A Love Letter To Reddit

Dear Reddit:

I love you. You are my sexy internet significant other. But this madness with the subreddits has got to stop before it destroys your relevance and usability.

Subreddits became a sexy solution when Reddit became overpopulated and divided among tastes and preferences (Namely the: I hate politics/Why isn’t every post about Ruby on Rails community). But the sexiness quickly died down because subreddits became so dichotomous — where the hell are you supposed to put up content that is funny, a picture, and a WTF? You can’t cross post to three subreddits, and you’re likely to get your posted deleted if it has anything political injected into the post. A lot of content has no home on the current Reddit set-up, which is both frustrating and debilitating to someone new to the community.

Further, the subreddits have led to an oligarchy of power and moderation. If you look at the top 10 most popular subreddits, they are moderated by the same 3 or 4 individuals. What’s worse is its become common practice to ban users and domains from subreddits without any cause or communication. So, if you become the target of one uber-moderators vindictive wrath (and trust me, there are some very spiteful fucks running the show), your chances of Reddit accessibility are dismal.

So, what is the outcome? The most popular subreddit, Pics, is somehow both over-moderated and yet the biggest purveyor of crap and duplicates on Reddit. Cross-posts and repeats become common place, thus increasing the homogeneity of content across the board. Likewise, the same couple of individuals are able to dictate content and control over the majority of Reddit.

This situation reminds me of Slashdot in 2002. At the height of its popularity, it decided to reign in its community system using a surface level democratic system of moderation and karma. But what really happened was more of a virtual feudal state, where the nobles of moderation debilitated creative content and destroyed the fabric of the community, driving off users in droves. I fear Reddit is on the verge of repeating Slashdots mistakes.



Who are you people?

Nothing says getting out of a recession like keeping up the behavior that got us into it in the first place:

In the first quarter of 2009,

The U.S. economy shrank at a pace of 6.1% in the first quarter


Purchases by individuals rose at an annual 2.2% rate, the first time personal spending rose since the second quarter of 2008.


Personal income decreased $29.1 billion, or 0.2 percent, and disposable personal income (DPI) decreased $10.5 billion, or 0.1 percent, in February, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $17.2 billion, or 0.2 percent.

So, let’s get this straight. Personal income decreased by approximately $30 billion, the GDP shrank by 6.1%, and yet people are spending 2.2% more than they were a year ago? Are you people trying to get your god damn flat screen TV’s foreclosed?!

See Also: Confidence Is Up, The disconnect of my economy with the money economy, What Good Is Modern Finance?, GDP Falls 6.1%, GDP falls 6.1% in the first quarter. What does that mean?, Weaker Than Expected GDP, Team Obama Miscalculates US GDP Growth By Nearly Half a Trillion Dollars, Not Depressed Yet, The rising specter of unemployment, The End of Capitalism?, and Tuning Back In to the Economy.

[tags]economy, personal income, contraction, recession, behavioral economics, spending money, personal consumption, gdp numbers, first quarter 2009, april 2009, economics, individual spending, expenditures, disposable income, consumer spending, 2009 stats[/tags]




Proletariat: He can talk He can talk He can talk!

Marx: The surplus value is derived between the difference of actual value minus labor value.

Proletariat: ??

Marx: Dialectical materialism is neither dialectic or materialistic!

Proletariat: ????

Marx: Urm, uh… workers of the world unite?!

Proletariat: To the barricade!



The Impact Of Class In America


Taken from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project.

See Also: How Much Does Class Matter In America?, Nature, Nurture, Trust Funds, Define rich!!!!!!!!, CEO Pay 2008 (NYTimes), and Young Americans for Socialism.

[tags]class in america, impact of class, social class, college education, future income, chances of going to college, chances of being upward mobile, economic mobility, socio-economic mobility, upward mobility in america, race, gender, economic levels, education, graph, chart, facts, figures, statistics, stats[/tags]



Cars & Cities

The Article: Cars and Cities by Paul M. Sweezy, appearing in the April 1973 iteration of Monthly Review. A lengthy but worthwhile review of the rise of the car and modern infrastructure in relation to contemporary modes of production. Key quote:

I do not think that fundamental changes in the structure of cities and their relation to society as a whole can be effected without a radical change in the social order. In what I have called the traditional commuter situation, it should certainly be possible to bring about a great improvement in public transport both into and out of the inner city and also within the inner city. This, perhaps together with certain restrictions on the use of cars in the inner city, might do much to relieve congestion, particularly of the rush-hour variety. But it would leave untouched other kinds of movement within the metropolis which are much less susceptible to facilitation through improvement of public transport.23 And it would do nothing to check, let alone reverse, the sprawl process.

