An Illusion of Democracy

Every modern nation state is the political concretisation of the ambitions – sought for and realised – of the permanent bureaucracy, that part of the political apparatus unaltered by the so-called democratic will of the people. We are led to believe that by periodically going to the polls and electing our preferred political parties and party political candidates we are affecting real change in the state to better suit our own political interests. Yet it is only on the surface – in the parliamentary assembly chamber or in the offices of the heads of state – that we see the realisation of this change. This is, however, only ever at best a cosmetic change to the political landscape.

Gramsci speaks of this charade as a process intended to create the illusion of democratised power, when in actuality no such change has in fact occurred. Governments come and go, but all the while there remains a permanent sub-structure to the state – the bureaucratic state – that remains essentially unaltered no matter which particular political party is in government or which particular personality is head of state or head of government. In every nation state – which is fundamentally a synonym for the bureaucratic state – it is this sub-structure that is always the real seat of power. This is never a democracy, even in those nations where the heads of ministries and departments are appointed and elected. Always their subordinates remain the same, a bureaucratic caste which recruits its own personnel and inculcates those recruits within its own culture.

Here we are talking about the civil service, but only that portion of the civil service responsible for the effective running and ordering of the state. No democratically elected representative in government, given the relative brevity of a political term of office, can truly have the same scope to shape and govern a nation in the way that the permanent bureaucracy can. With successive electoral victories it is possible for a single political party to make inroads into influencing the longer-term plans and objectives of the civil service, but this is rare and never so successful that it cannot quickly be undone by the civil service once that party has been removed from government.

It is within this cadre of the senior civil service, invariably selected from the same few elements of the social ruling class, that we encounter the germ of the deep state. Contrary to prevailing opinion, there is nothing conspiracist about the existence of a deep state. It is the natural product of a well and long established civil service – an extension of the body politic which has a longer shelf-life.

Curial administrations have been in existence for as long as states themselves have existed, and were developed in primitive monarchic city states as a form of secretariat with the purpose of executing the wishes of the head of state. As we know from ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, and Rome, these state administrations always conspired to amass power and influence to themselves, becoming hotbeds of plots and conspiracies. Civilisation may have moved on apace, but in essence the nature of these state bureaucracies have not changed.

Largely these sub-structural administrations are apolitical; that it is to say that their chief function is to follow orders. In modern liberal democracies their members are charged with the obligation of political neutrality, expressing no support for any one or other of the political factions or personalities of the super-structural state. Thus, as a body, this sub-structural community of administrators purports to act as a mere functionary of the visible political state, and for the most part this is precisely what it does. However, one cannot ignore either the length of careers senior civil servants enjoy within this sub-state apparatus and the personal ambitions of many of these tenured scions. This uppermost tier of the deep state is careerist, highly experienced and influential, well-connected, ambitious, and always political.

Not only is this tier tasked with carrying out the orders of the visible and elected government, it is also responsible for advising the government and drafting policy initiatives – affording it unparalleled leverage in influencing government and directing policy. Government and individual ministers do indeed have the technical and constitutional upper-hand in this relationship that their democratic mandates gives them, allowing them to act upon their own initiatives. This is true, but even this ignores the other levers at the disposal of the deep state.

State security services are tools of the permanent administration, giving the deep state – as we have seen in the case of Tony Blair’s Labour government in the United Kingdom – considerable scope to coerce members of the government and even the government itself into acting on the designs not of the voting public but of the civil service administration. One way or another this sub-structural state will have its way. This of course conforms perfectly to Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of elections selecting and de-selecting political representation as a mere illusion of power.

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