The Long View: The Twilight of Democracy

Unlike the secretive NSA, sometimes it seems that everyone who retires from the CIA gets a book deal along with their pension. This book review is now nineteen years old, but it seems pertinent to understanding how the Deep State works. The Deep State might seem like a re-tread of Eisenhower's Military-Industrial Complex, but it is both broader and subtler than that. It is more like Cecil Rhode's Round Table groups for the present day, a broad network of like-minded individuals who have responsibility and influence in their own right, largely because of their intelligence and accomplishments, who collaborate informally.

Mike Lofgren has a pretty good definition of the Deep State, and if you include certain think tanks, contractors, and NGOs the picture would be more complete.

The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Department. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street. All these agencies are coordinated by the Executive Office of the President via the National Security Council. Certain key areas of the judiciary belong to the Deep State, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose actions are mysterious even to most members of Congress. Also included are a handful of vital federal trial courts, such as the Eastern District of Virginia and the Southern District of Manhattan, where sensitive proceedings in national security cases are conducted. The final government component (and possibly last in precedence among the formal branches of government established by the Constitution) is a kind of rump Congress consisting of the congressional leadership and some (but not all) of the members of the defense and intelligence committees. The rest of Congress, normally so fractious and partisan, is mostly only intermittently aware of the Deep State and when required usually submits to a few well-chosen words from the State’s emissaries.

If my life had taken a different turn, I could easily have come into contact with the Deep State at some point. One of my math professors suggested I look into working for the NSA, which I never did since the NSA has been a little too good at keeping a low profile; I simply had no idea of what they actually did, other than cryptography. If I had known, I might have pursued this idea at the time. I did interview for a job at Raytheon Missile Systems designing warheads that I ultimately did not take. I also have a number of friends and acquaintances from college or my subsequent working career who have ended up in national laboratories, or the State Department, or one of the big intelligence contractors, working on this or that.

All of this is clearly pretty peripheral to the Deep State as Lofgren describes it, but that is a good indicator of what the Deep State really is: not a shadowy cabal, but a big and influential part of American society that has sprung out of our victory in the Cold War and our continuing high defense spending from the Global War on Terror. There are probably few Americans who are more than a few degrees separated from this, because it is a major part of our economy. The college-educated STEM workforce is probably even more likely to be part of this, especially because you need to be a citizen of the United States to hold these jobs. Defense spending produces technical jobs that aren't easily available to immigrants.

Thus the Deep State has a sizable fraction of the population naturally on its side. However, it worth remembering that it was the Deep State that pushed for, and got, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now pushing for some sort of showdown with Russia. Much of the motivation for this comes from a conviction that culture and ideology don't matter; everyone is basically the same once you strip away the ethnographic razzle dazzle. Everyone wants the same things and has the same motivations, thus liberal democracy is all but inevitable once you topple the dictator.

We have now conducted this social experiment all over the world. Since so much blood and treasure has been expended testing this theory, we ought to pay attention to the results.

The Twilight of Democracy
by Patrick E. Kennon
Doubleday, 1995
$24.00, 308 pages
ISBN 0-385-47539-X

The Screwtape Report

The author of this book is a recently retired CIA analyst who, after 25 years on the job, is finally able to say in public what he actually thinks. There are, of course, no secrets here. The book is part political theory, part overview of the post-Cold War world situation. As the title suggests, Mr. Kennon is gleefully determined to puncture some secular pieties. The effort is not without success. This analysis would have gladdened the black heart of Ambrose Bierce himself. Thus, we learn that bureaucracy is the key to civilization, that democracy is tolerable only when it is just for show, that no state attains developed status without passing through a period of authoritarian rule. Mr. Kennon's ideas are worth listening to, and some of them might even be true. Still, the book is most interesting, not so much for what it tell us about the world, but because it so perfectly illustrates the failure of imagination of the modern secular mind. This book is supposed to represent what we all really think, but which convention prevents us from saying. Maybe it is what many of us really think, but if so, we're wrong.

The intellectual apparatus the author brings to bear might be described as nuts-and-bolts sociology, which is to say that it is long on history and Max Weber, and short on underdevelopment economics and a theory of ideologies. Indeed, particular ideas don't seem to make much of a difference in Mr. Kennon's world. There are, of course, categories of ideas, such as nationalism and millenarianism and socialism, that play a large role from time to time. However, one example of these things is much like another from the same category. In any event, such things are simply occasions for the fundamental forces of history to manifest themselves. Like any respectable global thinker, Mr. Kennon's view of things tends to fall into sets of three. The two following trinities are pretty much all the theoretical apparatus you need in order to analyze what is happening in any given society and in the world as a whole.

