Union Station

The history of the train — once a symbol of capitalism, now socialism — contains lessons for nationalizing digital infrastructure

Building to Code is a monthly column about how we live among cities and each other. It regards cities as what they’ve always been: not systems of capitalist resource management, but the stages that society plays out on.

Why do socialists love trains? Commentators all across the political spectrum agree that they do: Conservative pundit George Will, writing in Newsweek in 2011, posited that “the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.” Earlier this year, Nathan J. Robinson wrote in Current Affairs, “Cars are the freedom to be lonely and stuck in traffic. Trains are the freedom from having to maintain your own personal transportation container.” Christopher Kempf writes in Jacobin, as if it were a self-evident fact, that: “As with healthcare and education, the broad mass of people would benefit enormously from a publicly run rail system that delivered an efficient, affordable alternative to travel by plane or car.” The answer, then, seems obvious: trains are machines that symbolically and literally impose collective will and action.

In an interview published in Truthout, Noam Chomsky argues that market forces don’t deliver mass transit because such systems do not offer “choices that involve common effort and solidarity and mutual support and concern for others.” However, nearly every railroad in the United States, whether connecting neighborhoods within cities or cities to each other, was built by private, profit-seeking companies. It was only in 1970 that Amtrak consolidated dozens of private passenger rail systems; many cities’ urban rail lines and bus systems were bought by their respective local governments nine years prior as part of the Kennedy Administration’s Housing Act of 1961. Today, with the exception of South Florida’s Brightline, passenger rail is publicly owned and everyone argues for and against trains as if that has always been the case; as if collective ownership is baked into the technology itself. One look at mid-19th century history shows that this simply isn’t true.

Asking why trains are the beloved technology of today’s leftists teaches us how to make future demands against companies like Amazon

The cultural valence of the technology further complicates matters. Depending on who you are and where you live, the train is associated with the poor or the rich: the working people taking overcrowded and unreliable commuter trains, versus the Acela set shuttling between Manhattan and DC condominiums. Land markets being what they are, proximity to well-maintained public transit can command a premium and cause what Casey Dawkins and Rolf Moeckel call “Transit-Induced Gentrification.” At the same time, many small towns rely on Amtrak as their last inter-city transportation option, and general Amtrak ridership has grown year-over-year for about a decade.

To be clear, we need publicly owned rail. It could, quite literally, save the planet. The environmental benefits of relying on trains instead of planes and cars are overwhelming, not only when compared mile-for-mile and energy-per-passenger, but because of the cumulative benefits of building cities and towns using the higher densities that are most compatible with terrestrial mass transit. Barring some new fundamental breakthrough energy source, a sustainable planet will require a network of something that looks like trains. There is, nonetheless, a historical irony in pinning humanity’s hopes for post-capitalist survival on a technology that once heralded the arrival of capitalist empires.

The history of American Railroads’ transition from disruptive corporate behemoths to necessary semi-public infrastructure can inform new struggles around new disrupters. Just like the railroad barons of the late nineteenth century, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, and Microsoft command vast logistics networks with little-to-no democratic input. A hundred years ago, when the Union Pacific railroad came to town, your town changed forever. Being “online” then meant essentially the same thing it means today: you and everyone around you become intimately connected to a vast network of information and money. A web that can bring unprecedented prosperity or carnage depending on who you are and how well you can leverage change to your advantage. Asking why trains are the beloved technology of today’s leftists teaches us how to make future demands against companies like Amazon.

Trains were once the quintessential capitalist technology. In the first volume of Capital, Marx describes a growing network of factories connected by telegraph lines and railroads “in which the laborer becomes a mere appendage to an already existing material condition of production.” John Ruskin, a bourgeois cultural commentator contemporary to Marx, agreed that those who rode the train were treated like parcels rather than people. The historian Wolfgang Shivelbusch said of both men’s work that they were lamenting the loss of “what one might call the ‘esthetic freedom of the pre-industrial subject.’” Walking and horse-powered rides were bumpy, slow and dangerous; however, once the horse shit and creaking wheels of the carriage ride are compared to the steam and steel of the railroad, the former become the relics of a slower, more authentic past.

Transportation machinery meant that those who controlled the machinery got to say where people lived and where they could go. At the continental scale, according to the demographer Katerine J. Curtis White, the presence of railroads in Midwestern counties acted as a colonizing force. Railroad companies would even sell one-way “exploration tickets” that included the price of new land out west. As the frontier closed, railroads consolidated their lines to a few chosen winners.

