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This time, we feature interesting reads on the state of work and ‘quiet quitting’; post-car societies, future and present; the false promise of saving the planet by planting trees; the Turkey-Syria earthquakes; big beef’s climate messaging machine; de-extinction and why it isn’t worth the ethical cost; the conundrums of climate fiction; the new How to Blow Up a Pipeline movie, a dramatization of Malm’s 2021 book of the same name; and so much more.
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(1) The streets are the life-blood of the city—common areas used by all citizens.
(2) The history of industrial capitalism is also the history of enclosure and privatization of the commons. In 19th century England, common lands used by peasants and farmers for livestock to graze were enclosed for the benefit of a growing bourgeoisie, while those who lost access to the commons were forced to flock to the city to find employment in factories—the process of proletarianization. Similarly, streets that were once common spaces for use by the citizens of the city have become enclosed spaces reserved for a specific type of commodity: the automobile.
(3) Citizens1 of the city have been relegated to the well-defined spatial and temporal peripheries of the streets: the sidewalk, crosswalk, pedestrian overpass, the occasional street festival. In the Philippines, our sidewalks are even further subdivided by the abortive policy of pink or orange lines on some sidewalks—such as those on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Metro Manila—which denote where street vendors are allowed to set up.
(4) The vast majority of the street is reserved for the automobile commodity and its resulting car traffic. Thus, the life-blood of the city becomes the near-exclusive domain of the automobile commodity. To step outside these peripheries is to be subjected to the violence of the state through being punished for jaywalking, or the violence of the automobile commodity that kills millions across the globe. After all, automobiles kill 1.3 million people a year.
Jaywalking as invented
(5) To deviate from our defined spaces on the street is to become a “jaywalker.” “Jaywalking” was an invention by automobile capitalists to shift blame on accidents from cars and drivers to pedestrians. After all, the jaywalker shouldn’t have been on the road if they didn’t want to be run over!
(6) The creation of “jaywalking” then becomes part-and-parcel of the enclosure of the street reserved for automobile use.
(7) That is to say: to create a jaywalker, one must create jaywalking. Ursula Le Guin says it best: “‘To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.’”—from The Dispossessed. (Le Guin, 1974).
(8) Thus, the enclosure of the streets needs no physical barriers (though these may still be used). The enclosure is ideological—its manifestation is the invention of jaywalking. This criminalization of jaywalkers is in turn enshrined through ordinances and enforced by the police.
(9) Yet the police are not actually necessary to enforce this enclosure. Michel Foucault’s reading of the panopticon reminds us that we do not have to be watched at all times to ensure that we police our own behavior. The very regime of enclosure, its ordinances, and its police has accustomed us to obey its delimitations, even if we are not actively policed. That, and of course, the very threat of death by automobile.
(10) Yet the invention of jaywalking itself is part of a larger logic of organizing our cities according to the logic of automobiles—an automobile urbanism (if it may be called that).
(11) Automobile urbanism subordinates humans to the rule of capital and to the rule of a specific commodity—the automobile.
(12) Automobile urbanism is not just the enclosure of streets; automobile urbanism has ordered our cities around and for the automobile: parking lots, gas stations, widened roads and highways, bridges, underpasses, overpasses, and bypasses. An entire ecology is made for the automobile commodity wherein humanity are mere pedestrians. In a joke from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien wrongly assumes the dominant species of Earth is the automobile.
(13) Urban citizens are subordinated to this automobile urbanism and the neoliberalization of urban spaces. The urban citizen—particularly the working class—is out of sight and out of mind to the automobile urbanite.
(14) Automobile urbanism has gentrified and sequestered spaces that divide the city between those with automobiles and those without. In English, to gentrify is to reserve for the gentry class, but its French translation is perhaps more accurate for the scenario at hand: embourgeoisement, or to make bourgeois. After all, bourgeois referred originally to walled-off towns, set apart from the rest.
(15) Thus, the entire world is ordered under the bourgeois logic of the automobile commodity. To the automobile: the wide lanes. To the urban citizen: the spatial and temporal peripheries of the street: the sidewalk, crosswalk, pedestrian overpass, occasional street festivals, closed to cars on weekends. The urban citizen is thus demoted to a pedestrian.
