New Internationalist

A Car Named Desire

Issue 249

new internationalist
issue 249 - November 1993


A car
named desire
Liberty and the automobile have a strangely intimate
relationship. Stephen Hill analyses it.

From the vantage point of the sky, several thousand feet above the earth, they look like a trail of ants – ubiquitously swarming, travelling in a line single and double file, hunkered down in metallic exoskeletal frames. Indeed, they are the insects of the modern industrialized world – the automobile.

Automobiles swarm all over the globe and its various ecosystems, from the Trans Amazonian highway, splitting the jungles of Brazil, to Desert Storm tanks tearing up the fragile Arabian desert, to stealthy Land Rovers carrying murderous poachers across dry African savannahs, searching for illegal bounty. Indeed, automobiles of one sort or another have made inroads into the furthest human reaches, from the powdery dust of the moon to the frozen tundra of the Antarctic. They have allowed humans to boldly go where humans had never gone before.

No wonder cars loom large in the psyche of industrialized countries as one of the embodiments of the Western ideal of liberty. And the terrain of this liberty is wider than mere geography, as the simple urgings of any hot-rodding teenager can testify: a ‘hot set of wheels’ purring beneath their love seat and the windows rolled down letting ‘the wind whip back their hair’, as in the popular Bruce Springsteen song Thunder Road.

Human aspirations in the post-war world have been mirrored by the automobile and its promise of liberty. The car arouses thrills and chills and the freedom of the open road. It promises the unfenced frontier, now that the last outpost of the American West and the Australian Outback have been settled. The plodding covered prairie wagon in search of a staked claim of land has been replaced by the electrifying prospect of a souped-up, racing-striped automobile, roaring down the highway – the ‘safety valve’ of our world.

Advertisers glamorize and manipulate the unique place of the automobile in the modern psyche. Look at the slogans from these recent ads: ‘Infiniti. It’s everything that’s possible.’ ‘Yukon/GMC Truck. Makes the most of the 99 percent of the earth that lies unpaved.’ ‘Mazda. Get off the beaten path without leaving the town.’ ‘BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine.’ ‘Chevrolet Corvette. The Heart and Soul of Performance, Power in the Hands of a Few.’ ‘Get Your Hands on a Toyota – You’ll Never Let Go.’

Advertisers aren’t the only media moguls with a finger on this pulse. The popular celebration of the automobile as heroic chariot of liberty is due in no small part to Hollywood and the movies – from James Dean to Thelma and Louise.

The screech of tyres, the getaway chase scene, smooching teenagers in the back seat of their parents’ car with the radio blaring rock-n-roll, hitchhikers on the road to anywhere – all are familiar celluloid images etched permanently in the memories of millions.

And as the teens grow into adults, their measure of success becomes one of having a split-level bungalow in the suburbs or a cottage in the country, a good job in the city or town, and lots of horses under the hood to make the trip. Reality begins to mirror the fantasy and vice versa, in a convoluted interplay of choices.

It’s not a big mystery why the automobile should be so closely linked to liberty. The ability to be mobile and to travel at will is the end product of a long democratic march. It used to be that only the rich could afford to be mobile; political representation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century democracies were often limited to those who had the leisure and the financial means to travel great distances to the legislature – not always a mean feat. Now the ability to get around in a car is a sine qua non of modern life, as essential to one’s maintenance as eating, drinking and breathing.

Both liberty and automobiles are theoretically available to all, but in fact ‘for sale’ to the highest bidder. Exalted status is connoted by the ownership of the ‘right’ automobile, such as a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Cadillac or a Jaguar. It’s a statement to the world about the amount of liberty one has at one’s disposal. Poor people are looked down on for the jalopies they drive, even though a few bumps and bounces aside, it can get them from point A to point B as directly as a Lamborghini. There is no equality in the ownership of autos; while some can afford to burn the hydrocarbons in a $80,000 Porsche Carrera, many poorer citizens actually go carless, to their inconvenience and economic detriment. Yet there is no car ‘welfare’ programme, because while transportation is a modern-day necessity, it is thought of as one you must earn.

Noses to the grindstone, wage labourers strive daily to earn their liberty and their autos. In the free marketplace, nothing is free. And many people do earn their autos of course. Millions of them. As we examine the smog-filled cities of the world, with their auto-choked, bumper-to-bumper, congested rush-hour traffic, nowhere may we find a better example – or a better metaphor – that too much of a good thing can backfire. Each individual chases her or his own private liberty, driving their heroic chariots in a relentless pursuit of their own private happiness. Meanwhile the skies that oxygenate us become choked with the fumes that can kill us. Temperatures rise from a global greenhouse effect. Tempers also rise on jammed highways, and in extreme cases frustrated auto-cowboys have shot it out over the heads of terrorized motorists.

In a relentless pursuit of liberty, billions of people and their autos are boxing each other in ever more tightly as traffic snarls into jumbled metal piles. It’s as if liberty is a finite quantity and there are too many chasing it for their own self-interested ends. And as some grab far too much of it others end up with too little, all of us fighting over what’s left. Too many automobiles, too much traffic, too much smog – too much liberty.

Too much liberty? Is that possible? Isn’t liberty one of the great philosophical underpinnings of Western-style democracies and free market economies? Isn’t it this liberty that has given industrial countries their highly vaunted standard of living, including one of its most flamboyant symbols, the automobile?

The Western milieu in which liberty, democracy and free markets have flourished hasn’t much changed the ancient formula of ‘survival of the fittest’ and the ‘law of the jungle’.

Too much liberty leads to nations addicted to the oil that is the lifeblood of their automobiles. This is the difference between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which culminated in the Gulf War, and the penetration of Bosnia by Serbian forces, which has led to comparatively little action by the international community. The difference is that, in the case of Iraq’s seizure of Kuwaiti oil, the petrol-dependent liberty of Western countries was threatened, while little is disturbed by the massacres in Bosnia, other than a guilty conscience or two.

