The concept of the “deep state” has, since the 2016 US General Election, become one of the principal pivot points of political discourse in the United States. For the Right, it has become a a principal political target encompassing the whole complex of institutions, but especially the the intelligence community, the foreign service, the regulatory or rule making bureaucracy, and for many, the judiciary which, relatively independent of the elected “government of the day”, defends and advances the liberal order. For the alt-Right and more specifically the Dark Enlightenment the “deep state” is, in effect, the political arm of what they call the “Cathedral,” the network of liberal cultural institutions (the academy, especially as the heir of liberal Christianity, and the mass media) and their associated civil society “action arms” which together enforce humanistic norms and hold back the triumph of the the technocapitalist elites or their transhuman succssors.
The Left, meanwhile, usually frustrated by the glacial pace at which the institutions which constitute the supposed Deep State have responded demands for democratic self-determination and liberation from subjection to market forces, now wonders where the Deep State is in our moment of need. Surely there must be someone minding the store …
The term “Deep State” itself originally emerged to describe the “permanent” state structures of developing countries where democratic institutions are weak. Its use was then extended the United States as an amplification of Eisenhower’s idea of the “military industrial complex,” now fleshed out to include elements outside the national security establishment, But the idea itself is very old, though it has been more an aspiration than a term of analysis. Think of Plato’s Nocturnal Council, his “next best” solution to the problem of justice given the difficulty in actually making philosophers kings. Or think of the sages who have advised Chinese emperors for millennia, or of the whole phenomenon of the Brahmanas who make kings and largely rule on their behalf. Monasteries and religious orders have often at least tried to function in a similar capacity.
In its modern form the idea of a deep state is deeply bound up with both absolutism and parliamentarianism. Kings convened star chambers and privy councils to that they could act behind the back of parliament; parliamentarians formed secret societies so that they could conspire against kings. Hegel sought to institutionalize the phenomenon in his “universal class” of bureaucratic intellectuals. Lenin’s vanguard party is, in effect, the aspiration for a deep state wholly devoted to the Common Good which can penetrate or seize control of the nominal state and wield it as an instrument of revolution.
So the idea of a deep state is not just a fantasy of 4chan conspiracy theorists –or, for that matter– of a weak Left hoping someone will rescue us from our current difficulties without requiring any sacrifice on our part. It has a long history as both an analytic category and aspiration of the most advanced elements of the intelligentsia across multiple strands of the human civilizational project.
The question, though, is whether or not anything meeting the description of a “Deep State” actually exists or even can exist and, if it does, what —if anything— it is doing.
At one level the existence of a something like a Deep State is obvious. Of course there is a system of institutions which runs deeper and lasts longer than the government of the day. And of course this includes, at least in common law countries, the judiciary, the independence from electoral oversight of which is fundamental to our Constitution. And of course it includes the intelligence community, which could not do its job without being relatively independent and without becoming a significant power in its own right. Of course there is a vast cadre of career bureaucrats who, in virtue of their social location, have a vested interest in the regulatory and rule making state from which they derive their livelihood. And of course these elements are, in turn, connected to like minded elements in the business community, the academy, civil society, the mass media and the religious institutions. The only real qualification which we need to add is that this State, while “deep” in the sense of actually encompassing a significant sector of our society, is hardly secret or hidden. It is, on the contrary, the product of both intentional, public, legal acts and the operation of well established sociological process. No complex society could not do without a network of such institutions.
Indeed, what we have just described is, in fact, simply the State pure and simple, without any qualification.
This is a concept to which US political discourse, with its naive and shallow but also obsessive devotion to what it calls “democracy” has been singularly allergic. It is certainly possible to have an elected government. But the idea that such a government can then fully control the state apparatus and thus render it democratic is sociologically naive. This is, indeed, precisely the illusion of democracy generally, and social democracy in particular (though Leninism, which imagines that the state can be similarly controlled by a “vanguard party” is also an illusion). The term “state,” in fact, derives from the Latin status rei publicae, the state of public affairs, and has always referred to something deeper, broader, and affected by but never wholly dependent on the actions of the government. In the Middle Ages it came to include of those elements of society which had representation in public councils —the Estates General or the Estates of the Realm— because they were understood to have an inescapable role in affecting public affairs. The King had to consult them because of their autonomous power as actors in the public arena. The state, far from being either an absolutist moi or a democratic nous, is complex, heterogenous, and more a structure than a thing.
