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When the Empire Falls

As local government sputters and fails, can NGOs go it alone?

As summer-loving Buffalo heads off for the cottage, the beach, the hammock, or just Freddie Olmsted’s shady glades, we will need something to read—something appropriate to our time, something light and escapist, a good old-fashioned page-turner about a time and place and dramatic occurrences safely removed from real life.

You guessed it: This column recommends Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

A favorite scene: in Chapter IV, when Marcus Aurelius (played by late Richard Harris in Gladiator) begins to regret having allowed his brutal son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) to actually govern. Movie-goers will be moved all the more as they read Gibbon’s account of the sad death of the virtuous Maximus (Russell Crowe).

And then later, in Chapter XIII, which is mostly about how the poor (!) Goths were abused by both the Romans and then by the Huns, there’s Gibbon’s description of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that struck the Mediterranean and killed thousands in Sicily, Greece, and Egypt.

It’s heart-stopping stuff. And while the gentle reader reaches into the cooler for another, we still want to know, notwithstanding the tell-tale title, more about the decline and about the fall, too.

Was it really the barbarians? Was it all the funky sex and wine-drinking, all the Caligula weirdness and the real-life capers Petronius reported on and that Federico Fellini depicted in Satyricon?

Yes, all of that, and more. But in case you watch the movies on your hand-held rather than grip your Gibbon, here’s the Classic Comics version: Weak and disorderly central government lost its legitimacy, leaving millions to fend for themselves against barbarians, and folks who used to live in a big, safe, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic civilization found themselves at the mercy of petty tyrants in little local governments (and their allies in the church).

Some folks still call that time, after Rome, “the dark ages.”

Shelter from the storm

The late urbanist saint and essayist Jane Jacobs’s last book had the foreboding title Dark Age Ahead. It’s a bit of a rant, but it’s a good rant. She describes the collapse of five of the “pillars” of North American civilization, as consumerism trumps community and family, as universities become credential mills, as science polices itself, as government loses legitimacy, and as a big cultural amnesia sets in, wherein we don’t even know which formerly essential things we’ve forgotten. Jacobs published the book in 2004, and was dead a year later.

Unlike Gibbon, Jacobs’s book doesn’t have much good drama. There are no colorful characters whose complex biographies hint at contemporary analogies; nope, Jacobs’s last tome is all very grim, and should be read only in full daylight, preferably when happy bunny rabbits and smiling children with lollipops are nearby, so that when you look up from her screed, you still want to live.

Sticking with the Gibbon will do wonders for your mood: Stories of dumb emperors are followed by stories of good ones, and there’s lots of intrigue, and wars with Persia, and an explanation of how Britain got cut off and then invaded by the orc-like ancestors of Abba and Viggo Mortensen. And it will explain the curious phenomenon that has recurred so often, especially during periods of great change, in American history—the phenomenon of folks thumbing their noses at government, and setting off to form their own organizations.

We watch in wonder (until, that is, it’s time to watch the Daily Show) as demonstrators put their lives on the line for democracy over on the streets of Teheran. We instinctively deplore the latest military coup in Central America (even if the Supreme Court of Honduras said that the president was breaking the law and had to be removed) because Americans love democracy.

But all across the United States this year, economic distress and government dysfunction (legislators in Albany, governors in South Carolina and Illinois, every elected official in California, board members here in Evans and West Seneca) together stimulate anti-democratic chatter that would do nicely in places where the popular will is ignored or trampled.

Most folks respond by withdrawing; until Barack Obama, there was no prospect of an actually representative democracy being achieved in a modern presidential vote. So few people vote in local elections that today, in Buffalo, a municipality with a voting-age population of at least 200,000 grown-ups, it is unlikely that even 50,000 people will participate in the general election for mayor come November.

So folks are now turning to NGOs—non-governmental organizations—to see if they can deliver services, relieve social and environmental and myriad other problems, and do, in sum, the jobs that used to be done by government.

Filling a gap

We heard the message loud and clear at the Great Lakes Metros conference. A couple of dozen non-government organizations—think tanks, housing groups, bikepath advocates, clean-water activists, anti-sprawl councils and more—recently convened at Buffalo State College to talk about the economic future of Rust Belt metro areas. They were joined by a couple of government officials, including two men from the governor’s office, Assemblymember Sam Hoyt, a staffer from Attorney General Cuomo’s office and a couple of ex-mayors (Johnson of Rochester and Hudnut of Indianapolis).

But what was really striking at that two-day event was the consensus that government as currently constituted—fractured, localized, uncooperative across municipal boundaries even within compact regions—is so dysfunctional that, if President Obama’s “stimulus” money is going to have any good impact, there is going to have to be a huge new role for NGOs.

The irony is sharp: The very community activists who helped America get a president with his own activist credentials are so convinced of the irretrievability of local government that they’re going to try to perform those functions themselves. Weatherization? There’s an NGO. Green energy? Another one. Environmental remediation, especially of waterways? The federal money can just as well go to an NGO as to city hall, county hall, or town hall.

But at some point, the NGOs have to become the government, because the NGOs cannot handle things themselves. I hope that the think tanks and activists and the regional-planning activists who have such good and valid peer-reviewed analysis to offer get focused on politics and on governing. Advocacy without the power to govern is leading us in the direction poor, soured Jane Jacobs described—toward communities that are governed without any sense of responsibility for the whole.

The good news for today’s Rome is that our modern-day Huns and Goths and Vandals can all be challenged by our new Caesars, one four-year term at a time. The even better news is that Empire State government (currently under attack by a swarm of Albany Attilas) will be subject to an election next year, and unless a particularly strong version of amnesia sets in, folks will remember the disasters of the summer of 2009.

Fact is, folks, the lesson of Gibbon is a good one: A prosperous empire is a well-governed empire, not one in which the provinces break away into darkness. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition: It’s nice and thick, and lay flat on a beach towel.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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