As far as I know, the word Infrastruktur never appears in the writings of Karl Marx.

Marxists have sometimes substituted “infrastructure” for “base” in the famous “base and superstructure” couplet derived from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis (Basis) on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite form of social consciousness” (Marx 1972, see Wuthnow 1993). In popular usage, infrastructure tends to connote physical systems and structures, especially those that facilitate transportation, communication, and the provision of services, but its resonance with the Marxist category of Basis is instructive. Just as the economic base of society is comprised of material relationships – wage relations, property relations, class relations – as much as it is of material objects, contemporary infrastructure studies take for granted that the “peculiar ontology” of infrastructures “lies in the fact that they are things and also the relation between things” (Larkin 2003).

Infrastructure also bears the qualities of what Marx described as constant capital: “that part of capital which is represented by the means of production, by the raw material, auxiliary material and the instruments of labour [which] does not, in the process of production, undergo any quantitative alteration of value” (Marx 1978, 202). Infrastructure is constant capital in the sense that it remains in place so that labour, which comes and goes, can continually or repeatedly generate value.

Together, these two oblique references suggest the defining characteristics of infrastructure.

The first is that infrastructures are social relationships materialized. Marx calls our attention to the manner in which capitalist relations are invested in, materialized as, and reproduced by infrastructure in the form of constant capital, but the same applies to nearly every other relationship of inequality, exploitation and domination we might wish to consider. It is not a coincidence that the recent turn to infrastructure in the social sciences and humanities was initiated by a feminist. When Susan Leigh Star describes infrastructure as “a substrate…part of the background for other kinds of work,” she implies the subordinate status of women – as providers of the reproductive and restorative labour that regenerates the productive labour (and citizenship) of men—that has persisted throughout modern western history (Leigh Star 1999, 38). Women, which is to say gender relations, were the first form of constant capital, the first infrastructure (Federici 2012). Similarly, relationships of exploitation and disparity between the Euro-American metropole and the Global South were and are materialized in infrastructures of slavery, colonial extraction, production, circulation, and the imposition of sovereign violence (Larkin 2008). Slavery, imperialism, and colonialism (including settler colonialism) operate by transforming racialized peoples and their geographies into infrastructure (Jabari Salamanca 2016). Infrastructures are thus social relations in material form, and so are a primary site for materialist analysis.

The second defining characteristic of infrastructure, suggested by its status as constant capital, is a temporal orientation towards repetition, continuity and duration. Infrastructure is what is expected. It is memory made concrete. In satisfying expectations, infrastructure recedes into the invisibility of routine. This is true even in settings where a lack of certain kinds of infrastructure has, itself, become infrastructural (Simone 2004). In this sense, infrastructure reifies, transforming the social relations it embodies into things that appear to be just there, beyond the social and outside history.

Nevertheless, infrastructure remains irreducibly political, because it distributes and concentrates resources and advantage, enables and disables mobility (including migration), organizes spatial and temporal relations, and manifests inequality and power. Under conditions variously named globalization, neoliberalism, and the network society, infrastructure is the medium by which capital becomes the state, and by which the state accomplishes itself as an organizer of flows and bases of identity (Easterling 2014). Our friends The Invisible Committee are helpful here:

What is it that appears on euro banknotes? Not human figures, not emblems of a personal sovereignty, but bridges, aqueducts and arches […] As to the truth about the present nature of power, every European has a printed exemplar of it in their pocket. It can be stated in this way: power now resides in the infrastructures of this world […]. Contemporary laws are written with steel structures and not with words […]. [P]ower consists in infrastructures, in the means to make them function, to control them and build them. (Invisible Committee 2015, 83-85).

Herein lies one of the many contradictions that constitute infrastructure as historical and political, as opposed to merely technical. In one sense, infrastructure recedes into the invisibility, repetition, and durability of routine, reifying and concealing the contingent social relations it materializes. This is its primary function vis-à-vis capital. However, there are also occasions when infrastructure becomes punctual, when it stands out and is made visible, even thematized. This happens when states and their capitalist partners explicitly invoke infrastructural innovation, renovation and expansion as proof of their legitimacy and promote infrastructure as an object of ideological investment. It happens when public or collective systems of social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, parks, the wireless spectrum, etc.) are withdrawn from the commons and privatized or commodified. It also happens in moments of infrastructural failure—blackout, interruption of service, delayed connection, decay, unexpected detour—when the social relations materialized by infrastructure are suddenly exposed (Bennett 2005). Such failures are often technical, but they can also be political, as when the gap between infrastructural forces and infrastructural relations is made sensible through political action.

This suggests a third defining characteristic of infrastructure: it is dialectical, a medium of transformative, and even revolutionary, potential (Boyer 2017). Infrastructures are the prevailing social relations materialized, and they contain all the contradictions characteristic of those relations, contradictions that can burst forth at any moment. This means that infrastructure is a medium of political struggle, a struggle over which relationships will repeat, continue and endure in material form which will be contested, and a struggle over the possibility of alternative relationships and infrastructures. As Deborah Cowen observes, infrastructures materialize both empire and resistance:

Infrastructure connects a range of political conflicts which might otherwise seem disparate and discrete: crises surrounding the rights of refugees and the provision of asylum in a world of thickening borders; crises of indigenous peoples’ lands and sovereignty in the face of transnational extractive industries; crises regarding local livelihoods in an economy organized through speed and flexibility in trade across vast distances; crises of water infrastructure in Black and Indigenous communities; crises of police and carceral violence that breed profound distrust in the core institutions of the state for communities of color. At the center of these struggles are the [infrastructural] systems engineered to order social and natural worlds (Cowen 2017).