(16) The enclosure of the streets from foot traffic is also an act of class warfare—dispossessing urban citizens of public spaces and the paving of homes for wider boulevards.
(17) This is literally true for Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s Paris (1850s), Robert Moses’ New York (1960s),(Harvey, 2008) and Metro Manila today. As David Harvey explains, Haussmann decimated the neighborhoods of Paris to build wide boulevards to make it easier to crush proletarian rebellions in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions. Similarly, Moses decimated the neighborhoods of New York for a new grand plan for the endless growth of capitalism. In Metro Manila, urban poor associations such as Kadamay or Save San Roque fight tooth and nail in resisting relocations against large developers that want to build more and more malls and high-rises. As an added bonus, the destruction of urban poor communities is a proven method of repression, as Harvey and Henri Lefebvre noted.
(18) Are streets made wider to accommodate more people or to accommodate more automobiles? It is well-noted thatwider streets incentivize drivers to speed and drive faster, making our streets more dangerous and more hostile to citizens.
(19) Our streets have become dangerous for citizens. Commuting citizens risk life and limb to get to work and back. The road is a hostile place wherein the commodity of the car is king.
(20) Consider the cinematic trope of a car driving into a ball bouncing into the street, followed by a child dying from automobile impact: We have canonized the hostility of our streets in our imagination. This hostility is only a small part of the larger hostile world of capital that make up our environs. The hostility of the automobile is largely passive as well—who is it that has agency in the killing? The driver or the automobile?
(21) However, automobile urbanism was not inevitable. In the United States in particular, it was a product of a Keynesian growth-for-the-sake-of-growth economic ideology and cynical Fordist wage hikes to generate demand for automobiles. Automobile companies had to systematically destroy tram systems and force the phasing out of other transportation for urban citizens to adopt automobiles. After all, Henry Ford supposedly said “cars don’t buy cars.”
(22) In this sense, automobiles are spectacular needs, or needs that are illusionary. For if we are not forced by the world of capital to work and regulated to homes far from work and amenities, we do not actually need automobiles and their false mobility. Without the world of capital that marks us as proletarian, automobiles in their commodified forms have no real use. Automobile commodities are false needs imposed by the world of work.
(23) The Philippines has uncritically adopted automobile urbanism. This is partly as a result of neo-colonialism where peripheral countries become destinations for finished commodities such as the automobile. Just as in the United States, cars were privileged over trams and jobs and amenities were made more and more distant from homes.
The automobile and mobility
(24) Neoliberalism and its logic of marketization has exacerbated automobile urbanism in literally promoting automobility—mobility as an individual responsibility to be resolved by individual means. The solution, of course, is the market—buy a car!
(25) Yet the automobile is not just a commodity—it is capital in and of itself. Specifically, an automobile is a mode of transportation that enables the automobile owner to transport themselves, others, capital, and commodities.
(26) Automobility becomes a means of livelihood: transporting car-owners from work to home and back. Thus automobile urbanism has ordered cities beneath the ever-marching vroom of automobiles, rather than being ordered for the everyday needs of citizens.
Jaywalking is an offense to the capitalist order, pitting the mobility of the citizen against the mobility of the automobile, capital, and commodity.
(27) Mobility becomes a class issue. Those with cars can expect to cover more ground and thus more opportunities. Those without cars then have less options for finding work due to limitations of the commute and can access less amenities than they might otherwise.
(28) We have become second-class citizens in our own cities, with the first-class being the automobile owner. Automobile urbanism reserves the streets for them; the proletarian and commuters are after-thoughts.
Returning to jaywalking
(29) In the context of automobile urbanism, jaywalking is the act of entering spaces that have become reserved for automobiles.
(30) Jaywalking is framed as an issue of safety and discipline. Yet safety and discipline for whom? Safety for citizens walking on the street, or safety for the automobile to go about its way?
(31) The very concept of jaywalking puts the burden of safety on the pedestrian—an admittance that the streets are hostile for foot traffic.
(32) For whom is the disciplining of the pedestrian? Discipline for the preservation of order—to assure the streamlining of streets for the service of capital!
(33) Jaywalking is an offense to the capitalist order, pitting the mobility of the citizen against the mobility of the automobile, capital, and commodity. Jaywalking threatens to delay the otherwise smooth transportation of capital and commodities throughout the city.
