Think what our country would be like if we had continued to develop as the primary system mass transit.Increasing the number of riders entails speed and frequency of service.Mass transit offers cheaper, cleaner, safer, means of moving people.The
funds consumed could be used to provide universal medical coverage and a first-rate educational system, and eliminate the
federal debt.In a few U.S. cities such as New York it is the primary method of commute.It would be even better is the number of users were increased and the saving from reducing the automotive
fleet was funneled into mass transit--jk.
A Brief Socialist
History of the Automobileby Rob Rooke, 8/17/04
No single commercial product in the history of capitalism
has had a greater effect on the economy and politics than the automobile. No other product has been such a lever to increase
consumption and increase markets in the developed world. It could be argued that the car, more than any other product, was
at the very heart of the 20th century’s economic expansion. In US society, for over a century, the car has been raised on
a cultural pedestal worshipping individuality and defining big business’ vision of freedom.The car hastened the massive sprawl of suburbia and in itself shaped US urban
planning like no other product. Today, in the United States, public
transport plays a distant second fiddle to the car with nine out of ten workers using their cars to travel to work. In people’s
everyday life, the car is now their second biggest household expense, next to housing. The car has reached its zenith.
This brief socialist history of the automobile will attempt
to give some background and context to today’s car-dominated world. It will attempt to explain how the automobile and
the mad chase for profits has shaped the world, and helped in turn lead humanity to its current fork, where one road indisputably
will lead to global destruction.
This history is founded on Marxist materialism, which sets
off from the idea that all social and cultural phenomena under capitalism are shaped by the continuous tug between the bosses
and the working class. While this is not a history of autoworkers, it does attempt to show the role of working people’s
struggles that have continuously been in the background to the birth and rise of the automobile.
One side of the auto industry that does not pervade its own
advertising is the bloody road that brought it here. The industry itself has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of workers
as it arose and found its feet. This suffering was in turn surpassed by a century-long battle over resources to feed the car
its oil; its rubber; its steel and glass. Many millions have been killed in many hundreds of wars and invasions by imperialism,
some more directly connected to the automobile than others.The place of petroleum in the current
war in Iraq is self-evident. But it is not the first or last
war for resources for the automobile. Over a hundred years ago US imperialism
invaded Central America to establish its own rubber plantations for its booming auto industry; its brutality gave
rise to Augusto Sandino, the grandfather of Nicaragua’s
anti-imperialist resistance.This article is dedicated to the thousands
of workers who died fighting for auto unions and those millions who resisted the auto-industrial complex and were crushed
in its wake.
A brief socialist history of the automobile
In 1799 Philippe Lebon registered his invention of a ``gas
powered engine with internal combustion’’ with the new revolutionary government of France. The new
engine would be light, independent and powerful. It would be a hundred years before the steam engine had exhausted itself
and the gas engine replace it. Together with the discovery of new sources of oil and the explosion of industry, particularly
in the US, all the parts were in place for the invention
of the horseless carriage.
During the 1890s the motorised bicycle and the electric car
were eventually sidelined for the more utilitarian and more profitable motor car. The car began its life as a toy for the
wealthy and an object that polarised the classes. It was widely known that Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad baron, had a
100-car garage. In 1906 Woodrow Wilson, then president of PrincetonUniversity, argued
that ``nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles…they are a picture of
the arrogance of wealth’’. The Horseless Age magazine in 1904 documented widespread stone throwing at autos
in working-class neighbourhoods of New York City.
The first cars were unaffordable to working people. The average
annual income of a worker in 1900 was $450 and the average price of a car was $2000. Along with the price, the common notion
was that horseless carriages were less pleasant and less reliable than the horse. Only 4192 cars were sold in 1900. But within
27 years the number of cars registered in the US ballooned
to over 20 million. More than half of all US families
either owned a new or used automobile.
Rise of the working class and the USA’s
By the end of the 19th century US capitalism
was fighting off a mass movement for unionisation and socialism. American capitalism had won the civil war defeating the slave-owning
class, which, along with wiping out the Native American peoples, enabled capitalism to complete its rule from coast to coast.