To accomplish these ends, and at the same time to eliminate congestion and pollution and in other ways make the city a better place to live, it seems to me an absolutely necessary (though far from sufficient) condition that the causal link between the location of economic activity and profit anticipations has to be decisively broken. Only if a rational job pattern is planned and assured for years ahead will it be possible to develop new residential communities with appropriate population densities and efficient public transportation systems both within and between them. And this requires not only public ownership of land but also socialization of the entire investment process so that production can be guided not by profit but for the satisfaction of the people’s needs.

The Full Text:

“Cities, after all, have a great deal in common with cars. More and more, in fact, they often seem to be turning into cars. There are deep mysteries here, impenetrable to the present shallow state of human understanding. Somehow, we know not how, things communicate.”

—Russell Baker, New York Times, March 8, 1973

In Marxist theory the treatment of technology has generally referred to production, the means of production, the character of the labor process, and related matters. This follows the example set by Marx himself in his justly famous chapter on machinery and modern industry in Volume 1 of Capital which occurs in the part devoted to the production of relative surplus value. Neither there nor anywhere else in Capitalis there any discussion or analysis of the impact of technology on consumption and via consumption on processes of capital accumulation and social development.

The reason for this is not that Marx excluded consumption from a role in the capitalist process. On the contrary, in the well-known Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy,” Marx wrote:

Definite production thus determines definite consumption, distribution, exchange and definite relations among these different elements. Tobe sure production, in its one-sided form, is in its turn also determined by the other elements. For example, if the market, i.e., the sphere of exchange, expands, production grows and becomes further subdivided.1

It is evident from this and other passages in the Introduction that Marx regarded production and consumption as dialectically interrelated aspects of a single complex process. As in all such cases, change initiated in any part can in principle—though it does not necessarily have to—ramify throughout the whole, setting in motion either self-limiting or cumulative sequences of change. Marx provided a classic description and analysis of a cumulative sequence of change within the production process in a beautiful passage which begins: “A radical change in the mode of production in one sphere of industry involves a similar change in other spheres.”2

The fact that Marx failed to analyze any such sequences involving both production and consumption did not arise from any denial that they might exist, or even that they actually did exist. In discussing the consequences of machinery, he wrote:

The immediate result of machinery is to augment surplus value and the mass of products in which surplus value is embodied. And, as the substances consumed by the capitalists and their dependents become more plentiful, so too do these orders of society. Their growing wealth, and the relatively diminished number of workmen required to produce the necessaries of life beget, simultaneously with the rise of new and luxurious wants, the means of satisfying those wants. A larger proportion of the produce of society is changed into surplus produce, and a larger part of the surplus produce is supplied for consumption in a multiplicity of refined shapes. In other words, the production of luxuries increases.3

Here was a clear example of an interaction of production and consumption resulting from technological change, one which from some points of view was certainly far from insignificant. The reason why Marx noted it only in passing and made no attempt to analyze it in depth, as he did with the consequences of machinery in the production process itself, was probably because he saw it as affecting only the consumption patterns of the capitalists and their dependents. As far as the working class was concerned, he believed that the capitalistic use of machinery had had disastrous consequences, ruining handicraftsmen and lowering the wages of factory hands by simplifying their work and opening the way for the mass employment of women and children. By comparison, the stimulation of luxury consumption by the capitalist class was a matter of secondary importance which not only could but should be abstracted from in studying the modus operandi of the capitalist system.

In the century since the publication of the first volume of Capital, however, it is clear that technological changes affecting both production and consumption and involving fundamental alterations in the consumption patterns of the mass of workers, with far-reaching consequences for the functioning of capitalism, have occurred in the advanced imperialist metropolises of the global capitalist system.4 What is at issue here is what may be called the political economy of the motor car which, so far as I am aware, has never been subjected to serious analysis in the Marxian literature.