(34) To restrict working-class mobility is class warfare—for mobility is how the worker can get from their rented home to their workplace to rent away their time through wage-labor.
(35) Thusincreasingpenaltiesfor jaywalking is nothing less than a concentrated class war offensive. It is an attack on the mobility of the urban citizen, especially working-class citizens who do not usually own automobiles.2
(36) Those who do own automobiles quickly learn that the automobile is a colonizer of everyday life, to borrow a term from Henri Lefebvre. The automobile colonizes everyday life by forcing its owners into its zone of sheer consumption. This is manifested not just in the monetary cost of gasoline and of constant repairs, but also through deep costs to health and ecology.
(37) Automobiles—and of course, capitalism—are literally starving us of oxygen by increasing the parts per million of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide in congested and polluted cities.
(38) And who are even the so-called jaywalkers? Is this not yet another criminalization of homelessness, ambulant vending, and more—the criminalization of working class mobility itself. Is this not yet another case of creeping authoritarianism? Martial law is redundant—it is already here!
(39) And how is this working-class mobility punished? Another fine that cannot be paid? Unpaid community service—thereby foregoing wages for those hours? And for what? Is this not redistribution in favor of the state? State coffers that are then plundered by the corrupt public servants?
(40) Thus, the streets must be reclaimed. Every step that is “jay” is defiance in the face of the automobile machine. Honk away mga punyeta3—I am walking here.
Right to the City
(41) Yet it is not enough to jaywalk. It is not enough to reclaim streets as our streets for people. We must reclaim the whole city, to create a humanistic—nay, revolutionary—urbanism for the citizens of the city. A right to our streets—a right to the city!
(42) “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.”—David Harvey
(43) The Right to the City asks of us: whose city, and for whom?—for automobiles or for citizens? Jaywalking in this sense is to reclaim the streets as the life-blood of a humanist urbanism—a city for humans rather than automobile commodities.
(44) As Lefebvre, Harvey, and Murray Bookchin notes, urban spaces are where class conflict is most obvious. As minor as it seems, the invention of jaywalking is a means of control that capital has over the development of the city and its citizens.
(45) An assertion to our urban mobility will necessarily be connected to struggles in ecology, and for housing and work. For what is the point of mobility if we are denied housing, or if we go to work for meager pay? Or if our mobility is policed at every turn by the state?
(46) The struggle for our mobility as citizens of the city is thus a microcosm of the larger anti-capitalist struggle that revolts against the colonization of everyday life by capital and commodities. Indeed, it is a microcosm of a larger struggle against authority for an anarchy of movement.
(47) Jaywalking, then, is class war, as it defies the penalization of mobility as ordered by the automobile urbanism that divides our cities. Against the penalization of mobility is the anarchy of the streets that revolts against the authority of the automobile and for the possibility of the right to the city.
(48) Reclaim our streets, reclaim our cities! The struggle for a revolutionary urbanism for all is already underway!
1 “Citizen” here is used in its original term, a denizen of the city.
2 In some countries such as the United States, the working class do own cars, though this is not a global phenomena.
If the chalk memorials wash away on the downtown road, formerly Fourth Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia, it may seem like any ordinary block with a cafe and bookshop. Today, Heather Heyer Way remembers the life lost when a white supremacist crashed his car through the antifascist lines celebrating after they successfully drove off far-right and neo-Nazi groups at the 2017 Unite the Right rally. This individual act of violence, which injured 28 and killed one, draws from a long history of the automobile serving to protect spaces for whiteness.
The car remains a weapon of choice against anti-racist protestors as the uprisings against systematic racism ignited by the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stretch into their fourth month. On May 28th in Los Angeles, police officers drove their car through a group of protestors, speeding up to throw a man off the hood; the next day in Denver, a womanintentionally turned around to hit a protester with her SUV; the day after that, in Brooklyn, the officer riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car opened their door to strike a protester as they drove past. Further examples in Brooklyn (again), Portland, Tulsa, and San Jose make this a disturbing trend with over 69 such attacks occuring since Geroge Floyed was murdered in late May.
