A spate of articles and conversations circulating social media feeds has re-aligned a focus on the “deep state” and its shadowy machinations. The deep state is used to explain how the Trump administration’s first major scandal – the resignation of Michael Flynn as national security advisor – was the result of a powerful, institutional offensive. At the same time, it can demonstrate how Trump regime snuggly fits within an interlocking network of influential players that so happen to intersect with this amorphous and opaque security apparatus. So what exactly is the deep state?
How Deep is Your State?
The deep state is a term (when unmoored from its more conspiratorial tone) that is used to capture the emergence and reproduction of extra-constitutional networks necessitated because of a failure of the normal mechanisms of state control and coercion, and of the inability of the political system to bring about necessary stabilization. It is linked to informal channels of representation, such as parallel power networks that extend beyond the formal boundaries of the state to establish crosscutting networks and complexes of power. These form the hard kernel of the state, which operates in a gray area between legality and illegality and shapes key political processes and policy issues. The most prominent examples of the “state within the state” took shape in Turkey, Greece, and Italy throughout the 1960s-70s.
In his book The State: Past, Present, Future political theorist Bob Jessop sheds some insight on the “security state:”
The idea of security hierarchy or security state is also reflected, more recently, in a growing interest in the ‘deep state’. This phrase, ‘deep state’, was coined in Turkey (its equivalent in Turkish is derin devlet) to denote a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary, and organized crime. Similar networks have been revealed in Egypt and the Ukraine, Spain and Colombia, Italy and Israel, and many other countries.
For Mike Lofgren, who wrote an insider’s exposé on the George W. Bush administration in these terms, the deep state comprises ‘a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.’
It should be highlighted that the US political system has been incredibly stable during the post-war period. It has fostered two pro-capitalist parties, which duly generated a panoply of partisan think tanks, networks, and institutions. Never did it have to tackle an insurgent anti-systemic force that threatened its political hegemony; never did have to contain the levels of mass political violence that swept Southern Europe post-1968; nor did it ever suffer anything close to a civil war, or a military coup for that matter.
In short, the American state functioned as a state. Granted, as a ruthless and invasive one at that, with a supremely bloated bureaucracy. Nevertheless, it operated in accordance to what it was: the largest and most powerful capitalist state.
The State as a Social Relation
Before moving forward to our present juncture, it would be fruitful to briefly reflect on what constitutes and characterizes a “state.” Following Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas in his classic work State, Power, Socialism, one can argue that the state is to be understood as a social relation. That is to say, whether regarded as a thing (an institutional ensemble), or as a subject (repository of specific political capacities and resources), the state is far from a passive instrument or a neutral actor. The state, like capital, is “a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions, such as this is expressed within the State in a necessarily specific form.”
This idea of the state as a social relation (analogous to Marx’s claim that capital is a social relation) refers to a contested field of relations between people (or political forces) mediated through the instrumentality of things. As to the nature of these “things,” we can observe the state’s apparatuses, capacities, resources, and distinct modes of political calculation.
Poulantzas’s elaboration of the capitalist state takes into account both the class character of the state as well as a more general directionality. Indeed, the state has inbuilt biases that privilege some agents and interests over others; but whether, how, and how far these biases are actualized depends on the changing balance of forces, along with their concomitant strategies and tactics.
Our contemporary political moment is acutely reflected in an ascendant right-wing authoritarian populism, of which the Trump presidency is its most powerful manifestation. With the hollowing out of bourgeois democracy across much of the advanced capitalist states combined with the crippling diet of austerity following the 2008 economic crisis – could it be that, under specific circumstances, authoritarian statism has become the best possible shell for capitalism to reproduce itself?
Poulantzas claimed that features of the political order that were previously exceptional or temporary were becoming more and more normalized in what he called the authoritarian statist type of capitalist state. For, as the world market has become more integrated, its contradictions have become generalized and its crisis tendencies more evident, making it harder to displace or defer crises.
