Failed Infrastructure Is Failed Politics

In February 2017, California state authorities ordered more than 180,000 residents near Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States, to evacuate. After ...

In February 2017, California state authorities ordered more than 180,000 residents near Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States, to evacuate. After months of unprecedented rain and snow, a deluge that followed on the heels of a years-long drought, the dam’s emergency spillway, a bypass route designed to release excess water and prevent overflow, threatened to collapse.

The spillway had never been used since the dam was completed in 1968, but the massive precipitation and the erosion of the concrete “service” spillway prompted officials to open it for the first time. Air bubbles in the rushing water had opened small fissures in the concrete. Such “cavitation” is a common problem for spillway structures. Technical explanations summarized the danger in three points: “design flaws, misunderstood geology and poor maintenance over the years.”1

Furious public debates about “what went wrong” at Oroville were not confined to technical details about concrete, however. Instead, political activists and everyday citizens seized on the threat of the dam’s failure to point out the crumbling reality of the wealthiest country in the world. When large-scale infrastructure projects like Oroville work, they symbolize a vital contract between citizen and state; when they break down, they point to that contract’s collapse.2 Just a few months after Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again” carried him to victory, the crumbling dam came to stand for America itself.

The exodus from Oroville struck me deeply, in more ways than one. As an anthropologist who has been writing on infrastructure for years, mainly in the Middle East, the episode seemed familiar. In Lebanon, where I have done fieldwork, infrastructure provides channels for the flow of money, services, and electricity, yes; but it also constitutes political publics.3 Religious or sect-affiliated organizations run schools, medical clinics, and microlending facilities, and access to these services, especially for low-income or working-class people, often depends on being able to make a claim to membership in a religious or ethnic community. These claims can be either bolstered or compromised by factors related to class, gender, and even geography, like which neighborhood you live in, that go beyond membership by birth.

When large-scale infrastructure projects like Oroville work, they symbolize a vital contract between citizen and state.

Most Lebanese political parties are affiliated with a religious sect, and these sectarian political organizations, which dominate certain municipalities, also shape decisions about how cities are built, where bridges and roads are constructed, and, in some cases, who can maintain access to informal housing. In Lebanon there are 18 legally recognized communities—including Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and others—to which correspond a number of political parties, as well as 15 religious courts with jurisdiction over personal status cases like divorce.

In most journalistic accounts, Lebanon’s sectarian conflicts are reduced to platitudes about religious theology, belief, and identity. As I argue in my recent book, neither sectarian identities nor conflicts are primordial and timeless. Rather, access to fragmented channels of services shape belonging and struggle. Political conflict might be expressed in sectarian terms, but infrastructure and the flow of resources are part of what defines the contours of political groups.

In Lebanon, infrastructure is largely run or supplemented by private groups and political parties, but its failure rebounds symbolically on the state nonetheless. Whenever the electricity goes down, water runs out, or traffic piles up, cries of “wayn al-dawleh?” (where is the state?) ring across Beirut. Lebanese citizens expect the state to manage its patchy infrastructural systems, even though they know well which factions and private entities control which flows.

In the Oroville crisis, I recognized this connection between infrastructure and the symbolic success or failure of the state; but, as a child of Los Angeles, I saw other familiar features in the event as well. My mother’s Armenian and father’s Palestinian families landed in LA after being displaced by Lebanon’s civil war of 1975–1990. And like most people from Southern California, I am familiar with the vicissitudes of drought and heavy rain, fire and flood.

My family grew up experiencing those fluctuations, as well as the delicate balance between civil infrastructure and survival, as an inevitable part of life. The mass scale of the evacuation and magnitude of the weather extremes made a spectacle of the Oroville crisis, even in a state where rain regularly brings disastrous floods and mudslides that destroy homes and block highways. However, the pitch of the political response to this infrastructural crisis, unlike the usual media coverage around rain-related or earthquake-related disasters in California, was like nothing I had ever seen.


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At Oroville, as in Beirut, infrastructural failure did not lead to predictable political discourse. Instead, Oroville’s vulnerability and spillway collapse opened larger questions about what counts as the public good, particularly as weather events grow more extreme in the context of climate change. Representatives from opposite ends of the political spectrum shouted about spending, funding allocations, and taxation, openly debating political questions: Who should be served? What should the state do? And why? When infrastructure appears to deviate from what it is supposed to do, realignments can happen and new politics emerge.

In Lebanon in 2015, for example, after years of complaints, the residents of a town with a poorly maintained landfill receiving Beirut’s garbage blocked the access road, resulting in trash pileups in the city’s streets. Massive demonstrations soon followed, with protesters demanding that the state adequately maintain its infrastructures, not just landfills but electricity- and water-supply systems as well. The protests broke down the usual sectarian discourse, and many hope that it marks a turning point for an emerging political mobilization around a demand for better management of shared resources and infrastructures.

