Trains: Defeating Geography And Changing The Course of History
By: Amer Mohsen
Published Monday, May 28, 2012
It is said that the last Shah of Iran was unaware of what was taking place in the street right outside his palace. But he could debate for hours with experts on issues such as petroleum extraction, steel production, and military aircrafts.
Reading Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s “The Shah’s Story” (1980), we discover that he was not born to become a tyrant or to enter politics. He was simply a teenager obsessed with technology and numbers. There is no trace of politics or society in many chapters of his book. Instead, there are endless listings of the height of a dam he built or the length of a road he cut.
The Shah’s heart was in the right place. No human can aspire for rule or public office without grasping the technology behind large projects, which constitute the infrastructure of the modern state, and how it impacts the material world. But in the case of nations still under creation, the technology of development becomes as important as the the technology of politics.
Those who know something about how technology defeats nature, transforms geography, and builds nations always fall in love with the oldest and most creative forms of it: the train and the railway.
In 1879, Karl Marx wrote that laying down railway tracks is the forerunner of a modern industrial economy, calling the train the “jewel in the crown” of industrial capitalism. Marx lived during the heyday of trains, when railways were the only mode of transportation for both goods and passengers in commercial volumes and for long distances.
At the end of the nineteenth century, linking a village or city with the railway meant that it became connected with the globalized world economy.
If we want to transport anything, human or inanimate, in an 800km radius, the train remains the most effective, straightforward, and money-saving alternative at our disposal.
When China wanted to be recognized among the most developed industrial countries, it began constructing the largest high-speed rail network in history. When the project began in 2004, China did not have a single kilometer of high-speed rail track. Today, the network spans more than 10,000 km.
But the finest and most impressive example of trains are in Japan. The mere idea of linking Japan through high-speed rail seemed crazy initially. The country is made up of islands intersected by dozens of mountain ranges with no extended valleys that can hold a straight line of tracks.
Nevertheless, the first high-speed line was launched in 1964. Today, the rail network covers the length of Japan. Japan is impressive not only in the engineering challenge or the technology of its trains, which remain the most modern and fastest worldwide. It also devised a system that carries millions of passengers annually in the most accurate and effective manner on the planet.
Development and Politics
What is the relationship between trains and politics? Our region is a glaring illustration. From an objective point of view, the Arab Mashreq [The Levant] is the perfect place to build a railway. It is a flatland whose inhabitants are concentrated in urban islands. Historically, these urban centers thrived on communication with each other and the world at large.
Today, you will not find a single modern railway network between Istanbul and China. In our countries, trains speak through their absence. Like projects such as the Hejaz Railway, they are a mere fragment of the story of our failure to become real states.
In recent decades, enormous efforts were expended to stifle any Arab developmental thinking based on local foundations. No other region in the world — with the exception of Africa — sees this level of influence of international institutions in planning its economic future, theorizing about its development, or monopolizing the publishing of reports and their “documented” data.
All other alternatives to liberalism as a developmental theory were crushed in the course of critiquing socialism and it "woes." Up until a few years ago, anyone who wanted to study the economy of the Middle East in US universities would start with a book by Alan Richards and John Waterbury. It gave them a practical account of how socialism destroyed the region’s economies and how pro-market reforms will save them.
We should not be blinded by the rhetoric of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and imagine that they have a solid and tested economic theory. Other than expropriating local economic decisions and forcing the countries of the region into adopting market policies, liberal international institutions failed to present us with a coherent development rhetoric.
Instead, we were led along by a number of theorists who are always busy covering up the failure of their policies while justifying their existence and high salaries.
At the turn of the century, the World Bank still held to the fundamentalist version of the Washington Consensus and reforms suggested by Jeffrey Sachs: market liberalization as an end in itself, similar structural reforms everywhere, reducing the size of the state and pushing for its retreat from all spheres.
A few years later, with the catastrophic failure of liberal economic policies from Argentina to Africa, World Bank theorists decided to join the circle of self-criticism and avoid “simplistic” reform concepts. They all enlisted in the new school of institutional economics as a theoretical alternative to the now-untenable fundamentalist liberalism.
In the years following the Iraq war, the institutional school lost its radiance and new currents appeared in the literature of international institutions. They spoke about social development and “development from below,” but not in a participatory and distributive manner as the reader might assume. They were based on the idea that economic reforms led by the prospective organizations would recreate the balance of social forces in the direction of “democratization.”
What irritates me about all these ideological shifts is that none of them will build us trains. As Marx said, the train is the crown of industrial economic success, not its cause. It is an indicator of a successful national market.
All the expertise of the World Bank and similar institutions is in the service of extending the status quo. But those who look at our region will quickly understand that its economy is “political” in the first degree. Its peoples will have no future unless radical changes are introduced.
Writing about development and industrial production, Alexander Gerschenkron formulated the theory of “advantages of backwardness.” It said that underdeveloped countries are able to grow faster than developed countries due to that backwardness. In underdeveloped countries, the returns of useful projects are much greater than those in wealthy countries and come at a lower cost.
Imagine the impact of a modern, low-cost train linking Damascus to Baghdad in a three-hour journey? It would not only change the course of the regional economy, but would also lead to real changes in the demographics and culture of the Mashreq. In the same vein, an efficient rail network will transform the Arab Mashreq into a gateway for goods between China and Europe.
Ships coming from China and Asia can unload their cargo south of Basra, as they used to do centuries ago. The goods will later be transported to Europe by train in less than two days, saving weeks at sea. In fact, there are plans to link western China with Central Asia then Iran and Europe directly through rail.
These dreams remain prisoners to the political environment. Trains, as projects for development and nation-building, will not construct themselves. They are the product of human effort and political imagination which aims to defeat geography and change the course of history.
When the sects mobilize their supporters, uncovering underlying social defects, imagining a different future becomes a matter of life or death. When the sects and tribes challenge us, we are left with two choices, join them or invent a bigger and stronger nation.
Amer Mohsen is a doctoral candidate in Political Science, University of California - Berkeley.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.