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Material World: Cars and Socialism

Material World

Last month’s Material World examined the terrible price that society pays for the motor car – in pollution and disease, ugliness and noise, social atomisation, injury and death. Does it follow that a socialist community is likely to decide to stop producing cars? How compatible would such a decision be with the idea of socialism as a world of material abundance and free access?

First point. Socialism will make a lot of car travel unnecessary. This applies especially to commuting. Many jobs to which people now commute will disappear with the abolition of money. Over time geographical patterns of habitation and production can be changed to enable most people to live close enough to their work not to need a car to get there.

We can expect new forms of public transport and the restoration of environment-friendly old forms such as trams and perhaps even canal barges (for non-perishable supplies). Sizeable urban areas can be made safe as pedestrian precincts. Some towns in Germany are already car-free and accessible only by rail.

Second point. Replacing petrol-guzzling motor cars by electric cars should reduce pollution from cars and their contribution to global heating, provided that the electricity comes from low-carbon sources (not from coal, as it often does at present).

Sharing systems

Third point. Free access to car transport as a service can be achieved without permanently assigning a car to each family or individual. In social terms, the current arrangement, with most cars sitting unused most of the time, is extremely wasteful. The total number of cars required can be minimised by relying on a pool of cars available through a network of depots.

When people want to go on a trip that cannot conveniently be made by public transport, they will borrow a car from the nearest depot. When they no longer need the car, they will return it to the network (not necessarily to the same depot). The depot staff will recharge, repair and maintain the vehicles and monitor their use.

Such arrangements already exist, though not for cars. The public lending library provides free access to books and cassettes. A free-access sharing system for bicycles was pioneered in Amsterdam by the Provos in the 1960s and now exists in Paris, Hangzhou and many other cities. In socialism sharing systems will expand to cover specialised tools and other things that people need to use occasionally.

In a free-access society people will develop a different psychology. They will view the goods being held for their use in public stores and depots as already belonging to them. As they will have free access to those things whenever needed, they will feel no urge to transfer stuff to their homes in order to make it “theirs”. Such pointless behaviour will appear pathological. People will feel a need for exclusive and permanent possession only of those things which have a special personal meaning for them.

Electric cars still a problem?

So it may be possible to provide free access to electric cars at a social cost lower than that now paid for motor cars. Much lower, perhaps, but still considerable. Switching to electric cars would not prevent road accidents. Electric cars also pose environmental problems of their own.

There are two types of electric car: one runs on a battery, the other is powered by a stack of hydrogen fuel cells. However, the manufacture of both devices depends on the availability of rare earth metals (REMs). These substances occur in very low-concentration ores from which they have to be separated out by means of acid baths and other processes, generating vast quantities of highly toxic waste.

The REM smelting plants in Inner Mongolia dump the waste into a large pool. From there the ‘radioactive sludge’ seeps into the soil and groundwater, destroying local agriculture and the health of local residents. A socialist society could not tolerate such poisoning of the environment, even in a single locality. No local community would voluntarily sacrifice itself to provide the world with certain raw materials. And the world administration would lack the coercive power to sacrifice a local community against its will.

So the waste would have to be reprocessed, stored in sealed vessels and buried in stable geological structures deep underground. This is not done under capitalism because it would cost too much. But even in socialism it will surely be impracticable to store more than a certain quantity of waste in this way, especially as it will be in addition to hundreds of thousands of tons of accumulated nuclear waste in urgent need of similar treatment.

That constraint will limit the amount of REMs extracted. And as REMs will be needed for many other uses (including energy-efficient fluorescent lamps and magnets for wind turbines) it will be necessary to set priorities for their allocation.

Free access to everything?

Thus, we cannot be sure whether socialist society will be able or willing to provide free access to car transport. The social cost associated with maintaining an adequate pool of electric cars may still be judged unacceptably high.

It’s doubtful that there could ever be free access to everything – to space travel, for instance. The world socialist community will have to decide, through its democratic institutions and procedures, what free access will and will not cover, and how to distribute things to which free access cannot be provided.