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What Is the Deep State?

By Karl North | August 22, 2017

Recently the idea that there exists some shadowy group called the deep state has begun to edge its way into the alternative news media, and occasionally into public discourse in the US. I see two major reasons for this. One is that people in power, whoever they are, fearing the declining public credibility in major institutions – the major political parties and agencies in government, the mass media, corporations, even the scientific community – have in desperation begun to overtly use these institutions in ways that reveal how little they serve the public interest. Both major parties have discredited themselves. The federal government has been paralyzed for years. In the last electoral cycle, the mass media abandoned any semblance of neutrality by blatantly supporting one of the two presidential candidates. The media in service to a militarized foreign policy magnify threats to “national security” (Russia, terrorism, etc.) that strain the credence of a public that is tired of serial wars. Corporate interests now openly subvert attempts at regulation and regularly overrule the peer review process in scientific research. This reckless behavior undermines the belief, carefully nurtured in the collective consciousness for generations, that taken together, these social institutions work for the good of the people. This trend is thus damaging their credibility even further in a vicious positive feedback loop. The result is mounting public disenchantment all across the political spectrum with the established public order, and what was once called the social contract.

The second reason I see for the emergence of the notion of the deep state is a long-term decline in the US economy starting circa 1970. Well researched elsewhere, this is mainly a product of two trends, the export of the US industrial economy to regions of cheaper labor and lower regulatory pressure, and increasing global depletion of the natural resource base on which the industrial economy depends. However, like the twice daily ebbing of the massive 20-foot tides on the Maine coast where I Iive, which gradually reveals a rocky beach, the economic decline is gradually revealing to the masses a systemic tendency to serve a tiny minority to the detriment of the majority.

The public is therefore expressing its rising anger at these revelations, for instance in amorphous calls to “take back our country”. But from whom? (And for whom, for that matter?) Trained since the beginning of the republic to uncritically accept a narrative that depicts our society as a plurality of interests that somehow deliver democratic results, most people have few analytical tools with which to confront this question. It is not surprising in these circumstances that attempts to identify a deep state are missing the mark. They often fix on a few superficial elements: permanent factions embedded within the governing bureaucracy like Congress, the Pentagon, the intelligence establishment, think tanks. Or they spotlight sectors of the economy like the military-industrial or medical-pharmaceutical complexes or the mass media. These results are not satisfying because they do not describe a coherent organizational entity. More importantly, as we shall see, it will be more useful to our understanding to describe these elements as power brokers, servants of power, not the real power behind the throne, as it were. It is essential to identify the source of power because the goals of that class are what reveals the coherence in the patterns of behavior in the social institutions that that class controls, and hence does the most to improve our understanding. Agents of power, be they government servants, businesses, information media or academic institutions, may claim or even pursue other goals, but they do not last long in power unless they ultimately serve the goals of the source of power.

The phrase ‘deep state’ evokes mystery and secrecy. Actually, what people are trying to describe is neither mysterious nor so cloaked in secrecy that it cannot be seen. Since the advent of agriculture, large city states and then whole civilizations emerged, all controlled by some sort of ruling class. By the 19th century, political economy, the study of the structure and operation of power relations in human societies, had developed, pioneered notably by Marx, Engels and others, which took for granted the existence of a hierarchy of class power as the basis for social science inquiry. It spawned a voluminous literature whose incisive explanatory power describes in great detail the structure of the now dominant social system, capitalism, as an oligarchy of the minority wielding most of the nation’s capital and power beneath a thin republican veneer.

However, the industrial revolution created a large exploited urban working class whose organizational potential posed a threat to the established order. Throughout the 19th century a series of mass revolts (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870) revealed the threat to be real. In reaction, the ruling class, particularly in the US, countered the threat with a systematic program of indoctrination to conceal the reality exposed in the critical literature of how modern capitalist society works. Pioneered in the US by European immigrant and kinsman of Freud, Edward Bernays, a highly successful propaganda industry developed, which Bernays instructed should be masked as ‘public relations’.

