Who Has Authority in the American State?

Katie Moum/Washington, DC

A few months ago, I was queued in line between my coworkers for a Bush Gardens’ roller coaster. Day two of corporate team building in our little corner of the government contracting universe. I stood between my bosses, chatting about when they might go down to the gun range; their half-baked plans for doomsday stockpiling; building a panic room or bunker. A couple weeks later, I’d chat with a different coworker about how they wished they could build a network of tunnels under their new home. I myself seriously aspire to owning a repurposed missile, as much for the Armageddon as the aesthetic.

All four of us grew up in a liberal culture, are well-educated ethnic minorities, and work in an urban environment. And yet, the talk of guns, disaster preparation, and bunkering down isn’t a joke—it’s serious, if still largely idle. Things we would certainly do if we had the time and money.

It’s a fantasy that can tell you something about the cynicism of the up-and-coming state elites. There is a sense of threat, the radical possibility of a lapse of state authority, which has settled like a hazy tornado sky upon the bureaucratic professional class. And it’s an exceptional idea when you consider that there is no major power capable of seriously undermining the American state from the outside, as there was in the Cold War. It’s an attitude much closer to that of Russia during the 1980s than America in the 1950s: total underlying disbelief that this system will last as it is.

At the same time, the federal bureaucracy has come under attack, and the country is experiencing a crisis of civil-military relations not seen since the Truman presidency. Op-eds from former RAND advisors call for the disobedience of military officers, and bureaucrats resign on behalf of their conscience at the highest and lowest levels.

When I took the civil service oath, I swore to defend the Constitution. It is this oath which forms one of the major tenets of the authority of the state. Above the Congress, above the president, there is the supreme law of the land: law distilled. It is the most powerful foundation of the American state ideology.

But the American state is undergoing a crisis, and so it’s time to return to the basics. What precisely is the state, according to its most hard-nosed critics and proponents? Under what logic does it operate? And can it be considered an autonomous force relative to the rest of society and its social classes? What can we learn from studying past attempts to understand the state?

Without understanding these questions, it’s impossible to locate the source of malaise, terror, and doom which seems to be occupying our minds. If the American state is more or less identifiable with its ruling class, then all this is presumably the result of some crisis within that class itself. A renewal of the American elite might serve as the great American course correction. But if the state operates in some sense independently—if the whole exercises a structural direction or control over its parts—then its internal crisis might imply that we are in the thrall of a more all-encompassing force. In that case, it would be much more difficult to legislate away, or even defeat politically.

The greatest theoretical understandings of the modern state have necessarily come in times of crisis, when its authority is being fundamentally questioned, when its power is most naked: Hobbes in the heels of the English Civil War, Lenin in the midst of the Russian Civil War, and Huntington in the breakout of the Cold War. More recently, there was Louis Althusser during the “crisis of Marxism”: that precarious moment for intellectual leftists when the USSR’s crimes and stagnation, as well as the rise of neoliberalism, forced them to revisit their theories of the state. But to get to Althusser, we need to understand the debates within intellectual Marxism that serve as background for his interpretation.

There are many popular theories of the state which depend on either naivete or cynicism, rather than historical analysis. The state is not an expression of the popular will, nor is it the result of a social contract. It does not exist to maintain peace as such, nor is it a racket which exists purely to extort.

In each case, the actions of the modern state itself repudiate the mythos which it has attempted to conjure up as its foundation. The state is more often forced into taking popular measures when not doing so risks undermining its authority, or even when it itself has manufactured that popularity for some other purpose. While states generally provide for some kind of order, they are also everywhere the biggest sponsors of violence and terror. And if states were pure extractive rackets, their overriding logic would be to increase taxes such that they would absorb all social surplus beyond the working population’s subsistence. In reality, the most extractive states are also those with the most delicate authority—these are countries where coups, palace intrigue, and the threat of revolt are ever-present. If you could be ousted at any moment, your incentive is to extract as much as possible first and maintain political order by any means necessary, including extraordinarily harmful means.

From out of this milieu emerged two theories of the state which held a higher grade of intellectual heft: the classical Marxist state, defined by class domination, and the post-anarchist critique most closely associated with Foucault.

In the Foucaultian interpretation, the state is merely one of a multitude of actors—in addition to churches, parties, academies, corporations, oligarchies, unions, and myriad others—that seeks dominance and power. It does so through a system designed to produce knowledge and tactics which enforce bodily discipline.

In fact, it is those familiar with the state bureaucracy who are best placed to understand the inherent weaknesses in this theory. The reality is an institution where the greatest lack of discipline is tolerated, and which facilitates the greatest shelters from market discipline. Desk work requires no specific sort of body, and the advent of telework means that one’s body does not even have to enter the workplace proper. Public sector unions and labor laws mean that a government job is as good as tenure, and you are set for life regardless of competence. Slouched in a Waffle House booth, my dad, a bureaucrat since Bush Sr., once recalled how the higher-ups considered eliminating an entire class of positions just to get rid of one offensively bloated and lazy worker.

The power of the government bureaucracy—taken separately from the police and the army for a moment—is often used more to undermine discipline than to enforce it. Those familiar with the work of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, itself the most undisciplined and chaotic of all agencies, will know just how it can facilitate undisciplined lifestyles. Life in subsidized housing is not easy, nor luxurious; but it certainly isn’t disciplined. It facilitates a life with less frantic, never-ending labor than would otherwise be necessary. The same goes for Social Security, Food Stamps, and other such services.

The government bureaucracy—both the public and private sector versions—are a sort of pernicious proof that the highest stage of communism envisioned by Marx is feasible. Even in this incredibly undisciplined environment, work still gets done. Those with ambition take up the torch, those with a passion for serving the public put in the hours, and everyone else goes along with it because following orders blindly is actually quite easy. The average civil servant could probably go twenty years without thinking too much about what they’re doing, but it is those slightly above average ones who make the whole system go-round.

The only real discipline put on the bureaucracy has nothing to do with the body and everything to do with information. Incredible efforts are put towards data security, with specially made computer systems and overbearing information security protocols. The most high-profile cases of the state attacking its own are those whistleblowers who have exposed its secrets: Edward Snowden, Reality Winner, Chelsea Manning, etc. The ferocity unleashed against these few is many times greater than that faced by government workers who have committed any other crime, from embezzlement to murder. Just last year, an FBI agent living in the exurbs of DC was acquitted of shooting his wife to death by claiming self-defense. He now works at a post office.

The less information is available, the less transparency exists, and the greater the resulting autonomy for the bureaucracy. Censorship, redaction, unfreedom of the press: these things ensure the freedom of the professional state. Nevertheless, there is an inherent tension between this impulse and the broader interests of private capital which wield outsized power in the American state apparatus. The state places limits on its own secrecy, so that it cannot become strong and autonomous enough to represent a threat to business and its accumulation of wealth, or to the other various factions of powerful special interests that comprise American politics. But the state, while influenced by these interests, can never eliminate that secrecy, for doing so would entail the state at once losing both its autonomy and the appearance of liberal neutrality. Therefore, it is in both the public interest of the state and the nominally private interests of entrenched power to maintain a certain level of informational discipline, even if the bureaucracy carves out a lack of discipline in other spheres.

The Pentagon and more recent Afghanistan papers are excellent examples of how secrecy helps maintain the autonomy and public image of the state, and transparency ruins it. After Daniel Ellsberg and The New York Times collaborated in releasing the Pentagon Papers contents in 1971, it became clear that both the Johnson administration and American military and security personnel had systematically misled Congress and the public as to the cost and nature of the Vietnam conflict. Internally, the war was seen as only one part of a larger strategy to contain Chinese ambitions in Asia. Likewise, the 2019 release of the Afghanistan papers by The Washington Post detailed an internal view of the war very different from public propaganda. Despite consistent negative feedback from those facing on-the-ground operations, both local U.S. military command and Washington itself maintained secrecy around these facts. Even within the hierarchy itself, bureaucratic pressure to report progress led to distortion of the facts surrounding the conflict. Both examples reveal a state apparatus able to use secrecy to maintain a kind of institutional autonomy from popular and political scrutiny. Nevertheless, the personnel themselves were not neutral in the tasks they carried out, and their professional roles still bound them to domestic political struggles.

However, discipline of both the mind and body does have its adherents within the state: the military officer corps. This discipline is both tactical and ideological—tactical in the sense that it was born of necessity in the struggle between states, and ideological in the sense that it is also a part of the collectivist ideology of professionalism. This history of professionalism and the state is one best laid out by one of its staunchest proponents: Samuel Huntington, more famous for his predictions of a post-Cold War international conflict between broadly defined civilizations. We’ll draw more on him momentarily.

These forces within the American state have hardly been a quiet sideshow to the civilian bureaucracy. The start of the Cold War, for example, was a tumultuous time for American civil-military relations. Truman started off the 1950s with a mass resignation of Navy admirals over his decision to cancel the construction of the USS United States, a super-carrier meant to deliver the nuclear deterrent to the USSR. This aptly-named Revolt of the Admirals was a turning point. Compared to the power and respect afforded to military leaders during World War II, this curtailment of their autonomy was significant.

It was around this time, too, that Truman fired General MacArthur for his stance on Korea, prompting a public outcry whose magnitude is largely forgotten today. When MacArthur arrived in New York after being dismissed, he was greeted with confetti and packed streets. He was speculated as a potentially unstoppable presidential contender, all the way up until he finally opened his mouth to explain his disagreement with Truman.

MacArthur could not come to terms with limited war in Korea, so caught up was he in the old glory of World War II and that of “total victory.” In a blockbuster speech before both houses of Congress, MacArthur laid bare this ideology of total victory, and in the coming days and weeks, the public began to slowly realize precisely what this entailed: total nuclear war with the USSR. How ironic that just a few years earlier, as the American appointed dictator of Japan, MacArthur had been the greatest advocate of world peace and the abolition of war, going so far as to inscribe it into the Japanese Constitution.

Huntington pointed to military professionalism and autonomy as cures to such breakdowns of civil-military relations—a theory which he outlined in his first great book, The Soldier and the State, which has since become something of a bible for military officers. A professional officer will opt to resign in grace, like the admirals; MacArthur’s grab for political power could only be considered unprofessional.

But what exactly is this professionalism, and how did it come about? On the one hand, Huntington directly compares this professionalism to the categorical description of professions such as doctors and lawyers, who consider themselves an organic body separate from society and with a higher duty to it. On the other, he describes this professionalism as the result of a process where the bourgeoisie forced the state, via their struggle against feudal aristocracy, to make the bureaucracy meritocratic—at least in the sense of abolishing aristocratic right or seniority as the primary standard for claiming elevated positions. The result was a modern bureaucratic culture increasingly open to all classes, at least theoretically, and requiring liberal arts education and training for aspiring members.

This analysis exposes something about the MacArthur incident which even Huntington is reluctant to realize. If we take professionalism to be an ideology of the bourgeoisie, then we see that there is no ideological autonomy of the state. The alien and seemingly arcane bureaucracy is instantly demystified; its ideology is indistinguishable from other forms of bourgeois collectivism in the community of lawyers and doctors. The state doesn’t have its own ideologies distinct from the broader base of ruling class power; even in those cases when both the state and civil society are so atrophied that a single individual can impose their idiosyncrasies, such as in Bokassa’s Central African Empire and Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, they are uniquely vulnerable. Indeed, in both those examples, the dictator was swiftly overthrown by outside forces.