At its simplest, the contradiction between automobiles and liberty boils down to this: automobiles have increased many times faster than our ability to absorb them. We cannot build enough roads to accommodate them, or enough waste dumps to dispose of them and their discarded rubber tyres, dirty oil and other toxic fluids. Despite government attempts at regulation, the air quality of major cities continues to degenerate as hydrocarbons like rapacious computer Pac-Men gobble up the ozone. There is not enough physical space on Earth for all our auto needs, nor enough wisdom to navigate the minefield of geo-political vagaries of who controls that oil.

The party is over, say environmentalists. Global warming, deforestation, oil depletion, acid rain, ozone holes, oil spills like the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound and the ‘Mother of All Oil Spills’ during the Gulf War, have all taken the fun out of jetting down the highway in a jazzy Maserati. Our lust for liberty has crashed headfirst into the limitations of our planet to sustain several billion of us, pursuing our own privatized notion of that liberty. Could it be then, that our conception of liberty must change?

An alternative concept of liberty would balance the rights of the individual or corporation against the rights of the larger community for a healthy, sustainable future. Individuals need to be mobile and free to pursue their wealth and happiness, but we also need to preserve our environment, not just the natural environment but also the aesthetic and architectural environments that are being strangled by python-like ribbons of concrete and steel highways. The world is getting uglier and more crowded. The effects on our short- and long-term mental and physical health are immeasurable.

Our love affair with the auto, and with the liberty it reifies, makes it difficult to apply logical solutions to the problems it has created. What if we were to take the same genius and wealth, the same vast human and material resources, that we invest every day in the construction of armies and weapons of destruction, and applied them instead to the construction of the safest, most convenient, energy-efficient and environmentally-benign transportation system that humans have ever known? We have the technology, we have the genius and material resources. Now all we need is the will to use them wisely.

Stephen Hill is a widely published writer, poet, reviewer and activist, living in Seattle, US. He inspired us to do this issue of NI.

The worker

The familiar whirring sound of the clocking-on machine filled the air. For what seemed like the millionth time I inserted my card into the grey, intimidating box. Clock number 198. Like old soldiers whose army number is etched in their brains forever, clock number 198 would serve as a permanent reminder of my days in the factory. Punching the card I turned and entered the building.

The sheetmetal factory I’d worked in for 14 years hadn’t burnt down overnight. No mysterious arsonist had struck a blow for the downtrodden working masses, or more significantly, downtrodden me.

‘Good morning,’ I grunted to a colleague who queried, ‘What’s good about it?’

Another bloody day.

Donning my grease-caked overalls I looked around the windowless tomb that masqueraded as a factory. On the journey to work the clouds had threatened rain. Inside these walls, the weather had no significance. You couldn’t see it.

Here the only thing that mattered was time. The huge clock on the wall was both your enemy and your friend. At eight o’clock it scowled, at five o’clock its face smiled and shone as though sunrise had appeared at the end of the day.

The walls of the cave were washed white and machines were scattered across the floor like giants in slumber. How many times had I looked upon this scene? How many times had I thought upon this existence as some kind of living death? But what of my comrades with whom I shared this hell?

There they were. My fellow workers. Some whistling merrily as others discussed the previous night’s TV programs. Some mulled over horses they fancied at that day’s racing at Chepstow. All apparently eager to begin the daily grind of mind-numbing drudgery.

Their contentment was always a source of wonder to me. How resigned they were to this life, accepting that the only way out was to win the football pools. They talked as though they were free but they were latter-day peasants whose rulers had allowed them a token affluence. Duped, patronized and brutalized, they had been bought off. But what price had they paid? What would they endure before they said, ‘enough’?

Inwardly screaming at the absurdity of it all, I pounded the green start button on my machine. Immediately its grinding, crunching sounds obliterated the inanity around me.

Another day. But a new face. Dave.

He’d been with us just a few weeks. Seventeen years old. A self-confessed macho man. A football hooligan, arrogant, cocky and intimidating. He was bursting with the confidence of youth.

‘This is a shit place, Hughesy,’ he asserted.

It was difficult to disagree with the sentiment but I ignored his endeavours to engage me in conversation and continued to punch my zillionth hole in my zillionth piece of metal.

‘How do you put up with it?’ he persisted.

‘What else is there?’ I carped, wishing he would find someone else to annoy.

‘Well, I’m fucked if I’ll put up with it. I’m an anarchist. I’m free!’

Ignoring my silence he continued to warm to his theme.

‘I do what I like; nobody tells me what to do.’

My God, a fucking libertarian. That’s all I needed.

Still it was an interesting idea. Here I was, chained to my machine for the rest of my life, doomed to wage slavery. No respite. Perhaps the odd holiday in Margate, then retire with a state pension at 65 – if I lived that long.

I could see no way out of this nightmare, yet here was a rebel, outside the system, declaring his freedom and liberty.

‘I’m confused,’ I said, ‘how are you free?’

The enquiry halted his line of thought and he rocked back on his heels as though I’d hit him between the eyes. He bristled menacingly, searching for an answer.

‘Look,’ I said calmly, ‘you clock on with the rest of us, get paid with the rest of us and when the boss says jump, you say ‘how high?’ with the rest of us. You make a lot of noise but you play by the rules. Your notion of liberty and freedom exists only in your head. In reality you’re as trapped as the rest of us’.

He muttered an obscenity and started his machine.

Just a few weeks ago I heard Dave was still clocking on – aged 37.

Alan Hughes escaped the factory to do a degree in Visual Communications. He now works as a designer at NI.

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