Speculations over the possible existence of a bureaucratic deep state are the latest manifestation of a very old way of looking at power politics, using a framework that divides political power into three categories: the power of the leader, the power of the elite and the power of the multitude. The argument that the best government combines all three can be traced back to classical political theory and influenced the founders of modern government, including the architects of the American republic. Bureaucracy has been a fundamental aspect of modernization and represents the modern form of government by the few. Ideas about the new class and the managerial or deep state are attempts to describe modern bureaucratic aristocracies, which are part of the enduring political triangle of leader, elite and populace.
The Classic Power Triangle and the Rise of the Bureaucratic Aristocracy
In Politics, Aristotle draws on the cycle of governmental forms described by Plato and identifies three basic types of theoretically desirable government: rule by one person (monarchy), rule by a small number of people (aristocracy) and rule by the majority of the citizens (democracy). Each of these can serve the common good. Government by one individual has the virtue of efficiency and decisiveness. Aristocrats can bring high levels of knowledge, education, and ability to public affairs. The multitude, although made up of individuals, each of whom possesses only limited talents for government, can bring a wide range of insights and views to the shared business of public management.
Each of these forms of government, however, has an evil twin, motivated by self-interest. A single ruler, if he governs in his own interest, will become an oppressive tyrant. A small number of powerful individuals or families might rule as an oligarchy, pursuing their own interests at the expense of the common good. When driven by self-interest, majority rule can turn into a majoritarian tyranny, which tramples the rights of individuals or minority groups, and is prone to the influence of demagogues.
To compensate for this, Aristotle argues that the best compromise is a mixed state that includes elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. This concept of the mixed state became a commonplace of classical political theory. Polybius, in The Histories, argues that the Roman republic owed its success to the fact that its constitution included a dual elective monarchy (the two consuls), an aristocracy (the senate) and democracy (popular votes on offices, honors and capital punishment decisions). Cicero, in De Re Publica, treats the desirability of mixed government as conventional wisdom.
This Aristotelian distinction of government by the one, the few, and the many does not detail how those forms might be combined. Although Aristotle describes how democracy can lead to tyranny through the demagogic appeal to popular opinion, he and his classical heirs pay little attention to the possibility of a combination of a powerful monarchy and a co-opted aristocracy, such as the Chinese empire or ancien régime France. Understandably, ancient political thinkers did not foresee all of the different forms the one, the few and the many would take.
The extent to which a constitution of mixed powers contributed to Roman success is debatable. However, struggles between the power triangle of imperator-optimates-populares were a constant in the Roman republic from at least the 187 BCE trial of Scipio Africanus, who was suspected by factions in the Senate of using his popular appeal to establish himself as monarch, until Augustus made himself sole ruler by strategically subordinating and co-opting both the elite and popular factions, following his military victory at Actium in 31 BCE.
Medieval and early modern political theory tend to discard the mixed government model in favor of unitary sovereignty under a monarch. The beginning of the late modern period, at the end of the eighteenth century, saw a revival of classical political ideas. The founders of the American republic, in particular, explicitly drew on the Aristotelian tradition in designing the constitution of their new nation. They intended the president to hold the executive functions of a limited, elective monarchy. The Senate, initially elected by state legislatures, would be an aristocracy. The House of Representatives, elected by the majority of voters in each state, would provide the democratic element.
Over the decades, the functions shifted. Notably, the Supreme Court, consisting of judges with lifetime appointments, came to play a more aristocratic role. Following the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case, the court established itself as the ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of laws and policies, a function that was not explicitly delineated by the constitution itself. A little over a century later, the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution democratized the Senate by establishing the popular election of senators, rendering the upper house, like the lower house, sensitive to popular sentiment.
Alongside the growth in the size and reach of government, a new aristocracy was rising in the background. The reforms of the Progressive Era, the demands of two world wars, the expanded social involvements of the New Deal and the welfare state, and the emergence of the United States as a global power produced an organizational aristocracy of governmental officials and managers. This organizational aristocracy has been a universal development of modern governments.
Modernity and the Bureaucratic Aristocracy
In the 2012 film Lincoln, we see the president hounded by office-seekers. Before the establishment of a professional civil service, jobs in government went almost entirely to political appointees. The spoils system reigned supreme, and the staffing of public positions relied heavily on favors, friendships and patronage networks. Ability and expertise were accidental. The movement away from client-patron connections toward professionalism in public life has owed much to the transformation of both government and business into corporate bureaucracies.
Although the word bureaucracy carries negative connotations in popular use, it also implies professionalization and relative efficiency. Sociological theorist Max Weber identifies the rise of bureaucracy as essential to the rationalization of human endeavors, in both government and business. A bureaucracy in the Weberian sense is a hierarchy organized according to systematic processes, with specialized duties attached to offices held by individuals appointed through rule-based accreditation, rather than bound by personal loyalties to the powerful or to popular favor.
