Sabeel Rahman’s essay is a call to action. Progressives should take seriously the coming political struggle over public goods generally and infrastructure specifically. They should also be better skilled in the administration of government and learn how to use the tools available to incrementally transform the material conditions of our current system. But as a lifelong organizer, dedicated to the dignity and economic security of all workers, I know that this is not enough. It is also critical that we see the big picture: the corporate power and its accompanying dogma of the supremacy of profit that brought us to this brink. They are the enemies we face. And they must be named. From fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, many of the stories of our childhood teach us the same lesson: we must name the villain before we stand any chance of defeating it.
Any discussion of public goods is ultimately a discussion of values. How we define who is included in the notion of a “public”—and what we think is in the best interest of that public—are inherently political and therefore always contested. Those definitions live at the intersection of race, wealth, gender, and work.
How we define who is included in the notion of a ‘public’—and what we think is in the best interest of that public—are inherently political and always contested.
Infrastructure is simply the structures on which a society depends to function. Yet the word frequently calls to mind a narrow set of images, roads, bridges, and white male construction workers chief among them. The many women and people of color who work in health care, education, and transit are not the workers we associate with infrastructure. And yet, society needs schools, hospitals, parks, public transit, and clean affordable water just as much as it needs well-tended roads. This misconception of what infrastructure means makes the work of certain people invisible, in much the way we have long made invisible their private work, from the domestic to childcare.
There is only a fraction of society with minimal reliance on these public services. The wealthy often send their children to private schools, seldom take public transportation, have access to private hospitals and health institutions, and even live in communities that purchase commercially processed water. However, these elites do still rely on roads and bridges for logistics and the transportation of commerce. It is little surprise then that the outsized power this class exerts over our government means that these public goods are maintained even in thin times.
One of the greatest threats that faces our public goods is privatization. Although Rahman comments on the points of tension surrounding private finance, privatization, and austerity, he does not fully outline the playbook that private finance uses to convince governments and people to surrender the disbursement of public goods to the for-profit sector. The process almost always looks something like this: 1) taxes are cut to allegedly spur job growth; 2) as a result, government budgets are smaller; 3) needing to reduce spending, jobs and services are cut; 4) in addition, certain racial groups are blamed for using more than their fair share of public services; 5) because of the cuts lower quality service is provided; and 6) because of this failure to deliver acceptable outcomes, government is said to need more efficient management, such as that found in the private sector.
What do we know about the corporate elites and wealthy who create and benefit from this cycle of manufactured scarcity? Their business practices—and the government policies that buttress these, which they purchase through lobbying—benefit only a tiny sliver of the population and have wreaked financial devastation on the majority. They know that these business practices and policy ideas are not supported by a majority of the electorate and have therefore resolved to support administrative disenfranchisement tools (felon disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, the reduction of early voting, opposition to same-day registration, and gerrymandering) to make sure that legislative- and executive-branch power is maintained by politicians and political blocs that are friendly to these practices. What’s more, their spokespeople regularly use racist, misogynist, and homophobic tropes, both subtle and blatant, to justify the continuation of this agenda.
We must abandon the false belief that the public goods debate is civic or civil. We are confronting economic interests that ruthlessly seek new sources of revenue and income at the cost of our democracy.
In short, we must abandon the false belief that where and how to invest in the public good is a civic or civil debate. We do not share goals with our opponents; they do not want a more just distribution of income, an expanded electorate, or to increase the power that ordinary citizens have to influence government. We are confronting economic interests that ruthlessly seek new sources of revenue and income and will happily do so at the cost of our democracy. This is ultimately a struggle for freedom and the people’s pursuit of happiness.
Some blame the Republican Party for this state of affairs. This is incorrect, not only because there exists a robust roster of Democratic politicians who are equally culpable, but also because it is a form of misdirection: it fails to recognize those who receive financial benefit from the arrangement. Corporations in every state have colluded—via think tanks, direct political influence, and even the economic blackmail of threatening to move their headquarters—to produce the governments they wish for and that the rest of us must live with.
Conversations are often torturously twisted just to avoid mentioning the names of these anonymous influencers. Consider how often you heard the name Nestlé in conversations about the Flint water crisis—yet while Flint residents still wait for clean water, Nestlé continues to extract 150–200 gallons a minute of groundwater from Michigan. For this multibillion-dollar extraction, Nestlé pays the state just $200 a year. How often are the names of the large health insurance corporations, such as Aetna, Humana, or Cigna—those that extract billions of dollars in profit every year from keeping the system broken—brought up in the discussion of our health care crisis?
How do we start? When the next unfit charter school is uncovered, let us flood the offices of not only the Department of Education, but also those of the hedge fund companies, such as Greenlight Capital, that have funded the school privatization movement. We can expose the heartlessness of those who want to use our children for their free-market experiments. When the next city is poisoned by lead in the water, let us visit the shareholders of the private management companies that peddle poisoned water, as well as the offices of local government. We can expose how the bottom line often takes precedence over the health of our families. By directly confronting those who have placed their wealth above our health, we will shape “we, the people” as a broader, more diverse, and inclusive coalition. This new “we” can hold all of us who believe that the preciousness of life and freedom should never be trumped by profit.
There are four strategies we can deploy to seize the challenge of this moment:
1) Name and fight the profiteers: Several large-scale investors, such as the Blackstone Group, are poised to invest heavily in—and therefore potentially privatize—the nation’s bridges, roads, transit systems, and other critical infrastructure. Our campaigns need to name these entities and look for weak points where we can challenge their power.
2) Fight for and win the infrastructure that society needs: We need to center the voices of our diverse citizenry to decide the structures that are needed in our communities. We should embrace the aspirational and be undaunted by being labeled unrealistic. A compelling vision of what could and should be will inspire.
3) Build power: Beyond merely mobilizing residents for hearings, we need to consider how our work builds long-term power for our movement. Are there more people involved than when we began? Are those people better able to engage others and bring them into this work? Organizing on a massive scale is critical. Activism around infrastructure provides a great opportunity to do this: everyone cares about water, hospitals, and schools.
4) Use all of our available tools to expand the definition of what is considered a public good.
And as Rahman suggests, where we govern, we need to govern well and strategically.
This political moment calls on us to reach and strive for the most just and equitable society we can imagine. To do this means confronting the true obstacles we face. It is perhaps best said by Rowling’s character of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts: “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”