No. 64, December 2016

No. 64
(December 2016):

Why The Poor Do Not Count

Cars, Capitalism and India

-- Vidyadhar Date (datebandra[at]

Friedrich Engels, and later evolutionary biologists such as Daniel Lieberman, pointed out that labour, walking, and running over long distances fuelled the evolution of our brain and made it bigger. Present-day capitalist society, by contrast, is epitomised by the act of sitting in a car.

I focus on the motor car because it is at the very heart of capitalism. It is one of the largest industries and an important source of capitalist accumulation. At the same time, it has completely distorted our lives and environment. The car has facilitated colonization of land and gentrification; it has hit working class culture; and it has rendered more complicated the task of urban democratic struggle.

The common human being is constantly humiliated, honked at, blasted with fumes, marginalized, dominated and even killed by the car. The street has become a most undemocratic space.

The cult of the car
Speed is constantly valorized in capitalist culture. Cricket stars Sachin Tendulkar and  Dhoni often celebrate the culture of speed, Ferrari and Formula 1 racing at the grotesquely named ‘Buddh International Circuit’ racing track in Noida, U.P.. (It is an irony that the track was favoured with an entertainment tax exemption in 2011 by the then chief minister Mayawati, a dalit.)

Besides, fast cars are equated with progress while other road users, and even slower cars, are seen as impediments to progress. Speed-lovers forget that human beings have not evolved to deal safely with such high speeds. It is a little known fact that high speed induces blindness in the driver, as shown by V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, and R.L. Gregory. 1 Air Force pilots are taught about this, and so  they keep their eyes moving.

The car culture of speed and dominance and competitiveness arouses anti-social feelings in the motorist. Which driver is not tempted by the power of his engine to wipe out the vermin of the street, the pedestrian, children and cyclists, asks Adorno with sarcasm. Car dominance amounts to  a class war against the poor. But it is the motorists who pretend as if they are under attack. In Britain  conservatives have coined the phrase, “War on Motorists”. (George Monbiot responded to this fittingly in an article titled “The Anti-social Bastards”.)

A car-oriented form of development is native to the political right wing, as is clear from the policies of the Republicans in the U.S. and the conservatives in the U.K.. Margaret Thatcher declared that a young man who did not own a car by the age of 25 should be declared a failure. Indeed, there is a strong historic association of  cars with  speed and fascism. Ford and Hitler were mutual admirers. Max Mosley, the head of  Formula 1 racing for many years, was a known admirer of fascism, and his father was a prominent British fascist .

Cars have been directly instrumental in masculinising public space in the 20th century in different parts of the world, according to various studies. Advertisements for cars constantly create an image of masculinity, dominance, power and sexism. ‘Rule the earth’ is the constant refrain of many ads. Exploitation of women and sex is another systematic feature.

The  car lobby’s hostility to common people, and contempt for the environment and progressive political issues, is epitomised in the writing and BBC television shows of Jeremy Clarkson. He pours scorn on pedestrians and bicyclists – in fact, he says he wants to run down cyclists. Recently he ridiculed people committing suicide on railway tracks and said their mangled bodies should be fed to scavenging animals. This attitude is not some kind of aberration. Clarkson has a tremendous following. That is exactly what motorists are encouraged to feel about common people. They think they have a right to kill people who come in the way.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that pedestrians are treated like dogs in America. This is such a shame for a country with a history of tramps, the country of Thoreau, the philosopher, and poet Walt Whitman, both champions of walking. It is sign of our times that a reputed historian was brutally treated by the police in Atlanta for alleged jaywalking while  crossing the road to attend a conference of the American  Historical Association. Felipe Fernandes-Arnes was caught by  policeman, thrown to the ground, his hands were cuffed behind his back and  he was confined to a filthy cell for eight hours. 

The popular mind is so completely manipulated by decades of sustained advertising and public relations onslaught that we  have come to  blindly accept the high place given to the car in the hierarchy. The media, print and film, glorify brutal violence by cars and motorists. A Times of India car buyers’ guide supplement gleefully describes a car chase in a film as “malevolent, funny and audacious”. In the film, the stuntman Mike stalks four women in his car, which is death-proof for himself. He then smashes into them at full speed, completely obliterating them. Alongside  are big advertisements for car loans given by leading banks ICICI and  HDFC.

Scholars have well brought out the connection between America’s empire building (including its repeated wars for control of oil and propping up of fundamentalist forces), militarism, feeling of insecurity and its aggressiveness, on the hand, and manufacturing of monster sports utility vehicles (SUVs) on the other. The psychologist Adler interpreted the aggression of motorists on the road as a way of overcoming an inferiority complex: Weakness is sought to be compensated by brutality. The SUV seen as the vehicle of the empire, a gargantuan capsule of excess consumption created by the Americans, partly to get over the insecurity arising out of the  defeat in Vietnam.

