The Specter of Authoritarianism and the Politics of the 'Deep State'

Henry A. Giroux, Ragazine

By Henry A. Giroux, RagazineThis 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.

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.”I would suggest that what needs to be addressed is some sense of how this unique authoritarian historical conjuncture of power and politics came into place, especially with the rise of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government policies in the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s announcement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families. This was the beginning of the war on responsible government and the elimination of the welfare state and the celebration of a stripped down radical individualism motivated by an almost pathological narcissism and self-interest. More specifically, there is no mention by Lofgren of the collapse of the social state which began in the seventies with the rise of neoliberal capitalism–a far more dangerous form of market fundamentalism than we had seen since the first Gilded Age. Nor is there a sustained analysis of what is new about this ideology. How, for instance, are the wars abroad related increasingly to the diverse forms of domestic terrorism that have emerged at home? What is new and distinctive about a society marked by militaristic violence, exemplified by its war on youth, women, gays, public values, public education, and any viable exhibition of dissent? Why at this particular moment in history is an aggressive war being waged against not only whistle blowers, but also journalists, students, artists, intellectuals, and the institutions that support them? And, of course, what seems entirely missing in this essay is any reference to the rise of the punishing state with its massive racially inflected incarceration system, which amounts to a war on poor minorities, especially black youth.

What is not so hidden about the tentacles of power that now hide behind the euphemism of democratic governance is the rise of a punishing state and its totalitarian paranoiac mindset in which everyone is considered a potential terrorist or criminal. This mindset has resulted in the government arming local police forces with discarded weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, turning local police into high-tech SWAT teams. How else to explain the increasing criminalization of social problems from homelessness and failure to pay off student loans to trivial infractions by students such as doodling on a desk or violating dress code in the public schools, all of which can land the public and young people in jail. The turn towards the punishing state is especially evident in the war on young people taking place in many schools, which now resemble prisons with their lockdown procedures, zero tolerance policies, metal detectors, and the increasing presence of police in the schools. One instance of the increasing punishing culture of schooling is provided by Chase Madar. He writes “Though it’s a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue. The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for “crimes” like throwing peanuts on a bus. Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours. All of this goes under the rubric of “zero-tolerance” discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.”

Zero tolerance policies are only one example of the rise of the punishing and surveillance state which has transformed everyday life in the United States into a war zone. John Whitehead captures the militarized culture of everyday life well in arguing that how Americans are now treated by government officials has taken a dangerous turn. He writes:

You might walk past a police officer outfitted in tactical gear, holding an assault rifle, or drive past a police cruiser scanning license plates. There might be a surveillance camera on the street corner tracking your movements. At the airport, you may be put through your paces by government agents who will want to either pat you down or run scans of your body. And each time you make a call or send a text message, your communications will most likely be logged and filed. When you return home, you might find that government agents have been questioning your neighbors about you, as part of a “census” questionnaire. After you retire to sleep, you might find yourself awakened by a SWAT team crashing through your door (you’ll later discover they were at the wrong address), and if you make the mistake of reaching for your eyeglasses, you might find yourself shot by a cop who felt threatened. Is this the behavior of a government that respects you? One that looks upon you as having inviolate rights? One that regards you as its employer, its master, its purpose for being?

Central to the new authoritarianism that Lofgren hints at but does not address is the culture of fear that now rules American life and how it functions to redefine the notion of security, diverting it away from social considerations to narrow matters of personal safety. In a post-9/11 world, fear has become the reigning organizing principle in the United States. Fear is now embodied in the militarization of everyday life, the rise of the surveillance-mass, the notion of permanent war, the expanding incarceration state, and the crushing of dissent. Shared fears have replaced any sense of shared responsibilities. And much of this has taken a racist turn. For instance, the war on drugs and terrorism has been joined by the war on dissent and has become the new face of racial discrimination and the destruction of all viable democratic public spheres. In this instance, a culture of surveillance, punishment, and repression have become the bedrock of a new mode of authoritarianism while collective modes of support are increasingly vanishing from public life.

Similarly, any viable challenge to the “deep state” and the new mode of authoritarianism it supports needs to say more about the notion of disposability and a growing culture of cruelty brought about by the death of political concessions in politics–a politics now governed by the ultra-rich and mega corporations that has no allegiance to local politics and produces a culture infused with a self-righteous coldness that takes delight in the suffering of others. Evidence of such a culture is on full display in the attempts by extremists to cut billions of dollars from the food stamp program, lower the taxes of the rich and corporations while defunding social security and Medicare, passing legislation that openly discriminates against gays and lesbians, the attempts to roll back voting rights, and women’s reproductive rights, and this is only a short list. The war on poverty has morphed into a war on the poor, and human misfortune and “material poverty into something shameful and repellent.”

* * * * *
“Democracy is on life support in the United States and working within the system to change it is a dead end … except for gaining short term reforms. The struggle for a substantive democracy needs more, and the American people expect more…”
* * * * *

Power is now separated from politics and floats, unchecked, and uncaring. Power is global and politics is local and points to a new form of hybrid global financial authoritarianism. This points to something connected to the “deep state” and that is the emergence of global neoliberalism and its savage willingness in the name of accumulation, privatization, deregulation, dispossession, and power to make disposable a wide range of groups. Such groups include but are not limited to low income youth, poor minorities, unemployed workers, and elements of the middle class that have lost jobs, social protections, and hope.

