OK, it was early in the morning and I hadn’t had any coffee yet, but I confess to being particularly irritated by yet another reference in some political tweet or other to the ‘Deep State’ and its nefarious plans.
Concepts like the Deep State ruffle my feathers not because I believe there is some shadowy conspiracy at the heart of government, but for exactly the opposite reason. Let’s look at how a phrase like this comes into being.
At first, people in and around government complain about how difficult it is to really change things. A government is a huge administration and suffers from all the same weaknesses as any organisation. There is an entrenched conservatism, an attachment to ‘how we’ve always done things here’ and a set of middle and senior managers who have been promoted based on their ability to manage the current system — an ability which could be threatened by any change to that system.
So far, all perfectly understandable. It is normal for large organisations to be hefty oil-tankers which are difficult to turn and it is also normal for those charged with creating change to be frustrated by that.
Then an odd thing happens. As a shorthand for all of that institutional resistance to change, someone coins the phrase ‘the Deep State’. They mean this as a quick way to summarise their frustrations — “there’s a Deep State resistance to change”, “the Deep State won’t appreciate this new initiative” and so on. And that makes sense — it is an elegant and even amusing way for people to talk to each other about a concept they both understand from their own experience.
But it is also a dangerous bit of linguistics. Deep State is a nominalisation — the turning of something else into a noun. We do this a lot (the word nominalisation is, in fact, also a nominalisation). When we talk about ‘achievement’ or ‘commitment’ we are also turning verbs into nouns — it happens all the time.
The danger, though, is in what is lost. Saying ‘he had many achievements’ misses out a whole chunk of meaning. What did he achieve? By and large, the down-side of nominalisations is that they throw out the bit about who is doing the thing, and to whom. They also lead us towards the dreaded passive tense. “Your employment has been terminated” is a lot less direct than “I don’t want you to work here any more”.
The popular response to the term Deep State illustrates the deeper danger of this kind of language game. By removing any sense of who or what the ‘Deep State’ is and what they are doing, we allow other people to make up their own answers to that question. They can fill in the blanks — maybe innocently, but maybe with an objective of their own.
And so it is with the Deep State. We suddenly shift from:
“the institutional conservatism of long-time civil servants makes it difficult to get bold change to happen in government”
“The Deep State is a conspiracy to thwart my political objectives”.
And in one fell swoop we’ve arrived in the land of the internet whacko. Suddenly, the legitimate but slightly amorphous concept of the Deep State becomes a conspiracy with card-carrying members, secret meetings and no doubt some kind of mind control death ray.
Why does this bother me so much? Because not only is this vague and misleading use of language rife in politics, but we do it to each other in business all the time too, sometimes with damaging consequences. The agreement between two companies becomes “the contract” as if that is something separate from them. Big painful changes to people’s jobs and teams become ‘the reorg’. The process of investing money in the future becomes ‘the capex budget’.
That last one is a good example of the dangers of nominalisation. If you think of capital expenditure as a series of decisions to invest in things with a long term pay-back then you’d consider each of those decisions carefully. As soon as you turn that series of decisions into the vague blob called “the budget” then the decision becomes “last year we spent x, this year we’ll spend 5% more or less”. The individual projects the money is being spent on somehow fade into the background. I actually asked the question once during a budget cutting round “what would happen if we didn’t do any of this at all?”. The reaction from around the business was telling, as it was clear that no-one had really thought about next year from that zero-based perspective.
Just the same way as those with real government experience should call out this Deep State nonsense, there is plenty we can do in our businesses to achieve the same thing. Practice turning nouns back into verbs. Instead of asking “what is your budget proposal for next year?”, ask “what do you want to spend next year, and on what?”. It will lead to a richer, more granular conversation and might just save you some money.
Unless the proposal is for a mind control death ray, in which case you should nod it through.