Juan Cole on the Vulnerability of the Network

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Credit: Dale Robbins
Mike Lofgren’s long experience on the Hill has given him a small window, he might say only an aperture, into a vast network of unaccountable governmental and private institutions he calls the “Deep State” in his essay. There is much that is valuable in his explication of these networks, which depend on public tax money for their operation but typically do not answer to the public in any significant way. Indeed, the public is assiduously kept in the dark about much of what they do.

The danger of this invisible institutional latticework to any but a dryly procedural notion of democracy is obvious. Its menace to individual privacy and liberty is obvious. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, invisible power corrupts invisibly.

Demonstrators march through Washington towards the National Mall to rally and demand that the US Congress investigate the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs, Oct. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Let me, however, push back a little bit against Lofgren’s conceptual apparatus. Egypt also has a Deep State, but the young revolutionaries who overthrew the president for life in 2011 warned against using the very conception, since, they said, it overstated the paper tiger of elite power and could discourage popular action to rein it in.

Lofgren seems to me to put too little emphasis on the impact of the September 11 attacks in allowing the vast expansion of the Deep State. It paralyzed Congress and the judiciary with regard to security and terrorism. So too did World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution allow the post-war Red Scare. These moments of timidity have occurred repeatedly in US history, but have been time-bounded. As 9/11 recedes, there will likely be a reassertion of other interests, as the author implicitly admits. A federal judge has already called NSA domestic spying “Orwellian.” As Lofgren notes, Silicon Valley’s brand name is now endangered by being tagged in international markets as spyware, and powerful tech firms with plans for cloud computing are unlikely to take it lying down.

Silicon Valley’s brand name is now endangered by being tagged in international markets as spyware, and powerful tech firms with plans for cloud computing are unlikely to take it lying down.
It seems to me that Lofgren’s paradigm also needs to be interrogated in two other respects. He slights the role of the president. The Iraq War was resisted by most of the institutions he names, and had to be sold so hard by the Bush administration precisely for that reason. It was not a project of the Deep State but of interlopers from Dallas and Houston. The conflicts among these institutions and within them is also slighted. The National Security Council had a virtual civil war over intervening in Libya and was tipped into it by NATO considerations; Deep State icon and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was opposed. Wall Street historically dislikes foreign wars because they are inflationary.

If the Deep State is not monolithic but divided over policy, and if it is in fact much more responsive to the exercise of public political power than the author admits, then it is vulnerable to a vigilant public.

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, blogger and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He blogs regularly at Informed Comment and you can follow him on Twitter @jricole.
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  • David

    I appreciate the learned voices who are adding their two cents worth to the discussion of the Deep State. I regularly read Juan Cole’s own blog and appreciate it. I must be mis-interpreting him when he writes that a bunch of Texas interlopers had to sell the Iraq War to the rest of the nation. Bush was a front, a figurehead, a newly-fundamentalist patsy, for a bunch of Neoconservatives who were only recently out of power and favor. They never lost their jobs in the Think Tanks and foundations, journals, and talk shows. Their interests and their buddies never vanished. Juan Cole certainly knows much more about Middle Eastern politics than I, but this one observation of his seems to miss the mark. It is not important that a few congressmen opposed that war. What was striking was how such an overwhelming number were so easily sold. I don’t believe the Deep State is so terribly divided after all.

  • jsegal

    Bill & Juan most of the neighbors I have know nothing of our gov reps names, jobs or responsibilities. How can we be vigilant if most citizens are in the dark be it by choice, habit or systemic design?

    America is not Egypt or Iceland (although I wish we would learn from Iceland’s revolution) and while we are more connected with social media we are all in our own self confirming bubbles and tend to think the whole country see’s the news and views we hold. There are more people on Twitter and Facebook discussing TV shows than their are those focused on the powers of the State and politics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bennett.schneider Bennett Schneider

    I agree and have the very same critique. Those using Bush as a front man had arrived in power in the Nixon and Reagan eras and stayed in various offices (where Lofgren says, “Unelected”) throughout the Carter and Clinton eras. Though Bush and Neo-Cons were defeated soundly in 2008, it is now obvious how deftly they have swayed the once progressive Obama to their bellicose purposes. It is like watching a vampire turn his victims.

  • Anonymous

    “Young revolutionaries” in egypt was not genuine – they were propagated by u.s. in order to overthrow unfriendly president of egypt and place a muslim brotherhood puppet in place.

  • Anonymous

    I think many people miss the point that the deep state is no longer a national threat, it is an international threat. The 1 % who control the action are no longer just in the US. Thanks to Davos, G 20, and God only knows what other gatherings and institutions, let alone the cyber contacts and interlocking nature of big, international corporations, the international 1 % now have some control of most advanced countries and many developing countries. It may just as likely be that a German, Greek, or Italian 1 percenter is directing ALEC or influencing our government policies in so many ways, as a Texan or a Bostonian.