The bosses had encouraged millions of immigrants to its shores in part to attempt to undermine rising wages, however this
had not prevented the working class rising up and establishing skilled craft unions throughout many of the United
US manufacturers had begun to see a serious decline in its
rate of profits. Employers had tried to lower wages and speed up production, but that had only provoked more strikes and more
workers joining the new unions. Employers began to conclude that they needed to change the organisation of production to break
the power of the craft unions.
At the turn of the century a massive wave of mergers had
given more control of larger companies to the banks and financiers. The dominance of the banks enabled them to direct change
in the productive process of manufacturing. Frederick Taylor’s ``scientific’’ management methods were increasingly
adopted throughout industry. Centralised planning, detailed time study, division of labour and incentive pay were implemented
in attempts to reverse the decline in capitalism’s rate of profit and at the same time break the power of the skilled
The automobile leapt from the sidelines into the centre of
capitalist life in the first two decades of the 20th century. Increased technological improvements were able to utilise the
internal combustion engine into a producer of energy unlike any previous invention. One gallon of gasoline, transformed through
this engine could produce the equivalent energy of one month of human labour. The oil industry, which had grown through the
widespread use of the oil lamp, had already been developed and was constantly searching for new sources globally. Unlike British,
German and French imperialism, US Imperialism had the advantage of its own domestic oil industry.
Fordism: industrial saviour
The emerging automobile industry grew out of the large horse
carriage manufacturers and small auto shops. Henry Ford exploited the latest manufacturing technologies and with massive investment
from the big banks, transformed the plaything of the rich into a mass consumer product. Ford’s massive investment in
machinery created high-speed production aimed at de-skilling the labour involved in production and assembly. Fordism aimed
to destroy the clout of the craft unions: breaking down the productive process to its lowest denominator: to the simplest,
most repetitive tasks. Then, to increase line speed, the industry introduced production-based pay incentives.
Picture Henry Ford
The mass investment into auto produced incredible results.
In 1910, while a car in Europe took 3000 employee-days to produce, a Ford car was being produced in
the US in 70 employee-days. In 1911 the Overland carriage
company produced 20,000 cars. Their paint division employed 200 craftspeople and took two weeks to paint each vehicle. In
1915 with the introduction of spray painting and drying ovens this was reduced to three days per vehicle. The Ford Motor Company
additionally stepped up production and cut costs by streamlining down to a single model. In 1914 it also discontinued all
colours except black. The 1913 introduction of the conveyer belt reduced assembly of the Model T from 12.5 hours per vehicle
to 1.5 hours, and by 1915, the number of skilled workers in the US automobile
industry had fallen from 60% of the workforce to 15%.
One further advantage for US imperialism
was that it had the world’s largest undivided potential market for any new product. In contrast, Europe was divided
by dozens of national tariff walls. More than 100 million people lived within the US at this
time and Ford’s River Rouge plant alone employed more than 100,000 workers. Ford developed and grew the market for the
car by a combination of raising autoworkers’ wages and lowering automobile prices.
In 1913 Ford introduced the $5-a-day wage, when average daily
pay in the US was under $2. In this way the Ford
workforce became a part of the first mass market for cars. Ford also reduced the work-week to five days in his factories in
1926, helping raise his workers’ productivity.
By 1908 the Ford Model T was launched. It sold for $825,
the cheapest car of its time. Ford had reduced costs by reducing his line to one basic affordable model. By 1925 regular price
cuts had eventually brought the price of the Model T down to $260 per car, helping place an automobile outside the home of
every second US family.
Over two decades the automobile had been transformed from
an experimental plaything of the rich to a common, everyday product. The car no longer bore the stigma of being elitist. One
of Ford’s followers was the rising star of German capitalism, Adolf Hitler. Hitler argued ``the motor car instead of
being a class dividing element can be the instrument for uniting different classes, just as it has done in America, thanks
to Mr. Ford’s genius’’. While the $5-a-day wage was not copied in Hitler’s Volkswagen factories, most
of Ford’s authoritarian management methods were. Ford’s US factories
were well known for their severe discipline and instant firings. No-one was allowed to talk on the production line: workers
called it the ``Ford Silence’’. Ford’s fascist-style workplace regime was only broken by the victory of
the United Auto Workers in organising Ford plants in 1941.
