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Historical Essay, Infrastructure, Urban Planning, Rights, Ancient City, Modern City

The Power of Infrastructure

Robert Fishman
Historical Essay, Infrastructure, Urban Planning, Rights, Ancient City, Modern City
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Amidst the human devastation of the terrible Pakistani floods in September, 2022, the extensive damage to the archeological site of the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro (2500–1900 BCE) passed almost unnoticed.[1] But the multiple ironies of this catastrophe might give pause to students of infrastructure.

1 Stuti Mishra, “UN Chief Describes Pakistani Flooding as ‘Climate Carnage,’” The Independent (London), September 13, 2022, p. 23.

One of a series of cities on the alluvial plain of the Indus River that comprised the ancient Harrapan civilization, Mohenjo-daro stands out among other ancient river-based civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and north China) for the large-scale engineering we now call “infrastructure.” The word “infrastructure” itself is relatively recent—the oldest example in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1927 and derives from the same word in French (earliest example 1875) that refers to permanent military installations.[2] Although present usage is much wider, the word retains its deep etymological connection to Power and the State.

2 Oxford English Dictionary (3rd online edition), s.v. infrastructure.

From Mohenjo-Daro to the present, infrastructure means not just large-scale engineering but projects that define and structure the power of the State.

The indispensable social theorist James Scott has characterized the overriding state-building project of the earliest river-based States like Mohenjo-Daro as concentrating and dominating a large enough population to farm the highly fertile soil of irrigated alluvial plains so that this subject peasantry could produce an agrarian surplus to support an urbanized military-priestly elite.[3] Infrastructure was the physical embodiment of that state-building project, comprising such systems as irrigation canals supervised by the State; urban walls, moats, and watchtowers; and a fortified citadel within the city with palaces, temples and the all-important granary where grain extorted from the peasants through taxes and rents could be stored to support the soldiers and urban workers (often slaves) on which the power and the luxury of the elite depended.

3 James C. Scott, Against the Grain: a brief history of the earliest states (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

Among modern excavations of ancient cities, Mohenjo-Daro is best known for its extensive and well-organized infrastructure for the control of water both within the city and in its agricultural hinterlands. (Hence the irony of the site’s extensive damage in the 21st century by water out-of-control). The city boasted a perhaps the oldest systematic grid of straight streets, lined with houses built of bricks of standardized dimensions. The houses were not only supplied with water from a multitude of carefully-located wells, but the houses and streets were served by a carefully-constructed network of underground sewers that drained waste into the Indus River. Outside the walls of this carefully-planned city, a complex river-based infrastructure for irrigation and flood control supervised by the State meant that most of the increased yield of irrigated agriculture would be expropriated by the urban rulers.[4]

4 Jane R. McIntosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: new perspectives (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008).

Central to this earliest version of infrastructure was what Scott termed the “domestication of human beings,” almost equivalent in importance to the domestication of animals millennia earlier at the time of the invention of agriculture. The very form of ancient infrastructure speaks to endless tedious and backbreaking labor that required an enslaved or conscripted labor force. Thus ancient infrastructure was built upon its own logic of violent domination.

Yet all this violence and hard labor did not prevent the eventual abandonment of Mohenjo-Daro and almost every other example of ancient infrastructure. One could argue that such cities were the victims of their own oppressive stability, as slow natural climate change and soil erosion stretched out in the case of Mohenjo-daro over 600 years eventually produced the combination of droughts and floods that overwhelmed its infrastructure. In addition, the military domination that won the tribute from subject and enslaved peoples always yielded eventually to military defeat. Thus it is fitting that the Roman Empire whose unequaled mastery of infrastructure at all scales from paved city streets, water pipes and sewers to region-spanning aqueducts to the roads that bound the whole empire together would experience the ancient world’s most devastating fall.

Yet when in the 19th century the cities of Western Europe and North America finally equaled and exceeded the Roman Empire’s system of urban infrastructure, we should acknowledge that modern infrastructure was not only technologically more advanced but included a democratizing element that had been strictly subordinated in the ancient world.

This derived in large part from the new way in which this infrastructure was financed. To be sure the infrastructure of 19th century London and the other imperial capitals was paid for in no small part by mass enslavements and colonial tribute-payments that would have been the envy of the Babylonians and the Romans. But these cities also tapped into an even more powerful source: the wealth generated by the productive growth of the modern urban economy itself.

This wealth could be tapped by two important innovations that would help to define the capitalist city: the property tax and a city’s ability to borrow against future growth to build expensive infrastructure. Because the total assessed value of urban property rose in tandem with increased size and prosperity, the property tax could transfer a portion of the increased wealth to public purposes. Moreover the Western cities (owing to their origin in the independent medieval city-states) had legal authority to use their growing tax-base as collateral to float bonds that could finance long-term capital investments in infrastructure.  Thus infrastructure that seemed impossibly expensive when first built such as Haussmann’s boulevards, parks and water system for Paris could be paid back when the city and its tax-base had expanded.

It was the cities of the United States in the 19th century that most strongly demonstrated the democratizing potential of this modern system of what historian Eric Monkkonen has called “building the local state.”[5] Corrupt as urban “machine politics” were, they were based on universal suffrage so politicians had to make sure that poor districts as well as rich ones got their share of the benefits. The result was an unprecedented flourishing of the public sphere through infrastructure investments whose scale still astonishes us: systems for clean water like New York’s Croton reservoir and aqueduct (1842) first of all; then paved and sewered streets; fire and police protection; public schools; public transit from the horse-car through the electric tram and subway; and the great public parks that so much define the 19th century American city. At its best, this “local state” created a democratic public system of infrastructure that stood in significant opposition not only to the elitism and oppression of the past but to capitalist exploitation in the present.[6]

Beyond continuing technological innovation, so much of the deep history of infrastructure in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century has been the struggle to maintain the democratic impulses of this great burst of infrastructure creativity in the face of the constant temptation to revert to infrastructure’s original purpose of fostering State power and elite domination. When for example during Detroit’s bankruptcy (2013–2014) the city lost control of its water system and the appointed “emergency managers” tried to shut off water supplies to tens of thousands of Detroit households. The result was a resistance movement that claimed access to water—and by implication to other infrastructure services – as a human right.[7] The climate crisis has vastly raised the global stakes in this struggle to define infrastructure, as the September floods in Pakistan showed when they not only devastated Mohenjo-daro but displaced more than 33 million people.[8] In Lewis Mumford’s prophetic words from 1961, “Now it is not a river valley, but the whole planet, that must be brought under control: not an unmanageable flood of water but even more alarming and malign explosions of energy that might disrupt the entire ecological system on which humanity’s whole life and welfare depends.”[9]

5 Eric H. Monkkonen, The Local State: public money and American cities (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).
6 Jon C. Teaford, The Unheralded Triumph: city government in America, 1870-1900 (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).
7 We the People of Detroit Research Collective, Mapping the Water Crisis (Detroit: Ebook, 2016).
8 Christina Goldbaum and Zia ur-Reman, “In Pakistan’s Record Floods, Villages Are Desperate Islands,” New York Times, September 14, 2022, A1.
9 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: its origins, its transformations, its prospects (New York: Harcourt, 1961), p. 570.