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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 Timesarticle, 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.
When British Defense Minister Emanuel Shinwell dared to utter “infrastructure” in the House of Commons in 1950, Winston Churchill rejoined, “we do not feel much wiser for what we have heard,” but refrained from saying more until he could “consult the dictionary.” Churchill returned to Parliament two months later, where he fulminated against “the usual jargon about ‘the infra-structure of a supra-national authority.’” “The words ‘infra’ and ‘supra,’” Churchill continued, “have been introduced into our current political parlance by the band of intellectual highbrows who are naturally anxious to impress British labour with the fact that they learned Latin at Winchester.”
Even U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson—a lawyer and diplomat, as well as the co-architect of the Marshall Plan and master decoder of technical argot—puzzled over the term. In a 1952 radio-television report on the NATO meeting in Lisbon, he lamented, “One thing I can’t explain to you is how these facilities came to be called by the name ‘infrastructure.’ But despite this heavy handicap, good progress was made on this issue, too.” This stigma faded only gradually during the twentieth century. Writers disowned the term by tucking it between quotation marks or prefacing it with “so-called.” In 1994 William Safire could still bemoan how “vampire-like, infrastructure has returned in the dead of night to suck blood out of the colorful language of the information age.”
Like many residents of the twentieth century, Churchill, Acheson, and Safire preferred more homespun language to describe the conceptual terrain that infrastructure began to claim. In the decades following the New Deal, English speakers most often referred to state-sponsored building as “public works.” First recorded in Briton during the 1500s, public works entered English as a word-for-word translation of the Latin phrase opera publica, which denoted action for the communal good. Roman opera included iconic edifices such as aqueducts, sewers, highways, and public buildings (basilicae) that would satisfy even today’s most stringent definitions of infrastructure. Opera also included institutions such as temples, baths, theaters, and markets, as well as circuses, works of devotion, recreation, and commerce that represented a broader commitment to what Cicero called cura urbis (care of the city).
English public works retained this ideal of acting on behalf of the people to create something that belongs to everyone. Writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries imagined works as a strategy for improving the lives of subjects, and expanding the public realm by harnessing the labor of society’s most abject inhabitants. A poor relief proposal from 1531 called for public works projects to employ “beggars, vagabonds, and idle persons.” Legislators reasoned that tasks such as road repair and marsh drainage not only enhanced the kingdom but disciplined vagrant populations by conscripting them to toil for the crown. In the same spirit of human resource stewardship, the French jurist Jean Bodin proposed making prisoners of war “labour in the publicke works” rather than sit around in camps. Public works, Bodin figured, could convert even enemy combatants into nationalized laborers.
While legislators considered the social benefits and logistical headaches of early modern workfare, religious writers advocated public works as a practice for improving Christendom’s relationship with God. In the context of a flowering nation-state that was also an Anglican theocracy, cathedrals, clerical residences, and even individuals’ good deeds fell under public works. Although the concept of infrastructure may seem secular today—a catchphrase for the material upkeep of the here and now—Elizabethan holy works answered a seventeenth-century concern for the hereafter, as well as a government in which the sovereign had final say over matters temporal and divine.
In fact, the Renaissance exegete Edward Reynolds believed the “workes of Christianity [are] exemplary, and therefore publike workes,” outward displays of virtue capable of inspiring neighbors to lend their hand to building God’s kingdom on earth. Theologians such as Edward Stillingfleet and Edward Purchas included churches in their lists of public works, alongside highways, bridges, wells, castles, and hospitals. Others classified bishops’ palaces and nunneries as “publique workes.” One Protestant divine, William Ames, went so far as to label the creation and annihilation of the universe recounted in Genesis as the “publick works of God.”
Public works became a yardstick for evaluating the skill and righteousness of government, as subjects could gesture to an abundance of public works to commend a given king or parliament or cite their absence as evidence of an ineffectual regime. The diarist and gardener John Evelyn lamented the “small advance and improvement of Publick Works in this Nation” during the 1650s, when the House of Commons and Oliver Cromwell ruled the realm as a commonwealth. When monarchy returned in 1660, another royalist, Thomas Sprat, cheerfully remarked that King Charles II had provoked “more Acts of Parliament, for the clearing and beautifying of Streets, for the repayring of Highwayes, for the cutting of Rivers, for the increase of Manufacturers, for the setting on foot the Trade of Fishing, and many other such publick Workes.”
