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Friday, June 1, 2018


We have heard a good deal lately about the Deep State, a cabal of career government officials in the Justice Department, the State Department, and other federal agencies who are opposed to the presidency of Donald Trump and are using their powers secretly to undermine his authority and resist his executive will.  The term “Deep State” seems to have been given currency by Steve Bannon, although I am sure it predates him.  References to the Deep State apparently abound in right wing media circles and form a part of conspiracy stories circulated on the Right.

Is there in fact a Deep State?  Of course there is, but not only in the Federal Government.  There is also a Deep State in the military, in the Catholic Church, in every university, in every corporation, in the Boy Scouts, in every state government, even in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and of course there is a Deep State in the Internal Revenue Service.  All of these Deep States, and many others besides, have a name, made current in intellectual circles by the greatest sociologist ever [save for Marx], Max Weber.  They are called bureaucracies.

Let us remind ourselves of the etymology of the term “bureaucracy.”  A Democracy is a state ruled by the Demos, the people.  An Aristocracy is a state ruled by the Ariston, the best [never mind the truth.]  An Ochlocracy  is a state ruled by a mob.  And a Kleptocracy is a state ruled by thieves.  A Bureaucracy is, by extension, a state ruled by the Bureau, which is to say by the faceless occupants of government offices, or bureaus, the career employees, the paper pushers, the rule promulgators, interpreters, and enforcers.

A charismatic leader may succeed by force of personality in bending a band of followers to his or her will.   But inevitably, ineluctably, as Weber shows in brilliant detail, there is a regularization of decision making, what Weber calls in an exquisite turn of phrase the routinization of charisma.  It could not be otherwise.  Consider.

In an organization of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals, an extensive division of function becomes necessary in order to achieve and maintain an acceptable and sustainable level of coordination.  Some people in the organization make their careers by filling the positions charged with keeping track of procedures, codifying them into organizational rules, applying the rules, answering questions about the rules, enforcing the rules, interpreting the rules.  Efficiency and fairness require that these rules in general be applied uniformly.  Otherwise, others in the organization would not know what to expect in any given operational interaction.

The rule keepers, interpreters, and enforcers stick around for thirty years or more, as senior management personnel come and go.  Some top managers come up through the ranks, and along the way acquire experience in using the rules to advance their policy preferences.  Other senior managers come in at the top from other bureaucratic organizations and are forced to rely on the advice of the career bureaucrats.

From time to time a senior manager adopts a new policy to which the career bureaucrats are opposed [either for ideological reasons or simply because the policy is a break with settled practices with which the career bureaucrats are comfortable.]  The careerists, the members of the Deep State, have enormous on-the-ground power to frustrate the new manager, either by slow walking the objectionable policy, or by invoking obscure regulations that undermine its implementation.  Rather like the mountains in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, who measure time in eons, they are in the organization for life, and know that if they can stall an unwanted innovation long enough, the senior manager will retire or move on and a new senior manager will be appointed, at which time the entire process starts anew.

All of this has been well known and understood for a century or more.  It is true of the American government, it is true of the British, French, German, Chinese, and Indian governments, and it would, alas, be true of a socialist government were one ever to come into existence.  Mao tried to inhibit the routinization of charisma by a policy of permanent revolution, but he failed, predictably and inevitably.

At the moment, we can all be grateful for the Deep State.  When we take power, it will be our sworn enemy.  Such is life.


howard b said...

Might computers and artificial intelligence alter the status and role of the so called "Deep State"?

RobinM said...

Aren’t you perhaps putting forward a too simple notion of bureaucracy? Aren’t they all in fact very hierarchical structures? And hasn’t governmental hierarchy allowed different sorts of intervention to try to diminish its power and influence?

