About that “Deep State.”

datePosted on 06:57, March 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

One of the distressing things about the ascendance of a worldwide politically retro (aka “alt-“) Right is the role played by conspiracy theories, alternative narratives and ideological appropriation. The so-called alt-Right, which is not just a US phenomenon but was instrumental in Trump’s electoral victory, basically adopted many of the maxims of the postmodern and conspiratorial Left when espousing a political, social and economically white Christian nationalist agenda. This as true in Poland as it is in the UK, Australia or the US. Realizing that in an age of social media the promotion of alternative “news” once exclusively purveyed by tabloids like the National Inquirer and gossip magazines can now have real weight in political and social debates, the alt-Right drew upon the Left in order to make its pitch. Using a steady stream of Left originated conspiracies such as the assassination of JFK and 9/11 being “inside jobs” and the moon landing never happening to push a counter-hegemonic agenda, the alt-Right introduced its own version of the proper order and the reasons why it was under siege  (assuming that one accepts that liberal hegemony based on principles of fairness and equality has increasingly been the norm in recent times, something the proponents of the alt-Right clearly believe even if a comparative examination of global political culture paints a very different picture).

To the use of Left conspiracy theories as a basis for re-imagining an alternative Right reality is added appropriation of the worst of post-modern theory: that there is no such thing as “objective” truth or rationality, that everything is subjective, contextual or inter-textual, and that all views are equally valid. This latter school of thought, with its rejection of Enlightment reasoning, would have us believe that a rationality that defends and legitimizes foot binding and clitoral excision is equal to feminism, to say nothing of giving equal weight to rejections of larger theorizations about universal human rights, medicinal science and practice, climate science, psychology, market behavior and political participation. This is particularly seen in the field of sub-altern studies, where the “noble savage” premise is as condescending as it is strong, to say nothing of just plain wrong.

It is one thing to give voice to the dispossessed. It is another, less honourable thing to give equal interpretative weight to the voice of socio-cultural relativity, subjectivity and “alternality” when it comes to matters of truth, objectivity and factual evidence. Because that is what has allowed the alt-Right to turn things on its head: victims become oppressors, fair becomes foul, white becomes black, and truth becomes fiction. “Facts” do not matter, just feelings and opinions do.

This is not a revelation. The alt-Right appropriation of Left generated absurdism has philosophically entrenched roots. Like National Socialism, the theoretical foundations of the alt-Right may be shallow at best, but as been pointed out elsewhere, the alt-Right is about whinging and being mean, not about being analytically deep, correct or corrective.

The point is not to criticize post-modernists, whose original cadre enriched social thought. Instead, the concern here is with how the focus on social relativity, subjectivity and victimization has been combined with conspiracy mongering in an alt-Right worldview where the propagation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is the new normal.

That brings us to the subject of the so-called “Deep State.” Like many conspiracy theories, it has a grain of truth in it, but the original truth has now been conceptually stretched to the point of distortion.

The concept of Deep State refers to an unelected, politically unaccountable permanent national security bureaucracy involving key actors in the military, intelligence, national police, economic and broader internal security communities. Civilian and uniformed personnel are involved and often collude with organized crime and/or business interests in what amounts to a marriage of convenience when it comes to steering the ship of state. Administrations and even regimes may come and go, but the Deep State remains.

The original notion of the Deep State was associated with authoritarian regimes or countries with histories of fragile electoral rule alternating with episodes of dictatorship. Praetorian military and intelligence services constituted the core of the Deep State, which was charged with ensuring that vital national interests and orientations were maintained regardless of the vicissitudes of politicians, strongmen or the voting public.

The initial take on the Deep State purportedly came from Turkey, where part of the Kemalist legacy was a permanent bureaucracy inherited from his reign that was tasked with perpetuating his secular-nationalist political legacy. It has been associated with countries with histories of political instability like Argentina and Pakistan, where shadowy forces are believed to operate unchecked by elected authorities and who, in fact, are suspected of manipulating political institutions and processes for their own ends. And it has been associated with countries with long authoritarian cultures and traditions that currently operate under electoral veneers, such as Russia. The common denominator is that the Deep State not only serves as a shadow government but more importantly as the guarantor of certain vested interests—economic, geopolitical, social and ideological—regardless of the public face of governance.