In 1679 Roger L’Estrange argued that “publique works should receive Publike Encouragement,” not because they could necessarily enrich individual investors, but because they equipped the nation to support profit-bearing enterprise. As the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith explained a century later, public works were “in the highest degree advantageous” to a nation, but were also too big to “repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals.” They expressed what literary critic Michael Rubenstein calls the “social imperative” to have a great society.
Nowhere did this imperative receive more enthusiastic voicing than in the lines of Richard Savage’s 1736 poem, Of Public Spirit in Regard to Public Works. Addressed to Britain’s crown prince, Frederick of Hanover, Savage’s ode to infrastructure avant la lettre opens in a manner reminiscent of partisan discourse today: with a list of public works. But unlike the terse litanies of congressional Republicans, Savage’s catalogue includes not only roads, canals, and lighthouses, but institutions such as churches, colleges, and theaters that moved minds toward “moral Truth and holy Science.” Savage’s breathless run of heroic couplets depicts public works as catalyst for economic growth and the kind of cultural pursuit that first made civilization worth inhabiting. Savage looked beyond the shambles of his own hapless career to “Hail Arts, where Safety, Treasure and Delight, / On Land, on Wave, in wound’rous Works unite!”
Savage’s humanistic approach to public works expressed a belief that state-sponsored liberal arts might teach Britons to exhibit “Benevolence to all Mankind” (a less than subtle hint to his poem’s recipient and potential benefactor, Prince Frederick). Adam Smith similarly commended “good roads, canals, and navigable rivers” for “diminishing the expence of carriage,” and for encouraging “the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country.” Public works supplied the fixed capital for mercantile and cultural exchange, incorporating a diverse and dispersed countryside into a cohesive British state.
This conception of public works as both physical and social engineering took root in the fledgling American Republic under the name “internal improvements.” Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, U.S. legislators considered various projects to settle the land and convert a country predicated on Atlantic trade into a continental empire. These efforts raised the question of who public works should serve, with federal and state legislators battling over the efficacy and constitutionality of various schemes. Would the Erie Canal benefit all Americans or only New Yorkers? Could railroads enrich the Republic or just Baltimore? Seldom acknowledged in these debates was the public standing of Indigenous Americans, for whom the establishment of settler-colonial transportation conduits entailed an influx of pioneers, land cessation, and removal. By making life more convenient for white Americans and inflicting harm on Indigenous tribes, public works underscored exclusion and starkly revealed which populations did and did not matter in the early American public.
In 1832 the French tourist Alexis De Tocqueville exclaimed, “America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement.” Though he endured “frightful roads,” washed out bridges, and ice-chocked rivers, Tocqueville also encountered “great works of public utility” in the United States, which maintained “an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers” even in regions with few settlers. “I have just made a fascinating but very fatiguing journey,” Tocqueville concluded. “The fact is that to traverse the immense stretch of country that we have just covered, and to do it in so little time and in winter, was hardly practicable. But we were right because we succeeded: there’s the moral of the story.” Tocqueville’s tale of personal triumph commends the internal improvements of Jacksonian America while implying that these works were already suffering from underinvestment.
The Civil War era would crystallize disputes over the geographical beneficiaries of public works. The divided country’s signature infrastructural act, the first transcontinental railroad, received congressional authorization only after southern states seceded, allowing northern Republicans to legislate by consensus. Regional fissures persisted into the early twentieth century when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal advanced works as a tactic for employing Depression-era Americans. The Works Progress Administration hired citizens to build roads, bridges, and electrical grids in rural regions where modern conduits could facilitate what Smith once called “the cultivation of the remote.” WPA laborers also erected museums, landscaped playgrounds, and outfitted gyms. Agency funds underwrote the construction of New York’s Central Park Zoo, San Antonio’s River Walk, and Miami’s Orange Bowl as recreational infrastructure that promulgated an American notion of itself as resourceful, monumental, and civilized.
