Challenging the Car and Capitalism

Cars kill — millions of humans and animals around the world every year — but do they also destroy our sense of community and solidarity that is the foundation of socialism and progressive politics?

In North America there is a strong correlation between automobile-dominated landscapes and right-wing voting patterns.

At the national level as the dominance of the private automobile increases so do votes for the likes of Stephen Harper and George W. Bush. In the 2011 election Harper’s Conservatives won almost every suburban riding in Canada’s major cities (outside of Montréal) and lost most central districts. According to American Theocracy, in 2004, drivers polled 7 points more favourably for Bush than the overall electorate. All of the 13 states with 75 mph speed limits (eight in the mountain west plus North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas) voted overwhelmingly to reelect Bush.

Right-wing politics generally intensify as suburbs sprawl further outwards. Conversely, according to Robert E. Lang, Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, “at each greater increment of urban density, democrat John Kerry received a higher proportion of the vote [in the 2004 presidential election].”

The suburbs are bastions of conservatism. Surveys indicate that suburbanites are less inclined to support government programs, unless considered directly beneficial — highways and education, for instance. Compared to their counterparts in more walkable/public transit oriented areas, suburbanites “place little emphasis on such social goals as eliminating discrimination and reducing poverty,” according to Urban Sprawl and Public Health.

One recent example of how this conservatism plays out is the election of right wing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. He received strong support in the outer rings of the city but in the more financially secure walk-able neighborhoods close to streetcar and subway connections he seems generally perceived as a figure to ridicule.

There is a similar dynamic at play in Manhattan and San Francisco. These relatively wealthy areas consistently vote Democrat (or Green) and also happen to be some of the least car-oriented parts of the US.

There are numerous ways in which the private automobile promotes right wing politics. As the most expensive form of land transportation, monthly car and insurance payments keep indebted fingers to the grindstone. In 1932 the father of market research, Charles Coolidge Parlin, explained that purchasing cars through consumer financing encouraged a “better attitude” from labor and that “the automobile furnished one of the greatest incentives to industry and sobriety labor ever had.” A June 2006 New York Times magazine cover story on debt discussed the 1919 launch of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), speculating that “acceptance” implied the borrower was a member of a responsible community. The Times explained, “indebtedness could discipline workers, keeping them at routinized jobs in factories and offices, graying but harnessed, meeting payments regularly. Good consumers would be good producers.”

In addition to chaining would-be political actors to their jobs with debt, behind the wheel of their private mobile spaces drivers are far less likely to mix and mingle than pedestrians. By isolating drivers from fellow human beings, driving engenders hostility and mistrust. Pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders are forced into a greater awareness of their environment and as a result are more likely to concern themselves with its well-being.

The promoters of capitalism have long understood that the landscape impacts their control. In fact, elites have repeatedly sought to undermine progressive organizing by dispersing communities. This goes back at least to the European revolutions of 1848.

A number of authors have pointed out that US factory relocation in the early 1900s was driven partly by a desire to combat labour organizing and rising radicalism. The labour movement was rooted in workers and their families residing near the factory. Factory dispersal separated work and home, reducing the likelihood that members of a workforce would live in the same community.

In Toronto Sprawls, Lawrence Solomon traces the ways in which the city’s dispersal was a reaction to the breakdown of social control that accompanied growing migration from farms. In the early 1900s, Toronto’s elite became concerned about the growing number of single women and immigrants living in the city as well as the success unions were having in organizing urban workers. Government officials responded by razing buildings in high-density areas, banning apartment buildings and promoting single-family dwellings more conducive to the traditional family.

A more recent example of the conscious dispersal of radicals is how, after the central Paris based May1968 student-led rebellion, new university social science departments were set up outside the city.

Capitalists have pushed dispersal mostly due to the incredible profits to be made from car and car-dependent businesses, including big box stores and real estate, but the atomization of communities into suburbs has also helped them beat back political movements that challenge their economic system.

Car-dependent areas are infertile grounds for the social movements necessary to tip back the scale between rich and poor. Sprawling auto-centric suburbs certainly make it more difficult for community groups and progressives to leaflet, poster and demonstrate.

Where does one hand out leaflets in a suburb with no centre or major mass transit hub? The highway?

The mall is the main place where people congregate in the suburbs but these privately owned spaces generally restrict leafleting.

For most political posters to make sense a pedestrian scale is required. Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car-oriented billboards, street posters are ideal for volunteer-run movements. Putting up posters is labour intensive, but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication.

Besides undermining leafleting and postering, diffuse suburban landscapes also discourage political gatherings. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that “cars have encouraged the diffusion and privatization of space, as shopping malls replace shopping streets, public buildings become islands in a sea of asphalt, civic design lapses into traffic engineering, and people mingle far less freely and frequently.”

How many demonstrations take place in the suburbs? Not many, as a diffuse geography and population denies a pedestrian scale.

As a result, suburbanites’ interaction with protests – and progressive political culture more generally – is limited or mediated through the dominant media. During last year’s student led uprising in Québec the vast majority of demonstrations and neighborhood “casseroles” (pots and pans) marches took place within the core of Montréal. Yet, those living on the outskirts of the city were significantly more likely to tell pollsters that the protests were disruptive than those in neighborhoods closer to the centre. In effect, people expressed annoyance with the political disruption in an inverse relation to which they were impacted. Or to put it differently, the more Montréalers interacted with the activism through the dominant media, rather than in person, the more it seemed troublesome.

In Wanderlust Solnit explains: “Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt. Few remember that the ‘right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, along with freedom of the press, of speech, and of religion, as critical to a democracy. While other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.”

To challenge capitalism we must challenge the private automobile.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.