American Exception: Hegemony and the Dissimulation of the State

Aaron Good
Published May 20, 2022


Author’s Preface, May 2022

First published online in 2015, this article was a personal triumph for me at a difficult time. I had yet to pass my comprehensive PhD exams and was something of an outlier and dissident in the department. I almost lost my funding before some professors intervened on my behalf and the graduate chair restored my funding for my final year. Getting a radical and ambitious article published soon after in Administration & Society, a respected peer-reviewed journal, was a coup for me as a mere PhD student.

The theory and arguments laid out in this piece were greatly expanded in my dissertation. I later edited and further expanded that manuscript into a book version for Skyhorse Publishing—set to be released next month. With seven years of hindsight, I can look at this article—posted publicly here for the first time—and quibble over this or that element or the academic diction and syntax. However, on the whole, it is gratifying to look at this and compare it to the conventional scholarship turned out by political scientists working within the most powerful imperial state in human history. If social science is supposed to confront and overturn orthodoxy, it is certainly worth hashing out the fundamental lawlessness and anti-democratic essence of the prevailing system of governance.

Most notably, I am thankful to those academics who in different ways helped this article to see the light of day. Specifically, I owe a debt of gratitude to Lance DeHaven-Smith, Matthew Witt, Kym Thorne, and Gary Wamsley. For supporting this kind of radical scholarship, they stand out as exemplars of scholarship and integrity. I hope this article can be of use to interested laypersons and scholars who seek to understand and explore topics related to US hegemony and elite criminality. Peace!

First published in Administration & Society, vol. 50, no. 1 (2018), pp. 4-29.


The theory of a “dual state” posits that alongside the “democratic state” governed by constitutional logics and processes, there exists a “security state” that functions according to logics of hierarchy, secrecy, and security. This article seeks to empirically substantiate a disaggregation of the state that is more severe than the “dual state” theorized by Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, Ola Tunander, Peter Dale Scott, and others. I argue that the weight of the evidence provides sufficient support to justify a theory of the tripartite state—a radical revision to theories pertaining to the nature of liberal democratic states. If such a state has emerged, it is essential to critically examine the historical record so that we may understand its genesis and the prospects for its growth or diminishment.

These questions are increasingly relevant as the US government asserts more and more powers that would seem to violate liberal Western traditions, the US Constitution, and international law (such as it is). These controversial practices include mass surveillance, indefinite detention, torture, and assassination without due process. Although some of these are relatively recent developments in the American political experience, they have antecedents in various legally dubious practices that the United States has undertaken in the name of security. The most obvious examples of apparently illegal policies involve innumerable violations of other nations’ sovereignty, circumvention of laws regarding arms trading, alliances with organized crime, and suppression of constitutionally legitimate dissent. It is important to recognize that these exercises of administrative discretion have violated international law as well as constitutional and statutory limits on executive power. Likewise, it is crucial to note that the scale and the scope of these actions have been typically obscured and left unadjudicated. These and other phenomena form the basis for theory which places at its center the “state of exception” and the dissimulation of the state. Ideally, such a framework may provide useful assumptions, heuristics, and epistemology for understanding, explaining, and even predicting political phenomena. Borrowing from scholars of international politics, this article seeks to situate the discussion in the context of the US pursuit of international hegemony.

Sovereignty, Criminality, and the State

Scholars from Machiavelli to Hobbes to Weber have long acknowledged that the state seeks to monopolize violence and thereby attain sovereignty. The ultimate legitimacy or illegitimacy of this violence has been the subject of much inquiry and scholarship. More recently, Charles Tilly echoed and refined the insight that criminality is a central element of the emergence of the state, of statecraft, and of war making.1Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back In. Tilly argued that if protection rackets are the most refined operation particular to the criminal underworld, then warfare and statecraft qualify as the grandest examples of organized crime. Tilly is primarily concerned with the emergent state, which he argues is an analogue of the criminal underworld. The state, by Max Weber’s famous definition, holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. However, throughout history and up to the present, states have used various tactics more commonly associated with organized crime and have called on the services of criminal organizations. These phenomena are ubiquitous enough to detect in the historical record, yet they remain somewhat neglected by political scientists, perhaps owing to the difficulty of conceptualizing and analyzing processes that are not carefully and transparently documented.

Liberals would likely classify modern examples of state-sanctioned economies of violence (the slave trade, the Opium Wars, overt imperialism, etc.) as vestiges of premodern, absolutist political forms. Liberal democracy establishes public sovereignty and the rule of law, as opposed to the arbitrary rule of men. Thus, liberal democracies should be expected to abolish the lawless aspects of the absolutist state as the legal regulation of society and politics is established and extended. Although this article argues that theory has failed to adequately address the establishment of institutionalized illiberal forms within US democracy, democratic theorists have long addressed the issue of administrative discretion and the abandonment of strict adherence to legally prescribed actions.

In contrast to the absolutism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke is recognized as a liberal theorist who privileges liberty vis-à-vis the dictates of arbitrary authority. Neocleous argues that this interpretation of Locke is an oversight with serious theoretical ramifications.2Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance.” Locke is typically characterized as a thinker who places sovereignty in the people through their capacity to select representatives and make a government. To this end, the legislature appears supreme, protecting life and liberty while precluding the exercise of arbitrary power. However, Locke contradicts this quintessential Lockean premise by stating that “the Executive Power” bestows discretion to act decisively to protect the public good. Locke states that “many accidents may happen wherein a strict and rigid observation of the laws may do harm.” Locke calls this discretionary power “prerogative.” He states in passing that this is “arbitrary power,”3Locke, The Second Treatise of Government. but ignores the fact that arbitrary power is exactly what his prescribed constitution is designed to prevent.4Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 135.

At issue is not liberalism’s laudable defense of human rights, political freedoms, and the public sphere. Rather, the problem is with liberalism’s assertion that freedoms and rights and the rule of law define the political system of the West.

It is in the context of the “emergency” that Locke most clearly abandons the liberal path that he is credited for blazing. In essence, he invokes raison d’etat. This concept has served to legitimate virtually all actions that have been carried out in the power games between modern states, as the doctrine evolved into “interest of state,” the “security of state,” and its present form, “national security.”5Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 137. Therefore, Locke places security above all, just like his supposed antithesis, Hobbes. About this matter, Locke poses the obvious question: “But who shall be judge when this Power is made a right use of?” His answer is that if an executive exercising prerogative cannot be checked by the legislative, “[T]here can be no judge on earth.” In such a case, the rulers are exercising a power that was never put into their hands, because people can never consent to be ruled by those who would harm them. When such a situation exists, the people must make an “appeal to heaven” when the moment is right;6Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, 77. in other words, Locke believes that the people have a right to revolution. Outside of overt tyranny, however, on the issue of existential security, both Locke and Hobbes had similar views on the rights of rulers vis-à-vis legal restraints. By leaving unspecified the limits of prerogative power, Locke served to liberalize and thereby legitimize what is, in essence, the kernel of a doctrine of absolutism.7Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 139-140.

