Marxism and the automobile

The capitalist class benefits from reductions in the cost of labor-power. It is conceivable that reductions in transportation costs for workers may, over time, lead to a reduction in the overall level of wages. But, then, there is a problem. While the capitalist class may produce more surplus with the more efficient system, they will have greater difficulty realizing that surplus in the form of profit. Public transportation, in the forms of electric rail and so forth, reduces the demand for cars and petroleum. In the United States, capitalist interests have fought against and dismantled electric rails for precisely this reason. Faced with maybe reducing wage costs in the long run (and there are plenty of other ways to accomplish this) and the imperative to convert surplus into money (this must be accomplished), capitalists, overall, have chosen the latter.

The reason why we have so many cars is not because the capitalist class is fulfilling a need workers have to be free of modern society. True, there are public relations houses that have fashioned propaganda touting the freedom-giving wonder, the automobile. No, the capitalist class needs the masses to buy automobiles to continue the reproduction of capitalism. If people were to stop driving automobiles, and were instead to expand the state sector in public transportation, two things would be accomplished: (1) pollution would be reduced and (2) the accumulation of capital would slow. The latter development would be considerable, since the automobile industry, along with petroleum, are massive economic sectors. Just as struggling to reduce the length of the working day, obtain worker, consumer, and environmental protections cut into the accumulation process, so do reductions in consumption. These all strain and make more possible disturbances in the circulation of capital.

It strikes me as quite a rationalization to say that workers should support automotive and petroleum companies because they need to keep their consumption levels high because this translates into higher wages. The underlying argument is the same as I identified in an earlier post: environmentalists are really working for the capitalist class seeking to reduce consumption levels so that the wage floor can be lowered and the capitalist can produce more surplus. So, according to this view, public transportation is not something that the working masses want, rather public transportation is a capitalist plot to reduce worker's wages. Ridiculous argument in itself, of course, but more than that, this is not what in fact the capitalist class does. The capitalist class seeks to accomplish the opposite of what the left environmentalists desire. Surplus production is not a general problem for the system right now. Given capacity, overproduction is always a problem. The problem of the 20th century is realization and the continuation of the circuit of capital.

Andrew Austin