Fascism and the Automobile
The connection between automobiles, violence, and fascism begins in the 20th century. An investigation by The Nation uncovered how Ford Motor Company and Nazi high command were intimately linked. Henry Ford, a known anti-Semite, built a factory in Cologne, Germany in 1931 and provided support for the Nazi state into 1942, almost a year after the United States declared war on Germany. General Motors was also complicit in the Nazi war effort, obfuscating their ownership of German-made Opel while they knowingly allowed their factories to switch to military armament production for the Wehrmacht.
In Italy, the automobile itself became a symbol in the blending of the futurist and fascist movements in their shared rejection of history and chauvinistic desires for speed and social ‘purity’. The fingerprints of futurism can be found in the Nazi warfare tactic of blitzkrieg (prizing speed and suprise) which used Ford trucks for about one third of the vehicles involved.
The car was used as a social tool for white interests in the United States following the war, as the automobile commute enabled a new form of segregation in sprawling suburbs. ‘White flight,’ the mid-century process of white populations moving out of American cities, occurred alongside the systematic divestment of inner-cities which were increasingly populated by Black communities migrating north, away from the Jim Crow South. Through racist policies like redlining, discriminatory bank lending and zoning practices, Black communities were largely excluded from the post-war affluence while much of the white working class gained access to financial services to start building generational wealth. As wealthy tax bases shifted to the suburbs, city budgets and services stagnated while ‘urban renewal’ projects often meant highways would be built on top of Black communities.
The automobile, therefore, represents two inextricable forms of violence: the slow process of gutting the public city for racialized private wealth, and the acute violence of fascist car attacks. These are mirrors, reflecting and feeding back the images of one another. The logic of the car in America is implicit in the logic of white supremacy. On a mass scale, the automobile works to emotionally and physically separate groups from the unequal violence of a racialized system. This logic also extends to the individual in the emotional separation from the mechanisms of fast, immediate violence.
The ‘alpha male’ mentality fascists are obsessed with informs the marketing strategy for many car models. The specific car driven in the Charlottesville attack was the 2010 model of the reissued Dodge Charger, a muscle car marketed as a hyper-masculine vision of an allegedly bygone age of American liberty. The current tagline for the Charger is ‘Domestic, not domesticated,’ a nod to the patriarchal embodiment of masculinity against the ‘globalist’ economy of foreign manufacturing.
The Charger is also the country’s best selling model of police sedan. With no hint of irony, Dodge even created a small fleet of stormtrooper-themed Chargers to celebrate the release of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens film in 2015, mimicking the foot soldiers of the fictional fascist Galactic Empire. A year before that, the head of government fleet sales for Dodge explicitly connected police intimidation with its marketing to a wider consumer base: ‘You hate to see a Charger Pursuit grille in your rearview mirror. …we think there’s a lot of carry-over in terms of the macho appeal of the vehicle.’
The message here is simple: the Charger is an embodiment of white, male, state-sponsored violence. This aesthetic marketing of a police vehicle to the masses is another example of the militarization of civilian spaces, one of the dominant features of post-9/11 America. It is also a classic marker of the advance of fascism where violence and militarism are normalized in everyday life. Charlottesville’s right-wing murderer tapped into all of these forces, namely the nexus of a patriarchal capitalism and statist militarism that continues to guide an implicit understanding of who violence should be directed against, and who it should be wielded by.
American Violence and the Anti-Martyr
Dependence on the car obscures the everyday violence of driving. In 2018, 36,560 people died in car crashes in the United States alone, making driving the second-leading cause of accidental death. In India, almost 150,000 people died in traffic accidents during 2017. Nigeria has one of the highest rates in the world with over one death per year per 100 cars. Driving is the largest normalized risk in modern life. While often acting as a site of insulation for white individuals, the car can be a site of racial profiling where non-white drivers are stopped by police at higher rates, too often leading to fatal violence in the US.
As one of the ultimate status symbols in capitalist society, the car is an embodiment of social atomization and private enclosure of individuals, families, and groups. To drive is to intentionally hold death at arm’s length; by the risk of driving itself, and the physical and emotional insulation of the cabin from the outside world — a degree of separation between a potential killer, their killing tool, and those to be killed.
