Infrastructure is Not “Progressive”

by Kevin Carson
Infrastructure is Not “Progressive”

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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3 responses to “Infrastructure is Not “Progressive”

  1. Government infrastructure spending has been declining in importance for many decades – it is now a tiny percentage of government spending. The Welfare State is eating everything else (including military spending).

    The government should get out of the way and allow roads and bridges (and so on) to be privately owned and operated by electronic tolls.

    As for the “power of big business” and “corporate domination of our society and economy” – in reality half the population either work for the government or live off government benefits.

    And neither the expansion of government employment or the increase in government dependants was at the request of “big business” or benefits most business enterprises (big or small).

    As normal what Kevin says is simply factually wrong.

  2. By the way…..

    If the government built its projects itself (rather than hiring private contractors to do so) this would in no way be an improvement.

    The government should not finance this stuff at all – if should be financed privately (either commercially or by charitable trusts).

    Although (as I have already mentioned) such projects are now a tiny percentage of government spending.

  3. As for the statism of the Progressive movement – this has always been so.

    The radically ANTI “big business” German educated Richard Ely and co (and the people they inspired – such as T. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) pushed the expansion of the state.

    That is the Progressive movement – that is what it is to be “Progressive” in politics, in 2013 or 1913.

    If one goes back further…….

    One finds such people as Francis and Edward Bellamy with their “National Socialism”.

    Certainly the Bellamy’s were not above USING “big business” – “if you back our plan for a new Pledge Of Allegiance to the flag, you will sell a lot more flags” (that appealed to the flag making companies) – but their objective was to turn the attention of children away from the limited government principles of the Constitution (which the Bellamy’s hated).

    As for the fate that the Bellamys intended for business – that fate is made clear in “Looking Backward” (1887 I believe).

    If one looks further back still……….

    One comes to H. Mann. – the “Father of American Public Education”.

    Mr Mann was not inspired by “Big Business” – he was inspired by the education system of Frederick the Great (he was long dead – but his system continued).

    To pretend that a movement that has its roots in admiration for Bismark (who denounced the German “big business” Liberals a s “party of Jews” in the 1870s – in order to break them, and had been giving secret subsidies to socialist groups as far back as the 1860s in order to scare business into submission to the Prussian State) and Frederick the Great (and to the tradition in German political philosophy that Hayek explains in such works as “Law, Legislation and Liberty”) is the tool of “Big Business”……..

    To pretend that the Progressive (i.e. the statist) movement is the tool of Big Business is either error or dishonestly.