Infrastructure is Not “Progressive”

Kevin Carson

Frankly, I have a hard time understanding what goes on in the heads of “progressives.” On the one hand, they constantly complain — and rightfully so — about the power of big business and corporate domination of our society and economy. But on the other, their rhetoric is full of nostalgia for the government policies that made corporate domination possible in the first place.

We see it in Rachel Maddow’s 30-second spots on MSNBC standing in front of the Hoover Dam, yearning for the days when the American government did “big things.” We see it in Michael Moore’s championing of a “Green New Deal,” retooling Detroit assembly lines to churn out high-speed bullet trains.

And we see it in a thinly-disguised press release from the American Society of Civil Engineers (Jeremy Dennison, “America’s Crumbling Infrastructure,” Slate, October 7) hearkening to the post-WWII era as “the Golden Age of American infrastructure” and warning of dire economic consequences if we allow that infrastructure to continue to deteriorate. Ah, the glory days of gigantism: An interlocking system of corporate behemoths and the Leviathan state, all dependent on massive infrastructure projects — railroads, civil aviation and Interstate Highways — created to serve the interests of a corporate economy dominated by a few hundred oligopoly corporations.

The national railroad system was created by granting a land area roughly equal to France to American railroad companies — not only the rights-of-way themselves, but miles of real estate on either side of them which the railroads sold when the newly opened routes caused their value to skyrocket. According to Alfred Chandler, this railroad system created the indispensable prerequisites for a national mass-production economy of large industrial corporations serving a continent-sized market, with high-volume wholesale and retail networks. Absent the state’s role in creating a railroad system on such a large scale, it’s likely the second industrial revolution (i.e., the incorporation of electrically powered machinery into the industrial process) would have taken a fundamentally different direction. Instead of mass-production industries that mirrored the old Dark Satanic Mills, we would instead have had a national economy of a hundred local industrial districts, with electrically-powered general-purpose tools integrated into craft production for the local market on a demand-pull basis. An economy, in other words, with no mass-marketing, no high-pressure advertising, no consumer debt, and no planned obsolescence.

Those pathologies were further intensified by the infrastructure projects of the 20th century. The civil aviation infrastructure was created virtually whole-cloth with federal funds. And jumbo jets were an economic possibility only because the Cold War heavy bomber program allowed the aircraft industry to have long enough production runs to amortize the capital outlays for the enormously expensive dies used to build them. The post-war centralization of the American economy, in which local canneries and breweries were driven out of business and big box stores destroyed Main Streets across America, was made possible by the Interstates and the long-haul trucking industry that grew out of them.

And don’t forget the car culture, also almost entirely a result of post-WWII infrastructure policies. In one of the largest social engineering projects in history, America systematically destroyed walkable, mixed-use economies by subsidizing freeways, leaving in their stead a desert of suburban monoculture and sprawl. So it’s oddly fitting that Dennison writes: “Without a network of functional roads and bridges, the economy will grind to a standstill — just like so many cars caught in rush-hour congestion on a choked, deteriorating strip of highway pavement.”

The collapse of America’s infrastructure, Dennison warns, could cost over 800,000 jobs and depress GDP growth by billions. Note that both of these metrics measure the inputs consumed to produce a standard of living, not the standard of living itself. That’s obviously true of jobs — the amount of labor required to produce a given standard of living. But it’s also true of GDP; the more stuff costs to make, the more it adds to GDP. To put it in Frederic Bastiat’s terminology, GDP is the total cost of broken windows.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough people working at jobs, or working long enough hours. The problem is that capitalist employers, working in league with the capitalist state, have created an economy where working 40 hours a week at a job is the toll-gate you have to pass through to subsist comfortably. What we need is for workers to appropriate the full benefits of their increased productivity, and for the reduced work hours to be distributed equitably, instead of letting corporations use “intellectual property” law to enclose increased productivity as a source of rent.

Rather than celebrating the relocalized, post-capitalist p2p economy made possible by new technology, progressives want to perpetually maintain a Rube Goldberg state machine, keeping as many people as possible running in the hamster wheel.





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