THE SOCIAL IDEOLOGY OF THE CAR

INTERVIEW ANACHRONIQUE D’ANDRÉ GORZ

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In 1973, in the midst of the takeoff of the individual car, André Gorz published a courageous and precursory text. In this one, he relentlessly demonstrates the myth that the individual car has become and is becoming more and more every day, and that we will only get out of it by rethinking our relationship with others and with space. We offer you here an anachronistic interview. 

Kairos: André Gorz, according to you, the car is part of a social ideology, which was never intended to become an object of global consumption and that, in so doing, it would lose its use value. 

The deep vice of cars is that they are like castles or villas on the coast: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a minority of very rich people and that nothing, in their conception and nature, was intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio set or the bicycle, which retain all their use value when everyone has them, the car, like the villa on the coast, only has interest and advantages insofar as the mass does not have them. It is because, by its conception as by its original destination, the car is a luxury good. And luxury, in essence, is not democratized: if everyone has access to luxury, no one benefits from it; on the contrary: everyone drives, frustrates and dispossesses others and is driven, frustrated and dispossessed by them. 

This is quite common in the case of coastal villas. No demagogue has yet dared to claim that democratizing the right to vacation means applying the principle: a villa with a private beach for every French family. Everyone understands that if each of the 13 or 14 million families were to have even 10m of coastline, we would need 140,000km of beaches for everyone to be served! Allocating a portion to each person means cutting the beaches into strips so small — or squeezing the villas so close together — that their use value becomes zero and their advantage over a hotel complex disappears. In short, the democratization of the access to the beaches admits only one solution: the collectivist solution. And this solution necessarily involves a war on the luxury of private beaches, privileges that a small minority arrogates to itself at the expense of all. 

Now, what is perfectly obvious for beaches, why is it not commonly accepted for transportation? Doesn’t a car, like a villa with a beach, occupy a rare space? Doesn’t it spoil the other users of the road (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar or bus users)? Doesn’t it lose all use value when everyone uses theirs? And yet demagogues abound, who claim that every family has the right to at least one car and that it is up to the « State » to ensure that everyone can park at their ease, drive at 150km/h, on the weekend or vacation roads. The monstrosity of this demagogy is obvious and yet the left does not disdain to resort to it. 

Why this unprecedented treatment character favoring the car then, refusing to see it as a « luxury » private good, anti-social? 

The answer must be sought in the following two aspects of motoring. 

1. Mass motoring materializes an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology at the level of everyday practice: it founds and maintains in everyone the illusory belief that each individual can prevail and benefit at the expense of all. The aggressive and cruel egoism of the driver who, every minute, symbolically murders « the others », whom he perceives only as material inconveniences and obstacles to his own speed. This aggressive and competitive egoism is the advent, thanks to daily motoring, of a universally bourgeois behavior («  We’ll never make socialism with these people ‚ » an East German friend told me, appalled by the spectacle of Parisian traffic). 

2. The automobile offers the contradictory example of a luxury object that has been devalued by its own diffusion. But this practical devaluation has not yet led to its ideological devaluation: the myth of the car’s convenience and advantage persists, whereas public transport, if it were generalized, would demonstrate a striking superiority. The persistence of this myth is easily explained: the generalization of individual motoring has displaced public transport, modified urban planning and housing, and transferred to the car functions that its own diffusion made necessary. It will take an ideological (« cultural ») revolution to break this circle. It is obviously not to be expected from the ruling class (right or left). 

Does the car, for the first time, not not the difference in speed a difference of class? 

When the car was invented, it was to provide a few very rich bourgeois with a completely new privilege: that of driving much faster than everyone else. No one had ever thought of it before: the speed of the stagecoach was roughly the same whether you were rich or poor; the lord’s carriage went no faster than the peasant’s cart, and trains took everyone at the same speed (they only adopted differentiated speeds under the competition of the automobile and the plane). So until the turn of the last century, there was not one speed of travel for the elite, another for the people. The car would change that: it extended, for the first time, the class difference to speed and means of transport. 

It was also the first time that the man did not knew nothing about the machine that moved him? 