The booming ‘20s and the struggle for raw materials
The economic boom of the 1920s was led by the two newest
and biggest consumer objects of 20th century US capitalism:
the single family home and the automobile. The cinema, which replaced the saloon, became the lead advertising agent for the
car. Radio advertising too promoted the new freedom of the road. The monotony and alienation of life in the workplace remained
hidden in all but socialist literature. Capitalism offered increasingly meaningless jobs and an illusion of meaning off the
clock: with the individualised car and picket fence.
The car and the airplane shortened distances, as did the
telephone and the radio. The speed of life outside work increased, mirroring the increased speed at work. Sales promotion
and marketing was born and boomed as capitalism frantically pushed to increase markets and feed its addiction to profits.
In France, the Citroen
Corporation had 5000 travelling salespeople to promote the need for its car in every village and hamlet. Citroen paid for
150,000 road signs to be erected across France, where
they previously hadn’t existed. The company also sold 400,000 toy cars to entice future buyers and beginning the long
association of boys and cars. By 1927 the French automaker was producing 1000 cars a day in its French plants.
With the rise of the automobile, new sources of raw materials
needed to be discovered and created. Capitalism can never stand still. As Karl Marx wrote in Capital, ``Accumulate!
Accumulate! Accumulate! That is the Moses and the Prophets!`` Capitalism, by its inherent nature, can never stop, but is forced
to continuously create bigger and bigger markets, and more and more consumption. This is all that stands between itself and
an economic slump of overproduction.
Relatively sleepy Brazil was the
exclusive producer of rubber at the end of the 19th century. Rubber trees grew wild, but production was costly, because of
the Amazon’s isolation and scarcity of labour. Waterproofed products, capitalism’s initial use for rubber, was
soon surpassed by rubber’s value as car tyres. Each car demanded 45lbs [20.4 kgs] of rubber, which sold on international
markets for up to £900 per ton.Brazil closely
guarded its rubber monopoly until British imperialism broke into the industry by robbing a shipment of rubber tree seeds.
Britain then raised seedlings in its Ceylon [Sri Lanka] colony
and eventually began mass production of rubber in Malaysia. By the
1910s the Dutch and British colonies were producing hundreds of tons of rubber. In 1913 Malaysian and Indonesian production
first surpassed Brazilian production. Two years later British Imperialism’s plantations doubled Brazilian rubber production
and by 1919 they produced 10-fold more rubber than Brazil. The US recognised
the problem of depending on British colonies for its tyre industry and invaded Central America to develop
its own rubber industry. The US mirrored the brutal
methods of the rubber plantations in Asia, where it was not uncommon for half of all workers
to be dead by the end of the rubber season. US rubber
plantation methods, nearing slavery, provoked one of the first mass rebellions against US imperialism,
as it began its role of stalking the planet for resources.
In the mid 1920s the introduction of the inflatable tyre
increased average tyre mileage from 8000 miles to 15,000 miles. The price of rubber then soon collapsed. Rubber, which peaked
at £900 per ton in 1910, fell to £20 per ton by the 1930s.
In 1928 the owners of the world’s three biggest oil
companies, Anglo-Persian Oil (later to become British Petroleum), Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, sat down and worked
out a deal to share out the world’s oil wealth between them. The Red Line Agreement signed a year later would help avert
the suffering of a new world war to re-divide oil resources. Nonetheless, the working classes and poor of the oil-producing
countries continued to die in poverty, alongside billions of barrels of black gold.
`Our big job is to hasten obsolescence’
The automobile helped lead the charge of the unprecedented
boom of the 1920s. During this period the car market became saturated, and along with the growing sales of used cars, profits
for the industry were falling. A shift in the industry was necessary and General Motors (GM) began to challenge Ford’s
single model production.
