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Deep State 101: A Primer and Prescription

Photo source jqpubliq | CC BY 2.0

Every nation worth its salt has a deep state, a loose network of rich and powerful players who ratify, veto or formulate state social, economic and military policies. Whether monarchy, dictatorship, or constitutional republic, no government worthy of the name lacks for a shadowy unelected elite with hands on the tiller and in the till, influential persons with inherited or recent wealth, upper crust social connections, and old school ties, often found sitting on boards of directors and golf carts in isolated settings.

Like Sandhill Cranes, they are rare and difficult to spot in their habitats, seamlessly blending as they do with their inaccessible surroundings. Amongst themselves, however, they are highly convivial. Partial to receptions, they bibulate and circulate as they joust over canapés. Not to worry they are but degenerates just killing time, important things get done under the buzz. Small talk can have big consequences and decadent environs make deal-making a sport.

Mostly these birds are captains of industry and lords of finance with close ties to useful acolytes in law enforcement, armed services, academia, NGOs, charities, and publishing and mass media. They vet and replace politicians in so-called democracies, knowing that elected officials are too unreliable and the populace too fickle and ignorant of the ways of the world to perpetuate proper governance on their own.

Meddling in affairs of a deep state by the uninitiated is to be eschewed and may be heavily sanctioned, lest intemperate initiatives capsize the ship of state that for generations has been carefully provisioned and cunningly piloted to transport treasure to home ports. Too, they eschew taxation, preferring to direct their resources to projects that will rebound to their own benefit. Should it take a war to maintain or expand their influence, it can be arranged, followed by a fragile peace to consolidate gains and gird the nation for the next remunerative conflict.

In certain smaller countries, the state and the deep state may be synonymous. Élites in hereditary dynasties and regimes ruled by strongmen tend to hold most of the cards, and key people are both easily identified and open to corruption when foreign powers take interest in their resources. Should popular democratic upstart leaders emerge, foreign influencers can deploy their networks of operatives to re-establish a hegemony of kleptocrats, as a long string of European and US penetrations of the Americas, Asia, and Africa have demonstrated. Only geopolitically insignificant countries lacking deposits of metals, gems, or energy tend to escape such ravages. All others are fair game.

Membership in a power élite is not without its travails. The more rich and powerful one is, the more one has to lose, hence to fear. Threats to a concern’s dominance can suddenly emerge and must be constantly monitored; strings must continually be pulled in all directions to keep the deals flowing. In many cases, arbitrage involves government money or policy support, ready access to the corridors of state power is essential. That “revolving door” between private practice and public service serves to manage and refresh backchannel communications between elites, minimizing friction between legislators, regulators and corporate interests. “Old boy networks,” forged from college friendships, boards of directors, trade associations, fraternal orders and social clubs help to assure that prime opportunities circulate and accrue to those in the know.

Conveniently, the upper echelons of intelligence agencies tend to be staffed by prep school, Ivy League and military academy alumni, people who speak the same language as investment bankers, CEOs and corporate lawyers. Membership in elite senior societies like Harvard’s Porcellian or Yale’s Skull and Bones helps, but can be overlooked should one be a Harvard dropout such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Should school ties be tenuous, intermarriage—often transcontinental—infuses ruling class solidarity with even closer ones. For all players, the rule is to maintain and magnify your connections. Attending elite convocations in Aspen, Davos, or Bilderberg is a good way to do that, and the food is great.

That said, the deep state is not a unitary conspiracy. There’s no core council of wise men plotting global dominance and calling the shots. Despite many brotherly bonds, elites are too loosely networked and jealous of their peers’ prerogatives to submit to autarchy.

Conspiratists tend to overestimate the concentration of command and control in the New World Order. In older orders, power plays would gather around monarchs, who to prevent usurpation of power from within and without often employed drastic measures. America may qualify as an empire, and while it has councils and courtiers aplenty there’s no real emperor, just a front man. Like most presidents who weren’t founding fathers, he’s more of a gofer for the deep state, not a card-carrying member.