In the beginning the automobile was of course a mere curiosity, but developed rapidly into a luxury good entering into the consumption of the upper class. “As long as motor cars were few in number,” Lewis Mumford wrote, “he who had one was a king; he could go where he pleased and halt where he pleased; and this machine itself appeared as a compensatory device for enlarging an ego which had been shrunken by our very success in mechanization.”5 This was clearly the situation which obtained before the First World War: in 1910 there were some 19,000 people for every car in the United States.6 During the next decade, however, the automobile began to enter into popular consumption, the ratio of people to cars dropping precipitously to approximately 11 to 1 by 1920. On the side of technology and production, the decisive factor here was Henry Ford’s introduction of the low-priced Model T, involving (as both cause and effect) such cost-reducing technologies as the assembly line and interchangeable parts.

Since 1920 the people/car ratio has further declined as follows: 1930—4.5; 1940—4.1; 1950—3.1; 1960—2.4; 1970—1.9. At the present time, in other words, there are more than half as many cars as people in the United States. The automobile has become a mass-consumption commodity in the fullest sense of the term. And in the process it has profoundly altered many aspects of social existence for all classes and strata of society.

The most obvious manifestations of this process—which the late Paul Baran and I have called the “automobilization” of society7—are traffic congestion and pollution, and these are also the effects which have been most instrumental in focusing public attention on the social and environmental implications of automobilization. But congestion and pollution are essentially superficial phenomena, comparable to the outward symptoms of a disease with deep roots in the organs of the body. If we are ever to deal with the disease itself we must go beyond the symptoms and study its etiology. In the present instance what we need first of all is to understand the ways in which the automobile in the process of becoming a mass-consumption good impinged upon and ultimately transformed the geography and demography of the country.

Before the automobile age there was a sharp physical division between city and country. The city was a clearly bounded built-up area beyond which there was country (or in some directions a body of water). People who worked in the city but lived outside of it had to rely on transportation by rail for getting in and out. With the railroads limited to providing station-to-station service and readily accessible only from relatively short distances on both sides of the tracks, the areas available for suburban settlement were quite restricted. They were for the most part inhabited by upper-income people and those who catered to their needs, providing for a quantitatively small sector of the bourgeoisie many of the advantages of country living in close proximity to the urban centers.8

The coming of the automobile as such did not change this situation. In the early years cars were expensive and unreliable so that only the well-to-do could afford them and their upkeep. In addition, except for city and town streets, roads were few and bad. Under these circumstances as far as the suburbs were concerned, cars complemented the existing patterns rather than changing them. Owned by the upper-income commuters and largely chauffeur-driven (the chauffeur fulfilling the role of mechanic as well as driver at a time when repair and service stations were all but nonexistent), cars expanded the area within which commuters could conveniently live but introduced no new elements into the picture. The 1920s saw the beginning of an extremely complex cumulative process, culminating in what it has become usual to refer to as today’s “urban crisis.” The immediately propelling forces underlying this process were, first, the cheapening of the automobile; and second, the extension of the road and highway network.

On the production side, the development of the automobile and the automobile industry provides a classic illustration of the laws of capitalist accumulation. Originally consisting of hundreds of small shops, mostly formerly carriage-makers, using essentially handicraft methods, the industry was rapidly mechanized and concentrated in a few large firms. In the process new technologies were pioneered; and new forms and strategies of organization and management were devised. The Ford Motor Company, under the sole control of the first Henry Ford, was the perfect example of what Marx called concentration of capital, expanding entirely through investing its own profits. General Motors, on the other hand, also illustrates the centralization of capital in Marx’s sense, i.e., the combination of a number of separate enterprises into one, a pattern likewise followed by Chrysler and American Motors, the other two still surviving U.S. firms in the industry. During the fiercely competitive stage of the industry’s development, up to the early 1920s, prices declined in step with costs. As an example, when the Model T Ford was introduced in 1908 its price was $1,000; by 1924 it had fallen to less than $300, i.e., by more than 70 percent.9 During the same period per capita national income in current prices more than doubled (from an average of about $300 in 1908 to $660 in 1924).10 Obviously the result of these changes was to open up a vast new market for automobiles during this crucial decade and a half: the total number of passenger vehicles registered in 1910 was about a half million and this had increased fortyfold to 20 million by 1925.11

All these cars would have had no place to go, however, had it not been for a vast increase in the road network. As a very rough indicator of what was happening here, the mileage of surfaced roads increased by 81 percent between 1910 and 1920, by 88 percent between 1920 and 1930, and by 97 percent between 1930 and 1940.12 At the same time of course the quality and carrying capacity of the roads were greatly improved. In recent years, indeed, it has been mainly through the upgrading of roads or the construction of multilane freeways paralleling or replacing existing routes that the capacity of the highway network has been expanded.

