The Potholes in Portland

Anarchists in Portland are taking to the streets! But it seems that these particular anarchists are not feeling that old “urge to destroy”. Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is instead filling in potholes; assisting in the maintainence of the city infrastructure. They allege that “state neglect has caused the streets to fall into disrepair” and are consequently taking direct action.

On February 28th, they boasted of a “successful preliminary action” via Facebook; they “patched 5 potholes on SE Salmon between 37th and 39th”.

This Portlandia-style praxis along with daring photos of anarchists in balaclavas behind construction cones has succeeded in generating a lot of press with news reports appearing both in print and online. A small sampling includes: The Portland Mercury, The Oregonian, The Register Guard, US News & World Report, CityLab, AutoBlog, Zerohedge, Reason, and The Stranger.

It’s weird but it’s not parody. Oddly enough, PARC is sincere in their efforts and their stated defenses of the “action” seem to only make things worse:

“Be creating structures to serve the same purpose as state structures, such as our organization, we have the ability to show that government is not necessary for society to function, that we can have a truly free and liberated society.”

I am not sure why anarchists would want to “create structures to serve the same purpose as state structures”. If the State didn’t exist would we really want to invent it?

This is what the Left does and it’s not an attempt to abolish the State but rather to become the State; to take on State functions requires State power. The anarchist critique of the State has to go deeper than demonstrating that the State is failing to maintain city infrastructure to an adequate degree; after all, it’s not anarchists who promise to make the trains run on time.

Remember, the infrastructure does not exist for our benefit even as we are coerced into making extensive use of it. This is akin to prisoners repairing the bars on their cells; blaming the guards for allowing things to fall into disrepair.

But if you really want roads—at least in their modern form—you need something like the State. Consider the fact that PARC’s “successful preliminary action” amounted to patching five potholes which they say they are now monitoring to see how they hold up. The monitoring is necessary because PARC’s cold patching process is technically inferior to the job that would be done by city workers using heated asphalt. There is an issue of scale here that can’t be ignored: the city reports fixing 8,000 potholes every year. Anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

Nonetheless, PARC doesn’t seem deterred by these numbers. According to The Oregonian, “The group said it’s now exploring alternatives to patching holes, including mobilizing people to fix roads in their own neighborhoods”. To fix 8,000 holes requires more than direct action; it requires mobilizing people in significant numbers but again anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.

It should be further added that filling potholes must be one of the least challenging tasks necessary to maintain a network of roads sufficient for a city the size of Portland. Should we expect PARC to eventually be building new roads from the ground up, adding lanes to existing roads, re-routing traffic with detours, monitoring air quality, and perhaps installing roundabouts at dangerous intersections? And, if they do, will they still be anarchists? To put it mildly: I am skeptical.

On a final note, a spokesperson from the Portland Bureau of Transportation said “We’d like to repair more potholes more quickly, but our efforts have been thwarted by Mother Nature.” With PARC promising more actions, that fight against Mother Nature has gained an ally.

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