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The Deep State

[Views expressed in this article are solely of the writers and Bangladesh Defence Journal is no way responsible for any comment or views expressed here.]

The Term Explained

The term “Deep State” (Turkish: derin devlet) was coined in Turkey to denote a group of influential anti-democratic coalitions within the Turkish political system, composed of high-level individuals/groups within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized criminal elements (mafia). The notion of Deep State is similar to that of a “state-within-a-state”. The political agenda of the deep state involves an allegiance to nationalism, corporatism, and state interests. Covert means of pressure, including violence, have historically been employed to manipulate political and economic institutions and ensure that specific interests are met within the seemingly democratic framework of the state.

One explanation of the deep state is that it is not an alliance, but the sum of several groups that antagonistically work behind the scenes, each in pursuit of its own agenda. Another explanation defines it as a type of domination, based on the immense power of the military that enable the security apparatus to disrupt formal democratic institutions (in the foreground) by employing a unique menu of informal entities (in the background), for example: coup threats, cliques, organized crime, corruption, etc. to undermine the democratic system. I use the term to mean a hybrid association of elements of government, top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern a country without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.

The ideology of the deep state is seen by leftists as being anti-worker and anti-social; by islamists as anti-Islam; by secularists as being ultra-nationalist; and by liberal democrats as being both anti-democratic and anti-liberal.

Totalitarianism and the Deep State

There are two classical examples of totalitarian states: National-socialist (NaZi) Germany and Stalinist Russia; of these two Nazi Germany is much better documented, while little is available on Stalinist Russia. So, we will study Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler, the sole “Leader” of the Nazis was not a politician, he was a bohemian without any fixed profession or abode; he was not even a German citizen, being born in Austria. He volunteered as a soldier during World War I. After the war he was demobilized alongwith a few million other soldiers. Finding himself without a home and any means of living, he roamed about Munich searching for a vocation. Perchance he happened to be in a meeting of a fringe political gathering with a few dozen members. He not only joined that “party” but took it over in a couple of years. Germany then, was in a middle of a social and political crisis with the economy in complete collapse. Millions of Germans were on the verge of starvation, which was all a very fertile ground for every and any sort of radicalism. National-socialism was one such radical concept.

During the organizational phase, the “Leader” finding himself stymied by the poor response of the populace to fall in with his ideas of what Germany should be, set about organizing the Nazis in a unique new way. His demagoguery appealed to the lowest classes of German humanity and he set about organizing them in quasi-military units. He convinced big industrial concerns like Tyson and Krupp that he was all for rampant capitalism and thus obtained funding for his party. He convinced the much reduced military that he would overthrow the Versailles Treaty and make the German military great again. Thus within little more than a decade, he had subverted every institution of the state, with groups of Nazis embedded in the industry, military, police, judiciary and civil service. Hitler had in fact created a “state within a state”. Election after election went on with this or that government forming one day and falling the next, until by 1933, in a crucial election the Nazis won 34 percent of the popular votes. Much of these votes were won through subversion and sabotage; through blatant and ruthless violence, intimidation and rigging. Even then, Hitler and the Nazis were not considered good enough to govern the German state. Finally, the President, von Hindenberg was convinced by the “Deep State” created by Hitler, to declare him the Chancellor of Germany. That was just the beginning; the Nazi deep state remained as long as Hitler was alive, throughout the Second World War. It was responsible for the worst genocide in modern history. It was also one of the most ruthless and brutal regimes in modern history. Luckily, for the Germans, the existence of the deep state provided them with a sort of “plausible deniability” for the atrocities the regime had committed on the people of Europe. Later, in this article, we shall discuss the other consequences and implications of the “Deep State”.

