Cars Can Never Run Cleanly: The Automobile as an (Anti-)Social Form

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The automobile is very likely the most influential and most harmful invention in the history of the world. If guns had never been invented, the world’s worst genocides could still have taken place under cudgels and swords. It is true that the atomic bomb has made possible the earth’s complete annihilation, but for the most part this remains only an unrealised possibility. The automobile, on the other hand, has already left hecatombs beneath its wheels and has helped unleash an ecological holocaust that is slower but not necessarily less destructive than any nuclear cataclysm. Nonetheless, the greatest danger of the automobile goes far beyond its tendency to crash and to pollute. Progressive movements for safety regulations and clean fuel, while admirable, do not address the most fundamental problem of the automobile: the deeper danger of cars is that even if they are some day made safe and clean, they will still have restructured nearly every aspect of human society according to their antisocial laws of motion.

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Most of the time, the harm associated with technological innovation can be explained by laws of the social system that induces this innovation. Colonial conquest was not driven by the invention of the caravel but by the absolutist impulse to expand and explore. The starvation of the Luddites was not the fault of mechanical looms but of the profit-seeking capitalism. The automobile too is intimately related to capitalism, the dominant social relation of our time, but its influence is not reducible to the laws of capital. The automobile develops according to its own immanent laws. Nothing in the classic critiques of political economy foresaw the revolution wrought from Model T steel. Any programme for social change that does not take into account the specificity of the automobile may be doomed from the start.

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The automobile is not just a thing that can be used by anyone however one wants. It is a social relation that transforms all social relations it touches. It is a social relation that destroys social relations and conceals the social character of its anti-sociality. It tears apart the actual and potential communal fibre of the world, on the one hand by carrying processes of atomisation and homogenisation to their logical extremes, and on the other hand by dividing society into two antagonistic and unequal classes: those who are in cars and those who are not. This antagonism is not diminished in the least by the fact that on a given day one person may move several times between these two classes. The process of constant classification generates opposing modes of consciousness, such that if the same person could double herself and exist in two places at once, this person while driving would detest her own doppelgänger crossing the street in front of the car.

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In the immediate moment of the automobile, the driver or rider appears to gain all manner of advantage over his or her less fortunate fellows. The car appears to him as the fastest and most comfortable means of getting from point A to point B, and moreover as a means that slows down other people in their own pursuits, since each new car gets in others’ way. The car is a tool for people to improve their position in the world and to place themselves above those who do not own cars or whose cars are inferior. It is for this reason that in societies where people rarely interact outside of automobiles, or at least out of their sight, the car has become the unsurpassed symbol of social status. It is also for this reason that the alienated members of car-dominated societies see in car keys their key to the gates of freedom. Cars offer them the only kind of freedom possible within an alienated society: the freedom to be superior to one’s fellows. At the same time, everything outside the car appears to the driver or rider as nothing more than an obstacle to pure freedom, a fact which encourages a kind of temporary misanthropy for the duration of any trip by car.

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Most campaigns for social equality demand that the poor be granted access to all the luxuries of the rich. The mass distribution of the automobile, however, has only deepened the misery of dominated classes. If it should come to pass that a poor person drives past a pedestrian who happens to be rich, it is true that for that moment and in that single respect, the poor person may experience a real feeling of belonging to a privileged class. But any satisfaction on her part is unwarranted. If she is privileged, it is only in the sense that for this single moment she is dominated by cars in different and less demeaning ways than when she is outside of cars. In the long run, she merely deepens her own subordination within the system of automobility.

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The totality of the automobile as a social relation effects the continual expropriation of space, time, sociality, life force, and productive activity from all people in the form of highways, sprawl, long commutes, loneliness, accidents, pollution, and the labour required to produce all these things. Some of this is returned to the car-drivers in the form of subsidised road maintenance, too-cheap gas, suburban lawns, and the right to occupy the space of roads; some of this is returned to the capitalist class in the form of profits on car and gas sales and of an increased inclination of drivers to consume (with the ease of reaching shopping centers, increased room for storage of purchased commodities, etc.). And some of this in the form of a general atomisation of social life, leading to a decreased demand for critical political participation and a decreased ability of people to act collectively against the established system around them.

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The automobile is the primary contributor to the social atomisation that is inseparable from modern capitalism. The sifting of people into persons, which began in the marketplace among individuals engaged in formally free commodity exchange, and which continued with the rise of electoral democracy based on formally equal citizens, has attained its most highly developed form on our contemporary highways filled with antagonists who compete (freely and with equal rights) for space and speed without ever exchanging words. These same roads make possible and necessary the smashing of population centres for the construction of endless suburbs, shopping malls and corporate parks, to and from which people travel only in cars. People do not experience the space between places as social space, but only as a medium for changing one’s surroundings, to be calculated in terms of time and gas spent and compared to the discrete value of occupying the specific locations at either end of the journey. The space between places, like the space between people, disappears. There are no more relations, only discrete things. The automobile is not merely a cause of atomisation; it is the embodiment of atomisation in its most extreme state.