It should not be supposed that all this has taken place in a smooth and continuous process. The dominant dynamic force has of course been the mass production and sale of new cars, rising from around two million in 1920 to eight million or more in the last few years (excluding truck, buses, and imports). But since cars last up to ten years or more, the number on the road, distributed in large part through the used-car market, cumulatively increased to nearly 90 million by 1970; and it is the total number of vehicles rather than new sales which generates pressure on the highways. This pressure has made itself felt unevenly and has been responded to by various governmental units at the local, state, and federal levels even more unevenly. At some times and places traffic has built up far beyond the capacity of the available roads, creating bottlenecks and intensifying pressures on the authorities; and at other times and places building has outstripped the growth of traffic, only to be overtaken in turn by the inexorable build-up of more cars and more traffic.

The foregoing account of the interaction between cars and roads is descriptive in nature and fails to convey a sense of the enormous power of the economic forces which have driven the process forward, especially in the last 25 years since the recovery of the automobile industry from the almost complete shutdown forced upon it during the Second World War. The private interests which cluster around and are directly or indirectly dependent upon the automobile for their prosperity are quantitatively far more numerous and wealthy than those similarly related to any other commodity or complex of commodities in the U.S. economy. Here is a quick run-down.

(1) The automobile industry itself. The first, third, and seventh corporations on Fortune’s list of the 500 largest are automobile producers, and the industry as a whole is easily the most profitable in the economy.13

(2) Manufacturing industries largely dependent on the automobile. Three more of the largest ten on the Fortune list (nos. 2, 6, and 8) are oil companies. And by one researcher’s count, altogether 22 of the 50 largest (including the auto and oil companies already listed) “are in automobiles and highways for the bulk of their income.”14

(3) Service industries largely dependent on the automobile. Here we include dealers, wholesalers of vehicles and parts, gasoline stations, and all sorts of garage and repair facilities. In 1967 there were about a half million establishments under these headings employing over two million employees. If we assume that in most cases the proprietors also work, we would conclude that something over 3 percent of the total labor force is employed in directly servicing automobiles. And this does not count the numerous categories of employment, such as motels and resorts, which are almost as dependent, albeit indirectly.

(4) Users of highways for profit. After a rapid process of centralization, there were 1,250 intercity trucking companies in 1968, employing nearly a half million workers and carrying around 20 percent of the country’s long-distance freight. At the same time the Teamsters Union, which is the largest union in the country with a membership of more than 1,700,000, is centered in the fields of trucking and warehousing. In addition of course most big corporations have their own fleets of trucks. And there are other types of commercial highway users such as buses (urban and intercity) and taxicabs.

(5) Makers of highways, including an important segment of the construction industry (about 11 percent of the total measured by value added in 1968) and a large number (about 600,000 in 1969) of government workers (federal, state, and local) employed in the planning, supervising, maintaining, and repairing of highways.

(6) Last but not least is the automobile-driving public (in 1968 there were 101 million registered motor vehicles of all kinds and 105 million licensed drivers). Though the increasingly severe problems of congestion and pollution are now causing many of the country’s motorists to have second thoughts, it is nevertheless true that through the whole period of automobilization from 1910 right up through the 1960s, they felt more or less continuously restrained and frustrated by an inadequate road and highway network. They therefore provided massive and enthusiastic political support for road-building, culminating in the launching in 1956 by the federal government of the multibillion-dollar Interstate Highway System, backed by a device called the Highway Trust Fund which ensured that all federal taxes collected on motor vehicles, gasoline, and related equipment would be used to construct a vast system of superhighways.15

This bare listing of the main components of what may be called the automobile-industrial complex could, and in any thorough study should, be complemented by an analysis of its structure and modus operandi. Here it must suffice to note that these various interests are represented by a large number of trade associations and other organizations which are amply financed and staffed and are active on a full-time basis at all levels of government as well as in the realm of propaganda and opinion formation. As Jerome puts it, “The scurry work, the wheedling and coercion, the swapping of favors and collection of political debts, is done by a large and complexly interwoven network of associations and pressure groups.”16 As would be expected, in other words, the enormous economic wealth and power of the automobile-industrial complex have been effectively mobilized and brought to bear at the political and ideological levels.