The emergence of sovereign nation states which exercise effective command and control over all aspects of life for a territory and its people (as opposed to just military control and the ability to extract tribute, like most pre-capitalist Empires) has led us to forget the true nature of the state and has made “state power” the principal strategic aim of reactionary and revolutionary parties alike, which imagined that they could use the state like a neutral took to carry out their programs. Lenin knew better when, in State and Revolution, he argued that the bourgeois state and would have to yield to new forms of organization, but then ignored his own insights and attempted to use the state as if it were a neutral instrument which could just as well dismantle capitalism as administer it.
This said, there are very serious problems with the idea that the Deep State constitutes a compact, cohesive network which is capable of disciplined, focused collective action over a sustained period of time. It turns out that such cohesion is very difficult to create and sustain –and that it has likely become much more difficult in recent years.
Now there are two principal ways in which the larger group on behalf of which any hypothetical Deep State has been defined. For the Left, the definition is economic. The Deep State, if it exists, is an agency the bourgeoisie. For the Right the definition is cultural. The Deep State is an agency of the “Cathedral.” Let us look at the possibility of Deep State-like networks defined in each of these two ways.
The most developed theory of the ruling class is that advanced by Marx. For Marx, class is determined by relationship to the means of production. Those with enough capital to live off the labor of others –and to pass on to their children the capacity to do so– constitute the bourgeoisie. Those with the capital to work for themselves, but who must still work, constitute the petty bourgeoisie. Those who must sell their labor power in order to survive, no matter how well compensated they may be, constitute the proletariat. But if we are to understand the bourgeoisie as a ruling class (and the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat as potential or aspiring ruling classes) we must consider social and cultural as well as financial capital. Members of the bourgeoisie, in other words, must have the capital required to generate an income that allows them to live comfortably or even luxuriously without working; they must also be able to fund at least a modest presence in and support for civic, political and cultural networks and both have and be able to pass on to their children the kind of education which makes possible broad civilizational leadership.
How much financial capital does this take? Assuming even modest luxury for a family of four requires something like an annual income of $150,000. But we should then add $65,000 annually for private school or university tuition and fees for each of two children and, say, an additional 50,000 to support participation in elite social and cultural activities and to support even modest political and charitable contributions. This comes to an annual income of roughly $330,000. Assuming a very conservative investment strategy designed to conserve capital and thus a modest annual rate of return of 4%, generating an income at this level without working requires capital of $8.25 million. Only about 1.5% of the population has wealth on this scale, or some 625,000 households.
But this is far too large a population across which to create a compact, connected network of the kind necessary to constitute a Deep State. And this is true even if you assume that only a relatively small section of this bourgeoisie constitutes the active as opposed to the sponsoring deep state. This is because there are far too many people with the assets necessary to endow autonomous political and cultural activity for them to be linked in a single even moderately cohesive network. There will always be someone with a different vision and the money to act effectively on that vision –which is precisely what we have seen over the course of recent decades with the rise of rogue, most but not exclusively, right wing funders like the Koch Brothers.
And this is only the beginning. Any subset of the bourgeoisie which attempted to form a cohesive network would be subject to enormous pressures to include members of other networks, whether bourgeois, upper petty bourgeois, or historically excluded to such a degree that the cohesion of their network would be irreparably damaged. Any such networks, in order to effective, are likely to be temporary, local (either geographically or by social sector) and quite limited in their aims.
In this sense, the idea that the bourgeoisie constitutes a “ruling class” which must be “overthrown” is not strictly consistent with historical materialism, however much it was taken for granted by Marx and his successors. Communism, as informed by historical materialist analysis, is an attempt to transform structures and (in the context of my generalization of the theory as a dialectical sociology) ideals. If there is a target it is Capital, which is emerging as an autonomous power which even the bourgeoisie cannot control.
