This issue explores the historical production of infrastructures as places of resistance and world-building for workers, villagers, and migrants across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—a period when narratives about the role of infrastructure as a conduit for modernization, development, and the centralizing capacities of the state had broad purchase. Contributions invite consideration of two questions. First, what struggles do histories of infrastructural power reveal if infrastructures are delinked from master narratives tying them to state and state-backed centralization? While development, nation building, and extraction are often state-sponsored or state-backed projects, the articles here demonstrate that modern states are not the only wielders of infrastructural power. Second, how does this decentering of the state in infrastructural analyses transform the stakes of radical political activity and the work of radical historical actors? In highlighting a different, more localized scale of infrastructural production and relation building—both within and beyond the bounds of the nation-state—contributors to this issue resituate ostensibly disparate, small sites as key to larger political struggles and frame everyday forms of “getting by” as resistance.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 made it almost impossible for people to ignore the life-or-death role infrastructures play as arteries of community survival and as the material conduits organizing the abandonment of certain peoples and places. Some people wrestled with the highly localized labor shortages that disrupted the speed of an economy built on fragile, spatially expansive just-in-time supply chains. Others, now working from home, realized that they relied on so-called essential workers for survival. Those laboring away in the food processing and agriculture, warehousing and delivery, emergency and health care sectors, whose own precarity was framed as a necessary precondition for the maintenance of the status quo, were themselves vulnerable to reduced access to health care, higher rates of illness, and premature death. Still others endured bodily vulnerability and exposure while incarcerated, seemingly isolated inside carceral institutions but intimately connected to infrastructural circuits of abandonment that were simultaneously tearing through communities outside prisons.
As these crises unfurled, many saw their position within these different infrastructural spaces as a chance to reorganize their workplaces, build networks of community care, and make local demands about the provision of safety and security that resonated across space. Where populations of the elderly and immunocompromised lacked safe access to food or prescription medication, mutual aid networks emerged to extend these supply chains. In seeking to dismantle the excessive presence of police and prisons in their communities, abolitionists sought to build alternative pathways to harm reduction. In neighborhoods where racialized essential workers were extremely vulnerable to state infrastructures of expulsion and deportation, activists organized communications networks to preemptively announce the arrival of militarized immigration agents. These, too, are infrastructural projects.1
What these intersecting valences of the COVID-19 pandemic make plain is that infrastructures—as historically produced material and social systems of connectivity and relationality—establish lived relations of struggle that are embedded in particular places while circulating power across multiple, disparate scales. Further, many of the challenges exposed by the pandemic were themselves manifestations of previously constructed systems of connection and disconnection, integration and abandonment that distributed commodities and power unevenly. In these myriad junctions, imbrications, and circulatory arteries of infrastructural history, people sought to bring about a more survivable future.
A key challenge for these organizers was not to simply reject the power of the state but to frame alternatives in varying degrees of relation to state infrastructural power. Struggles to construct these new systems did not necessarily manifest through blockade, sabotage, or rejection, but also through organizing practices aimed at transforming the harms of dispossession and place-based capitalist abandonment into liberatory political movements. To paraphrase the abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, these modes of organizing against the deprivations caused by global flows produce local materialities; they constitute a presence, not merely a rejection or a response to an absence.2 Similarly, for Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen, survival and flourishing in these places—many of which have been intentionally isolated, disconnected, stolen, and poisoned by the settler colonial state—becomes a matter of imagining and building an “infrastructure otherwise.”3
As the contributions to this issue of Radical History Review demonstrate, presence-making infrastructural practices like those above—all of which emerged in some kind of specific, place-based relationship to the state—are useful lenses through which to trace a longer history that takes shape across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Our focus here is on exploring the historical production of infrastructures as places of resistance and world-building—for workers, for villagers, for migrants—across a century in which narratives about the role of infrastructure as a conduit for modernization, development, and the centralizing capacities of the state had broad purchase.
Given the intricate position infrastructures hold in framing and reproducing “how we live,” states and communities alike continuously maintain, repair, and organize for the control of these systems.4 Whether delivering violence or sanctuary, food shortages or community well-being, these incongruous outcomes play out through infrastructures and people’s group-differentiated relationships to them. Infrastructure, in other words, channels us straight to the heart of political struggle across multiple scales of human action. By framing this issue around these political lives of infrastructure, we argue that it is imperative to understand infrastructure by focusing on the people whose organizing for survival coalesces around and against it, and by mapping the worlds that their endeavors call into being.