Whereas Locke deemphasized this irreconcilable strain of absolutism within his liberal theorizing, centuries later, Carl Schmitt would echo Hobbes by grappling specifically with the absolutist dictates of security. Schmitt wrote famously, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” The “state of exception” “is not codified in the existing legal order.” It is “characterized as a case of extreme peril, a danger to the existence of the state.” The gravity of the state of exception is such that “it cannot be circumscribed factually and made to conform to a preformed law.” Sovereignty for Schmitt is defined by the ability to decide when the state of exception exists and how it may be eliminated. Any liberal constitution can hope, at best, to mandate the party with which sovereignty rests.8Schmitt, Political Theology, 5-7. Conversely, it is also the sovereign who decides when a normal situation exists. Laws can only exist and be adhered to under “normal” circumstances. “[H]e is sovereign who definitely decides whether this normal situation actually exists.” For liberal constitutionalists, the goal is to precisely regulate the exception. This amounts to writing into law the circumstances under which the law negates itself.9Schmitt, Political Theology, 13-14. Through his advocacy of unrestrained sovereign power to maintain order, Schmitt represents the Hobbesian tradition in Western politics. This theoretical strain would later be advanced by Leo Strauss and eventually the neoconservatives.

As a 20th century analog of Thomas Hobbes, Schmitt elucidated a grim, illiberal understanding of the true nature of power within the state. Recognizing this same illiberal essence, other theorists described the “state of exception” and the securitization of politics as a slippery slope that would create authoritarianism, perhaps with pseudo-democratic trappings.10See Lasswell, “The Universal Peril: Perpetual Crisis and the Garrison State”; Scott, The Road to 9/11; and Wolin, Democracy Incorporated. In the early years of the Cold War, seminal realist Hans Morgenthau would comment on these illiberal forms emerging within the American political system. He identified a change in the control of operations within the US State Department. The shift was toward rule according to the dictates of “security.” Morgenthau wrote, “This shift has occurred in all modern totalitarian states and has given rise to a phenomenon which has been aptly called the ‘dual state.’” In a dual state, power nominally rests with those legally holding authority, but in effect, “by virtue of their power over life and death, the agents of the secret police—coordinated to, but independent from the official makers of decision—at the very least exert an effective veto over decisions.”11Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 12. Thus does Morgenthau describe a dynamic akin to Schmitt’s conception of sovereignty.

Writing about the US State Department in particular, Morgenthau’s observations apply to the rest of government:

Once the secret police has established itself firmly in an agency of the government, it will have less and less need for intervening drastically in day-to-day operations; for its omnipresence and its reputed omnipotence will generally be sufficient for the constituted authorities to avoid any action which might displease the secret police.12Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 12.

Roy Cohn (left) and US Senator (WI) Joseph McCarthy (right). Source: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Making specific comparisons with the Nazi regime, Morgenthau states that the power of a secret police ultimately reflects the power of its head, Heinrich Himmler, in the Nazi case. In the case of the Bureau of Security, Morgenthau postulated that its power was a reflection of its powerful supporters in the US Senate.13Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 13. Writing this in the early 1960s, it is likely that Morgenthau is mistaken about the source of the power behind the Bureau of Security. Senator Joseph McCarthy was the most visibly strident and paranoid anti-communist in the Senate, but J. Edger Hoover was likely the driving force behind the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts of the era.14Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes.

Building on Morgenthau and others, Ola Tunander argues that the dual state is comprised of two components: a “democratic state,” which operates according to the rule of law and a “security state,” which is more autocratic and which reveals its sovereignty most overtly when there is a state of emergency. The “security state” exerts power beyond the capacity to veto democratic decisions. The security state may also engage in the “fine-tuning of democracy.”15Tunander, “Democratic State vs. Deep State: Approaching the Dual State of the West,” 57. This is accomplished through a logic that is anathema to liberal understandings of politics. These political phenomena are described elsewhere as “parapolitics.” This term was coined by Peter Dale Scott who defined it as “a system or practice of politics in which accountability is consciously diminished.”16Scott, The Road to 9/11, 269. The refusal to interrogate the democratic state’s denial of the security state represents for Tunander a serious deficiency within theories of liberalism in political science and law. At issue is not liberalism’s laudable defense of human rights, political freedoms, and the public sphere. Rather, the problem is with liberalism’s assertion that freedoms and rights and the rule of law define the political system of the West. In this way, liberal political science has become what Tunander describes as “an ideology of the ‘sovereign,’ because indisputable evidence for the existence of the ‘sovereign’ [ . . . ] is brushed away as pure fantasy or ‘conspiracy.’”17Tunander, “Democratic State vs. Deep State: Approaching the Dual State of the West,” 68. Carl Schmitt’s scholarship has typically been regarded as apology for the rising dictatorial emergency state in Weimar Germany. Challenging this view, Tunander posits Schmitt as a scholar of the dual state documenting the obscured autocratic security state which exists in parallel to the public state. Continuing in the tradition of Hobbes and Schmitt, there is a strong theoretical case to be made for the existence of the dual state. If such a case has sufficient empirical support, then the liberal denial of the state’s duality is demonstrably illusory.


As no civilization can be ruled entirely through coercive means, the concept of hegemony is applied to name a prevailing order upheld by some mixture of consensual and coercive forces. In reference to international politics, “hegemony” connotes more benevolence and legitimacy than the term “empire.” Thus, in the United States, it is conventional to describe “hegemony.” The term “US empire” itself works against the legitimacy that underpins extant liberal hegemony. Within theoretical explications of hegemony, there is a tension between theories that emphasize coercive domination and those that emphasize consensual leadership. Theories of hegemony can be classified by the way in which they evaluate the concept according to this dimension.

For theorists who emphasize dominance and/or coercion, hegemony is straightforward. Mearsheimer, a self-described “offensive realist,” defines hegemony as an individual state’s dominance over its fellow states within the system.18Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Sullivan writes specifically about the coercive aspects of US hegemony since the end of World War II. According to this rendering, the overarching US objective has been to make the world safe for capital, not (as is often claimed) for democracy. This has been especially true in the Third World where there have been tremendous opportunities for profit as well as opportunities to preclude non-capitalist models of development.19Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad. The opposing consensual leadership perspective is most clearly expressed by hegemonic stability theorists such as Kindleberger who assert that the international system requires a hegemonic state to shoulder the costs of providing international public goods.20Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939.

None of the aforementioned theories of hegemony are ideal-typical along the consent/coercion dimension. Obviously, no prevailing order can be maintained wholly by either. The concept of “structural power” serves as a way to reconcile the tension between coercion and consent. In essence, the tension derives from conceptions of the nature of power. Susan Strange identifies two kinds of power—relational and structural.21Strange, States and Markets. Relational power enables one entity to force compliance in another. Structural power allows its wielders to shape the structure of the international political economy in which all state and non-state actors must operate. In the current competition among and between states and businesses, structural power is often most decisive. Structural power allows for the shaping of frameworks that establish how states, people, and corporate actors will interact with each other. Structural power is enormously influential in the international political economy. Possessors of structural power are able to constrain the options of other actors without using overtly visible pressure. Strange faults social scientists for not acknowledging or recognizing the importance of structural power.22Strange, States and Markets, 37. Structural power complicates all questions of “agency vs. structure” in social science. Structural power represents agency of the highest order.

Robert Cox uses a critical historical materialist perspective to the question of hegemony.23Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders.” Cox’s critical theory focuses on hegemony, described as a prevailing order created by the interrelation of three forces: material power, ideas, and institutions. Cox refines the notion of hegemony by using the term “world order” to describe hegemonic institutionalization on a global scale. In a world order, material power remains a dimension. The relevant ideas are the shared perceptions of the world order, including internationally accepted norms. The institutions in a world order strive collectively to uphold the system while administering justice in a way that is at least superficially impartial and not overtly in the interests of the most powerful states and/or non-state actors. Hegemony, according to Cox, serves to minimize the amount of coercive force used throughout the system. He asserts that the Pax Americana of the postwar era was a hegemonic world order. During those years, the United States rarely used coercive force on behalf of its powerful economic interests. Rather, Cox maintains that the profits of corporate America provided the material wherewithal necessary to maintain US hegemony.24Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders,” 139.

