I’ve been mildly confused and dismayed by the speed with which dark musings about “the deep state” have found their way into mainstream political conversation. I’ve been relieved of the need to write something about this by this excellent column by Rafael Khachaturian at Jacobin, which I heartily endorse. A few choice cuts, but read the whole thing, etc:
The deep state concept is harmful in two key ways.
First, invoking the deep state implies a misleading view of the state as a monolithic, unitary actor. While the deep state is usually said to be a network of individuals and agencies, it is assumed that these component parts are held together by a common will or mission (in this case, something like defending the “national interest” against Trumpism). This leads to a reification of the state as an autonomous and internally coherent force.
Yet modern capitalist states are more fragmented than they appear. First, they are composed of class fractions and coalitions that have frequently clashing interests and are motivated by short-term considerations. Often, these internal differences arise from the pressure exerted by various economic interests (such as the competition between the financial, manufacturing, and small business sectors).
In addition, these class forces are intersected by other factors, including the different social bases of support behind the major political parties (including voter cleavages based on urban versus rural interests, racial and gender attitudes, and “populist” appeal), the mass media’s role in shaping certain ideological narratives, and competing visions of foreign policy and geopolitical strategy.
The state–civil society binary is one of the fundamental bases of liberal political theory. But this distinction is largely a byproduct of the way that political power has represented itself, rather than a social fact.
Where the state ends and civil society begins has always been permeable and contested — in other words, subject to politics and political struggle. The state is not an entity standing over and above society, but instead one premised upon the social forces that bring it into being.
Loose talk of the “deep state” misses this crucial point, advancing instead a facile vision of institutionalized power that constitutes its own foundation, and is therefore opaque, mysterious, and beyond the reach of citizens.
This being Jacobin, the sociology of the state on offer here is a bit more singularly focused on class than I might have described it, but that doesn’t change the general picture here. Great piece, I wish I’d written it. More like this, please, Jacobin.