Social ideology of the motorcar

[Can’t find this document on the web anymore, so I might as well host it.]

I earlier referenced the concept of cars as “privative goods”; this article was the source. BTW, the Ivan Illich analysis [that, considering the time spent working to feed one’s car, a car averages only a few miles per hour] is a bit out of date: wages have risen, but the cost of car ownership has fallen in real terms. Thus, cars are a bit faster these days — but still, on balance, probably slower than bicycles.

It is nonetheless true that household transportation expenses *as a
percentage of household outlays* are much higher now than they were before
the automobile. Transportation costs were negligible in household budgets
circa 1900, but took a quarter of household budgets circa 2000 — a very
high cost for the added mobility, especially when one considers that net
accessibility has not increased — people may be traveling faster and
further, but they’re not really getting anywhere new (e.g., they’re just
going to work, school, church, shops, baseball games; it’s not like they’re
experiencing vastly different new landscapes on road trips every single


by André Gorz

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the
sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich
minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the
people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain
their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is
only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how
in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the
essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have
luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone
diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and
frustrated in return.

This is pretty much common knowledge in the case of the seaside villas. No
politico has yet dared to claim that to democratise the right to vacation
would mean a villa with private beach for every family. Everyone understands
that if each of 13 or 14 million families were to use only 10 meters of the
coast, it would take 140,000km of beach in order for all of them to have
their share! To give everyone his or her share would be to cut up the
beaches in such little strips-or to squeeze the villas so tightly together –
that their use value would be nil and their advantage over a hotel complex
would disappear. In short, democratisation of access to the beaches point to
only one solution-the collectivist one. And this solution is necessarily at
war with the luxury of the private beach, which is a privilege that a small
minority takes as their right at the expense of all.

Now, why is it that what is perfectly obvious in the case of the beaches is
not generally acknowledged to be the case for transportation? Like the beach
house, doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the others who
use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)? Doesn’t it
lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are
plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least
one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for
everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday
at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation

The monstrousness of this demagogic nonsense is immediately apparent, and
yet even the left doesn’t disdain resorting to it. Why is the car treated
like a sacred cow? Why, unlike other “privative” goods, isn’t it recognised
as an antisocial luxury? The answer should be sought in the following two
aspects of driving:

1. Mass motoring effects an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the
level of daily life. It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that
each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone
else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any
moment is figuratively killing the “others,” who appear merely as physical
obstacles to his or her own speed. This aggressive and competitive
selfishness marks the arrival of universally bourgeois behaviour, and has
come into being since driving has become commonplace. (“You’ll never have
socialism with that kind of people,” an East German friend told me, upset by
the spectacle of Paris traffic.)

2. .The automobile is the paradoxical example of a luxury object that has
been devalued by its own spread. But this practical devaluation has not yet
been followed by an ideological devaluation. The myth of the pleasure and
benefit of the car persists, though if mass transportation were widespread
its superiority would be striking. The persistence of this myth is easily
explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation
and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the
car functions which its own spread has made necessary. An ideological
(“cultural”) revolution would be needed to break this circle. Obviously this
is not to be expected from the ruling class (either right or left).

Let us look more closely now at these two points.

When the car was invented, it was to provide a few of the very rich with a
completely unprecedented privilege: that of travelling much faster than
everyone else. No one up to then had ever dreamt of it. The speed of all
coaches was essentially the same, whether you were rich or poor. The
carriages of the rich didn’t go any faster than the carts of the peasants,
and trains carried everyone at the same speed (they didn’t begin to have
different speeds until they began to compete with the automobile and the
airplane). Thus, until the turn of the century, the elite did not travel at
a different speed from the people. The motorcar was going to change all
that. For the first time class differences were to be extended to speed and
to the means of transportation.

This means of transportation at first seemed unattainable to the masses – it
was so different from ordinary means. There was no comparison between the
motorcar and the others: the cart, the train, the bicycle, or the horse-car.
Exceptional beings went out in self-propelled vehicles that weighed at least
a ton and whose extremely complicated mechanical organs were as mysterious
as they were hidden from view. For one important aspect of the automobile
myth is that for the first time people were riding in private vehicles whose
operating mechanisms were completely unknown to them and whose maintenance
and feeding they had to entrust to specialists. Here is the paradox of the
automobile: it appears to confer on its owners limitless freedom, allowing
them to travel when and where they choose at a speed equal to or greater
than that of the train. But actually, this seeming independence has for its
underside a radical dependency. Unlike the horse rider, the wagon driver, or
the cyclist, the motorist was going to depend for the fuel supply, as well
as for the smallest kind of repair, on dealers and specialists in engines,
lubrication, and ignition, and on the interchangeability of parts. Unlike
all previous owners of a means of locomotion, the motorist’s relationship to
his or her vehicle was to be that of user and consumer-and not owner and
master. This vehicle, in other words, would oblige the owner to consume and
use a host of commercial services and industrial products that could only be
provided by some third party. The apparent independence of the automobile
owner was only concealing the actual radical dependency.

