The term ‘Deep State’ has entered established parrot journalism, where it joins ‘the one percent’, the other notion ascended from the internet ‘underground’. You can tell by the way it is now mocked in mainstream publications. I first noticed when one of those informed its readers that it lurked somewhere in the remote internet corners given over to conspiracy theory. And now, quite suddenly, there is a mini avalanche of pieces explaining for example why such a thing may exist in Turkey (where the term was first used) or Egypt, but not the United States where all manner of protections guard against it. David Remnick’s article in the New Yorker reflects considerable confusion in parrot journalism ranks about what to do with this concept that has forced itself on America’s consciousness through the combined maneuvers of state and non-state institutions intending to get rid of the new president.
Two authors had come with books and articles using the deep state abstraction before all this: the meticulous Canadian scholar and former diplomat Peter Dale Scott and much more recently Mike Lofgren, who for more than a quarter century served as a staff member on the Senate and House Budget committees. Their credentials and seriousness are beyond doubt, but their deep states are not the same. Scott digs into what he calls ‘deep politics’ of a criminal nature, like the Kennedy murder and 9-11, while Lofgren assures us early on that the deep state does not add up to a conspiracy. In fact long passages in the Lofgren book, subtitled The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, made me feel as if I was reading my own The Enigma of Japanese Power trying to explain a phenomenon for which I coined the label ‘conspiracy without conspirators’.
Lofgren in particular has created problems for mainstream academics plowing fields of political phenomena and generally believing that they practice a science. He upsets notions that have long been fundamental points of reference. Pundits of a ‘liberal/progressive’ persuasion who themselves have inveighed against the malfunctioning for which Lofgren offers an abundance of evidence are bound to be uncomfortable as well. Their habitual invoking of ‘threats against our democracy’ can now only appear puny and misapplied in the perspective of his deep state; a perspective that at a minimum has caused considerable bewilderment among the columns-producing elite. A poignant example is the posting of Anthony DiMaggio on the recently quite disoriented Counterpunch site. He admires Lofgren, and agrees with practically all of what he says about how American democracy is systematically undermined, but can only deplore the fact that in its totality it is grist for the mills of conspiracy theorists. A regret illustrating once again the damage that the CIA’s move of introducing ‘conspiracy theory’ as a term of ridicule and opprobrium has done to political discourse in the Atlantic basin. Perhaps it is the most effective single vile intervention to protect the core institutions of the deep state.
Take a step back to bring the possibility of a ‘conspiracy without conspirators’ in view. Unwanted and unexpected phenomena that are terrible but outside our control, like earthquakes or a tsunami, are known in legal language as ‘acts of god’. No person can be held responsible for those. Then there are awful uncontrollable events that have been caused by identifiable human agency: unintended consequences made vivid in our imagination by Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Hollywood’s Frankenstein. The state functions well when its focus is on minimizing unintended consequences. Sadly, such control becomes difficult with monstrous out-of-control situations that have become systemic, but whose original human agents have blended in, anonymously, with the general population, decades or longer ago. A telling example, closely connected with the deep state now under discussion, was convincingly described in James Carroll’s marvelous House of War on the early history of the Pentagon. That institution runs on a mindset justifying a huge budget, which in turn demands permanence of this mindset that would wither without an enemy. Those who built the citadel of American militarism may not have wished for what it became; what emerged just happened as they were swept along by true and imagined crises, by theories of implacable enemies, by the false populism of opportunistic politicians stoking fears, and by the logic of bureaucratic expansionism.
Its power was made possible by the National Security Act of 1947. The disdainfully labeled ‘national security state’ this initiated has produced much that cannot be distinguished from results of deliberate conspiracies. But can we identify President Truman, who signed the law, as the original conspirator? Or all those officer-bureaucrats who believed they were doing their duty and to whom dirty tricks were, at worst, the only means justified by the all-important cause of protecting a nation believed to be in peril?