The basic forces in any society are, in order of importance, the bureaucracy, the private sector, and politics. Bureaucracy, starting with the priestly administrators of Sumer and Egypt, is what brought mankind out of the cave. While the book is mostly concerned with "public sector," government bureaucracies, bureaucracies of much the same type also exist in business, and in practice often form a united front with their government colleagues. Bureaucracies embody the principle of impersonal, rational order. They are, ideally, directed toward the achievement of a goal, rather than the maintenance of their own power. Bureaus are a world of management, rather than leadership. Most important, a bureaucracy's very impersonality gives it a time horizon longer than the careers of the bureaucrats who work in it. Almost inevitably, bureaucracies come to think in terms of decades, and sometimes of centuries.

Bureaucracies, we are told to our amazement, do best in emergencies, when they are given a single goal. If you ask them to win a war or to wipe out yellow fever and give them unlimited resources, they will usually succeed. If you give them more than one goal, however, such as winning a war within budget constraints, or fighting an epidemic without annoying the minority groups it most closely affects, they become befuddled and often fail. They are not very good at setting priorities. In normal times, when any number of goals compete for the bureaucrats' attention, they have no sure way to choose between them. Then they start to act like, well, bureaucrats.

The private sector in this scheme of things is damned with faint praise. The term here is not limited to business, since it includes most features of civil society, from client-patron relationships to labor unions. However, the author is most concerned to show the limits of free market capitalism. A free market, he notes, will supply people with just about any product they want, from education to cocaine. The market is persistent, usually pacific, and ingenious beyond the dreams of the wisest bureaucratic mandarin. Although the free market is wonderful if you are satisfied with a street bazaar economy, it never by itself made any country great. It gives people what they want, even if what they want is toxic, and it persists in selling even when people should be saving for their old age. Some necessary elements of the economy, notably infrastructure and basic research, are beyond the time horizon of even the most farsighted entrepreneur. (Unless, like Cecil Rhodes, he is less interested in running a business than in founding an empire.) Only a bureaucracy of some kind can organize the construction of railroads or the development of passenger jets. Even when private parties do the actual work on this kind of project, they work at the behest of government bureaucracies and with the support of public subsidies. Countries like the United States disguise from themselves the amount of government planning they do by calling it licensing or franchising. If left to itself, in fact, the private sector will undermine the preconditions for its prosperity. The rule of law can disappear in a thicket of bribery, the currency can collapse from nonpayment of taxes, when the private sector is much stronger than the government.

The great anachronism in modern life, we are told, is politics. The only genuinely stupid parts of the book are those that try to found a theory of politics on the supposed antics of cavemen and their testosterone-crazed leaders. While there are forms of social contract theory that can still be defended, the social Darwinist version given here is singularly uninformed by either anthropology or the study of primate behavior. It is not even clear whether the author understands that the "caveman" is a myth. From this point of view, the template for all political leadership, kings and presidents and parliaments alike, is the charismatic leader of a war band. Such persons might occasionally do their people some good, by robbing other people, but they rarely have thoughts beyond the means to their own self-preservation. They are interested in leadership, not management. The good leader today leads best by deferring to his experts.

Legislatures also fall into the suspect class of leaders. Legislatures, after all, are composed of local leaders whose livelihood is dependant on currying favor with the rabble at the back of the cave. They may well gain some expertise while working in a legislature, and they might even have some when they are first elected. However, their very position as legislators makes them incapable of using this information objectively. Their purpose is not to find the right answer, but an answer everyone can live with. Wise legislators, even more than wise executives, just do what their staffs tell them.

Mr. Kennon's discussion of leadership is not without value. In a world in which academic degenerates try to reduce all social life to a contest for power, Kennon sensibly remarks that power is the ability to do something, to achieve a goal. What the academics are burbling about is the sterile accomplishment that Kennon calls "domination." There is also something to be said for the principle that truly great leaders, the exceptional few whom Kennon calls "saints," are those who voluntarily relinquish power to a permanent institution. Washington and Cardenas of Mexico make this short list. So does de Gaulle. Curiously, Lincoln does not. Rather, he is relegated to the much larger group of history's pragmatic troublemakers. I suppose you cannot have everything.

The place of any country in the world today can be largely described, according to Mr. Kennon, by an examination of how these three elements in society interact. Although he uses the terms "first world," "second world," and "third world," these terms do not quite correspond to what they mean in ordinary parlance.