Approaching the history of infrastructure through this lens provokes two related questions about the political lives of infrastructure that each of the articles in this issue takes up in its own way. First, what stories can be told about the history of infrastructural power if it is delinked from master narratives tying it solely to state and state-backed centralization? While these essays clearly show that development, nation building, and extraction are all state-sponsored or state-backed projects, they also demonstrate that modern states were not the only wielders of infrastructural power in the twentieth century. Instead, in decentering the state as the only, or the most important, infrastructural actor, these articles also necessarily decenter the nation-state as a “natural” geographic scale of political analysis.5 A second question extends from the first: How does this decentering of the state in infrastructural analyses in turn transform the stakes of radical political activity and the work of radical historical actors? Telling the history of large-scale infrastructures through more localized world-building practices opens up a different scale of political analysis, one that works both within and beyond the nation-state scale to position ostensibly disparate, small sites as central to larger politics and everyday strategies of “making do” and “getting by” as resistance.
Thus the articles in this issue offer a different proposition about infrastructural power, one that pushes back against the grand unifying themes that, across the twentieth century, have animated stories about state building, modernization, and development through infrastructure—dams, highways, radio networks, and flood-management systems, among many examples. To be sure, twentieth-century state projects to extract resources, labor, and capital and channel them in particular directions—away from certain sites and into others—were no less extractive than those of the transatlantic slave trade, or the centuries of formal European colonialism across the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific (during which imperial state actors were often quite explicit about their aims to make matter move in the service of capital accumulation).6 What did change in the twentieth century was the packaging. After the global wave of formal decolonization from the 1950s through the 1970s, state powers deployed a specific set of narratives justifying their ongoing redistribution of the potentialities of political lives, which is to say, the potential for life itself.
Throughout the twentieth century, states valued infrastructure-building projects for their potential to modernize rural peoples and integrate distant places into the regimes of accumulation preferred by the state (both capitalist and socialist). Under such conditions, large-scale state infrastructure projects offered a technocratic valence through which former colonial powers could depoliticize their ongoing regimes of dispossession and accumulation. This strategic depoliticization of infrastructure echoed states’ similarly neutralized narratives about the role of development, modernization, growth, and progress. For states, that is, infrastructure was both a method and a means to obscure the ongoing work of empire, making it appear smooth, seamless, and even inevitable, rather than prone to political as well as logistical frictions. Instead of focusing narrowly on whether infrastructures delivered on these promises, or whether populations resisted state centralizations, the articles in this issue rescale the question of political struggle in infrastructural spaces. If all infrastructures aim to bring certain worlds or realities into being, what other types of worlds, publics, and political struggles emerge in the shadows of these state projects?
Given this capacity of infrastructure to facilitate multiple scales of politically transformative organizing, the articles are split into two groups, each exploring struggle and survival through different entry points. The first, “Political Lives in the Shadow of Infrastructure,” highlights the tumult of lived human experiences as they intersect with and endure through (and beyond) the construction and provisioning of infrastructural projects. The second section, “The Sinews of Infrastructural Power,” draws attention to the political work done by way of circulation and (forced) movement along infrastructural corridors themselves. Serving as a pivot between these two groupings is an image essay by the documentary filmmaker Solveig Qu Suess that accentuates the unresolved tensions between intimate family moments in a much larger technopolitical endeavor of optical engineering and state surveillance. The issue is bookended by two wide-ranging roundtable discussions. The first, a conversation between Deborah Cowen and Laleh Khalili, deftly navigates the ongoing frictional politics of the contemporary moment. The issue ends with a nod toward the future. In their conversation, Bench Ansfield, Rachel Herzing, and Dean Spade consider what it means—and what it might look like in practice—to build infrastructures premised on the belief that everyone deserves care and no one is disposable.