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But this atomisation is also the primary obstacle to overcoming the atomisation accomplished through cars. It is thanks to this atomisation that people experience the automobile only in its immediate moment, only as a tool for improving the individual’s position within society, while reinforcing that very society in the process. It is no accident that the red sports car, especially when adorned with large-breasted girls, is among the most popular fetishes of contemporary man. It is only by improving his individual position within the society of the automobile that a man can hope to win the girl of his dreams. Yet in reality it is precisely the automobile that stands between a lonely men and beautiful girls – it is because of the automobile that the girl with the sports car must remain a dream and never a reality, a picture on a calendar and never a human being, a thing and never a relation(ship). Love and friendship can never be exits on a highway. A car cannot drive into a community. Community disintegrates when hit by a car. A driver can never see society through a windshield or a rearview mirror. When the car door closes, society as a totality of human relations disappears.

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While in a car, one can become acutely conscious of the domination of the automobile, but only in a limited way. One is given certain privileges, but it one is also compelled by the social forces of car-capitalism to purchase, drive, and maintain – in a sense, to be owned by – cars. One is forced to experience daily all the worst immediate effects of the automobile, up to and including the obligation to pass through those militarised no-man’s-lands commonly known as roads. But a person in a car cannot become conscious of the total structure of auto-domination.

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We can only experience society when we see, feel, and speak with our fellow women and men. We can only hope to understand our social world when we move through it socially, feeling the distance and closeness between places, socialising with the people who inhabit and move through them. Only those out of cars can therefore understand the depth of their domination and the possibility of their liberation. People out of cars, when they renounce the dream of becoming drivers themselves, can experience the agonising joy of glimpsing what life might be like if it moved in community and not in cars. Only then can they establish the basis of any movement from the present wasteland toward a better horizon.

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The question of the automobile, however, can only be a question of individual ethics in a very limited sense. To an ever-increasing extent, social relations in capitalist society are mediated through the automobile. Most people can only be full participants in this society by driving or depending on the driving of others – while at the same time the automobile offers most people their only means of partially escaping this society to spend a few moments in the wilderness. A decreasing number of people ever has the choice to live with or without cars; life without cars has become a great privilege enjoyed by a lucky few. Only a change in the total social structure would make it possible for individuals to make ethical transportation decisions. The ethics of the present can only call on people to contribute to that systemic change.

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The automobile draws a line between those in and those out of cars, fuelling mutual feelings of anger and envy. But the automobile itself is their common enemy. They must join forces in the struggle for humanity, for community, for life worth living – otherwise known as a carfree world.

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he studies theories of communication, community, and folklore.

3 Comments

  1. Bob Davis
    Posted 19 August, 2010 at 09:36 | Permalink

    One could use the above diatribe as a sterling example of what a “polemic” is.

    Some time ago I saw a cynical comment on “Why the Automobile Took Over” that went something like this: Of course the automobile has become the dominant means of local and regional passenger transportation. Look at all the typical human characteristics it plays into:
    1) Selfishness–It’s MY car and I’ll drive it where I want, when I want to. I don’t want to share my ride with some stranger who may look or smell different from me.
    2) Impatience. Patience has never been Americans’ strong suit. We’re the country of the Gold Rush, the Land Rush, and “get there firstest with the mostest”. We don’t want to hang around a bus stop, gazing down the street wondering where the heck that bus is this time. The mere fact that traditional railroad stations have “waiting rooms” gives us a clue about why good rail service is so hard to find. Even taxicabs taking some thumb-twiddling time unless you’re in the heart of a big city. We want transport that available 24/7, at a moment’s notice.
    3) Laziness. Unless you live next door to a train station (which I did as a boy) or just down the block from a bus stop, there’s some walking involved that’s more than from your front door to the driveway. Bicycling is touted as a cure for auto-addiction, but for many people it’s “too much like work”. Maybe Americans can be “rehabilitated” but it may take something like the proverbial two by four upside the head to get our attention.

  2. Posted 26 October, 2010 at 07:23 | Permalink

    BOb Davis is right

  3. Lotus
    Posted 8 December, 2011 at 02:54 | Permalink

    This is so wrong. Cars introduced us to a world so better than life before it.

    I was forced to take Public transportation. Being a victim of their failures so often forced me to buy a car. Boy have I been missing out.

    Reasons the car is superior:

    1. Saves you time (and in some cases money).
    2. Less intricate scheduling of what should be simple tasks such as grocery shopping.
    3. The ability to go wherever you want, when you want.
    4. Getting away from strangers you never want to associate with who often will make you sick.
    5. Listen to music as loud as you please.

    Yes, I enjoy having a car. I don’t give two cents about the problems greeniacs have with cars. Give me public transportation that meets the stuff I said and maybe people will use it.

    Til then, we all have the good common sense to spend more money and save time with private transportation.

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