“Car Culture”: Just Stop

In the course of his 2006 Rothbard Memorial Lecture, Rothbard’s “Left and Right”: Forty Years Later, Roderick Long creates a beautiful device to illustrate package-deal anti-concepts in the Randian sense:

“Suppose I were to invent a new word, zaxlebax, and define it as ‘a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument.’ That’s the definition — ‘a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument.’  In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. Now some linguistic subgroup might start using the term zaxlebax as though it just meant ‘metallic sphere,’ or as though it just meant ‘something of the same kind as the Washington Monument.’ And that’s fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that the Washington Monument is a metallic sphere; any attempt to use the term zaxlebax, meaning what I mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption. That’s what Rand means by a package-deal term.”

Long goes on to characterize the term capitalism, as commonly used, indeed possibly as Ayn Rand herself used it, as such a package-deal term. I note with delight that zaxlebax has entered the vocabulary of certain anarchist regions. Kaile Hultner has described “fake news” as a zaxlebax. Today I wish to propose that car culture is a zaxlebax.

A search for the cliché “America’s love affair with the automobile” — including the quotes — turns up over 11 000 hits. The first of these traces the first use of that expression to a 1961 television show sponsored by the DuPont chemicals concern, then a major shareholder in General Motors who had every incentive to present the dominance of the automobile in urban mobility as a spontaneous, natural phenomenon. Likewise, online references to car culture abound, and the sense implicit in the vast majority of them is remarkably consistent. Yet I struggle to find as much as a single attempt at a definition of car culture, and could find none at all which adequately reflects that specific sense. If I had to attempt such a definition, the results would be distinctly zaxlebaxean: “popular enthusiasm for automobiles, resulting in excessive structural dependence on private vehicular mobility.”

Now, with apologies to Prof. Long, some linguistic subgroup might start using the term car culture as though it just meant “popular enthusiasm for automobiles,” or as though it just meant “that which causes excessive structural dependence on private vehicular mobility.” And that’s fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that popular enthusiasm for automobiles causes excessive structural dependence on private vehicular mobility; any attempt to use the term car culture, meaning what I — and most of the abovementioned online items — mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption.

George Monbiot is particularly bad in this regard. One of the few figures of comparable profile who adequately recognizes the full scale and severity of the problem, he nevertheless consistently misses the state-driven structural robustness underlying the problem. Rightly realizing that minor behavioural changes would fail to provide a solution, he mistakenly supposes that major behavioural changes, at gunpoint if necessary, might. Thus, if only we could beat the car culture out of the gearhead yobbos down the pub, the systemic entrenchment of car dependence would vanish. His entire take rests on the conflation inherent in my above attempted definition of car culture — though to be fair his detractors are arguably much worse.

In many instances, car culture means the popular culture in which the automobile features strongly as a locus of meaning: everything which revolves around ordinary people getting excited about cars. Yet it is especially when we are dealing with issues of urban mobility that we use another sense of car culture, that of a planning or policy culture, an institutional culture, in which designing around mobility exclusively by car is the unreflecting default and the overwhelming norm. The danger is then, without really realizing it, to assume that planners design around mobility exclusively by car because ordinary people get excited about cars (or worse, because excitement about cars constitutes some kind of sentient miasma which eats people’s brains, against which your own superiority renders you immune.)

And understanding the difference between these two senses of car culture does indeed reveal an erroneous assumption which a lot of people entertain in some form of another: the idea that the present dominant shape of a city somehow reflects something like a popular will, and not the results of express, interested planning. It is surprising how often I encounter the implicit idea that urban freeways grew out of cow-paths by a spontaneous process of successive paving-over, instead of being built in response to complex planning driven by considerations of industry and economics, often biased in favour of established economic interests against those of ordinary citizens; or that people live in car-dependent dormitory suburbs because they prefer isolation as an intrinsic good, and not because decades of zoning legislation have led to the overwhelming bulk of housing options to be in car-dependent dormitory suburbs.

It is of course the same idea as that the state is the incarnation of society, by magical means; the idea that law codifies, presumably for some aesthetic purpose of neatness, what people are overwhelmingly going to do anyway, and does not at all serve to coerce them into doing what they would not do in large numbers in a million years. This way of thinking is anathema to any anarchist, but even we often fail to grasp the full extent to which the ordinary elements of the landscape we inhabit are shaped by the machinations of the state and capital in collusion. Thus even we address ourselves to “hearts and minds” en masse, for resolutions which instead may only be found in circumstances.