Let us now turn to the impact of automobilization on the development of cities and the living patterns of their inhabitants. Decisive in this connection has been the obliteration of the old sharp dividing line between city and country. Drive from the center of an American city today in any direction, and you will of course eventually come to open country. But you will never cross a boundary clearly demarcating the one from the other. What you will observe instead is a gradual thinning out of the density of settlement. The old distinctive commuter suburb dependent on rail transport has been swallowed up and incorporated into an expanded urban area.17 And in some places, particularly in the northeast between Boston and Washington, expanding urban areas or metropolises have run into each other.18 In such cases your trip from one city center will take you through roughly concentric rings of decreasing density into another set of concentric rings of increasing density.

This obliteration of the old distinctions between city, country, and suburb—often called “urban sprawl”—would have been impossible but for the automobile which, with its complementary road and highway network, has introduced what may be called a generalized factor of mobility replacing the former limited and specific modes of mobility. The car can go in any direction for any distance. The horse-drawn vehicle, on the other hand, is necessarily short-haul, and both railroads and trolleys are track-bound and therefore restricted to certain prescribed routes. These specific modes of mobility impose a definite shape on both economy and society, much as a skeleton may be said to impose a shape on a living body. With the coming of the generalized factor of mobility, these constraints are removed and radically new locational patterns become possible.

They become possible, but no particular new pattern is dictated or enforced. What actually happens is therefore determined by other considerations. And here we must, I think, give primacy to the overall process of capital accumulation which both seeks out and responds to profitable investment opportunities on the one hand, and creates new ones on the other. The point is that with greater freedom of mobility, the shape of economy and society could adjust to the pushes and pulls of the accumulation process more rapidly and completely than would otherwise have been the case. And the likelihood of cumulative rather than self-limiting processes of change was greatly increased. Moreover, the possibility existed and was soon translated into reality that cumulative change, once initiated, would take on a life of its own, often contradicting rather than serving the economic and social needs which had given rise to it in the first place.

Automobilization started somewhat later, but in the main coincided with the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism. The emerging corporate giants, including those directly or indirectly dependent on the automobile, were more profitable than their predecessors and were therefore able to grow more rapidly than the smaller and more competitive sectors of the economy (Marx’s concentration of capital); and their huge financial resources gave them the leverage to engineer an uninterrupted series of mergers (Marx’s centralization of capital). Technologically, this increasingly dominant monopolistic sector of the economy was (and is) highly dynamic, manifesting a strong bias toward more and more sophisticated, capital-intensive methods of production. Moreover, the big monopolies, in their search for new markets, have made available to other sectors of the economy advanced mechanical, electronic, chemical and other sophisticated technologies which in turn have revolutionized these sectors’ methods of production. What is particularly relevant from our present point of view is that in this way U.S. agriculture, in spite of the fact that it does not readily lend itself to monopolization, has been rapidly mechanized and chemicalized, leading to the relative depopulation of the countryside and the crowding of displaced farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers into the cities. As a result of this internal migration as well as of natural population growth, the cities have experienced very rapid expansion during the automobilization period. (In the half century from 1910 to 1960, the urban population increased from 42 million to 125 million, approximately 300 percent; while the rural population increased 50 to 54 million, or only 8 percent.)

Urban growth on this scale would have involved a comparable increase in the geographical size of cities even if the new residential areas had been of the built-up, high-density variety. But given the general mobility factor introduced by the automobile, the urban-sprawl pattern, involving a much more than proportional increase in area, became both a possibility and a reality. Where in earlier times the children of slum-dwelling immigrants had, as they climbed the economic ladder, moved into compact neighborhoods within the built-up city, now the tendency was increasingly to move to the fringes and the formerly railroad-dependent suburbs. The slums in turn were filled up no longer by immigrants from abroad (the First World War effectively put an end to this kind of immigration) but by those expelled from U.S. agriculture, including disproportionately large numbers of blacks, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans.

