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The Specter of Authoritarianism and the Politics of the ‘Deep State’

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Posted on Mar 2, 2014

Photo by Boston Public Library (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Ragazine

This piece first appeared at Ragazine.

Mike Lofgren, a former GOP congressional staff member for 28 years with the Senate and House Budget committees, has written an essay for Bill Moyers & Company titled “Anatomy of the ‘deep state’.” The notion of the “deep state” has a long genealogy and serves to mark the myriad ways in which power remains invisible while largely serving the interest of the financial elite, mega-corporations, and other authoritarian regimes of commanding power. The form the “deep state” takes depends upon the historical conjuncture in which it emerges and the forces that drive and benefit from it can either be at the margins or at the center of power and control. The notion of the “deep state” also points to different configurations of power. President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex is one example of the elements of the “deep state”that emerged in the post-World War II period. Another register can be seen in the coming of age of corporate power in combination with various forms of religious, military, and educational fundamentalisms in which war becomes aligned with big business, corporate power replaces state-based political sovereignty, religious extremism shapes everyday policies, and the punishing state works in tandem with the devolution of the welfare or social state.

Lofgren argues that the “deep state” “has its own compass regardless of who is in power.” This suggests that democracy itself and its modes of ideology, governance, and policies have been hijacked by forces that are as deeply anti-democratic as they are authoritarian. One instance of the undermining of democracy is evident in the overreach of presidential power by Obama is not only on full display, as Lofgren points out,  in the power of the government to “liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented—at least since the McCarthy era—witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called ‘Insider Threat Program,” but also in the failure of Republican and Democratic party members, with a few exceptions, to raise their voices in opposition to this not so invisible form of authoritarian rule. The silence of the political and intellectual clerks speaks to more than a flight from moral, social, and political responsibility, it speaks directly to the political extremism that has imposed a new and savage order of cruelty and violence on vast members of the American public.

I am not quite sure what to say about Lofgren’s essay, because while I agree with much of it in pointing to the anti-democratic tendencies undermining democracy in the U.S., I find the language too constrained and the absences too disturbing.  The notion of the “deep state” may be useful in pointing to a new configuration of power in the United States in which corporate sovereignty replaces political sovereignty, but it is not enough to simply expose the hidden institutions and structures of power. What we have in the United States today is fundamentally a new mode of politics, one wedded to a notion of power removed from accountability of any kind, and this poses a dangerous and calamitous threat to democracy itself, because such power is difficult to understand, analyze, and counter. The collapse of the public into the private, the depoliticization of the citizenry in the face of an egregious celebrity culture, and the disabling of education as a critical public sphere makes it easier for neoliberal capital with its hatred of democracy and celebration of the market to render its ideologies, values, and practices as a matter of common sense, removed from critical inquiry and dissent.

With privatization comes a kind of collective amnesia about the role of government, the importance of the social contract, and the importance of public values. For instance, war, intelligence operations, prisons, schools, transportation systems, and a range of other operations once considered public have been outsourced or simply handed over to private contractors who are removed from any sense of civic and political accountability. The social contract and the institutions that give it meaning have been transformed into entitlements administered and colonized largely by the corporate interests and the financial elite. Policy is no longer being written by politicians accountable to the American public. Instead, policies concerning the defense budget, deregulation, health care, public transportation, job training programs, and a host of other crucial areas are now largely written by lobbyists who represent mega corporations. How else to explain the weak deregulation policies following the economic crisis of 2007 or the lack of a public option in Obama’s health care policies? Or, for that matter, the more serious retreat from any viable notion of the political imagination that “requires long-term organizing—e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security? The liberal center has moved to the right on these issues while the left has become largely absent and ineffective.

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Lofgren’s conception of the “deep state” is a certainly useful concept for exposing the dark shadows of power but it does not go far enough in explaining the emergence of a society in an era of failed sociality, one in which the state has not only become suicidal and violent, but also cruel to the extreme. This a state dedicated to governing all aspects of social life, rather than just commanding economic and political institutions. Americans now live in a time that breaks young people, devalues justice, and saturates the minute details of everyday life with the constant threat, if not reality, of state violence. The mediaeval turn to embracing forms of punishment that inflict pain on the psyches and the bodies of young people is part of a larger immersion of society in public spectacles of violence. The Deluzian control society is now the ultimate form of entertainment in America, as the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, is no longer an object of compassion, but one of ridicule and amusement. Pleasure loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which misery is celebrated as a source of fun.  High octane violence and human suffering are now considered consumer entertainment products designed to raise the collective pleasure quotient.  Brute force and savage killing replayed over and over in the culture now function as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears engaged in a process of cannibalizing its own young. It is perhaps not farfetched to imagine a reality TV show in which millions tune in to watch young kids being handcuffed, arrested, tried in the courts, and sent to juvenile detention centers. No society can make a claim to being a democracy as long as it defines itself through shared hatred and fears, rather than shared responsibilities. Needless to say, extreme violence is more than a spectacle for upping the pleasure quotient of those disengaged from politics, it is also part of a punishing machine that spends more on putting poor minorities in jail than educating them. As Michelle Alexander points out, “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”


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