For Arrighi and Silver, like Cox, hegemony is not simply domination.25Arrighi, Silver, and Ahmad, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, 99. It is the amplified power wielded by a dominant group stemming from that group’s capacity to lead in such way that it is widely perceived as serving not only its own interests but also the interests of subordinate groups. A credible claim to represent the general interest can only be made when the dominant groups within the hegemonic state are capable of leading the interstate system toward improved types of competition. Furthermore, the systemic enhancements offered by the hegemonic state must address systemic problems that have arisen to make systemic governance desirable. These conditions are necessary and sufficient for the aspiring hegemon to claim credibly that its hegemony would be in the general interest. Arrighi and Silver theorize about “hegemonic crisis.”26Arrighi, Silver, and Ahmad, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, 30. This is a late stage of hegemony after several intervening stages. The first stage of hegemonic crisis is marked by increasingly intense competition between states and enterprises. This leads to intensified social conflicts which give rise to new power configurations. Such a process has unfolded over the course of hegemonies led by Holland, Great Britain, and the United States.

David Harvey describes hegemony as political power that finds expression through consensual leadership of subordinate groups. Hegemony is distinct from domination by largely coercive means.27Harvey, The New Imperialism. Like Arrighi,28Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century. Harvey sees hegemony as unstable due to its conflicting territorial and capitalist logics. Intangible assets provide the underpinnings of hegemony. These include “prestige, status, deference, authority, and diplomatic clout.” These intangibles must have a material anchoring. In a capitalist economic system, hegemony is bolstered materially by three factors: military capabilities, productive capabilities, and the money system. These three bases are in constant flux and are therefore ultimately unstable.29Harvey, The New Imperialism, 42.

The imposition of this arrangement allowed the United States to accomplish something no other nation in history had achieved; America was able to force the world’s nations to pay for America’s military profligacy, regardless of their position on the matter.

Mearsheimer asserts that the logic of great powers compels them to dominate others to preserve their hegemony within the system. Sullivan details how US hegemony has entailed acting repeatedly to use coercion and violate nations’ sovereignty on behalf of its economic interests or on behalf the capitalist system as a whole. These practices predate and postdate the Cold War. Cox illuminates the nature of hegemony as the interplay between ideational, material, and institutional forces. In so doing, he posits that institutions are functions of power and subordinate to power. Arrighi and Silver contribute theories of hegemonic decline which are particularly relevant to our current moment. Harvey’s elaboration on the distinction between the territorial and capitalist logics of hegemony can help explain the contradictions and changing character of US hegemony.

During the 1980s, prominent international relations scholars in the United States argued that the economic chaos of recent history were due to declining US hegemony.30Gilpin and Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations; Keohane, After Hegemony. In some respects, this analysis seems apt. The United States willingly gave up production of many highvalued goods through the process of deindustrialization spurred by the US-led promotion of neoliberal globalization. However, as Susan Strange pointed out, at the time of Keohane’s writing, the United States had not lost power so much as the nature of that power had changed. Hegemonic dominance went from being based on land, people, and production to being based on control of the structures of the international system.31Strange, States and Markets, 237-238. Hegemonic leadership was asserted over an international system in which the rules were suited to serve the dominant interests within that system and perpetuate a hierarchical international order.

Taking all the foregoing into account, the following points emerge regarding US dominance since the end of World War II: The structural power of the United States allowed it to dominate the material, ideational, and institutional realms of the international capitalist world order. The American hegemonic project has been pursued through varying proportions of consent and coercion, always with the strategic goal of maintaining the preeminence of the prevailing power structure. Although the nature of the US-led world order has evolved over time, its present incarnation is observably unstable. Whether this instability will give rise to a different world order remains to be seen. To address and understand the forces that give rise to world order, the following section traces the impact of structural power in shaping the evolution of US hegemony.

Defaulting on Bretton Woods: The Petrodollar/ US Treasury Bill Standard

Although Middle Eastern oil was of great importance to the United States in the aftermath of World War II, petroleum became even more important after the structural changes to the international economy, which occurred during the 1970s. After World War II, the Bretton Woods agreements established a global framework for international currencies. The dollar served as the world reserve currency and was valued at 1/35 ounce of gold. Balance of payments deficits would be settled by the United States with gold. This aspect of the international financial system was generally stable until Vietnam War spending created massive deficits in the US balance of payments. The central banks of European and Asian nations were accumulating vast amounts of dollars. If US leaders had continued to adhere to the gold standard, the US Treasury would have exhausted its gold reserves. To prevent this, the US Senate and President Johnson informally suspended dollar–gold convertibility. President Nixon would formally end the gold standard in 1971, bringing the Bretton Woods era to a close.32Hudson, Super Imperialism, 306-308.

Until 1971, the United States had functioned as the global economic hegemon through its position as the world’s largest creditor and through the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency. When the gold standard was ended, the rest of the world’s nations could have pursued the establishment of a new international monetary order. Rather than following such a course, these nations kept their dollars in lieu of gold. As a result, the United States remained the global capitalist hegemon, but from a position as the world’s biggest debtor nation. The dollar and US Treasury bills would play the role previously played by gold. If the other nations of the world had rejected this arrangement, the result might have been a global systemic shock or economic collapse.

The imposition of this arrangement allowed the United States to accomplish something no other nation in history had achieved; America was able to force the world’s nations to pay for America’s military profligacy, regardless of their position on the matter.33Hudson, Super Imperialism, 308. This illustrates the enormous structural power of the United States. Up to the present day, this privileged position has essentially allowed the United States to be fiscally profligate while forestalling an inflationary reckoning. This has been perhaps less obvious because US military budgets have dwarfed the domestic expenditures that are typically associated with populist fiscal profligacy.

The dominance of the dollar has been bolstered by US hegemony over the world’s petroleum production. In 1973, shortly after the termination of the gold standard, the world began to experience the now infamous Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries crisis of skyrocketing oil prices. There is considerable evidence that the United States was manipulating the shortages. Collusion between the Saudis and Iranians and the Nixon administration has been documented.34Gowan, The Global Gamble, 21. Decades later, this assessment was confirmed by the Saudi oil minister of the time, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who revealed,

I am 100 per cent sure that the Americans were behind the increase in the price of oil. The oil companies were in real trouble at that time; they had borrowed a lot of money and they needed a high oil price to save them.35The Observer, “Saudi Dove in the Oil Slick.”

It was the US-allied Shah of Iran who said to Yamani, “Why are you against the increase in the price of oil? That is what they want? Ask Henry Kissinger—he is the one who wants a higher price.”36The Observer, “Saudi Dove in the Oil Slick.”

Regardless of the causes of the oil crises of the 1970s, it is clear that although they damaged the global economy, they did redound to the tremendous benefit of the oil majors and the Wall Street banks. In addition, the US Treasury benefitted greatly from the rising oil prices and the economic order that emerged during the era. Secret deals were made between the Saudis and two US Treasury secretaries, William Simon and Michael Blumenthal. As per the arrangements, the Saudis would use oil revenues to purchase US Treasury bills in special auctions.37Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony, 107. In addition, a deal was negotiated in which the Saudis agreed to continue selling oil only in US dollars.38Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony, 124. These arrangements cemented the status of the dollar as the world reserve currency. As a result, the United States was able to maintain and even aggrandize its “exorbitant” privilege. Every nation that needed to import oil would have greater incentive to accumulate dollars. At the same time, the United States could essentially print dollars to settle its balance of payments.