This, finally, is the concrete connection between the car and right-wing violence that neatly fits in the white American psyche. For the maintenance of settler ideology, a physical and emotional separation from the justification for structural violence and the violence itself is needed. This degree of separation is a constant in American state violence, from the drones that fire silent death in Syria to the American streets where police run over protestors. And, not surprisingly, it is expressed in both American right-wing acts of violence and police brutality through a desire by the attackers to be as physically protected as possible.
Consumer vehicle ramming attacks began in earnest during the late 1990s in occupied Palestine and have expanded worldwide, taken up by different ideological forces including ‘Jihadists, anti-Islamists, right-wing Christians, and unbalanced members of the public.’ When the assailant is non-white and acting without institutional power, they are usually portrayed with the broad strokes of ‘terrorism’ by Western media. Meanwhile, white supremacists like the Charlottesville attacker are often depicted as ‘lone wolves’ or ‘bad apples,’ despite the clear structural roots of their action. In the months after Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, six states considered laws to protect drivers who run over protestors from prosecution, referring to demonstrations that block traffic as ‘terrorism’. As systematic racism is being directly challenged, reactionary forces use violence to subvert public opinion while police are more explicitly acting in line with the larger neo-fascist project in defense of the status-quo. Seeing themselves as firebreak between ‘order’ and ‘chaos,’ a thin blue line which is drawn deadly on the pavement and unaccountable to democratic processes. This is the logic of fascism and is being encouraged by the President of the United States who claims the suburban way of life is under attack and brands anti-fascism as terrorism.
Scholar Achille Mbembe’s ideas around martyrdom are particularly illuminating when it comes to the issues of insulation and vehicular violence. Contrasted with the figure of the ‘suicide bomber,’ the American far-right and police vehemently protect their own bodies with armor and vehicles. Fitting with American’s elevation of ‘heroes’ amid the desire to uphold a certain social order — an inherent flattening, widening, and depersonalizing of the martyr. The right-wing propagator of violence and the police officer alike are part of imagined ‘brotherhoods’ on an invented battlefield made manifest only by the violent actions they carry out.
What this truly represents is an anti-martyrdom: a feature of a country that glorifies endemic and ‘heroic’ bodily sacrifice while deeply fearing death or any major change that would challenge those systems. Mbembe describes how the logic of survival and heroism intersect:
“[The] moment of survival [is] a moment of power. In such a case, triumph develops precisely from the possibility of being there when the others (in this case the enemy) are no longer there. Such is the logic of heroism as classically understood: to execute others while holding one’s own death at a distance.”
These acts of violence we see, whether in Charlottesville or in the ongoing protests against police brutality, are laden with the power of historic white supremacy. The power of mismatched tools of violence between attacker and subject (the car vs. the protestor), and the one-sided power to deal death and to survive. This is the type of unequal violence that the ruling class carries out against the underclasses, a deadly enforcement of the racial, economic, and social status-quo.
If neo-fascist violence in America is about preserving the mythological ‘White Christian Nation,’ it should not be surprising to see police adopting the tactics of neo-fascist violence. The police themselves trace their roots back to slave patrols. The car is a shared tool in the merger. Its rise intertwined with evolving racial oppression, and fits into the psychology of white racial terror by distancing and protecting its perpetrators from the violence of their actions while reinforcing social categories of an ultraconservative worldview. The car, the most defining object in 20th century American prosperity, is now a viscerally violent encapsulation of the failed 21st century American state.
There’s no way like the American way
Margaret Bourke-White, the first woman to take photographs for Life Magazine, took a depression-era snapshot of an all-Black bread line standing in front of a billboard featuring a smiling white family in a car. “There’s no way like the American way,” the billboard reads, as the white nuclear family drives through the idealized suburban countryside and straight into the reality of the bread line. This is a symbolic photograph for our time, though it was taken in 1937. The car operates as a tool for acute white violence and flight as well as the insulation of whiteness through physical and metaphorical mediums, “world’s highest standard of living,” emblazoned over a strict racial separation in a country of destitution for so many. It has been over 80 years since the photograph was taken. The car as a symbol of freedom, safety, and violence may have evolved in small ways, but the American racial landscape remains unequal and violent.
