Engaging with the Deep State: The Anthropology of Bureaucratic Power

by Steve Sampson, Lund University

When bureaucratic functionaries or factions within government choose to undercut the agendas of political leaders, some of us call it ‘the resistance’ (to Trump), while Trump supporters have called this behaviour ‘disloyalty’, ‘corruption’ , whistleblowing or ‘sabotage’. The most common reaction by Trump loyalists to identify this opposition to political interference or bad policy is to label these officials them as part of ‘the deep state’. ‘Deep state’ is a pejorative now invoked by certain American media (no one admits to being a member). For those opposed to the Trump regime, the ‘deep state’ accusations are just another in a line of conspiracy theories.  But in fact, the term has a longer history in the US: it was formerly known as the ‘military-industrial complex’, and has paralells with Janine Wedel’s ‘shadow elite’ , i.e., flexible, unaccountable policy advisors and think tanks.

Moreover, there are ‘deep states’ as well as deep state rhetoric in many other parts of the world, most notably Turkey, or in Romania where the term ‘parallel state’ is used to describe the anti-corruption prosecution against political elites using secret-police like methods of surveillance. One could argue that the former socialist state apparatus were in fact run by a deep state, consisting of the ruling communist party apparatus and its security organs, to which the formal administrative state was subordinate. This communist party deep state was the real state. In this ‘real state’ conception of deep state, one could argue that in the U.S. the real state is the financial/bureaucratic elite, together with powerful corporations and their interest groups, who effectively govern, and without the consent of the governed. The deep state may therefore range from a conspiratorial pejorative to a clandestine apparatus exercising power. The deep state may thus have various factions, sometimes at odds with each other.

This panel takes the deep state seriously. It attempts to go beyond the conspiratorial polemics about the ‘deep state’ as articulated by certain US Media organs. It discusses the potential viability of this concept for anthropological analysis. Several questions arise if we consider taking the deep state concept seriously: first, to what extent can bureaucratic/administrative functionaries (the Ukraine experts who so testified so eloquently during the House impeachment hearings) undercut or subvert the agendas and policies of political leaders? Were they indeed ‘deep state’ representatives? This is an old question in political science about the relative autonomy of the bureaucracy versus the political sphere; it is clearly relevant for the anthropology of policy and political anthropology generally. Second, how should we study this kind of bureaucratic subversion or resistance as part of our interest in the anthropology of the state? Third, what kinds of policies have been developed to either facilitate/nurture or  combat the ‘deep state’? Are deep states not imminent in all state formations? What exactly is ‘deep’ about the deep state? Would it be valid to rename ‘deep state’ and call it a faction, clique or  parallel political network? This leads to other empirical questions: how do we know ‘resistance’ when we see it? What is the difference between the shadow elites,  the military-industrial-security complex, and the whistleblowing diplomats from the State Department who testified in Congress? In other words, can there be deep states that are good or bad? Is deepness always a bad thing? How can bureaucracies be manipulated or used by politicians who are in power, and out of power? And how do bureaucracies from the shadow elite use and manipulate politicans? What are the ties between conspiracy theories – launched either from below, from the media,  or from the state apparatus iself – and the deep state? Finally, are there local deep states in the communities or organizations we study that might make this concept a useful empirical starting point? Perhaps Trump was right about a deep state conspiracy against him, for perhaps it depends on how we define ‘state’. The project of this roundtable is to use the ‘deep state’ concept as a window to studying relations and conflicts between bureaucratic and political actors. The anthropology of policy is about the relationship between power-holders and power-implementers, including the bureaucracy. If we are to make an anthropology of bureaucracy and of the state, perhaps the deep state can be a convenient comparative window.

If you would like to participate in this roundtable, please contact steven.sampson@soc.Lu.se