Debt.4: What’s good for General Motors and what’s good for America

Sometimes the mark of a good book is how it crops back up in your mind a few months or years or even many years after you first read it.  I wrote 3 posts about the book Debt by David Graeber back in February & March.  There have been several occasions since then when the patterns that book traces in our societ(ies) have seemed strikingly obvious to me.  Most recently, someone posted a link as part of a thread that showed up on my Facebook wall to a documentary film that had to do with the demise of streetcars and the rise of automobiles in this country. You can see the entire hour long film, called Taken For A Ride, here:

Conventional wisdom might hold that the rise of the automobile was a matter of personal and cultural preference combined with post-War affluence.  The main thesis of the film is that such assumptions are the product of carefully orchestrated propaganda.  In reality, General Motors actively killed off the popular, efficient and environmentally friendly streetcar system in order to sell more cars.  The main thrust of this campaign took place from the mid 1920’s to the mid 1930’s, and it achieved its goals pretty completely by the 1960’s.  Before this march to autogeddon began, one in ten Americans owned a car.  Today…things look quite different.

The means GM took to accomplish this were familiar to me as a reader of Debt.  Graeber’s main assertion is that capitalism, far from being a free market system, has always been a system characterized by the creation of monopoly style conditions by corporations in collusion with governments who have been paid handsomely for their services. (see quote at the bottom of this post.)  A key strategy of monopoly is to sink whatever or whoever stands in the way of the cartels through the orchestration of debt.  If you starve someone of resources and get them in hock to you, you can use the common moral assumption that all debts must be paid to achieve ends that would never be realized if you asked for them directly.  This is happening all over the map today, from public schools to prisons to water resources and regulatory agencies. Hopefully it won’t happen to Social Security and Medicare.

Along these lines, GM bought controlling interest in streetcar companies across the US through dummy front organizations.  They instructed the new management to starve the streetcar system of resources while cutting back on services.  Customers who had ridden streetcars all their lives in peace began to stop riding when their routes were curtailed or cut entirely.  As the public transit system began losing money once riders started leaving, the new management used this turn of events to declare a budgetary crisis that called for what we now call “austerity” measures:  slashing services, firing employees, and eventually discontinuing the use of streetcars altogether.

They were replaced by buses, which were manufactured by GM.  The buses emitted much more pollution, were underfunded so that they gained a reputation for unreliability, and were unpopular with riders because they were much more uncomfortable.  Unlike streetcars, buses did not block the roads in such a way as to discourage motorists.  (Streetcars had the right of way on the streets of America in their heyday.) In addition to gaining greater control over the existing streets, Detroit launched intense lobbying efforts that convinced (or paid) congress (to) fund highway construction instead of improvements to the public transit system.   The flocks of people that used to use streetcars for something more than nostalgia were forced to make other choices. Namely, they were forced to buy cars.

Taken For A Ride contains powerful testimony from those who were displaced by this process.  These victims include public transit workers – who show a tremendous pride in the streetcar system they ran that is quite moving – and neighborhood residents whose homes were bulldozed by highway construction crews that cut through the heart of the city.  There are also a few champions who won some victories along the way.  The film holds up the mayor of San Francisco as an example of good leadership because of his successful efforts to block then Governor Reagan’s plans to build a highway along the city’s shoreline. (Old SF streetcar shown below.)

The mayor of SF and his civilian allies come off as quixotic figures as they battle congress, GM and Madison Avenue.  They win some battles, but lose the war.  At the same time, the governments of Europe and Japan were making the exact opposite choice.  Anyone who has traveled abroad knows that the ubiquitous use of cars to get anywhere and everywhere in the US is the exception to the global rule.  See examples below from Toronto, (l) Vienna (r):

Anyone with a passing knowledge of climate change also knows that the prospect of “emerging” economies like China emulating our car-centric lifestyle poses one of the biggest threats to the sustainability of human life on this planet, together with the extant threat of our own gas guzzling ways.  This documentary was made in 1996, when there was much less awareness about the growing environmental crisis.  Pollution is one of the issues the film addresses, but it is not yet seen as a threat to the sustainability of the planet as a whole.  Now we know that what’s good for GM is not only bad for America, but bad for the rest of the planet as well.

from Debt:

“We’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing, but as the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, in many ways they could equally be conceived as opposites.  While markets are ways of exchanging goods through the medium of money…capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money.  Normally, the easiest way to do this is to establish some kind of formal or de facto monopoly.  For this reason, capitalists, whether merchant princes, financiers or industrialists, invariably try to ally themselves with political authorities to limit the freedom of the market, so as to make it easier for them to do so.”

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