[OPE-L] Carmageddon and Karl Marx

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Aug 24 2005 - 16:54:20 EDT




Carmageddon and Karl Marx

by Michael Dawson

"So far as I am aware," wrote Paul Sweezy in
1973, "the political economy of the automobile
has never been subjected to serious analysis in
the Marxian literature." Amazingly, despite the
apparent onset of global warming, "peak oil," and
permanent petro-war, Sweezy's observation remains
true today.  We Marxians have not yet begun to do
more than crack wise about the deep and wide
connections between corporate capitalists and the
increasingly dangerous reality of
autos-über-alles in America.

This alarming failure is certainly not the result
of improving circumstances for ordinary residents
of the United States.  On the contrary, the
wastes and dangers inherent in our
automobile-intensive transportation arrangement
have only multiplied.

Consider a few key facts:

According to the Orwellianly-named National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the
year 2004, automotive collisions killed 42,800
people in the United States.  The daily death
toll of U.S. car crashes in 2004 was 117 a day.
And 2004 was no anomaly.  On the contrary: 42,800
is almost exactly the average for the preceding
half-century, during which well over two million
individuals perished in U.S. car crashes.

And, thanks to Americans' escalating time behind
the wheel, the future promises only more of the
same.  As we U.S. residents drive more and more
miles each year, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and
crumple zones do make each mile slightly safer,
but the absolute number of deaths stays rigidly
within its historic range, as mounting miles
devour the benefits of mechanical safety gains.
In the words of Barbara Harsha, Executive
Director of the Governors Highway Safety
Association, it is "probably very unrealistic" to
believe that any prospective new automotive
safety technologies will in the foreseeable
future alter the established death toll.

Crashes, of course, are not the only way in which
automobiles cause carnage and suffering.
Unpublicized studies commissioned by auto
manufacturers themselves have found that,
contrary to industry propaganda and official U.S.
government policy, "no safe level of exposure
exists" when it comes to breathing automotive
tailpipe exhausts.  Worse, not only is exposure
to car exhausts most dangerous for children, the
sick, and the elderly, but it is most likely to
be heavy and routine among the poor, who
disproportionately reside near major urban
highways.  Nobody knows precisely how much death
and disability result from smog, but it is
nothing like a minor problem, despite its lack of
publicity and research.

Other studies have also begun to explore what may
prove to be the largest of all the ill health
effects of autos-über-alles -- its discouragement
of walking, bicycling, and other forms of
exercise-quality human-powered movement.  Studies
confirm that the United States is far and away
the society with the lowest percentage of miles
traveled by foot or bike.  By the early 1990s,
less than one percent of all miles traversed by
Americans occurred under human power.  As the
authors of such new studies observe, this
car-induced "crowding out" of foot power is no
small contributor to the nation's worsening
epidemic of obesity and its corollary health

None of these realities, of course, are
permissible topics for coherent reporting in our
corporate media.  Neither is the criminal tide of
continuing economic waste that is, truth be told,
the entire raison d'etre for autos-über-alles.
As our schools starve and tens of millions of us
go without health insurance, we Americans
continue to spend well over a TRILLION dollars
every single year buying, equipping, fixing,
fueling, parking, and insuring our cars.  What
kind of Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory public
transportation system would we now have, if we
had spent even half what we have spent over the
last century on cars on railroads and bike paths
instead?  How nice would our schools and
hospitals and insurance programs be if we could
stop the mad squandering of so much of our labor
on the fragile steel boxes and crumbly roadways
to which all other economic priorities take
(pardon the pun) back seat?

Of course, these little holocausts and big
irrationalities are not new.  What IS new,
however, is the waning deniability of the fact
that autos-über-alles is just plain doomed, one
way or another.  Petroleum is dwindling, and all
schemes for "converting" to alternative fuels
without radically altering what the fuel goes
into are, upon inspection, harebrained
distractions, from the geo-physical point of view
that must always govern our reality.  And just
burning up what we have is quite possibly a
suicide mission.  Alaska's glaciers are now
retreating 100 feet a year.  The Pentagon is
officially planning for the possibility that
global warming will soon plunge Western Europe
into a new ice age while radically disrupting
worldwide agriculture and living spaces.  All the
while, the United States, deposer of Mohammed
Mossadegh and continuing sponsor of any and all
despots and demagogues who promise to block and
distract the Middle Eastern masses from secular
democratic control over oil reserves, is all too
obviously willing to risk entire foreign
populations and domestic cities in order to
remain the overlord of nature's one-time gift of
dinosaur juice.

If you spend a few minutes pondering these
trends, it becomes very, very hard to imagine
both our automobile-intensive way of life AND the
eco-social basis for progressive democracy
surviving beyond the twenty-first century.  See
it or not, like it or not, resist it or not, a
world-historic show-down between cars and
humanity is simply going to be on the agenda, for
our children or grandchildren, if not ourselves.

Which side are we on, and what is to be done?

It is precisely these two familiar questions that
we Marxians ought to be asking with some rather
serious energy.  The stone cold fact is that,
when viewed in historical materialist terms, the
age of the automobile has always been at least as
much the product of corporate capital's ongoing
elite shove affair as of any popular "love affair
with the automobile." If we don't elucidate this,
who will?

Indeed, I have spent this summer watching the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce roll out its routine "we
need more roads and cars to boost our economy"
lobbying campaign for new federal highway
subsidies.  The Chamber, of course, continues to
pursue this vital-to-its-members task as if none
of the above crises were of any concern to
anybody.  Simultaneously, I have watched the U.S.
Congress pass the Chamber's desired massive new
dose of highway subsidies by a combined vote of
506-20, with all but two of the nay votes coming
from REPUBLICANS who were merely displaying their
anti-spending credentials in a safe fashion.1

How could anybody who's read Marx's magnum opus
witness these stunning events and not reach back
to Marx's powerful diagnosis of capitalists'
pattern of social concern?  "Capital," wrote
Marx, "allows its actual movement to be
determined as much and as little by the sight of
the coming degradation and final depopulation of
the human race as by the probable fall of the
Earth into the sun."  Inside capitalist
corporations, Marx argued, "everyone knows that
some time or other the crash must come, but
everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of
his neighbor, after he himself has caught the
shower of gold and placed it in secure hands."
Like Madame de Pompadour, the pampered girlfriend
of King Louis XV in the tumultuous years just
before the French Revolution, "après moi, le
deluge," Marx observed, "is the watchword of
every capitalist and every capitalist nation.
Capital . . . takes no account of the health and
the length of life of the worker, unless society
forces it to do so.  Its answer to . . . physical
and mental degradation, premature death, and the
torture of overwork is this:  Should that pain
trouble us, since it increases our pleasure

Those of us who have access to this crucial piece
of realism are now obliged to bring it into
contact with the rapidly decaying realities of
transportation in the United States.  As
revisionist historian William Appleman Williams
once predicted, our failure to do so helps
perpetuate our elite's "great evasion" of exactly
what we need -- a "moral and intellectual
confrontation with the thought of Karl Marx."
When it comes to autos-über-alles, history has
proven Williams right:  This ongoing evasion is
not just dangerous.  "It might," in Williams'
words, "prove to be fatal."

1 The two Democrats who voted "no" were Wisconsin
Senators who merely felt their state had been
short-changed in the new spending formulas.  Zero
Democrats in this Congress rose to vote or speak
against the transportation status quo.  Neither
did Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders, who
calls himself a socialist.

Michael Dawson works for pay as a paralegal and
sociology teacher in Portland, Oregon.  He is
presently writing a book, Automobiles Ueber
Alles: Corporate Capitalism and Transportation in
America, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

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