MacArthur’s ideology of total victory represented an ideology which, though once shared by America’s elite during the struggle of World War II, was now decisively rejected due to the novel danger of nuclear war. It was now too much for both the general population and the state elite. After all, nuclear annihilation has never been in anyone’s class interest. Thus, despite his opportunistic political position and heroic image, MacArthur’s battleship was sunk with his opening salvo.

Had MacArthur been willing to bend to such ideologies, he was equipped to be incredibly successful, as Eisenhower would be just a few years later when he won two landslide elections. Eisenhower used the strategic threat of nuclear weapons to bring the Korean War to a halt, rather than using these weapons tactically to achieve victory. Eisenhower also happened to directly counter Huntington’s theory with his vocal opposition to the military-industrial complex, a complex which Huntington presumed was impossible due to the clash of ideology between business liberalism and military conservatism. To him, the comradery between the military and corporations could only be temporary and ephemeral.

Huntington’s analysis showed that bureaucratic and military professionalism was a bourgeois ideology, but he could not follow this discovery through to its conclusion, due to his personal conservative commitments. He believed that only a conservative public ideology would maintain good civil-military relations, and thus maintain the autonomy and professionalism of the military. In truth, this was never necessary (and not just because professional ideology can easily lead to poor civil-military relations). Despite all the fear of military control and expropriation among business, they worked just fine together to make a buck and arm the state apparatus. But if we believe that there really did exist formal contradictions between the respective belief systems and motivations of military and business interests, how can this be possible?

The Marxist theory of the state has one answer. In the simple version, based upon the Communist Manifesto, postulating a class dictatorship of the capitalists would suggest such a differentiation between the capitalist class interests and that of the military was impossible within the context of the capitalist state. Some facts may support this interpretation, namely the war profiteering of the military industrial complex and the threat of foreign domination. And yet, the narrow interests of capitalists were also bludgeoned by the state efforts of World War II by social democracy and unprecedented levels of state control. This was not the case everywhere; in Nazi Germany, equivalent production for civilian markets was not disrupted until much later for the war effort when compared to the U.S., to the severe detriment of its strategic positioning.

A more sophisticated version of the Marxist theory is expressed in Marx’s historical articles on French politics, and in Lenin’s The State and Revolution. It goes like this: the state, as a special group of armed men dependent on taxes for income, is an instrument of the dominant class, but has greater autonomy in periods of intense class struggle. The state then uses this autonomy to preserve its foundations, namely private property, and so defends the capitalist system even to the immediate detriment of capitalist class interests. Implicit in this is the division of society between civil society and the state, as well as communities into atomistic political actors which then see their unity, now ideologically, within the state.

This theory of the state has several notable features which would come back to haunt it; the magnitude of state power is largely irrelevant beyond its most immediate and obvious effects, namely the increase in taxes and control of information. It claims that the potential world-historical significance of a particular state comes down not to how the state operates as a system, but to the class which controls it. Indeed, Marx was almost completely agnostic in the 1844 Philosophic Manuscripts about whether the transitionary state to communism was a dictatorship or democracy. It was only with the advent of the Paris Commune, a radical uprising of Parisian workers, that Marx took the side of democracy and small government, and only on practical not theoretical grounds. The commune, with its elimination of the bureaucracy and standing army, was taken to be the particular historical form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, thereby permitting general questions of structural effects of state power to be brushed aside.

For Marx, the key distinction between a proletarian state and a capitalist one was the existence of a divide between civil society and the state, between legislative and executive functions. Marx and Lenin, too, saw in the Paris Commune’s government a “working body” as opposed to a legislative one, which had ordinary people themselves implementing the law they themselves created. The Soviet Union would go on to claim the legacy of these working bodies. And in a sense, it succeeded. There was minimal distinction between the state and civil society, between the executive and legislative. But rather than civil society and the legislature devouring the state and executive, quite the opposite occurred. The state subsumed all community and economic functions within itself, and the executive bureaucracy became the supreme law makers. The state, it seemed, had a certain logic to it that Marxist theoreticians had not fully understood.