But what about the possibility of a Deep State constituted on a basis other than class, i.e. a Deep State which is is the instrument of what the Dark Enlightenment calls the Cathedral? This is, in fact, even more preposterous than a Deep State constituted by class. It is, of course, possible to simply group together everyone who disagrees with you and trace out a few loose historical connections between them, but that hardly demonstrates the existence of a cohesive network. Indeed, the idea that liberal, democratic, and socialist humanism are simply secular derivatives of Christianity is simply an old Nietzschean trope and whatever truth it may have has never prevented the various members of this supposed Cathedral from making war on each other. Indeed, look at the sharp contradictions within the Democratic Party at precisely the moment when, were there a true Deep State, one would think unity would be most rigorously enforced.
But what if we move away from the ideological orientation of the supposed Cathedral and define it instead as a network defined by shared social and cultural capital? Once again, there are senses in which it is more or less obvious that elite networks constituted by social and cultural capital and which have a powerful presence in political and cultural institutions do in fact exist. At the same time, these elites have changed in significantly in composition over the past 50 years. Access to elite universities and elite careers such as the academy, diplomacy, the officer corps, and the intelligence community have opened up enormously since the Second World War. And they have done so, in significant measure, with the support of the old elites which historically staffed them. Capital is by nature global and cosmopolitan and seeks out the best talent available. But something significant is lost as a result of this democratization. When all of the members of the diplomatic corps or the intelligence community, for example, came from a small network of families which all knew each other, trust was easy to come by. Select someone from your own network who is reasonably trustworthy and there is a good chance that you will be able trust them. If they stray too far they will have to deal with something far more effective than legal sanctions: the wrath of the family on which their endowments depend. Select people from another ethnoreligious community entirely who takes their recruitment as proof that the system really is as open and democratic as it pretends to be and chances are that first time you have to ask them to do something … deep statist … and at least one of them is going to bolt. And one is all it takes. And of course they will begin to take members of the old elite with them. So even if you have a strong elite network and it has significant power there are real constraints. Even elite networks can’t do just anything they want. And especially if you are going to do something difficult and controversial, it is best to stay as close to legal norms as possible, even if it takes much longer.
Indeed, one of the principal conclusions suggested by this analysis is that the defining feature of the present period is not so much the concentration of wealth and power, but rather its dispersal. This might seem counterintuitive given the solid evidence that at least in the US inequality has been increasing, but in fact these are two distinct questions and the trends may even be related. “Dispersal of wealth and power” in this context means simply an increase in the number of people who have sufficient wealth to free them up to devoted themselves significantly to political and cultural activity and who have the resources to employ others —or technology— in service to their agenda.
All of which brings us to the current situation. Are there networks, almost certainly defined by their relationship to capital, financial, social, and cultural, working to defend the liberal order against a very serious assault? Absolutely. Are they powerful? Let’s hope so. But the idea that they either constitute a compact power unto themselves or that they are the instruments of some even more powerful hidden force is not only unfounded; it is preposterous.
What are the strategic implications of this analysis?
First, it is in our interest to support the the liberal resistance to Trump as vigorously as we can, while preparing for what we will do if it fails. We should support the liberal resistance because the liberal order creates for us the best realistically possible terrain on which to organize for a future, possibly even with the support of elements within the bourgeoisie, who recognize the danger presented by the emergence of Capital as an autonomous power and the challenges presented by climate change, the technological obsolescence of much human labor power, the limitations of the nation state in a global ecology and economy, and the emptiness of the consumer society. We need to be prepared for its possible failure precisely because the liberal order has already been severely damaged, especially along the dimensions of respect for the rule of law and the integrity of the (non-market) institutions which are the condition for the principled, virtuous exercise of freedom.
Second, our principal tasks, whether the liberal resistance is sucessful or not, remain the same: cultivating a new civilizational ideal centered on the full development of human capacities which we can counter pose to the technocratic secularism which is the organic ideology of Capital as an autonomous power and creating the ecological, technological, economic, political and and cultural conditions for the realization of that ideal. And this means longue duree, civilizational and Institutional organizing: identifying, cultivating, mentoring, and deploying high value civilizational leaders and building, conserving, and transforming institutions. But more on that in my next post …