David Chibo supplies a useful taxonomy of deep state literature before the term entered the lexicon in an article about 7 “Blind” men and the US Elephant. He includes several other authors who described both conspiracies with and conspiracies without conspirators. He lists C. Wright Mills’ pioneering study published as The Power Elite, with its few thousand individuals in the political, military and economic hierarchies; Dan Smoot (former FBI agent), who focussed on the Council on Foreign Relations in The Invisible Government and looked at the manner in which the American government was pushed into foreign entanglements by powerful corporate and administrative entites; retired Air Force Col. Fletcher Prouty who traces the development of the security state in The Secret Team, and was particularly incensed by the fact that the CIA’s ‘intelligence gathering’ function is a front for clandestine operations. Michael Glennon, professor of economics, on Chibo’s list also shows with his National Security and Double Government how the network created by President Truman with the National Security Act of 1947 hollowed out the institutions of President, Congress and the courts. Chibo includes the in my view less relevant analyst, the well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs who identifies four corporate interest groups, naming them a ‘corporatocracy’, and shining a light once again on the ‘military-industrial complex’, Eisenhower’s vision of the man-made monster eventually destroying America’s democracy. The Predator State of James Galbraith, in which powerful corporations have simply colonized vital institutions of the American state would have been my choice. Like the blind men with their elephant, these authors have been good on parts of it all, but the deep state in its totality remains to be analysed.
A dividing line between conspiracies with and without conspirators can usually not clearly be drawn. But we must try to differentiate the two. Doing so is necessary to overcome a conceptual hurdle that blocks acceptance by otherwise smart people of the very notion of a mostly hidden system of uncontrolled power. The category of ‘conspiracy without conspirators’ makes it possible to analyse entirely undesirable operations and outcomes while bypassing the apportioning of not only point-blank blame but also a blanket Chomskyan condemnation of evil intent. The subject is kept out of consideration by many who ought to scrutinize it, because they cannot conceive of the fact that a sizable number of fellow Americans are guilty of continuous criminal conduct.
A look at what Japanese have wrought, politically, may be of some help by offering useful pointers of how bureaucracies that are not under effective political control can begin to live lives of their own that move away from the purposes for which they were created. In the Japanese case this pretty much determines how power is exercised there. The actual power system operates outside the boundaries of the constitution, although the bureaucrats in it have always endeavored to create legal stipulations they can hide behind. Also, a post-feudal separation of public and private sectors never fully came into being after the coup known as the Meiji Restoration. Hence, practically anyone in Japan understands what you are talking about when you invoke ‘the system’ while discussing prevailing circumstances. Keep this in mind when you think of the lines of responsibility with regard to the dreadful Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster.
In the end the notion of accountability points at the pivotal factor enabling conspiracies without conspirators. Until 1991 there was no separate Japanese term distinguishing this concept from ‘responsibility’. Corruption inherent in informal political systems that have consolidated through the erosion of checks and countervailing power eventually destroys the means to rub the noses of those responsible for national policies every now and then in the consequences of those policies. When taking a step back and taking in the entirety of the American state we can sum up its malfunctioning by ascertaining that vital institutions for its functioning; the financial system, the military, law inforcement and intelligence, are not under effective political control of the representative bodies that are supposed to determine government. The Pentagon has some time ago begun to live a life of its own to the point where their officials cannot even imagine having their noses rubbed in the consequences of what they have wrought. The same is true for the Federal Reserve, the institution that is supposed to oversee the activities of the financial firms, and guard against their possible excesses. The indications are plentiful that both have entirely lost sight of a perspective that includes the original reasons for their existence. America’s center of political accountability has eroded, while across the Atlantic in half-unified Europe it was never established.
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To throw more light on the accountability factor we must consider the way in which the agents of public information fit into political systems, something that is also crucially relevant to the political transformation of mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic. Without a good measure of control over the news and opinion industry a ‘deep state’, the ‘establishment’, or ‘the system’ could not exist. Official censorship will not work. It inspires truth seekers who would in the long term undermine any overtly authoritarian political set up. But self-censorship does work. And it is enforced through varying mixtures of social pressure and indirect intimidation. The political climate enforces this when highly controlled by a ruling elite. Japan has long offered a sublime example of highly organized and seemingly coordinated self-censorship. The big newspapers and NHK (with a role comparable to the BBC) create ‘public opinion’ about matters at hand and subsequently reflect it. If ever there existed a perfect media echo chamber, you may discover this in Japan. Editors from the big five newspapers examine each other’s earliest morning editions (which go to the countryside), and may adjust their later city editions for details in their interpretation and news selection so that one nearly homogeneous national opinion can result; with expected and well-understood small exceptions that give the different papers a bit of individual flavor. Much of the official news is collected through so-called press clubs attached to a ministry or other main news producing entity; and these have rules as to what their members will include and leave out of their dispatches. The system dates from wartime habits. A reporter who breaks those rules is barred from the club for a certain period – I have known several such cases. When a scandal breaks and open season is declared on a person or organization, within less than 24 hours the papers become filled with the smallest details that were known all along.
