Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance


Demolition of "The Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, October 2016. 

In late October 2016, I packed my bags for a short trip abroad, leaving a region raw with struggle over the racial and colonial violence of infrastructure. In places like Standing Rock, Flint, Muskrat Falls, Toronto, and Baltimore, conflicts raged over the targeted violence of energy, water, border, and policing systems. Movements for Black lives, for migrants’ rights, for indigenous sovereignty, and for economic and environmental justice were increasingly mapping violent infrastructure systems with their direct actions and analyses. The water protectors’ camps at Standing Rock were large and growing, animated by spirit, ceremony, and unprecedented gathering as they halted the Dakota Access Pipeline. The largest prison strike in history, 45 years after the Attica uprising, was calling out the inhumanity of American carceral infrastructure. Black organizers were denouncing infrastructure crises like the one poisoning Flint, Michigan, suggesting these would be the defining struggles for Black communities to come. More than 50 Indigenous Nations from across Turtle Island had just signed the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, with the goal of protecting Indigenous lands and waters from all proposed pipeline, tanker, and rail projects. In my hometown of Toronto, Black Lives Matter members were making claims for the protection of “Black Infrastructure.” Blockades of damns, ports, highways, and rail infrastructure had become frequent news virtually everywhere, except for in the reporting of the mainstream media.

For a moment, it seemed a bad time to leave these lands, given that infrastructure politics had become my political obsession and research focus. But that feeling faded fast after landing in London on October 24, as I was quickly reminded that infrastructure is not a provincial matter, but a planetary one.

That same day, two stories dominated the British media but were only occasionally read together — the clearing of the camps at Calais, which I would see no sign of from the window of a fast-moving train a few days later — and the proposed expansion of a third runway at Heathrow airport where I had just landed. At Calais, the French government forcibly displaced the informal settlement of asylum seekers established in the northern border town. An estimated 10,000 people had temporarily settled there in recent years, quite literally in the shadows of a 4-meter high “security wall” protecting the rail corridor, planned by the French and paid for by the UK government. Known by the profoundly racist moniker “the Jungle,” the vast majority of residents were black and brown men from North Africa, Syria, and Afghanistan looking for passage to the UK to find family, employment and better living conditions. It was just across the water these migrants sought to traverse, and just inches away from the headlines about the Calais clearance in British newspapers that same day, that debates raged about the construction of a third runway at Heathrow airport. The media coverage largely parroted the claim of the expansion’s proponents — perhaps with added zeal in a post-Brexit context — that the airport was the UK’s “gateway to the world.”

The simultaneous and adjacent unfolding of events at these two border sites — of efforts to contain, immobilize and exclude at Calais, and of efforts to open, connect, and entangle at Heathrow — together highlight the profoundly selective and deeply racial politics of mobility that produce movement for some through containment of others. British geographer Doreen Massey famously termed this kind of unevenness the “power geometries” of globalization, emphasizing how the experience of mobility, connectivity, and place vary radically and in diagnostic ways, depending on who and where you are. Calais highlights a specifically carceral politics of the present; the underside of a globalization anchored in movement, connection, and mobility; seemingly on display at Heathrow. But beyond this important and well-worn geography lesson, the coupling of controversies puts a spotlight on the infrastructures that organize these power geometries. These paired events and the crisis they together announce are not only about the chaos created by uneven global development and the resulting spatial mismatch for daily survival that pushes so many into exile. It is not only about the kinds of transnational circulations the UK will welcome — business travelers and tourists, versus the gates that greet asylum seekers, especially black and brown ones. This is a profoundly material crisis anchored in infrastructure. Together, Calais and Heathrow remind us that today’s gateways apparently require very large and complex gates — that relations of power and of force rely on socio-technical systems, that are themselves increasingly the object of struggle.

A Crisis of Infrastructure

Infrastructure connects a range of political conflicts which might otherwise seem disparate and discrete: crises surrounding the rights of refugees and the provision of asylum in a world of thickening borders; crises of indigenous peoples’ lands and sovereignty in the face of transnational extractive industries; crises regarding local livelihoods in an economy organized through speed and flexibility in trade across vast distances; crises of water infrastructure in Black and Indigenous communities; crises of police and carceral violence that breed profound distrust in the core institutions of the state for communities of color. At the center of these struggles are the systems engineered to order social and natural worlds. Struggles over infrastructure are hardly new, but they are perhaps more ubiquitous, as the world becomes increasingly financialized, securitized, and logistical.

Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural. When they work, infrastructures bring us food, water, power, resources, consumer goods, information, security, and connections to loved ones. But the infrastructures that distribute the necessities of life are themselves unevenly distributed, and they can inhibit as well as enable connection. The story of infrastructure is also one of disconnection, containment, and dispossession. In popular discourse, expressions like “the other side of the tracks” or “the back of the bus” hint at how infrastructure organizes inequity alongside vitality. Infrastructure may entrench injustice in systems that seem technical rather than political, instead of technopolitical, and thus can serve to naturalize those relations. And infrastructure does not simply reflect existing inequality, but may engineer and entrench new forms.

The injustice of infrastructure is not only about lack — for instance when clean water infrastructures do not reach northern indigenous communities on the James Bay or urban Black communities on the Great Lakes, or when public transit infrastructures do not reach racialized neighborhoods which are increasingly pushed to the fringes of gentrifying cities. Sometimes there is too much infrastructure: the security and carceral infrastructures that produce the over policing of Black and Indigenous people, or the highway infrastructures that urban renewal drove through Black communities that led James Baldwin to deem them infrastructures of “negro removal.” This capacity to both contain and connect is a persistent feature of infrastructure. Whether we look to the enormous “global architectures” of the Panama and Suez canals, or the seemingly local development of a small hydro damn, we see again and again that infrastructure projects bring resources, spaces, or relations within reach of some, often by restricting them from others.

The eruptions we see around particular infrastructures today, and the surge of social movement building over the last few years all point towards histories of infrastructural violence and inequality that are not only long but ongoing. Infrastructures reach across time, building uneven relations of the past into the future, cementing their persistence. In colonial and settler colonial contexts, infrastructure is often the means of dispossession, and the material force that implants colonial economies and socialities. Infrastructures thus highlight the issue of competing and overlapping jurisdiction — matters of both time and space.

For the last two centuries, political life in western liberal states has been defined by a national geography that assumes exclusive state jurisdiction, even in the face of Canadian court rulings that insist, for example, on the persistence of indigenous title. And while infrastructure underpins the historical formation of territorial states, it also crisscross and transgresses them, offering a very different cartography political life. Infrastructure reaches across space linking us from one device, household, or community to another, and it does so in configurations that are contingent on its spatial and social forms. A geography of networks and nodes constitutes contemporary infrastructures of trade circulation, but so too energy grids, pipelines, and communications cables. Network architectures take form at scales above and below the nation state and traverse borders — municipal, provincial, and national. Infrastructure is also bundled in concentrated form constituting urban areas. Contemporary cities can in fact be understood as nodes in transnational networks of critical infrastructure. Infrastructure is not simply proximate to urban centers; it is literally constitutive of the city.

Today, infrastructure crises often challenge the national monopoly on questions of citizenship, status and jurisdiction. They ask that we consider the ways in which infrastructures rather than nation states hold people together in a context of overlapping jurisdiction, transnational circulation, and rapid urbanization. Political identity and the legal architectures of formal citizenship remain tied to national territory, yet the challenges that surround us are diagnostic of a different form of connective tissue that literally, materially, holds people together today.

Investing in Infrastructure

There is widespread agreement across the vast gulfs of political life that infrastructure needs to be fixed. Everything that moves relies on it; whether that be crude oil, consumer goods, food, medical supplies, humanitarian aid, online intimacies, military personnel, or daily commuters. In our logistical era of Just-in-Time global circulation, where speed is value and distance extended, infrastructure has become critical, as Shiri Pasternak and Tia Dafnos argue in a forthcoming article for Society and Space. Global finance is increasingly invested in large scale infrastructure projects, with port terminals, highways, prisons, and energy infrastructures purchased by public and private investment funds. Public stimulus plans build infrastructure in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. Extractive industries and entrepreneurial states seem to agree that their joint interests and respective fates are contingent on infrastructure. Without infrastructure, life as we know it stops.

This threat to everyday life as we know it prompts massive concern with infrastructure at every scale, bolstered by the interests of private equity firms, as infrastructure has become their preferred means to spatially fix their capital. Municipalities look to enhance infrastructure to facilitate gentrification, ease congestion and tame fossil fuel emissions. Provinces and states rush to renew roadways and bridges. National governments look to infrastructure to fix all that ails them — building walls and bridges that are privatized and financialized. The World Bank has embraced infrastructural integrity as the best proxy for competitiveness among national economies in a world of transnational trade. China has not only invested dramatically in infrastructure projects all over the world, but has spurred the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Bank to rival the World Bank. Canada has followed suit with its own national infrastructure bank, actively raising private capital towards the sale of major public infrastructure assets, like airports.

