“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.)