The lastmentioned detail illustrates an important aspect of Japan’s self-censorship: the better-informed editors and reporters are fully aware that this is what they do. A considerable number of journalists will at the end of their career produce books with their view on aspects of the ‘system’, and these can all be found in the Diet Library and lesser collections for perusal by those eager to know how Japan is actually put together. What is in the paper is tatemae, official reality, and hiding behind it is the honne, substantial reality, and over drinks journalist colleagues will regale you with lots of honne as will, perhaps a bit more reluctantly, top bureaucrats and politicians over lunch. This dichotomy allows Japanese on the whole to be more honest about their dishonesty than I have found in any other country. Without trumpeting it from the rooftops, they can maintain some perspective on things. It helps guard post-World-War-II Japan against forms of extremism for which it became known from the 1930’s until 1945.
I do not notice this kind of ameliorating dynamic in the self-censorship that now prevails in the Atlantic basin. There are good reasons to conclude that deep state operations have become transatlantic some time ago. What with intertwined financial and ‘intelligence agency’ interests, NATO machinations, weapon sales, and the general vassalage status of the European Union. There is little that can hold the Brussels bureaucracy to account. The so-called troika collective – consisting of a pseudo central bank, the IMF, and the European Commission – has plucked a mandate out of thin air and has done maximum damage by disguising massive money transfers to German, French and Dutch banks as assistance to Greece. That European story is highly self-censored in European media.
But the transatlantic deep state self-censorship relating to Russia has become most crucial to political discourse. It has become so bad that the out of control CIA may create the story of official reality in the Ukraine and Syria or about Putin. With assistance of CIA minions in the PR industry this is then passed on to domestic mainstream media and those of the transatlantic world through almost all mainstream publications and current affairs TV; whereupon it will be difficult to find a colleague willing to converse about substantial and observable reality. We have never seen anything like it in the United States and Europe, not even at the height of the Cold War. The rapidity with which Russia and especially its true and effective leader have become bywords for threats to supposed Western ‘values’ bears out the sad loss of any perspective on the vital Atlantic-Russian relationship. The best that we can hope for is represented by a review article I just read in the London Review of Books, one trying hard to produce a ‘balanced’ view of the new Cold War by leaving out its Washington- and Langley-based manufacturers.
Conspiracy without conspirators is of course extra-legal and inevitably engages in clandestine activity. When you operate outside the law, you may hardly even notice it when you begin to operate in breach of the law. And then there are conspiracies with definitive conspirators engaged in criminal projects, including murder. Out of control bureaucracies, used to a protection from public curiosity by mantels of secrecy and mumbo jumbo explanations, naturally can more easily engage in criminal conduct than if their activities were systematically held up to the light. The CIA in particular has been notorious for it with regime change murders and false flag operations. Wall Street operations that brought us the 2008 credit crisis, and helped a further consolidation of banking power, were also facilitated by large-scale Wall Street fraud.
Parts of the Japanese system have long relied on Japan’s peculiar form of organized crime – known internationally as the Yakuza. Yakuza syndicates may actually help to maintain a low crime rate, with gangsters keeping an eye on unorganized crime in return for governmental blind eye. But the Japanese case does not come close to the level of criminality of the American variety. Even then, full-fledged American conspiracy with conspirators commonly rely on participants who are at best dimly aware of the extent to which they have been asked to operate outside legal boundaries. The apparatus of the American deep state is a vast system of institutions in which the proverbial right arm does not know what the left one is doing. The CIA, FBI, NSA and the military services are compartmentalized to a point where very few of the bureaucrats in their employ can put their finger precisely on what is going on. Best known examples of that kind of entity are the resistance movements in German occupied Europe of World War II, and the cell system of an expansionist communist movement in the early stages of its development. Movie goers are familiar with the ‘need to know’ limitations on the information given to participants in an operation. The numerous levels of ‘security clearance’ make that clear. They have created labyrinths of hidden policy making over which no effective political control can exist.
