reflecting on the post-infrastructure state
Just over a year ago I wrote a blogpost on the Huffington Post making a comparison between Detroit’s current bankruptcy proceedings and New York City’s flirtation with bankruptcy in 1975. While the juxtaposition was intended more as a provocation than for use as analysis, one year on the basis for comparison seems even more ridiculous, but for telling reasons. As a bankruptcy plan recently emerged with a strong majority approval by pensioners, unlike in New York, the pensioners will not get a totally raw deal, especially when compared to the city’s debtors, who are looking to shoulder a bigger cost of the burden. But this can be explained with greater recognition of how different the cities are at the moment of their respective crises. New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis resulted in a sharp retrenchment of public services and a drastic scaling down of the city’s unionized employees. In Detroit, by contrast, public services and good municipal jobs have been gone for a good while.
These job and services may be gone, but, we are told, their absence is in no way preventing the city’s simultaneous comeback. We should expect no less, given how in the past thirty years, NYC’s fiscal crisis has become folded within a broader critique of the efficacy of big city government spending and is part of a broader shift in the thinking about what constitutes a successful city. In a recent NYT Magazine cover story by Ben Austen, Detroit’s fiscal woes are the backstory to the city’s nascent rebirth at the hand of local entrepreneurs. Austen’s narrative focuses on Quicken Loans founder and real estate speculator extraordinaire Dan Gilbert, and a handful of individuals who, while less moneyed, share in a benevolent commitment to Detroit’s success such that he calls them “mini-Gilberts.” For Austen, this comeback requires no involvement by city government. When Detroit’s Mayor Duggan is invoked at all, for instance, it is only to say that he is not standing in the way of the inevitable force of the city’s capitalist saviors. In the story, a single dissenting mention of the city’s failure to provide services to residents invokes a rebuke by a businessman who says that the city is being rebuilt “with or without everybody at this table.’ In Guernica, academics Joshua Akers and John Patrick Leary write:
It is exactly this final claim—that Detroit is being “rebuilt” with or without its citizen’s participation—that should worry us. Should those not in a position to “buy low” expect any influence over the process? The celebration of the private provision of services misses their reason for being: the usurping of public authority by private individuals, the loss of democratic representation, and the proliferation of surveillance. It is not an example of the success of markets, but rather their failure to provide our fellow citizens with meaningful labor and public infrastructure.
Meanwhile, historian Jo Guldi builds upon the argument made in her book about Britain’s 18th century construction of a nationalized highway system, and draws out a compelling analogy with the most transformative contemporary form of infrastructure: the internet. She writes that Britain’s road building campaign was itself constituted by two successive “revolutions:”
What separates the two revolutions is a difference in scale that changed everything after in the face of capitalism and what we expected it to do. In the turnpike revolution, a hundred road startups appeared and improved transportation for a few wealthy individuals, creating a map of affluent towns with cobblestone roads, kicking back the returns to their happy investors. In the interkingdom highway revolution, those small road startups were bought out and grafted together by a government initiative that had a radical new purpose. It wouldn’t be roads just for the few and wealthy any more. Now, roads would be built to the poorest communities, the ones that normally couldn’t afford to link up with prosperous markets. Before roads, capitalism was just mercantilism, a trading game for the rich and powerful. After roads, we expected capitalism to flow horizontally. A rising tide would float all boats. In many times and places, that miracle of capitalism meant running water, flush toilets, newspapers, and cheap housing for the poor, all delivered through the miracle of free roads, built by someone else, running straight up to the doorstep of every newborn infant in every modern nation. Without doing anything, without working or deserving it, individuals were born connected. They could opt out, like Thoreau, moving to the woods, but someone believed that they should have the chance to get to market if they wanted it. So new-paved roads came to each newborn baby’s door, and most of us spend our lives walking on sidewalks and roads built by other people for our enjoyment, without thinking much about how they get us to places where we work and spend and play. Infrastructure is mutual aid, frozen into the form of architecture. It’s the only form of capitalism most of us want any part in.
In the rest of her post, Guldi implores Google to move beyond startup mode and Silicon Valley’s app game which has little chance of changing society beyond those who already have access to smart phones and capital. Here, as in Detroit, a focus on short term wealth garnered by the city’s entrepreneurial class is part and parcel of a failure to realize the longer term and more egalitarian benefits necessarily facilitated by investment in material infrastructure. For Google, Guldi suggests, this wound require developing the infrastructure (think of the laying of data pipelines in the global South) to allow the internet’s revolutionary capacities to be better utilized by those for whom it would be transformative, and would represent a radical shift in the redistribution of resources.
Guildi’s call sidesteps the messy issue which is front and central in Detroit’s “comeback” — that entrepreneurs like Gilbert and companies like Google, by nature, lack the incentive to invest in the kind of infrastructure for those who stand to most benefit. So far, any attempts by Google at centralization (the kind of centralization Guildi argues is necessary for “state change”) has been in service of its advertising products, or to ensure competitiveness with its rivals such as Facebook. And this is why paying attention to the outcomes of Detroit’s municipal makeover as its bankruptcy proceedings bear out is so crucial as they have bearing they have on the mechanisms and responsibilities for maintaining the city’s infrastructure. In setting these priorities, the city faces the question of who should benefit from a “comeback:” the rising tide of the city’s broader citizenry, or those looking to make a quick buck.