Why infrapolitics?


I adopted the term infrapolitics to name this website in a playful, heterodox way. How I use it is part of the voyage the term was set out on when it was created. In this case, infrapolitics is linked to two discussions that reveal the concept’s capacity to make visible an often unrecognised and even trivialised domain of political practice. Drawing on James C. Scott’s original definition and Nikhil Anand’s reformulation of the term, infrapolitics signals a type of social and material politics, a form of infrastructure and subaltern politics that emerge and consolidate hand in hand.

When I think about my work, I often end up concluding that infrapolitics encapsulates the focus of most of my research interests. It is that sort of word that resonates at the back of your head when trying to condense in a single word where you come from and where you are going. More specifically, infrapolitics aligns with my interest in grassroots politics and the impetus behind my ten-year relationship with a diversity of urban actors and their experiences of marginalisation and everyday resistance in Mexico City.

For me, infrapolitics also articulates what I believe is an attitude, a sensibility, and a commitment towards these groups. If the term itself designates a political sphere that is often overlooked, then those interested in studying and understanding infrapolitics seek to enunciate a practice that must not be neglected. In my work, infrapolitics has helped me shed light on the symbolic and material contributions of subordinate groups to how we understand and practice our rights to subsistence, to stay put, and to infrastructure.

Where does it come from?

In Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts, James C. Scott introduced the neologism infrapolitics.((Scott JC (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.)) This provided social scientists with a powerful concept that, as later he said, seems “good to think with.”((Scott JC (2012) Infrapolitics and Mobilisations: A Response by James C. Scott. Revue française d’études américaines (131). Editions Belin: 112–117. Read online.)) Infrapolitics was created to capture a level of political practice that is rarely recognised, so it brings forward the intensive and complex political life of subordinate groups, particularly its invisible facets, which are often put out of view by design.

In a nutshell, infrapolitics is a domain of “disguised, low-profile, undeclared resistance” that minimises exploitation and subordination (Scott, 1990, p. 198). While Scott primarily connects infrapolitics with the political life of subordinate groups experiencing conditions of tyranny or near-tyranny, he also emphasises that infrapolitics is a form of politics that is not foreign to today’s unprivileged minorities and marginalised poor.

In fact, Scott understands infrapolitics as the bulk of most people’s political action, an “immense political terrain” that “may be thought of as the elementary—in the sense of foundational—form of politics […] the building block for the more elaborate institutionalised political action that could not exist without it” (1990, p. 201).

Even in societies with an open political life, where speaking truth to power poses less risk of losing one’s life, infrapolitics is more than present, shaping alternative understandings of the rights and liberties that should prevail in a particular place and time.

In a brilliant move, Nikhil Anand more recently proposed that Scott’s formulation can also be extended to consider “the politics of the hidden, underground materials” of the city’s infrastructure (2017, p. 245, footnote 58).((Anand N (2017) Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai. Duke University Press. Read online.)) Anand’s equal focus on the illiberal politics of Mumbai’s residents and the material politics of hydraulic infrastructure infuses infrapolitics with a new sense.

This new sense opens the concept to the political life of infrastructures and its interconnections with the struggles of subordinate groups. Infrastructure’s political agency is thus re-connected with the problems of political analysis as it can be approached empirically vis-à-vis the cultural and political expressions of subaltern groups. Scott himself suggested this connection when equating infrapolitics with infrastructure:

The term infrapolitics is, I think, appropriate in still another way. When we speak of the infrastructure for commerce we have in mind the facilities that make such commerce possible: for example, transport, banking, currency, property and contract law. In the same fashion, I mean to suggest that the infrapolitics we have examined provides much of the cultural and structural underpinning of the more visible political action on which our attention has generally been focused.

Scott, 1990, p. 184

The infra of infrapolitics thus takes a new meaning, one that foregrounds the infrastructural mediations embedded in the political life of subaltern actors, particularly in their forms of resistance. By naming this website infrapolitics, I recognise the contributions of these discussions to my own work and celebrate the creative elasticity of a concept that, paraphrasing Scott, casts light on the continent that lies beyond the visible coastline of politics.