Democracies and the Deep State


The US President, Dwight.D.Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation, on 17 January 1961, warned the nation about the dangers that the “military-industrial complex” posed to the nation and the “American way of life”. What President Eisenhower was referring to was the deep state which came into existence due to the US war on Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. By 1970, the US deep state was in full bloom, with the military dictating policy rather than following it. Big industrial and financial concerns which produced weaponry and other wherewithal for the military became in fact the driving force of the US economy. Politicians, with rare sober exceptions, all brought into the idea of the US being the “bulwark of the free world”. The US military was even beginning to manipulate the society through its system of universal conscription.

The Cold War and the Vietnam War provided an opportunity for the massive expansion and proliferation of the intelligence services – both domestic (FBI) and foreign CIA). These services received overt funding through the Congress but their covert sources of funding were diverse and prolific. Not only did other government agencies and institutions such as the military fund them but the private sector too was generous in their “donations”. J. Edgar Hoover was the Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972; for 48 years he “ruled” the FBI and saw to it that the FBI infiltrated every nook and cranny of the US society. Seven US Presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon came and went but none so much as spoke a word against the Director, so all-powerful was he. Two presidents, Harry Truman and Nixon, though privately expressed fear and concern of the powers of the Director and stated their inability to remove him from office. Still in office, Hoover died an old man at 77 years in 1972. By 1970, the CIA was running secret and not so secret wars in diverse parts of the world with barely a nod from sitting presidents; it was funding and equipping armies to fight foreign governments; it was funding and instigating coups and counter-coups in many countries; it was involved in every criminal activity imaginable in foreign states; and it was initiating changes in foreign governments through bloodshed and violence. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led to a reappraisal of the roles of these services; their powers and resources were curtailed but the war on terror led to a resurgence of all their unconstitutional, illegal and criminal activities. What the US intelligence services have been doing for the last two decades are too well known to go into here. Suffice it to say that the intelligence services are the linchpin of the US deep state.

The liberals and the miniscule left decried this state of affairs but, being powerless, were unable to do anything about it until the populace revolted over issues of civil rights and the US humiliatingly lost the Vietnam War. For a number of years the US went into “isolation” more or less, until the last decade of the 20th century when a new term, “war against terror” was coined by the resurgent deep state. Now, the US is once again involved in losing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; the military-industrial complex is rampant; and the radical conservatives have their own presidential candidates in the form of Donald John Trump, Sr. The US populace is divided over many issue, chief of which is demographics, economy, political ideology, and the nature of US government. The majority of the US populace now realizes that their constitutional liberal democratic state has already been greatly undermined by their governments, pandering to the interests of the “deep state”.


In just a few weeks, Nazi Germany defeated France in WW II. The defeat led to the collapse of the French state. A majority of the populace quietly acquiesced in the German occupation; a strong minority actively collaborated and supported the Nazis, forming the Vichy government and governing France for the Nazis. There was however, the Résistance in France and the Free French Army in North Africa fighting the Nazis. The main force behind the French fight against the Nazis was General Charles de Gaulle, a larger-than-life figure both in physical stature and in intellect.

World War II ended and France was ‘liberated” but French political and social divisiveness and its wars remained to plague the French polity till the decades of the 1970s. France had colonies in Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) and in North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) which they attempted to retain, through armed conflict, in an era of rampant anti-colonialism and revolutionary communism. France pursued these losing wars with ruthlessness, brutality and genocide. The military, the intelligence services and the industries which provided the wherewithal for these wars all expanded and proliferated. So divisive and corrupt was French politics that de Gaulle resigned from the presidentship of the Fourth Republic in early 1946, remarking caustically, “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty varieties of cheese”, went home and wrote his military memoires.

Meanwhile vested interests (deep state) continued to prosecute the colonial wars, until defeat forced France to withdraw from Indo-China in 1954, handing the “bleeding ulcer” over to the US, which was anyway funding the war. The government attempted to withdraw from North Africa too, but came up hard against the deep state which mounted a coup d’état on 13 May 1958, all the way from Algeria. A general, who purported to be a Gaullist, declared himself the President and threatened to invade France. De Gaulle staunchly refused to countenance such a state of affairs and publicly spoke out against it with vehemence. He was recalled to the Presidentship of the Fifth Republic, which he formed. For the next few years he healed much of the economic, political and social malice besetting France. He was reelected in 1965, however, the deep state was not to give up so easily; there were assassination attempts targeting De Gaulle; there was much public tumult and dissatisfaction in the military and he was forced to resign in 1968.