The establishment and perpetuation of the post-Bretton Woods petrodollar/ US Treasury bill standard represents a significant example and source of hegemonic structural power. The arrangement has been historically novel especially in the respect that US global primacy has been supported by America’s status as the world’s largest debtor. However, it is crucial to recognize that US hegemony, like that of all great powers, rests on a basis of overwhelming military primacy. The financial power bequeathed by the hegemonic power structure allows for the financing of a military behemoth with no historical equal. As Chalmers Johnson chronicles, the US “empire of bases” includes more than 725 international military installations39Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 167. supported by nearly half a million Americans living around the world.40Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 160. Unlike the great powers of eras past, the United States has been able to pursue this militarization without suffering economic ruin by virtue of the unique aspects of the world order that the United States has established and maintained.

The US National Security State

President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1956

The previous section details key financial aspects of the US hegemonic project. That narrative is, in essence, an elaboration of structural power. However, as mentioned above, the prevailing hierarchical order has also been maintained by a considerable degree of coercive relational power. This has been exercised the most clearly through the institutions that collectively comprise the US national security state. Reflecting the ethos of the US foreign policy establishment and as a response to emerging Cold War perceptions, President Truman signed the US National Security Act of 1947. This created the institutions that collectively form the modern US national security state. The act created several agencies that are still around today, including the National Security Council (NSC), the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA was originally established solely to obtain, manage, and analyze incoming information relevant to the national security of the United States. Its activities were to be overseen by the NSC, the new staff unit that oversaw matters of war and peace for the executive branch.

The Wall Street–dominated Council on Foreign Relations was an important advocate for the establishment of a new agency to replace the disbanded World War II intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services.41Scott, The Road to 9/11, 12. To this end, James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy, had commissioned a report in 1945 that was eventually drafted by Ferdinand Eberstadt. Both men were private bankers from Dillon Read, a Wall Street investment bank.42Hersh, The Old Boys, 172. Allen Dulles was recruited by New York corporate elites to begin working in 1946 on creating proposals for the agency which would later become the CIA. Dulles recruited six men to serve on an advisory group. Five of them were Wall Street investment bankers or lawyers.43Scott, The Road to 9/11, 12.

As originally conceived, the CIA was to perform five functions. Of these, four dealt with acquiring and managing intelligence. The fifth function was derived from an innocuously phrased passage in the National Security Act. Written by Clark Clifford,44Frantz and McKean, Friends in High Places, 67-68. an oblique clause stated that the CIA shall “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.”45Johnson, Nemesis, 93. This obscure section granted the CIA powers to carry out all manner of covert operations in ways that President Truman had never intended. Historian Richard Immerman refers to this passage as the National Security Act’s “elastic clause.”46Immerman, The Hidden Hand, 19.

An opaque capability to intervene into international and domestic politics was situated in such a way as to be far removed from any meaningful democratic accountability or oversight. Such institutions represent a “state of exception” that transcends even the duality of the democratic and security states.

In hindsight, Wall Street’s interest in creating the CIA is perfectly rational. Following its creation, the agency would soon carry out various operations that served to further a geopolitical agenda that suited the interests of the US corporate elite. In 1953, the CIA launched “Operation Ajax,” which overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. This represented the first of many coups d’état that the CIA would organize. Mossadegh had nationalized Iranian oil, much aggrieving the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British enterprise. The conflict arose because the company was essentially expropriating Iranian petroleum. Iranian oil generated 275 million pounds of revenue from 1945 to 1950. Of this sum, Iran received 18% or 50 million pounds.47Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 51. Mossedegh’s nationalization efforts were supported by the majority of the Iranian people. Via Operation Ajax, Mossadegh was removed, and the Shah was installed as the new head of state. He would rule Iran repressively until 1979, allowing US and U.K. companies to reap considerable profits from Iranian petroleum sales. This episode illustrates how US business interests were able to wield ever more power in the developing world. The US elite now had at its disposal an international clandestine operations network situated within the government of what was by far the wealthiest and most powerful state in the world. The covert operations arm of the CIA allowed the United States to pursue foreign policies without subjecting them to meaningful democratic scrutiny or oversight.

These practices were not entirely new. The United States had established neocolonial hegemony over Latin America prior to the Cold War. Between 1890 and 1935, the United States intervened militarily 38 times to topple a government, install a compliant client regime, and then withdraw. The only lull in this policy took place during the years of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy of non-intervention in the affairs of Latin American governments.48Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 20. The historical continuity of the furtherance of class interests should be acknowledged.

United Fruit Company magnate Sam Zemurray. Source: Eliot Elisofon/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Banana magnate Sam Zemurray provides a striking early 20th century example. Zemurray was aggrieved by the policies of Honduran President Miguel Davila. Not only was Davila attempting to tax Zemurray’s massive Honduran banana plantations, but he was also seeking to limit the amount of land that foreigners could own in the country.49Kinzer, Overthrow, 73. In response, Zemurray assembled four men in New Orleans: the famous soldier of fortune Lee Christmas, New Orleans gangster George “Machine Gun” Malony, and two Hondurans named Manuel Bonilla and Florian Davadi. Bonilla was Zemurray’s choice for the Honduran presidency. Davadi was his chief aide.50Kinzer, Overthrow, 71. The conspiracy to overthrow the Honduran government came to fruition early in 1911. Bonilla ascended to the presidency in 1912. As president, Bonilla took out a $500,000 loan, which was used to compensate Zemurray for costs incurred in overthrowing the prior government. Zemurray quickly came to dominate economic life in Central America. Eventually, he merged his operations with the United Fruit Company (UFC) and became the company’s managing director. United Fruit would go on to dominate the region for decades.51Kinzer, Overthrow, 76-77.

In 1951, Zemurray’s friend Edward Bernays (the “father of public relations”) informed Zemurray that Mohammad Mossedegh has recently nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Guatemala might follow suit and nationalize UFC’s massive holdings in the country.52Kinzer, Overthrow, 134-135. In addition to massive land holdings, UFC owned Guatemala’s telephone system and virtually all the railroad lines. UFC also had a monopoly over banana exports, and it controlled the most important harbor on the Atlantic.53Blum, Killing Hope, 75. In defense of these interests, Zemurray hired Bernays to launch a PR offensive branding the liberal reform government of Guatemala as a communist menace.54Kinzer, Overthrow, 134-135. Eventually, the CIA’s 1954 Operation PBSUCCESS toppled the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. As Zemurray had feared, Arbenz was moving to nationalize privately held assets—uncultivated land specifically. Of the land in question, around 400,000 acres was owned by UFC. This land was to be distributed among peasant families who had previously farmed on the land. The Arbenz plan was for the Guatemalan government to compensate UFC in accordance with the value of the land that UFC declared for purposes of taxation, making the conflict a case of eminent domain.55Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 57-58.