If tiny electric scooters strike fear and anger in the hearts of today’s urbanites, one can only imagine what it was like seeing a train for the first time: Here is a screaming beast that shakes the earth and, once it stops, disgorges strange people, animals, and all sorts of freight. Like an army, your heart might swell with pride or get caught in your throat depending on whether you see it as your defender or your enemy. For the Amerindian tribes, the railroad was a clarion call for white settlement, instantly recognized for the threat it posed. When the transcontinental railroad reached deep into the prairie lands, Civil War veterans were hired by the railroad companies to shoot at warriors defending their land. The names given to railroad stops held power. The land was no longer Ouiatenon, it was Terre Haute. Today something similar happens when neighborhoods like the historically black Fruit Belt neighborhood in Buffalo, New York suddenly show up on Google Maps under real estate agents’ preferred name, “Medical Park.”

Transit is so intimately connected to power that Marx carved out a special place for transportation and communication technologies in the advancement of capitalism. Both industries are essential in getting commodities and consumers to the same place. They also, as he wrote in volume one of Capital, instigate “special fluctuations in the markets” that result in “the sudden placing of large orders that have to be executed in the shortest possible time. The habit of giving such orders becomes more frequent with the extension of railways and telegraphs.” Anyone in the software business will recognize this as “crunch,” and warehouse workers from Japanese auto plants to Midwest Amazon fulfillment centers know it as “just in time inventory processing.”

Railroads’ centrality to capitalism may in fact be the only thing Karl Marx and Ayn Rand agreed on. Rand loved the train for its ability to destroy esthetic freedom in the name of profitable efficiency, but also for its role as an “avenging angel,” as Kevin Baker put it in Harper’s. Atlas Shrugged contains within it no fewer than three different instances where scores of people die in horrific train accidents. Teachers, politicians, and lawyers are sentenced to immolation, asphyxiation, and drowning in the river below the tracks for reasons related to their inability to exercise greed properly. Trains kill Rand’s characters in the same way that a plant drops leaves in a dry spell: because the greater good of the future requires a culling.

Trains for the working class were the harbingers of freedom, democracy, and westward expansion. The train afforded city planners the option to build out and decentralize, giving working people the option to live more than a few minutes’ walk away from where they toiled. For Americans it also meant more people could come together in conventions and rallies. Sarah H. Gordon in Passage to Union wrote, “by 1840 improved transportation by both railroad and steamboat made possible the mass conventions which have chosen presidential candidates ever since.” The nationalist populism of Andrew Jackson would not have been possible without the train, and a sanitized version of that populism was inferred by Barack Obama after his first win when he toured the country by train like a Gilded Age politician.

Trains represent a kind of power that is reassuringly obvious when compared to the blackboxed power of algorithms

Sarah H. Gordon notes that the construction and conspicuous naming of ornate “union stations” had a dual purpose: “While it meant that more than one railroad used the station, therefore uniting the services of many railroads, it also referred to the old idea of uniting the country through a railroad network.” In some sense, the Left loves trains because of a different kind of union story. Unionized train conductors and engineers brought the country to its knees in the Great Strike of 1877 which, according to the labor historian Nick Salvatore, was “an impressive display of cross-ethnic unity.” More localized displays of labor’s power were common occurrences all across the country well past the first world war and could be called in sympathy for other workers in different industries. A technology that served the rich was made into an egalitarian utility, something that unionized conductors could start and stop in support of labor’s demands.

Today, the train is a popular literary symbol of both relentless time and nonconsensual collectivity because it literally imposes these social forces. Think of Bong Joon-ho and screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s 2013 hit Snowpiercer, and Leo Tolstoy and his Anna Karenina, in which the ceaseless, forward momentum of the train (or time) reminds us that doing nothing has its own set of consequences. For leftists in 2019 this message is equal parts medicine and chicken soup: Getting on the train means getting to the platform on time and going to the same place as everyone else; the train is not only hurtling you forward, it is transporting all of us together whether we like it or not.

The train is loved by socialists for the same reason anything becomes socialist: because people made it that way. For the capitalist, trains are a source and symbol of centralized power; to own a railroad in the 1860s was to have a say in the fate of anything that moves, whether it be wheat, oil, or people. The same can be said of the biggest companies in the world today: Amazon, Walmart, and Alphabet together move and serve most of the nation’s goods, services, and digital information. Transportation and communication — not production or manufacturing — crowns the oligarchy.

In their recent book The People’s Republic of Walmart, Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue that big box stores can be understood as massive planned economies on the scale of the USSR. Walmart sets prices, negotiates with importers and producers, and monitors their locations and website to anticipate where inventory is needed. Amazon goes further, “using the fruits of modern IT to distribute consumer goods. In short, Amazon is a master planner.” Phillips and Rozworski see companies like Amazon and Walmart as ripe fruit ready to be picked from the tree of capital and deposited into the hands of the people. Amazon is so groundbreaking in the logistics game that they crown Jeff Bezos the “Stalin of online retail.”

