The Infrastructure Illusion: Historic Neglect and Crucial Confusion

The confusion is palpable as it is widely ignored. We have a new, slightly progressive administration headed by Joe Biden, the empathetic traditional former long-term senator. He knows how to “reach across the aisle” and make deals with Republicans. But wait, those senators were the Republicans of old, who were actually willing to make compromise deals to everyone’s benefit.

Today Republicans are “Rinos” in exactly the opposite meaning from that which the Trumpist white nationalists and neo-fascists call any Republican who deviates at all from Moscow Mitch’s program of NO! Mitch initiated that response to the cultural insult of the Democrats putting in office a Black President, and has continued the program of obstruction ever since.

Dilemmas of the Autocratic Impulse

But now, the obstructionist insurrection assistants who call themselves Republicans find themselves in a predicament. They know that a massive infrastructure bill will be a boom for all sorts of businesses, including the owners who traditionally support Republicans for their “hands off” policies toward business. Tax breaks and rollbacks of safety and pollution regulations have kept the corporate donations rolling in. But now, well, insurrection is not good for business.

Many Republican senators who would otherwise favor federal investment in infrastructure improvements that produce profits as well as jobs are expected by their Trumpified base to say no to anything the Democrats propose. Trump’s lackeys in Congress have created an extremely antisocial mob and they don’t quite know how to control it. They have lit a fire of resentment and hatred that now has a life of its own. Their skills are limited to pandering to and of course fomenting hate.

On the one hand, the racist fascist mob focuses much of its hate on the vulnerable targets of ridicule the Trumpists encourage them to vilify: immigrants and anyone who is not white—not “real Americans.” Yet, the underlying damage these misguided souls experience actually comes from the economic elites who so effectively have divided the nation between the rich and everyone else. The racist populists don’t like the billionaires and the corporations either, and they know that the corporations will profit immensely from a big infrastructure program.

What Kind of Infrastructure

Everyone knows that partisan fighting has prevented systematic infrastructure maintenance and replacement for decades. The nation’s bridges, highways, water systems, electricity grid, etc., suffer from long-term “deferred maintenance.” Yet, like every crisis, this one also presents an opportunity. In the context of the converging crises of climate and ecosystem destabilization and all the economic and societal disruption they portend, only carbon-neutral or carbon-emissions reducing infrastructure upgrades or replacements have moral or rational standing as desperately needed clean infrastructure.

At the same time, almost all existing “stakeholders” have vested interests in the construction methods and materials of the past. Innovations that revolutionize energy, transportation, utilities, and even communications infrastructure suffer for lack of incentives. The big question about President Biden’s 2 billion dollar plus infrastructure plan just now being released is not just whether or how he can get it passed without abolishing the filibuster. The deeper question is whether and to what extent it really rises to the ambitions of the Green New Deal, which was aspirational rather than operational when proposed to Congress. And jobs galore would emanate from a clean infrastructure buildout.

Transformation of Our Social Ecology is as Hard to Accomplish as Democracy is to Keep.

Innovation is a popular word among neoliberal (mainstream) economists and politicians alike. It usually means more investment in high tech, capital intense projects that require massive government subsidies and guaranteed profits for big corporations and financial elites. It’s the kind of techno-industrial “solution” to heating the planet that Bill Gates advocates. But that is precisely the wrong kind of infrastructure development we need.

The goal now, as we face growing threats with increasingly unstable economic, social, and planetary systems, must be to redesign infrastructure to meet the challenge of creating an ecologically sound society in which economic growth is no longer necessary to sustain existing economic structures because the society has moved beyond the waning industrial era.

That will take extraordinary intellectual insights and societal creativity, neither of which are consistent with the existing political economy. To transform society for human survival cannot be accomplished by treating the climate emergency and consequent destabilization of all the living Earth systems upon which we depend as “problems” for which we can find “solutions” within the culture of economic growth or its sibling ecological modernism.

I just read in the New York Times a summary of the items in President Biden’s infrastructure proposal. It contains quite a laundry list of projects and programs that in “normal” times might go a long way toward renewing the economy of the nation. That economy, of course, has long since succumbed to the puerile interests of the corporate wealth class. However, it does need massive regeneration (just like the life-drained soils of industrial agriculture).

In the present context that means two things. 1) making the economy a feature of society instead of the other way around. Currently and for a long time, American society and its population have been “useful idiots,” appendages to the global industrial-consumer economy of endless growth that is now about to end. The only solution going forward is to embed the economy within a framework of societal needs, not the demands of neoliberal economics. 2) a new economy must now also be constrained by the requirements that humanity live within the limits of the diverse ecosystems upon which we ultimately depend, in hopes that we can salvage what is left of the waning stability of the whole Earth System, and perhaps survive as well.

Joe Biden’s old fashioned political liberalism, in spite of his wealth of empathy for the victims of the political economy of which he has been a willing member for so many decades, will no longer work. I once said (or maybe more than once) that the Green New Deal is a nice aspirational framework for heading in the right direction. Joe Biden’s plan is too much an effort to refurbish a system that is fundamentally failing, despite the many specific beneficial elements it contains. It is way short on creativity. We need more and we need different too.


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