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he term ‘Infrastructure’ has come to acquire quite a bit of space in urban studies scholarship of late. In times of late capitalism, infrastructure has allowed many of us to weave together narratives of neoliberal capital, technocracy, and urban space. As we try and make sense of how new kinds of infrastructure like highways and flyovers are changing the nature in which we inhabit our cities (Graham, 2018; Harris, 2018). Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay’s book, Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth-century Calcutta, for the first time, takes us into the history of such infrastructure through the street. While we have had histories of other kinds of infrastructure written — on railways, coal, the introduction of streets by way of understanding as infrastructure has opened very different avenues of thought. Streets’ intimacy to everyday life is unmatched by any other kind of infrastructure which allows Bandyopadhyay to enter this deeply conflictual world of Calcutta’s transition. The street in his narrative emerges as an arbiter of the city’s future. The Improvement Trust and colonial urban planners aside, the city’s Marwaris, Bhadraloks, Muslims, refugees, hawkers, and rioters, all emerge as important actors that shape and get shaped by the street and by extension, the city.
It is commendable that Bandyopadhyay uses both archives and ethnography to plot the city’s transition through movements of political economy — a methodological route that is not the most popular with historians of the contemporary. Streets in Motion gives us a powerful narrative that animates this move between past and the present through dialectics. Henri Lefebvre’s foundational text Right to the City had inaugurated the Marxist lens into studying the city through the dialectics of “use value” and “exchange value” (Lefebvre, 1996). Though we are surrounded by urban studies scholarship invoking “Right to the City”, very few political economists or urban theorists have worked with this dialectical approach. Taking the Marxist route, Bandyopadhyay shows us the materiality of history, how a city like Calcutta is shaped by the ‘motion’ of capital and ‘obstruction’ that is posed by popular politics. ‘Motion’ and ‘Obstruction’ play a much deeper role in the book than just being metaphors. If capital is defined by speed and connectivity (Castells, 1996; Virilio, 1977), popular politics has often been articulated through strikes, shutdowns and gheraos.
Therefore, for Bandyopadhyay, the story of Calcutta’s transformation is also one of dialectical materialism. It is propelled by motion and the material conflicts that stem from it. Bandyopadhyay posits this story of streets with war. While it is well recognized that ‘real’ wars are fought through machines and new technology, we do not always see cities at the heart of an ongoing, incipient everyday war — one that is unleashed on and sometimes by the streets of Calcutta. Bandyopadhyay narrates this everyday war waged in the cities through new technology of public works. Ongoing struggles over property making, majoritarian politics, state power are fought over this new artifact. Bandyopadhyay is able to show that these wars waged in the name of public works are at the heart of reconstituting the city of Calcutta from being mixed neighbourhoods, to that of Hindu neighbourhoods and Muslim ghettos.
But then, these are not immune to ruptures, nor are they a one-way process. And to my mind, that is where the dialectic of ‘motion’ and ‘obstruction’ is so crucial to think through. If streetlights are the state’s methods of ‘crime control’, then crimes and loots would first take place after breaking them. The methods by and large have remained the same. When Hong Kong broke into a mass unrest, lampposts which doubled up as surveillance cameras were the first to be brought down by protestors. Through Bandyopadhyay’s account we also see hawkers and refugees win some of these battles, if not the overall war. What Bandyopadhyay shows historically is something that several contemporary political theorists are thinking about. What if democracy could be located away from institutions and their processes? Is there a possibility of locating democracy in “things” (Honig, 2017)? For Bonnie Honig, “public things” constitute the nature of democratic life. Building public things, maintaining them, and also using them as sites of protests is at the core of the democratic process — not elections. Democracy for Honig, and I believe for Bandyopadhyay too, is rooted in common love for, or antipathy towards, public things.