And now comes the final act in what may be called the drama of the car and the city. The massive outflow of population from the old inner city brings with it much more than a mere change in residential patterns. As people move out, all sorts of economic activities move with them, and a process of obsolescence and decay is initiated in the center. First to follow the population movement of course are retail and service establishments. But these are soon joined by manufacturers and wholesalers who on the one hand now find a labor supply and cheaper land on the outskirts and on the other hand are repelled by the deterioration in the center. The movement of residences comes first, but the movement of jobs soon reinforces the movement of residences, which in turn stimulates further movement of jobs, and so on in a self-reproducing cumulative process.

It might be supposed that this would result in a more or less even and continuous settlement of the space occupied by the outward movement, with densities declining in direct proportion to distance from the center, so that there would after all be a reasonably clear demarcation between built-up area and open space beyond. But this is not the way it happens in a regime of private property in land such as that which obtains in the United States. Typically, large amounts of land are held off the market and out of use by investors (or, if you prefer, speculators), as a result of which the development process often has to leapfrog over areas of open land.19 And in addition densities are kept down by zoning ordinances prescribing minimum sizes for residential lots in parts of the metropolis, usually farther out, controlled by upper- and middle-income whites determined to exclude the poor and the black from their neighborhoods. The consequence is that the city comes to sprawl over an area much greater than mobility and economic factors alone would dictate. By now, according to Hans Blumenfeld, “the overall density of American urban areas is about one fifth to one sixth of the density prevailing a century ago, when walking was the predominant mode of transportation.”20

This means that an enormous amount of transportation of goods and people has to take place day in and day out just to keep the life of the city going. Much of this is commuting in the traditional sense of the term, i.e., movement of people living in the outskirts to and from work in the city center (this obviously creates all sorts of special problems because it is concentrated in a few hours in the morning and evening). But much more in the aggregate is of a different character: goods being supplied to economic units scattered all over the urban area; children going to and from school; shoppers getting to retail outlets and back home again; people getting together for social purposes; and a new and increasingly important kind of commuting, i.e., the going to and from jobs by workers who both live and work in the outskirts, which may involve relatively short trips in the same section but also may involve long trips from a section on one side of the city across the center to another section on the other side (with all possible variations in between). Except in the case of traditional commuting, which lends itself very well to the use of public transportation, almost all of this movement now takes place by private automobile. An impressionistic notion of how vast the volume of travel by private automobile has become can perhaps be derived from the following two items culled from recent issues of the New York Times: (1) According to a Gallup Poll, 81 percent of all American workers travel to and from work by automobile. (May 30, 1971); (2) The Associated Press reports that “American housewives average about 100 miles each week just in family chauffeuring and errands around town.” (January 23, 1973). With the number of cars, the urban population, and the area of sprawl all steadily expanding, it is no wonder that pollution and congestion are coming to be experienced as the manifestations of an acute urban crisis;21 or that the general factor of mobility which the automobile was in its golden age is increasingly turning into its opposite.

One final point needs to be made in this highly sketchy survey of the interrelation and interaction between the car and the city. When we speak of traditional commuting (outskirts to city center and back), we are talking primarily about a small number of cities which are both big and also old in the sense that they had railroad-dependent suburbs in the pre-automobile age—chief among them New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco. In addition, these are cities with highly developed business centers not directly related to production, embracing national or regional corporate headquarters, banking and insurance, shipping offices, and so on. While there has been considerable outward movement of such functions, on the whole the advantages of keeping them together, in a compact area within which rapid face-to-face communication is easily maintained, are so great that these central business areas have grown with the overall growth of the metropolis. As a consequence, too, other economic and cultural activities which are encompassed in the concept of “downtown”—hotels and restaurants, theaters and concert halls, museums, elegant department stores and specialty shops—have survived and even flourished.

Where these conditions are found, the city retains much of its traditional structure and character, despite the ubiquitous sprawl and the decaying slums and ghettos between downtown and the outer residential areas. But where these conditions are not found or are found in a relatively undeveloped form—and this is the case with most cities which have experienced most of their growth during the automobile age—there has been a strong tendency for the old urban structure to break down and a new one without historic precedent to take its place. The process of sprawl has brought with it a decentralization of most of the functions usually associated with downtown, with resultant emergence of a multiplicity of subcenters, each offering some of the services of downtown—shopping areas, branch banks, motels, restaurants, cinemas—but without any of its character or magnetism. When this stage has been reached, the city as a meaningfully organized and structured form of civilized living has disappeared in favor of an amorphous aggregate of people, dwellings, cars, roads, and economic units jumbled together in a more or less continuous and potentially ever-expanding geographical area. Los Angeles is the obvious prototype of this kind of urban area. It was vividly characterized as long ago as 1959, in a perceptive series of articles by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times, as follows:

Here, nestled under its blanket of smog, girdled by bands of freeways, its core eviscerated by concrete strips and asphalt fields, its circulatory arteries pumping away without focus, lies the prototype of Gasopolis, the rubber-wheeled living region of the future.