The third world, which today includes Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors, is the natural state of civilized man. It shows great variety. Some regions and social sectors enjoy technological prowess and prosperity equal to that of any country in the world. Other regions and sectors, often just next door, suffer neolithic underdevelopment. Some third world countries are ruled by sociopathic tyrants. Others have real elections on a regular basis. It makes little difference: the government has been absorbed by the private sector. It is personal connections, and not impersonal bureaucratic routine, that count. The levers of state power in the presidential palace are not connected to anything. It is only in third world countries that "death squads" are to be found, since the real police are off working second jobs and so are not available to terrorize people. Even if the economy is nominally socialist, the great parastatal corporations are generally the fiefs of certain families or other affinity groups. Nepotism is more important to the functioning of the economy than is the market.

The third world is as stable as a swamp. Those parts that are absolutely poor are the most stable, since insurrection requires both resources and "relative deprivation," i.e., the frustration of some expectation people had reasonably entertained. In livelier regions, society is held together primarily by patron-client relationships. Apparently, as long as just about everyone has a godfather to complain to when life gets difficult, a revolution cannot occur. Third world countries can offer a great deal of personal freedom, and even intermittent prosperity. However, no one is actually running these places, so disputes between castes or religions or other groups that might be arbitrated by effective courts in the first world or a strong dictator in the second can become genuine civil wars. The process is hard to get started, since the resources for civil strife might not be available. Once it does start, however, it can smolder for years for lack of anyone to put it out.

Second world countries are third world countries that are ruled by bureaucratically administered force. Some may have tyrants, and some may hold real elections, but the government does not rule by consent. To a large minority or even a majority, the government is not legitimate. It would be overthrown if the police and the army relaxed. Second world countries come in two chief varieties these days: "newly industrialized countries," such as the "little dragons" of East Asia, and modernizing police states, like Iraq, and like Chile was until very recently. (The latter are "police states," not because the police run the government, but because the government depends on the police.) The Soviet Union fell into the second world category after Lenin died and remained there throughout its existence.

The key to second world status is that the bureaucracy, with the assistance of a patriotic section of the political class, dominates the private sector. The bureaucracy in question may be that of a party, as in Marxist states or as in Mexico, the army, as was historically the case in South America and is now in parts of the Islamic world, or simply a powerful civil service, as was the case in developing Japan and Germany and France.

Whatever the origin of the keepers of order, their behavior is remarkably similar. They believe in high savings rates to fund domestic investment, so they ensure that consumer goods are expensive and social services are thin. They strangle cults of personalty that might form around popular leaders, including themselves. Personal and political freedoms are variously restricted. They conduct mercantilist trade policies. They generally promote a nationalist ideology. The great predators of history are countries that, like Nazi Germany, either fell out of the first world and into the second, or that, like France after the Ancien Regime, had just climbed out of the third. Most second world states, however, are less interested in conquest than in autarchy, at least for a while. When they have achieved a sufficient level of economic development, they can hope for admission to the first world. Spain did this in the 1980s (Franco clearly counts as one of Kennon's "saints") and so did Japan in the 1960s.

Second world countries are not inherently stable. They are societies that are kept together only by a conscious act of will by an elite of experts. They can be destroyed if the bureaucracy's plans for savings and development are disrupted by the arbitrary projects of some charismatic dictator. They can also be destroyed if they relax their police measures too soon, before the legitimacy of the regime is generally accepted. Democracy has again and again thrown promising second world countries back into the third word. If you believe Kennon, this even happened to the United States in the first third of the nineteenth century. The original economic development policy of the United States, as set forth by Alexander Hamilton, was as dirigiste as anything conceived by the Japanese economic bureaucrats of the 1960s. It called for mercantilism, sound money issued by an independent central bank, and a program of great infrastructure projects, notably turnpikes and canals. Bit by bit, this clear program was compromised in the early years of the Republic. Finally, Andrew Jackson led the rabble out of the cave and into the White House. The country began to disarticulate politically. It was only after the Civil War that the Robber Baron industrialists and their political allies of the Reconstruction Era coerced the country back onto the path toward first world status.

The first world itself is the paradise in which all good second world countries seek to be reincarnated. It is, of course, economically developed, which means that its economy is not tied to the deplorably inelastic demand for natural commodities or the primary manufactured products, such as cement or (these days) steel. The bureaucracy reigns in industry and the government, with the cooperation of a private sector strong enough to innovate but not to undermine basic social order. The political sector knows its modest place. Like a good British monarch, it reigns but does not rule. There are, of course, emergencies when the anachronism of political leadership still has some utility. However, these instances become fewer and fewer as civilization advances and its problems become more complicated. Modern civilization is a matter for experts, whose decisions the good president or parliament simply rubberstamps.