Beirut Madinati, for example, is a new political platform that reflects some of these aims, and has run candidates in municipal elections. The organization is focused on sustainable development, the expansion of green spaces, and maintaining accessibility to public spaces, including what remains of Beirut’s public beaches, which have mostly been given away to private developers. The group departs from usual politics in that its platform calls for municipal officials to act as representatives of all residents, not only of their particular sectarian political party or faction.

Back in the United States, evidence of infrastructural degradation, at Oroville and elsewhere, also created an opportunity to redraw political lines, although the Trump administration has yet to take it. Newly appointed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao repeated the usual anti-regulation conservative discourse, announcing that “‘the problem is not money. It’s the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments.’”4

Surprisingly, the conservative media did not agree. Instead its pundits seized on the “crumbling” narrative to argue that the state had neglected infrastructure for too long. The dam became a potent symbol of America’s need to be returned to greatness. The analogies were legion; broken-down cities, potholes in roads, and collapsing bridges, like breaching dams, expressed the moral and ethical decay eroding American empire and its white nationalist order. Wrestling public investment in infrastructure away from “liberals,” the conservative media jettisoned their usual out-of-control-government-spending rhetoric and introduced the idea that government could spend in pursuit of the conservative value of restoration.

Infrastructure has always been central to the American nation-making project.

For example, Breitbart News seized upon the Oroville incident to cry foul not on government regulation, but on misdirected government spending. Governors have been spending irresponsibly, one article insinuated, plunging California into deficit and endangering its capacity to keep up its infrastructure.5 Another article voiced Breitbart’s position through former California State Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who argued that climate change and the extremes of drought and torrential rain were not to blame for the dam’s near miss with failure. Donnelly pointed his finger instead at the folly of California Democrats, and the politicians who “chose illegal aliens, powerful public sector unions and the environmental lobby over dams and infrastructure.”6

Breitbart’s analysis crossed lines, sharing features with Obama-era efforts. In the fall of 2016, the Treasury Department fingered “inadequate funding” resulting from “a general reluctance to raise taxes or user fees” as the cause of stalled infrastructure improvement and sought solutions outside these usual sources of funding.7 In 2010, the same department had unveiled a National Infrastructure Bank scheme to fund projects “that yield the greatest returns to society and are most likely to deliver long-run economic benefits that justify the up-front investments.”8 The bank would match public loans with private investments, decreasing the public spending burden; but the infrastructure projects would need to create their own revenue to help pay back the debt.9

The report went beyond the economics of infrastructure, though. Alongside the economic evidence supporting infrastructure investment lay a text box titled “Building a National Community.” Here, the report’s authors note the role that national railway infrastructure played in developing the sense of a national community. Both the Trump and Obama administrations grasp that infrastructure has always been central to the American nation-making project, and that it gives definition to the relationship between citizens and the state.

This moment of American infrastructure peril is a potent one that will remain even after the memory of Oroville recedes. Although Trump’s policy plans change often, for now they include spending $1 trillion on infrastructure projects, $200 billion of which will come from taxes and the rest from private investment.10 One concern is that, driven by private investors, infrastructure projects could end up favoring pay-per-use models like toll roads, with obvious revenue with which to recuperate investment.11 Some argue that projects like rural access to broadband, clean water, and affordable light-rail systems would not be attractive to investors, who could not reap short-term profits from them.12

Paying for use is a different model than paying through taxes; it fundamentally challenges the notion that infrastructures are redistributive, that they are funded by a collective pool that everyone contributes to, rather than a combination of user fees and taxes. Favoring projects with user fees will shift the everyday experience of the infrastructural contract between citizen and state.


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This model will have wide ramifications on the public perception of who is responsible for maintaining infrastructure, and even what kinds of projects should be embarked upon; a bridge or road system fits much more nicely into such a model than a project for the expansion of clean accessible water.13 But it is also the symbolism of pay-per-use that fundamentally changes the contract; it foregrounds the responsibility of an individual for her own discrete use and the benefits it will bring her. Taxes, on the other hand, symbolically generate the notion of a public whose good rises above any individual interest.

Oroville Dam was built at a time when the latter model prevailed for large infrastructure projects. The Burns-Porter Act of 1960, also known as the California Water Resources Development Bond Act, paved the way for the sale of $1.75 billion in general obligation bonds to pay for California water projects; these bonds were not backed solely by the promise of revenue, but also by the ability of the state to tax. The act passed only narrowly, with most in Northern California voting against the plan to transport water to the southern part of the state; still, it made the Oroville Dam project possible.

Today we live with the legacy of these publicly funded projects, including some of their unintended adverse environmental impacts. Now they are crumbling, and, as we saw in the case of Oroville, many of them are looming threats. A pay-per-use model for infrastructure investment, especially based on the initiative of private investors, might not favor a dam rehabilitation project. The ability of an investor to recuperate revenue from such a project is unclear. In contrast, the very logic of a statewide, large-scale water plan, executed through a network of projects that aimed for long-term revenue generation and development distributed across the state, seems to be a thing of the past. In the mainstream left and right parties, no one is floating the old model as a viable possibility for upgrading, expanding, or repairing crumbling infrastructures.

