January 16, 2023   9 mins

Last month, the US Congress approved an $858 billion national defence bill, increasing the Pentagon’s budget by 8% and allocating an additional $44 billion in military aid for Ukraine. One popular explanation for America’s relentlessly expanding military budget, and foreign policy hawkishness in general, is that this reflects the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower gravely warned America to guard against in his famous farewell address some 62 years ago.

In this view — as strongly argued recently by the journalist Glenn Greenwald, for instance — the US arms manufacturing industry, the military, and our politicians are all essentially engaged in a circle of corruption and collusion to make each other rich. This common understanding of the military-industrial complex — and of how politics in Washington works in general — is essentially conspiratorial. The theory goes something like this: big defence contractors bribe the politicians with large donations, and the generals and other government officials with board seats and other lucrative positions, and they in turn come up with reasons to justify shovelling ever-increasing piles of taxpayer money into buying new weapons from the arms makers.

Washington has thus become a “multi-tentacle war machine”, Greenwald says, because “no matter what is going on in the world, they always find — or concoct — reasons why the military budget must grow no matter how inflated it already is”. (Emphasis mine.)

Let’s call this the Corrupt Conspiracy Model of how Washington functions (or dysfunctions). It is a model that can be powerfully convincing, because it taps into the truth that people really are naturally flawed and self-interested creatures, demonstrably prone to corruption. From this viewpoint, Washington politics is all basically a con game led by a pack of greedy psychopaths. As Greenwald notes with some frustration and confusion, this used to be a characteristically Left-wing critique of government and corporate power, but following the Great Political Realignment it’s now become more common to the disaffected Right.

Reading his argument made me recall how, back when I was younger and Left-leaning, I too believed in this model, at least implicitly. As noted, it can be quite persuasive, even satisfying, in its simplicity. It’s also a subtly idealistic and optimistic theory: the American system would work great, just as it was designed to, if not for all the selfish bad actors taking advantage of the system. The only problem was that, after enough time in Washington, I had no choice but to re-evaluate. Because what I found is that the swamp is populated almost wholly not by cynics, but by true believers.

True believers in what? Answering that will require trying to nail down a second, more complex model to explain how people in the Imperial City make decisions.

First, let me qualify by acknowledging that yes, Washington is indeed awash with lobbyists, corrupt politicians, psychopathic executives, cynical operators, and backstabbing climbers. It is a veritable hive of scum and villainy. They just aren’t what really makes the place tick. In fact, all these people conform themselves parasitically to that which does.

The real issue to contend with is that almost no one in Washington actually thinks in the terms of the Corrupt Conspiracy Model; i.e. they don’t think: “I will advocate for a hawkish, interventionist foreign policy so that the resulting wars will benefit the arms industry and make me and my friends rich
” The reality is more disturbing than that, honestly.

What runs Washington is a Spirit. Or, alternatively, a Story.

No one wants to live a meaningless life. Humans are meaning-seeking creatures and they desperately want, need, what they do to have meaningful value. If they cannot find inherent meaning in life, they are liable to come up with a narrative framework — that is, a story — that imbues what they do with some sense of higher meaning. Since everyone wants to be the hero of their story, the story becomes central to their personal identity. And no one wants their identity to be dull (even if they’re a government bureaucrat).

But while a few very special people can create and maintain their own personal stories indefinitely, living life entirely in their own self-sustained dramatic reality, for most people the much easier and more reassuring route is to simply adopt a collective story that already exists. The more popular or high-status this story is, the more attractive and self-reinforcing it will be — and the harder it will, therefore, be to disbelieve, dissent, and defect from.

Now, when one talks to members of the Washington establishment, the collective story they hold to tends to quickly become apparent.

None are, in their own minds, either corrupt cynics or ideological zealots. Instead they are moderate, prudent, wise “public servants”; the trained and chosen elite guardians of American interests and values. Sensible centrists, they do what must be done to ensure America’s security and prosperity, steering the ship of state along a pragmatic course, eschewing both the goodhearted but naïve idealism of the too-far-Left and the crude jingoistic nationalism of the populist-Right.