As early as 1923 GM began selling cars with a similar basic
frame, but with different bodies. In the boom of the 1920s GM designers argued that car sales had crossed a new threshold
moving from the need for ``better quality to better looking’’. Here begins the divergence of the car from its
simple utilitarian role into the realm of being an expression of social mobility and wealth. Here begins the massive diversification
of models and the road that eventually leads to annual model changes. Capitalism loves all things new and seeks to see all
things old thrown away. This moment is the beginning of the massive diversity of models of US cars and
all that went with it.
With every model change comes the need for auto plants to
produce new dies and reset presses. By the early 1940s GM alone was spending up to $35 million a year on model changes. While
costly, routine model changes were beneficial to the narrow interests of the biggest automakers. GM, Ford and Chrysler drove
out the remaining small producers who could not keep up with the massive investment required to change models frequently.
This emergence of style or appearance as a competitive factor may have been initially stumbled upon, but it soon became a
fundamental requirement in the industry. General Motors’ top designer during this period, Harley Earl, argued that ``our
big job is to hasten obsolescence’’. He further argued that given the average new car ownership span in 1935 was
five years and in 1955 it was reduced to two years, that ``when it is one year we will have the perfect score’’.
The Great Depression saw all auto companies radically cut
back on spending and production. From a high of 5.6 million cars sold in 1929 auto sales collapsed by 75% to 1.4 million vehicles
in 1932. Luxury vehicle sales fared worse: peaking in 1929 at 150,000 sold, sales then continued to fall through the 1930s.
The rich understood the shift in consciousness of the period and that ostentatious displays of wealth could cost them their
lives. By 1937 annual sales of luxury cars had slumped to 10,000.
In 1928 the Ford Motor Company had 128,000 workers on its
payroll, by August 1931 only 37,000 workers still had jobs and most of them worked only three days per week. Ford’s
$5-a-day wage had risen in the 1920s to $8 and $9 a day. The depression buried the high wage policy. In 1931 wages were cut
by 20%. Some male employees were reduced to 10c an-hour and some women labourers’ wages were cut to 4 cents an hour
in Ford plants.
In 1942 private auto production stopped altogether as the
auto industry turned production into building war machines for US government contracts. War has always been good for business
and especially for the ``auto-industrial complex’’. As far back as the outset of the US civil
war oil was selling for 49c per barrel, but by the end of the World War II a barrel of oil was fetching $8. At the start of
the Iraq war oil was $30 a barrel and has now risen to $110
a barrel. Similarly in World War I GM shares rocketed from 78c to $7.50. After World War II, as victor on the Western Front
and in the Pacific, the US emerged as the dominant force for global
capitalism. Its prestige and power was a crown shared with big auto, which set about building cars for the returning troops.
Post-war public spending for the car
The post-war revolutionary wave that swept the world was
also seen in the US. The war’s hardships led to pent
up anger and hope that exploded in the US workplace.
The strike wave of 1946 was the widest industrial conflict in US history.
More than 116 million person-days were lost in strike actions, more than four times the previous record of 1937. The strike
issues were primarily for a shorter work-week, higher pay and to resist the loss of relative control over workplaces that
were granted during wartime. The bosses conceded on the first two demands, adding also concessions for private insurance to
undermine the global movement for nationalised healthcare. As for aspects of workplace control, once again, capitalism offered
instead the myth of power and freedom of consumerism. Americans were offered the open road and a full tank of gas.
The US government,
together with its close partners at the top of all the major industries began to take steps in shaping post-war USA more tightly
in the interests of profit. Major support was given to promote private family home ownership in part through mortgage guarantees
for returning troops. The federal government also subsidised the massive development of the suburbs. Between 1945 and 1960
some 30 million Americans moved to the suburbs, the growth of which was a huge boon to the auto industry.