Amazon, for all its faults, is unmistakably similar to the universal delivery system described in Looking Backwards, the Victorian utopian romance novel that inspired anarchist reformers like Ebenezer Howard and others to redesign cities to be healthier and more livable. The novel’s central premise is simple: a man named Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000; his caregivers, the Leete family, describe this brand new world to him. Edith Leete takes him to their Ward’s central store, which Julian recognizes as “merely the order department of a wholesale house.” Edith agrees, describing massive, centralized warehouses where “orders are read off, recorded, and sent to be filled, like lightning.” No matter how remote your home may be, a series of pneumatic tubes and electronic communication devices are capable of bringing whatever you need.

What is very much not like Amazon is that everyone in the country gets the same salary, including the clerks in the stores and the workers in the warehouses. The savings in distribution costs are fairly distributed to everyone: When something becomes more efficient, the savings go on to citizens, not the owner of the system. As Philips and Rozworski conclude, “It is not enough to say, ‘Nationalize it!’ to Amazon and Walmart.” There’s little gained by taking the same data, collected in the same secretive manner, and changing the owner from Jeff Bezos to Donald Trump or even Bernie Sanders. The whole point of socialism isn’t just to nationalize railroads or server farms, it is to change them such that they serve the needs of people not profit.

Nationalization without socialism is the reason the increasing demand for trains has not translated into a better system. By changing the dominant form of transportation from rails to roads in the early 20th century, capital dealt a serious blow to the nation’s burgeoning and militant multi-racial communism. While auto plant workers unionized, and stopped work on car production more than once, they could not instantly stop all transportation in a city the way streetcar conductors did. Within cities, race-segregated streetcar suburbs, and then car-oriented development patterns offered decentralization and neighborhood-level segregation.

Nationalization without socialism is the reason the increasing demand for trains has not translated into a better system

In spite of increasing demand, we now live with an anemic national rail system. Unlike highways or airports, passenger rail no longer has an extensive lobbying network in state and federal governments — all forms of transportation require billions in subsidies, but only rail has to regularly beg for it. Amtrak (like the post office) is still expected to derive most of its revenues from the services it provides, thus keeping it tied to the whims of market forces. More than a mere inconvenience, the dilapidation of rail systems — everything from the New York City subway, to Amtrak, to your local commuter rail (if you’re lucky enough to have one) — feels like a betrayal. Unlike airlines, with their ever-expanding gradients of classes, and car brands’ embrace of status posturing, trains offer a fairly flat hierarchy. There’s something profane about trains being used as terrestrial cruise ships: Like a bar made from the detritus of an old hardware store, a luxury train ride such as the thousand-dollar Rocky Mountaineer may be nice, but its enjoyment is tainted by the knowledge that something far more useful to more people once existed from the constituent parts.

A nationalized Amazon, or a Google that did not significantly alter how it made its money, would be just as bad, maybe even worse, if the legitimate violence of the state and user surveillance were united more than they already are. Similar to transit-induced gentrification, a state-owned Amazon one-day fulfillment center would do more to raise property values than provide needed services. We can imagine a Facebook that has been so sanitized and automated that it has lost all ability to draw together disparate groups for comfort and solidarity; an Amazon that provides no useful or cheap products, just a mix of luxury goods and a handful of staples that they have a protected monopoly on selling.

The interpretability of trains, however, should lead us to be optimistic about the political malleability of even the most disruptive technologies. Railroad systems are massive, powerful things that were wrought on the landscape by colonists and capitalists but eventually, albeit unevenly and with mixed success, brought into public ownership. Trains are raw, loud, obvious embodiments of power and have been around longer; they can offer cautionary tales and inspiration for future socialization schemes. Trains represent a kind of power that is reassuringly obvious when compared to the blackboxed, mysterious Foucauldian power of algorithms and hidden-away server farms.

The establishment of the railroads was the precursor and main economic instigator of standardized global time zones. With great scale comes an even greater appetite for control over all variables in the system, and so railroads also drew law, property, economic theories, identity, and nation-states into their orbit. As a result, even the most remote towns without a railroad stop were subject to the ripple effects. Property laws became more stringent, centralized production and mass distribution superseded regional production. And so when we think of how trains can inspire us to demand a new and better world, we have to think about what kinds of laws, habits, and cultures our phones and their connected services afford, and which ones might be brought to bear on the public good. What can we do now, so that in the near future our phones and web services, while as imperfect as Amtrak, could still indicate a better future to come? Can the smartphone elicit the same kind of collectivism that terrifies George Will?

Bringing about what Phillips and Rozworski call the “Socialist Anthropocene” would require more institutional than technological innovation. The requisite information technology exists to coordinate across offices, distribution centers, and manufacturing sites; how that planning is accomplished democratically is less certain. There are rays of democratic hope in the walk-outs and unionization efforts at tech and media companies. Just like the train, the Amazon fulfillment center and the phone are labor’s choke points for capital. When these distribution nodes fail, the system comes to a stop. Wielding that power and finding new and durable means of democratizing is not only a better world to imagine, it might be the only way to get there.

David A. Banks writes about cities, technology, and society from Troy, NY.