Thursday, June 4, 2009

Engineering and Freedom, Part 5

click here to read part 4
click here to read part 3
click here to read part 2
click here to read part 1

If, during the early twentieth century, governments had chosen to allow the automobile to succeed only through the price economy, no mass market would have been there to for Henry Ford to establish his assembly-line method of car production. The assembly-line is strongly associated with capitalist production, but “Fordism” was imported into socialist economies, as well, and functioned (and dysfunctioned) not altogether differently there than in countries where industry was in private hands.


Henry Ford once said outright that there was no demand for automobiles before they came into existence. However, there is demand for anything, so long as it is sold cheaply enough. Without governments subsidizing the costs of automobile communications, the car would not have been sold cheaply enough to inspire mass demand.


Governments throughout the world have also been involved in the construction and maintenance of the first mechanization of the wheel, the railway. This is true even in the “free-market” United States, where government loans and guarantees were essential to the building of the railways which “won the west” during the nineteenth century. In Canada, and in most of Europe, railroads have been (until recent privatization) owned and managed by the state. In Great Britain only were railways entirely a concern of private enterprise, right up until they were nationalized by the Labour government of 1945-51. It was, of course, in Britain where the steam engine was first applied to transport. This lends credence to the argument that private business can, without the “meddling” of the state, succeed in creating an innovative form of communication. However, Britain is exceptional due to its relatively small size. During the early years of the railway in the 1830s, tracks were built mainly for short-haul routes. By 1850, there were 6,000 miles of track in Britain, but very few of these were longer than fifty miles.


There were, early on, longer routes from the North to London, but regular service between Wales and England, and especially Scotland and England, was relatively late-coming. Private business was able to finance railways in England, because heavily-populated centres there were close enough together to make it economical. In the U.S. and Canada, population centres were much further apart. Thus, in North America, the short-lines were privately owned, but the transcontinental routes were operated or underwritten by governments.


As with the airplane and the automobile, the economics of railway communications militate against scale. It is a paradox: each of these transportation media are meant to overcome scale, but the more wide-scale they become, the less economic sense they make. This goes back before the railway, in fact, to the growth of canals in the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries. While shorter canals were often privately financed, larger projects, such as the grand Erie Canal through New York state, were not (it cost taxpayers $7 million in 1830s’ currency, and was at first nicknamed “Clinton’s folly,” after its booster, New York governor DeWitt Clinton).


Historically, it has been only the highly-centralized civilizations, such as ancient Rome and the Inca state of South America, which have been able to construct elaborate highway systems. More decentralized, mercantile societies tend to forego complex land-based communications systems in favour of natural river and sea routes. Western Europe and Britain were able to develop a highly sophisticated cash economy in early modern times, in spite of the primitive nature of these countries’ land communications, precisely because they had access to and control of the major sea routes. Water is an economical medium for the communication of goods and people over long distances, in turn, because it doesn’t require near the elaborate infrastructure that the railroad, motor vehicle and airplane do. Moreover, shipping doesn’t require the level of cooperation between various economic actors, as does long-distance land communications.


Transportation infrastructure over large areas is necessarily a network. Networks require standards (as for example, the train needs standards of track gauge, or automobiles require standards as to their engines, etc.), but standards are necessarily collusional and anti-competitive. Historically, standards have been established in a market as ruinous competition gives way to oligopoly, where one or two large actors agree to cooperate, if only to keep their market pre-eminence. With reference to sophisticated media of communication such as airplanes, cars and railways, only the state was strong enough to establish not only standards, but the actual infrastructure of transport itself.


This is even more the case with the two most sophisticated means of transportation yet devised: the supersonic and the astronautical. Both of these media traverse distance at speeds many times those of the fastest jet plane. Again, neither supersonic or astronautic travel ever had commercial potential. The Concorde jet had been in regular transatlantic service for nearly thirty years (being scuttled only following the crash of one of the supersonic aircraft at Paris airport). But the ticket price is US$5000, so that only the super-rich ever fly on it. Still, without the support of the British and French governments, the Concorde would not fly at all. As for space travel, without the direct subsidy of governments (primarily those of Soviet Russia and the U.S.), it never would have occurred, for the simple reason that there is no economic reason for it. Eventually, there may well be commercial space flight. But even so, it won’t become a reality without the present massive investment of the state in space exploration.