Think of denizens of the deep state as a school of fish or, if you will, several such species scouring the sea for sustenance, maneuvering around threats, warily coexisting, leaving turbulence, carcasses and fecal matter in their wake. One fish then another takes the lead to nudge the collectivity this way and that in search of happy hunting grounds, following the money as it were. The analogy admits to no fishing vessels topside bent on scooping up the lot of them with wide nets. The closest such external threat would be a corporate takeover; but while being ingested might decimate their ranks, acquired entities benefit from richer habitats replete with new resources. Save for managerial and technological disruptions, the vicissitudes of business cycles, and half-hearted governmental attempts to herd or corral them, the c-creatures roam freely to go about their fishy business unimpeded.

In such a predatory environment, what must we civilians do to avoid becoming road krill floating belly-up in the currents of corruption? The unschooled and unorganized are easy prey to sharks in formations. Even over-organized entities like legislatures and regulatory agencies are no match for the intertwining tentacles of deep state and organized crime collaborators.

Imagine for a moment that your world is a tinsel town construction of a multi-headed conspiracy that effloresces out of sight inside bank suites, boardrooms, consultancies, military services, security agencies, and crime syndicates as upper echelons rub together. They need not be in immediate or continuous contact, only tending to connect when all have common cause and a similar need to know. As in any bureaucratic structure, actors are compartmentalized, meaning that decisions are closely held and mistakes made by one will not tarnish the luster of other players.

By dint of hard work, the instruments of influence have been polished to gleam with an exquisite patina of power that is cloaked to the unschooled eye. One cannot hope to face down, infiltrate or change the behavior of our invisible masters, just to somehow cope. The best we can do is to nibble around its edges to cull the school by calling out and perhaps compromising careless constituents now and again.

Following the statutory rape of Vietnam, I recall some benighted chickenhawk attributing America’s ignominious failure to prevail to misunderstanding the rules of engagement. We, he said (meaning his fellow war criminals), were playing Chess while the North Vietnamese were playing Go. Despite being a vast oversimplification, that logic is not a bad way to approach dealing with the deep state. Knowing things about how it works helps to think differently enough to undermine its efforts.

We have strong evidence that pointing out that the emperor has no clothes can undermine underpinnings of the deep state. The dominoes that #MeToo populism so far have toppled have put dents in its armor. By starting with transgressions of media personalities, female complaints against (mostly) white male privilege were guaranteed to get coverage, and the traction thus gained multiplied the force of aggrieved women to nudge norms of sexual behavior. When powerful men are brought down, elites run scared. It doesn’t matter how central they are to the deep state’s administration. Any one of them could be next.

We should take that lesson and run with it to other regions of the polity. Take the Russiagate election investigations by Mr. Mueller and Congress. These overwrought theatrics present a golden—but so far, a lost—opportunity to counter-punch Republican vote rigging. This is what Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2016 candidate for president who claims to have been denied fair tallies in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, is doing. Announcing her presentation of documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, she said “we must push back against the effort to twist legitimate concerns about election interference into a campaign of warmongering, censorship and political repression.” (See her full announcement here.)

She uses the opportunity to accuse high-level players in self-interested, anti-democratic actions by political parties, government, and mass media:

Concerns about foreign interference should not distract us from interference in plain sight originating from within our own borders. That includes the actions of the Democratic National Committee, which biased its party’s own primaries, effectively disenfranchising millions of Bernie Sanders’ voters; corporate media that gave Donald Trump billions in extra free airtime because he was “damn good” for network profits, in the words of CBS’ CEO; or voter suppression schemes like voter ID laws, Interstate Crosscheck and felon disenfranchisement that systematically deny millions of Americans their constitutional right to vote.

While Stein did mention the alleged voter machine irregularities that the Greens had sued over, she should have added to her list the extreme gerrymandering by GOP-dominated state legislatures that is now under review by the US Supreme Court, as well as federal and state election law provisions that discriminate against third parties. Like #MeToo, the Russia investigations provide an ideal opportunity for voters who feel they were turned away, cheated, or harassed to shout out their grievances. Especially, they should be demanding why Democrat Party leaders have failed to contest GOP voter suppression efforts or to investigate persistent allegations that voting machines may have been rigged to undercount Democratic votes.

The Democratic leadership’s manifest insouciance over its electoral and moral decline stems from a bedrock allegiance to duopoly politics that has driven the party to abandon its historical role as an agent of social change. When the deep state says jump, the Dems seem to have concluded, it means abandon ship. Let them slip over the side, but fill the vacuum they leave with the right progressive words about core issues at the most opportune times. Tweet, post, call, and organize. Don’t be a fish out of water or out of ideas. This is for keeps.


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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at

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