Deep State

Where did the “Trump’s team are working with the Russians” story come from? Masha Gessen, writing for the New York Review of Books blog, says this:

The backbone of the rapidly yet endlessly developing Trump-Putin story is leaks from intelligence agencies, and this is its most troublesome aspect. Virtually none of the information can be independently corroborated. The context, sequence, and timing of the leaks is determined by people unknown to the public, which is expected to accept anonymous stories on faith; nor have we yet been given any hard evidence of active collusion by Trump officials.

In other words, elements within the US intelligence community – made up, primarily, of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as sundry other groups and groupuscules – appear to have declared war on the Trump administration. These elements have been steadily leaking information – which may or may not be true – about Trump’s involvement with Russian business and spy networks. The most lurid of these leaks was, of course, the “kompromat dossier, with its unappetising descriptions of what Trump supposedly got up to in a Moscow hotel room.

Elsewhere in the public sphere, a narrative has developed about the American “deep state.” The phrase “deep state” – status in statu, state within a state – refers to the idea that there are elements within a given body politic that may act, when necessary, against an elected civilian government in defense of a country’s interests. The deep state might consist of the Army, or of the intelligence community, or of civil servants, or of some combination of all three.

On the left (or on what now passes for the left), certain thinkers have suggested that the American deep state might act as a check on Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts – that the deep state will do everything in its power to preserve the Republic against Trump’s assaults. On the right – i.e. within the Trump administration itself – the concept of a deep state has fuelled conspiratorial thinking, as the New York Times reports:

The concept of a “deep state” — a shadowy network of agency or military officials who secretly conspire to influence government policy — is more often used to describe countries like Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, where authoritarian elements band together to undercut democratically elected leaders. But inside the West Wing, Mr. Trump and his inner circle, particularly his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, see the influence of such forces at work within the United States, essentially arguing that their own government is being undermined from within.

Either way, we should not be reassured by the idea of an American deep state. The US intelligence agencies have, since 1945, frequently acted without accountability to destabilise democratically elected governments and assassinate foreign leaders (and that’s before we even mention waterboarding and “extraordinary rendition”). The idea that the CIA and others may be acting against the White House – even the Trump White House – is profoundly disquieting.

More broadly, this idea – that elements within the American state are now at war with one another – gets at something that seems to have become true about the contemporary world. This week, Wikileaks released a trove of secret documents relating to CIA surveillance techniques. Wikileaks – led by the rodentine antihero Julian Assange – has been conducting its own war against the American state for some time now. Wikileaks is the sworn enemy of American neoliberalism – this is why they leaked the DNC emails that helped to undermine Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. Once seen as heroes by the left, Wikileaks has now revealed itself as yet another agent of global reaction.

Significantly, none of the groups involved in this latest bout of leaks, betrayals, and rumours is an old-fashioned nation state. They are all global actors in another sense – pursuing their own special interests as they compete against one another in a borderless world made possible by the internet and by an interdependent world economy. Absent from any consideration, in this high-stakes game of global conflict, are ordinary people – that is, you and me. Unable to act, we are forced to watch as secretive groups that we do not understand or trust behave in unpredictable ways, acting according to a logic we can only guess at. All over the world, old-fashioned representative democracy has been shoved aside. Instead, our world is now a lawless playground in which sinister agencies fight one another for power.

In a sense, interest-group politics has now gone global. The result is bellum omnia contra omnes – a war of all against all. We find ourselves living inside a paradox: a highly organised state of nature. Information can be disseminated worldwide in seconds but it can no longer be trusted. We are compelled to watch as myriad groups (old-fashioned elites, non-state actors, terrorist crusaders, hackers, oligarchs, banks, limited liability corporations, civil-rights organisations, nationalists, white supremacists, tyrants, oil companies, scientists, human-rights campaigners, gangsters) act upon each other, pursuing their special interests without regard to the well-being of the majority. Old narratives collide with new. Nothing adds up. We are in the middle of a housing boom, just as we were a decade ago; but we are also seeing food shortages as a result of climate change. Historians have compared Trump to Hitler, but the conditions under which Trump has taken power do not correspond to those in which Hitler rose to supremacy. People are using social media to organise protests and marches, but the information they exchange on social media is being sold by corporations to other elites, often for unknown purposes. News can no longer be trusted; we can no longer rely on our own sense of reality to help us judge what appears to be happening. A bewildering plurality of diagnoses and explanations is available online at all times of the day or night. But no matter how much we read or watch, we cannot shake the feeling that the old meaning of the world is broken. We can no longer make coherent sense of things. This is a very dangerous predicament. Robbed of meaning and purpose, people become angry. And angry people make poor decisions. Searching for the “right” side, individuals seek out interest-groups of their own. But in the Babel of competing narratives, nobody can grasp the truth. In such a whirlwind – Nietzsche called it nihilism – elite actors will seize every opportunity to consolidate their power. The war of all against all will continue.


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