Syndicate content

The 'Deep State' Confronts the Accountability Revolution

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I believe that we can all agree that an accountability revolution is sweeping the world. More governments are facing pressure from citizens to be accountable and are being held accountable. All major institutions, including those in the private sector, face greater and greater scrutiny. Even major media organizations are being embarrassed and held accountable. If in doubt, just ask Rupert Murdoch.

Yet, what is perhaps the profoundest obstacle in the path of efforts to make governments (and major institutions) more responsive and accountable to citizens is the phenomenon sometimes known as the ‘deep state’.

What, then, is the ‘deep state’? Here is how it works. You think your country has undergone a transition to democracy. You have had roughly free and fair elections. You have new leaders in charge. Yet you begin to realize that, as the French say, the more things change the more they remain the same. You realize that there are powerful elite formations bequeathed by years, even decades, of authoritarian rule still able to block progressive change and protect their interests. They can also carry out assassinations of newspaper editors, social activists and so on that will never be solved by the judicial system…or even tackled by the police and prosecutors.  These shadowy cabals involve not merely military officers still in service, but their brethren out in civil society, as well as countless unknown others in key institutions of the state and key sectors of the economy. For a detailed example of the deep state at work, please see Dexter Filkins article in the New Yorker of March 12, 2012: ‘Letter from Turkey: The Deep State’. A second excellent example is from the Financial Times of June 20, 2012: ‘Egypt's "deep state" claws back freedoms'.

The point is this: there are deep states in many countries today. Wherever you find a newish democracy of a rough and ready sort coming out of a long period of authoritarian rule, chances are there is a deep state at work; and one determined to protect the gains and interests of those who did immensely well under authoritarian rule. These countries are in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and so on. I myself practiced both journalism and law in an African country with a deep state. And I ran into it a few times. Because of decades of military rule, there is a sense in which you cannot understand the politics of that country without focusing on the maneuverings of our very large posse of super-wealthy ex-generals (we call them ex-this, ex-that, and ex-everything else!) Democratization—such as it is -- is taking place, I believe, largely on their terms. One notable indicator: nobody is asking them how come they are all so wealthy. Were they earning millions of dollars in salaries in the armed forces? Prediction: nobody is going to ask them.

So, while there is an accountability revolution sweeping our world, the deep states that exist in many youngish ‘democracies’ can make fevered hopes of improving the level of responsiveness and accountability of governments seem hopelessly naïve. 

You will ask: what is to be done? Political scientists have a vigorous debate going on about this challenge. It is a complex debate. Some political scientists stress the need to work on the cluster of attitudes in the citizenry that create hospitable grounds for authoritarianism; others  stress the need for political actors to make different choices and embark on a serious process of  eroding authoritarianism…which is what the deep state is. For a summary of the debate see Daniel Stevens et. al., ‘Authoritarian Attitudes, Democracy, and Policy Preferences among Latin American Elites’.

I have no doubt that authoritarian attitudes can be problematic. As the saying goes: you cannot build democracy without democrats. But attitudes and norms that help to sustain authoritarianism can take a massively long time to shift. So, I am on the side of the political scientists who emphasize what political actors can do to erode the deep state…now, today. The best piece of work that I know of along these lines – in fact, I believe it is a classic of political thought – is Alfred Stepan’s ‘On the Tasks of a Democratic Opposition’.  Stepan lists the five powerful moves that those who want to erode authoritarian rule can make. Key quote:

"What then are the multiple functions or tasks of democratic opposition movements in authoritarian regimes?  In roughly ascending order of complexity (but not necessarily temporal sequence), the five key opposition functions are: 1) resisting integration into the regime; 2) guarding zones of autonomy against it; 3) disputing its legitimacy; 4) raising the costs of authoritarian rule; and 5) creating a credible democratic alternative.  Analytically, the degree to which the opposition can perform these functions is a useful indicator of the severity of authoritarian control.  The less the opposition is able to carry out any of these tasks, the more effective the regime’s control of the polity is shown to be."