  • Hunter Watson

    This invisible insider phenomenon by which our 18th Century Constitution is routinely bypassed as if nothing but a piece of paper is today’s greatest threat to American social stability—and thus to our liberties. The most arresting single example is the financialization of our economy without it so much as having been announced as a policy change. It has been a terrible blow. And yet the people have no idea how and by whom it was done or how to deal with it so as to recover their patrimony, their slice of the American future. How can one describe it other than as an act of theft.

    Mike Lofgren’s article is clearly a challenge of the first order. I share Dr. Cole’s relative optimism about the people having the tools to correct the path we are traveling, but they are largely helpless regarding such matters. They need leadership, comprehensive proposed legislation and a revived confidence in their own collective power. I don’t know where it is going to come from.

  • Anonymous

    Juan Cole has done work for the CIA and was a supporter of the criminal and disastrous Libyan War.

  • Anonymous

    And of the importance of hegemony over petroleum in terms of maintaining dollar hegemony over the global economy…

  • Anonymous

    “Let me, however, push back a little bit against Lofgren’s conceptual
    apparatus. Egypt also has a Deep State, but the young revolutionaries
    who overthrew the president for life in 2011 warned against using the
    very conception, since, they said, it overstated the paper tiger of
    elite power and could discourage popular action to rein it in.”

    I wonder how paper they would consider that Tiger now that it seems to have regained the reigns of power minus it’s front man.

  • Anonymous

    Link, please?

  • Anonymous

    Care to state your point instead of the vague pettifoggery?

    Cole seems to be saying that there are historical precedents for the current situation (though I think the private sector involvement in intel and military contracting deeply perverts the function of the government in an unprecedented way in modern western governments); and that there is evidence of and room for civil push back.

    Your remark aims at discrediting Cole.

    But many people have worked for the CIA. Many people of varying political stripes disagree about American legitimacy and will on the international stage, thanks to the perversity, profiteering, and abuse of the military at the hands of Bush-Cheney.

  • Anonymous

    The profoundness of E = mc2 and its “beauty” has been attributed to the simplicity of the formulation. Someone said the other day, “They don’t know what we’re dealing with.” And I thought they know, but they think we of lower station deserve to deal with it (people who act badly). And that is I guess meritocracy that has gotten whacked out. I believe some kind of anthropology or psychology or sociology…or some quantum jump in one or all of these fields…is lacking. Somehow media has themselves in cocoons. It has to be up to us. An idea whose time has come. Like Sheldrake says, the morphic field’ll crystalize it in many minds at once…maybe. Listening to this guy Tyson (sp?) today, I couldn’t believe it. NPR would be better off talking to Rachel Parent. Because of, for one thing, something called “infrastructure.” But then there’s whatever transformative mission of the economy itself. And what is it? It’s nothing. Well, we’re beyond getting all besotted with transformative missions, aren’t we? The revolution I think has already happened in terms of a frame most can understand; that is, it’s been formulated. Humans have maintained peace, according to the Girardians, with scapegoats (probably for 100,000 yrs or more). Seems too obvious, right? Well, just read the Girardians (explicators of Rene Girard). I may have the chronology wrong, but it seems we’ve gone into extreme “oneupsmanship.” Every micro-strata starting at the top scapegoats the layer directly beneath it. I mean…it seems we are in “the war of all against all” (which Girardians talk about a lot). What the heck is our economy doing? Take the phrase “train wreck.” Hey, we are literally there! All over the place hauling oil. It’s absurd. I think Juan Cole may be right that we shouldn’t get too ominous about the deepness. Maybe such could turn into despondency over unbeatable Masons & Bilderbergers, etc. What the economy should be producing I think we can comprehend. And the dysfunctionality that has overwhelmed us can be fathomed by our own minds…if we listen to whatever Fromm types are still around…vs the “screaming midgets” on winger media (ha, thanks Garrison).

  • Anonymous

    Something else the wonderful dancing cursor of Windows 7 forced me to put in “reply”–> More real sanity would come if we were actually producing something. Meanwhile, it’s not the corporation we’re loyal to…it’s the role the corporation gives us that we’re loyal to. We re-hash/recycle (produce) more versions of whatever insipid gossip and prolefeed is currently floating about…at our stations. Who the stupid ones (blame worthy ones) are. That’s basically where all our energy goes, not into any product. This is an overly absurd system. Humans need to be doing something with their hands.

  • Anonymous

    We are merely at the end of the resources needed to support it. The next stage is the brutality for which the state has been preparing for the past decade to subdue the upcoming food riots.

    Even a placid and serflike people as Americans will eventually rebel.