So, popular car culture is not the same as institutional car culture. Popular car culture does not cause institutional car culture — though it might validly be argued that institutional car culture allows popular car culture to be more prevalent than it might otherwise have been, if also more diffuse and more superficial. But I should go one better: the two senses of car culture are not only different; they are opposed. Despite institutional car culture multiplying casual occasions for popular car culture, institutional car culture is ultimately inimical to deep or serious iterations of popular car culture.

The process by which the automobile came to be the ubiquitous core component of systems of urban mobility almost the world over is complex. It is perhaps worth noting that the automobile had existed for almost half a century before this process of political-economic systems-building even began. Nor was the automobile that rare: the common characterization of the automobile before WWI as “a plaything for the rich” is certainly susceptible to critique. In Vintage Cars 1886-1930 (1983) motoring historian G. N. Georgano outlines the development of affordable automobiles from as early as 1895, when De Dion Bouton introduced their popular motor tricycle. Georgano elaborates: “The Autocar’s guide to cars available in Britain in February 1904 listed no fewer than 38 models costing less than £200, of which the cheapest, a single-cylinder New Orleans, went for only £80.” This enabled widespread enthusiasm to develop around automobiles, i.e. popular car culture: yet the impact this had, even at an incipient or embryonic level, on the prevailing patterns of human settlement and systems of mobility was exactly zero. And so it would remain for decades.

There were certainly those who imagined at a theoretical level a future in which the automobile would come to be thoroughly integrated into the life, industry, economy, and indeed the politics of the world. The prophets of High Modernism foresaw a sort of super-capitalism: Blake’s satanic mills made clean, sleek, angelic, their true nature revealed only by a violent formal simplicity which recalls Jacob Burckhardt’s characterization of tyranny as the denial of complexity. Le Corbusier proposed his Ville Contemporaine already in 1922, the same year Benito Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in Italy. There is an affinity between Mussolini’s subsequent economic policy of corporatism1 and Le Corbusier’s subsequent development of his proposal into the 1925 Plan Voisin2, which would have surpassed Baron Hausmann’s vandalism of the 1860s a thousandfold, razing great swaths of Paris to make way for sundered ranks of cruciform skyscrapers connected, of course, by automobile.

In the USA, Frank Lloyd Wright would in 1932 present his Broadacre City concept, which followed much the same automobile-reliant theme, albeit with less ruthless severity. Wright’s proposal had clear conceptual and aesthetic kinship with the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, Frederick Law Olmstead, and the Garden City movement of the turn of the 20th century3. Though it originally paid no heed to the automobile at all, this was nevertheless at the very least resigned to capitalism, having the capitalist wage system implicit in the strict separation of dwelling and working as a fundamental component. All these were rather mild and cozy, compared to Le Corbusier’s bold nightmares, even if they held the seeds of the modern car-centered city.

The first transport infrastructure insertions of Robert Moses into the urban fabric of New York from 1927 might seem even milder, were it not for the fact that they actually got built. These really represented the first actions by states to give a specific place and systemic role to the automobile, though at that time they were rather tentative. It required political events, part of a world-wide wave only a few years later, to set Moses onto the path which eventually led to his becoming Jane Jacobs’s arch-nemesis.

The crystallization of Fascist corporatism during the 1920s was really a manifestation of a broader intellectual climate at the time regarding the organization of industry and economy. A salamander’s pride in one’s comfort with the implications of Taylorist scientific management marked the stance of anyone aspiring to the status of intellectual. Centralization was in fashion, paradoxically considered both an inevitability and an ideal precarious enough to warrant any excess of authoritarianism. There was no question about the desirability, in the interests of what James C. Scott would subsequently term legibility, of restricting industries to small enough numbers of huge entities for states to have a privileged individual relationship with each. 

Parallels have been drawn between the industrial policies of the Third Reich and those of the New Deal; though it is probable that it was Roosevelt who influenced Hitler, rather than the other way round. Henry Ford notoriously admired Hitler; and Stalin in turn admired Henry Ford and sought to implement Fordism — in some ways an attempt to expand Taylorism to a social breadth — in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the establishment of the GAZ automobile works on Ford lines in 1929, manufacturing the 1930 Ford Model A from 1932 as the GAZ-A.

