Teun Freriks

The Sewage System as Political Infrastructure

What can sewers tell us about the functioning of our modern democracy? About the role of technology and infrastructure in politics? The sewage system isn’t ‘just there’ as a neutral entity; instead, it is a political infrastructure that co-shapes the course of history.


Plattegrond riolering Wilhelmina Gasthuis - Source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam 5221BT900643

A long long time ago, when the world was still old-fashioned, everybody dumped his or her poo and poo onto the streets and into the canals. Cities were dirty and smelly places, so we filled up our canals, put some sewers in the ground and hid everything beneath clean streets and sidewalks, never to think about it again. There was a problem (everything stank of shit), some smart guys came with a technological solution (the sewage system) and everybody lived happily ever after in healthy, sweet-smelling cities. If there’s any politics involved in that, it is only because some plans had to be approved, some contracts to be signed.

However, as with all history, things weren’t so simple, or neutral. In fact, the sewage system is as political as the ban on urinating in public. Why so? Michel Foucault provides an answer. ‘To govern’, said the French philosopher, is to ‘shape the possibilities that are open to others’. Here, he refers to the possibilities to do or think certain things, and the impossibilities to do and think other things. Coming back to peeing in public: regulating the places where you’re allowed to relieve yourself makes it harder to urinate where and when you want to; it restricts our possibilities to act. But it also shapes our thinking: now, urinating in public is dangerous and therefore maybe exciting - an act of resistance, if you like. It is no longer the logical answer to a full bladder; in fact, as we get used to the new law - when it becomes self-evident over time - it becomes harder to imagine a world where peeing in public was commonplace.

So, as this example shows, lawmaking shapes the physical and mental ‘possibilities that are open’. But, as Foucault showed, the political isn’t only found in laws – or politicians, policies and parties, for that matter. Infrastructure, including all the engineers, planners, builders and maintainers, has political power too. The sewage system is a very powerful form of infrastructure. Historians have revealed its many far-reaching consequences for the practices and ideas of urban dwellers, for their possibilities and impossibilities of action and thought. To name a very direct consequence: instead of carrying buckets full of poo through their house, people not only had to pull a string to flush everything from sight and smell. Human excrements – since the beginning of mankind a sign of human life – disappeared from the private sphere. The public sphere, too, became ‘cleaner’: human waste was brought underground, not because a law prohibited the use of cesspits and open sewers (although in same places this was the case), but because the water closet opened up the possibility of defecating in a more ‘hygienic’ way.

These are relatively simple and direct examples of the changes that the sewage system brought about. In the long run, the infrastructure shaped the practices and ideas – the acting and thinking – about hygiene, privacy, the body, the household and the city. And let’s not forget about the consequences for the natural environment of cities: not only was the poo and pee dumped directly into rivers or the sea, but the huge amount of water needed for the constant flushing of the system increased the cities dependence on this vital natural resource.

The sewage system co-shaped the course of history, by shaping the possibilities that are open. But what can it tell us about liberal democracies and liberal governing? At the core of modern democracy is the safekeeping of the individual freedom of citizens. Political intervention that is too direct arouses suspicion of endangering this ‘freedom’. Still, governments have to find ways to channel this freedom in the right direction, or become obsolete. This channeling or shaping can happen semi-directly, via laws, or more indirectly, by intervening in the physical environment. These physical interventions are often presented as logical solutions to a certain problem, like traffic jams, deficient communication, nuisance, etc. Indeed, technology seems a neutral, apolitical domain, left to experts who do what they are trained for. The consequences of these solutions are, however, often enormous – as the history of the sewage system shows.

Let us be more concrete, by paying attention to the role of sewers in the new, late-nineteenth-century democracies. The hygienisation of the body, the household and the city was on the agenda of many politicians of that era. Instead of laws, or the physical forcing of subjects to live more hygienic lives, hygiene was built into the city and its houses, in the form of drains, pipes and the water closet. These ‘improvements’ made new ways of acting and thinking possible, while making others less likely and on the long run almost impossible to think of or act out. The water closet didn’t threaten the individual freedom of the subject; it channeled this freedom in the direction of a cleaner, more desirable lifestyle. In other words: urban governments co-constructed the framework within which subjects could think and act freely.

To be clear: the sewage system isn’t part of a big conspiratorial project aiming to keep subjects under complete control. Technological interventions in the city bring about many positive changes for urban life, and politicians and engineers will no doubt have only good intentions. But by paying attention to the different ways in which infrastructure itself ‘governs’, we get better insight into the functioning of modern democracies, their possibilities to shape certain physical and mental contexts with far-reaching consequences for the short and the long term. Sewers are just one example. In the end, every intervention in the city shapes the life in that city – even when that intervention is mostly underground.


Joyce, Patrick, The rule of freedom: liberalism and the modern city (London 2003).

Lemke, Thomas, "The birth of bio-politics’. Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality’, Economy and Society 30 (2001) 190-207.

Osborne, Thomas, ‘Security and vitality. Drains, liberalism and power in the nineteenth century’, in: Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne en Nikolas Rose eds., Foucault and political reason. Liberalism, neo-liberalism and the rationalities of government (Londen 1996) 109-132.

Otter, Christopher, ‘Cleansing and clarifying. Technology and perception in nineteenth-century London’, Journal of British Studies 43 (2004) 40-64.