The line that joins the struggles of indigenous peoples, poor migrants, precarious workers, and incarcerated Black populations is the organization of inequality and capitalist power by infrastructure. In its materiality, infrastructure gathers resistant, fugitive political experiences and energies that might otherwise tend towards fragmentation, isolation and dissipation. As the class struggle composes itself, it is likely that infrastructure will be a key medium of that composition.




This much is certain: Marxists have never favoured sabotage as a form of political action capable of advancing the class struggle towards the goal of ending capitalism.

The fate of sabotage in the Marxist imagination was more or less sealed by Engels’ and Marx’s assessment of Luddite machine-breaking during the onset of industrial capitalism in the 19th century (See Hobsbawn 1952). In his path-breaking account of the working class in Victorian England, Engels concluded of machine-breaking and factory destruction that, “This form of opposition was isolated, restricted to certain localities, and directed against one feature only of our present social arrangements. When the momentary end was attained, the whole weight of social power fell upon the unprotected evil-doers and punished them to its heart’s content, while the machinery was introduced none the less. A new form of opposition had to be found” (Engels 2009, 222). Two decades later, Marx would reiterate this assessment in Volume I of Capital, lamenting that the “enormous destruction of machinery” in England during this period served only to provide authorities with “a pretext for most reactionary and forcible methods” of quelling working class revolt. He continues: “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used” (Marx 1978, 404).

Thus, the essential lines of the Marxist position on sabotage were established. Sabotage indulges the appetite for immediate, local and temporary relief from the symptoms of capitalist exploitation by destroying its instruments. It reflects the irrationality of an immature, undisciplined working class prone to self-defeating action in the absence of political leadership informed by a deeper theorization of material conditions and the dynamics of history. This appraisal set the stage for a history in which sabotage became the bête noire of organized working-class movements committed to a Marxist-inspired political trajectory of unionization, strike, party, revolution, and state power.1 This antagonism was not limited to Europe and North America. In 1988, for example, the valiant South African trade unionist Nimrod Sejake decried the ANCs call for sabotage against the apartheid state and economy as “dangerous to the revolution, self-defeating and an act of desperation.” Advocating for strike tactics that would culminate in seizure, not destruction, of the means of production, Sejake argued that sabotage signalled “the inability of workers in that place or at that time to unite and use their collective power…sabotage is the method of individuals or isolated groups who divert attention away from the real task – which is to organise and mobilise the working class to use its full social power in mass actions” (Sejake 1988, 86-7).2

Sabotage has been largely disavowed by Marxists, but it has nevertheless persisted alongside related forms of direct, disobedient and disruptive action in the history of militancy and social struggles everywhere (see for example Fox Piven 2006; Scott 1985). Within the context of workers’ movements, sabotage has figured prominently in the anarchist, syndicalist and autonomist traditions in both theory and practice (see Pouget 1913; Negri 1979; Graeber 2009). Beyond workers’ struggles narrowly defined, sabotage has also been a core tactic in slave resistance, anti-colonial liberation struggles, indigenous militancy, the women’s movement, the militant liberalism of hackers and whistleblowers, and radical environmentalism.3 Saboteurial tactics used in these contexts have exceeded those historically associated with the specific acts of machine-breaking that drew the scorn of Marx and Engels, and have included forms—such as, for example, the general strike—that many would identify with the advance of the workers’ struggle. This suggests that those wishing to theorize the shape and potential of contemporary forms of militant political action would do well to pay more attention to the category of sabotage (and its analogues) than more narrow Marxist accounts might allow. 

Among the many things to be learned from serious consideration of the history and philosophy of sabotage is that it cannot be reduced to violence and destruction, despite the tendency to do so by both the institutional left and the authorities of capitalist states. In 1916, legendary IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described sabotage as “the conscious withdrawal of the workers’ industrial efficiency” (Gurley Flynn 2014). The “conscious withdrawal of efficiency” can take many forms, most of which can be considered violent only from a perspective that equates disruption of capitalist value accumulation with violence. Indeed, as most critical accounts of sabotage have pointed out, if sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency, then capitalist business owners are the greatest saboteurs of all.4 This suggests that sabotage – the strategic disruption of established regimes of accumulating value and power by subtracting from their efficiency—might provide insight into the basic logic of politics in capitalist settings, across the multiple relationships of inequality that structure them.

This is the implication of Evan Calder Williams’ observation that sabotage “is not an operation with a definite content, but an exacerbated relation” (Calder Williams 2016). In Williams’ account, “sabotage is not just present in but is constitutive of capitalism,” and all that stands between sabotage that consolidates capitalist hegemony and sabotage that unravels it is a “fine thread of deviation” (Ibid.). To make sabotage the name for transformative political potential in the context of contemporary capitalism – across the multiple relations of inequality and domination characteristic of capitalist societies – is to affirm the tendency of systems to produce the energies and harbour the agencies of their own undoing. We might recall Marx and Engels here: “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons… What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers” (Marx and Engels 1972). Marx also taught that in order for political action to be historically effective, it has to take forms appropriate to the material conditions with which it is confronted.  Actually-existing capitalism no longer produces the forms of effective working class action – trade unions, strikes, working-class parties – associated with its earlier periods. Multiple social, economic and technological factors have contributed to this condition. But, what about the saboteurs – those who are positioned to pull fine threads of deviation in order to exacerbate relations (exploitation, racism, sexism, etc.) that already compromise the “efficiency” of the system in a decisive way? Those whose saboteurial actions might produce erosion, if not revolution, particularly under conditions in which capitalism relies for its functioning on articulated infrastructures that it cannot police or secure perfectly? These grave-diggers are, potentially, everywhere.