Like the third world, the first world is stable. A first world country may suffer riot, high crime and corruption in high places, but its survival does not depend on the police. The regime is legitimate, even to people who want its whole personnel roster replaced. It can permit a very high level of personal freedom and an efficient legal system at the same time. Of course, it isn't indestructible. Kennon is much taken with Mancur Olson's thesis that developed countries tend to be dragged down by the growth of entitlements and special interest pleading over the course of time. What this is, of course, is the private sector reasserting itself. The result can be something like what happened to Argentina, which stood at the gates of first world status until the Peronist welfare state produced a secular decline. And then there's Hitler. A first world country can reenter the second, if it no longer is possible to rule by impersonal consensus. When that happens, it is necessary to rule by force, to establish a police state. The Germans, of course, got the worst of all possible worlds, a harsh second world police regime and a sociopathic third world leader to run it. The moral of this is that no country is naturally a member of one world or the other. Nations can and do circulate from one level to another.

As for the future, Kennon suggests that the planet will be ruled by a first world empire by about the middle of the next century. This is not to say that there will be a de jure universal state, but that the international bureaucracies which exist today will ultimately become more important than the national bureaucracies of the first world. Major corporations increasingly think and act internationally, and national bureaucrats, with their natural bureaucratic inclination to bow to expertise, increasingly mesh with multilateral diplomatic and financial organizations. Sovereign states will continue to exist, even in the first world, but they and their elected officialdoms will be reduced to "sources of legitimacy," rather than possessors of actual power. This inner core will be surrounded by a ring of second world countries trying to achieve a sufficient degree of internal cohesion to allow them to enter the core. On the periphery will be the ever-stable third world, rarely policed, sometimes aided, usually ignored.

The interesting thing about this model is how closely it resembles the "end of history" thesis put forward by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the 1980s. Fukuyama was not suggesting, as his ill-informed detractors suggested, that nothing interesting was ever going to happen again. What he was saying was that modern liberal democracy is the final product of political theory, just as Euclid's solid geometry was the final product of Greek mathematics. It answered the questions that had been asked. In rather the same way, Kennon's universal mandarinate is a sort of final state, one that admits of no further development. It is the peace of exhaustion.

Mr. Kennon's view of the world is not wildly misleading as a description of the current state of things. (Except perhaps with regard to Israel. I realize that Kennon did not invent the phrase, but I doubt that Israel really deserves to be called a "Herrenvolk Democracy.") His account of history might be politely described as unnuanced, but then he was not trying to write a theory of history. The problem is that Mr. Kennon has a crabbed sense of the possible. He dismisses ninety percent of why governments and cultures say they do things. Mr. Kennon, equipped with his solid 1950s liberal education, knows why these people really did what they did. Surely any reasonable person will have to agree?

The book has a blind spot regarding religion. (The author has read "The Golden Bough," unfortunately.) While Mr. Kennon has some interesting things to say millenarianism, he does not seem to fully appreciate that the concept has application outside exotic contexts like the Mahdi Rebellion in the 19th century Sudan. The fact that non-apocalyptic varieties of Christian eschatology are intimately linked with the idea of progress has escaped his notice entirely. More serious, he really seems to think that religious faith is something that is felt by the ignorant but can only be pretended to by the learned. He knows that religion isn't dying out, and he knows that it is often positively correlated with education, but he draws no inferences from these facts.

There is a single conceptual failing in the book that turns Mr. Kennon's portrait of the world into a caricature. The lesson has not sunk in that you cannot predict the future by extrapolation. The fashionable term for unpredictable novelty in physics is "emergent behavior," and history is full of it. This is why all long-range plans, after a certain point, lead to Hell. It is why Marxist command economies make their people poor. It is why export-mad neomercantilist states like Japan eventually discover that they have given their exports away. It is why the search for social and international "stability," the alpha and the omega of CIA policy, is a pernicious chimera. It ensures you will spend your time fighting yesterday's menace and overlook today's opportunity. A bureaucracy can protect you against some kinds of bad luck, but never yet has a bureaucracy made a particle of good luck.

Caricatures have their uses, of course, and "The Twilight of Democracy" is no exception. Certainly the book performs a useful service in today's climate by de-sentimentalizing democracy. Democracy is not historically inevitable, and it is not an excuse for bad government. Even if leadership is not as negligible a factor in history as Mr. Kennon says, it is good to be reminded that even a demon in power cannot do much harm if he does not have an honest bureaucracy working for him. In any event, the book's view of the world has the modest advantage that accrues to most forms of cynicism. Optimists are bound to be disappointed, but a cynic will go through life being pleasantly surprised.


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