The authors attend to political lives of infrastructure that emerged during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries across North America, the Pacific Islands, and East and Southeast Asia. In doing so, they turn to infrastructure as both method and material for thinking relationally across the diverse constellation of spaces and places that have historically served as key geographic reference or anchor points for what the historian Simeon Man describes as the “wider Pacific world.” By exposing the densely layered colonial histories in geographic meeting-up places like Hawai‘i, Guåhan, peripheral Shanghai, suburban Beijing, northern British Columbia, and rural Louisiana, these contributions promise to open up new spaces for dialogue among geographers, historians, and American studies and Asian (diaspora) studies scholars on the “global-imperial circuits” that have historically linked various sites of empire building and (settler) colonialism across the modern world. These conversations are inclusive of the inherently place-based movements for demilitarization and decolonization that have always resisted, slowed, and sometimes even reversed the rollout of these broader projects over space and scale.7
From a certain perspective, Robin McDowell’s careful engagement with the histories of Black struggle for environmental justice and dignity in the heart of Louisiana’s Cancer Alley seems like a bit of a geographic outlier. But McDowell insists that the struggles over and through infrastructure that animate St. Charles Parish in the present moment of crisis and emergency are also necessarily stories of how local communities continue to experience long-standing genealogies of racial violence, unfree labor, organized abandonment, and racialized refuge as an inheritance of prior plantation capitalism(s). These infrastructures of race war and counterinsurgency were never strictly domestic in their scope and reach. It is by now well known how plantation owners in Louisiana and across the US South turned to indentured Asian labor as a replacement for Black slaves and, by extension, a potential solution to the thorny problem of maintaining local economies in the immediate post-emancipation period.8
Louisiana’s infrastructural connections to the wider Pacific world would remain significant throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Mona Domosh, for example, emphasizes how infrastructures of technical assistance, rural uplift, and household management—infrastructures that played a central role in the US’s Cold War on the forces of communism and decolonization in Asia—were first developed and stress-tested on southern Black communities in the early twentieth century.9 Ann Ngoc Tran describes these infrastructures forcefully in her essay on the imperial and insurgent traffic in soap during the Vietnam War. Moreover, the displacements and dislocations set in motion by the Vietnam War also went on to shape the domestic geographies of everyday life in Louisiana, as exemplified by how New Orleans’s eastern neighborhoods became a significant site of Vietnamese refugee resettlement from 1975 onward. As resettled Vietnamese refugees picked up the pieces of their shattered lives in largely Black neighborhoods like Versailles, they were forced to engage in a fraught and complex politics of relations with their new neighbors. These relation-making processes served, however uneasily, as the concrete scaffolding on which the two racialized and marginalized communities built interracial infrastructures of mutual aid and solidarity in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.10 It is precisely this refugee community that now finds itself in the crosshairs of the recently reinvigorated deportation regime that Jason Tuấn Vũ tracks in his essay on transpacific infrastructures of settler carcerality. All of this is not to suggest that the struggles and encounters mapped out by McDowell, Vũ, and Tran are somehow commensurable or directly related. Rather, we believe that the issue’s more nuanced contribution is to open intellectual and political spaces where Louisiana, South Vietnam, Guåhan, and Hawai‘i might be held together in the same frame of analysis. That is to say, what this issue offers is an opportunity to consider how seemingly localized insurgencies against “domestic” infrastructures of race war, racial management, and place annihilation might also help us better understand the everyday violence work of counterinsurgency and settler militarism in “foreign” sites such as South Vietnam and the Pacific Islands.11
When read together, these articles emphasize the historical role of infrastructures in enabling the global circulation of capital and commodities through the entrenchment of racial capitalism and the extraction of labor from racialized and marginalized communities. In her work, Katherine McKittrick insists that the slave plantation and its “attendant geographies,” including “the auction block, the big house, the fields and crops, the slave quarters, the transportation ways leading to and from the plantation, and so on,” have historically doubled as the geographic centrifuge that organized “various practices of spatialized violence that targeted black bodies and profited from erasing a black sense of place.”12 It follows, then, that public works infrastructures like the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which were built in Southern landscapes so thoroughly transformed by racialized modes of place annihilation, carry forward these legacies of bodily capture and unfree (Black) or indentured (Asian) labor, as McDowell emphasizes with such devastating clarity.
Similarly, as Desiree Valadares documents in her essay, the labor camp figured centrally as a strategy of racial management during World War II, when the Canadian government interned Japanese men and forced them to work on various nation-building projects, constructing visions of white settler mobility and modernity as they built highways through Indigenous lands in British Columbia. Under such conditions of wartime settler militarism, it was precisely the labor capacity of racialized and marginalized bodies that gave meaning to infrastructures of race war and national security, yet also perversely laid the groundwork for a postwar turn to futures of racial liberalism and multicultural inclusion. In this sense, both Valadares and Yuan Gao—in his essay on the aesthetic histories of mass participation in socialist China’s spectacular hydro-engineering schemes—help us understand how backbreaking physical labor itself has historically been mobilized as an infrastructure for consolidating and developing a national consciousness.