If governments have been crucial to the development and maintenance of modern technologies of transportation, why are governors, even those supposedly devoted to the free market, interested in developing these sophisticated means of communication at all? Control of land and air communications confers power over the movement of people and the exploitation of territory. This is why it is was the most centralized and authoritarian states of ancient times that built the most sophisticated road communications. In modern times, governments have sought to control populations through communications in various ways. The British government, for example, constructed a major naval fleet in order to control the seas for the betterment of trade. More recently, social control takes place through the regulation of automobile traffic by motorized police sentries. Governments throughout the world subsidized airline industries, in order to have access to the technologies that allow them to wage war upon one another. And, of course, space travel was the result of the rivalry between two ideologically-opposed superpowers.


Traffic is the content of the civilized life, as before comparatively recent times, communication had to be transported. The great highways built by the Mayans and the Romans had as their primary end communication, with trade as a secondary concern. Thus, on the Roman roads, civilian transport had to yield to the legions, whilst even the legions had to yield to the imperial messengers. A civilization can be judged by the efficiency of its communications. The decay of Rome was measured in the crumbling of its elaborate highways. As Europe returned to barbarian patterns of life, its people had as little use for these structures, as they had for the stadia and aqueducts that sustained Roman civility. Barbarians may be looked upon as roadless people, for they have acquired the tools of civilization (agriculture and settled life, barter or commodity trade, even the rudiments of writing and governance), except for the ability to network these tools effectively, as civilizations must.


Under barbarian and savage conditions, there is little “public” as such, no space between the domesticated, to traffic in goods and information. Where, in barbarian societies, settlement is large enough to have the rudiments of a public, but still there is no infrastructure to sustain it as a space apart from the private, the domestic comes to lord over the public, as the most powerful “house” or houses assume the functions of public institutions and infrastructure. Often, this sort of arrangement exists suitably enough, such that it is not abolished or overthrown except by outside influence, ie. invasion by civilized states.


Barbarian states or semi-states maintain the savage form of association, based on kinship. Politically, barbarians are ruled by networks of powerful kinsmen, wherein communication is kept private, more spoken than written down. There is no need for much in the way of transport infrastructure, because the rulers are satisfied with the sort of information communicated through intimate channels. The state, which (unlike the clan) persists apart from those who control it, emerges as the medium of communications, both of script and traffic. Just as the state relies on notation, writing and math demand the extension of the senses of the state to the territorial periphery, via highways. The news, be it intimate, top-secret or public, used to arrive only by mail (as many newspapers are still quaintly named) and messenger. In modern times, dictatorships have effectively controlled populations through internal passports, ie. “papers”, which can quickly identify and enumerate everyone. Internal passports both expedite and control communications, by permitting and recording expansive traffic in people and goods.


In Western democracies, no formal encumbrances on the movement of goods and people are allowed (a largely unremarked-upon pillar of liberal freedoms). Even so, the use of highway communications in the Occident requires several forms of documentation, subject to inspection, suspension and revocation by authorities at any time. These, and other “papers”, are themselves constraints on the movement of goods and people in the West, as they are often inconvenient and expensive to transfer through jurisdictions. In any case, the “paper trail” left by everyone’s traffic is valuable information for state and commercial interests alike.


All societies have been barbarian at one or another time in their history, and at any point in time, most cultures are essentially barbarian in shape. This is true today of large parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Barbarian cultures are not characterized by violence (though violence, and brutality, is often ritualized among barbarians); which is to say, they are not characteristic for being violent. Nor yet are barbarians necessary “primitive” or uncultured. It is that they are ruled not by institutions, but by clans. Even where formal institutions exist, it is through kin that people gain their “dope”, and so clans have status as sources of credulity. Barbarism can exist even where the material environment appears highly advanced. But such societies, lacking the necessary networks for the traffic of sophisticated processes and technology, inevitably suffer from disregard and devaluation of public amenities, in favour of private luxuries for the very few. In barbarian cultures, trade and communication have not been severed, and so goods and services inevitably flow through the hands of the headmen and their families.


