Infrastructure = freedom

The Broken Promise Of Infrastructure Lawrence Wishart

Don Flynn
on levelling up in theory and practice

The Broken Promise of Infrastructure – Dominic Davies published by Lawrence Wishart

The lament of “broken Britain” has been heard loud and clear over the years of the twenty first century and has been incorporated into the campaigning strategies of parties of the right, left and centre.  The Conservatives blame a selfish, south-east England-based metropolitan elite who have hoarded all the wealth to themselves.  Their malign influence can only be countered by a concerted effort to “level up”.

What does Labour believe? Apparently, the need for greater competence across all areas of government, guided by the iron-bound observance of Rachel Reeve’s fiscal credulity rules.  Whatever cash might be dredged up to address infrastructural issues is likely to be paltry and scarcely scratch the surface of what is actually needed.

Dominic Davies sets out an invigorating critique of the policies which emerge from both the “levelling up” and austerity-lite approaches of the two main parties and instead works with the insights gleaned from such radical geographers as Doreen Massey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Massey was always asking “what is this place for?” when she looked into the potential it might have for improving the lives of the people who lived there.  Wilson Gilmore continues to excavate geographical space by scrutinising the ways its structural features benefit some interests, while at the same time restraining the chance for freer and more fulfilling existence for others.

The broken promise of infrastructure is analysed in this book initially from the standpoint of the author’s hometown of Stoke. Famously consisting of six separate towns that were knitted together in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution by innovations in the manufacture of ceramics, whatever the city might possibly have become was always limited by the demands that industry placed on the towns, rather than its people.  The enterprise established by Josiah Wedgwood churned out products that could be traded across all corners of the world but the people who made them struggled to cross the few miles that constituted their home town. The infrastructure that made this possible served the interests of capital rather than people.

On a larger scale exactly the same could be said for the country of the United Kingdom itself.  The metropolitan centre of a world empire, investment in its infrastructure – roads, canals, railways, harbours and ports – was geared to moving commodities outwards and into world markets.  In parallel to this, other elements of infrastructure have aimed at inhibiting the movement of people, with the consequence that they are trapped in regions where poverty is endemic and the opportunity to escape – that is to move from it – is deliberately limited.  Examples of these infrastructural failings include extravagantly priced public transportation costs, the unaffordability of housing in high income areas, police action aimed at deterring vagrancy, and evermore rigorously enforced immigration controls.

Davies’s commitment to the abolitionist perspectives of the radical geographers makes him an opponent of any restriction on the right of people to freedom of movement.  But at the same time the chaotic swirl of the masses seeking to find the places where they can live in freedom is not what he is aiming for.  The area of policy innovation he wants to see discussed and implemented is rather how to make the places where people live now more conducive to a fulfilling existence.   This is the really big context in which all thinking about infrastructure ought to be located and developed into concrete policy. 

This type of infrastructure should be seen as an enhancement of freedom but not the sort that is the province of the self-contained, atomised individual which is the ideal entrenched in libertarian capitalist ideology. The promise of infrastructure, if it has any such thing, is the empowerment of people to live and act as participants in a community.   Freedom is a place, or so the book tells us.

This turn in reasoning might raise the risk of the discussion reverting to the communitarianism that works against internationalist political perspectives. The emphasis given to opposing the neo-colonialism of contemporary capitalism, with the whole of a third chapter being given over to this issue, makes it clear that Davies’s sympathies do not go in that direction. But how does the formulation of freedom as a place help hold the line against tendencies like Blue Labour, for whom place-centred politics means clamping down on immigration? There is an answer to that question, but it might not be found in its entirety in Davies’s argument as it currently stands.


  1. What a waffly, over-long review. What on earth do phrases like “excavate geographical space” mean? I am no wiser whether this book is worth reading by anyone but fellow academics .

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