Where the railroads were built through private investment,
the automobile roads were built for free though federal, state and local governments. Public and not auto industry money paid
for the massive network of highways that were built and the roads were widened. Further billions in public money came in 1956
with the Interstate Highway Act providing a mass of freeways for automobiles across all states. The bill passed under the
outrageous pretext that the US needed a freeway
network in case of a possible invasion from the USSR.
No other industry in US history
was so enormously subsidised as the auto industry. US governments, federal and local, essentially built the superstructure
for the expansion of the car. The car became inseparable from almost every function of US life as
a direct consequence of its partnership with the US political
The `Auto-industrial complex’ conspiracy to destroy
The booming post-war period saw the massive rise and peak
of what US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy called the ``automobile-industrial complex’’ –- the car, oil, steel,
glass, rubber, highway construction, trucking and real estate industries connected to urban sprawl. One consequence of this
vested interest in cars was the systematic smashing of public transport operations. General Motors, Standard Oil of California
(Chevron), Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tires formed National City Lines, as a part of an organised campaign to buy up
and destroy electric rail systems operating in US towns and cities. After buses replaced trams and trains, then the bus systems
too were often wound down.
A National City Lines trolley bus
By the early 1950s the auto industry faced a crisis of falling
unit demand, as most families now owned a car. At the same time working people’s discretionary spending was rising.
Given these factors, the Big Three (GM, Ford and Crysler) moved to increase each car’s size and array of new gadgets,
and at the same time increase the frequency of the introduction of new models.
Between 1946 and 1959 the cheapest Chevrolet sedan grew 13
inches [33 cms] in length, 7 inches [17.8 cms] in width and was over 400 lbs [181 kgs] heavier. The Ford Edsel, launched in
1957, was an incredible 18 feet [5.5 metres] long. Horsepower for the average model in 1946 was around 110, by 1956 it was
grown to 180. Exhaust emissions, fuel efficiency and vehicle safety were placed a distant second to the need to continuously
By 1950 the Big Three offered their customers 243 different
new car models. During this period new model changes were brought forward from three years per model to two years. With a
major body change costing upwards of $200 million, by 1955 the Big Three controlled 94% of the entire US market.
They were no longer under any pressure to reduce prices and in the decade of the 1950s prices rose an unprecedented 36% to
an average car price of $1822.
trolley bus (electric bus)
Patriotism has always been utilised by business for selling
its products. With the Cold War in full swing the US auto industry and its representatives in government increasingly
identified consumer choice with capitalism (so-called ``democracy’’) and the lack of consumer choice with communism.
In 1955 Chevrolet advertised its cars as ``empowerment and escape’’ feeding on previous associations of the car
and a very narrow concept of freedom.
The Cold War, the retreat from militancy of the labour leaders
and the monopoly of big business’ two political parties, gave a green light to the bosses to gouge their customers,
the working class. While average manufacturing profits between 1946 and 1967 rose a dramatic 9% per year, GM’s return
on its investments were a stunning average of 21% per year over the same period.
The 1964 Senate hearings on auto safety marked the beginning
of the end of the blank cheque for big auto. A GM spokesperson admitted that the company only spent $1.25 million on safety
research and safety changes for its cars in 1963. When GM executives were then asked about their profit levels, they admitted
they had hit $1.7 billion in the same year.
There was also a small backlash within the trend to super-sized
cars. In 1955 only 60,000 European cars, which tended to be significantly smaller than their US counterparts,
were sold in the US. By 1960 imports rose to 700,000 cars,
slightly more than 10% of the market. The arrogance of the auto bosses towards the compact car and towards public pressure
was best expressed by Henry Ford III who opposed making smaller models with his position
that ``mini-cars make mini-profits’’. Comments such as these increasingly irritated working people, leading the
Wall Street Journal in the early 1970s to comment on ``the growing rebellion against cars’’. The rebellion
was as much against the car business as the product itself.
As pressure on the wages of working people increased, more
women were returning to the work place. Given the deliberately weak public transportation sector, more families were forced
to buy more than one car. In 1950 only 7% of households owned more than one car, by 1970 29% of all US families
owned more than one car.
Beginning of the decline of the car
The massive proliferation of models exploded in the sixties.
By 1970 the Big Three offered 370 different models each year a 55% increase in the number of models over 1960. Their obsession
with perpetuating the myth of choice was beginning to undermine their own profits. In the early days of auto production, from
1919 through 1930, worker productivity increased on average 8.6% per year. Productivity gains collapsed in the 1960s to an
average of 3% per year. The fall in productivity was in large part because of the vast multitude of models each of the three
big automakers were producing and the massive investment this demanded.
The profit and productivity impasse of the early 1970s increased
class tensions within the auto plants. As the corporations sought to further automate and increase line speed they faced the
resistance of the rank and file. The bosses responded with harsh disciplinary measures and penalties against individuals.
It was this offensive that created a rebellion among young UAW rank and file such as at Lordstown, Ohio. At Lordstown
autoworkers were producing one car every 36 seconds. It was the fastest assembly line in the world.In 1972 Lordstown GM workers walked out over the barrage of disciplinary actions by management. After the
22-day strike a vast majority of workers were reinstated and charges against most workers dropped. However, the fear of the
rank and file and increasingly aggressive bosses helped push the UAW bureaucracy in the direction of its current class collaborationist
policy of team work. Through the Team Concept the bosses were able to win increased cooperation from their workforce, which
in turn increased job speed and alienation on the job.
The long lines outside gas stations during the 1973 oil crisis
shifted working-class opinion further against the auto industry. This in turn led to increased regulations on cars, particularly
for fuel efficiency. The phrase, ``gas guzzler`` was born. As the auto corporations were increasingly perceived as socially
irresponsible, they were forced to decrease the size of their monster cars. Detroit was forced
to make a large foray into the compact car market. The industry then waited in the wings for the environmentalism and oil
fears of the 1970s to die down.
The coming of the SUV
The economic boom of the 1980s, politically expressed through
the election and re-election of US President Ronald Reagan, took the heat off corporations and the demand for government regulation.
The Vietnam era was to be buried and an escapism not seen since
the 1920s ensued. This was the background to the emergence of the world’s all time most wasteful and unsafe version
of the motor car: the sports utility vehicle (SUV).Once an obscure model, the SUV with
its passenger car body and truck frame came into the mainstream, albeit the high end of the mainstream. The SUV became the
savior for the Big Three. The vast majority of US auto profits
in the 1990s were from their light truck and SUV models. Sports utility vehicles have increasingly come to symbolise all that
is wrong and wasteful about the current economy. Like the boom of the 1950s the auto-industrial complex exploited the rise
in disposable incomes that the housing equity boom created to sell more cars to each person. An average sedan in the last
10 years would typically weigh about 3000lbs [1360 kg]. The average SUV often weighs over 6000lbs [2700 kg]. The ``green``
capitalists at Toyota sell hundreds of thousands of their Sequoia SUV, which weighs
in at 6500lbs [2948 kgs].
The home equity crash has essentially ended the heyday of
SUV sales. It is no coincidence that capitalism’s two most important consumer commodities: the privately owned house
and the private car are going into a crisis at the same time. Both products represent a way of life that is individualised
and wasteful and a social construct that cannot be sustained by the planet Earth.
When the Model T was launched 100 years ago, it could travel
20-22 miles per gallon [approx 9.3 km/litre]. Over a century of auto making later, the most popular car models were less fuel
efficient. Hummers and Escalades of recent years have city gas mileage of around 10 miles per gallon [4.25 km/litre]. The
waste of fuel energy and the pumping of polluting and global-warming emissions into the air would have been negligible at
the turn of the last century when there were 8000 registered cars in the US. Today
there are 231 million registered cars in the US. China has now
surpassed Japan as the number two consumer of automobiles
and there may be 100 million cars on China’s
roads before the decade is out. Thirty-eight million cars were sold globally in 1995. Last year that increased to 49 million
US automobiles are second only in carbon dioxide production
to coal-burning power plants. US cars currently account for 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year. No carbon-offsetting
can remove this level of pollution. The US would
have to plant 55 billion trees every year to undo this level of emissions. And with China attempting
to mirror the road of US capitalism, tomorrow’s world
resources will be stretched to unmanageable levels.
