According to a recent much-discussed online essay by the former long-time top Republican and Congressional staffer, Mike Lofgren, for the liberal talk show host and political commentator Bill Moyers, popular governance is a myth in the United States. There are, Lofgren writes, two U.S. governments in and around Washington DC. The first government is the more “visible” one, focused on the pronouncements and parliamentary maneuvers of elected officials and their staffs in the Capitol (Congress) and, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. It constitutes “the traditional Washington partisan politics” that is “theoretically controllable [by the populace] via elections.”
The “Diversionary Marionette Theater”
The second state, which has “taken over America,” is “another, more shadow, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists” in the nation’s capital. It “operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.” It constitutes what Lofgren calls the Deep State: “a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country…connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose.” The chief components of this Deep State include:
The Department of Defense
The Department of State
The Department of Homeland Security
The Central Intelligence Agency
The Department of the Treasury, included “because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions, and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street”
The White House, which “coordinates all [the above] agencies via the National Security Council“
A “handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan” where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted
A “kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees”
A giant network of “private” defense and intelligence firms (e.g., Blackwater, Booze Allen Hamilton, Haliburton, etc.) who together employ “854,000 contract personnel with top-security clearances” (more than the number with such clearances employed directly by the federal government) and whose chiefs often take top government positions (fittingly enough since they are almost entirely dependent on government business)
Silicon Valley, whose high-tech companies “do the NSA’s bidding” despite their executives’ sham “libertarian” pose, in return for Washington’s indulgence of their obsession with intellectual property rights
Wall Street, “which supplies the cash that [through election funding, lobbying and more] keeps the political machine quiescent and operating as a diversionary marionette theater” while its executives enjoy “de facto criminal immunity” and its strategically placed representatives in government advance the financial sector’s policy agenda (de-regulation, taxcuts for their rich and their corporations).
Who is the biggest player of all? Capital. “It is not too much,” Lofgren writes, “to say that Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice— certainly beyond the dreams of a salaried government employee…. The corridor between Manhattan and Washington is a well-trodden highway for the personalities we have all gotten to know in the period since the massive deregulation of Wall Street: Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Timothy Geithner, and many others.”
Examples are not limited to top government staff “connected with the purely financial operations of the government.” Take former leading and legendary U.S. General David Patraeus, whose perceived skills at peddling Deep State influence garnered him a highly rewarding position at a giant Wall Street private equity firm (KKR) after he left “public service” in disgrace. As Lofgren notes, “the membrane between government and industry is highly permeable.” The pay grade is much, much higher in “industry,” or, more commonly, in finance.
Running Beneath Surface Deadlock
While elected officials and other politicians caught up in the Wall Street-funded “marionette theater” of Washington’s highly visible partisan politics are typically said to be engaged in “ideological warfare,” Deep State operatives like Patraeus, Summers, Rubin, and (former Bush 43 and Obama 44 Defense Secretary) Robert Gates “are careful to pretend that they have no ideology. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well considered advice based on profound expertise.” That is total nonsense since, “they are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. That ideology combines the Washington Consensus: financialization, out-sourcing, privatization, deregulation and the commodi- fying of labor, with 21st-century ‘American Exceptionalism: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world with coercive diplomacy and boots on the ground and to ignore painfully won international norms of civilized behavior.” In other words, to use terms Lofgren does not employ in his essay, neoliberal state capitalism and aggressive military empire at home and abroad and the victory of the right hand of the state over the left hand of the state.
Pundits and politicians alike commonly decry the “broken,” “gridlocked,” “crippled,” and “dysfunctional” nature of the highly visible politics and policy that define the official government—the one whose horrid partisan paralysis is a regular item on the nightly news. They do so with no small reason for, “in the domain that the public can see.” Congress is, in fact, hopelessly divided and Congressional Tea Party Republicans who owe no small part of their position to partisan gerrymandering, are deeply and powerfully dedicated, making it impossible for Barack Obama to implement even his centrist, business-friendly “domestic policies and budgets.” The strategy amounts to “congressional nullification” of the executive branch on matters like health care and immigration policy.