In India’s class war on the road many of the killers now are the  rich young, riding  their expensive cars, arrogant, and drunk speed demons; and the victims are mostly the poor. There have been several well-publicised cases of rich persons driving at high speed and killing poor pedestrians or footpath dwellers; the Salman Khan case, the Nanda BMW hit-and-run case, and the Carter Rd killing of seven pavement dwellers are just a few prominent examples. Criminality among the rich and the motor car seem to go together.

There is a much better understanding of the issues among certain creative writers and film makers. The French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, for example, sees the traffic jam as the symbol of the  failure of capitalism in his 1967 film Weekend. The film is a dark, comic, apocalyptic vision of capitalist consumer society. In Godard’s film consumer society destroys itself in automobile wrecks, rushes into violence. The bored and  apathetic heart of the bourgeoisie is never far from acting out its homicidal fantasies. In Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality,  the hero is a professor who slashes the tyres of motor cars and motor cycles because they have made the beauty of cities invisible, destroyed the environment and public space. Cars represent globalization, speed worship, and greed.

The Indian context
A developed country is not one in which the poor drive motor cars, but one in which the rich  travel by public transport. And building more roads for cars to reduce congestion is like trying to put out a fire with petrol. However, India and China are on a disastrous path of motorization, and have failed to learn from the mistakes committed by the more advanced capitalist countries. ‘Mobility’ in India is talked of mainly in terms of fancy cars which boast of picking up speed in seconds. Few talk of the mobility of the poor, who often cannot afford even non-motorized transport.

Here the poor are massacred on roads on a scale  unmatched in the world. We strive to protect our children from  paedophiles, child molesters, but ten times more children are killed by speeding vehicles. That  should concern us more but does not. Over 140,000 people were killed by motor vehicles in India in 2014, more than anywhere else in the world. The death rate per vehicle population in India is far higher than in countries like the US or England. Many Western  countries have sharply brought down their death numbers. But in India the death numbers are rising steeply. At the same time, as a result of underinvestment in public transport, people are treated like cargo, to be funneled from one point to another. The railway authorities themselves admit the system is inhuman.

After a great start in asserting our role in the arena of street life and transport, we seem to have suffered a regression. A most remarkable agitation took place in Kolkata in 1953. An increase in tram fare by one paisa was met by a furious protest by Left parties for nearly a month. Several protesters were killed and injured in police firing, and the resistance forced  the British company to withdraw the increase. Jyoti Basu was one of the leaders of that agitation; years later he  endorsed the Nano motor car project. At least a section of the Left in India appears, unfortunately, to be enamoured of the internal combustion engine.

In Mumbai, till the 1980s, cotton textile workers, the main creators of surplus in the country for years, lived close to the mills, though in dark, small, overcrowded rooms. They could organize themselves, and there was a bustling working class culture. Narayan Surve, the distinguished  poet who grew up as an orphan, saw the streets as his university. Here on the streets in the morchas he ‘met’ Marx and many writers. This democratic culture is now being lost due to  redistribution of  urban space in favour of the rich, facilitated by the car.
A rational transport policy is a part of broader urban planning process. A socially just land use would mean the work place should be near the residence of workers, so as to eliminate or reduce the need for travel. We do not need mobility for the sake of mobility. It has to serve a social purpose. But it is the rich who are now seeking to create such an environment where they live close to the work place. The car lobby controls much of the media with advertisements splashed on the front pages and inside, as well as shamefully compromised articles. Socialisation of land and restructuring of the urban  structure are essential. But in practice, accumulation by dispossession is very much in evidence. The big recent ‘Adarsh’ scandal involving retired army generals and admirals and  former chief ministers pertains, in fact, to the land of the BEST bus depot in the prime area of Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. Development rights over this land were used to build more floors for luxury housing for  these bigwigs.

The crisis of unavailability of safe, convenient public transport was poignantly reflected in the horrible case of rape and murder in a private bus in Delhi in 2012. Public debate on the issue was confined to the issue of allegedly inadequate legal provisions to punish rapists. It needs to be broadened to address on the neglect of public transport. Culturally too, the kind of brute masculinity involved in the incident is linked to the motor car culture and urban maldevelopment. Vast, uninhabited dead spaces of Delhi’s enclaves and neighbouring urban sprawls, with an alarming proliferation of liquor shops, offer an environment for automobile violence. The Delhi rape case in fact shows how India has actually regressed in terms of mobility for women in all these years. And cars are increasingly becoming more dangerous sites for rapes as these afford privacy and mobility to the criminals. Delhi is also the crash capital of the world, says Oxford academic Kevin Watkins, author of a telling report UN report on global road safety.

Pedestrians in India are now being forced to walk on ‘skywalks’ (overhead pedestrian walkways), which is a sinister way of punishing pedestrians and killing street life. These were envisioned by Corbusier, whose vision is now increasingly being seen as fascist. Instead of the development of democratic forms of transport in India, we are witnessing a counter revolution. There has been no innovation of any kind  in  several decades even though Latin America has come up with  highly democratic schemes like  BRT  bus rapid transit and  many innovative ideas, low cost  projects  have emerged from Europe.