Increasingly, in the United States, poor minority and low-income youth, especially those from marginalized ethnic and indigenous groups, are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous work places far from the enclaves of the tourist industries, incarcerated in prisons that favor punishment over rehabilitation, and consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse or absence of the social state, pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth, and a profit-at-all-costs neoliberal mindset, an increasing number of individuals and groups are being demonized, criminalized, or simply abandoned because they lack status as middle-class “taxpayers.” Their ranks are filled with non-citizens (immigrants and refugees), poor minorities, low-income youth, the elderly, the poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless, and the underemployed and working poor who cannot secure a living wage. These people become invisible in the public discourse and occupy what Joao Biehl has called those “zones of terminal exclusion” which accelerate the disposability of the unwanted.

Central to a failed state and a politics of disposability is the central question: How does culture work to insure the workings of dominant power? That is, how does the “deep state” function to encourage particular types of individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behavior in its citizens? The biggest problem facing the U.S. may not be only its repressive institutions, modes of governance, and the militarization of everyday life, but also the interiority of neoliberal nihilism, the hatred of democratic relations, and the embrace of a culture of cruelty. That is, how is subjective life itself now shaped according to the logic of the market, commerce, and the privatization and commodification of everything? The role of culture as an educative force, a new and powerful force in politics is central here and is vastly underplayed in the essay (which of course cannot include everything). For instance, in what ways does it use the major cultural apparatuses to convince people that there is no alternative to existing relations of power, that consumerism is the ultimate mark of citizenship, and that making money is the essence of individual and social responsibility.

In other words, what is missing from Lofgren’s theory of the “deep state” is a sustained analysis of cultural domination–an understanding of how identities, subjectivities, and values are shaped in the narrow and selfish image of commerce, how exchange values have become the only values, and how the vocabulary of the market has hijacked public values, and the discourse of solidarity, community, and social responsibility. In my estimation, the “deep state” is simply symptomatic of something more ominous, the rise of a new form of authoritarianism, a counter-revolution in which society is being restructured and advanced under what might be called the neoliberal revolution. This is a counter-revolution in which the welfare state is being liquidated, along with the collective provisions which supported it. It is a revolution in which economics drives politics.

The question of resistance haunts almost all theories of the “deep state,” which often conflate power with domination and offer nothing less than a dystopian vision of society and the future. Resistance either degenerates into nostalgia for the good old days of the past or it suggests that those who wish to change the world should work within the current bankrupt political system. Or, even worse, it suggest that the call for radical change is ultimately an act of bad faith, if not a form of political infantilism. Rather than dissolve power into unshakable forms of domination, I think these new modes of power have to be understood in terms of their limits and strengths and challenged accordingly not as an act of reform but as an act of revolution—a going to the root of the problem in order to create strategies for fundamental social, political, and economic transformation.

I don’t believe the system is broken. I think it works well, but in the interest of very privileged and powerful elite economic and political interests that are aggressively waging a war on democracy itself. If there is to be any challenge to this system, it cannot be made within the discourse of liberal reform, which has largely served to maintain a repressive status quo. Occupy and many other social movements recognize this. These groups have refused to be defined by the dominant media, the dictates of the security state, the financialization of everyday life, and forms of representations that are utterly corrupt. Hope and resistance will only come when the call for reform and working within the system gives way to imagining a very different understanding of what democracy means.

The new authoritarianism with its diverse tentacles is the antithesis of democracy, and if we are going to change what Lofgren calls the “deep state”, it is necessary to think in terms of an alternative that does not mimic its ideologies, institutions, governing structures, and power relations. Two things are essential for challenging the new authoritarianism. First, there needs to be a change in collective consciousness about what democracy really means and what it might look like. This is a pedagogical task whose aim is to create the formative culture that produces the agents and subjects necessary for challenging a range of anti-democratic practices and neoliberal values, ideologies, and modes of governance that impoverish democratic values, experiences, and civic responsibility.This suggests making education central to any viable notion of pedagogy and working diligently to develop public spaces, particularly alternative spaces, where new ideas, modes of exchange, and forms of critical analysis can be produced and circulated. Clearly, this would include using the Internet, new digital media, journals, magazines, screen culture, films, newspapers, and all of the cultural apparatuses available to address and develop new modes of subjectivity. Secondly, there is a need for a massive social movement with distinct strategies, organizations, and the will to address the roots of the problem and imagine a very different kind of society, one that requires genuine democratic socialism as its aim.

The left is too fractured around single political issues and needs to develop alliances in which broad based organizations can be developed with long term strategies and goals. This will not happen quickly but the foundations can be laid for new modes of organizing in which the totality of society is addressed and diverse struggles can be aligned in ways that expand their reach and political power outside of the specificity of differences that drive them. Democracy is on life support in the United States and working within the system to change it is a dead end, except for gaining short term reforms. The struggle for a substantive democracy needs more, and the American people expect more. The “deep state” is an important concept but it needs to be expanded so as to address the dark shadow of authoritarianism that now haunts American society.

Henry A. Giroux is the Global TV Network Chair at McMaster University and is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University in Canada. His latest book is Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education published by Haymarket (2014).

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