Photo Credit: Project on Government Oversight

Follow PublicSphereWB on Twitter


Submitted by Anonymous on
While none of these five functions can be disputed, they seem rather esoteric. What exactly does it mean to resist integration into the regime? Do I integrate into the regime if I am forced to pay a bribe to get employment for a government position? What is the alternative, the private sector that is just as corrupt and similalry based on patronage? The problem with the deep state is that everybody who benefits from it does everything to maintain it, whether rich or poor or at the top or the bottom, while those outside of it generally want to get rid of it. The problem with the successful deep state is that it has large allegiances in society such as civil service workers, the military, police and all state bodies who benefit from the system as it stands. This is extremely well illustrated in Egypt for instance where the military runs a huge business empire for its benefits but being careful to also partially sharing the spoils with lower ranks to keep loyalty. For this to change, individuals in these bodies would have to rebel against superiors which would immediately lead to penalties. The change can only really happen if in these institutions there is enough unhappiness that widespread resistance against the top takes place, however the better the military is trained, the less likely such an internal revolt is going to happen. And should a revolt be possible, then these bodies would need some assurance that post revolution will leave them with some of the privileges that they have acquired over time. So, in most cases in spite of screams for accountability, deep state systems benefit a segment of society large enough that change is acceptable only on the fringes. This preserves the core of the system and short of revolutions where essentially much of the elite is eliminated, the system adapts and reinvents itself. The chaos and bloodletting of such radical change in the 20th century is largely unacceptable from a humanitarian point of view which makes these systems pretty secure in spite of demand for accountability.

Many thanks for the comment. I agree: the deep state is a difficult, long-term problem. Alfred Stepan's article has more nuance than the paragraph quoted, but you are still right that it is a difficult problem. What we cannot do, however, is suggest that it is insoluble. That is why I like the work of scholars like Stepan. Once again, many thanks.

Submitted by Esperanto on
Are monarchies a form of "deep state"? They seem to fit the bill - no one asks them how they got their wealth, they hold privileged positions in society and exercise a sort of power that democracies find hard to remove. Take for example the recent failure of the Liberal Democrats to reform the House of Lords. Are American lobby groups a form of "deep state"? Wealthy individuals behind shadowy organizations reach into the executive chamber to move the levers of power for their own needs - before, during and after elections. My point is that the "deep state" you describe may not be a phenomenon of young democracies but rather might be private power exercised undemocratically.

You might me right. The 'military-industrial complex' is certainly a form of deep state; which is why many supposedly mature democracies find military budgets difficult to control, and you sense that there are shadowy powers around this complex that elected leaders are reluctant to provoke. But these societies have far better developed accountability mechanisms than the societies I focused on. Many thanks for the comment.

Dr Odugbetun, we need your international skills and expertise in Nigeria, The country is been run by people with education but lack fundamental understanding of human dignity and social, political, economic quality of life. I have read many of your articles and publications,the country needs you and others, For example, just assess our military and security issue,the Senate and the House of Rep. The quality of administration is as poor as that of our educational system. The military can nor courtail Boko Haram, the police can not protect the citizens and the entire civil society is in total mess. Please let us do something to revitalise Nigeria from hope to destiny. Kindly contact me. Akin Akiboye Academic Researcher Dept.of Humanitarian,Post-Conflict/Disaster Reconstruction Wageningen University Research Wageningen The Netherlands Skype:akin20002

Submitted by Anonymous on
Unclear to me whether you referenced Lenin consciously, subconsciously or accidentally. No matter (or fault) either way. It's hard to see or accept as liberal democrats, but to truly rid societies of "deep states," the answer to "What is to be done?" may be the same as it was nearly 100 years ago. It's very unclear to me, especially given the example of Egypt, how citizens can have truly democratic governance without forcibly dismantling these private poles of power and patronage.

History suggests that it can be done without a violent showdown. The struggle between the 'deep state' and elected leaders is at an interesting phase in Turkey for instance. The challenge is that the political know-how required is often not available in abundance in the civilian population. One of the things I learned in Nigeria from the military commanders I got to know is that top soldiers really know about power: its acquisition, use and retention. Civilian political leaders are often at a disadvantage. For behind the durability of 'deep states' is ruthless realpolitik. Many thanks for the comment.

The problem you outline is further complicated by the replication of institutions that benefited old elite in the previous regime, in the new ‘democratic’ era where the new elite benefit as well. Without changing the incentive structure, and institutions, the deep state will be replicated, even as the old elite die off. We see this in Africa, where in many states democracy never quite ‘takes off’, and opposition leaders get co-opted by the existing system and become as bad as the old guys. What is needed to break that entrenched system is a truth commission of some sort, that actually punishes the old elite and establishes ways of ‘naming and shaming’ at least, but preferably arresting and punishing the new beneficiaries of rooted institutions. I find it interesting to hear naïve African ‘youth’ saying the solution is to displace the old guys without ever realising the youth will become the same if institutions don’t change. They seem to think it has to do with morals or human nature and they will be different! New incentives need to be enacted and enforced – and the latter is key – to ensure people behave differently. Until that is done you get the same old politicians running for office in the new regime, and winning through the same sorts of corrupt practices, and you see new young politicians behaving badly after a short while.

Excellent insight Diana. I totally agree. Co-optation is one of the ways bad elite coalitions survive. Many thanks for the comment.

Add new comment