Trade, like script, is a key element of the “content” or public aspect of civilized life. It speaks the language of money and consumer goods. Writing was invented, improved and simplified largely at the hands of traders, as commerce relies on notation. Early texts were mostly lists and inventories, and communicable notation is accessible, light, transportable (whether by highway or by sea). Thereby, the amount and variety of traded goods burgeons. Consumer goods become, in the words of anthropologist Grant McCracken, tools of symbolic meaning and social interaction. Supply, ie. goods and services, are the content of the form of demand, no matter what the economic system. Where demand consists of a few consumers of very expensive goods, the content of supply will be far different than where many consumers demand many inexpensive goods. In clan cultures, wealth is held and distributed between intimates, to inspire loyalty and protection in turn. The many not within the threshold of the ruling house or houses, communicate other than through text and consumer goods. The primacy of the verbal in communication, means that barbarian society cannot overcome savage patterns of life, in spite of the civilized accoutrements available to it.


To suggest that barbarism is a “stage” in the cycle of society, between savagery and civilization, is misleading to the extent that barbarism (and for that matter, savagery) has proven to be a durable form in the evolution of culture. Occasionally, barbarian societies evolve into civilized ones. The twin motive forces for this are trade and war. The pre-classical Greeks were essentially barbarian, having emerged from a Dark Age that began in the twelfth-century B.C. with the Dorian invasions. With few natural resources on their mainland, the ancient Hellenes instead traded on their status as entrepot between Europe and Asia, with Athens becoming what Sir Peter Hall called the first city based on international trade.


Crucially, Greek communication was based on the seas, not highways, and thus Hellenic civilization did not require an overbearing state. Instead, the shift from barbarism, occurred gradually enough among the pre-classical Greeks, such that barbarian patterns were not entirely absent even during classical times. It explains in large part the endurance, unique among Mediterranean civilizations of ancient times, of the city-state or polis as the supreme type of Greek polity. The civilizing Hellene had, imperceptively, transferred his tribal loyalties from blood kin to the polis. But the clansman’s chauvinism and bloody-mindedness had not been eclipsed in the process, such that most Hellenes looked upon members of other poleis as barbarians do rival kinsmen, making federation or even loose alliance impossible. Thus, even following the democratic reforms of Athenian government in the sixth and fifth centuries before the calendar (which sought to undermine the older clan-based politics) the Attican populace were still divided into artificial “clans”, which carried out the administration of the region (or “tribe”) over which they ruled. It was in these evolving conditions that the classical Hellenes were able to produce the highest of the civilized arts. When following conquest by the Macedonians (another barbarian race), then by the Latins, the Greeks became fully civilized, united in conquest, true citizens of the world. At least on the Greek mainland, this is when Hellenic culture ceased to be innovative.


The Latins were able to initially emerge from barbarism, like the Hellenes, at the behest of trade. But their full ascent to civilization was accomplished primarily by war. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and so too, did the Latins maintain barbarian patterns of life long after republican politics was established in the city on the Tiber. At first, the Romans made profitable alliance with other Latin and “Italian” peoples and cities, as well as the Etruscan people of northern Italy, and the Hellenic colonists in the south and Sicily. Ultimately, relations soured, and with little ease in the contest, the Romans subjugated the entire peninsula, while gaining dominance over Sicily (introducing thereby the Carthaginians as Mediterranean rivals).


With this, the first stage in what would become the largest empire in the world, the Romans began their civilizing mission. Rome was still a republic, and so in exchange for loyalty to the Senate and other civil institutions, the conquered Italian cities were granted access to Latin law and language, and some measure of self-government (which many of the conquered had not previously enjoyed). It was in Romanized Italy that the earliest of the vast road system was constructed, and centuries before Julius Caesar, the practice of divide-and-rule was instituted. Essentially, the patriciate of the subjugated ruling class was Latinized, co-opted into the nascent imperial system. The masses were left to be exploited as before, but those not enslaved at least enjoyed some rights as freemen. In any case, the gambit was so successful that the Etruscan tongue, and then the other Latin languages, disappeared completely.


On the other hand, the Romans (or at least the Latin ruling class) adopted the Greek language and worldview as its own, using the script developed by the Etruscans to create the Latin phonetic alphabet, still in use today. The Latin elite read and spoke in the Hellenic language, whilst the masses adopted the Olympian deities. Of the three nations of ancient Italy, the Latins were the most barbaric compared both to the Etruscans and the Greeks. Their civilizing came (as is often the case) with the conquest of more civilized people.


