appetite, wants it all—which makes him both potentially useful and inherently unstable, simultaneously a product and target of the deep state. In 1956, C. Wright Mills wrote that “the conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon the corresponding developments and the coincidence of interests among economic, political, and military organizations.” If nothing else, the “Trump v. Deep State” framings show that unity is long gone.

The literature on the “deep state” is overwhelming, and includes many of the books that were the production of the first generation of New Left investigative journalists, including those found in Mark Lombardi’s library. Here’s a very small starting bibliography, based on a Facebook survey. Apologies for omissions. Let’s first, however, start with this caution by Richard Hofstadter, which Mills cites in The Power Elite: “There is a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy, between singling out those conspiratorial acts that do on occasion occur and weaving a vast fabric of social explanation out of nothing but skeins of evil plots.”

David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government

Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Radical Right

Tom Engelhardt, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Tom is the editor of the invaluable tomdispatch.com)

Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Volume 2 (The historian Brad Simpson writes that the first 185 pages of the second volume of this book is terrific at explaining the onset of the Korean War. Simpson is critical of the concept of “deep state”; he argues that it is “a way for people on the left to try and pathologize or render conspiratorial the normal workings of exec branch agencies and power vis-a-vis the foreign policy apparatus more generally. There are policy currents and social constituencies (in industry, finance, etc.) that find expression in particular agencies and factions of particular agencies, and whose views are not all that hard to discern, even if they are idiosyncratic.” )

Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry—from 1934!

Michael Glennon’s National Security and Double Government

Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America

Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion

Robert Parry, Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (Parry was one of the best reporters on Iran-Contra, for which he paid a high professional price)
Gary Sick, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (See also Parry’s reporting on the 1980 October Surprise.)

Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Self-promotion, but the point of this book was to think of Iran-Contra beyond the binds of conspiracy theory, as the venue that reconciled the various contradictory strains of the New Right.)

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