Peter Dale Scott uses the term “overworld” to describe the highest strata of politically active private wealth.56Scott, The Road to 9/11, 268. In the early 1950s, Arbenz and Guatemala faced a serious problem in that UFC was tightly interwoven with the US “overworld.” CIA director Allen Dulles and his brother, US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had worked as lawyers for the company. John Moors Cabot, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, was a major stockholder. His brother, Thomas Dudley Cabot, served as the State Department’s director of international security affairs and was also a major stockholder. The National Security Council chief, General Robert Cutler, had previously served as UFC chairman of the board. John J. McCloy served on the board for a time.57Kinzer, Overthrow, 129-130.

Police crackdown on student demonstrators in Guatemala City in 1962. Source: AP

Following the CIA’s ouster of Arbenz, various dictators would rule Guatemala. The military ruled the country between 1959 and 1984. From 1961 to 1996, Guatemala would suffer one of the region’s longest civil wars. The American client regime eventually launched a counter-insurgency campaign that destroyed hundreds of villages in the process of killing around 200,000 Guatemalans.58Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 60. The cases of Guatemala and Honduras are relevant to questions at hand for several reasons. First, Honduras in 1911 was in many ways 1954 Guatemala in miniature. The principal agents in 1911 were an aggrieved US business interest, a mercenary, a gangster, and some corruptible local conspirators. It was a regime change operation. With the establishment of the CIA, such hegemonic operations were institutionalized and expanded. The costs were largely borne by the government as the CIA was ostensibly providing a public good. Various sources of off-thebooks funding were used to avoid oversight and fund-sensitive operations. There are various examples of self-funding covert operations, including the use of drug trafficking proxy armies in places such as Laos, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan.59McCoy, The Politics of Heroin.

In the decades after World War II, the United States was able to maintain and extend its hegemony in part through the policies of the national security state. In such a way, the United States was able to manage developing nations’ transitions from colonial rule to neocolonialism under US hegemony. Nations that had previously been prized colonial possessions of the West became loci for hegemonic conflicts. For example, Iran had been a British colonial possession. Vietnam had been a French colony and the site of innumerable CIA intrigues precipitating the Vietnam War. Indonesia had been a Dutch possession. In 1965, the country’s nationalist leader Sukarno was ousted with US complicity.60Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967.” Congo had suffered decades of misrule by the Belgians before seeing its first democratically elected leader Patrice Lumumba assassinated with CIA complicity.61Weissman, “What Really Happened in Congo The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Brazil may have achieved formal independence from Portugal in the 19th century, but its economy had long been dominated by US interests. In 1964, its liberal reformist leader Joao Goulart was ousted in a US-sanctioned coup.62Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 104. Chile’s elected head of state Salvador Allende was ousted in 1973 and either assassinated or motivated by events to commit suicide.

Although the people in these nations were poor, their countries were resource rich. Iran had oil. Not only did Indonesia have oil, but US-owned Indonesian mining interests were some of the most lucrative in the world.63Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967.” Likewise, Congolese mineral wealth has generated enormous profits for multinational corporations. CIA asset Joseph Mobuto ruled the country for 32 years in the aftermath of the Lumumba assassination. He used his position to acquire a vast fortune himself. Even that wealth by and large went back into the Western financial system via Swiss banks, for example. Brazil also has enormous natural resources. At the time of the 1964 coup, the country was home to a vast empire of Rockefeller-allied business interests.64Colby and Dennett, Thy Will Be Done. In Chile, US-owned copper mines were some of the world’s most profitable. International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) also had enormous holdings in the country, including the nation’s telephone system. As an ITT shareholder and executive, John McCone assisted in the CIA efforts to defeat Allende.65Kinzer, Overthrow, 178. Previously, as director of the CIA, McCone had overseen the removal of Goulart in Brazil and Sukarno in Indonesia.

These cases illustrate the US strategy of maintaining hegemony and material superiority by allowing US and other allied business interests to systematically expropriate the patrimony of various developing nations. These policies were ostensibly undertaken on Cold War grounds, but they predate and antedate the Cold War. For recent cases, witness the failed overthrow of Chavez in Venezuela, the overthrows (two) of Aristide in Haiti, and the ouster of Zelaya in Honduras. The broad geopolitical strategic arc has consistently evolved along lines first articulated by the Wall Street–dominated Council on Foreign Relations in the War and Peace Studies Project. This hegemonic blueprint was formulated prior to US entry into World War II.66Shoup and Minter, Imperial Brain Trust.

If post–World War II foreign policy is taken as a whole, it is difficult to conceive of a more profitable way to pursue US grand strategy from the perspective of corporate executives and shareholders. Wall Street played the key role in creating the CIA and in surreptitiously creating an operations arm which quickly came to eclipse the intelligence gathering role for which the agency was ostensibly established. It is crucial to grasp the influence of the overworld to understand why the United States would rely so heavily on covert violence to promote the primacy of international corporate property rights in the name of anti-communism. The United Nations (UN) Charter outlaws aggression or even threats of aggression against other states. The United States has ratified this treaty. Because the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution establishes that ratified treaties are “the supreme law of the land,” the US government has been acting in a de facto state of exception throughout the Cold War era and up to the present.

Assessed with a measure of critical detachment, the continuity of the hegemonic project is discernable without reference to the evolving and often ad hoc pretexts. The Cold War and the “Global War on Terror” have served as open-ended emergencies, that is, existential threats to legitimate exceptionism. I use the term exceptionism to describe the institutionalization of the interminable state of exception. Exceptionism entails the institutionalization of securitized supra-sovereignty or Lockean “prerogative” although not to a fixed or determinate source.

One reasonable inference is that US hegemony has required the institutionalization of the state of exception because democratic sovereignty and the rule of law pose a threat to dominant interests of the hierarchical order. It is not evident that the same logic would not apply to domestic politics.

Declining Democratic Accountability

During the 1970s, a series of vast revelations served to diminish the legitimacy of the US government and its methods for pursuing and maintaining US hegemony. The Pentagon Papers revealed the duplicity of the military and multiple presidential administrations with regard to the Vietnam War. Watergate exposed vast crimes committed by the Nixon administration, including illegal break-ins, hush money payments, illicit campaign funding, the illegal invasion of Cambodia, and more. The Church and Pike Congressional committees revealed numerous sordid and/or illegal CIA conspiracies to overthrow governments, assassinate foreign leaders, manipulate the media, develop mind-control techniques, drug unknowing persons, and produce various deadly technologies. Exposure of COINTELPRO (short for Counterintelligence Program) revealed the extent to which the FBI had been acting as a domestic secret police agency by surveilling, infiltrating, and undermining various elements of civil society. The House Select Committee on Assassinations revealed that there were likely unknown conspirators at large who had been involved in the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. This era is noteworthy for its brief but somewhat intense assertion of democratic authority over the legally dubious institutions that had arisen in the context of the open-ended “state of exception” that was the Cold War.

In response to these revelations of official transgressions, Congress imposed strict new oversight procedures designed to establish Congressional oversight of the intelligence community. As a counter-response to these reforms, the Saudi chief of intelligence Kamal Adham, Anwar Sadat, the Shah of Iran, and Alexandre de Marenches formed the Safari Club, a coalition that could perform operations too sensitive for the suddenly scrutinized CIA.67Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62. Decades later, Saudi Intelligence Chief Turki bin Faisal summed up the organization’s purpose in 2002:

In 1976 after the Watergate matters took place here, your intelligence community was literally tied up by Congress. It could not do anything. It could not send spies, it could not write reports, and it could not pay money. In order to compensate for that, a group of countries got together in the hope of fighting Communism and established what was called the Safari Club. The Safari Club included France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Iran.68Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62.