Los Angeles is no longer a city as the term has been conventionally defined: Sam S. Taylor, general manager of Los Angeles traffic, calls Los Angeles a “mobile region.”

For anyone looking toward the future, toward the end result of the full autofication of the American metropolis, Los Angeles is the phenomenon to analyze most carefully.

When Lincoln Steffens went to the Soviet Union just after the Bolshevik Revolution, he proclaimed, “I have seen the future—and it works.”

Today’s visitor to Los Angeles might paraphrase Steffens and say, “I have seen the future—and it doesn’t work.” (March 3, 1959)

Since that was written a great deal has happened, and it seems less likely today than it did then that the future lies with Gasopolis. The recently created federal Environmental Protection Agency has even proposed that, in order to cope with the smog problem, automobile traffic in Los Angeles should be cut by 80 percent through gasoline rationing. This was, to be sure, more for its shock effect than because the EPA or anyone else expects it to be taken seriously (one estimate is that an 80 percent reduction in auto traffic in Los Angeles would mean the loss of 400,000 jobs). Still, this, like the already noted change in the public attitude toward the Interstate Highway System, is one of many indications that urban development in the United States is entering a new period in which increasingly serious efforts will be made to transform the automobile from the master to the servant of people.

Any attempt to elaborate on this theme would take us far beyond the confines of an essay aimed at elucidating the role of the automobile in the genesis of the present urban condition.22 I will only say in conclusion that while I believe certain palliatives to be possible, at least in principle, within the framework of the present monopoly capitalist system, I do not think that fundamental changes in the structure of cities and their relation to society as a whole can be effected without a radical change in the social order. In what I have called the traditional commuter situation, it should certainly be possible to bring about a great improvement in public transport both into and out of the inner city and also within the inner city. This, perhaps together with certain restrictions on the use of cars in the inner city, might do much to relieve congestion, particularly of the rush-hour variety. But it would leave untouched other kinds of movement within the metropolis which are much less susceptible to facilitation through improvement of public transport.23 And it would do nothing to check, let alone reverse, the sprawl process.

To accomplish these ends, and at the same time to eliminate congestion and pollution and in other ways make the city a better place to live, it seems to me an absolutely necessary (though far from sufficient) condition that the causal link between the location of economic activity and profit anticipations has to be decisively broken. Only if a rational job pattern is planned and assured for years ahead will it be possible to develop new residential communities with appropriate population densities and efficient public transportation systems both within and between them. And this requires not only public ownership of land but also socialization of the entire investment process so that production can be guided not by profit but for the satisfaction of the people’s needs.


1. The Introduction in question was first published by Kautsky in 1903 and is not to be confused with the Preface to the 1859 work The Critique of Political Economy. It is actually the Introduction to the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Okonomie (Rohentwurf), which was not published in full until 1939. The quotation is from the East German edition of 1953, p. 20.

2. Capital, vol. 1 (Kerr ed.), pp. 418-422.

3. Ibid, p. 486.

4. In these notes I am drawing exclusively on my personal experience and acquired knowledge of conditions in the United States. But I believe that what is said applies, in the main, to the other imperialist centers in Western Europe and Japan.

5. Quoted in William V. Shannon, “The Untrustworthy Highway Fund,” The New York Times Magazine (October 15, 1972), p. 121.

6. Unless otherwise stated, all figures come from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, various years.

7. Monopoly Capital (Monthly Review Press, 1966), p. 241 and passim.

8. I grew up in a suburb of this kind. Several years before the First World War my family moved from New York to a suburb across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Our house was around a mile in one direction from the town and the railroad station, about as far away as the commuters then lived. In the other direction, between our house and the River (which, except for the underwater Hudson Tube between lower Manhattan and the Newark/Jersey City urban area, could only be crossed by ferry in those days), there was more than a mile of untouched woodland. The spread of the automobile and the building of the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson totally transformed the region and its relation to the city in the manner analyzed in the text.