But, Lofgren darkly notes, beneath this partisan deadlock at the surface parliamentary level, the corporatist Deep State is running quite smoothly, thank you very much. On one hand, the nation’s bridges, railroads, highways, and electronic grid are rotting away. Vast swaths of the populace have been rendered permanently jobless and poor, the social safety net torn to shreds along with public infrastructure. Cities have gone bankrupt, across the nation, especially in the Midwestern rustbelt, with no relief. The “ordinary, visible parliamentary institutions of self-government” have “decline[ed] to the status of a banana republic amid the gradual collapse of public infrastructure.” On the other hand, the Deep State under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have managed, somehow, to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on right hand state policies that include a massive global and domestic empire of Orwellian electronic surveillance, repeated foreign interference, invasion, and occupation, drone warfare, secret prisons not to mention —Lofgren does not—the colossal bailout of the “too-big-to-fail” Wall Street firms, whose top managers stand above the law even after plunging millions into poverty and even as the federal government regularly imposes life-without-parole sentences on alleged small time drug-dealers.
As Lofgren notes, Obama may be stymied on numerous measures of milquetoast domestic reform, but he has easily “summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there.” Further: “At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to, that country’s intelligence.
“Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life…. [and] Since 9/11, 33 facilities for top-secret intelligence have been built or are under construction [in and around Washington D.C.]. Combined, they occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons—about 17 million square feet.”
But there’s no contradiction or paradox here. This is the Deep State winning, advancing corporate and financial and military empire and inequality at home and abroad, entrenching the neoliberal (a word Lofgren avoids, mistakenly in my opinion) victory of the right hand over the left hand of the state.
None of this is about conspiracy. “The state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight,” Lofgen notes, “and its operatives act mainly in the light of day.” This more subterranean, under-the-radar state, churns along without serious criticism beyond the occasional remarkable rebellions of people like Edward Snowden because, Lofgren believes, it has become so deeply entrenched in the normal institutional and occupational life of Washington as to become something almost like background noise for educated and “properly adjusted” people in and around Washington. It is the air that the nation’s capital breathes and (no small matter) the source of income for hundreds of thousands of operatives. And, as Upton Sinclair once said, in a passage Lofgren quotes, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
There is plenty for any serious Left commentator or activist to find fault with in Lofgren’s essay. When he talks about recently rising signs of rebellion against the Deep State, he mentions the activism of Snowden and of the “Tea Party Wahabbists” who have chosen to interrupt the flow of taxpayer dollars the Deep State requires. He has nothing to say about the Left-led Occupy Movement that arose after the debt-ceiling crisis that disgusted Lofgren (and millions of other Americans) to expose and challenge the bipartisan plutocracy, only to be crushed by the national and security surveillance state and by militarized local police department directed by mainly Democratic mayors across the country. He makes no reference to the left and progressive activists who worked to help defeat Obama’s effort to launch a Deep State air war on Syria, or to the liberal and left environmentalists who have forced Obama to delay the ecocidal Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
Occupy, it should be noted, reflected an actual popular uprising, a grassroots social movement, however short- lived—something rather different from the corporate- backed Astroturf Tea Party phenomenon. Unlike “the Tea Party,” it was unattached to either of the major political parties and it was uninterested, for the most part, in electoral politics, reflecting a basic underlying agreement with Lofgren’s sense that those politics are a diversionary theater managed by Wall Street funders and corporate consultants.
The environmental crisis, “the number 1 issue of our or any time” (John Sonbanmatsu) is missing from Lofgren’s essay, despite its pressing urgency and its intimate relationship to the problem of corporate and military rule. Other and related issues intimately linked to the power of the aforementioned interrelated dictatorships that go unmentioned in Lofgren’s essay include:
racism, sexism, mass and racially disparate incarceration, the prison-industrial complex
the deep evisceration of the American labor movement
the emergence of a New Gilded Age of shocking economic inequality, chronic overwork
the broader capitalist war on American workers’ living and work standards
the pervasively arch-authoritarian and soul-numbing tyranny of the American workplace (where most working-age Americans spend the lion’s share of their waking hours)
corporate and military control of American education (K-PhD)
the basic and longstanding contradiction between capitalism (dedicated to the concentration of wealth and [hence] power) and to private profit
democracy deeply (and truly) understood (dedicated to equal power and influence for all and to the common good)
the pervasive dissemination of a neoliberal capitalist ideology and culture that attacks the very notion of democratic solidarity and resistance on the part of citizens and workers while reducing everyone’s status, wealth, and power to a matter of “personal responsibility.”