Public communications symbolizes discrete domesticity, wherein dwellings and other enclosed spaces act as nodes in the transportation network. Each household stands apart from all others, and relates with them only through the medium of public. Each house is a consumer of communicated ideas and goods, and each one also (ideally) should be a producer of these goods in turn. Communication was not sundered from traffic until the invention of the telegraph in the nineteenth century. However, transport has not been completely removed from communications. Communications networks, whether telegraphic, telephonic, cellular or whatever, require significant infrastructure in their own right. They must be easily accessible to construct and maintain, which is why railroad tracks are bordered by telegraph poles, and roadways by telephone “T”-standards. Electric communications literally follows the patterns of traffic. As for cellular telephones, it is nearly forgotten how these devices were at first marketed as “car phones”, a way of “keeping in touch while on the road.”


Today, communication often takes place through satellite, a celestial artefact which is nonetheless as dependent on transport (rocketry) as is the railroad. In fact, the rail train came into its own as a passenger vehicle just as telegraphy burgeoned. The train was the first mobile, enclosed, domesticated space, existing completely apart from the immediate public or natural conditions outside. The train-car is a public amenity, that takes the form of a domesticated space. When occupied, the cabin is the private sphere of the passenger, which she surrenders to someone else’s privacy following disembarkment. In this respect the rail train is like a mobile hotel; the grand hotel was an institution which blossomed with the advent of railway communications. The telegraph wires built beside rail tracks, transmitted private messages over a public medium. Telegrams had to be translated into Morse code, which meant that the messages contained therein had to observe the necessary proprieties. However, the public nature of the telegraph medium, along with the need for economy in costly wordage, facilitated private codes between correspondents. Newspapers developed telegram-shorthand techniques for the same reason. This was reflected in the hackneyed “journalese” of most dailies. Nevertheless, the telegraph allowed for the communication of events thousands of miles away (eventually, across the sea and around the world, too). The sphere of the “public” suddenly grew larger, available in a few pages for domesticated consumption. Telegraphy, by subdividing (but not sundering) transport and communications, allowed events to literally always be ahead of those participant in them, who encounter their own public selves in the same vicarious manner as everyone else.


The confounding of public and domestic, through the railroad and telegraphy, was intensified with the later invention of the telephone, radio, television, Internet, as well as the commuter train and motorcar. The automobile inspired the domestication of landscape via parks and suburbia, even as it caused the diminution of truly public society and living. In the age of the car, “public” is experienced within the domestic, courtesy “wired” communications.


State involvement in transportation was an essential utility for the expansion of commerce and industry during modern times. There can be little doubt that, without the railway, the airplane, the car, etc., industrial society would have a much different, and probably less “developed,” character today. Modern transportation technologies have created or expanded national, continental and international markets, institutionalizing what is today called the “global economy.” Even if one accepts that government intervention helped achieve economies-of-scale in long-distance road and air transport, it is clear that the cash economy, if left to its own, would have neglected, rightly, modern transportation technologies as unsound investments. But where private capital would not invest in territorial communications technology, governments did, to the benefit of at least some players in the industrial marketplace.


The prevalence of government involvement in the development of modern transportation media, follows from the logic of technological progress, rather than that of liberal economic laws. Which is to say, the price economy does not, on its own, lead to technological advance, at least not of the complex, networked, engineered sort of technology. This applies not only to transportation technology: machine-industrial technology, too, has been developed most successfully not where the state was absent from the process, but where it was intimately involved, either through outright ownership, loans or tariff barriers.


Britain was able to achieve “industrial revolution” first, and mostly without the use of the state as a lever of growth, again because of its relatively small size compared even to continental powers such as France and Germany, and certainly compared with the Russian empire. It was relatively simple to truck the mass-produced goods from the factories in the North to the major markets in and around London, and task which became increasingly cheaper during the later eighteenth century, through the first decades of the nineteenth, by the development of turnpike roads and small canals.


The railways in Britain, developed by private capital, were the response of the cash economy to continued growth of industrial manufactures after the Napoleonic wars, and the need to keep goods moving along transit ways that could no longer accommodate the volume. Industrial mass production requires the rapid turnover of goods, so that inventories do not pile up and become, in effect, price competitive with later output from the same factories. This is easy enough to accomplish in densely populated territories (such as the isle of Britain), but became more awkward the further away were producers from consumers (as was the case in North America during the nineteenth century). Where communications remain slow or unreliable, the cost-savings achieved through mass production are lost. It was precisely to achieve the industrial might of Britain, that other governments during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries subsidized transportation technology. By bringing together people by rail, road and air, government created unified mass markets and unified political states.

Coming soon: Part 6 of Engineering and Freedom

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