Following the election of the reformist 1974 Congress, Director of Central Intelligence George H. W. Bush found ways to circumvent the new rules providing congressional oversight. Covert operations were delegated to foreign intelligence agencies and to assets that were off the books and often offshore. The Safari Club was a resort in Kenya which was bought by Adham’s friend, Adnan Kashoggi, a Saudi Lockheed salesman. Adham and Kashoggi would be instrumental in establishing the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which would become the largest global clandestine financial network in history.69Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62-63. Former CIA Officer Miles Copeland described these and related elements as “the CIA within the CIA.” He stated that these networks subverted the Carter administration’s efforts to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis before the 1980 Presidential election.70Scott, The Road to 9/11, 111. This is commonly referred to as the “October Surprise” theory, although Peter Dale Scott correctly points out that it should be described as a “countersurprise” because the goal was to prevent Carter’s “surprise” resolution of the Iranian hostage crisis.71Scott, The Road to 9/11, 99.

A similar event occurred before the 1968 presidential election when the Paris Peace Talks were sabotaged by right-wing forces. Acting on behalf of Richard Nixon, Anna Chennault convinced the North Vietnamese to withdraw from talks that could have ended the Vietnam War. Chennault was a part of the opium-corrupted “China Lobby” which featured prominently in various intrigues of the postwar era. Perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that President Johnson discovered the subterfuge, but was persuaded not to act by his Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford.72Taylor, “The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘Treason.’” Clifford was the aforementioned political insider who earlier penned the CIA’s “elastic clause” and who later would play a prominent role in the notorious BCCI scandal.

The phenomena discussed above collectively mark a furtherance of the disaggregation and dissimulation of the state. An opaque capability to intervene into international and domestic politics was situated in such a way as to be far removed from any meaningful democratic accountability or oversight. To the extent that these elements undermined nominal heads of state, such institutions represent a “state of exception” that transcends even the duality of the democratic and security states. This points to a problem of greater magnitude than the mere inadequacy of democratic checks to administrative discretion.

The Deep State

Although the dominant political discourse has yet to fully acknowledge the dissimulation of the state, references to such a reality are starting to appear in the mainstream press. In 2011, Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote Top Secret America, a book that deals with the emergence of a top secret national security state that had developed in less than a decade. They describe this opaque state as “a parallel top secret government . . . a gigantic, sprawling universe of its own, visible to only a carefully vetted cadre—and its entirety . . . visible only to God.”73Priest and Arkin, Top Secret America, 52. Peggy Noonan posted a blog piece at The Wall Street Journal titled “The Deep State” in late 2013. She uses the term “deep state” as a synonym for “national security state.” Her analysis is superficial and strangely credulous, but the acknowledgment of the deep state is noteworthy nonetheless.

An agreed-upon definition of the “deep state” has not yet been established. The term originally derives from Turkey where it described “a closed network said to be more powerful than the public state.” The Turkish deep state utilized false flag violence and was organized by the security apparatus with links to organized crime.74Noonan, “The Deep State.” This definition describes something different from what Noonan or even Tunander refer to with their respective uses of the term. In late 2013, The New York Times included a definition of the term in an article that listed the year’s important new words and terms. “Deep state” was given the following definition: “A hard-to-perceive level of government or super-control that exists regardless of elections and that may thwart popular movements or radical change. Some have said that Egypt is being manipulated by its deep state.”75Barrett, “A Wordnado of Words in 2013.”

This definition is more useful, though it is obviously fraught with ambiguity, because it asserts that the deep state is “hard-to-perceive.” Early in 2014, long-time government insider Mike Lofgren wrote an essay on the “Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power.” Lofgren included elements of the formal government but also nominally private entities such as Booz Allen Hamilton and elements of private wealth associated with Wall Street.76Lofgren, “Anatomy of the Deep State.” Lofgren was articulating a rough conceptualization that has been elsewhere expressed most clearly in the writings of Peter Dale Scott. In a recent essay, Scott identifies

a supranational deep state, whose organic links to the CIA may have helped consolidate it . . . [D]ecisions taken at this level . . . were in no way guided by the political determinations of those elected to power in Washington . . . [and were instead] expressly created to overcome restraints established by political decisions in Washington.77Scott, “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld.”

Exterior of a Bank of Credit and Commerce International branch.

Beginning with the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States established clandestine sources of funding for sensitive operations.78Scott, “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld.” These sources of funding have included seized illicit Axis funds, corporate funds from the military industrial complex, massive amounts of petrodollars accumulated by US client states, criminogenic banks such as BCCI, and drug trafficking proxy forces such as the Kuomintang, Contras, and Mujahedeen.79See McCoy, The Politics of Heroin; Scott, American War Machine and “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld”; Seagrave and Seagrave, Gold Warriors.

The historical episodes discussed in this article comprise part of an empirical basis for a revised conception of the state. Although there is significant interplay and overlap between the theories of the “dual state” and the nebulous emergent “deep state,” the disaggregation of the state surpasses even the prior conceptions of the “dual state.” Based on the forgoing discussion, I define the deep state as an obscured, dominant, supra-national source of antidemocratic power. It is debatable whether this phenomenon has arisen due to (a) unique historical circumstances, (b) innate dynamics of capitalism, or (c) unresolved contradictions within human civilization. The Weberian state’s monopoly on violence does not stay confined to the democratic state or even the formal security state. There is sufficient empirical evidence to suggest that the US-led world order has entailed systemic violence which has undermined democratic sovereignty.

To account for these phenomena, the tripartite state is a useful theoretical abstraction. The tripartite state is comprised of the democratic state, the security state, and the deep state. None of the components are monolithic. Conceptually, the tripartite state is useful if imperfectly imagined as a Venn diagram with significant overlap. An examination of the current political system suggests that the independent realm of the democratic state is small indeed. At present there is not much observable democratic autonomy or agency vis-à-vis the overdetermining wealth and power of the deep state. The opacity of the tripartite state presents tremendous difficulties to liberal academic traditions. In addition to state secrecy, the tripartite state entails an even more obscure level of deep state secrecy that frustrates accountability and further confounds attempts at inquiry and sense-making.

The rise of the deep state has unfolded diachronically in tandem with the rise of US global hegemony. Peter Dale Scott has tirelessly documented the evolution of the deep state as an instrument for global hegemony increasingly suited to serve the interests of an overworld of organized private wealth. The tripartite state has established a realm of continuous exception to pursue these ends. The rule of law has been superseded in more and less overt ways domestically and internationally. The democratic state has been overwhelmed by the security state and the deep state such that the foundations of the rule of law (habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights for example) are no longer operant in important respects. Following World War II, the ascendance of the deep state was aided by myths that served to legitimate anti-democratic institutions. Augmented by the power of the media and the government, these myths have served to beguile society and create an endless state of emergency. Thus has the democratic state atrophied in relation to the deep state.

The deep state is supra-national, but it is intertwined with institutions of the US democratic and security states. Theoretically, the best formulation of this tension may come from David Harvey who (echoing Arrighi) states that capitalist imperialism operates according to differing “territorial and capitalist logics of power.”80Harvey, The New Imperialism, 183. Each logic produces contradictions and crises for the other. The world order created by the United States following World War II disproportionately benefitted “a restricted class of multinational CEO’s, financiers, and rentiers.” Harvey (2003) describes the emergence of a “transnational capitalist class” centered on Wall Street and other major financial hubs.81Harvey, The New Imperialism, 186.