Washington’s Deep State is real and terrifying, to be sure. Still, it should never be forgotten that the authority structures most regularly confronted and experienced by most ordinary Americans are found in everyday workplaces, schools, prisons, public and private bureaucracies, streets, councils, churches and other often militantly and multiply hierarchical locations across the nation. Listen, for example, to the following account of work under the relentless control of totalitarian bosses and technologies at Amazon’s giant U.S. warehouses, which bear the unapologetically Orwellian name of (no joke) “Fulfillment Centers”: “….at all Amazon’s centers…the cult of the customer…provides the rationale for the extreme variant of scientific management whose purpose, as at Walmart, is to keep pushing up employee productivity while keeping hourly wages at or near poverty levels….
“As at Walmart, Amazon achieves this with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dexterous employees will begin to fail. As at Walmart, there is a pervasive ‘three strikes and you’re out’ culture, and when these marginal employees acquire too many demerits (‘points’), they are fired…. Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met…. All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to 11 hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse.
“In March 2011, she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide….others work on assembly lines packing goods for shipping….Machines measure… whether the packers [are] meeting their targets for output per hour and whether the finished packages met their targets for weight and so had been packed ‘the one best way.’ But alongside these digital controls there [is] a team of [Frederick Winslow] Taylor’s ‘functional foremen’…watching the employees every second to ensure that there was no ‘time theft,’ in the language of Walmart. On the packing lines there [are] six such foremen, one known in Amazonspeak as a ‘coworker’ and above him five ‘leads,’ whose collective task [is] to make sure that the line kept moving. Workers [are] reprimanded for speaking to one another or for pausing to catch their breath…after an especially tough packing job.
“The functional foreman…record[s] how often the packers [go] to the bathroom and, if they [do] not [go] to the bathroom nearest the line, why not…in the manner of Jeremy Bentham’s nineteenth-century panopticon, the architecture of [an Amazon] depot [is] geared to make surveillance easier, with a bridge positioned at the end of the workstation where an overseer [can] stand and look down on his wards. However, the task of the depot managers and supervisors [is] not simply to fight time theft and keep the line moving but also to find ways of making it move still faster. Sometimes this [is] done using the classic methods of scientific management, but at other times higher targets for output [are] simply proclaimed by management, in the manner of the Soviet workplace during the Stalin era…. Beyond this poisonous mixture of Taylorism and Stakhnovism, laced with twenty-first-century IT, there is, in Amazon’s treatment of its employees, a pervasive culture of meanness and mistrust that sits ill with its moralizing about care and trust—for customers, but not for the employees. So, for example, the company forces its employees to go through scanning checkpoints when both entering and leaving the depots, to guard against theft, and sets up checkpoints within the depot, which employees must stand in line to clear before entering the cafeteria…shrinking the employee’s lunch break from thirty to twenty minutes, when they barely have time to eat their meal” ( Simon Head, “Worse Than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s Sick Brutality and Secret History of Ruthlessly Intimidating Workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014).
Clearly, one does not have to go to the Washington metropolitan area to see proto-dystopian American corporate-neoliberal arch-authoritarianism in plain sight action. You can start with any number of local and regional workplaces, schools, courthouses, and prisons.
One omission in “Anatomy of the Deep State” seems particularly glaring. How do we comprehend the Deep State’s success in cloaking its existence and advancing both the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” and the “American exceptionalist” Empire Project without factoring in the powerful role of the giant media conglomerates inManufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman) and “taking the risk out of democracy” (Alex Carey) by filtering current events and shaping popular perceptions in accord with the needs of business and policy elites? Among the many ways corporate media plays this key propagandistic and ideological role is played is to focus citizens’—perhaps at this point I should say “‘ex-citizens’—sense of “politics,” the only politics that matters, on the recurrent time-staggered and candidate-centered major party big money elections that Lofgren so hauntingly and accurately describes as “diversionary marionette theater”—purchased by Wall Street. This project of demoting the citizenry to a corporate-“managed electorate” (as Sheldon Wolin put it in his 2008 book Democracy Incorporated) misses the fact that, as Noam Chomsky noted ten years ago, “the personalized quadrennial [electoral] extravaganzas…[are] only a small part of politics.” A much bigger and more relevant part of the politics that ought to matter is to build and expand “forces for change that come up from the grass roots” to “shape policy in a progressive direction” on the model of the U.S. labor, civil rights, peace, and women’s movements of the past (Noam Chomsky, Interventions).
