A 1960s car designer's vision of the car of the future. Today, the private car's days are numbered.
With the economic recession and environmental crisis alternative
plans for socially useful, sustainable production have never been more
relevant argues Lars Henriksson.
When the financial shit hit the fan last year the overproduction
in the auto industry became visible. In the Swedish auto industry the
proportions between fan and shit was especially problematic. The crisis
involved two of the world’s smallest mass producers, both owned by
troubled US corporations, and both producing large, fuel consuming
semi-luxury cars. In a country of 9 million it was like having two
bankrupt car companies and their chain of sub contractors plus two
crisis-hit truck companies in London.
The auto crisis of course became a big political issue in
Sweden and still is. As elsewhere in the world there were two principle
lines of argument in the mainstream discussion about what should be
One line of argument supported “creative destruction” on the
basis that the market had made its verdict and some of the corporations
had been sentenced to death. The market should not be tampered with as
that would only make things worse. A green variant on this was: ``Cars
are damaging the climate. We don’t need them or the companies that make
them. It’s good if the auto industry goes away.''
The other main line of argument advocated support for the
industry. The government, it was said, must subsidise the companies to
help them through these troubled times so that they can be ready to
grow again when things get back to normal. There should be loans, the
scrapping of incentives, tax breaks and so on. In Sweden this has been
the line of the Social Democratic Party, the industry itself, many analysts and
the unions. The leaders of my union made their “contribution” by
signing a contract that temporarily reduced members’ pay and working
Both these approaches to the crisis are disastrous. The
fundamental assumption behind the “support-the-industry” position is
false. There will not be any “back to normal”, at least not an
endlessly expanding production of cars.
`The time of the car is running out'
Road transport is responsible for about 20% of greenhouse gas
emissions in the European Union (EU), transport being the sector where emissions are
increasing the fastest.
Even without the need to stop climate change the time of the
car is running out. The production of oil is going to peak in the near
future and this cheap energy will no longer be available. In fact a
transport system based on mass auto transit is not an option at all.
And the industry’s answer -- the ``green'' car, fuel efficient, running on
renewable fuels -- is an illusion.
It is true that the average CO2 emission per kilometre from new cars is
going down, but while the period 1995-2002 saw a 13% average decrease in
fuel consumption for new cars in the EU countries there was a rise in total fuel consumption by 7% because of more cars.
Agrofuel is no solution. For example in forest-rich Sweden, dimethyl ether (DME)
synthetic diesel made from wood is presented as the future. However,
just to replace the consumption of oil by the present number of cars on
the road with DME would take a total yearly yield of 6 billion
hectares of forest.
Other types of alternative agrofuels proposed to replace the
oil we burn, like ethanol, demand too much arable land and water.
Besides, producing ethanol from corn, or diesel from soy, directly
conflicts with the production of food for the poorest people of the
What about the electrical car or the hydrogen engine? Neither hydrogen nor electricity is a source of energy. Rather they are bearers of
energy that require an energy input of some kind. Today two thirds of
the world’s electricity is produced in coal fueled power plants.
All this means that the volume of transport, and especially of
road transport, has to be adapted to a level that is sustainable in the
long term. And that would be the end of the auto industry as we know
Finally, the economic crisis that is far from over will reshape the auto industry dramatically.
Convert not destroy
The argument that says uncompetitive auto production should be
allowed to go to the wall is actually the worst from a social,
practical and political point of view.
In Sweden industries have come and gone. In the 1960s when
the textile industry moved out, and in the 1970s and 1980s when the same
thing happened to the shipyards, other sectors grew. These included the
auto industry and especially public services. This “structural change”
was the official policy of the unions and the Social Democratic Party.
Today, however, no other industries are on the rise and the
public sector is facing cutbacks. In an auto-dependent economy like
that of Sweden this will mean disaster.
Second, an industry like the car industry, is not a bunch of
machines and buildings. Most of all it is an organisation of people. So
when humanity is facing its toughest challenge so far – to change an
economy and production that has been built on fossil energy for 250
years – we need all the resources we can use to do this. It would be a
completely irresponsible waste to destroy an industrial complex that
has been built and developed over almost a century.
