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The Infrastructure Battle

Cattle graze near wind turbines that are part of Babcock & Brown Infrastructure Group’s Gulf Wind Project on Kenedy Ranch south of Kingsville, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 23, 2009. The $787 billion stimulus legislation signed by President Barack Obama includes at least $14 billion in tax breaks for wind and solar electricity and establishes a grant program to help finance projects. When completed, this wind farm will have 118 turbines with a total output of 283 megawatts (MW). Photographer: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg News

David Alff has an interesting Boston Review essay on the real outline over the battle around Biden’s infrastructure plan. After a long and quite informative discussion of the history of infrastructure as it developed in Europe (I knew basically nothing about this), Alff explores its history up to the New Deal and then gets to his real point, which is that battles over infrastructure are really battles over what society values as a collective:

Like Roosevelt, Biden now presides over a crisis that has made Americans question the capacity of private markets to provision a functional society. The last sixteen months have seen the country’s commercial healthcare system buckle, its supply chains snap, and its wage economy crumble. Meanwhile, following a negligent response to the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the state has since regained credibility through its work swabbing noses, jabbing arms, regulating travel, and issuing relief checks. “This is no time to build back to the way things were,” explains a White House memo capturing a renewed appreciation of active government. “This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy.”

A rejuvenated American economy would need to compete with foreign powers that have already invested in infrastructures that project progress to their citizens and economic clout abroad. Having already built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, China is now developing a “Belt and Road” infrastructure program that promises to connect vast swaths of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East with freight trains, trucks, and container ships by 2049. In Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has bolstered his far-right regime by authorizing the construction of dams, ports, and highways in the Amazon basin—projects that cater to the president’s rural voter base by opening the region’s rainforest biome to loggers and mining.

Biden’s own promise of transformative building borrows from the old playbook of public works. In the tradition of Roman senators and English parliamentarians, Biden promotes works as a tool for employing the public. In his April address to Congress, the president characterized his bill as the “largest jobs plan since World War II.” He stressed that this “blue-collar blueprint to build America” would employ in a revived manufacturing sector citizens excluded from professional opportunities in the information economy. The Plan argues that industrial works offer a “ladder to middle-class life” and a national public more welcoming to those without a college degree.

Taking a page from the good works doctrine of Christian humanists, the original American Jobs Plan pledged to atone for the country’s original sins by “addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice.” The administration envisions infrastructure that will remedy the fact that care workers, “the majority of whom are women of color. . . have been underpaid and undervalued,” that tribal water settlements have been violated and reservations underserved by telecommunications services, that “past transportation investments divided communities” or “left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options.” New works, Biden suggests, will reckon over the historic mistreatment of people while performing overdue acts of restorative justice. It remains to be seen how much of this civil rights mission will endure in the proposed reconciliation bill.

The arts and humanities do not appear in the American Jobs Plan as they did in Cicero’s Rome and Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, the bill’s proponents understand that advocating infrastructure entails wading into cultural debates over what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “the society we want.” The self-evident “we” at the heart of this adage belies the fact that people have always wanted society to be and become different things. The radical plurality of U.S. infrastructural ambitions is demonstrated by the leaked draft platform of the notional America First Caucus, which calls for “infrastructure. . . that befits the progeny of European architecture, whereby public infrastructure must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world of power and source of freedom.” The document’s appeal to a European aesthetic heritage runs scant interference for its reduction of the public to inheritors of a white cultural tradition.

Beyond its racism the platform misunderstands the history of infrastructure as one of uniform “power” and unencumbered “freedom” when actual public works entail the weary struggle of sorting out who receives amenity and who foots the bill. Works have always been as contentious as the publics that conceive them, often finding the limit of collective will. Acknowledging this history the American Jobs Plan proposes to rewire society’s cost-benefit circuitry by conceiving works beyond the realm of the built and addressing those previously barred from infrastructure’s promise. While politicians have always asked works to deliver the future, Biden calls for infrastructure that remembers. His proposal to make public works enfranchise new publics has raised a predictable ruckus. Infrastructure plans usually do.

Since Republicans think of anything collective as pure evil, even as they take the tax dollars from blue states to fund red state “individualists” through massive welfare programs in farm subsidies, road construction, etc., it’s hardly surprising they are furious about any measure to do things like stop the West from burning up from climate changed induced heat events, for instance. This is anathema for them. What’s interesting to me, and something I hope to explore more deeply in the near future, is that a big part of the neoliberal era that many liberals and even leftists embraced in different ways was about the apotheosis of the individual over the collective in all sorts of ways. The recent disasters that have impacted the nation and the world have seriously challenged this and so we have even greater divisions over what the future should look like. A liberal/left once again promoting significant levels of collectivism is absolutely necessary for the survival of the species. It’s also despised by the right.

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