The deep state in France did not end with the resignation of De Gaulle or his death in 1970; it just assumed a new guise in the form of “Gaullism”, which every French Government had to, at least pay lip service to if it was to remain in power. This continued throughout the decade of 1980s.

The Deep State in Other Polities

Turkey is a special case because it recognizes the historicity of the deep state within the Turkish polity; has evolved a term for the phenomenon; has defined the term ; and analyzed and studied the mechanisms and processes of the deep state. Pakistan too is a special case because its military is so overwhelmingly powerful that it has subsumed the state. What was said about 18th century Prussia, could be said for Pakistan today, i.e. it is an Army with a state and not a state with an Army.

China is a totalitarian state with the Communist Party of China directing and controlling the state. Russia is an oligarchy, which by definition means that a group of powerful and rich individuals controls the state, its institutions and processes.

Germany, Italy and Japan have learned their lesson after the events of Second World War and have evolved liberal democratic welfare states, with highly educated, aware citizenry; strong economies and tightly controlled state structures. Under the circumstances, there is no cause for a deep state in these polities.

Bangladesh and the Deep State

In an article titled “Of Revolution and Revolts” (Bangladesh Defence Journal; issue of December 2011) I had indicated the existence of two dilemmas, which the people and polity of Bangladesh face: (1) The question of identity – Bangladeshi or Bangalee, and (2) The core institutions of the state set up by colonial powers and retained by Bangladesh,  do not reflect the “will of the people” of a nation-state created through a revolutionary liberation war. These two contradictions lead to political and social divisiveness and conflicts within the polity, creating conditions for the development of a deep state. The question of whether Bangladesh has a deep state could be debatable, controversial and potentially explosive. There are however, certain indications which must be taken into consideration in this study. These are explained below:

Firstly, on 25 January 1975, the Parliament passed the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which provided for a one-party state and life-long, arbitrary powers to a single individual. This totally overhauled the Constitution, promulgated on 2nd January 1972 and contradicted the very principles on which the Liberation War was fought and Bangladesh became independent. This was not done with the consent of the “governed” because the populace would never have agreed to a measure which contradicted the causes for which they had fought and died. The 4th Amendment was the brainchild of a small coterie of individuals within the ruling political party, supported by radical cliques in the bureaucracy. This was an attempt at the creation of a authoritarians state but it did not survive the year. A way however, was shown whereby a group of people could change the very nature of the state through manipulation of state institutions without any reference to the populace or the electorate or the governed.

Secondly, the Army discovered its ability and power to intervene in politics and governance whenever it felt that “national interests” dictated so. The Army repeatedly intervened in politics till 2008. A nexus of interests developed consisting of groups of military officers, bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians and intellectuals, which supported military interventions and helped perpetuate military regimes. The deep state was in place in Bangladesh from 1975 onwards, when a group of Army officers, for the first time, organized  a mutiny and murdered the entire Awami League leadership. The regime that replaced that first Awami League government soon amended the Constitution to provide blanket immunity against prosecution of everyone involved in the mutiny. Such are the ways of the deep state.

Thirdly, laissez faire economics preferred and encouraged by military regimes in Bangladesh engendered corruption and looting of public and private wealth. A whole clientele of military personnel, government employees, private sector entrepreneurs, and politicians formed a kleptocracy; an economic state within a state, regardless of which political party was in government. Throughout 2010, the nation was bombarded by media reports of massive looting of funds from public banks to the tune not of tens but of hundred of billions of takas. Members of the government, rather casually commented that the looting of 4000 or 8000 corers of takas was not much and would not affect the economy of the country. The question is where did all this wealth go to and for what purpose? It went to the kleptocracy, to the deep state.

