André Gorz, “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar”

Alexis, of Buckingham Palace fame sent me this link to a brilliant essay by Social Philosopher André Gorz. It was originally published in the September-October 1973 edition of “Le Sauvage”. It’s worth noting that this is the same period when some more enlightened cities in the Netherlands began realizing that the automobile-based urban development was a dead-end street and thus began planning and building for a bicycle, pedestrian and public transport future. That is why the compact cities of the Netherlands most closely resemble the future (which was sadly also the past) where people…

…feel at home in their neighbourhoods, their community. their human-sized cities, and they will take pleasure in walking from work to home-on foot, or if need be by bicycle. No means of fast transportation and escape will ever compensate for the vexation of living in an uninhabitable city in which no one feels at home or the irritation of only going into the city to work or, on the other hand, to be alone and sleep.

But that’s nearly the conclusion of Gorz’s article. Here below is the beginning plus a link to where you can read the remainder. It’s well worth your time, profoundly and beautifully written.

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return. This is pretty much common knowledge in the case of the seaside villas. No politico has yet dared to claim that to democratise the right to vacation would mean a villa with private beach for every family. Everyone understands that if each of 13 or 14 million families were to use only 10 meters of the coast, it would take 140,000km of beach in order for all of them to have their share! To give everyone his or her share would be to cut up the beaches in such little strips — or to squeeze the villas so tightly together — that their use value would be nil and their advantage over a hotel complex would disappear. In short, democratisation of access to the beaches point to only one solution — the collectivist one. And this solution is necessarily at war with the luxury of the private beach, which is a privilege that a small minority takes as their right at the expense of all.

Now, why is it that what is perfectly obvious in the case of the beaches is not generally acknowledged to be the case for transportation? Like the beach house, doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the
others who use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)?

You can read the rest of Gorz’s article here.

One Response to “André Gorz, “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar””

  1. todd Says:

    I think Gorz has it right for cities developed before the automobile, but a very large number of people in the US especially live in places literally designed to create problems that only near-universal household car ownership can “solve.” They are an effectively manufactured need. This is why I prefer Ivan Illich’s contemporary analysis of the same predicament, as he emphasizes the power of cars to “shape a city in their image:” “Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. ”

    and is there any more beautiful academic poetry about bicycles than this?

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