The New York Times Tries Anti-Capitolism

(maiquel sampaio / flickr)

One happy side effect of elite decline is that clever centrist apparatchiks occasionally sneak competent class criticisms past their editors. Annie Lowrey’s latest New York Times piece has more than a few. If you haven’t read the thing, do so before it gets thrown behind a paywall.

As an example of the intimately hostile creative class shade that Times writers bring to most of its DC reporting, it’s sterling. As an exercise in popular political economy, it leaves something to be desired.

The article does have a lot going for it. Lowrey’s storytelling is a model of lucidity for anyone interested in weaving together macroeconomic exposition and everyday lived experience. Hardly content with standard anti-gentrification pieties, she documents the networks of policy and patronage that have made the District’s recent condo metastasis possible. From Capitol Hill cocktail parties to twentysomething lease signings, the piece brims with the sort of vivid ethnographic detail those who admire Capital can appreciate.

Her nods to the racialized aspects of the federal boom and the attendantly blistering pace of class stratification also deserve points. Most commendably, Lowrey pulls no punches when it comes to the relationship between DC’s rising fortunes and “the amorphous war on terror.” It’s refreshing, to say the least, to see the bourgeois press connects the dots between dead brown children in southwest Asia and burgeoning U Street wine bars.

But the class analysis swings freely of Marxism. A few oblique jibes at “one of the most ascendant petite bourgeoisies that the United States has known” does not substitute for structural analysis. The way Lowrey tells the story, DC operates on a basically pre-capitalist economic logic, conditioned chiefly by the iron-age vagaries of provincial tribute and war booty:

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, told me: “Washington’s economy is based on the confiscation and transfer of wealth produced elsewhere. Out in the country they’re growing food, building cars and designing software — all these things that raise our standard of living. Here in Washington, everyone is writing memos to each other about how to take some of that money and which special interest should get it.”

This picture of a monstrous, parasitic capital city siphoning resources from honest producer folk once had progressive — chiefly antimonarchist — uses. But in twenty-first century America, it’s faux-populist Tea Party catnip.

Besides this, it’s just plain inaccurate. What the diagnostically neoliberal articulation of “Government versus Real Economy” misses is the central role the state plays in structuring capitalism.

The federal government doesn’t (just) arbitrarily distribute largesse to favored courtiers; through countercyclical deficit spending, it props up aggregate demand in a way a “free market” never could. Without the decisions made by a few hundred people who shuttle between the Federal Reserve and Treasury buildings, neither the Office of Personnel Management nor any private sector firm in the country would be able to make payroll. Absent the capital’s deft bureaucratic techniques for coordinating production and consumption — from corn subsidies to monetary policy — there would be precious little “private” wealth for Boaz and his ilk to fetishize in the first place.

Lowrey’s assessment of the DC war economy stumbles accordingly. Hers is, after all, the most hopeful and least unconvincing of liberal accounts of militarism. Implicit is the assumption that things like Iraq and Afghanistan only happen because hawkish cliques occasionally get a whack at the levers of power, pad their friends’ pockets with a few hundred billion dollars from sovereign coffers, and leave messes for subsequent, more enlightened administrations to clean up. This frame obscures, among other things, the structural and necessary nature of American imperialism.

Defense spending doesn’t (just) mean a fiscal bonanza for contractors in Northern Virginia; it’s a tried-and-true mechanism for cycling capital surpluses to economically depressed regions across the country. Spectacular, unilateral, and prolonged military adventures aren’t (just) the Pentagon’s way of earning holiday bonuses; they’re actions calculated to seize resources, maintain strategic instability, and cow other national elites into putting up with global capital flows on Washington’s terms, in the interest of the American economy generally.

Lowrey faithfully delivers the Keynesian line beloved of her substratum by reminding us, by way of U-Mass Amhert professor Robert Pollin, that green jobs and education investment make for many more jobs than defense spending, as if sustainable growth and balanced budgets were just a matter of giving school teachers and windmill engineers a stronger hand in the budgetary process. Those of us in the habit of seeing capital “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” know that the solution will have to be deeper and more internationalist than that.

I take it one, admittedly vague, way of stating our part of the Left’s economic program is that we want all jobs to be like public sector jobs, all employees to benefit from the famously robust salaries and benefits of federal employees, and all workers to have access to things like LEED-certified condos, art walks, and decent macchiatos. To go in for the kind of cock-browed yuppie-sniping that occasionally colors Lowrey’s piece is to embrace a toxic politics of resentment. We should be less concerned with begrudging decent standards of living and more concerned with figuring out how to guarantee them for everyone.

In the last decade, the federal apparatus has proven remarkably efficient in redistributing wealth to a small number of largely white and elitely educated young professionals in a more or less centralized, rational, and efficient way. Expanding this infrastructure of Beltway socialism — beyond the ascendant professional networks of Georgetown and Logan Circle and into the material lives of H Street hairdressers, Columbia Heights baristas, and even Missouri cattlemen — is a step in that direction.

Leave anti-capitolism to the paper of record; we’ve got a welfare state to bloat.