The current protests against police brutality are not simply a symbolic challenge to the structural violence that the American street embodies. They are also processes of a physical recapturing of public space – for solidarity, grief, anger, and celebration. It should come as no surprise that centuries of white supremacy should so violently respond to that challenge with a tool – the automobile – that has been so central to fulfilling its goals. Yet even in the face of terror so often committed by vigilantes and the state, the unwavering numbers of protestors are a source of hope: that one day, our children will walk safely down carless avenues, knowing of the struggles that tore down and replaced the violence and injustice of the old world.
Owen Watson is a writer working in political ecology and the environment, especially as they relate to political economy, extremism, and power. He recently completed a graduate program at the University of Michigan, where he concentrated in Environmental Justice. Follow him @elementsofguile.
The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratized. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.
This is pretty much common knowledge in the case of the seaside villas. No politico has yet dared to claim that to democratize the right to vacation would mean a villa with private beach for every family. Everyone understands that if each of 13 or 14 million families were to use only 10 meters of the coast, it would take 140,000km of beach in order for all of them to have their share! To give everyone his or her share would be to cut up the beaches in such little strips—or to squeeze the villas so tightly together—that their use value would be nil and their advantage over a hotel complex would disappear. In short, democratization of access to the beaches point to only one solution—the collectivist one. And this solution is necessarily at war with the luxury of the private beach, which is a privilege that a small minority takes as their right at the expense of all.
Now, why is it that what is perfectly obvious in the case of the beaches is not generally acknowledged to be the case for transportation? Like the beach house, doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the others who use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)? Doesn’t it lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation spots. The monstrousness of this demagogic nonsense is immediately apparent, and yet even the left doesn’t disdain resorting to it. Why is the car treated like a sacred cow? Why, unlike other “privative” goods, isn’t it recognized as an antisocial luxury? The answer should be sought in the following two aspects of driving:
Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any moment is figuratively killing the “others,” who appear merely as physical obstacles to his or her own speed. This aggressive and competitive selfishness marks the arrival of universally bourgeois behavior, and has come into being since driving has become commonplace. (“You’ll never have socialism with that kind of people,” an East German friend told me, upset by the spectacle of Paris traffic).
The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread its superiority would be striking. The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary. An ideological (“cultural”) revolution would be needed to break this circle. Obviously this is not to be expected from the ruling class (either right or left).
Let us look more closely now at these two points.
When the car was invented, it was to provide a few of the very rich with a completely unprecedented privilege: that of traveling much faster than everyone else. No one up to then had ever dreamt of it. The speed of all coaches was essentially the same, whether you were rich or poor. The carriages of the rich didn’t go any faster than the carts of the peasants, and trains carried everyone at the same speed (they didn’t begin to have different speeds until they began to compete with the automobile and the airplane). Thus, until the turn of the century, the elite did not travel at a different speed from the people. The motorcar was going to change all that. For the first time class differences were to be extended to speed and to the means of transportation.
This means of transportation at first seemed unattainable to the masses—it was so different from ordinary means. There was no comparison between the motorcar and the others: the cart, the train, the bicycle, or the horse-car. Exceptional beings went out in self-propelled vehicles that weighed at least a ton and whose extremely complicated mechanical organs were as mysterious as they were hidden from view. For one important aspect of the automobile myth is that for the first time people were riding in private vehicles whose operating mechanisms were completely unknown to them and whose maintenance and feeding they had to entrust to specialists. Here is the paradox of the automobile: it appears to confer on its owners limitless freedom, allowing them to travel when and where they choose at a speed equal to or greater than that of the train. But actually, this seeming independence has for its underside a radical dependency. Unlike the horse rider, the wagon driver, or the cyclist, the motorist was going to depend for the fuel supply, as well as for the smallest kind of repair, on dealers and specialists in engines, lubrication, and ignition, and on the interchangeability of parts. Unlike all previous owners of a means of locomotion, the motorist’s relationship to his or her vehicle was to be that of user and consumer-and not owner and master. This vehicle, in other words, would oblige the owner to consume and use a host of commercial services and industrial products that could only be provided by some third party. The apparent independence of the automobile owner was only concealing the actual radical dependency.
For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their locomotion on a commercial source of energy.
The oil magnates were the first to perceive the prize that could be extracted from the wide distribution of the motorcar. If people could be induced to travel in cars, they could be sold the fuel necessary to move them. For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their locomotion on a commercial source of energy. There would be as many customers for the oil industry as there were motorists—and since there would be as many motorists as there were families, the entire population would become the oil merchants’ customers. The dream of every capitalist was about to come true. Everyone was going to depend for their daily needs on a commodity that a single industry held as a monopoly.