Exceptional beings were walking on board a self-propelled vehicle, weighing a good ton, and whose mechanical organs, of an extreme complication, were all the more mysterious as they were hidden from view. For there was also this aspect, which weighed heavily in the myth of the automobile: for the first time, men were riding individual vehicles whose operating mechanisms were completely unknown to them, whose maintenance and even feeding had to be entrusted to specialists. 

Another essential element, which will be determining in the thermodynamic orientation of our societies, is this dependence on oil, hidden by this specious freedom to drive… 

Paradox of the car: in appearance, it gave its owners unlimited independence. But, in reality, this apparent autonomy had for reverse a radical dependence: unlike the horseman, the cart driver or the cyclist, the motorist was going to depend for his energy supply, as well as for the repair of the slightest damage, on merchants and specialists of carburation, lubrication, ignition and exchange of standard parts. Unlike all past owners of means of locomotion, the motorist was to have a relationship of user and consumer — and not of possessor and master — to the vehicle of which, formally, he was the owner. This vehicle, in other words, would force him to consume and use a host of market services and industrial products that only third parties could provide. The apparent autonomy of the owner of a mobile car covers his radical dependence. 

The oil magnates were the first to see the benefits that could be derived from the widespread use of the automobile: if the people could be induced to drive motor cars, the energy needed for their propulsion could be sold to them. For the first time in history, men would become dependent on a commercial energy source for their locomotion. There would be as many customers of the oil industry as there were motorists, and since there would be as many motorists as there were families, the entire population would become customers of the oil companies. The situation that every capitalist dreams of would come true: all men would depend for their daily needs on a commodity of which only one industry would have a monopoly. 

All that remained was to get the people to drive. It is believed that he did not hesitate: it was enough to lower the price of a car sufficiently by mass production and assembly line, and people would rush to buy it. They did rush in, not realizing that they were being led by the nose. What did the automotive industry promise them? Simply this:  » From now on, you too will have the privilege of driving, like the lords and ladies, faster than anyone else. In the automobile society, the privilege of the elite is put within your reach.  »

The car was no longer the privilege of bourgeois that they had been promised? 

People rushed to get to the cars until, as the workers got to them, the motorists realized, in frustration, that they had been tricked. They had been promised a privilege as citizens; they had gone into debt to have access to it and now they found that everyone else had access to it at the same time. But what is a privilege if everyone has access to it? It’s a fool’s bargain. Worse, it’s everyone against everyone. It is the general paralysis by general grabbing. For when everyone pretends to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, the result is that nothing rolls anymore, that the speed of urban traffic falls, in Boston as in Paris, Rome or London, below that of the horse-drawn omnibus, and that the average, on the open roads, on weekends, falls below the speed of a cyclist. Nothing works: all the remedies have been tried, they all end up, in the end, aggravating the problem. Whether you multiply radial and circular routes, overhead transverse routes, 16-lane roads and toll roads, the result is always the same: the more service roads there are, the more cars flow onto them, and the more paralyzing urban traffic congestion becomes. 

The city was « expanded » to continue to increase the number of cars? 

Agglomerations were broken up into endless highway suburbs, because this was the only way to avoid the vehicular congestion of the residential centers. But this solution has an obvious downside: people can only move around comfortably because they are far from everything. To make room for the car, distances have multiplied: people live far from work, far from school, far from the supermarket, which will require a second car so that the « housewife » can do the shopping and take the children to school. Outings? There is no question of it. Any friends? There are neighbors… and still. The car, in the end, wastes more time than it saves and creates more distances than it bridges. Of course, you can get to your job doing 100km/h; but that’s because you live 50km from your job and accept to lose half an hour to cover the last 10km. Bottom line:  » People work a good part of the day to pay for the commute to work  » (Ivan Illich). 

You might say, « At least this way we get away from the hell of the city after the workday is over. » Here we are: that’s the confession. « The city » is felt as « hell », one only thinks of escaping or going to live in the provinces, whereas for generations, the big city, object of wonder, was the only place worth living in. 

Did the car kill the city? 

The car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinky, noisy, asphyxiating, dusty, clogged to the point that people don’t want to go out at night. So, since cars have killed the city, we need more and faster cars to escape on highways to even more distant suburbs. Impeccable circularity: give us more cars to escape the ravages that cars cause. 