None of this amounted to a hill of beans in the scheme of things until the institution of the New Deal in 1933. It was by this that such a thing as an institutional car culture, endowed with the force of law, first came into being: a programme to create demand for the products of an elite motor industry through structural necessity, as a legitimate function of the state. And this has determined the nature of the motor industry, the place of the automobile in systems of mobility, and indeed the automobile itself ever since, expanding over time from the USA to Europe, the Far East, and the entire world.

It must be stressed that what the automobile is today — the very kind of thing it is — is the result of state policies and programmes such as this. It is not the result of cumulative tinkering on the part of countless innovators. It comes from the vision of all the Volk daily driving their KdF-Wagen from their bucolic suburban wholesomeness —no inner-city decadence!— to the factory and back, and all the macro-economic number-crunching that entails, however it translates into languages other than German, backed by the violence of official authority. It doesn’t come from Dr. Fred Lanchester’s obsession with “the periodicity of a man walking” or Major W. G. Wilson’s head-scratching about gearboxes; nor yet from Alphonse Forceau’s truly celestial insights into suspension interconnection.

Programmes like the New Deal led to a fundamental change in the shape of the automobile industry, from a large number of typically small organizations each responding to systems of mobility as they found them, to a small number of very large, powerful organizations whose privileged relationships with the state enabled them to rely on the creation of new systems of mobility for their express benefit through policy. It also precipitated a change in the dominant technological trajectory, establishing the greatest possible technological need for capital investment as an aim to be pursued for its own sake, thus taking the technology embodied in the automobile further and further away from the vernacular artisanal capabilities of ordinary people. Again, this was not a spontaneous process! It was essentially political. The change of 1934 was sudden and radical — the Chrysler Airflow in the USA and the Citroën 7CV “Traction Avant” both employing with unprecedented fundamentality the manufacturing technologies of the Budd steel-pressing company, whose most salient characteristic was technological inaccessibility, i.e. the enclosure of the technology of production to the benefit of capital — but it was the mere beginning of a decades-long process. I have before called the years 1934-1989 the contested age of the automobile, during which the automobile as an inherently mass-produced thing intended to be indispensable to the whole population was actively elaborated, but alternative paradigms were still able to coexist with it.

The most important aspect of the “philosophy of 1934” is that it relied on manufacturing techniques which are viable only at volumes of output far in excess of what demand might have existed without planning policies designed to create a functional need for the product. The very possibility of the sort of volumes of automobile traffic we today regard as normal was engineered.

The automobile itself would hereafter in its design be increasingly oriented to the population at large, who might have no interest in automobiles at all, rather than to a minority of whom some degree of technical understanding might be expected. It is not surprising that in the USA, where new urban expansion rapidly outstripped prior systems of mobility, the focus should be on such innovations as the automatic transmission — introduced on Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs in 1939, after a long series of partially-automatic arrangements from various manufacturers — above all else. Thus was the automobile gradually transformed from an instrument of technological participation to the service accessory, whose mechanism is really for all design intents and purposes none of your business, it is today.

Did this broad orientation establish popular car culture? No: popular car culture had existed quite spontaneously since the late 19th century, without any significant change to cities as a result. And if that had demonstrably been possible, it could surely be possible again.

By the 1960s the manufacturing paradigm in which cars could be manufactured by their millions or not at all had begun to be physically untenable. Creating enough demand for industrial output required that automobiles be used at such an intensity that certain emissions — most notably carbon monoxide4 — were being generated faster than they could deteriorate in the atmosphere. All logic should have pointed to the intensity of automobile use being the crux of the problem, but the entire thrust of prevailing industrial policy the world over was that this was a problem which could not be allowed to be solved. Instead, the industry devised technical fixes like the catalytic converter which, besides realizing massive profits on platinum-series mining interests for certain parties, required to be imposed by legal main force, in order to maintain the intensity of automobile use which the established industrial capitalist paradigm required. This element of legal requirement resulted in a fundamental change in the relationship between the automobile’s manufacturer, the automobile’s owner, and the state, further reducing the ordinary motorist to a passive “pure consumer” and further elevating the manufacturer to an effective organ of the state.

Just as the techniques of manufacture are a reflection of the organizational structure of the industry, just so the nature of the product is a reflection of the techniques of its manufacture. A new kind of automobile industry after 1933 necessarily resulted in new trajectories of automotive technological development: all, with very few exceptions, hiding within them the underlying aim of increasing the requirement for capital investment in manufacturing, and consequently increasing the minimum viable volume of output. Over half a century the automobile was developed, indeed reconstituted, specifically to be impossible to make except in enormous quantities.