I seem to remember that it was a truism of American politics that when a President from another party took office he—well, it has always been a he—could dismiss several of the top layers of the bureaucracy and fill these positions with his own preferred people. Again as I recall it, Reagan notoriously pushed the cuts and replacements down to deeper layers of the bureaucracy than had become customary in recent times. And in Britain, I think, Thatcher outdid Reagan by pretty much trashing the supposedly merit based bureaucracy—or as we used to call it, the permanent government—by both privatising large segments of the Civil Service and putting cronies from the business world into positions previously held by top level career civil servants. Since Blair built on Thatcher’s innovations rather than undoing them, I’m pretty sure the British Civil Service isn’t what it used to be—“Yes, Minister” is now very out of date.

The Soviet system tried to deal with the problem posed by a not-necessarily-compliant civil service by setting up a parallel party bureaucracy to try to ensure compliance at every level. And I think it was the case that Mao’s concern was with a similar party bureaucracy which, as you suggest, eventually too underwent the routinization of charisma.

Returning to the American case, isn’t it so that Trump has simply come up with the strategy of leaving the upper ranks of the government bureaucracies unfilled? And doesn’t one then have to ask whether the lower ranks still in place now lack the coordinating, directing superiors they relied upon so that they can no longer be relied upon to pursue any coherent response to the policies and actions of the Executive?

In short, maybe you’re being too optimistic about just how much the “deep state” may hinder in the present conjuncture? Perhaps on the bright side, if I’m right, whoever/whatever replaces the present President will encounter less bureaucratic resistance than usual.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My general response is that I was trying very briefly to summarize a subject to which Weber alone devotes hundreds of pages. Perhaps someone would be interested in my observations of a quite particular case -- the resistance from entrenched faculty to attempted innovations by a succession of relatively short-lived university chancellors. I was not being optimistic. I was simply trying to deepen and complicate the discourse about the Deep State.

Todd Gitlin said...

Little-klown observation by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite: an independent civil service is necessary for a liberal democracy.

Btw, earliest use I know of term "Deep State" is in Turkey, where it referred to a military Kemalist underground, as it were, that was steadfastly opposed to democracy. Now, I think, it's been demolished by Erdogan.

howard b said...

So Professor Gitlin, Trump by assailing the deep state is taking aim at the bureacracy
My understanding is that the Kemalists and the state were not the same- just that the Kemalists guaranteed the secular nature of the state- Trump unlike Erdogan is purely destructive, somewhat erratic, has no ideology and has more than half the country against him- the situation on the ground is different, isn't it? Does that bode well?

David Palmeter said...

Former CIA and NSA director Michael Haydon in response to a question as to whether there is a deep state:

"Not in the United States. I understand the term, I’ve seen it elsewhere, Turkey comes to mind. Pakistan comes to mind. There is not a Deep State. And look, I get it, I’ve tried to change federal bureaucracies. It’s really hard to do. There’s opposition, all right? But that’s the human condition, not secret anti-democratic forces plotting against the will of the people.

"That which some in the administration call the Deep State? I refer to as career professionals doing their best under the rule of law."

That's the way I see it: when a bureaucracy is run by politicians with whom I disagree, "deep state" is an accurate term; when it is run by politicians with whom I agree, it is a collection of "professionals doing their best under the rule of law."

I've recently come around to seeing the FBI in the latter sense, rather than the former.

Anonymous said...

Yes Turkey deserves a mention and from what I hear, they have the most complex of vocabulary to describe these shades of depth in intrigue. Also palace intrigues (in Japan and England, for example) are sometimes described as entrenched bureaucracies.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know if theories about how bureaucracies "normally" function will help us here.

Trump is really repugnant. I can think of few political figures as viscerally repugnant as Trump is. Others may be as rightwing as he is and even as corrupt as he is, but for anyone with a normal aesthetic sense and a normal sense of good taste Trump is repugnant.

Now from my varied experiences dealing with bureaucrats in several countries, they are normal, all too normal, but in this case, the very fact of their normalness might well lead them, independent of their political ideologies, to undermine Trump.

I'm no fan of the FBI, but in general, they may well be generally conservative people (I doubt that there are many Marxist-Leninists there nor radical feminists) who are completely and totally turned off by Trump, who although he may claim to be "conservative", has nothing conservative about him. I take being "conservative" with having to do with the defense of and promotion of traditional values.