Thus, Poulantzas argued that the capitalist type of state is now “permanently and structurally characterizes by a peculiar sharpening of the generic elements of political crisis and state crisis.” He describes the central developmental tendency of authoritarian statism as “intensified state control over every sphere of socioeconomic life combined with radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties.”
Further to this, there is a decline of the rule of law, also evident in “the increasing concern for the pre-emptive policing of the potentially disloyal and deviant,” and a tendency towards fusing the state’s tripartite branches of executive, legislative, and judicial power.
It must be noted that the activities of the state administration inevitably run up against the limits inherent within its political structure and operation, something that the Trump administration no doubt has become cognizant of. These limits are particularly clear in the internal divisions between different administrative coteries, clans, and factions and in the reproduction of class conflicts and contradictions.
A crisis of hegemony – which the American state seems to be increasingly mired in and constantly negotiating – tends to result in the state administration becoming the central site where an “unstable equilibrium of compromise” within the power bloc is elaborated, thanks to an increasingly dense network of cross-cutting ties between big business and the central administrative apparatuses of the state. However, it is this centralization that produces contradictions for the authoritarian state, as:
the authoritarian state finds it hard to manage the growing intensity, interconnectedness, and global scope of economic contradictions and of crisis tendencies and to deal with new forms of popular struggle. It must either allow economic crises to run their course or assume responsibility for managing them and for displacing or deferring their effects without eliminating them. It has also become much harder for the dominant fraction to sacrifice its short-term economic-corporate interests in order to promote its long-term political hegemony.
Limits to Trumpism
With the chaotic transition from the Obama to the Trump regime, the American state has endured an initial disorientation within its state apparatuses. The Trump playbook has looked to sow rupture from the get go, to shift the balance of forces condensed within the state towards a Trumpian equilibrium. Interestingly, this foregrounds a Poultanzian strategy of ruptures: whereby sudden offensives both inside and outside the state facilitate the severance of dominant class power networks, the re-composition of state power, and the transference of wealth.
Any immediate impediments to Trump’s objectives are to be removed, as witnessed by his purging of much of the State Department. It would appear that the administration strategy (however incompetently pursued) is to hastily triangulate a coterie of allies within the deep state to foster legitimacy and push through their agenda without any pushback.
The bifurcation of the ruling class in response to Trump indicates that, while the state remains a terrain of struggle upon which the dominant classes enjoy an overwhelming structural advantage, winning executive power does not mean much if immediately isolated and the locus of state power shifts to another branch such as the judiciary. Traversing this field of contestation means forging alliances with civil society to bolster one’s position inside the state, something Trump has not managed to accomplish on a large-scale.
The reality is that the Trump administration has been beset by a rash of scandal, judicial stonewalling, and massive swathes of civil unrest and organized protest from its first day in office. In rushing to exacerbate fissures within the state, and fermenting a continuing war against the capitalist media establishment, the Trump strategy seems to be explicitly dealing in institutional and ideological overreach.
In cultivating the appearance as if he has attained a source of political authority outside the confines of the state, Trump has come up against actors that have accrued powerful institutional legitimacy within the postwar American bourgeois-democratic framework, and forces that are deeply embedded into the very reproduction of the capitalist state itself. The question to ask then becomes: how will his administration seek to overcome these tensions so as to act effectively on behalf of capital and imperium?
The recent departure of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council and Trump’s posturing on Syria is a case-in-point. Bannon’s departure seems to be part of a wider shift; Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, has signaled a return to the old guard. The reconsolidation of the traditional leadership’s authority has brought about more freedom of movement for the military, and a foreign policy that refocuses on management of empire rather than any professed isolationism.
The battle to reconfigure the state is in its winding down phase, and it is becoming more evident that the dominant factions in the state apparatuses will force Trump to accede to the dominant GOP positions on foreign policy, economic, and social issues – except the performative desire of Trump to show that he was “shaking things up.” At the minimum, this suggests that Trump’s avowed realignment of forces is not proceeding as intended.