“Our” Real Addiction: Capitalist Waste in Transportation

“America is addicted to oil.”  Thus spake George W. Bush in his 2006 “State of the Union” speech.

At first hearing, this sounds like a remarkable breakthrough in public discourse.  A sitting U.S. President admitting that the nation’s relationship to petroleum is one of addiction?  Sounds like a major advance in honesty, doesn’t it?  And, while hearing about this addiction from Bush-the-Younger is like having W.C. Fields tell you you’re drunk, the truth is the truth, however hilarious the source, right?

The problem, however, is that to say “America is addicted to oil” is to peddle a double distraction.  First of all, by speaking of “America,” the statement blames us all — rich and poor, capitalists and commoners — equally.  But some “Americans” are far more addicted than others to the substances and arrangements connected to what Bush calls “oil.”  Secondly, despite the seeming concession to realism, to say that “America is addicted to oil” is to misdiagnose the problems at hand, to treat a symptom as a cause.

In reality, as political analyst and historian Kevin Phillips observes, in America, the non-automotive use of petroleum “is small stuff next to transportation.”  “Cars and trucks,” Phillips notes, “burn an overwhelming two out of every three barrels of oil used in the United States.”  As Phillips says, this means that “the critical yardstick” for realistically thinking through our purported “oil” problems “must be automotive.”  Cars, not petroleum barrels, are the object of “our” debilitating dependency in truth.

Car-Addiction’s Root Cause

In the most recent edition of the famous “big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, it still says “The fact is that most alcoholics, for some reason yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.”  In other words, despite huge advances in brain science confirming that drug dependencies do indeed have a physiological basis, A.A. is not yet quite comfortable enough “to write a book which would contain no basis for contention or argument” about the causes of alcoholism.  “Of necessity,” A.A. says, to understand drug dependency, “there will have to be discussion of matters medical, psychiatric, social, and religious.  We are aware that these matters are from their very nature, controversial.”

In the case of car-addiction, however, the heart of the matter is actually much simpler and easier to understand, if one is willing to look.  The core truth there is that, contrary to long-standing dogma, it is capitalists, not commoners, who cannot live without the perpetuation of autos-über-alles in America.  No other capitalist product could possibly sustain the status quo like the car.

To understand why this is so, it helps to realize that all capitalists have faced what I call “the problem of products.”  This is the reality that only certain things make good capitalist wares (a.k.a. “commodities” in Marx’s term).  Take oxygen, for instance.  Because air is a gift of nature that ordinarily requires no labor for delivery, except in hospitals, you can’t make profits by selling people bottles of air, despite its extreme value to all of us.  Likewise, while you can make profits by hiring wage laborers to manufacture and distribute candles, the candle is extremely simple and inexpensive, so it’s bound to remain a minor capitalist commodity.

So, how is an enterprising investor class to reap large, growing, sustained profits, the raison d’etre of capitalist endeavor?  What products are really ideal as commodities?

The answer is: products that are as large, complex, and prone to as frequent repair and replacement as possible, within the limits of keeping customers happy enough to keep using and buying.  Other things being equal, the bigger the product and the more parts (and “parts” can be either physical materials or human services) the product has, the more opportunities there are for capitalists overseeing the production chain to do what they do to “make” their money — namely, to pay workers less than the final market value of the products the hired workers make.  Hence, even in the time of Adam Smith, making and selling horse-drawn carriages or steam engines was a much more exciting and important capitalist endeavor than pin-making.

Now, those already familiar with Baran and Sweezy’s magnum opus (which I personally would rank as the most powerful work of social science in the twentieth century), Monopoly Capital, will know that the triumph of corporate capitalism in the late 1800s quickly produced a quantum leap in “the problem of products.”  Once leading capitalists were able to enjoy the pricing, financial, and organizational advantages of big corporations, they found themselves living in a much more stable and stratified business climate — i.e., a capitalist’s Garden of Eden.  Unfortunately, as Baran and Sweezy explained, for the investing class, the one big downside of this triumph was its tendency toward over-accumulation, the systemic outcome of piling up too much wealth at the top, of creating capital gluts.  Like a poker player who’s winning too often, major corporate capitalists, thanks to their increased powers, find themselves becoming increasingly dependent upon political and managerial artifice both to stimulate new investment opportunities and to sustain old ones.

Now, if the simple truth be told, this is far and away the most important back-story of the tragic dominance of the automobile in American life.  Speculate all you want about ordinary Americans’ “love affair with the car,” but the institutional fact stands that the triumph and perpetuation of an automobile-intensive way of getting around town in the United States has long been, in the words of the National Association of Manufacturers, the “lifeblood” of capitalism in the United States and around the globe.

And the most important reason for this institutional fact resides in the automobile itself, which is as close as anybody could realistically imagine to the ideal capitalist commodity.  Consider the mundane reality:  Cars are fantastically large and complicated machines.  To manufacture, deliver, maintain, make roads for, insure, store, and fuel them in the United States alone requires a trillion-plus-dollar-a-year mega-industrial complex, almost all elements of which are provided by exploited/profitable business employees.  And this is all before mentioning the huge secondary economic spending on doctors and lawyers necessitated by another great capitalist virtue of cars: their tendency to collide with one another.  And the icing on this capitalist cake?  The peculiarly large fetishizability of cars: by altering the size, style, and features of cars, capitalists are able to churn out a wide array of methods for encouraging ordinary people to perceive their automobiles as important extensions of their personae.

The importance of all this to the perpetuation of corporate capitalism is hard to overstate.  If you doubt this, imagine what would happen if a magical genie snapped his or her fingers and tomorrow converted the United States from a society built to encourage car-driving to one centered on walking, biking, and train-riding.  Even with universal distribution of the most luxurious imaginable shoes, bicycles, and trains, the consequences of the genie’s conversion would be extremely dire for capitalists.  Without the ability to sell tens of millions of fancy steel, plastic, and glass boxes, along with their supporting services and fuels, every year, the big business economy would implode.  In comparison, the instant and complete shut-down of the U.S. military would look like a hiccup.  Capitalism would simply be doomed.

What is to Be Done?

The truth is that, when used as the dominant mode of transportation, the automobile is a supremely wasteful, destructive, unsustainable technology.  From a public (rather than capitalist) perspective, it would take a team of the most fanciful science-fictionists to dream up a more costly and wasteful transportation system than the one we now have in the United States.  It is as if we all have our own personal train-car parked in our driveway, and one we must, thanks to the laws of physics and the realities of the road, replace every 7-10 years, at that.  And the massive, massive squandering of energy to which “we” are all consequently addicted is but a subordinate element of a nation-gone-capitalist.

Hence, while good petro-politics is certainly crucial, the genuinely breakthrough in our democratic debate will come only when we start to acknowledge and discuss the reality that capitalists are addicted to making and selling automobiles, whatever the general costs and dangers of doing so may be.  Like hard-core junkies, unless and until we intervene, our business overlords simply will continue to push their product-of-choice, the private automobile, the world be damned.  The reason for this entirely predictable and intractable elite behavior lies in the very purpose and structure of the system from which they draw their distinguishing powers and privileges.

So, help spread the real diagnosis: “Capitalists are addicted to cars.”

Michael Dawson

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.