This shift from political power, acquired through autocratic or democratic means, to organizational management, suggests, to some, the diminishing role of political movements and beliefs in complex modern societies. In The End of Ideology (1960), sociologist Daniel Bell argues that, in the post-World War II period, the great ideologies of Marxism, socialism and liberalism were disappearing as shapers of decision-making. Management, not politics, was becoming the rule for governments, and control of public life was increasingly under the direction of technocrats, planners and experts. In the early 1960s, the view that ideology had been displaced by organizational management led to the idea that governments would experience increasing convergence. Differences between capitalist, democratic socialist and communist countries would decrease as they all moved toward mixed systems, run by experts.
In Political Order and Political Decay (2014), the second volume of his study of the historical development of the modern state, Francis Fukuyama describes the Weberian shift from a patronage-based public sector to an impersonal bureaucracy as an essential dimension of state-building. Fukuyama identifies the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 as the first major step toward the professionalization of the US federal government. The United States was, in this account, a latecomer to government by rule-based, impersonal procedures, delayed by its commitment to decision-making through popular elections. The agencies that grew during the Progressive Era owed much to the concept of scientific management and to the distinction between politics (the realm of public decisions) and management (the realm of efficient operations).
Fukuyama emphasizes the importance of bureaucratic autonomy. To work well, a bureaucracy needs insulation from external pressures by the public or office-holders. However, he also argues that excessive autonomy in some highly developed bureaucratic polities has reduced the accountability of organizations. The ideal state, then, must establish the correct level of autonomy. However, Fukuyama never clearly identifies how bureaucracies can achieve the right balance between autonomy and democratic accountability.
The New Class as Bureaucratic Aristocracy
The greatest problem posed by modern bureaucratic aristocracies is that the more powerful they become, the more they approach centralized oligarchies. Twentieth-century communism illustrated this tendency. Karl Marx believed that movement toward communism would be movement toward an ultimately stateless society, in which workers would collectively control the means of production and hold power without the need of a formal governmental apparatus. However, under Lenin, a political party became the mechanism for collectivizing ownership and making political decisions, while theoretically preparing for the ideal communism, which receded ever further into the fictional future.
Looking back, we often view Soviet communism as a dictatorship under Stalin. However, Stalin’s success in consolidating his power lay in his clever use of the bureaucratic power of appointment, as Communist Party General Secretary, along with a ruthless and brutal approach to party politics. Instead of a stateless society, the Soviet Union became a nation ruled by the elite party functionaries of the nomenclatura.
Milovan Ɖilas, vice president of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia under Josef Broz Tito, developed the theory of the new class to describe the party aristocracies of communist countries. According to Ɖilas, the communist states replaced elites based on property ownership with a new class, whose members owed their elite status to political power exercised through party offices. The internal purges and terror that accompanied the consolidation of power of the new class gradually settled into a more moderate policy of simple self-preservation on the part of the elite. Ɖilas argues that, in this period of relative moderation, splits could appear among party factions, which could undermine the oligarchy and open the way to popular reaction. As a believer in the fundamental ideals of communism, though, he thought this would produce a more egalitarian and democratic socialism, rather than the collapse of communist systems that actually occurred after his death.
One of the interesting aspects of the Soviet communist experience was the monarchical tyranny of the oligarchy. Aristotle had believed that tyrants would likely take power as result of the corruption of democracy, with powerful leaders who appealed to the majority. In the modern world, though, a bureaucracy can provide either an alternative power base to that of the single ruler or a means by which a single power can take control. In the long run, though, as we see in the Soviet example, the bureaucracy will outlast the ruler.
Chinese communism, under Mao Tse Tung, offered another variation of the populace-bureaucracy-ruler triangle. Mao saw the rise of a bureaucratic communist party class as a challenge to his authoritarian rule. After the disastrous decisions he made in the Great Leap Forward, he believed, probably accurately, that the party bosses would seek to ease him out. The Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s was essentially a populist power play, in which Mao used the slogans of ideological purity to inspire the youthful Red Guards to revolt violently in support of him and against the organizational aristocracy.
From Managerial Aristocrats to the Deep State
The most influential exponent of a new class-type theory in a Western market society was James Burnham, a Trotskyist turned conservative. Drawing on the work of Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means, who argue in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932) that the corporation separated control from ownership through professional management, Burnham maintains in The Managerial Revolution (1941) that power over both governmental and business activities is being taken over by a new ruling elite of executives, managers and bureaucrats. Although modern societies might have the appearance of democracy, in reality they are run by an organizational aristocracy.
Along similar lines, but from a political perspective dramatically different from that of Burnham, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills argues, in The Power Elite (1956), that a tripartite oligarchy, consisting of an organizational elite in business, government and the military, has assumed control of American society. Although political parties and elections might give the appearance of democracy, in reality those who move among the three bureaucracies control and direct decision-making by the elected executive and legislative branches.