My thoughts therefore are in the spirit of thinking along with Bandyopadhyay’s framework. If Bandyopadhyay’s dialectic of ‘motion’ and ‘obstruction’ stands for capital’s mobility and people’s resistance respectively, how do we understand moments in our political history when this dialectical framing is reversed? David Harvey speaks of how capital moves from place to place in order to be ‘fixed’ (Harvey, 2001). Capital needs to be spatialized before it takes flight, and social movements, on the other hand, can very well be defined by motion and agility. Invoking the Hong Kong protests again, those mass protests embraced the tactical method of ‘being like water’ — of being shapeless, formless in order to avoid police crackdowns (Holbig, 2020). Does this reversal change anything fundamental in Bandyopadhyay’s frame?
While Bandyopadhyay’s framework quite convincingly charts the dynamic between ‘motion’ and ‘obstruction’, the location of state along the dialectic remains somewhat unclear. If we do go by the understanding that the state has relative autonomy, then what is its relationship with ‘motion’? The state undertakes huge infrastructural projects to facilitate capital’s motion, but the state also responds to popular protests through its own mechanisms of ‘obstruction’ through barricades, tear gas. Zoning as a state activity is as much a function of enabling motion as it is of creating obstruction. How does one understand the state’s relationship to ‘motion’ and ‘obstruction’, if we have to go beyond treating the state simply as an “instrument in the hands of the ruling classes” (Miliband, 1973; Poulantzas, 1976)?
Bandyopadhyay’s narrative provides us with clues to understand majoritarianism through its relationship with ‘motion’. His work takes us through narratives of streets being shaped by property and wealth which weaves into the majoritarian logics of the city — a kind of urban development exemplified by a city like Ahmedabad. What could be the possible ways of understanding majoritarianism’s relationship to infrastructure, beyond wealth, property relations and urban transition? If democracies have indeed been mobilized in favour of majoritarian politics today, what are the diverse ways in which this dialectic is instrumental in fomenting these passions within politics? These are of course beyond Bandyopadhyay’s concerns in the book but force us as readers to confront the realities of the present, when democratic politics have taken a sharp turn since the 20th century. Bandyopadhyay straddles both the 20th century history of Calcutta as well as the contemporary, where he shows us the continuities in the logic of urban transformations. But what about the ruptures? Going by the strong political economy impulse of the text, it then becomes crucial to perhaps make sense of these different epochs. How has neoliberalism altered these dialectical relationships? Or is it only a matter of intensification that we are looking at?
Streets in Motion is a remarkable contribution to scholarship that pushes us to think of infrastructure not simply as inanimate objects, but things which actually centre democratic politics. While all historical writing in some way straddles the present, Streets in Motion is a historical project whose soul is determined by the dilemmas of the present. It nudges us to take these objects seriously as real sites of politics, and in doing that it is as much a political project as it is historical.
Bandyopadhyay, R (2022) Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth-century Calcutta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Castells, M (1996) The Rise of the Network Society, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol. I. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Graham, S (2018) Elite Avenues: Flyovers, Freeways and the Politics of Urban Mobility. City 22(4): 527-550.
Harris, A (2018) Engineering Formality: Flyover and Skywalk Construction in Mumbai. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42(2): 295-314.
Harvey, D (2001) Globalization and the “Spatial Fix”. Geographische Revue 2: 23-30.
Heike, H (2020) Be Water, My Friend: Hong Kong’s 2019 Anti-Extradition Protests. International Journal of Sociology 50(4): 325-337.
Honig, B (2017) Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. New York: Fordham University.
Lefebvre,H (1996) Writings on Cities. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Miliband, R (1973) Poulantzas and the Capitalist State. New Left Review 82 (1): 83-92.
Poulantzas, N (1976) “The Capitalist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau”. New Left Review 95(1): 63-83.
Virilio, P (1977) Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. New York: Semiotext(e).
Sushmita Pati is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Her recent book, Properties of Rent: Community, Capital and Politics in Globalising Delhi is now out from Cambridge University Press.