The pinnacle of the dominant class described by Harvey corresponds to the “overworld” described herein. Following World War II, the United States was powerful enough to plan and create the structure of an emerging economic order that would secure American hegemony.82Hudson, Super Imperialism, 137-155. Thereafter, the Bretton Woods institutions and the US national security state collectively established and maintained a liberal world order that aggrandized the wealth and power of politico-economic elites not just in the West, but throughout the capitalist world.83Hudson, Super Imperialism, 54-60. Neoliberalism and financialization greatly accelerated these processes. In facilitating these dynamics, the overworld-dominated deep state has at times operated according to logic that has been complementary to the logic that animates the democratic state and the security state. Following World War II, the formally organized security state, created by the democratic state in conjunction with overworld influence, found common cause with the democratic state in the pursuit of US hegemony.

The preponderance of US power and the “embedded market economy” produced a unique period of widespread (if not universal) prosperity in the United States.84Polanyi, The Great Transformation. This prosperity obscured a growing contradiction as exceptionism prevailed overseas and domestically to some extent via McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, and so on. The brief era of embedded liberalism came to an end with the end of Bretton Woods. This historical juncture marks the transition to neoliberalism—the ongoing disembedding of the market economy. Neoliberalism was preceded by an incremental disembedding of sovereignty which is coterminous with the emergence of the security state and the “deep state.” This disembedding of sovereignty in the Schmittian sense should be acknowledged. David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a “political project” that has incrementally restored pre-New Deal class power.85Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 19. The market economy and sovereignty have been disembedded in tandem. This insight allows us to understand the interrelationship between our unfolding economic, geopolitical, and ecological crises. Collectively, the twin disembedding “projects” have entailed a commitment to what may be termed full spectrum hegemony—an increasingly totalizing political order. The drive has been in the direction of subverting or co-opting all counter-hegemonic forces domestically and internationally.

The term “disembedding” is appropriate because there is a pattern of sustained influence that can be detected throughout the post–World War II historical record. Key events bear the imprint of the nascent and/or emergent “deep state.” These include the US-led efforts to oust Mossedegh, Arbenz, Lumumba, Sukarno, and Allende—all of whom were democratically elected but who threatened overworld interests. Domestically, the influence of the “deep state” is disputed but not absent. There are recurring themes and beneficiaries throughout many pivotal and/or infamous political events. These historical episodes are controversial. Crucial elements are disputed to the present day. Key events include McCarthyism, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the “October Surprise” of 1968, Air America heroin trafficking, Watergate, the “Oil Shocks,” COINTELPRO, the debt crises of the 1980s, the “October Surprise” of 1980, Iran–Contra, US support for international jihadi groups, the elections of 2000 and 2004, pre-Iraq War intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) , the 2008 financial crisis, and the National Security Agency panopticon. Most controversial is the prospect that high crimes have been committed and falsified domestically by powerful elements of the tripartite state. These would include the political assassinations of the 1960s and the terrorism spectacles of 2001 (the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C. and the subsequent “Anthrax Letters”).

It is a legal truism that once a witness has been caught making willfully misleading statements, the witness’ prior and subsequent statements are all deemed to lack credibility. Tellingly, such a standard is not applied to government officials or the overwhelmingly state-subservient mainstream media.

Academically, there are two theoretical approaches or paradigms that specifically address elite criminality of the magnitude described herein. Peter Dale Scott is the founder of the “deep politics” approach in which systemic criminality is institutionalized, yet not acknowledged. These dynamics are maintained through the obscure interplay between intelligence agencies, corrupt financial institutions, “Underworld” criminal syndicates, and the “overworld” of private wealth. Pivotal events such as those described above are intrusions of these dynamics into the public realm. Arguing from this perspective, Scott hopes for civil society to create pressure for reform.86Scott, The Road to 9/11, 257.

The other approach or paradigm comes from the political science subdiscipline of public administration. Lance deHaven-Smith describes documented and suspected crimes such as Watergate and the Kennedy assassinations as State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs).87deHaven-Smith, “When Political Crimes Are Inside Jobs.” These are defined as “concerted actions or inactions by government insiders intended to manipulate democratic processes and undermine popular sovereignty.”88deHaven-Smith, “Beyond Conspiracy Theory,” 796. SCAD theory calls for investigation into the institutional and societal pathologies that allow SCADs to occur and remain unpunished. It also calls for the creation of institutions capable of detecting, investigating, and adjudicating SCADs.89deHaven-Smith, “When Political Crimes Are Inside Jobs.” Witt and deHaven-Smith argue that as the state becomes more and more defined by its antithetical opposition, the state and its legitimating symbolic order become increasingly “holographic.”90Witt and deHaven-Smith, “Conjuring the Holographic State.”

Further research and theorizing seek to illuminate the ways in which the state manages to stigmatize not the guilty parties but the justifiably suspicious critics. It is my contention that the “deep politics” approach and “SCAD theory” are complementary, much as the disciplines of history and political science can be complementary. Although Scott’s “deep politics” approach calls for a social movement to alter the prevailing order, public administration scholars could not call for the indefinite suspension of the rule of law until the prevailing powers deem its restoration acceptable. The real or potential existence of SCADs poses an existential threat to the theoretical and practical foundations of public administration.

Conclusion: Bringing in the Tripartite State

The theoretical and empirical issues under discussion require innovative and eclectic approaches to social scientific inquiry. Much of the most crucial data are obscured by state secrecy with the assistance of liberal institutions that unsurprisingly support the prevailing power structure which supports these same liberal institutions. To put it another way, academia and the media too often function to uphold the status quo rather than serve as democratic checks. For the scholar seeking to illuminate the imponderables of the tripartite state, an eclectic approach is necessary. In addition to SCAD theory and the “deep politics” approach, various scholars, historians, and journalists have made valuable contributions that may inform a more holistic, historically grounded critique of the prevailing order. For example, critical economists and economic historians can provide crucial insights into the often overdetermining role played by economic interests and financial institutions. Scholars in the tradition of C. Wright Mills serve to illuminate the sociological universe of the elites whose interests dominate the tripartite state. Criminologists may provide insight into the character of criminogenic institutions.

From the perspective of public administration, many important research questions emerge. The most narrow and germane aspect is that of administrative discretion in the national security state. Are the limits of such discretion adequately defined, circumscribed, and overseen? If they are not, what are the failings, and how might they be addressed? If securitized administrative discretion is of such great magnitude as to support the conclusion that exceptionism prevails, is this a desirable and/or inevitable state of affairs? It may also be important to examine national security administrators themselves. What are their motives and values? How are they typically socialized? What societal forces determine who rises or does not rise within national security administrative hierarchies?

Although such questions are not especially novel or original, new insights may be offered by placing them in the context of a tripartite conception of the state and exceptionism in the pursuit of global hegemony. With ample historical precedent, a tripartite state perspective would treat mainstream media and government pronouncements as questionable and tendentious until proven otherwise. Such a perspective would have been useful when past US interventions were underway, for example, the wars in Southeast Asia, the Iraq War buildup, the CIA overthrows of sovereign governments, Iran–Contra, and so on. In addition, the tripartite state framework could create contextual heuristics that analyze contemporary crises through a lens that takes account of past intrigues and hegemonic agendas. This could allow for a broader spectrum of analysis and thereby provide an epistemological basis for democratic accountability.

