Systems, States, Soldiers, Spies: What Does TV Tell Us?

In the last few weeks I’ve been following several TV spy-shows. I love spy-stories and if you ever read any of my novels you must know that by now. There are several very good shows of that genre on TV at the moment. I want to speak to you about what they tell me of the world. Let me present them first. I’ve been watching: COUNTERPART, HOMELAND, DEEP STATE and THE LOOMING TOWER. About COUNTERPART I already spoken here and my opinion has only been enhanced by watching several other episodes of the series. Here’s what I find of the other three.


HOMELAND is already in its seventh season. It had its ups and downs but it remains an impressive show. Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin are still outstanding in their roles even though we miss Damien Lewis. The seventh season deals with an internal American plot to destroy the Presidency of the United States, including Russian meddling. More than usual it deals with the divisions in American society and the idea that the fight between the system of government and disruptive forces around it is becoming more and more dangerous.

DEEP STATE is a classical spy-thriller with the always strong Mark Strong (oops, I punned) as the MC. Strong plays a former British Intelligence officer betrayed by his agency and individuals within the State, who are trying to kill his son and kidnap his family. We still don’t know where this plot is going, but once again the show’s bad guys are the officials within the Governments.

Finally, THE LOOMING TOWER with the amazing Jeff Daniels (nowadays on top of his form) exposes how the inner conflicts between the FBI and the CIA in the late 1990’s led to a massive failure in preventing the 9/11 attacks.


Spy-shows always dealt with People vs. System question, where internal divisions and inner conflicts, ‘moles’ and corruption were addressed. But in the last decades, and especially in the last two or three years, in particular the Trump years, this theme has been ever more present. I remember in the 1980’s reading THE BOURNE IDENTITY by Robert Ludlum about a CIA operative who loses his memory. There was even a movie with Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, if I recall. But in the 2002’s reboot by Doug Liman (superb, by the way), suddenly Bourne became a covert clandestine assassin and the CIA ‘Deep State’ operations were the enemy.

‘Deep State’, of course, is the expression Donald Trump and his followers use to describe rogue functionaries and bureaucracies within the States that undermine the will of the people and the democratically elected. On the other side, some people say that ‘The System works’ as the bureaucracies limit the abuse of democratically elected officials.

Democracy is a clever enlightened and enlightening ideal. Before democracy people in power could abuse with little check and the only true way to change who was in power was by violence. So violence was regular and always lurking in the dark. Bureaucracies still represent that: power that remains unchanged and apparently unmovable. Democracy is a way to check these powers, but what we seem to feel in recent years is that even democratic powers have become bureaucracies themselves. In most countries, the parties in power do not change for decades. And in many constitutions (including the Portuguese Republic’s) you can’t even legally be elected without forming a party. And parties are bureaucracies. That’s why most men and women in power have to climb ‘through’ the parties and adhere to written and unwritten rules, many of them corrupted. I believe that the emergence of such controversial figures as Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron came to be because democratic parties, who should be checks on bureaucracies, have become bureaucracies themselves, in such a way that the peoples don’t feel represented anymore and are eager for alternatives. This is very dangerous on the whole.


On the other hand, we know that majorities aren’t always right and democratic powers can also be corrupt, corrupted and corruptive. The theory of bureaucracies was pioneered by Max Webber, one of the founders of sociology, many years ago. Bureaucracies, he would say, are focused on efficiency; they are about the way how things are done. They are not just cold structures, they are people employing rules and regulations to assert the principles of (in our case) democracy.  They assure, in other words, what we call the Rule of Law. And we know what happens when the Rule of Law does not apply because we see it in many dictatorships around the world and in the aptly named Failed-States (States that have in effect ceased to exist as bureaucracies).

This could be seen in World War II. Even though the fall of Nazi Germany was achieved through violent sacrifice of many on the battlefields, through the years of occupation the Holocaust was fought by the bureaucracies. There were attempts of revolt and violent resistance, of course, but the most effective combat against the evacuation of the Jewish population to concentration camps was achieved by bureaucracies. In places like Denmark, Belgium and even Italy, the systems themselves may have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In Italy, for instance, which should have been a loyal ally of Germany, Jews were hard to find. When they were found, there were many legal exceptions that prevented their arrest. When they were arrested, they were hard to transport. When they were transported, they might get lost. One Portuguese diplomat in France, for instance, called Aristides de Sousa Mendes, issued hundreds of unauthorized passports to Jews and saved thousands of lives. Because beyond the Rule of Law, bureaucracies are also made of people and these people can also prevent abuses and be a check on the powers that be. And the Law, as I believe was argued in Nuremberg, is more than the written word, it is also an ethical standard about what it is to be Human.


So, this People vs. System theme is now more important than ever. Democracies and the world in a whole are in turmoil the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the 1940’s. And let’s all hope that both Democracy and the Rule of Law survive, because one cannot live without the other. One of the best sitcoms I ever watched, years ago, was a show called YES, MINISTER about a fresh inexperienced Minister in the British Government being advised by a clever skilled experienced bureaucrat. Episode after episode we could witness the dynamic between the two and rejoice as one and then the other would get their way in the governing of the United Kingdom. That dynamic is, in my view, absolutely necessary for our future. Let’s hope we are able to keep it.

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