The car industry has an expertise in logistics, production
engineering, designing for production and quality control that could
be applied to any kind of production. And efficient mass production is
exactly what we need if we want to replace the fossil economy. It makes
complicated technical devices cheap and should be applied to production
of wind turbines and other equipment for renewable energy production,
and of trams, trains and other vehicles and systems for a sustainable
Car workers are also used to change and conversion. In the
last decades new models have been introduced at an absurd speed with
the result that retooling, rebuilding and retraining, have become part
of everyday life.
There are historical precedents for converting industries. In
the months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor the US
government prohibited the production of private cars and ordered the
auto industry to change over to war production. Ford and the other
producers obeyed (and earned many a good dollar) by applying their
knowledge of mass production to tanks and bombers. The same thing
happened in Britain.
To sum up: the auto industry is a fantastic and versatile
operation that need not be tied to making cars. It could play an important
role in converting our societies into sustainable, carbon dioxide
Alliance for jobs and the planet
But ultimately the climate question is not about technology.
It’s about politics, that is, class struggle. And that is where the
workers of the threatened industry come in.
And this is where we, the workers of the threatened auto
industry come in. We must unite and fight for our jobs but it’s a very
hard fight and almost impossible to win so we have to turn to society
at large for support and intervention.
We have to argue that the corporate leaders who now are begging
the state for help have forfeited their right to run the auto industry.
The state should not subsidise their rule and continued destructive
production but instead should nationalise the industry and convert it
to create safe jobs and a production that can help us get out of the
fossil economy. This would be a platform for a broad social alliance,
both to save both the jobs and the planet.
Is it possible to build this alliance -- to put forward demands
for alternative production on the shop floor and upwards? If so, how?
The first step is to build workers’ self-confidence by learning
to fight collectively for anything at all. If we just talk about these
grand schemes without engaging in everyday fights we will be seen as
windbags building castles in the air.
A second step could be to produce concrete plans on how to convert different sectors.
In 1980 we had a referendum over nuclear power in Sweden and one
of the most important things the environmental movement did was to put
forward an Alternative Energy Plan showing in detail how nuclear power
could be abolished and replaced with renewable energy. This was a very
important tool in the campaign, in educating activists and giving
people in the movement self-confidence.
In May 2009, environmentalists, citizen groups,
researchers and union representatives from various European countries
(including Bob Crow of the RMT union in Britain) met in Germany to
discuss a sustainable transportation system. The conference issued the
Cologne Declaration against rail privatisation and for sustainable
transport. A concrete plan, RailEurope2025, was put forward to transform European transport in 15 years in order to cut the CO2
emissions by 75%, thus cutting the total emissions by half. This kind
of plan could be used by unions and other movements to build political
The third and most important step would be to connect such
alternative plans to the concrete workplaces, to production on a grassroots level, as was attempted in the 1970s in Britain at Lucas Aerospace.
Even though that fight was defeated it had repercussions trough out the
world, and still has.
In the late 1970s there was a crisis in Sweden in shipbuilding,
steel and the last remnants of the textile industry. For a period
“alternative production” became a hopeful buzzword, in quite broad
layers. But almost all attempts to save jobs under this banner failed
because to almost everyone “alternative production” meant “other profitable products”.
The way we can use the idea of “alternative production” is to
point out that we want to use our skills and can use it to produce
socially useful and necessary products, regardless of whether they are
profitable in the capitalist sense or not. This was the strength of the
Another appealing aspect of the Lucas experience was that is
showed what can happen when workers step outside the daily treadmill.
In the late 18th century Thomas Paine summed this up as follows:
Revolutions create genius and talent; but these events do no
more than bring them forward. There is existing in man, a mass of sense
lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to
action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave.
This year’s Campaign against Climate Change trade union
conference decided to form a committee to start the work for a plan for
conversion, based on local participation. This is a way forward.
1. Achieving Sustainable Mobility: Everyday and Leisure-time Travel in the EU
. S. 170 Erling Holden. Ashgate Publishing Ltd 2007
2. Rights of Man, II, 1792
[Lars Henriksson is a Swedish car worker and a member of the Swedish section of the Fourth International. This article is an extract from his speech at the Climate
and Capitalism conference organised by Green Left and Socialist
Resistance in London on September 12, 2009.]