This massive rollout of new state and corporate infrastructure threatens to harden a future of colonial governance, fossil fuels, and finance capital. Indeed, this is why so much contemporary political revolt is oriented towards the infrastructural. And while the conflicts I’ve briefly highlighted are all contemporary, they are not necessarily new. The United Kingdom today tries to navigate its vexed relations with the world through elaborate infrastructures of containment and flow, yet infrastructure is also a means through which the old empire manages struggles over the future of its colonial past. In response to the Jamaican government’s recent calls for reparations for the ongoing economic legacies of the slave trade, Prime Minister Cameron instead offered infrastructure. Cameron specifically committed to building a $25 million prison in Jamaica where the UK would “repatriate” incarcerated people from the region currently caged in the UK. He also committed £300m of UK “aid money” to build roads, ports and other large infrastructure through a Caribbean-wide fund, which he mentioned would “create opportunities for British business.” Germany has promised a similar infrastructure fix with Namibia, one that reinstates colonial relations as it purports to heal them.

In Canada, it is through infrastructure that Prime Minister Trudeau declares allegiance to extractive industries over decolonization processes, as the recent decisions to allow the Kinder Morgan and Line 3 pipeline projects to proceed might suggest. Trudeau campaigned on an infrastructure platform, highlighting its capacity to heal the country’s economic and ecological malaise. He is expanding investment in the hundreds of billions of dollars initiated under the previous regimes. These dollars, promised to “shovel ready” projects, assume that the problems of infrastructure are merely technical in nature. Yet, it is not just the cement that needs smoothing, the pipes that need extending, or the wires that need replacement. Infrastructure is wrapped up in the making and unmaking of in/justice as the crises and struggles above suggest. When Ontario’s Finance Minister, Charles Sousa, recently boasted that the scale of the Province’s infrastructure investment is, “the largest in Canada since the last spike was driven, completing the Canadian Pacific Railroad,” he unintentionally also hailed the injustice of infrastructure. The Canadian Pacific Railroad is known as a national achievement that materially and symbolically built and connected the vast landscape that gets called Canada today, but it was also deeply implicated in both the dispossession of indigenous peoples, the unfree labor of indentured Chinese workers, and the racist exploitation of black rail car porters.

Fugitive Infrastructures

And yet, not all railroads are built alike. Infrastructure is not only a vehicle of domination and violence. It is also a means of transformation. Alternative worlds require alternative infrastructures, systems that allow for sustenance and reproduction. In fact, sustained efforts at change have produced its most creative forms. Perhaps the greatest railroad ever built was the Underground Railroad. Built not from railway ties and locomotives but rather comprising a system of safe houses, passageways, and courageous people, this infrastructure made escape from bondage imaginable for fugitive enslaved people. Unlikely, insurgent, and illegal, the Underground Railroad is a breathtaking reminder of the power of oppressed peoples to build infrastructures that work to make another world possible. Recognizing this dynamic, Colson Whitehead’s recent bestselling novel The Underground Railroad turns the metaphoric railroad into a literal one. Here, a subterranean train, a kind of fugitive infrastructure built by and for enslaved people, takes passengers across internal and external borders to freedom and draws a contemporary eye to this critical infrastructural past.

Shifting from the historical dominance of the railroad to the pipelines at the center of so much conflict today, and from literary engagements to the poetics of community development, might land us back on the ground at Standing Rock in the Dakotas. Here again we would see extraordinary creativity and insight for reassembling infrastructures of a citizenship to come. Since the summer of 2016, camps formed to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would traverse key waterways that provide millions with drinking water, and through sacred Indigenous sites and territories. Over 200 Indigenous Nations from across the Americas and beyond gather in dialogue and collaboration. Groups like Black Lives Matter have been on site for weeks, invited to join in solidarity. Thousands participated in the construction of alternative infrastructures for provisioning and sustaining the small cities that were quickly erected, highlighting that the standoff at Standing Rock is not simply about efforts to interrupt the DAPL, but to assemble alternative futures.

Winona LaDuke has been particularly articulate in framing the struggle at Standing Rock as a matter of infrastructure. She inspires old and new movements in distinguishing between the corporate forms of infrastructure that poison and dispossess, while also demanding investment in community infrastructure to build ecologically sustainable and decolonized futures. LaDuke is one among many bold voices connecting racial and colonial infrastructures across social and spatial location, while also understanding their distinct and entangled histories. Beyond the exchange and ceremony taking place between Indigenous nations, organizers and protectors at Standing Rock have emphasized wide solidarity and coalition. Along with Black organizers, they have frequently drawn direct connections to the crisis in Flint, for instance, as they deepen networks dedicated to the protection of accessible and clean water. LaDuke explains,

…the United States has a D in infrastructure. That’s why bridges collapse. That’s why Flint, Michigan, has a problem. That’s why everything is eroding in this country. And what we need is those skilled laborers to be put to work, pipelines for people. I’m saying take those pipes that are sitting there in northern Minnesota, and send them to Flint, Michigan. They need billions of dollars’ worth of pipe infrastructure out there. We don’t need any pipes in northern Minnesota. I say that most of our Indian reservations don’t have adequate infrastructure. We’d like a little help with our water and sewer systems there. I am all for organized labor, but what I want is I want pipelines, I want infrastructure, for people, not for fossil fuels, not for oil companies.