Given the extent to which histories of labor are also histories of displacement, capture, and mobility, this issue foregrounds the long-standing centrality of infrastructure to the geographic management of circulations, both within and across borderlands.13 Vũ’s contribution is the most explicit in this regard, tracking how Hawai‘i and Guåhan came to serve as “vital junction points” in broader transpacific infrastructures of (re)settlement, Indigenous dispossession, military transit, and refugee deportation, thereby ensuring the “rise and maintenance of the US’s ‘imperial archipelago’ in the Pacific.” In so doing, Vũ develops a framework of “settler carcerality” to explain how US imperialism across the decolonizing Pacific has historically used a combination of discipline and enclosure to enable the mobility of certain privileged groups, while restricting or controlling the movement of others.
Infrastructures of circulation of a different sort feature centrally in Yingchuan Yang’s essay on how the Chinese Communist Party developed radio networks into an “infrastructure of the masses” in and around rural Shanghai. By “attending to the everyday, technical aspects of one of the most ambitious—yet at the same time one of the most neglected—infrastructure projects in modern Chinese history,” Yang considers the political lives of infrastructural development under state socialism. In his telling, the radio network built across midcentury rural China served as a “tool of inclusion” for the socialist state while also transforming life in the countryside in ways that “frustrated a completely top-down intervention” and “could become downright antirevolutionary.” Much like Gao, Yang shows how socialist infrastructures were explicitly political from the outset, designed to discipline local communities while simultaneously interpellating them as members of a broader socialist nation.
Yang’s comments on the affective dimensions and consequences of infrastructural development also draw our attention to the ways in which such projects invariably become wrapped up in the state management of intimacy, intimate relations, and (self-)care. Ann Ngoc Tran shows how US imperial state actors used the Vietnam War as a way to project their own visions of modernity—this time, as hygiene—through their violent management of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian bodies and their traditional practices of cleanliness and self-care. During the war, US counterinsurgents and civic action cadres distributed free cakes of soap and other cleaning products to rural households, whose living conditions and personal hygiene practices were largely understood as slovenly and thus an impediment to future modernity and development. Through a deft reading of diverse archival sources, Tran tracks how rural communities “ruptured” these supposedly humanitarian practices of imperial gift giving with “acts of refusal and indifference,” selling the cakes of soap on local black markets as a way of making ends meet.
Tran’s focus on the everyday geographies of relation making and survival are picked up and carried forward by Suess’s contribution to the “Curated Spaces” section of this special issue. In her visual essay, she narrates the process of piecing together a documentary about her mother’s experiences working as an optical engineer for the Chinese government in the 1980s. As Suess demonstrates, her mother’s story is not only a story of memory and (state-sponsored) forgetting, but also one of diasporic intimacy and transnational displacement. The power of Suess’s engagement with family photography lies in her ability to show how even the most high-level state-based infrastructure projects—“the production of [optical] instruments for seeing at a distance and at night”—were necessarily experienced and lived at the scale of the intimate and the everyday. That is to say, she helps us recover how infrastructures of intimacy, care, and relation work have served as “the bedrock upon which empire rests and through which it reproduces itself.”14 It is precisely this infrastructural through line that connects Suess’s essay to those by Tran, McDowell, Yang, and the rest of the contributors to this issue.
If infrastructures of intimacy, care, and relation work remain essential to securing the expanded reproduction of imperial, racial, capitalist, and settler colonial regimes of power and violence, this issue also emphasizes their enduring importance to the everyday work of building new or alternative forms of solidarity, collective well-being, and liberatory social transformation. As McDowell, Ansfield, Spade, Cowen, and Khalili all emphasize to varying degrees, organizing at its core involves constant relation work. It is, after all, relation work that undergirds or buttresses the various logistical aspects of organizing, community engagement, activism, and mutual aid: namely, the geographic management of who does what where, as well as the various flows of goods, funds, and other donations that are necessary to sustain and support the broader movement. The communities of descendants that are the protagonists of McDowell’s essay, for instance, are sustained and invigorated in their fight to commemorate “the lives of Black people who worked the land beneath the [Bonnet Carré] spillway” by their affective investment and commitment to reclaiming and reasserting a particularly Black sense of place that has, over time, been constantly threatened by displacement and organized abandonment. “Like material infrastructure,” McDowell writes, “the relationships formed through community organizing and storytelling and the kinship bonds between descendants and the larger communities to which they belong require maintenance.”
