Review: Jo Guldi Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State

Review: Jo Guldi Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012, 297 pages.

Infrastructure Wars: Connectivity and the Role of the State

The opening paragraph of Jo Guldi’s Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State plunges the reader into the sinkhole of a 1726 British road large enough to swallow a horse.  This scene is directly contrasted with the wide level highways of 1848 setting the stage for a classic tale of human ingenuity, progress and national unity. It is not to be. Guldi instead depicts a vivid dialectical landscape, narrating the rise and demise of infrastructure, and the many battles between, with far-reaching and incisive clarity.

The revolution in the way British roads were built and maintained, argues Guldi, was by no means an unambiguous or uncontested move toward centralization and national unity.  Roads signalled the emergence of a new infrastructure state that brought with it new possibilities of power and new questions of responsibility.  Questions over who was responsible for funding gave rise to regional disputes, poorer regions demanding that a centralized government be responsible to pay for roads which they could not afford, while wealthier counties protested in the name of local autonomy. These regional disputes developed into full blown political ideologies, now rehearsed without regard to geography or situation as a conflict between the state and the free market. The reality, Guldi maintains, is that the conflict is not over ideals but over the right to participate in the market.

The pitfalls of infrastructure are identified in its estranging capacity. Technological developments not only foster the creation and reinforcement of regional divides, they also impact social etiquette and community organization.  Technology, says Guldi, caused strangers to stop speaking. We are familiar with the social and cultural battles associated with social media. Has the internet ushered in a new age of sociability or of surveillance? Do social media facilitate new forms of human interaction, or erode community? Drawing our attention to road building in 19th century Britain, Guldi outlines some of the parallel concerns of that era. Prior to the achievements of bureaucratic centralization and the enshrinement of expert knowledge travellers had to ask for directions. People from various backgrounds would band together for safety forming, in effect, mobile communities.  Soldiers returning from abroad, itinerant Methodist preachers, and travelling artisans shared stories, songs, and ideas. As the roads improved and became more commercially functional the middle classes became more disconnected and fearful. Infrastructure was turned into a tool for surveillance, and the foot traveller was marked as an undesirable.

This fear lies at the heart of what Guldi describes as the central failure of the  19th Century infrastructure state; the failure to build a participatory and representative government reflecting the divergent interests of its many constituents. She writes,

Visions attributed to the road included the elimination of poverty, the ideal of participatory government, and the creation of radical political cultures, but all those glowing futures foundered on the grim reality of who controlled infrastructure.[1]

Guldi narrates three successive interests which held sway over the British road system; the army and radical political travellers, then the poorer regions on the periphery, and finally libertarian villagers. Each of these movements sees parts of the nation being connected while other parts are excluded or made to bear an unequal share of the burden cost. The end result is that by 1848 infrastructure falls prey to a libertarian revolution masked as localist politics. Roads are left to decay, especially in the hinterlands, and the poorer people and regions are plunged into a protracted period of economic isolation.

Taking the reader through the evolving landscape of Great Britain from the soggy trails of 1726 to the mighty, but already decaying, highways of 1848 Roads to Power is a book of considerable brilliance. Human achievements and failures, from advancements in artistic visualization to bureaucratic stagnation, are cast within the context of landscape and the built environment. We make certain choices about how we will communicate with others and what kinds of communities we will participate in, but even those choices we make are organized within the constraints of existing infrastructure. Infrastructure, in the modern world, is the principal tool for creating new communities and allowing for political participation. Yet infrastructure is not a given. As states once again back away from investment in infrastructure, bowing to corporate pressures, Guldi urges us to consider the warnings of history.

[1] Jo Guldi Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State  (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 23.