Having made some progress in my preparations for the second Marx lecture, and having nothing to say about Trump’s inaugural State of the Union message to Congress, I thought I would spend a few moments talking about the concept of a deep state. The term has been popularized by Steven Bannon but it was introduced into modern sociological discussions, under a different rubric, by the great German theorist Max Weber.
In his extensive and groundbreaking discussion of bureaucracy, which takes up a good deal of his posthumous work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society], Weber identifies the bureaucratic organization of government, and also of the economy, the military, the church, and the Academy, as the distinctive feature of modern capitalist society. A bureaucracy is a functionally differentiated system of roles defined by written and unwritten rules that are independent of the persons who occupy the roles. The authority exercised by the role occupants derives not from their personal characteristics – strength, height, intelligence, age, individual prowess, charismatic appeal – nor from their race, gender, family connection, ethnicity – but from rules that define the scope, functions, and authority of the roles they occupy.
It is characteristic of a bureaucracy that most of the roles are occupied by persons for whom those roles are their profession and source of income. The persons in the command positions of a bureaucratically organized operation may come and go, appointed for relatively brief periods by some superior military, corporate, religious, academic, or governmental process, but the professional bureaucrats stay on, continuing to perform their rule-defined functions.
Inevitably, the permanent bureaucrats develop institutional loyalties and memories and a resistance to interference by those they view as amateurs or interlopers. They resent such interference and, having an intimate knowledge of the bureaucracy, are frequently able to frustrate the policy plans of those who are technically their superiors. Tenured professors, middle managers, local archbishops, master sergeants are all examples of career bureaucrats who function in this manner. I was constantly amused, during my thirty seven years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, by the inability of the Chancellors, each recruited from the outside and staying no more than five or six years, to make much of a dent in the ongoing activities of the departments. By the time the Chancellors found their way to the executive washroom, as it were, and had convened an all campus select committee to consider dramatic [and mostly unwelcome] changes to the institution, they were only two or three years from moving on to their next job. It was child’s play for those of us who wanted no interference with our activities to slow walk administrative proposals until the next chancellor arrived on campus with his or her own exciting plans for reinventing UMass.
The United States Federal Government is an enormous cluster of bureaucratically organized departments, the regular career participants in which are protected from higher interference not only by the logic of bureaucracy but also by laws explicitly blocking the political class from reaching into the bowels of an office or department and directly removing individuals whom the powers that be consider inimical to their policies. These career bureaucrats, who number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, are supporters of both principal political parties, but they are all partisan defenders of the same post-World War II policy consensus that has reigned more or less unchallenged for seventy years and more. How could they not be? They have been the creators and curators of that consensus!
There is nothing sinister or malevolent in this situation. It is, as Weber taught us almost a century ago, an inevitable consequence of the foundational bureaucratic organization of modern mass capitalist society. Steve Bannon, if we can take him at his word, seeks to overthrow that consensus, and he quite correctly judges that his principal enemy is not the political class – the elected representatives and the president – but the deep state, the bureaucracy itself. The good news is that he will fail. The bad news is that so would we, were we to win control of the Congress and the Presidency.
Would things be dramatically different in the socialism of my dreams? Of course not. Kibbutzim, communes, and love-ins to the contrary notwithstanding, a socialist state overseeing a modern post-industrial economy would necessarily, unavoidably be a bureaucracy. The best we could hope for is a bureaucracy whose guiding principles were more just, more humane, and less exploitative. But you may be certain that after the revolution, as we used to say when I was young, the men and women leading a socialist America would have to contend with the mort main of bureaucracy.