In the conspiratorial view the Deep State is subversive of consolidated democracies. It is also part of international capitalist/imperialist networks often dominated by Zionists and others who wish to usurp the “real” will of the people. It has its hands in all facets of governance and yet is invisible to the electorate and unaccountable to those they install in office.

That is exactly what Steve Bannon and his co-religionists are preaching from the White House. They claim that a Deep State populated by Obama/Clinton supporters is operating to undermine the Trump presidency by promoting uncertainty, doubt and mischief with selective leaks and “fake news.” These views are echoed in Left-leaning outlets like Salon and The Intercept, where numerous stories make reference to the nefarious machinations of the US Deep State at home and abroad. Many in the US and elsewhere have taken them at their word.

The truth is different. Although there is certainly a career civil service and military/intelligence bureaucracy that serves as the permanent staff of the federal state apparatus and which have institutional interests of their own, these do not quite amount to a Deep State. For starters, they do not have the degree of ideological cohesion and shared material stake required to operate undetected over time. They are constrained by laws and regulations governing the federal bureaucracy, to include whistleblowing protections, that make it difficult to set up secret networks within core agencies. They are subject to oversight mechanisms and turf battles that impede inter-agency collusion in pushing a hidden collective agenda of any magnitude. The size and scope of the state apparatus makes improbable that a secret network of bureaucrats could translate undetected their common desires into effective State action. Finally, the vagaries of the political process, with its impact on policy-making and staffing under different administrations (for example, from Reagan to Clinton to W. and Obama), make it difficult for even a small cadre of well-placed idealogues to develop the resource base and operational control required to run a Deep State.

To be sure, intelligence agencies and the military undertake secretive operations that push the envelope of what is legally permissible. Civilian agencies often attempt to whitewash or bury scandals. Cover-ups of official malfeasance is commonplace. Businesses and interest groups collude with state agencies in rent-seeking behavior. But these do not amount to proof of the existence of a Deep State. In fact, one can argue that if there were a Deep State in the US, it would have ensured that Donald Trump was never elected.

What Trump is encountering is the natural blowback occasioned by his attacks on the integrity and purpose of key agencies and his attempts to diminish, replace or dismantle some of them. For example, since the Environmental Protection Agency is charged with doing just that, it should come as no surprise that its staff react with hostility to the appointment of a fossil fuel industry advocate as Director, especially when he doubts climate science and has stated his intention to loosen air, water and land pollution standards while pushing for an overall downsizing of the agency and its budget.

Similarly, the intelligence community (IC) has not reacted well to Trump’s accusations that it is incompetent and acts like “Nazis” when it comes to the subject of Russian interference in the US elections. It finds problematic that Trump has his own non-vetted “intelligence” group led by Bannon that now has access to the combined product of the IC via the daily briefs to the president and the NSC.

The armed services have been attacked as well, with Trump saying that he “knows more” than the generals, that they are incompetent and that the US military is in disrepair. He uses the Joint Chiefs of Staff as props in political theatre events such as his first address to Congress. He says that he has a plan to defeat terrorism but then demands that a plan be drawn immediately by the very generals he has derided.

The list of aggrieved agencies is long (pity the Department of Education!) and the depth of bureaucratic resentment is deep. But bureaucratic pushback is not synonymous for or evidence of a Deep State at work. To claim otherwise is simply to indulge in a form of post-modern conspiracy theory, even if the claim comes out of the West Wing.

It is ironic that we have some on the Left to thank for that.

I shall leave for another time discussion of whether there is a Deep State in New Zealand. What is true is that the New Zealand intelligence community has a degree of operational autonomy and history of non-accountability that could allow for the formation of a cabal of intelligence “insiders” who carry on as they please. This is especially true given the absence of parliamentary and ministerial oversight, paucity of public interest, ignorance of security matters on the part of MPs and the  traditional weakness of review mechanisms such as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence. To some extent, the same is true for the NZDF and the Police. The question is whether this has resulted in bureaucratic capture by these agencies of their ostensible political and judicial overseers, or has it led to the formation of a Deep State within the state bureaucracy.

