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