And this is where we are: manyness is intrinsic to the design of the modern automobile, and essential to its nature. Every new innovation which emerges from the established automobile industry expands and intensifies this one fundamental characteristic. Far from representing a paradigmatic disruption, the new electric car is the apotheosis of what all automobiles have been since 1990, and worse. The modern automobile absolutely needs the car-dependent city in order to exist.

We can have self-driving electric cars, or we can have enough walkability soundly to abolish car-dependence. We cannot have both. My fear is that too many people will consider the former an acceptable alternative to the latter.

If we wish soundly to abolish car-dependence without precluding the manufacture of automobiles as such — remember, this condition had existed, more or less stably, from c.1890 to c.1930 — it would be necessary to make automobiles in a radically different way. It would be necessary to make orders of magnitude fewer of them: and that means automobiles designed for intrinsic fewness. As the established automobile industry relies on the necessity of manyness for its fundamentally privileged existence, we can expect no help from that quarter. What cars are made would have to be made by ordinary people.

There are ordinary people doing that right now, in substantial numbers, in every interstice they are able to wrench open far enough to exploit. Urban advocates too often tend to demonize them, because they represent the very quintessence of popular car culture. But they are not the problem. I hope to show that they could be an indispensable part of the solution.

This issue is important because it forces us to expose common blind spots in thinking about car-dependence. One I encounter often is, “the problem is that cars become a receptacle for all kinds of complexes of cultural association, and are not seen as merely a way of getting from A to B.” But surely what we are saying is precisely that A and B ought to be so situated that a car is the worst imaginable way to get from the former to the latter? A way of getting from A to B is precisely what a car ought not to be. What, then, ought a car to be?

Or, what kinds of cars are likely to be made in a future anarchist society? As the automobile of today is the result of a specific political programme which began in 1934, I would urge a close study of the state of the automotive art of the early 1930s. By this I am not saying that cars in such a society should be cars of the early 1930s, but that there might be merit in an effort to reconstruct counterfactually what might have been but for that programme, with the benefit of critical hindsight. It would be necessary to winnow those later innovations which might have future usefulness from those which have served only to render the techniques of capitalist mass production indispensable. It might not always be a simple separation: some of the former innovations have been dependent on some of the latter, and would therefore require innovative rethinking. And issues of systemic structure should always be borne in mind. Would the organizational machinery necessary to enable present levels of fuel efficiency be justified at less than 1% of the present demand for fuel? How important would aerodynamics be absent state high-speed roads infrastructure programmes aimed at perpetuating dependence on automobiles? I’d suggest that the true image is likely to be less Aptera and more “chain gang” Frazer-Nash.

The very point of efficiency surely depends on the scarcity of the resource in question? When we consider the systemically circular nature of capitalist industry requiring a high rate of resource consumption, sufficient to result in severe scarcity, which then necessitates a level of resource efficiency conveniently attainable by technological means which further reinforce capitalist industry’s ability to necessitate a high rate of resource consumption by raising technological thresholds, and so on, we must come to a different understanding of the place of efficiency in the scheme of things. Of course such efficiency would be possible by other means, absent the demands of capitalist industry; the question is whether it would be worth the bother.

The study of architectural building technology made me a firm believer in 99% solutions — and even 95% solutions — the offense given to futurist geeks notwithstanding. A roof which is 80% waterproof is simply a failure. A roof which is 100% waterproof is likely to be prohibitively expensive and might impose constraints which compromise other design requirements. But a roof which is 99% waterproof is easy: the time-honoured way to do it is 2” of clean sand at the bottom of a large open coffee tin, placed on the ceiling under each point where water is getting in. The ingress of water is never enough even to come close to filling the tin, and when it stops raining the water evaporates again. And it readily broadens to a general principle: my building tech professor used to say, don’t seal stuff; let it leak, then lead what gets in away in a controlled way.5 It is perhaps an efficiency of a different kind, one which accounts for all efforts and expenditures, or do the savings arising from not having to chase that last percentile not count as efficiency?6

It is a different kind of design thinking, one I submit would be of great use in a future anarchist society. But I digress rather horribly: the point is that a future anarchist society with an irrelevantly small fleet of automobiles is entirely possible, without the need to prohibit automobiles in a rather un-anarchic way. I should expect this fleet to comprise farm trucks and other utilitarian vehicles, a handful of emergency vehicles, and a bewildering array of pleasure vehicles, sports cars, specials, speedsters, motorcycles, trikes, motorsport vehicles, off-road vehicles, and all manner of rolling artworks the significations of which are incomprehensible outside their specific contexts — and that is not only perfectly fine, it is vibrancy, creativity, expression, and fun. There is no need to maintain the least semblance of sneering contempt lest suffering all this to exist result in smog, exurban isolation, and pandemic road deaths all over again. That much should be obvious, if popular car culture does not cause institutional car culture. 