Fourthly, from 2008 onwards, extra-judicial killings, kidnapping and disappearances by law enforcement agencies increased exponentially, to the tune of an average of 100 people being murdered annually; many more are maimed permanently or disappeared without a trace.  The justification for such acts is that it serves the “national interest” to maintain law and order and to tackle religious extremism. These acts were and are carried out with impunity with connivance of individuals and groups from the civil administration. The decision of what is and is not of national interest is thus not left with the formal state or its institutions or laws but rests with individuals and groups embedded within the government and various state structures. This is exactly the way a classic deep state functions.

Fifthly, the massive expansion of the police and their proliferation in every nook and cranny of the polity is a matter of considerable concern to the citizenry. Besides the uniformed and metropolitan police and their various sub-organizations, there is the Armed Police Battalions, the RAB, SB, CID, Special Protection unit, Highway Police, Industrial Police, Railway Police, Police Intelligence Unit and Anti-terrorism Unit. This hodge-podge of organizations are all in a bureaucratic tangle and all working at cross-purposes. Police laws, rules and regulations are more than 125 years old and cannot handle such an organizational expansion. Expansion has drawn in people from all walks of life into the police forces, some of whom have psychopathic and criminal tendencies and so besides widespread bribery, police personnel are involved in all sorts of unethical activities, including murder, extortion, rape, kidnapping for ransom etc. The most notorious such case is the recent 7 murder case of Narayanganj. Thus, the formal structure and role of the police has dissolved in chaos. One DG of a law enforcing agency, for example, has sent a letter to the National Revenue Board, requesting to be involved in enforcing tax collection, which is way beyond the line and nowhere near the role of the police. One thus sees clear similarities between the coercion and intimidation networks of the deep state in totalitarian polities and the Bangladesh law-enforcement agencies today.

Sixthly, the 10th Parliamentary elections on 5 January 2014, showed the conditions of the political institution of the State. Out of 300 seats, 154, a majority were returned uncontested to a single political party, which was already in government. Voter turnout was the lowest in the history of Bangladesh. Such a thing could only happen in a situation where a deep state exists and has manipulated every institution of the formal polity, severely undermining the very structures of the State.  

Last but not the Least, there is a proliferation of laws dealing with the right and freedom of expression. These laws drew widespread criticism and protests from large sections of the media and the public. Nonetheless, these were promulgated and selectively enforced. These laws rather than protecting a basic human right guaranteed by the constitution, attempts to not only curtail and curb these rights and freedoms but attempts at “thought control” of the entire citizenry because these laws specify what one could or could not say and how one must say it, in both private and public domains. Large scale and covert electronic surveillance, by various agencies, intrude into the private domain, drastically reducing space and opportunities for discourse and communication. All these are being done in the name of national interest and public security; done by opaque or invisible agencies, by invisible individuals and groups. Certainly, the “governed” had no say in such affairs because the governed would never volunteer to muzzle their own thoughts and their expressions.

Concluding Remarks

Totalitarian polities are invulnerable to deep state because totalitarians understand the mechanisms of the deep state; employ its strategy and tactics and put in place their own versions of the deep state to perpetuate their hold on power.

Extremely vulnerable to deep state are democracies with weak institutions, weak economies, and divisive social, political and ideological issues. When governments are unable or unwilling to tackle these issues, deep states develop, pushing the polity towards totalitarianism.

Also vulnerable are strong states with a culture of violence and propensity for wars, with divisive social, political and ideological issues. Such states expand their energies and resources towards maintaining their global “national interests” through wars and conflicts and devote little time and resources in tackling issues of governance at home. Consequently, deep states develop and the apparently democratic polity degenerates into authoritarianism.

Given the history of Bangladesh, development of the deep state was inevitable. However, if governments had concentrated on creating strong institutions on principles of liberal democracy to suit the new needs and aspirations of a new State, “deep state” could have been avoided.