This pragmatism does not, of course, preclude their simultaneously being moral exemplars. They embody America’s highest ideals, given that they are the ones extending the light of whatever truly makes America great, whether that be liberal democracy, equality and human rights, pluralism and diversity, scientific progress, or economic liberty. In protecting the global world order of Pax Americana, they make the world safe for American ideals. In fact, these guardians are basically the bulwark of Enlightened Civilisation writ large, taming barbarian savagery wherever it rears its ugly head, whether in Afghanistan or Alabama. Even a moment’s slackness and “the jungle grows back”.

American power is righteous, because it is on the right side of History; as clearly demonstrated by the fact that America is so powerful. And if that power is righteous and good, it deserves to be exercised. To use righteous power to remake the world in our own image would by definition be to make the world better. Thus extending American power is both the most pragmatic and the most idealistic possible course.

This story, which has dominated Washington since at least the end of the Cold War, is what we might label The Consensus. Maybe all or some elements of The Consensus are true. Or maybe it’s all nonsense. It doesn’t really matter; that’s not the point. Those who submit themselves to The Consensus can by doing so automatically consider themselves better people, engaged in more meaningful lives. And their peers will consider them to be as well.

A term that one is liable to hear used in Washington is “Serious Person”. On being asked to meet with someone he doesn’t know (maybe a journalist, or a potential new hire), for example, a Very Important Washingtonian may first inquire of his staff: “Well, is he a Serious Person?” But what makes a person Serious? A Serious Person is, naturally, an orthodox follower of The Consensus. Asking if someone is a Serious Person is a bit like a secular version of how one might have asked, back in the day, whether some new fellow was in fact a “God-fearing Christian?” “Yes,” would come the reply, “and he went to Yale.” “Good enough, let’s put him in charge of the OSS,” you could then say with confidence.

Rumour that some new acquaintance is in fact a Serious Person is greatly reassuring, as it means he is not a “Wingnut”. A Wingnut is an unsociable crank, living outside of The Consensus. Wingnuts demonstrate this by suggesting unserious ideas, such as cutting the defence budget, curtailing the surveillance state, or questioning the demands of the public health bureaucracy. Glenn Greenwald is a Wingnut par excellence. Nobody wants to be associated with a Wingnut, as that can taint your reputation as a Serious Person. And then you’ll never be invited to a swanky conference in Aspen again. Which is probably why for every mile closer to Capitol Hill a foreign policy think tank is, the more measurably it advocates in favour of militant internationalism. These are the Serious Institutions, able to court the serious money necessary to afford prime real estate.

Here then is the point: why is it so likely that any given person in the Washington “Blob” will automatically support raising the defence budget, or intervening militarily in some country abroad, or otherwise expanding the security state? In the vast majority of cases, it’s not because they’re taking bribes from some defence contractor. It’s because they simply want more than anything to be counted among the Serious People. And to do that they first have to accept the word and practice of The Consensus.

Sometimes they may not fully buy it, but conform merely because it’s the path of least resistance. Often, they do buy it completely. I once had a former General and Director of the CIA tell me, with complete earnestness, that the United States had to occupy every single “ungoverned space” on earth — every conflict zone, every “rogue state”, every barren patch of sand large enough for an Isis terrorist to do doughnuts in a Toyota pickup. No one was paying him to say this (yet); it was pure idealistic conviction. And there are a lot of people in Washington far less distinguished than he who labour daily to help shore up The Consensus: legions of non-profit workers, lowly staffers, and ambitious interns who happily pump out endless Consensus-reiterating briefing papers, reports, op-eds, and legislative bills (all of which are written by people under 35 who have no idea what they’re doing, by the way). The military-industrial complex doesn’t have to bribe any of them. They are working to cultivate the illustrious aura of a Serious Person.

Any financial rewards are secondary to the power, prestige, and psychological assurance of being counted among the ruling class and holding the right opinions. This does not of course mean there aren’t significant financial rewards that flow to senior figures, but to the “public servant” they genuinely bear no conceivable trace of wrongful quid pro quo. As far as they are concerned, they are merely doing the right thing in service to the public and the nation, and being fairly compensated for it. Being paid to sit on Raytheon’s board and lobby for a strong national defence is public service, as is being paid by CNN to go on TV and call dissenters a dangerous threat to our democracy. Advancing The Consensus is, after all, the essence of public service. This complex is utterly impervious to any charges of corruption or hypocrisy, because from the inside such charges literally sound like the mad rantings of an immoral and maliciously anti-American Wingnut.