All that was left was to get the population to drive cars. Little persuasion would be needed. It would be enough to get the price of a car down by using mass production and the assembly line. People would fall all over themselves to buy it. They fell over themselves all right, without noticing they were being led by the nose. What, in fact, did the automobile industry offer them? Just this: “From now on, like the nobility and the bourgeoisie, you too will have the privilege of driving faster than everybody else. In a motorcar society the privilege of the elite is made available to you.”
People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.
When everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets
Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16-lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them, and city traffic becomes more paralyzingly congested. As long as there are cities, the problem will remain unsolved. No matter how wide and fast a superhighway is, the speed at which vehicles can come off it to enter the city cannot be greater than the average speed on the city streets. As long as the average speed in Paris is 10 to 20 kmh, depending on the time of day, no one will be able to get off the beltways and autoroutes around and into the capital at more than 10 to 20 kmh.
The same is true for all cities. It is impossible to drive at more than an average of 20 kmh in the tangled network of streets, avenues, and boulevards that characterise the traditional cities. The introduction of faster vehicles inevitably disrupts city traffic, causing bottlenecks-and finally complete paralysis.
If the car is to prevail, there’s still one solution: get rid of the cities. That is, string them out for hundreds of miles along enormous roads, making them into highway suburbs. That’s what’s been done in the United States. Ivan Illich sums up the effect in these startling figures: “The typical American devotes more than 1500 hours a year (which is 30 hours a week, or 4 hours a day, including Sundays) to his [or her] car. This includes the time spent behind the wheel, both in motion and stopped, the hours of work to pay for it and to pay for gas, tires, tolls, insurance, tickets, and taxes .Thus it takes this American 1500 hours to go 6000 miles (in the course of a year). Three and a half miles take him (or her) one hour. In countries that do not have a transportation industry, people travel at exactly this speed on foot, with the added advantage that they can go wherever they want and aren’t restricted to asphalt roads.”
It is true, Illich points out, that in non-industrialized countries travel uses only 3 to 8% of people’s free time (which comes to about two to six hours a week). Thus a person on foot covers as many miles in an hour devoted to travel as a person in a car, but devotes 5 to 10 times less time in travel. Moral: The more widespread fast vehicles are within a society, the more time—beyond a certain point—people will spend and lose on travel. It’s a mathematical fact.
The reason? We’ve just seen it: The cities and towns have been broken up into endless highway suburbs, for that was the only way to avoid traffic congestion in residential centers. But the underside of this solution is obvious: ultimately people can’t get around conveniently because they are far away from everything. To make room for the cars, distances have increased. People live far from their work, far from school, far from the supermarket—which then requires a second car so the shopping can be done and the children driven to school. Outings? Out of the question. Friends? There are the neighbors… and that’s it. In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes. Of course, you can get yourself to work doing 60 mph, but that’s because you live 30 miles from your job and are willing to give half an hour to the last 6 miles. To sum it all up: “A good part of each day’s work goes to pay for the travel necessary to get to work.” (Ivan Illich).
In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes.
Maybe you are saying, “But at least in this way you can escape the hell of the city once the workday is over.” There we are, now we know: “the city,” the great city which for generations was considered a marvel, the only place worth living, is now considered to be a “hell.” Everyone wants to escape from it, to live in the country. Why this reversal? For only one reason. The car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinking, noisy, suffocating, dusty, so congested that nobody wants to go out in the evening anymore. Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.
Since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.
From being a luxury item and a sign of privilege, the car has thus become a vital necessity. You have to have one so as to escape from the urban hell of the cars. Capitalist industry has thus won the game: the superfluous has become necessary. There’s no longer any need to persuade people that they want a car; its necessity is a fact of life. It is true that one may have one’s doubts when watching the motorized escape along the exodus roads. Between 8 and 9:30 a.m., between 5:30 and 7 p.m., and on weekends for five and six hours the escape routes stretch out into bumper-to-bumper processions going (at best) the speed of a bicyclist and in a dense cloud of gasoline fumes. What remains of the car’s advantages? What is left when, inevitably, the top speed on the roads is limited to exactly the speed of the slowest car?
