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Anarchy, State and Utopia: The Power of Infrastructure Space

Cataloguing the strategies of an otherwise unaccountable global order, Extrastatecraft traces the consequences of our material and immaterial infrastructural spaces

It can be easy to forget sometimes that the nation-state has only existed for a little over two hundred years.

Their relatively recent emergence as geopolitical and territorial entities − in comparison with what we normally think of as nations − results in all sorts of apparent anachronisms: Australia is older than India (1901 against 1947)and the United States precedes most of Europe (1776, against France’s 1789, Italy’s 1861 and Germany’s 1871).

Needless to say, the nation-state is not synonymous with the nation, and there is a lot of grey area between. The former is a political demarcation, while the latter is a self-identifying cultural group. The Germanic nation definitely pre-existed its unification as Germany, while the nation of Palestine remains largely unrecognised as a nation-state at all. Similarly, it would be hard to describe what population constitutes the nation of Europe, even as the European Union emerges as a full-blown super-state. Meanwhile, Putin has justified annexing eastern Ukraine by arguing that he is bringing together a cultural nation (Russians) into a single nation-state (Russia).

Anyone familiar with recent history cannot have helped but notice that the crises of the nation-state are reaching a new fever pitch. From the deconstruction of common welfare to the bailing out of financial institutions ‘too big to fail’, from the downsizing of the military to the privatisation of resources and infrastructure (not to mention public institutions like the Royal Mail or prisons), it is decreasingly clear what the nation-state is actually for. This existential pressure is not primarily due to the kinds of conflict mentioned above (even Islamic State considers itself a nation-state), but rather due to the declining sovereignty of the model in a world dominated by the global market. And while certain international commercial forces continue to consolidate and augment their power within and against nation-states, many Western countries are in a democratic death-spiral from which there seems no obvious escape.

Accordingly, in the last decade the body of literature addressing the future of the nation-state has expanded rapidly, also exploding beyond its traditional boundaries of political economy, geography and philosophy. Keller Easterling’s much-anticipated Extrastatecraft stands alone within this genre: a masterful work that comprehensively addresses the spatial consequences of globalisation and progressively unmasks the opaque extranational agents governing the 21st century.

What Easterling refers to as ‘infrastructure space’ goes well beyond the literal conduits of material flows (pipelines, cables and transport lines) to describe the physical precipitate of immaterial and informational exchange: ‘parking places, skyscrapers, street lights, airport lounges, shopping malls, cash machines, container ports, industrial parks, suburbs’. Each of these forms is the product of repeatable spatial formulas that unfold through time (‘active forms’). They are the outcome of both explicit and tacit international conventions − from the standards governing shipping container dimensions to the generalised turning radii of the trucks that carry them.
The danger of infrastructural spaces as a product of ‘de facto polity’ is that by appearing apolitical their importance can be radically underestimated. From the abstracted domain of logistics and standards, Easterling traces the spatial consequences of these processes, mapping and cataloguing their forms as places, urbanisms and objects through time.

Inline

Zhan Wang’s architectural project for a Lunar Economic Zone imagines a resource relationship between the moon and a liberated Shenzhen free zone. In many ways this might be the most extreme (but logical) endpoint of extrastatecraft.

In the struggle between the nation-state and transnationals, it might seem there is an obvious battle-line: on the one hand, companies want to escape environmental and labour laws, any form of taxation or regulation, and maximise mobility and resource proximity; on the other hand, countries want to maximise the tax base for their citizens, promote good corporate practice and employment conditions.

Easterling expertly unpicks this fallacy, showing the conflicting ambitions that produce entities like special economic zones. From their conception after the Second World War as temporary measures to bolster investment in developing economies, nation-states quickly realised their utility as weapons to aggressively outcompete their neighbours. Simultaneously beyond the reach of state jurisdiction, the zone is ‘an essential partner for the state as it attempts to navigate and profit from the very same shadow economies’. In this respect, the zone is a kind of state proxy − a positive tool, as long as the state retains a modicum of control. Too often these temporary zones become permanent states of sovereign exception: in form growing from chain link industrial compounds to regions coextensive with entire cities (as with South Korea’s Songdo City or HITEC City in Hyderabad).

The disintegrating boundary between state and corporate interests is further fuelled by the ambivalent benevolence of the international authorities charged with preserving the autonomy of the nation-state: NATO, the World Bank, IMF and even the ‘seemingly innocuous technical specifications’ of ISO are all responsible for advancing neoliberal goals and restructuring the connectivity of nation-states. To understand the material consequences of transportation, communication, management, trade and development networks, Easterling separates distinct strata of infrastructural space. Beyond the zone itself is the disposition of active agents, not their technical form but their operative form (the difference between the shape of a chess piece and the way the piece plays). It is here that Easterling demonstrates the relationship and importance of ideology and technology.

Those familiar with Easterling’s work will recognise elements of the book from previous publications (such as Action is the Form). Where this would normally detract from the text, here it reinforces the subject matter, uniting previously separate examples behind the general theory.

In thinking about the resonance of the book beyond architecture, an interview from last year with political economist Francis Fukuyama came to mind. In it, he outlined his thoughts on why the Occupy movement petered out. In brief, because protesters were employing strategies of resistance practically unchanged since the 1960s. To claw back the terrain of the political avant-garde from the right, he suggested, the left must challenge the assumption of impartiality in free-market economics − and expose it as a highly contrived political project.

The difficulty of this is tied to the complexity of understanding extrastate interests, and their constant appearance and disappearance in infrastructural space. The atomised workforce and productive chain underpinning even something as simple as a pair of Levi’s makes solidarity among a free zone workforce nearly impossible. Extrastatecraft is an essential text for anyone with a stake in the built environment, architect and citizen alike, in articulating the forces that shape our nation-states, and cataloguing − in a precise and readable style − the strategies of an otherwise unaccountable global order.

Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space

Author: Keller Easterling

Publisher: Verso

Price: £18.99

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