The wheels of capitalism driving us into an abyss

The wheels of capitalism driving us into an abyss

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effects on Our lives
By Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez
Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pages

Reviewed by Jon Lamb

The development of modern capitalism has much for which to thank the inventors of the internal combustion engine and the early creations that came to be known as “automobiles”. Various engine-powered vehicles were invented in the early 1800s (and possibly before), but it wasn’t until the creation of the Otto Engine (the first petrol-fuelled engine) in 1876 by Niklaus August Otto, followed by Karl Benz’s four-stroke engine in 1878, that the notion of an engine-powered vehicle leapt from idea to reality.

In 1885, Benz built and patented the Motorwagen - more or less the world’s first car to be powered by an internal combustion engine. The first petrol-powered car in the United States was built and tested in 1893. Nine years later, the start of mass-produced assembly line cars under the Oldsmobile name began in the US. By the early 1900s, national automotive industries were forming across Europe.

At the turn of the century, internal combustion engines, both petrol and diesel, were expanding the capacities of factories the world over. The transfer from steam to these modern engines provided more efficient mechanised production. It revolutionised the way people and goods could move and how they could be exploited by capitalism. It revolutionised the movement of the military forces of the imperialist states and the wars that these states fought over colonies and markets. Over the century since the mass production of automobiles began, the emissions from these vehicles have contributed significantly to climate change, and the wars for control of the oil that fuel them have killed millions.

In the middle and late 1920s, when Henry Ford’s mass produced Model-T Ford car reached its peak (production of the Model-T began in 1908), workers’ wages and living conditions in the US had improved markedly, creating a much bigger market for the private car. This period deepened the potential of the private car under capitalism. The big car companies and fuel corporations influenced the planning of cities and how people and goods moved across the country. The car-dependent expanding freeway development model after World War II became the mantra in the US and other Western nations, including Australia.

Carjacked is both a historical and contemporary sociological study on the impact of the automobile in the United States. Authors Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez have provided a great snapshot of the car industry and how it impacts the day-to-day lives of the poor, the young, women, people of colour and run-of-the-mill families with two or more fuel-guzzling cars in the garage. They draw on historical and contemporary data, as well as analysis from their own surveys. Carjacked adds to some other very good books on similar topics, but it does not set out to be “anti-car”. It is not a dogmatic text, but a very straightforward and thought-provoking work.

Carjacked at times has an eye-opening surreal edge to it in the survey responses and the other information the book pieces together about the function of the car in US society. It is both engaging and disturbing. The authors have carefully portrayed the significant distortions and impacts that the private motor car has on how our cities function, on how such a popular commodity is destructive to a person’s health and environment, on how poor and struggling US workers are indebted and ripped off by dodgy finance schemes and how an auto-centric capitalist life is lining the pockets of the big car, gasoline and finance companies.

The concluding chapter makes suggestions for how this crazy situation can be turned around. While their emphasis is on personal solutions and changes, there is also a call to get active in advocacy groups and organisations campaigning for better public transport, better city and inter-city planning and an end to the privileged age of the car corporations.

As the authors remark: “The social mobilisation that emerged around various candidate campaigns in 2008 should provide encouragement for the idea that as people we have the power to make change. We can have a better transportation system, one not beholden to the car and oil companies. Mass scale change in our everyday landscape is possible when people organise to demand it.

“... no one, much less 40,000 people per year, needs to die on the highway. And no one, much less thousands of American soldiers and Middle East civilians, needs to die to secure access to oil. No one, much less millions of Americans, should be shut out of the job market by lack of transportation, and no one should be at risk of being stranded in a natural disaster by the same. No one should be left unprotected from usurious car loans and dealer scams, or have to spend large chunks of their paycheck just to get to work ...’’

I agree. This is a great book. But be warned: reading may encourage you to race to the nearest window and yell, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take this any more”. Take the authors’ advice and get active for change.