After the crimes of Stalin were unmasked, and the USSR began to fall behind the West in economic growth and innovation, a crisis of Marxism took hold, particularly in France where orthodox Marxism was once a major intellectual force. It was a period of introspection which introduced a whole host of theoretical innovations, including one which helps to better explain the conundrum which faced down Huntington some 25 years earlier. The traditional Marxist explanation, that the superficial ideological differences between the bourgeoisie and the officers fell away with financial self-interest, treats these ideological differences as an ethereal byproduct of class society and state control. But this was a misconception.

Nicos Polantzas, one of the leading structuralists and Marxists in France during this period, explained it most elegantly when he described the state as “overcoded.” That is, the state simultaneously, at any given time, is the conduit, mirror, and reproducer of a plethora of different ideologies which can and often are in total formal contradiction. The state is not merely the reconciler of interests in the old-fashioned parliamentary way. Rather, because of the fundamental disconnect between conscious ideology and political and historical action, it can reflect the desires of multiple mutually exclusive ideologies. The state acts as something like a Rorschach test.

Consider the military-industrial complex, a nexus of entrenched business interests that profit off the war industry while maintaining social and civil liberalism. This complex sees its project as that of protecting such liberalism from foreign threats. Meanwhile, officers like Eisenhower, though they may well see how this profiteering is deteriorating overall state preparedness, will still advocate for the most elaborate and expensive technologies in the belief they will provide a military edge. Both are quite sincere, and are still in conflict vis-a-vis their loyalties to corporation versus state, but both still believe that the state (and, in our case, the U.S. Constitution) is the unity of their interests.

Louis Althusser, having lived through the Communist Party’s defense of De Gaulle from the threat of a coup in the Algiers crisis, the failed revolt of workers and students in 1968, and the slow disintegration of academic Marxism as a political force, would go on to craft perhaps the most elegant theory of the state in his later years.

He took Lenin and Marx’s formulation, the state as “a special group of armed men” and turned it on its head in search of a solution to the theoretical crisis of Marxism. Rather than “special” referring to the opposite of “general” (as in a proletarian state in the style of the Paris Commune would be generally armed), Althusser took this to refer to the special nature of state authority. It acts distinctively and with a different ground for legitimacy than those forces which are formally in the private sphere.

But why does the state need authority? Why is an armed subgroup of society insufficient on its own to maintain a system? The answer is quite simple. The state, in order to maintain social control is interested in the relative, rather than absolute, maximization of its violence.

Theoretically, the civilian population—particularly those whose work ensures production—hold the power to grind society to a halt. The general strike, the mass revolt, the civil war—these are existential threats to the state. Therefore, it is not enough for the state to accumulate an overwhelming magnitude of violence. It must minimize the amount of violence of all other actors in society, including social classes—ultimately, even other sections of the class from which much of this “special group of armed men” are drawn. So, it has to convert its violence into legitimate authority. Legitimacy exists, and always has existed, in a purely superficial sense, in that we believe we are alienating our sovereign power through the law of the state. The law possesses authority which validates its defence through violence, while the individual’s lack of sovereign authority invalidates his use of violence in all but the most restricted circumstances of personal defence.

This observation unveils the truth behind one of the most central conceptual myths of liberal thought: the state of nature.

Thomas Hobbes, the premier proponent of absolutism and conceptualizer of the modern state, suggested that the state’s purpose was to maintain order at all costs. He was, of course, engaged in a bit of rhetorical trickery in referring to the absence of state authority as “the state of nature.” This conflates the pre-state situation with the collapse of state authority. But the latter situation already presumes the existence of the state itself. The state of nature should then be considered not some primordial era, or some purely theoretical structure, but rather the concrete—and, for Hobbes, very real—threat of civil war. It does not exist prior to the era of the state, but only as a result of its preeminence as the source of political order, having defeated, cannibalized, or otherwise outcompeted all alternatives.

