The Hidden Stakes of the Infrastructure WarsRoundup
tags: infrastructure, built environment
David Alff is an associate professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660–1730 (2017), and is currently writing a new book, Rights of Way, which investigates the legal and literary history of infrastructure in the early modern Anglophone World.
Since its announcement in March, President Joe Biden’s $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan has fueled a loud and repetitive debate over which public investments qualify as infrastructure. The White House and its supporters have conceived infrastructure elastically as an open-ended repertoire of programs to help Americans lead manageable and gratifying lives. Biden’s proposed allocation of tax dollars to child- and eldercare, school modernization, veterans’ hospitals, broadband hookups, lead pipe replacement, and pandemic preparedness exemplifies a progressive idea of infrastructure that evolves to service the society that commissions it. Infrastructure, the initial bill implied, is an endlessly adjustable commitment to nurturing collective life—what Marshall Sahlins calls “provisioning the society.”
Republicans, by contrast, have treated infrastructure more strictly as a fixed menu of building projects that support the carbon economy. After attacking Biden’s Jobs Plan for its supposed lack of “real” infrastructure, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri demanded an alternative spending package limited to “roads, bridges, ports, and airports.” Republicans occasionally drop canals, dams, levies, refineries, or railroads into their talking points, but what has remained constant is their penchant for litany: infrastructure boils down to an itemized handful of installations, and not anything so pliant as a concept. Conservatives want infrastructure to be solid and self-evident—they claim to know it when they see it and identify it by what it is not.
After waiting four years on the Trump Administration’s exercise in deferral dubbed “Infrastructure Week,” Americans are now experiencing Infrastructure Spring as a protracted stalemate with a tentative compromise now on the horizon. This impasse and its potential resolution—which would link the passage of a bipartisan bill focused on renewing the country’s physical plant to a “human infrastructure” package that Democrats could pass through the Senate budget reconciliation process—bear a long history, one that predates the terminology at the heart of today’s debates over the American Jobs Plan. Examining this past—infrastructure before “infrastructure”—reveals how we have come to inherit such contradictory ideas about the state’s role in sustaining economic and cultural life. How exactly did infrastructure come to seem like a permeable ethos to some and a portfolio of stuff to others? Why did this term become a proxy for incompatible theories of governmentality? If, as Ohio Senator Rob Portman claims, Biden’s plan “redefines infrastructure,” what did it mean in the first place?
The word “infrastructure” first cropped up in France during the 1870s, when engineers needed a term to describe the gravel ballast that supports railway tracks. Derived from the prefix “infra” (below) and the root word “structure” (building), infrastructure ferroviaire came to encompass all the earthwork and engineering that enabled trains to traverse the land, such as bridges, tunnels, culverts, and crossings.
By the time infrastructure migrated into English during the 1890s and early 1900s, the word already embraced the “subordinate parts” of any large-scale undertaking, from civilian rails and roads to military bases, airfields, and signal networks. Infrastructure became a technical term for the facilities and conduits that underlined modern life (and which often rested literally underground). It gave name to the scarcely comprehensible totality of systems responsible for delivering victory in battle and amenities at home. Indeed, infrastructure helped Britons grasp the vast scale of industrialized military campaigns and the post-war rebuilding efforts that mitigated their wreckage.
But the word was slow to take. An abstract mouthful of Latinate syllables, “infrastructure” met furrowed brows when it began to circulate beyond engineering circles. In a 1951 New York Times article, Arthur Krock held up infrastructure as a new specimen of technocratic “gobbledeygook” contrived to “make palatable to the public plans, ideas, and situations that would not be if expressed in simple English.” Infrastructure, Krock claimed, was a “N. A. T. O. term designed to make sure that the United States will foot the entire bill,” a cynical joke implying that this new article of bureaucratese concealed a harmful sleight-of-hand by U.S. allies.