In short, scholars of public administration have more than sufficient historical justification to produce critical scholarship that draws on profoundly skeptical foundational assumptions. It is a legal truism that once a witness has been caught making willfully misleading statements, the witness’ prior and subsequent statements are all deemed to lack credibility. Tellingly, such a standard is not applied to government officials or the overwhelmingly state-subservient mainstream media. It is important to acknowledge this and adjust for it if we wish to avoid perpetuating political obscurantism.

If there is any merit to this analysis, the twin specters of exceptionism and the tripartite state should give rise to a call for greater methodological pluralism in public administration and the social sciences. The severity of ongoing democratic crises requires an expansion of the spectrum of allowable critique.


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———. 2014. “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Japan Focus 12 (10, No. 5).

Seagrave, Sterling, and Peggy Seagrave. 2003. Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold. New ed. London ; New York: Verso.

Shoup, Laurence H., and William Minter. 2004. Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy. New York: Author’s Choice Press.

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———. 2010. “Beyond Conspiracy Theory: Patterns of High Crime in American Government.” American Behavioral Scientist 53 (6): 795–825.

Spiro, David E. 1999. The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets. Cornell Studies in Political Economy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Strange, Susan. 1994. States and Markets. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum.

Sullivan, Michael J. 2008. American Adventurism Abroad: Invasions, Interventions, and Regime Changes since World War II. Rev. and Expanded ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Taylor, David. n.d. “The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘Treason.’” BBC.

The Observer. 2001. “Saudi Dove in the Oil Slick.” The Guardian, January 13, 2001.

Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, 169–91. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tunander, Ola. 2009. “Democratic State vs. Deep State: Approaching the Dual State of the West.” In Government of the Shadows: Parapolitics and Criminal Sovereignty, edited by Eric Wilson, 56–72. London: Pluto Press.

Weissman, Stephen. 2014. “What Really Happened in Congo The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.” Foreign Affairs (Council on Foreign Relations) 93 (July): 14–24.

Wilson, Eric Michael, ed. 2009. Government of the Shadows: Parapolitics and Criminal Sovereignty. New York: Pluto Press : Distributed in the US by Palgrave Macmillan.

Witt, Matthew T., and Lance deHaven-Smith. 2008. “Conjuring the Holographic State: Scripting Security Doctrine for a (New) World of Disorder.” Administration & Society 40 (6): 547–85.

Wolin, Sheldon Sanford. 2008. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton (N.J.): Princeton University Press.


  • 1
    Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol (eds.), Bringing the State Back In.
  • 2
    Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance.”
  • 3
    Locke, The Second Treatise of Government.
  • 4
    Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 135.
  • 5
    Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 137.
  • 6
    Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, 77.
  • 7
    Neocleous, “Security, Liberty and the Myth of Balance,” 139-140.
  • 8
    Schmitt, Political Theology, 5-7.
  • 9
    Schmitt, Political Theology, 13-14.
  • 10
    See Lasswell, “The Universal Peril: Perpetual Crisis and the Garrison State”; Scott, The Road to 9/11; and Wolin, Democracy Incorporated.
  • 11
    Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 12.
  • 12
    Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 12.
  • 13
    Morgenthau, A State of Insecurity, 13.
  • 14
    Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes.
  • 15
    Tunander, “Democratic State vs. Deep State: Approaching the Dual State of the West,” 57.
  • 16
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 269.
  • 17
    Tunander, “Democratic State vs. Deep State: Approaching the Dual State of the West,” 68.
  • 18
    Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
  • 19
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad.
  • 20
    Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939.
  • 21
    Strange, States and Markets.
  • 22
    Strange, States and Markets, 37.
  • 23
    Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders.”
  • 24
    Cox, “Social Forces, States and World Orders,” 139.
  • 25
    Arrighi, Silver, and Ahmad, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, 99.
  • 26
    Arrighi, Silver, and Ahmad, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, 30.
  • 27
    Harvey, The New Imperialism.
  • 28
    Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century.
  • 29
    Harvey, The New Imperialism, 42.
  • 30
    Gilpin and Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations; Keohane, After Hegemony.
  • 31
    Strange, States and Markets, 237-238.
  • 32
    Hudson, Super Imperialism, 306-308.
  • 33
    Hudson, Super Imperialism, 308.
  • 34
    Gowan, The Global Gamble, 21.
  • 35
    The Observer, “Saudi Dove in the Oil Slick.”
  • 36
    The Observer, “Saudi Dove in the Oil Slick.”
  • 37
    Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony, 107.
  • 38
    Spiro, The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony, 124.
  • 39
    Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 167.
  • 40
    Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 160.
  • 41
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 12.
  • 42
    Hersh, The Old Boys, 172.
  • 43
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 12.
  • 44
    Frantz and McKean, Friends in High Places, 67-68.
  • 45
    Johnson, Nemesis, 93.
  • 46
    Immerman, The Hidden Hand, 19.
  • 47
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 51.
  • 48
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 20.
  • 49
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 73.
  • 50
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 71.
  • 51
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 76-77.
  • 52
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 134-135.
  • 53
    Blum, Killing Hope, 75.
  • 54
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 134-135.
  • 55
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 57-58.
  • 56
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 268.
  • 57
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 129-130.
  • 58
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 60.
  • 59
    McCoy, The Politics of Heroin.
  • 60
    Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967.”
  • 61
    Weissman, “What Really Happened in Congo The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu.”
  • 62
    Sullivan, American Adventurism Abroad, 104.
  • 63
    Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967.”
  • 64
    Colby and Dennett, Thy Will Be Done.
  • 65
    Kinzer, Overthrow, 178.
  • 66
    Shoup and Minter, Imperial Brain Trust.
  • 67
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62.
  • 68
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62.
  • 69
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 62-63.
  • 70
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 111.
  • 71
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 99.
  • 72
    Taylor, “The Lyndon Johnson Tapes: Richard Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”
  • 73
    Priest and Arkin, Top Secret America, 52.
  • 74
    Noonan, “The Deep State.”
  • 75
    Barrett, “A Wordnado of Words in 2013.”
  • 76
    Lofgren, “Anatomy of the Deep State.”
  • 77
    Scott, “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld.”
  • 78
    Scott, “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld.”
  • 79
    See McCoy, The Politics of Heroin; Scott, American War Machine and “The State, the Deep State, and the Wall Street Overworld”; Seagrave and Seagrave, Gold Warriors.
  • 80
    Harvey, The New Imperialism, 183.
  • 81
    Harvey, The New Imperialism, 186.
  • 82
    Hudson, Super Imperialism, 137-155.
  • 83
    Hudson, Super Imperialism, 54-60.
  • 84
    Polanyi, The Great Transformation.
  • 85
    Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 19.
  • 86
    Scott, The Road to 9/11, 257.
  • 87
    deHaven-Smith, “When Political Crimes Are Inside Jobs.”
  • 88
    deHaven-Smith, “Beyond Conspiracy Theory,” 796.
  • 89
    deHaven-Smith, “When Political Crimes Are Inside Jobs.”
  • 90
    Witt and deHaven-Smith, “Conjuring the Holographic State.”

Aaron Good

Aaron Good has a PhD in Political Science from Temple University. His dissertation, “American Exception: Hegemony and the Tripartite State,” examined the state, elite criminality, and US hegemony. It was an expansion of a previously published article, “American Exception: Hegemony and the Dissimulation of the State.” Prior to completing his doctorate, he worked on the 2008 Obama campaign in Missouri. Born and raised in Indiana, he has since lived and worked in Taiwan and Shanghai. He currently resides with his wife and son in the greater Philadelphia area where he has been a history and social science instructor.

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