The agency’s Federal Theater Project paid actors, directors, choreographers, and musicians to keep curtains up during the ’30s in an effort to sustain the performing arts while audiences and donors recouped their financial losses. Imagining drama as its own form of social infrastructure, the Project borrowed its motto from an ancient Greek inscription: “We let out these works on the vote of the people.” The Federal Writers’ Project, meanwhile, built textual archives of national memory by recording and transcribing oral stories. This ethnographic work included the Slave Narrative Collection, a compilation of thousands of interviews with formerly enslaved African Americans. Such undertakings reflected an idea of public works that hearkened back to Richard Savage’s contention that “Publick Spirit still is Learning’s Friend,” and even further to Cicero’s understanding of opera publica as expressions of collective self-care, including care for the past.
Despite their overtures to a shared national heritage, New Deal public works intensified debates over the government’s authority to judge the worthwhileness of cultural enterprise and to mend a broken economy through federal earmarks. When Congress pulled funding from the Federal Theater Project in 1939, even Roosevelt conceded that “the average voter does not yet appreciate the need of encouraging art, music, and literature.” Four years prior, when the Supreme Court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1935, Roosevelt proposed packing the chamber with justices favorable to his public works agenda. Squabbles over how to support the common good again compelled politicians to debate their warrant to govern.
Like Roosevelt, Biden now presides over a crisis that has made Americans question the capacity of private markets to provision a functional society. The last sixteen months have seen the country’s commercial healthcare system buckle, its supply chains snap, and its wage economy crumble. Meanwhile, following a negligent response to the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the state has since regained credibility through its work swabbing noses, jabbing arms, regulating travel, and issuing relief checks. “This is no time to build back to the way things were,” explains a White House memo capturing a renewed appreciation of active government. “This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy.”
A rejuvenated American economy would need to compete with foreign powers that have already invested in infrastructures that project progress to their citizens and economic clout abroad. Having already built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, China is now developing a “Belt and Road” infrastructure program that promises to connect vast swaths of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East with freight trains, trucks, and container ships by 2049. In Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has bolstered his far-right regime by authorizing the construction of dams, ports, and highways in the Amazon basin—projects that cater to the president’s rural voter base by opening the region’s rainforest biome to loggers and mining.
Biden’s own promise of transformative building borrows from the old playbook of public works. In the tradition of Roman senators and English parliamentarians, Biden promotes works as a tool for employing the public. In his April address to Congress, the president characterized his bill as the “largest jobs plan since World War II.” He stressed that this “blue-collar blueprint to build America” would employ in a revived manufacturing sector citizens excluded from professional opportunities in the information economy. The Plan argues that industrial works offer a “ladder to middle-class life” and a national public more welcoming to those without a college degree.
Taking a page from the good works doctrine of Christian humanists, the original American Jobs Plan pledged to atone for the country’s original sins by “addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice.” The administration envisions infrastructure that will remedy the fact that care workers, “the majority of whom are women of color. . . have been underpaid and undervalued,” that tribal water settlements have been violated and reservations underserved by telecommunications services, that “past transportation investments divided communities” or “left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options.” New works, Biden suggests, will reckon over the historic mistreatment of people while performing overdue acts of restorative justice. It remains to be seen how much of this civil rights mission will endure in the proposed reconciliation bill.
The arts and humanities do not appear in the American Jobs Plan as they did in Cicero’s Rome and Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, the bill’s proponents understand that advocating infrastructure entails wading into cultural debates over what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls “the society we want.” The self-evident “we” at the heart of this adage belies the fact that people have always wanted society to be and become different things. The radical plurality of U.S. infrastructural ambitions is demonstrated by the leaked draft platform of the notional America First Caucus, which calls for “infrastructure. . . that befits the progeny of European architecture, whereby public infrastructure must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world of power and source of freedom.” The document’s appeal to a European aesthetic heritage runs scant interference for its reduction of the public to inheritors of a white cultural tradition.
Beyond its racism the platform misunderstands the history of infrastructure as one of uniform “power” and unencumbered “freedom” when actual public works entail the weary struggle of sorting out who receives amenity and who foots the bill. Works have always been as contentious as the publics that conceive them, often finding the limit of collective will. Acknowledging this history the American Jobs Plan proposes to rewire society’s cost-benefit circuitry by conceiving works beyond the realm of the built and addressing those previously barred from infrastructure’s promise. While politicians have always asked works to deliver the future, Biden calls for infrastructure that remembers. His proposal to make public works enfranchise new publics has raised a predictable ruckus. Infrastructure plans usually do.
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.
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