At the very least, the top owners and managers of the vast, simultaneously Orwellian and (Aldous) Huxlean corporate and entertainment media complex deserve honorary mention among the permanent Deep State ruling class that runs the county in service to elite interests beneath and beyond the carefully stage-managed “marionette theater” of purportedly popular elections. It’s not for nothing that the New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, Mark Leibovich, included top media operatives and owners among those he described as the deeply entrenched and corporate-captive establishment that runs and profits from Washington beneath and beyond the partisan political theatre in his bestselling book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital (2013).
Cadres Needed More
Could Lofgren’s imagined “figure with the serene self-confidence to tell us that the twin idols of national security and corporate power are outworn dogmas” help spark and sustain such a renewed rank and file social movement—one that picked up and built on Occupy’s focus on corporate power and plutocracy—and indeed even on capitalism? Perhaps. Still, we should never forget the egalitarian wisdom behind the great early 20th century American socialist Eugene Debs’ determination to “rise with, not from the masses,” informed by Debs’ belief that “if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out.” Grassroots organizational cadre would seem the more urgent requirement, not inspirational leaders, who can of course be assassinated or perhaps executed with relative ease by Deep States with resources like those Lofgren describes. One leader—not unlike what Lofgren imagines—emerged in the 1960s only to meet the assassin’s bullet he had expected for many years: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One could certainly raise other and related questions about Lofgren’s essay. Isn’t “financialization” really just an aspect of the deeper disease called capitalism, the same system that has (quite logically from its own profit-seeking imperatives) shifted production from the U.S. rustbelt to China and other lower-wage pars of the world economy? What’s so great about manufacturing, which involves, after all, the systematic extraction of surplus labor from workers wherever it is practiced? How does the deep U.S. state today differ from the deep U.S. state of, say, the years in which C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite (1956), a sweeping study of U.S. corporate, political, and military elites and the revolving door power structures that shaped American policy and society beneath the surface play of electoral politics in early Cold War America? Key differences can be found relating to the significantly increased globalization and transnational character of capital in the neoliberal era—a subject that receives little attention in Lofgren’s essay but lay at the heart of another former system insider’s book: David Rothkopf’s Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008).
What does Lofgren wish to see emerge across the U.S. after his imagined defeat of the Washington-centered Deep State on the model of the Soviet’s bloc’s disappearance in the 1990s? Democracy and social justice–real popular sovereignty and policy in service to the common good—are not going to emerge on the basis of contemporary capitalism (the Russian and Eastern European experience is certainly not very encouraging in that regard). Neither is livable ecology.
A return to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, whose current fecklessness Lofgren bemoans, seems less than fully desirable, as that document was designed precisely to ensure that (to paraphrase leading U.S. founder John Jay’s statement of the desirable state of affairs in the young American republic) the country would be run by the people who owned it.
Defectors and Insiders Are Needed
Still, Lofgren has done a great service to those of us on the officially marginalized Left who believe (I would prefer to say “observe”) that the United States has become an abjectly authoritarian and corporate-managed imperial plutocracy. It’s not for nothing that leftists during the last great American democracy upsurge (the 1960s) preferred quoting departing U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to citing the (prematurely deceased) radical sociologist C. Wright Mills when noting the existence of a powerful and sinister military-industrial-complex pulling strings behind the façade of American democracy. Or that left anti-imperialists and anti- corpora- tists love to quote the one-time decorated U.S. Marine General Smedley J. Butler on how he was in essence as “a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers” during numerous early 20th-century deployments in Central America and the Caribbean. Or that we take special delight in citing John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004), a former U.S. corporate “economic consultant” who told how he was employed to help the U.S. and its financial sector impoverish “developing nations,” cheating them out of trillions of dollars while inducing them to structure their economies around the needs of rich nation investors. Not to mention Daniel Ellsburg or the ongoing Snowden surveillance revelations, which have rattled Deep State bones like nothing in recent memory.
There’s nothing like evidence from those who have worked in, or, at least (as in Lofgren’s case) somewhat near, the belly of the Deep State beast. Part of what makes Leibovich’s book useful for serious progressives is that it is penned by a self-confessed member of the Washington business, politics, and media “Club.” Such sources are much more difficult for elites and power- worshippers to dismiss than a Mills, a Howard Zinn, a Michael Parenti, or a Noam Chomsky, which is no small part of why they catch a special kind of hell from the power centers they can no longer serve when they go public with uncomfortable truths. My criticisms aside, Lofgren deserves our thanks for not going quietly from the corporate-captive U.S. government—and for deepening his critique of the system as his time away and the perspective afforded by distance grows.
Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of six books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era(New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); and (with Anthony DiMaggio)Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).