The oil magnates were the first to perceive the prize that could be
extracted from the wide distribution of the motorcar. If people could be
induced to travel in cars, they could be sold the fuel necessary to move
them. For the first time in history, people would become dependent for their
locomotion on a commercial source of energy. There would be as many
customers for the oil industry as there were motorists-and since there would
be as many motorists as there were families, the entire population would
become the oil merchants’ customers. The dream of every capitalist was about
to come true. Everyone was going to depend for their daily needs on a
commodity that a single industry held as a monopoly.

All that was left was to get the population to drive cars. Little persuasion
would be needed. It would be enough to get the price of a car down by using
mass production and the assembly line. People would fall all over themselves
to buy it. They fell over themselves all right, without noticing they were
being led by the nose. What, in fact, did the automobile industry offer
them? Just this: “From now on, like the nobility and the bourgeoisie, you
too will have the privilege of driving faster than everybody else. In a
motorcar society the privilege of the elite is made available to you.”

People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as
well, defrauded motorists realised they had been had. They had been promised
a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they
saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if
everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against
everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when
everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the
bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic
plummets-in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London-to below that of the
horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the
speed of a bicyclist.

Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making
things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways,
beltways, elevated crossways, 16- lane highways, and toll roads, the result
is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog
them, and city traffic becomes more paralysingly congested. As long as there
are cities, the problem will remain unsolved. No matter how wide and fast a
superhighway is, the speed at which vehicles can come off it to enter the
city cannot be greater than the average speed on the city streets. As long
as the average speed in Paris is 10 to 20 kmh, depending on the time of day,
no one will be able to get off the beltways and autoroutes around and into
the capital at more than 10 to 20 kmh.

The same is true for all cities. It is impossible to drive at more than an
average of 20 kmh in the tangled network of streets, avenues, and boulevards
that characterise the traditional cities. The introduction of faster
vehicles inevitably disrupts city traffic, causing bottlenecks-and finally
complete paralysis.

If the car is to prevail, there’s still one solution: get rid of the cities.
That is, string them out for hundreds of miles along enormous roads, making
them into highway suburbs. That’s what’s been done in the United States.
Ivan Illich sums up the effect in these startling figures: “The typical
American devotes more than 1500 hours a year (which is 30 hours a week, or 4
hours a day, including Sundays) to his [or her] car. This includes the time
spent behind the wheel, both in motion and stopped, the hours of work to pay
for it and to pay for gas, tires, tolls, insurance, tickets, and taxes .Thus
it takes this American 1500 hours to go 6000 miles (in the course of a
year). Three and a half miles take him (or her) one hour. In countries that
do not have a transportation industry, people travel at exactly this speed
on foot, with the added advantage that they can go wherever they want and
aren’t restricted to asphalt roads.”

It is true, Illich points out, that in non-industrialised countries travel
uses only 3 to 8% of people’s free time (which comes to about two to six
hours a week). Thus a person on foot covers as many miles in an hour devoted
to travel as a person in a car, but devotes 5 to 10 times less time in
travel. Moral: The more widespread fast vehicles are within a society, the
more time – beyond a certain point- people will spend and lose on travel.
It’s a mathematical fact.

The reason? We’ve just seen it: The cities and towns have been broken up
into endless highway suburbs, for that was the only way to avoid traffic
congestion in residential centres. But the underside of this solution is
obvious: ultimately people can’t get around conveniently because they are
far away from everything. To make room for the cars, distances have
increased. People live far from their work, far from school, far from the
supermarket – which then requires a second car so the shopping can be done
and the children driven to school. Outings? Out of the question. Friends?
There are the neighbours.. .and that’s it. In the final analysis, the car
wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes.
Of course, you can get yourself to work doing 60 mph, but that’s because you
live 30 miles from your job and are willing to give half an hour to the last
6 miles. To sum it all up: “A good part of each day’s work goes to pay for
the travel necessary to get to work.” (Ivan Illich).

Maybe you are saying, “But at least in this way you can escape the hell of
the city once the workday is over.” There we are, now we know: “the city,”
the great city which for generations was considered a marvel, the only place
worth living, is now considered to be a “hell.” Everyone wants to escape
from it, to live in the country. Why this reversal? For only one reason. The
car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinking, noisy,
suffocating, dusty, so congested that nobody wants to go out in the evening
anymore. Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to
escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an
impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the
destruction caused by cars.

From being a luxury item and a sign of privilege, the car has thus become a
vital necessity. You have to have one so as to escape from the urban hell of
the cars. Capitalist industry has thus won the game: the superfluous has
become necessary. There’s no longer any need to persuade people that they
want a car; it’s necessity is a fact of life. It is true that one may have
one’s doubts when watching the motorised escape along the exodus roads.
Between 8 and 9:30 a.m., between 5:30 and 7 p.m., and on weekends for five
and six hours the escape routes stretch out into bumper-to-bumper
processions going (at best) the speed of a bicyclist and in a dense cloud of
gasoline fumes. What remains of the car’s advantages? What is left when,
inevitably, the top speed on the roads is limited to exactly the speed of
the slowest car?

