Driving to distraction
Proposing the radical alternative to capitalism is hindered in part by being unable to present a detailed vision of what socialism will look like. The broad features are clear. A truly democratic worldwide, moneyless society base on the principle of meeting everyone’s self-determined needs.
This projected society is contrasted with the present in which profit is the motivation for production and also its limitation: no profit, no production, without any consideration as to what people require. The productive process being in the ownership and control of the miniscule minority means the vast majority are dependent for their livelihoods.
They must sell their mental and physical energies for wages and salaries amounting to less than the wealth that labour creates. If it is less than what is needed to buy necessities they must go without. However, not selling is also a disaster for those seeking to harvest the difference between costs and price, the profit.
While production cycles through boom and bust it must be maximised and be as unrelenting as possible. Society has developed to accommodate this, consumerism is the dominant feature. A seeming deluge of new goods and gadgets flood the market. Having the latest…whatever’s the must-have.
Freedom has become defined by, and largely limited to, freedom of choice. Products, even the very latest, are often marked by their similarity rather than difference or improvement. Which is why the ‘free’ society has become the wasteful society all too readily disposing of perfectly serviceable items: around 25 million tonnes being thrown into UK skips at recycling and landfill centres.
The motor car has become an exemplar of this problem. From the early 1960s onwards society has been remodelled around it. An icon of that decade is surely the Mini Cooper. Railways were closed down, urban tramways torn up, a motorway system built along with bypasses and new towns planned around roads.
Freedom of the open road was the advertisers’ image, with an implication of individual choice and control. Possessing a car would confer the power to select destinations, who to travel with and when. No more being beholden to timetables.
The difference between the dream and reality was all too quickly realised. Burgeoning car sales favoured the capitalists of the automotive industry to the point that all those newly developed road systems quickly became congested.
Rather than the freedom of the open road there was increasing incarceration in chain gangs of iron cells, inmates fuming with frustration at being rendered near-stationary. Then came a gradual awakening to another profound problem: fossil fuels.
Just forty years or so on from open-road optimism a dramatically changing climate, actual and metaphorical, began to seriously bring into question the practice of continuing to burn oil. That it was unsustainable became ever more apparent, an issue the automotive industry couldn’t ignore or obscure behind advertising propaganda.
When a commodity becomes socially and politically unacceptable then a profitable solution has to be found. Simply ceasing to make that commodity is out of the question. A recent example of this is tobacco. Continuing to kill significant numbers of the population couldn’t be countenanced, especially in the face of informed opposition of health professionals, scientists and the anti-smoking lobby. Cue vaping.
With impressive alacrity the car industry has responded with technological advances, launching electrical vehicles onto the market. Some, hybrids, offered as a compromise, while increasingly all-electric vehicles have made significant commercial progress.
Problem solved! Except, of course, capitalism does not, cannot, solve its own problems, because it is the problem. Profit was, is and will remain the only driving force of capitalism. Social, political and environmental difficulties all ultimately devolve to economics.
An unacceptable commodity cannot simply be forgone, it must be replaced with another commodity. All the better if that commodity also diverts attention away from the root of the problem, the unending absolute requirement to pursue profit.
The electric vehicle superficially appears to circumvent the fossil fuel crisis. A motorist can, with clear conscience, drive away from the fossil fuel red light and go green. Should freedom of choice fail to result in sufficient swapping from oil to electricity then the state can act by decreeing an end to petrol and diesel car production. The Mini Cooper will become all electric and the sixties dream can be recast.
In typical capitalist fashion, though, the solution of one problem becomes the creation of other ones. These are becoming apparent all too readily. In the USA 60 percent of electricity generation is through the burning of fossil fuel. The increasing demand for electricity caused by growing numbers of electric vehicles has merely moved fossil fuel consumption from individual vehicles to power stations.
While there is increasing use of alternative generation in Britain, if every petrol/diesel vehicle presently on the roads is replaced with the electric alternative, how great is that increase going to have to be?
Also, wind turbines are constructed using high-quality steel, a product of a process using fossil fuel. Again there is an element of displacing fossil fuel burning rather than eliminating it.
Then there is the very real problem of the battery. Lithium is the key element here, presently being intensively mined, often in more deprived regions where it is environmentally harmful. Friends of the Earth report that communities are having their water resources jeopardised by lithium mining.
In 2021 the Guardian highlighted workers being paid the equivalent of 30p an hour mining cobalt for use in electric vehicles.
The batteries themselves pose the problem of charging, a very much longer process than filling a petrol tank. Presently there is an inadequate number of charging points. If all cars become electric there will be a requirement for many more charging points than the present number of petrol pumps because of the extra refuelling time.
There are superchargers that cut the charging time, but they reduce battery life by around 80 percent, meaning more mining and having to dispose of increasing numbers of worn out, and very toxic, batteries.
Undoubtedly, over time the technology will improve, but problems won’t disappear. Neither will congestion on already full roads.
As socialism can only be achieved by the action of the working class consciously working through all the difficulties and details that will entail, how life is organised cannot be predetermined. However, it must surely mean a qualitative change to the way life is generally lived, not just a tweaked version of the present, capitalist, society.
People en masse confined to slow- or non-moving traffic jams for ironically named ‘rush hours’ everyday, even in electric vehicles, cannot be a socialist aspiration. As the whole nature of work must radically be transformed by socialism there will be no need for such threats to physical and mental health to be tolerated.
The effects of climate change can at best only be minimally mitigated, if at all, by a mass switching from petrol and diesel to electricity. The automotive industry, though, will continue the propaganda blitz, advertising the freedom enhancing, high-tech status-raising qualities of electric vehicles. Distracting attention from what really drives climate change and society at present, capitalism!