These ideas are further developed by Spade and Herzing in their conversation with Ansfield, particularly when their attention shifts to the practical question of what “certain kinds of things we need to develop or build up in order for that practice—the practice of transformative justice or community accountability—to have the desired effect that we want it to have.” While infrastructure, as Ansfield reminds the reader, is not a concept or framework that is typically used to explain and inform the everyday work of decolonization, abolition, and other forms of radical organizing, it nonetheless offers a generative way of thinking relationally, of doing “bridge work,” across the “multiplicity of localized practices for addressing and preventing harm” so that they may be held together in the same frame of political analysis and praxis.15 From this perspective, abolition becomes organized around and oriented to what Cowen refers to as the “collectively constructed systems that build and sustain human life.”16 In other words, abolition becomes infrastructural.
Each of the articles that make up this issue asks us, in its own way, to rethink the horizons and contours of radical politics under our current and ongoing conditions of crisis and emergency. All too often, the work of radical politics is narrowly understood—at least by mainstream publics—as limited to the work of dismantling carceral, imperial, capitalist, patriarchal, and settler colonial infrastructures. Radical work can, of course, take that form, often productively. But, again, the roundtables that bookend this issue remind us that radical movements like abolition or decolonization are about presence, not absence.17 This radical politics of presence, in turn, must necessarily prioritize the hard, tedious, and occasionally joyful work of building what Cowen and her collaborators have collectively named “infrastructure otherwise.”18
What the contributions to this special issue also clarify, moreover, is that such an infrastructural politics of radical presence has a long genealogy that continues to shape activism and organizing in the present. Whether we turn to the public history activism undertaken by descendant communities in St. Charles Parish, or the infrastructures of mutual aid and collective care that are both the prerequisite and the horizon of the broader abolition movement, marginalized folks are already building the systems they need to survive and move beyond broader geographic configurations of power, rule, and violence.
These political conversations, we argue, necessarily have intellectual implications for radical historians, as well as for their colleagues and comrades in cognate disciplines. What the contributions to this special issue teach us is the necessity of a theory of infrastructure that attends to the fundamentally spatial dimensions of struggle, organizing, and survival pending revolution. The “catastrophe of racial capitalism on a world scale,” Gilmore helpfully reminds us, demands that we constantly think, act, and organize across geographic scales. All liberation struggles, she argues, are by necessity “specific to the needs and the struggles of people where they are.” These struggles are, at their core, projects of radical place-making. Freedom, under such conditions, becomes a place that people produce through the everyday work of “building things, cleaning things, fixing things, teaching people, driving buses, whatever they do.”19
And yet, if freedom is a place, it is one that necessarily transcends easy or narrow conceptualizations of borders and boundaries. As Gilmore has learned during her decades-long career as an abolitionist anti-prison organizer, social movements also require an “approach to solving problems that, however particularly local they are, have an international dimension, because it is an international problem.”20 What the humdrum realities of abolitionist organizing have clarified for Gilmore, in other words, is the fundamental importance of building (transnational) relations across highly localized sites of place-based struggle that might otherwise seem disparate and disconnected.
What the contributors to this issue all ultimately share is an investment in and commitment to using infrastructure as a framework for carrying forward this intellectual and political project. They are asking us how we, too, might contribute to the everyday work of building infrastructures otherwise.
In drawing attention to the distinctions between solidarity work like mutual aid and the idea of charity, Dean Spade makes an explicit case that “we should be working toward locally controlled, participatory, transparent structures to replace our crumbling and harmful infrastructure. Doing so,” Spade argues, “helps us imagine getting rid of the undemocratic infrastructure of our lives—the extractive and unjust energy, food, health care, and transportation systems—and replacing it with people’s infrastructure” (Mutual Aid, 20). From South Brooklyn Mutual Aid in that borough’s diverse Sunset Park, Borough Park, and Bay Ridge neighborhoods to COVID-19 response networks in Hong Kong, many networks that crystallized across the globe during the pandemic were built on long-standing relationships and networks grounded in place.
Cowen and LaDuke argue that the physical infrastructures that crystallize around things like “the economy” are inseparable from the intimate encounters that frame “how we live” (“Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure,” 262). Elsewhere, the historian of infrastructure Brian Larkin has helpfully referred to infrastructure as the material, social, and cultural systems “that create the grounds on which other” forms of power function (“Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” 329). Though quite different, both approaches to infrastructures see them as social and material.
This reorientation away from the (settler colonial) state is informed by decolonial approaches that similarly pivot away from Eurocentric epistemologies and ontologies toward Indigenous ways of knowing and modes of world-building. See, e.g., Mignolo and Walsh, On Decoloniality; and Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism.”
See, e.g., Jung, Coolies and Cane.
These themes appear across Domosh’s recent body of work. See, e.g., Domosh, “Practicing Development at Home.”
On bridge work, also see Anand, Gupta, and Appel, Promise of Infrastructure, 14.