I have been arguing for ages that car nuts have every reason to support walkable urbanity, and to oppose the perpetuation of the car-centred city. Car nuts have no vested interest in institutional car culture, none at all. Insofar as institutional car culture has by necessity sought vehemently to exclude ordinary people from active, creative technological engagement with the automobile, it is the car nut, whose very desire is active, creative technological engagement with the automobile, who ought to have the greatest quarrel with it. Nor has the car nut any interest in gridlock, distracted and inattentive drivers, overzealous policing, emissions regulations necessitated by the politically engineered intensity of automobile use, safety regulations justified by the ubiquity and consequent effective obligatoriness of automobile use, or any of the other things which come with the constant prevalence of heavy automobile traffic. The car nut has no interest in cars existing in great numbers, especially as almost all of them are necessarily boring as a result. And insofar as institutional car culture has ruined our urban environments, the car nut has suffered no less as a result than anyone else. Surely all logic would lead us to expect that serious automobile enthusiasts and advocates of walkable urbanity should be on the same side?


[1] Corporatism is a term today most commonly found in anarcho-capitalist circles, used to denote actually-existing capitalism, dominated as it is by large corporations, as opposed to anarcho-capitalists’ idea of “real capitalism”. In the context of Fascism the term means something quite different: the recasting of every sector of industry as a corpus or corps in the service of the state, broadly analogous to armed forces.

[2] Interestingly, Le Corbusier named his urban vision after his friend Gabriel Voisin, the aviation pioneer and subsequent carmaker. Ironically, Le Corbusier’s own Voisin C7 was very much a manifestation of the craft-based production model he so desperately longed to eradicate. Voisin himself certainly had more totalitarian aspirations, his failure to achieve which doubtless accounts for surviving Voisin cars being charmingly eccentric.

[3] The enquirer after a possible design idiom suitable for an anarchist utopia could do much worse than to study the Arts & Crafts movement of the later 19th century. One area in which this movement fell down, however, was in urban design. It had a distinct ruralistic bias, perhaps because the urban horrors of capitalist industry were so graphically raw then; so despite its fascination with all things medieval it failed to find inspiration in the wealth of medieval urban precedents. To my knowledge the only contemporary figure to have attempted such an approach was the Austrian Camillo Sitte, whose links to the Arts & Crafts movement were at best oblique.

[4] All the exhaust emission substances controlled by legislation deteriorate spontaneously in the atmosphere to harmless compounds, given low enough generation rates. Of these, CO has the longest deterioration half-life, in the order of weeks. If CO is able to deteriorate naturally without being replaced, then so are proportionate quantities of HC and NOx.

[5] This ties back to the automobile in the design of the Citroën DS19 of 1955. My professor told how the gutters lining the GRP roof panel were formed as to admit rainwater into the interior of the car and then deposit it over the rear window. I subsequently discovered that the car’s sophisticated hydropneumatic suspension system embodied a rather more profound instance of the same principle. The reason the DS famously settles down slowly onto its bump stops when parked is that, instead of relying on the resistance to wear of hydraulic seals, the system contains no seals at all but maintains a constant slow leak from the pump-driven high-pressure hydraulic circuit to a low-pressure fluid recovery circuit. Leaked fluid runs by gravity to a reservoir, whence it is pumped back into the high-pressure circuit. The result is extremely durable.

[6] To make a fetish of efficiency, to treat it as a philosophical end in its own right, often rests on raising some inputs to unassailable sanctity while sneeringly dismissing a possible majority of others. Chasing the last minuscule saving in resource A is taken to justify any expenditure in resources B, C, and D, because resource-A-efficiency is the measure of advancement, and resource-B-, -C-, and -D-efficiency aren’t even things. This recalls G. K. Chesterton’s characterization of heresy as the raising of one aspect of religious worship — be it the day of the week the Sabbath falls on, the veracity of miraculous physical healing, the manner of baptism, or whatever — to the One Issue to Rule Them All, to the detriment of all the others.

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