Private streams of revenue for infrastructure projects come with implications for the contract between the modern state and its citizens. We can take a lesson from Lebanon. There, as we have seen, sectarian political parties and wealthy patrons provision all kinds of services and utilities, from electricity to education and medical care. These supplement Lebanon’s national public infrastructures and goods.

The unwillingness or inability of the Lebanese state to maintain things like 24-hour electricity across the country (or even more than 8 hours in some places) creates a patchwork of uncoordinated provisioning systems, run by one operator here, another there, all skimming profit along the way. These forms of infrastructure provisioning shape the sense of social belonging. In the suburb where I conducted my research, a claim to membership in a sectarian community brought access to health care, food provision, and housing. Access and connections to sect-affiliated political parties that dominated the municipality allowed local patrons to run their own informal electricity networks and reap profits from their supplementation of Lebanon’s failing electricity provision system.

A bridge or road system fits much more nicely into a pay-for-use model than a project for the expansion of clean accessible water.

Lebanon might seem a distant comparison when thinking about dam infrastructure in California. And yet, we must consider the example when facing the possibility that infrastructure will depend on private money and pay-for-use schemes rather than be redistributive and funded by tax revenue. Infrastructure privatization will create different kinds of publics than those generated by tax- and bond-funded public works.

We are in a time of deep political polarization and economic inequality. What we do with our crumbling infrastructure could help bridge these divisions, but it could also generate even more political fragmentation. At present, the evidence of state neglect of infrastructures is all around—Oroville is only one example. But in the wake of such a spectacular failure, infrastructure can also potentially create new alignments, new imaginaries of a shared public responsibility.

If access to clean water could be guaranteed, if rural broadband is expanded, if more people have access to efficient and sustainable public transportation, then infrastructure can do some of the symbolic and material work necessary to create new, visible symbols of a shared public good.

Many essential infrastructure projects cannot be initiated or maintained by pay-per-use models; they do not all generate self-sustaining revenue. In the emerging pay-for-use model in the US in recent years, private investors and their interests could influence what is built and what is left to fall apart. In Lebanon, the ability to gain access to things like clean water, electricity, medical care, and education rests upon an ability to buy it from a private provider or a claim to membership in a sectarian community.

Which community you belong to shapes access to functioning infrastructure in America too. The poor and vulnerable suffer from decrepit water pipes in Flint, Michigan, and from the unabated freeway pollution in Los Angeles. Allowing crumbling infrastructures to fail is part of how environmental racism functions.14 Pay-for-use development will ensure infrastructure for those who can pay. The United States should beware. Amplifying our own infrastructural inequality will only increase our political fragmentation. icon

  1. Ralph Vartabedian, “Damage to Oroville’s Main Spillway ‘Was an Accident Waiting to Happen,’” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2017.
  2. See Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 42 (2013).
  3. See Julia Elyachar, “Phatic Labor, Infrastructure, and the Question of Empowerment in Cairo,” American Ethnologist, vol. 37, no. 3 (2010).
  4. Remarks prepared for delivery by US Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, American Association of Port Authorities, Federal-State Relations Meeting, Washington, DC, April 5, 2017.
  5. Chriss W. Street, “Oroville Reveals Concerns About California’s 1,500 Aging Dams,” Breitbart News Network, February 19, 2017.
  6. Tim Donnelly, “‘Scientific American’ Blames Climate Change for Oroville Dam Crisis,” Breitbart News Network, February 22, 2017.
  7. AECOM et al., “40 Proposed U.S. Transportation and Water Infrastructure Projects of Major Economic Significance” (Fall 2016).
  8. The Department of the Treasury, with the Council of Economic Advisers, “An Economic Analysis of Infrastructure Investment,” US Department of the Treasury, October 11, 2010.
  9. Matt Compton, “Five Facts about a National Infrastructure Bank,” The White House blog, November 3, 2011.
  10. Melanie Zanona, “Budget Chief: Trump Wants to Spend $200B on Infrastructure,” The Hill, April 21, 2017.
  11. Melanie Zanona, “Five Things We Know about Trump’s Infrastructure Plan,” The Hill, May 14, 2017.
  12. Robert Reich, “Scam Alert: Trump’s $1tn ‘Infrastructure Plan’ Is a Giveaway to the Rich,” The Guardian, June 10, 2017.
  13. Angela Glover Blackwell, “Infrastructure Is Not Just Roads and Bridges,” New York Times, June 9, 2017.
  14. See, e.g., Laura Pulido “Flint, Environmental Racism, and Racial Capitalism,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 27, no. 3 (2016).
Oroville Dam Spillway, February 2017. Photograph by California National Guard / Flickr