Sunday, January 25, 2009

The New Rome

An article in today's Washington Post notes the rise of Washington D.C. from a sleepy, backwater (or brackish water), Southern parochial town to a status that increasingly aspires to that of a world capital. Notably, the article stresses that the American tradition of decentralization and a more local experience of economy and politics meant that America was particularly noteworthy - in comparison to many European nations - in its diversity of "centers," particularly its division into various centers of finance, entertainment, intellectual life, manufacturing, etc. A few years ago the New York Times noted the significance of "The Atlantic Monthly's" decision to move its offices from Boston to Washington, signaling the decline of Boston as the nation's intellectual center and the concomitant rise of Washington, D.C. in that unaccustomed role (one might further note the growing number of "blawgs" that seem to have a DC base of authors - including the space where I now write, "Culture 11", in spite of its "conservative" credentials - a fact that somewhat belies the belief that the internet can be everywhere and nowhere). With the arrival of the Obama Presidency - concurrent with the worldwide economic crisis that will increasingly be Washington's to solve, along with a nationwide sense that Obama represents the salvation of the age - Washington is only likely to increase its role and status as the national and world center, in every sense, assuming a gravity that will only increase its tendency to draw everything within its orbit.

For me, the money quote of the Post essay is a summation of one argument from Daniel Bell's "The Coming of Post-Industrial Society,": according to the author, "the sociologist Daniel Bell predicted that the country's prevailing 'business civilization' would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy. Corporations would eventually look to Washington's lead for regulatory standards, to sponsor research and make critical science-related decisions." This was prescient and correct, a process that is now about to be accelerated as Washington becomes the printing-press of last resort, the savior of a liberal and capitalist system that was purportedly designed to limit the reach and extent of government. The irony of Bell's accurate prediction is that one consequence of an unfettered market - or, a market with a particular set of fetters that promote growth and consolidation of industry - results in ever greater reach of increasingly centralized government. What if, in retrospect, it turns out that the best way to have controlled the expansion of the Federal government - and to have kept Washington a small provincial city - would have been to restrict the growth and consolidation of private industry? Would this have required some growth of the Federal government, and if so, would it have been sufficient to have allowed restriction of its greater growth? We won't know, and I think are likely never to know. Power may indeed devolve away from the center at some point - perhaps in the not distant future - but it will not be orderly and lawful, but the result of a cataclysmic loss of control that will be precipitated by a rising anarchy in the parts and the inability of the central government to enforce its will. Before that happens, however, centralization and control will reach an apogee, a constriction that will precede an explosive release. This article about Washington's rise to central preeminence is a fact to be lamented, but about which, I fear, too little can now be done.

1 comment:

-J said...

"...the country's prevailing 'business civilization' would inevitably become dominated by the government bureaucracy."

Or is it the other way around? Call me a conspiracy nut, but it strikes me as more likely that global business uses govt as both a tool and a smokescreen to implement and camouflage its nefarious agenda.