9. David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 442.

10. Calculated from Historical Statistics of the United States Colonial Times to 1957 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2nd Printing, 1961), pp. 7, 139. The figure for 1908 is not exactly comparable to that for 1924 since the relevant National Income is the average for the years 1907-1911.

11. Ibid, p. 462.

12. Ibid, p. 458. The increase was down to 42 percent for the decade of the 1940s owing to the drastic curtailment of new construction during the Second World War, and comparable figures do not appear to be available for 1960 and 1970.

13. A ranking of U.S. manufacturing industries by ten-year average rate of return on capital (for the decade 1949-1958) shows Motor Vehicles and Parts first with 28.2 percent, while the second ranked industry trails with 23.2 percent. B. C. Minhas, An International Comparison of Factor Costs and Factor Use (Department of Economics, Stanford University, 1960), p. 80.

14. John Jerome, The Death of the Automobile (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), p. 112. The title of Jerome’s book, for better or worse, reflects wishful thinking more than fact, actual or prospective.

15. The following passage from John Jerome’s lively study, cited in the previous footnote, illustrates the change in the public attitude toward roadbuilding which is now under way. Back in 1956, he points out, the roadbuilders exulted in the magnitude of their works: “How the press releases rolled! Four hundred square miles of pavement! One and a half million acres of new right of way! Excavations to bury Connecticut knee deep. Sand, gravel, and stone to build a wall around the world fifty feet wide and nine feet high. Concrete enough for six sidewalks to the moon …. [B]y 1971, local lawsuits or local government action had halted the construction of Interstate projects in fifteen major American cities …. It had become virtually impossible to gain acceptance for a new Interstate in any urban area, and many rural segments of the plan … were in trouble…. The sea change in the American mood is precisely characterized by the Bureau of Roads’ press releases. When the Interstate was initiated, consumption of a million and a half acres of right of way or four hundred square miles of forest was fit material for boasting; now it has become a shameful admission.” Ibid, pp. 105-106. This changing public attitude doubtless portends other significant changes in the period ahead. This is a subject, however, which falls outside the scope of the present essay.

16. Ibid, p. 113.

17. It is true that what are now sometimes called exurbs, lying 50 miles or more from the city center, have some of the characteristics of the older type suburbs. But there are no structural features such as were imposed by dependence on rail transport which protect them from being swallowed up in their turn. This indeed seems likely to be their ultimate fate as long as population continues to grow and there is no basic change in the socio-economic system.

18. The Boston-Washington region—which includes New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as well as a number of lesser but still large cities—has been subjected to intensive study by the French geographer Jean Gottmann (Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, New York, 1961). Gottmann naturally has to deal with the automobile in many contexts, but he appears not to be aware of its decisive role in the dynamics of the process under study, a fact which is perhaps best explained by the book’s total lack of any coherent theoretical framework.

19. In the language of North American urban planners, “developed” land is that which is actually used for any urban purpose (including parks), while all other land within the urban area is “open” or “undeveloped.”

20. Hans Blumenfeld, “Criteria for Judging the Quality of the Urban Environment,” The Canadian Architect (November, 1972), p. 47.

21. This is without taking into account the social and environmental pathology of the decaying inner city.

22. Let me add that this limitation of scope has also precluded more than passing allusions to the qualitative aspects of that condition. In particular the differential impact of automobilized urbanization on various income levels and social groups has been almost totally omitted. The poor who cannot afford cars and the elderly and handicapped who are unable to make use of them regardless of their income are either effectively immobilized or confined to very limited and usually decaying areas. This adds a tragic dimension of helplessness and misery to millions of already blighted lives.

23. In making judgments of this kind one is likely to be influenced by one’s personal experience. I live in the New York metropolitan area in what used to be an old-style suburb. With a suitable improvement in the commuter railroad service and the inner-city subway-bus-taxi network—both of which are now in bad shape—I can easily imagine that I would hardly ever be tempted to drive into the downtown area. On the other hand, I also find it hard to imagine even an elaborate public transportation system which would satisfactorily substitute for the private car in the various other kinds of movement that are necessary for everyday living in the metropolis.

[tags]Paul M. Sweezy, paul sweezy, monthly review, cars and cities, rise of the automobile, modern modes of production, on cars, relation between cars and cities, environment, environmental considerations, rise of the suburbs, city infrastructure, capitalism, socialism[/tags]


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