Fair enough. After killing the city, the car is killing the car. Having
promised everyone they would be able to go faster, the automobile industry
ends up with the unrelentingly predictable result that everyone has to go as
slowly as the very slowest, at a speed determined by the simple laws of
fluid dynamics. Worse: having been invented to allow its owner to go where
he or she wishes, at the time and speed he or she wishes, the car becomes,
of all vehicles, the most slavish, risky, undependable and uncomfortable.
Even if you leave yourself an extravagant amount of time, you never know
when the bottlenecks will let you get there. You are bound to the road as
inexorably as the train to its rails. No more than the railway traveller can
you stop on impulse, and like the train you must go at a speed decided by
someone else. Summing up, the car has none of the advantages of the train
and all of its disadvantages, plus some of its own: vibration, cramped
space, the danger of accidents, the effort necessary to drive it.

And yet, you may say, people don’t take the train. Of course! How could
they? Have you ever tried to go from Boston to New York by train? Or from
Ivry to Treport? Or from Garches to Fountainebleau? Or Colombes to
l’Isle-Adam? Have you tried on a summer Saturday or Sunday? Well, then, try
it and good luck to you! You’ll observe that automobile capitalism has
thought of everything. Just when the car is killing the car, it arranges for
the alternatives to disappear, thus making the car compulsory. So first the
capitalist state allowed the rail connections between the cities and the
surrounding countryside to fall to pieces, and then it did away with them.
The only ones that have been spared are the high-speed intercity connections
that compete with the airlines for a bourgeois clientele. There’s progress
for you!

The truth is, no one really has any choice. You aren’t free to have a car or
not because the suburban world is designed to be a function of the car –
and, more and more, so is the city world. That is why the ideal
revolutionary solution, which is to do away with the car in favour of the
bicycle, the streetcar, the bus, and the driverless taxi, is not even
applicable any longer in the big commuter cities like Los Angeles, Detroit,
Houston, Trappes, or even Brussels, which are built by and for the
automobile. These splintered cities are strung out along empty streets lined
with identical developments; and their urban landscape (a desert) says,
“These streets are made for driving as quickly as possible from work to home
and vice versa. You go through here, you don’t live here. At the end of the
workday everyone ought to stay at home, and anyone found on the street after
nightfall should be considered suspect of plotting evil.” In some American
cities the act of strolling in the streets at night is grounds for suspicion
of a crime.

So, the jig is up? No, but the alternative to the car will have to be
comprehensive. For in order for people to be able to give up their cars, it
won’t be enough to offer them more comfortable mass transportation. They
will have to be able to do without transportation altogether because they’ll
feel at home in their neighbourhoods, their community, their human-sized
cities, and they will take pleasure in walking from work to home – on foot,
or if need be by bicycle. No means of fast transportation and escape will
ever compensate for the vexation of living in an uninhabitable city in which
no one feels at home or the irritation of only going into the city to work
or, on the other hand, to be alone and sleep.

“People,” writes Illich, “will break the chains of overpowering
transportation when they come once again to love as their own territory
their own particular beat, and to dread getting too far away from it.” But
in order to love “one’s territory” it must first of all be made liveable,
and not trafficable. The neighbourhood or community must once again become a
microcosm shaped by and for all human activities, where people can work,
live, relax, learn, communicate, and knock about, and which they manage
together as the place of their life in common. When someone asked him how
people would spend their time after the revolution, when capitalist
wastefulness had been done away with, Marcuse answered, “We will tear down
the big cities and build new ones. That will keep us busy for a while.”

These new cities might be federations of communities (or neighbourhoods)
surrounded by green belts whose citizens – and especially the schoolchildren
– will spend several hours a week growing the fresh produce they need. To
get around everyday they would be able to use all kinds of transportation
adapted to a medium-sized town: municipal bicycles, trolleys or
trolley-buses, electric taxis without drivers. For longer trips into the
country, as well as for guests, a pool of communal automobiles would be
available in neighbourhood garages. The car would no longer be a necessity.
Everything will have changed: the world, life, people. And this will not
have come about all by itself.

Meanwhile, what is to be done to get there? Above all, never make
transportation an issue by itself. Always connect it to the problem of the
city, of the social division of labour, and to the way this
compartmentalises the many dimensions of life. One place for work, another
for “living,” a third for shopping, a fourth for learning, a fifth for
entertainment. The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration
of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a
person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices so that
in each one you are a passive consumer at the mercy of the merchants, so
that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure,
satisfaction of needs, and personal life can and should be one and the same
thing: a unified life, sustained by the social fabric of the community.


Le Sauvage September-October 1973

Thanks to Reclaim the Streets – visit their new site :