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A brief socialist history of the automobile
By Rob Rooke
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
hastened the massive sprawl of suburbia and in itself shaped
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
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
Philippe Lebon registered his invention of a ``gas powered engine with internal
combustion’’ with the new revolutionary government of
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
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
Rise of the
working class and the
By the end of
the 19th century
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 craft unions.
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.
Henry Ford and the Model T
investment into auto produced incredible results. In 1910, while a car in
In 1913 Ford
introduced the $5-a-day wage, when average daily pay in the
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
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
The booming ‘20s and the struggle for raw materials
boom of the 1920s was led by the two newest and biggest consumer objects of 20th
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Post-war public spending for the car
revolutionary wave that swept the world was also seen in the
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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
The `Auto-industrial complex’ conspiracy to destroy public transport
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 increase profits.
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
always been utilised by business for selling its products. With the Cold War in
full swing the
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
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
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
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.
The coming of the SUV
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
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
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 automaking 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
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
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
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.
growth of industry and jobs, public transport in 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
A Los Angeles Railway streetcar
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.
that nuclear power may need to be re-examined. In
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,
Ilya Ehrenburg, The Life of the Automobile (1929)
David Gartman, Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design
Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions
Statistics of the
Bradford Snell, How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit
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 following platform.
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 families.