Slam on the brakes

Issue: 118

Rachel Aldred and James Woodcock

Matthew Paterson, Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge University, 2007), £15.99

Matthew Paterson’s important new book provides a Marxist analysis of the car’s dominance, including sections on its economic, cultural and ecological aspects. In 2006 nine of the top ten global corporations were oil or car firms, compared with seven out of ten in 1970. This corporate juggernaut is accelerating down the road signed “Environmental Crisis”.

Paterson argues for the left to refocus on the car and on challenging car dominance, not just on supporting public transport. He explains how the unsustainable expansion of oil-powered car ownership and use has become closely aligned with capitalist growth. Historically, this was a contingent development based on road improvements (often promoted by cycling groups), resentment at the monopoly power of trams and railways (probably the largest 19th century capitalist block), and technological change. But once set in motion, the car economy became a major driver of the capitalist system.

Movement is no longer a choice but a necessity as desperate workers attempt to follow capital’s flight around the globe. Paterson explains how mobility is contested within capitalism. While capitalism requires mobility on an unprecedented scale, capitalist states constantly attempt to control it and encourage nationalist opposition to the free movement of people. Paterson critiques the post-structuralist celebration of movement that blithely disregards material and ecological causes and consequences (for example, the creation of millions of environmental refugees).

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are where Paterson analyses different pro and anti-car movements and ideologies. The car’s association with modernity has sparked both enthusiasm and opposition. For “petrolheads” cars represent a libertarian dream of freedom. The car provides automobility, apparently allowing its user to go anywhere, anytime, freed from the constrictions of bus and railway timetables. But, because so many people now drive, the car user in congested cities seems more prisoner than pioneer, spending large amounts of time immobile inside her glass and metal box.

As Paterson points out, the freedom promised by automobility is an illusion generated by systemic contradictions. Mass motorisation requires massive state intervention to function. The spread of the internal combustion engine feeds and depends upon oil imperialism. Car dominance has “resulted in a society far more heavily planned than previously”. To manage growing volumes of traffic in city streets, engineers create complex gyratories, put up guard railings to keep pedestrians out of the way of cars, build bypasses, install cameras, dig subways and organise regulated parking zones. Yet all this feeds resentment of the state expressed by pro-car ideologues such as Jeremy Clarkson, who appeal to an ideal of unregulated motoring that can never coexist with mass motorisation.

Cars are so dominant that they seem to own their drivers. Paterson describes how voters have been re-conceptualised in terms of car ownership (for example “Mondeo Man”). He claims that “policies [have been] judged according to how individuals would react as car drivers”. Where once Labour might have wooed its potential voters (however insincerely) as workers, it now approaches them in terms of consumption categories. Anti-roads protesters have responded by generalising their critique of particular developments. Paterson argues that such movements can come to recognise “that what is at stake in contesting automobility is precisely the need to question modern societies and politics themselves”.

While Paterson rejects the concept of “false consciousness”, we think that his recognition of the importance of political economy should allow an objective assessment of who benefits and who loses out. This could be tied to the angle he does not develop, the car and health. Physical activity is good for us, socially, mentally and physically. People who would rather drive than walk a few hundred metres to the shops have desires at odds with their best interests (although we must also consider what motorisation has done to once pleasant streets).

A health angle allows more focus on the class-based suffering imposed by car dominance. Every year over a million people are killed on the roads and 50 million injured, mostly poor pedestrians in the Global South. Even in rich countries such as Britain, working class people suffer disproportionately from crashes and air pollution. Busy roads have destroyed children’s independent mobility, which especially affects working class children with smaller homes, who would once have played in the street. Lacking the ability to take sufficient levels of exercise, many such children are becoming obese and developing associated conditions such as type two diabetes.

Paterson’s concentration on the car gives the book focus, but he tends to neglect comparisons with other transport modes and how they link in with anti-car politics. We would have liked to see more discussion of cycling in the main body of the book. While Paterson analyses “Swampy Fever”, a more contemporary example of anti-car politics would be the ongoing regular Critical Mass cycle assemblies in many cities across the world. The Critical Mass in London that coincided with (and joined) demonstrations against Israel’s attack on Lebanon provided a potent symbol of connections to be made.

Overall this is a useful and interesting book for Marxists seeking to learn more about transport and/or environmental issues. Paterson links together and critiques three key components of the car society: political economy, ecology, and culture. While the conclusion is weaker than other sections of the book, he recognises that automobility is unsustainable, analysing the material and cultural contradictions inherent in “greening the car”. He argues for engaging and challenging existing car-based identities, so that walking, cycling, and public transport use can once more become normal activities. Such a politics will depend upon challenging the corporations that profit from car dominance.