For capitalist industry, the game is won: the superfluous has become necessary. It is no longer necessary to persuade people who want a car: its necessity is written into things. It is true that other doubts may arise when one sees the motorized escape along the escape routes: between 8:00 and 9:30 in the morning, between 5:30 and 7:00 in the evening and, on weekends, for 5 to 6 hours, the means of escape stretch out in processions, bumper to bumper, at the speed (at best) of a cyclist and in a great cloud of leaded gasoline. What is left when, as was inevitable, the speed limit on the roads is limited to precisely that which the slowest passenger car can reach. 

Just return of things: after having killed the city, the car kills the car. After promising everyone that we would go faster, the car industry ends up with the rigorously predictable result that everyone is going slower than the slowest of all, at a speed determined by the simple laws of fluid dynamics. Worse: invented to allow its owner to go where he wants, at the time and speed of his choice, the car becomes, of all vehicles, the most serfy, random, unpredictable and inconvenient: you can choose an extravagant time for your departure, but you never know when the traffic jam will allow you to arrive. You are riveted to the road (highway) as inexorably as a train is to its tracks. You cannot, any more than the rail traveler, stop unexpectedly and you must, just like in a train, move forward at a speed determined by others. In short, the car has all the disadvantages of the train — plus a few that are specific to it: vibrations, aches and pains, the danger of collision(1), the need to drive the vehicle — without any of its advantages. 

Some may argue that people could take the train but don’t? 

By Jove: how would they take it? You will notice that car capitalism has foreseen everything: at the moment when the car was going to kill the car, it made the alternatives disappear: a way to make the car compulsory. Thus, the capitalist state first allowed the rail links between cities, their suburbs and their green crowns to deteriorate and then removed them. Only high-speed inter-city connections, which compete with air transport for their middle-class clientele, have found favor in his eyes. 

What is the solution then? Is there one? 

The alternative to the car can only be global. For people to give up their cars, it is not enough to offer them more convenient means of public transport: they must not be transported at all because they will feel at home in their neighbourhood, their commune, their city on a human scale, and they will enjoy walking from their work to their home — on foot or, in a pinch, by bicycle. No amount of fast transportation and escape will ever compensate for the misfortune of living in an uninhabitable city, of not being at home anywhere, of spending time there only to work or, on the contrary, to isolate oneself and sleep. 

Users, » writes Illich,  » will break the chains of overpowering transportation when they begin to love their traffic island as a territory, and to dread moving away from it too often . « But, precisely, in order to be able to love « one’s territory », it will first have to be made habitable and not circulable: that the neighborhood or the commune becomes again the microcosm shaped by and for all human activities, where people work, live, relax, learn, communicate, romp and manage together the environment of their common life. When asked once what people will do with their time after the revolution, when capitalist waste is abolished, Marcuse replied:  » We will destroy the big cities and build new ones. It will keep us busy for a while.  »

One can imagine that these new cities will be federations of communes (or neighbourhoods), surrounded by green belts where city dwellers — and especially « schoolchildren » — will spend several hours a week growing the fresh produce they need to survive. For their daily trips, they will have a full range of means of transport adapted to a medium-sized city: municipal bicycles, streetcars or trolleybuses, electric cabs without drivers. For larger trips in the countryside, as well as for the transportation of guests, a pool of communal cars will be available to everyone in the neighborhood garages. The car will have ceased to be a need. Everything will have changed: the world, life, people. And it didn’t happen by itself. 

In the meantime, what to do to get there? Above all, the problem of transport should never be considered in isolation, but should always be linked to the problem of the city, the social division of labor and the compartmentalization that this has introduced between the various dimensions of existence: one place to work, another place to « live, » a third to buy supplies, a fourth to learn, a fifth to entertain. The arrangement of space continues the disintegration of man that began with the division of labor in the factory. It cuts the individual into slices, it cuts his time, his life, into well-separated slices so that in each one you are a passive consumer handed over defenselessly to the merchants, so that it never occurs to you that work, culture, communication, pleasure, satisfaction of needs and personal life can and must be one and the same thing: the unity of a life, supported by the social fabric of the community. 

Anachronistic interview with André Gorz, by Alexandre Penasse, taken from the text « L’idéologie sociale de la bagnole » (The social ideology of the car) first published in Le Sauvage, September-October 1973. 

Notes et références
  1. Voir « Les accidents de voiture ne sont pas des accidents », Kairos 1.
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