Repairing Infrastructure?

As we simultaneously run from the disasters of the year past and shudder at the ominous arrival of the new one, we would do well to turn our attention to infrastructure. Infrastructure is by definition future oriented; it is assembled in the service of worlds to come. Infrastructure demands a focus on what underpins and enables formations of power and the material organization of everyday life. Visions, ideas, and analyses are important, but the future must be built, and “concretized” in ways that sustain sociality. A focus on infrastructure insists that we ask how power works, in its most mundane and practical ways. And such a focus heeds the insights of feminist thought on the centrality of social reproduction and its gendered and racialized labors to the reproduction or transformation of the social order.

What might it mean to ground citizenship in the material architectures and social relations of alternative infrastructure, instead of the gate/ways of corporations and nation states? Could repairing infrastructure be a means of repairing political life more broadly? Lauren Berlant has recently argued that “the repair or replacement of broken infrastructure is… necessary for any form of sociality to extend itself,” but she is interested, “in how that extension can be non-reproductive, generating a form from within brokenness beyond the exigencies of the current crisis, and alternatively to it too.” Infrastructure is necessary but the violence it enacts is not. Infrastructure enables all manner of things, and it can foster transformation as well as reproduction. In contrast to top-down infrastructure - communities, movements, networks and nations assemble creative alternatives that respond to needs and desires for a different future as they help bring them into being.

Indeed, as I write this reflection, more than 450 US churches are responding to Trump’s promised expansion of border infrastructure by declaring that they will act as “Trump-era underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants. In doing so they embrace some of the most striking features of prior fugitive infrastructures; they are assembled to do different things, for different people, and according to different systems of value. In doing all this, they offer a different orientation to space, time and legality. ‘Transnational infrastructure’ may sound like the domain of big oil or big states, yet alternative infrastructures often embrace relations and material forms that do not fit a national territorial mold; their form may be networked, urban, or digital. The Underground Railroad had a transnational life that reached into Canada, demonstrating how infrastructures can craft geographies of political life that transgress national borders. Likewise, the nascent infrastructures of the Dakotas protection camps are organized across indigenous lands that themselves underlie national borders, both geographically and historically. What is colonial power if not the forced imposition of a particular map of the world onto peoples and places that live by another? Decolonization thus demands the redrawing of the maps of everyday political life.

The spatial challenge of alternative infrastructures are also invariably legal ones. Assembling alternative futures often requires directly challenging existing legal infrastructures. When Heraclitus insists that, “the people must fight for the law as for the city wall,” he encourages a consideration of their deep entanglement. The very act of organizing autonomous infrastructure is itself profoundly criminalized as the local and recent histories of the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and the Young Lords shows. It was not simply acts of insurrection but the assembly of autonomous systems of social reproduction that made these movements so threatening to the status quo. We would do well to turn to Lauren Benton’s extraordinary work on the early imperial laws of the sea, and how the making of the legal infrastructures of jurisdiction and sovereignty were at once the making of the figure of the pirate. As so many legal scholars and legal geographers have helped us to see, the law does not regulate an already-constituted social order, but acts as infrastructure to help bring it into being. When bondage is legal, justice requires trespass.

And finally, alternative infrastructures orient us to a different operation of time. Bruce Robbins insists that “Infrastructure needs to be made visible, of course, in order to see how our present landscape is the product of past projects, past struggles, past corruption… But we also need to make infrastructure visible as a guide to the struggles of the present.” Infrastructures endure and bind us to one another’s pasts, presents and futures. Infrastructures implicate us in collective life and death. The promise of repair — of fixing infrastructures — is precisely in recognizing the concrete reproduction of historical violence in the everyday. It lies in seeing the persistence of (settler) colonial and racial capitalist systems of sustaining and ordering the social in our present — in roads, or pipelines, or policing systems — and of seeing the operation of power not just in social interactions or economic relations, but in the particular material ordering that infrastructure brings. Most importantly, repairing infrastructure demands investment in its fugitive forms. It demands that we look not only to the violence but to the alternative worlds that are always already in the making, and that offer us glimpses at infrastructures for an inspiring future, and cues for how to begin building.

Deborah Cowen
is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada and The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade