Carmageddon and Karl Marx

“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 problems.

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 (profit)?”

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.