At the turn of the previous century the electric car was
essentially abandoned because of its 50-mile [80-kilometre] limit on one charge, today it is making a small comeback. The
rise in sales of electric cars and the more popular petrol-electric hybrids will certainly slow down the rate of damage to
the planet. These sales still represent a negligible percentage of the car market. Any car, petrol or electric is still essentially
about 3000lbs [1360 kgs] of automobile being moved around for often only one human being.
The hoopla around hybrid cars is a part of a wider increase
in products of green capitalism. They are linked with the notion that individuals can opt out of a huge mass polluting system
and that the huge consumption of the past can continue in an environmentally sustainable way. In this world, big capitalism
continues to makes its profits, markets continue to expand and people feel better about the environment. Yet the pace of global
warming is unimpeded.
In the last analysis, any mass-produced ``green’’
car still stands in opposition to public transport and the fundamental social changes necessary to save the planet.
The car’s nemesis: public transportation
Aside from the social and environmental factors, there have
been few products that have in themselves been more lethal than the automobile. While studies have proven that bus travel
is 170 times safer than car travel, some 120 people a day in the US continue
to die from traffic accidents involving private cars. The auto industry has continued to try and sell more safety to wealthier
car buyers, but human error with 231 million individual drivers is impossible to remove.
The rise of the automobile was accompanied by the collapse
of public transport. Public transport did not shrink because of its inability to economically compete with the car. There
was a campaign by the auto-industrial complex to defeat and bury public transportation.
With the growth of industry and jobs, public transport in
the United States increased alongside the increase in cars.
Public transport peaked with an average of 166 passenger rides per year per head of population. By 1956, with compliant support
of capitalist politicians, the number of riders was halved. Neighbourhoods were developed that had no public transport access,
forcing more people to buy cars. By 1973 US public
transport ridership hit its post-war low of 31 rides per year per person. Today that figure has only slightly recovered to
about 35 rides per person per year.
At the beginning of the 1920s, 90% of travel was by rail,
chiefly electric rail. Only one in 10 Americans owned a car. Virtually every city and town in the US with more
than 2500 people had its own electric rail system. General Motors used its massive profits over a 30-year period to kill these
light rail systems. GM bought up rail companies and ran them into the ground. They also introduced bus lines that would follow
the same route as trains and trams, offering lower fares. The extensive light rail systems of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, WashingtonDC, St Louis, Salt Lake
City, Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland were all
smashed by GM money.
Los Angeles, as the
youngest of the US mega cities, may have fared the worst
of all. The Los Angeles Railway operated the majority of the city’s 1500 streetcars. In May 1945, GM’s front organisation,
American City Lines, bought 59% of LA Railway’s stock. In the same month LA Railway announced its plan to scrap most
of its streetcar lines.The destruction of public transport, particularly
electric rail systems, was not only a massive waste of resources, but perhaps the biggest single contribution to increasing
pollution and climate change in global history. General Motors, as the world’s biggest corporation, made the decision
for this process, privately, on its board of directors. There was no popular vote for this policy. It was capitalist ``democracy’’
in action. The reverberations from the destruction of public transport are many sided. The shrinking of public transport also
contributed to the racially segregated poverty of urban areas. Professor Evelyn Blumenburg’s UCLA study of jobs and
public transit in Los Angeles in the last decade shows that residents of Watts who have access to a private car are 59 times
more likely to get a job than those dependent on public transport.
Capitalism and its blind gallop for profits has brought the
planet to where it is today. The private automobile was one of its greatest vehicles for profit. The current and future inhabitants
have to deal with the world as it has been inherited. The past will continue on if it is not contested. Democrat and Republican
politicians pay lip service to the environment, but being bought and paid for by big business they only offer small measures
that will not save the planet.