The answer, it would seem, is a matter of perspective.

5 Responses to “About that “Deep State.””

  1. Barbara Matthews on March 22nd, 2017 at 12:11

    Yes I wonder if NZ has a Deep State. We certainly have a few tricky operators who are occasionally caught out without clean hands.

  2. paul scott on March 22nd, 2017 at 14:09

    Try not to worry Pablo. Conservatives and Nationalists are here for the rest of you life. Its real. We’ll bury the sick liberal pansy agenda and I doubt you’ll ever catch up.

  3. Geoff Fischer on March 26th, 2017 at 11:27

    In contrast to the US, the “deep state” in New Zealand is both visible and structured. It’s pivot point is the monarchy (non-elected, non-accountable and therefore highly symbolic of what you may call the deep state) and people like Jerry Mataparae, the former Governor General coming from a military and security-intelligence background, constitute its visible presence.
    On a broader canvas, some events, such as the 9/11 attacks to take a simple and obvious example, can only be explained in terms of a conspiracy. Therefore it can be unhelpful to bandy around the term “conspiracy theorist” if the inference to be drawn is that events of a political nature can always be explained on the basis of random natural occurrences.
    It is better to focus on individual events and determine their causes by a process of rational inquiry with minimal presumption.
    I look forward to reading more of Pablo’s thoughts on the “deep state” as applied to New Zealand.

  4. Geoff Fischer on March 30th, 2017 at 08:16

    We tend to underestimate the problems posed by the “deep state” in New Zealand precisely because it is a normal part of the constitutional system. Yet it can have profoundly adverse consequences for the lives of ordinary New Zealanders.
    Take the example of an SIS file in which we are told that a subject of surveillance is “full of hate..has gone downhill..could well be on drugs…a pathological specimen”. The tone of these comments is reminiscent of the trolls who occasionally post comments to kiwipolitico. When we searched the SIS file for evidence which might substantiate these judgements we could find none. No drug related convictions, no observations by the SIS, police or any other party of the subject using or being in possession of illicit drugs. No evidence of clinical psychopathology. The SIS holds on file a mass of letters, articles and commentaries by the subject, none of which seems to support the claim that the subject is “full of hate”.
    We also have been given access to a confidential ministerial briefing paper which alleged that this same subject is an intelligence agent for a foreign power. Again, there is no evidence to support the allegation, and the minister who supplied us with the document is himself convinced that it is completely groundless.
    Does it matter? Yes it matters for two reasons. First, because no state should entrust its intelligence service to people who indulge in groundless speculation and are prone to making highly subjective judgements. At the very least intelligence requires rigorous evidence based analysis and cool objective appraisals.
    Second it matters because intelligence has consequences. It impacts on peoples lives. Academic and state service careers are destroyed over concerns that are hidden from view and basically unfounded. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a home grown Stasi whose potential for harm is mitigated only by their incompetence.

  5. Geoff Fischer on March 31st, 2017 at 16:29

    I will take Pablo’s comment in response to Barbara as an invitation to make further random observations on this subject pending the time when Pablo himself is able to provide a more complete analysis. To whit, one other finding to emerge from our study of SIS files is that the SIS seems more concerned about threats to its own security than it is about threats to the security of the nation as a whole. Perhaps this is a tendency common to all state organisations, but I suspect that it is more true of those institutions which comprise the “deep state”. This may be related to a second inference, that the SIS thinks of itself as comprising the real and essential state, and in effect treats all the other institutions of state as peripheral to itself. That is quite understandable given that the SIS is not only on the permanent staff of the state but is also gatekeeper to, and judge of, the entire state service. Politicians come and go, but like J Edgar Hoover, the staff of the SIS remain throughout as custodians of the state i.e. “Te Pa Whakamarumaru”. (As an aside, the latter word has ironic connotations which presumably escaped the notice of the SIS hierarchy when they adopted a Maori title).

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