Conservative political theorist Paul Gottfried developed Burnham’s idea of a bureaucratic aristocracy of managers into a new class argument about mass democracy in the west. In After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (1999), Gottfried argues that, over the course of the twentieth century, the United States and other advanced nations ceased to be either self-governing democracies or classical liberal polities, emphasizing individual freedom and responsibility. Instead, according to Gottfried, mass democracies became welfare states, controlled and administered by bureaucratic elites. Gottfried saw social reformist programs, such as affirmative action and multiculturalism, as ways in which new organizational elites maintain their own power by turning significant parts of the populace into clients. In Aristotelian terms, the few create and maintain an oligarchy through manipulation of the many.
Criticisms of the therapeutic state or the nanny state are variations on this view of late corporate market societies as organizational oligarchies. The argument that modern bureaucracies use ideological justifications to control and direct public thought and behavior can encompass business as well as governmental bureaucracies. In 2017, James Damore, an engineer at Google, wrote an essay in which he argues that the company is intolerant of opinions that do not conform to the corporate position on gender ideology and that the underrepresentation of women in Google’s ranks is a product of gender-based IQ distributions, not structural discrimination. Damore’s controversial second point may well have been wrong, but Google proved him entirely correct on the first when they fired him. Later, a court ruled that Google had not discriminated against him for holding and expressing a dissenting opinion because Damore, who was not accused of harassing anyone or treating anyone unfairly, was creating a “hostile work environment” by voicing the wrong thoughts. Corporate and judicial elites were united in demanding conformity of opinion.
In this environment, the concept of the deep state became part of a reaction against organizational elites. The term deep state is frequently said to derive from Turkey, where many people believe that an institutionalized military-governmental oligarchy controls Turkish political life from behind the scenes. Worries about this putative deep state helped secure the election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002. By stoking popular reaction against the deep state elite, Erdogan was engaging in the classic tactic of creating a leader-populace alliance against the power of an aristocracy.
Invoking the deep state became part of American political strategy during the election campaign of Donald Trump. Associated especially with the thinking of presidential advisor Steve Bannon, the concept of the deep state in twenty-first century US politics involves a version of new class theory, in which an entrenched bureaucracy, characterized by its own interests and goals, operates as an aristocratic parallel government behind the scenes of electoral politics. The idea of the deep state can, for its adherents, explain the apparent disagreement with the unconventional new president on many political issues by established governmental agencies. Evidence of official suspicion and disapproval of Trump, because of his personality as well as his complicated past and his actions, fed claims that investigations into his campaign and resistance to him were products of deep state efforts to undermine his presidency.
This may have been closely associated with Trump’s strategy of using the threat of organizational aristocracy to garner populist support for executive authority, but the theory extended well beyond Trump or his supporters. In an 2018 interview, Edward Snowden remarks, from his exile in Russia, “as for this idea that there is a Deep State, now the Deep State is not just the intelligence agencies, it is really a way of referring to the career bureaucracy of government.”
Thinking About the Bureaucratic Elite
To many of us, deep state theories seem somewhat conspiratorial and paranoid. Nevertheless, there is some basis to these assertions. Whenever people occupy a common position in a society, they develop common cultural assumptions and common goals and interests. As career bureaucrats have become an essential part of the complex organizations of business and government, they have tended to coalesce into a distinctive and influential social class. The managerial class is not, as Daniel Bell suggests, a set of politically neutral administrators and technicians. Presidents come and go and popular opinions change over time, but bureaucracies continue.
Concerns about a bureaucratic oligarchy, therefore, are entirely legitimate. However, there are three big reasons to avoid characterizing the managerial class or the deep state as the sole threat to a mixed-system republic. The first is that our bureaucrats may not be politically neutral administrators and technicians, but they are administrators and technicians. As Max Weber has pointed out, complex modern organizations require bureaucrats. The alternative to career office-holders would be to go back to the spoils system of the nineteenth century, although our organizations are far more elaborate and complex than those of that time.
The second reason is that the rule of the experts may often undermine popular democracy, but often the experts may be right and the public at large wrong. There is no guarantee that scientists or policy planners will have the correct answers to any particular question, but they can generally make more informed decisions about scientific and policy issues than non-experts.
The third reason is that bureaucrats are only one side of the power triangle. Aristotelian arguments against unlimited popular rule or concentration of power by an executive continue to be valid. Career bureaucrats have a legitimate role to play in maintaining constancy and balance.
How then should we take managerial state or deep state arguments seriously, while avoiding treating the bureaucratic elite as our only concern? The answer, I think, lies in limiting the role of the organizational aristocracy, not eliminating it. If bureaucracies are critical to large-scale organizations, one reasonable response would be to limit the range of power of all three parts of the triangle by emphasizing localism as much as possible.
The other main way to keep a bureaucratic aristocracy from becoming an oligarchy is to make a distinction between the management of tasks and the management of society. Large corporations can be efficient in providing goods and services. But they move toward subtle dictatorships when they define their missions as social reform and attempt to redesign the thoughts and cultures of their employees and cultures. Similarly, governmental agencies exist to serve the populace as it is, not to reshape it into a more ideal form.