The world is currently run by the wolves in the coop. The
General Motors, the Chevrons, the Citibanks still continue to make the real decisions about world’s future. These companies
will not put humanity or the planet ahead of the race for profits. To remove this obstacle to a sustainable future a social
and political revolution is necessary. Working-class people need to take the wheel and re-organise society in the interests
of the great majority.
A future of massive light rail expansion is one alternative.
Every city, every region and nationally, travel by light electric rail would dramatically curb auto emissions. However, if
this led to bigger and bigger coal-fired electricity power stations, then the gains for the environment could all be lost.
Some argue that nuclear power may need to be re-examined.
In France, 75% of its electricity comes from nuclear power.
This raises two issues: operational safety and waste storage. The Cherynobl nuclear disaster released an equivalent toxicity
into the air of 200 Hiroshima bombs. And there still appears to be no
long-term solutions to storing nuclear waste.
The big auto-industrial corporations along with the big banks
need to be brought under public ownership. The industrial resources and productive capacity of big auto should be converted
into socially useful production as a part of a democratic plan that working-class people should generate.
In the 13th century Roger Bacon, the social philosopher,
predicted that ``Man will we able to build a carriage that moves at miraculous speed without horses or other draft animals’’.
Human society has moved past that stage now and should move forward toward its only possible future: a collective one, with
a collective-oriented transport system.
[Rob Rooke, former recording secretary, Carpenters Local
713, Oakland, California. Written on March 29, 2008. Rooke is a member of Labor’s Militant Voice (http://www.laborsmilitantvoice.com/).]
Ilya Ehrenburg, The Life of the Automobile (1929)
David Gartman, Auto Opium: A Social History of American
Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’
Historical Statistics of the United
States, US Department of Commerce
Bradford Snell, How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed
Labor’s Militant Voice Environmental Platform
A planned socialist economy based on immediate human needs
rather than the senseless drive for profits, would solve many of today’s key environmental problems according to the
1. Mass integrated transit systems. A mass integrated
public transit system linking urban, suburban and rural areas together through energy efficient and affordable transportation.
[With such] an integrated transportation system, controlled by working people today, market pressures would be eliminated
in order to provide safe and efficient travel for the inhabitants of the region. In times of natural disaster and emergency,
such a transit system would respond more effectively and responsively to human needs, as during a major earthquake or tsunami.
2. Energy. A program to develop and further investigate
renewable and alternative energy sources. Research into technologies which promote hydrogen, solar, wind and hyrdo-electric
power sources. A rational plan of energy use and production would call for an overall decrease in the use of stored energy
of any kind to meet the general needs of society. The generation of energy for public consumption by industrial plants under
private ownership, which today contribute greatly to carbon emissions, as well as airborne, water and soil toxicity, would
be eliminated and replaced with power generation facilities under community control. In order to further reduce public energy
consumption and waste, a program of socialised domestic food production, and sanitation could be implemented through organisations
of community control.
3. Agriculture and food production. Growing food crops
and cattle raising without the use of induced pesticides, artificial hormones or genetically modified organisms foreign to
a particular environment. The natural fertility of the soil and ground water could be sustained through methods of crop rotation
and stepped irrigation, as practiced in agricultural societies for thousands of years. Modern-day methods of geological survey
and research, now largely in the service of private corporations, could be used to more efficiently and rationally plan usage
of natural resources. The necessity of chemical preservatives to keep food fresh for transport and storage, would be eliminated
by having food produced locally and according to the immediate needs of the population.
4. Housing and urban development. Population centres
which are appropriate to the needs and resources of the human inhabitants could be democratically planned along with transportation,
energy and food production. Development of new housing would be according to the immediate circumstances of society, and not
on market speculation. The necessity of long-distance travel, and traffic between home and work, would be eliminated through
the conversion of available materials and building construction into a program of affordable housing for all workers and their
Show me a capitalist, and I'll show you a pig--Hugh Newton
International bankers and Rockefeller-Standard Oil interests control the majority of newspapers and the columns of these papers
to club into submission or rive out of public office officials who refuse to do the bidding of the powerful corrupt cliques
which compose the invisible government—Teddy Roosevelt-1913