A friend asked me this week, “What do you think of the ‘deep state’?
The short answer is, “I try not to.” Mostly because it has no meaningful impact on my life.
‘Deep state’ is the idea that some sort of shadow government made up of rich, powerful actors wields power, either within or behind the legitimately elected government.
And the ‘deep state’ within the US bureaucracy is working to destroy Donald Trump’s presidency, rather than his implosion being the more obvious inevitable outcome of his own inadequacy. Why simply be in over one’s head when you can be a victim, instead?
Such ideas are beloved of conspiracy theorists. And they seem to be flaring up faster than outbreaks of COVID-19 at a bat-munching buffet.
Bill Gates has a diabolical plan to microchip everyone with his fake coronavirus vaccine. Oh no. What happens next? Will people around the world slump in their chairs each time Windows has to update? Will they flake out for 30 minutes every morning as McAffee Anti-Virus downloads all the latest patches?
Psssst…. you’re already carrying your own micro-chipped tracking device that follows you everywhere and knows everything you do. It’s your phone.
Okay, but aircraft vapour trails are really chemtrails seeding the sky.
Vaccines cause autism — so whatever you do, don’t inoculate your kid against the diseases that ravaged Western civilization and caused terrible infant mortality, like polio, measles, or tetanus. Better to risk an iron lung and an early death.
And perhaps the most bizarre of all, coronavirus is spread by 5G antennas. I think the far bigger worry of smart phones is that they transmit stupidity and kill off attention spans.
No, I just don’t have any patience for COVID conspiracy theories.
Have you ever worked for a government department or a large company?
If yes, then please take a moment to imagine you have to orchestrate a complicated conspiracy theory — 9/11 as an inside job, or deliberately bringing down your own economy with a fake pandemic.
But you have to pull it off using the people in your department. Yes, your actual coworkers.
Good luck with that.
It’s hard enough to organize a conference call or panel discussion with five people, let alone a massive global conspiracy.
The best we can hope for is a successful surprise birthday party.
And that’s how I feel about this whole shadowy notion of the ‘deep state’. It’s just a way for powerless people to give themselves a sense of volition in a confusing and very complicated world.
“Yeah, that’s what they want you to believe. But I know what’s really going on!”
So what is ‘deep state’?
The ‘deep state’ is a conspiracy theory version of something rather mundane.
There have always been special interest groups, lobbyists, and powerful business interests that try to move government or policy in the direction they want it to go.
Bureaucracies function as their own little fiefdoms, too, with plays for power and squabbles over budgets.
It’s human nature to try to tip the balance in one’s favour, by fair means or foul. Rules and laws exist to create a level playing field for everyone, just like they do in sports.
The confusion comes from people looking at how a government is supposed to work on paper, and then looking at how it works in practice.
Regular followers of this blog probably know that I read anthropology at uni. Well, I also read political science. (In Canada, we’d call it a double major in Anthropology and Political Science, with a minor in History.)
First and second year political science courses focused on studying the system of Canadian government: the relationship between the House of Commons and the Senate, the functioning of Parliamentary Committees, the powers of the Privy Council. The way things are supposed to work on paper.
Once that foundation was laid, we spent the next two years looking at the way things actually work. And that’s when it got really interesting.
Human societies work like this, too. But ‘culture’ is an implicit operating system, coded in myths and stories and strange behaviours that take a great deal of patience and immersion to tease out.
It’s easier to just dream up conspiracies.
Global issues are incredibly complicated. Humanity isn’t nearly as smart as we think we are. And individuals, groups and bureaucracies act in their own self-interest — often without completely understanding the bigger picture.
Take Malta, for example, the last place I studied at length. It’s a country the size of a medium city, where everyone knows or is related to just about everyone else. In such a small place, informal networks of power are much more important than political structures.
But history and geography also shaped the culture. On a barren rock without resources, conquered by everyone who came along, and governed by outside powers, people learned to survive by taking whatever they could grab before someone else took it first. Stealing from the colonial power was normal, as was nepotism and clientelism. The result was a cultural adaptation called amoral familism, a form of piracy on a personal level.
Networks of families and networks friends form the so-called ‘deep state’ in Malta, and politicians are easy to buy. Such an adaptation probably helped people survive over the centuries, but it spiralled out of control in recent years, and the price of that excess is now dragging the country down.
There’s nothing mysterious or conspiratorial about ‘deep state’. It’s just a way of mystifying informal networks of power. But I guess that’s easier than actually trying to study them.
What does it mean for me — and you?
What significance does any of this have in the current crisis? In other words, what’s in it for you?
I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you how I’m approaching it.
I’m certainly not wasting my time with conspiracy theories. I know it’s a fun hobby for some, but start taking that stuff seriously and you’ll be drinking your own urine and stockpiling super-pails of beans in a month.
As far as assessing risks and modifying my own behaviour, these guidelines are about the best I’ve found, based on current understanding.
I’m enjoying exercise outdoors — and stops at the biergarten — but still largely avoiding people. Grocery store visits are short, and we’re wearing masks. We’re getting takeaway from favourite local spots, too. But as much as I’d love to go to restaurants or bars again, I’d rather watch and wait.
Current knowledge is limited, and the science needs time to catch up. In the meantime, it’s pointless to worry about what they might find, or when governments might re-open travel or ease lockdowns. That can eat up days of aimless web surfing confusion.
Better to focus on the actions and risks you’re willing to take right now.
I’m also taking the long view of history. To me, that means recognizing ‘progress’ is not infinite, and crisis and collapse are normal parts of history.
I think John Gray is right in that the current economic crisis will accelerate the fissures and resentments that were already present in Europe, and speed them to what will either be a crisis or a slow collapse.
Years ago, Gray predicted a resurgence of the Far Right in Europe, and that is already happening. Far Right politicians and leaders have been elected in Italy, Hungary and Poland, the AfD Party has been elected to parliaments in Germany, and populism is on the rise across the continent.
We’re also seeing a surge in Far Left activity, which is just as dangerous but doesn’t seem to cause as much alarm, even as they torch cars in the night and throw paving stones at cops.
What’s most interesting to me is that, unlike the turbulent Weimar years that saw the rise of Hitler, we’re not seeing the Far Right and Far Left fighting each other on the streets of Berlin. Instead, we’re seeing Far Left and Far Right extremists coming together against the Centrists in Berlin’s recent anti-lockdown protests.
Sure, we’re also seeing examples of human cooperation as health care workers put their lives on the line to treat the sick, and as neighbours help neighbours who have suddenly become unemployed.
But I think we should expect these tensions to get worse rather than better. For all its utopian collectivism, Europe has a very long history of ugly conflicts and resentments. We’re already seeing a resurgence of nation-states inside the supposedly ‘borderless’ EU. The migrant crisis will get worse, and it will accelerate this trend.
I have no control over what governments are doing, how entire societies are responding to the pandemic, or who’s manipulating things from the shadows.
So I simply ignore it. It’s better to focus on things I can control.
Rather than waste my time with conspiracy theories, I’m trying to get a sense of where the post-pandemic opportunities might be when it comes to earning a living. And I’m preparing for things to get worse in Europe.
That means staying mobile, buffering my savings so I have the freedom to take action, and not being attached to specific outcomes, plans or goals.
It’s an interesting time to be here, watching and writing. But like Christopher Isherwood writing about Berlin in the 1930’s, I want to get out at the right time if things go off the rails again.