Fair enough. After killing the city, the car is killing the car. Having promised everyone they would be able to go faster, the automobile industry ends up with the unrelentingly predictable result that everyone has to go as slowly as the very slowest, at a speed determined by the simple laws of fluid dynamics. Worse: having been invented to allow its owner to go where he or she wishes, at the time and speed he or she wishes, the car becomes, of all vehicles, the most slavish, risky, undependable and uncomfortable. Even if you leave yourself an extravagant amount of time, you never know when the bottlenecks will let you get there. You are bound to the road as inexorably as the train to its rails. No more than the railway traveller can you stop on impulse, and like the train you must go at a speed decided by someone else. Summing up, the car has none of the advantages of the train and all of its disadvantages, plus some of its own: vibration, cramped space, the danger of accidents, the effort necessary to drive it.
And yet, you may say, people don’t take the train. Of course! How could they? Have you ever tried to go from Boston to New York by train? Or from Ivry to Treport? Or from Garches to Fountainebleau? Or Colombes to l’Isle-Adam? Have you tried on a summer Saturday or Sunday? Well, then, try it and good luck to you! You’ll observe that automobile capitalism has thought of everything. Just when the car is killing the car, it arranges for the alternatives to disappear, thus making the car compulsory. So first the capitalist state allowed the rail connections between the cities and the surrounding countryside to fall to pieces, and then it did away with them. The only ones that have been spared are the high-speed intercity connections that compete with the airlines for a bourgeois clientele. There’s progress for you!
The truth is, no one really has any choice. You aren’t free to have a car or not because the suburban world is designed to be a function of the car and, more and more, so is the city world. That is why the ideal revolutionary solution, which is to do away with the car in favour of the bicycle, the streetcar, the bus, and the driverless taxi, is not even applicable any longer in the big commuter cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Trappes, or even Brussels, which are built by and for the automobile. These splintered cities are strung out along empty streets lined with identical developments; and their urban landscape (a desert) says, “These streets are made for driving as quickly as possible from work to home and vice versa. You go through here, you don’t live here. At the end of the workday everyone ought to stay at home, and anyone found on the street after nightfall should be considered suspect of plotting evil.” In some American cities the act of strolling in the streets at night is grounds for suspicion of a crime.
So, the jig is up? No, but the alternative to the car will have to be comprehensive. For in order for people to be able to give up their cars, it won’t be enough to offer them more comfortable mass transportation. They will have to be able to do without transportation altogether because they’ll feel at home in their neighborhoods, their community, their human-sized cities, and they will take pleasure in walking from work to home-on foot, or if need be by bicycle. No means of fast transportation and escape will ever compensate for the vexation of living in an uninhabitable city in which no one feels at home or the irritation of only going into the city to work or, on the other hand, to be alone and sleep.
“People,” writes Illich, “will break the chains of overpowering transportation when they come once again to love as their own territory their own particular beat, and to dread getting too far away from it.” But in order to love “one’s territory” it must first of all be made livable, and not trafficable. The neighborhood or community must once again become a microcosm shaped by and for all human activities, where people can work, live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage together as the place of their life in common. When someone asked him how people would spend their time after the revolution, when capitalist wastefulness had been done away with, Marcuse answered, “We will tear down the big cities and build new ones. That will keep us busy for a while.”
These new cities might be federations of communities (or neighborhoods) surrounded by green belts whose citizens-and especially the schoolchildren-will spend several hours a week growing the fresh produce they need. To get around everyday they would be able to use all kinds of transportation adapted to a medium-sized town: municipal bicycles, trolleys or trolley-buses, electric taxis without drivers. For longer trips into the country, as well as for guests, a pool of communal automobiles would be available in neighborhood garages. The car would no longer be a necessity. Everything will have changed: the world, life, people. And this will not have come about all by itself.
Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalizes the many dimensions of life.
Meanwhile, what is to be done to get there? Above all, never make transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this compartmentalizes the many dimensions of life. One place for work, another for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.
From Le Sauvage September-October 1973.
Translated by Patsy Vigderman in Ecology as Politics (Black Rose Books, 1980).
André Gorz was a philosopher, journalist, and writer. He was known as one of the first ecosocialists and political ecologists.