International Socialism
Issue: 118, Spring 2008

Slam on the brakes

Rachel Aldred and James Woodcock

Matthew Paterson, Automobile Politics: Ecology 
and Cultural Political Economy (Cambridge 
University, 2007), 15.99

Matthew Paterson's important new book provides a 
Marxist analysis of the car's dominance, 
including sections on its economic, cultural and 
ecological aspects. In 2006 nine of the top ten 
global corporations were oil or car firms, 
compared with seven out of ten in 1970. This 
corporate juggernaut is accelerating down the 
road signed "Environmental Crisis".

Paterson argues for the left to refocus on the 
car and on challenging car dominance, not just on 
supporting public transport. He explains how the 
unsustainable expansion of oil-powered car 
ownership and use has become closely aligned with 
capitalist growth. Historically, this was a 
contingent development based on road improvements 
(often promoted by cycling groups), resentment at 
the monopoly power of trams and railways 
(probably the largest 19th century capitalist 
block), and technological change. But once set in 
motion, the car economy became a major driver of 
the capitalist system.

Movement is no longer a choice but a necessity as 
desperate workers attempt to follow capital's 
flight around the globe. Paterson explains how 
mobility is contested within capitalism. While 
capitalism requires mobility on an unprecedented 
scale, capitalist states constantly attempt to 
control it and encourage nationalist opposition 
to the free movement of people. Paterson 
critiques the post-structuralist celebration of 
movement that blithely disregards material and 
ecological causes and consequences (for example, 
the creation of millions of environmental 

Some of the most interesting parts of the book 
are where Paterson analyses different pro and 
anti-car movements and ideologies. The car's 
association with modernity has sparked both 
enthusiasm and opposition. For "petrolheads" cars 
represent a libertarian dream of freedom. The car 
provides automobility, apparently allowing its 
user to go anywhere, anytime, freed from the 
constrictions of bus and railway timetables. But, 
because so many people now drive, the car user in 
congested cities seems more prisoner than 
pioneer, spending large amounts of time immobile 
inside her glass and metal box.

As Paterson points out, the freedom promised by 
automobility is an illusion generated by systemic 
contradictions. Mass motorisation requires 
massive state intervention to function. The 
spread of the internal combustion engine feeds 
and depends upon oil imperialism. Car dominance 
has "resulted in a society far more heavily 
planned than previously". To manage growing 
volumes of traffic in city streets, engineers 
create complex gyratories, put up guard railings 
to keep pedestrians out of the way of cars, build 
bypasses, install cameras, dig subways and 
organise regulated parking zones. Yet all this 
feeds resentment of the state expressed by 
pro-car ideologues such as Jeremy Clarkson, who 
appeal to an ideal of unregulated motoring that 
can never coexist with mass motorisation.

Cars are so dominant that they seem to own their 
drivers. Paterson describes how voters have been 
re-conceptualised in terms of car ownership (for 
example "Mondeo Man"). He claims that "policies 
[have been] judged according to how individuals 
would react as car drivers". Where once Labour 
might have wooed its potential voters (however 
insincerely) as workers, it now approaches them 
in terms of consumption categories. Anti-roads 
protesters have responded by generalising their 
critique of particular developments. Paterson 
argues that such movements can come to recognise 
"that what is at stake in contesting automobility 
is precisely the need to question modern 
societies and politics themselves".

While Paterson rejects the concept of "false 
consciousness", we think that his recognition of 
the importance of political economy should allow 
an objective assessment of who benefits and who 
loses out. This could be tied to the angle he 
does not develop, the car and health. Physical 
activity is good for us, socially, mentally and 
physically. People who would rather drive than 
walk a few hundred metres to the shops have 
desires at odds with their best interests 
(although we must also consider what motorisation 
has done to once pleasant streets).

A health angle allows more focus on the 
class-based suffering imposed by car dominance. 
Every year over a million people are killed on 
the roads and 50 million injured, mostly poor 
pedestrians in the Global South. Even in rich 
countries such as Britain, working class people 
suffer disproportionately from crashes and air 
pollution. Busy roads have destroyed children's 
independent mobility, which especially affects 
working class children with smaller homes, who 
would once have played in the street. Lacking the 
ability to take sufficient levels of exercise, 
many such children are becoming obese and 
developing associated conditions such as type two 

Paterson's concentration on the car gives the 
book focus, but he tends to neglect comparisons 
with other transport modes and how they link in 
with anti-car politics. We would have liked to 
see more discussion of cycling in the main body 
of the book. While Paterson analyses "Swampy 
Fever", a more contemporary example of anti-car 
politics would be the ongoing regular Critical 
Mass cycle assemblies in many cities across the 
world. The Critical Mass in London that coincided 
with (and joined) demonstrations against Israel's 
attack on Lebanon provided a potent symbol of 
connections to be made.

Overall this is a useful and interesting book for 
Marxists seeking to learn more about transport 
and/or environmental issues. Paterson links 
together and critiques three key components of 
the car society: political economy, ecology, and 
culture. While the conclusion is weaker than 
other sections of the book, he recognises that 
automobility is unsustainable, analysing the 
material and cultural contradictions inherent in 
"greening the car". He argues for engaging and 
challenging existing car-based identities, so 
that walking, cycling, and public transport use 
can once more become normal activities. Such a 
politics will depend upon challenging the 
corporations that profit from car dominance.