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.