This applies to internal control as well. The institutions of the American deep state are riven by turf battles, schisms, something quite noticeable in their conflict with President Trump and, indeed, eruptions from officials with a conscience. This produces leaks and whistleblowing. These may be seen as emergency actions in the absence of functioning accountability structures.
Accountability structures have vanished on both sides of the Atlantic rather quickly through multiple causes, including the erasure of the division between private and public sectors (the outsourcing of power), legal labyrinths for mediation, the informal networks and corrupting lobbying so well described as ‘flexions’ by Janine Wedel in Unaccountable and The Shadow Elite, the powerful corporate entities replacing functioning representative bodies between citizens and the state (unions, parties not beholden to sponsors), and the demise of serious journalism.
Accountability remains something that is assumed in the United States as well as the nations of the European Union. In Japan it is not.
Accountability, everyone will agree, is good and necessary for democratic transparency and related platitudes. But there is a less immediately obvious but an actual primary reason why you want structures enforcing it in a political system. Its less visible function is that it protects powerholders against madness. When officials and politicians are held to account they are not only kept on their toes, but they themselves are forcefully reminded of what precisely it is that they are doing. If they do not accustom themselves to making a convincing case for their policies to outsiders, they tend to lose the habit of explaining it all to themselves. This dynamic helps clarify why some autocrats whose manner of ruling is not officially questioned in their own country may nevertheless eagerly seize opportunities to elucidate their actions and methods to outsiders; as Singapore’s autocrat Lee Kuan Yew used to do with passing foreign journalists. A power system may develop mechanisms to rein in uncontrolled conduct to which organizations that are not held to account are prone. In Japan such mechanisms exist, in the United States they do not.
Japanese mechanisms ameliorating its accountability problem did not always exist. An analogy useful for comparison with present day American deep state hubris is the hijacking of Japan by the Imperial Army in the 1930s. The demented neocon/Pentagon fantasies of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’, in which the option of new ‘usable’ nuclear weaponry is ‘on the table’, are reminiscent of the delusions of prewar Japan’s leaders that they could muster forces to take on Britain, the United States, and Russia all at the same time.
Eliminating a criminal deep state with its ‘deep politics’ other than through losing a war appears to be a hopeless task. It has transformed the institutions that partake in it into well-nigh unassailable strongholds with the weapons of character assassination, and intimidation and blackmail that these institutions can bring to bear on reformists. Optimists who remind us of the self-repair capacities the United States has demonstrated in the past do not take into account the loss of a responsive public realm kept going with independent news media. On the European side of the Atlantic basin no awakening is yet in evidence. London remains a major relay station for Washington’s propaganda. Vassalage, the NATO cage, and incompetent bureaucratic leadership on the European Union level that perpetuates this subordination, stand in its way.
Repairing American situations that are caused by conspiracies without conspirators – situations that nobody wants to live with, except for a minuscule number of people who profit from other’s misery – faces an obstacle that is rarely recognized, or at least not given the attention it deserves. Such repair is made more difficult by American liberalism that relies heavily on the notions of choice and agency. Seen through that ideological filter, the quality of political life is the result of what the American people have collectively chosen; and, again as seen through that filter, the American people have the wherewithal in the long run to adjust their situation to their liking. It ignores the force of institutionalized unintended consequences. Accepting as a given that one is in control over one’s destiny means that vigilant watchfulness seems not all that urgent, and the point at which a significant number of people sit up to pay attention when things start deteriorating comes at a time when ruinous trends are irreversible.
Unwillingness among American policy and opinion makers to ponder the possibility that developments may have gotten out of hand on a deep level, and have slipped political control, forms one of the heaviest blinkers from behind which they administer and help guide the country. Mainstream mockery of the deep state notion illustrates this. American ideology, nakedly revealed in ‘‘rational choice’ theory of university ‘political science’, keeps the blinkers firmly fixed. Summing up we could say that evaluation of political reality in American culture is bereft of something that suffuses classical drama. A common theme in Greek tragedies is that of hubris: human arrogance and pride leading to crazed leadership. Human history is replete with cases of inattention, overconfidence and recklessness, all conspiring to create frightful dystopian realities.