Hence, until recently, the US public has been ‘dumbed down’ to political illiteracy with a tissue of myths and lack of critical thinking tools that prevent it from learning enough about the real power structure of the society we live in to begin a serious inquiry into the existence of a deep state. As mentioned, detailed knowledge exists of how the US ruling class functions as a deep state. But little of it is allowed to seep into information sources the masses usually access.

This censorship operates successfully in higher education as well, preventing the formation of a US intelligentsia that can think critically about who actually wields the power in our society and how they exercise it. Allow me to relate a few examples from personal experience. During my undergraduate years in a liberal arts college of some repute I found only three faculty who dared teach a social science whose emphasis on the configuration of power in society was incisive, and potentially critical of the capitalist system. One was a Marxist hidden away in the French department. With him I studied the Paris commune of 1870 through the lens of a daily newspaper that was a product of that working-class uprising. Another was a professor in the classics department, a rare self-taught generalist in an academy of specialists who taught a course in how Western capitalist culture and its psychology evolved from political and mythological beginnings in the Greco-Roman tradition. A third was a visiting instructor with whom I studied colonial society in Africa and the decolonization process then at its peak. The small class met at his home, was not listed in the college curriculum, and could not be taken for credit. None of these examples were anomalies; as I began to learn in further experiences with academia, this marginalization is typical of anyone who mounts a powerful critique of the reigning narrative of how our society works.

How does the deep state work? Ruling classes of yore paraded their power. Modern capitalist oligarchies rule quietly in the background through all the major social institutions that they control, which one social scientist has described as an inverse totalitarianism. The coherence of deep state rule derives more from common goals and tacit agreements over strategy rather than overt structures of governance. Some of the decision makers in the institutions are themselves oligarchs, but most are simple servants of power. This structure in the exercise of capitalist power has worked well until recently. As will be described below, changes in capitalist goals have made the job of mass deception more difficult.

It is important to realize that the goals of the capitalist class are not static. As that class became dominant after the French revolution, it directed investment initially into national economies and shaped them so as to maximize profit, reinvested in the health of the national economy. Even imperial expansion served the same national goals. The oft proclaimed goal of serving the national interest had some validity as the immense profits of imperial plunder were allowed to trickle down to lower classes. In the 20th century the trend of concentration of wealth, intrinsic to the system, continued, and investors looked for better places to invest. In the mature industrial economies, welfare state policies had raised both labor costs and taxes on capital. Digitalization of communication and financial transactions facilitated a trend to relocate industry to countries with cheap labor and less regulation. Thus the economic goals of the national capitalist classes became more international, while retaining control of national governing institutions to provide military protection of increasingly far-flung investment and trade policies to facilitate economic domination around the world.

The trend toward an international capitalist oligarchy explains many things in the mature industrial economies:

  1. the increasing financialization of mature economies, encouraged by the purely speculative investment opportunities that globalization offers,
  2. the export of industry to the imperial periphery
  3. increasing debt as a prop to consumerism
  4. the gradual replacement of welfare state expenditures with military ones in federal budgets,
  5. the creation of a class of dispensable citizens no longer needed as labor.

In the long run, this trend seems self-destructive: social order in these countries is falling apart as their majorities react to their pauperization. The consumerism that capitalism requires may itself relocate to the emerging economies and financial centers can now be anywhere, not just London or New York, but international capital still needs its original core governments to provide protection. The new powers in a rising multipolar global political economy show no sign yet of that capability.

Underlying trends described above is another that threatens industrial civilization itself, including ruling classes; the system of industrial capitalism is fast depleting its natural resource base, going into catabolic collapse – eating itself alive. Despite increasing awareness, the international financial oligarchy and its agents in the social institutions seem willing to simply ride down the collapse, staying on top as long as possible, purchasing ‘lifeboat estates’ in protected places. As the industrial system goes into catabolic collapse, those who study how that process will play out need a clear understanding of the deep state and how it will react.

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