What do you think of the ‘deep state’?

Spies everywhere…

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.

The Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the CIA and the Knights Templar are really running the world.

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.

Conspiracy theories

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.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Well thought out Ryan. As you say politicians are readily available. My concern or disappointment Is with the voting populations Rush to judgment without Sound foundation. Grabbing for easy answers To support Personal positions. In the US Middle class is eroding as left and right, if you will Circle the wagons, As each walks away from the table.

    I am not optimistic About a return to “normalcy” The world as I see it has been skiing on ice for quite some time And the skis are getting waxed.

    PS. And it’s more than just Trump

    • I agree, I’m not optimistic either. The current pandemic and increasing polarization are accelerating existing fractures, speeding us toward major change. It’s being compounded by social media, where more extreme views are rewarded with clicks. That strengthens the far left and far right at the expense of the centre, and prevents public life from finding some workable middle ground acceptable to both sides, as we’ve always done in the past. The pressures of mass unemployment, and the migrant crisis in Europe, will pile enough pressure on old grievances and unworkable systems to break them. And these problems will be compounded by weak opposition parties in nearly every important state. Right now we’re seeing incompetent leaders in many countries, and leaders on the way out in others, but there’s no credible opposition party or opposition leader in Canada, the United States, Japan, Germany, Malta, the UK and many other nations to replace them. The situation is dire, and will usher in major change. The post WWII global order is ending, as is that strange interval of peace and prosperity in the West that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re living in interesting times.

  • Hello, Ryan:

    As usual, succinct and stimulating, sincere and serious observations. The “deep state” conspiracy only lends credence to the fact that so many people are either obsessed with or prefer far-flung fictions rather than address the many changes that can be made to their own personal lives. As you state, such theories (be they factual or not) have been omnipresent since the first tribal societies of Homo sapiens came into being and, post WWII, have gained traction with the “intelligentsia”, so much so that anyone not subscribing to those beliefs is regarded as not being “woke” but merely one of the “sheeple”.
    Rather than picking up a book and reading history and learning the many lessons to be gleaned thereby, we now prefer to obtain our information o the true state of affairs from the right “sources” (yeah, I know, the quotation marks are on a rampage but deservedly so, given the present state of affairs).
    Dickens put it quite appropriately: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – he may have been delineating the societal norms and mores of London and Paris during the Revolution but the tale can be easily applied to the situation before us now. After WWII, the West enjoyed an acceleration of growth, materially and societally, never seen before. However, the lessons of history have always been the same, if only one can read, observe and think for oneself.
    Twilight is ineluctably giving way to darkening night for all of us – despite the politicians’ waning declarations of a better society, we should give heed to the diminishing voice of our own common sense and prepare for greater trials and tribulations in the years to come.
    Pessimistic perhaps but not nihilistic – just history once again repeating itself. Karma is a wheel and it can but go around and around…….

    • Thanks Bradley. I have no time for ‘deep state’ or COVID conspiracies, or for worrying about how the gov’t intends to solve the crisis. Even if the crazier conspiracies were true, there wouldn’t be anything I could do about them. Obsessing over them is pointless. I believe in choosing Direct rather than Indirect options. Alternatives that don’t require me to convince others to change their behaviour so I can be free.

      I can act faster by looking at what’s currently known with a high level of certainty (for example, how the virus is transmitted), thinking through the risks I’m willing to assume for myself, and moving forward based on that.

      I’m also watching to see whether the political situation in my area gets worse (something I have no control over) and making sure I’m prepared to act in case it does (something I can control). Like you, I think we’re moving into a period of chaos and strife.

      John Gray wrote that major historical changes are not gradual. They happen suddenly, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11. Sure, the seeds of conflict were there, and the consequences took time to play out. Russia took several years to change into a mob-run kleptocracy after the collapse of the USSR. And the destabilization of the Middle East and North Africa after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Gadaffi in Libya took time to play out, too, but the world was set on that track by the sudden events of 9/11. I think it’s very likely this virus and the sudden shutdown of the world economy will mark a change with a similar global weight.


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