Modern civil-military relations literature has uncovered a wonderful example of just how this threat of “the state of nature,” and thus the need to maintain political order, motivates the state, just as Althusser predicts. In many developing countries, where the risk of coups is great, precarious leaders will systematically make moves which would raise the risks of civil war—both in likelihood and cost—in the event of a coup. Why? Because there is nothing the military officers fear more than the specter of fratricide and the sudden self-destruction of the armed forces. But we can go a step further. This logic extends to the whole of the professional state, the officer corps, and the bureaucracy.

Both Marx and Foucault failed to grasp this, eager as they were to use the metaphor of civil war for class struggle and oppression in society. But here, Clausewitz won out: war is politics by other means, not the other way around. Civil war is precisely the breakdown of legitimate authority as an ideological power—the breakdown of law as a power above people in general. Such a collapse precipitates the rise of violence on the part of actors outside the state, and can threaten not only the elite classes but society as a whole. This ideology of legitimate authority is not some superficial byproduct of the state. It is the whole purpose of the state.

Importantly, this power of authority, while traditionally belonging to the legislature or the head of state, does not necessarily belong there. It can shift over time. The military or the bureaucracy has at times taken on this mantle of legitimacy when these traditional powerhouses fail—a fact which is important to remember in our current context of disobedience within these bureaucracies. Within the American structure, current tactics surrounding opposition to the Trump administration gives some clue as to how this works. Locked out of many of the elected structures, opponents are looking to bodies within the security state, the diplomatic services, and the military to provide a Schelling point for resistance.

In more dramatic breakdowns of authority—civil war or coup—such bodies may decisively assert themselves as Schelling points not just for resistance, but for sovereignty over the state apparatus.

Examples abound throughout the 20th century. The counterinsurgency war in Algeria, which caused the French generals to learn the tactics of social control, facilitated their interference in politics, just as MacArthur’s appointment as governor of Japan did. The Vietnam war, by forcing the Pentagon to develop non-lethal weapons and methods of winning “hearts and minds,” would lead to the deployment of the same tactics against students protesting the war. With civil-military integration, the development of methods of social control domestically and in wars abroad have become the very same development.

The U.S. has been in a counterinsurgency war for nearly two decades now, and so the military-bureaucratic apparatus of the state has the most advanced methods of social control at its disposal. The best example of this is the development of the modern digital surveillance state. Post-9/11 initiatives by DARPA were geared towards domestic information gathering and processing, and were picked up by both the NSA and the military. Edward Snowden blew the lid on the domestic spying operation, but these same systems are deployed even more invasively on the battlefield. Sensor modules and cameras were blanketed across roads and buildings; satellite, internet, and phone surveillance were combined with traditional recon to develop three-dimensional maps of cities across Iraq. It’s a solid guess that other tactics, such as the bribing of village elders and respected locals to achieve political goals, will also come home to roost.

At the very same time, Congress and the Executive branch are losing their authority and legitimacy at a startling pace.

When I worked in government, the cheery liberals who joked like Jon Stewart about lawmakers’ exploits were all unanimous in their belief in just how the policies they were implementing were going to fail. There was nothing to be done, they concluded. But now, it seems as though the ground is shifting beneath us. Maneuvers like impeachment have effectively very little impact on public sentiment, radical ideological undercurrents are stirring, and we are faced with immense collective action problems in our fight against ecological catastrophe. The threat of the internal collapse of authority, at least in the traditional elected locus of that authority, is now a serious hypothetical. This threat alone, rather than its realization, will be the prime mover of politics in the coming historical moments.

The state of nature—the horrors of the civil wars of days long past in England, Russia, France, and even here in the United States—is a trauma that we might think we are above in this day and age. Who dares defy the supreme law of the land?

I’ve sworn my oath. Congress, too, swore an oath. As did President Trump.

Out of the three of us, where do you spy Leviathan?

Nicolas Villarreal works as an analyst for a government contractor and formerly worked in federal banking regulation. He is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, and author of the novel Caeruleus.