It would be tempting to call this ideological capture, but I don’t think that quite describes it. The Consensus is not an ideology with clear or coherent doctrines. And it is extremely adaptable and flexible, seamlessly incorporating new threats and opportunities (which is why “diversity, equity, and inclusion” is now regularly cited as a top foreign policy priority). Instead, it works more loosely, subconsciously, to shape what individuals and institutions value and what they believe is right and normal and just. It really is more like a deep story about the world and how it works; or a spirit that moves subjects without their understanding how or why, or even that it exists.

Which is why I think I need to introduce one more element in order to fully explain what really runs Washington.

Everyone and everything needs a hierarchy of values to operate, otherwise they risk having no telos — no purpose, motivation, or orientation for action. And at the top of this pyramid of values or principles must necessarily be some highest value or principle, from which all others descend.

Bureaucracies, which are themselves pyramidal, subsume an individual’s values and objectives into themselves; the individual’s value hierarchy and telos is then effectively restructured or replaced by the telos superimposed from above by the bureaucracy. Which is why the bureaucracy so often seems to co-opt its individuals and take on a life of its own. But many singular bureaucracies, such as the Defence and State Departments, exist side-by-side in Washington and operate simultaneously. And, at least theoretically, they are all part of the same government and on the same side. What unites them in direction and orientation, if anything? Some pyramid of higher values, naturally. This is the role of The Consensus.

Does The Consensus itself also exist as part of an even higher story? Maybe. The author Paul Kingsnorth has I think wisely described there being, at the pinnacle of our collective Western civilisational subconscious, an “empty throne,” where once sat God:

“[E]very culture, whether it knows it or not, is built around a sacred order. It does not, of course, need to be a Christian order. It could be Islamic, Hindu or Daoist. It could be based around the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin. But there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force you take your instruction from.”

“The modern experiment,” however, “has been the act of dethroning both literal human sovereigns and the representative of the sacred order, and replacing them with purely human, and purely abstract, notions — ‘the people’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘progress.’” But one sacred value must necessarily rule above all others, and “when a culture kills its sovereign, the throne will not remain empty for long”.

What now occupies this empty throne today, if anything? Kingsnorth has suggested it is “money”. As I’ve written before, I don’t think that’s it. I think it is something more fundamental: I think it’s what could be called the spirit in Man that hungers for infinite “control” — meaning power itself. The power to have all good things, from material comfort to equality, without any limits or contradictions; power over all evils and all suffering and all dangers; power over human nature. It’s the desire for the power to eliminate all friction between the will and the world; to have the power to overcome all resistance and achieve heaven on earth, as fast as possible, by any means necessary.

The efforts of those few poor souls who spend their days trying to reason with Washington and convince it to follow some policy of “realism and restraint” are doomed. The place is busily fighting a holy war against the terms of existence.

When a Wingnut reveals himself as a Wingnut, it is because he has resisted the unrestrained exercise of power in some way. Such an act is grounds not for admiration of virtue, but for shock and suspicion: by doing so he has challenged the whole story of the new sacred order. In a real sense the Wingnut is not just unsociable but impious.

It may be that at some point in the past, when the empty throne was occupied by its rightful ruler, America’s governing institutions and the people who make their gears turn participated in a greater shared story, which subsumed their lower interests and appetites and rightly ordered them with a telos oriented toward a genuine highest good. Maybe this was God. Maybe it was the American Idea, or the Republican Ideal. Whatever it was, perhaps its very existence moderated and disciplined them. But if the baser value of power has now been elevated to this highest place, then they no longer have any internalised limits, and their quest has no stopping point. There are no longer any moral brakes on the run-away train of the state.

If so, then even all the money of the military-industrial complex definitely doesn’t run Washington. Indeed, if the military-industrial complex didn’t exist we’d have to invent it immediately just so that we could hand it all of our money.


A version of this essay originally appeared on The Upheaval on Substack.

N.S. Lyons is the author of The Upheaval on Substack.