Most of the luxury cars driven by several celebrities are imported fraudulently, as is clear from the records of revenue authorities. Ultimately, it is the common people who subsidise the motor car and the required infrastructure. The rich also do not like to pay for car parking and so high rise car parks built with public money are a gigantic real estate fraud and remain empty. Wealthy elites  grab more and more street space for car parking while  vigorously running  campaigns against  slum dwellers and hawkers who occupy much less space than cars do. It is no doubt ironic that the motor car, the superstar of capitalism, expects to live rent free, observes the prominent activist Wolfgang Zuckerman.

Popular resistance
How the automobile took over America and how we can take it back: That is the telling  title of an excellent book by Jane Holtz Kay. That is very relevant for India, and that is exactly what we need to do, take back our streets, take back our lives before the motor car culture completely overtakes our cities, our lives.

The US automobile industry systematically created the myth  of America’s ‘love affair with the automobile’. Groucho Marx was drafted into the campaign, and he coined this usage first in a television show in 1961. It has since got stuck in the popular imagination. The less known fact is that motor car intrusion and dominance met with fierce resistance in its early days both in England and the United States.  Cars had begun to slaughter thousands of people, including children. Streets which formerly belonged to the people to freely walk on and children to play  on were being taken over by dangerous automobiles. People built monuments to the victims of  cars; the loss of a child was seen as the loss for the entire city; a child victim was paid homage  like a fallen soldier; and cartoons depicted a motorist as the grim reaper, a mass killer. Motorists control the government departments, Parliament and men of the civil service, the Economist noted. (This now holds true for India as well.)

Subsequently, the US automobile lobby spent millions in manufacturing consent for its dominance, hiring academics and the media. So now, the car, the disrupter of life, is seen as a great symbol of modernity and  pedestrians are  stigmatized. In New York the police fail to prosecute motorists even if they mount footpaths or sidewalks and injure or kill pedestrians. One such victim was the wife of the managing director of Verso Books, Jacob Stevens, in 2011. He is suing the New York police for shoddy  investigation into the crash.

However, the developed countries, for long dominated by the  car culture, are now witnessing the emergence of a counter culture. Even though automobiles there continue to hold a dominant position, these countries are having to concede facilities for pedestrians, cycling and mass transit under pressure from enlightened public opinion and from the problems generated by the irrationality of automobilization.

In Brazil too resistance is rising. A bicyclist’s arm was ripped by a car  some time ago in Sao Paulo; the incident rallied public opinion.2 The city now has excellent  bicycle paths, as do Dutch and Danish cities, with hardcore cyclists, fearless and strong. In New York and in Germany bicyclists are fiercely resisting the motor car’s domination. In Netherlands, Denmark and several Scandinavian countries a bicycle revolution has been carried out by people on their own without support from their governments.

James  Scott, political scientist and  author of the book Weapons of the Weak, noticed during his visit to a town in Germany that several people patiently waited at a pedestrian signal even when there was no car traffic. That is how hierarchy gets entrenched when there is no resistance. He suggests that  pedestrians should quietly defy these anti-democratic restrictions. Unless we offer resistance in small ways, he argues, we will never be ready for a bigger fight  against the powerful. In India people do resist in a small way as Scott  has suggested. But this is extremely small considering how tyrannical the system is.

There is now a demand in advanced capitalist countries for greater rights for pedestrians. Holland, Sweden and Spain  give wider rights of access to open space, according to  Rebecca Solnit, the radical author of the book Wanderlust and a campaigner against nuclear testing. Pedestrians should be given at least half of the street space, argues Enrique Penelosa, who has revolutionised  street and social life in many parts of Latin America by simple reallocation of space and stiff curbs on motor cars. England has a long history of a  culture of resistance in which trespassing on so-called private property is a mass movement.

It is time for a class focused challenge to private automobility as suggested by the recent book, Cars and Capitalism, on the road to ecological social and environmental decay. The book’s authors, Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi, argue that the automobile’s ascendance is inextricably linked to capitalism and involved corporate malfeasance, political intrigue, backroom payoffs, media manipulation, racism, academic corruption, third world coups, secret armies, environmental destruction and war. When we challenge the domination of cars, we also challenge capitalism.

The street – a site for resistance and revolt by the people
For the English poet Wordsworth, walking was a political act. Indeed, walking can be a great means of political resistance. The revolutions of Europe in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries all took place in the streets of great cities – London, Paris, and St. Petersburg among them. Women have impressively asserted themselves on the streets  in various times including in the French revolution. In today’s India, walking is the main means of mobility for the Maoist movement.
Unfortunately, as Paul Sweezy wrote in 1973, the political economy of the motor car has not been subjected to serious analysis in Marxian literature. Much of the Left has failed to challenge the tyranny of the automobile, and in fact, some leftists have promoted it. Oscar Niemeyer, the  leading architect who died  at the age of 105, was a Communist. Yet, Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil that he designed, is extremely car-oriented and unfriendly to the common people. Posh but sterile. Simone de Beauvoir, the distinguished feminist, was most disappointed with it too. She said “what possible interest could there be in wandering about here? The street, that meeting ground of  passers-by, stores and  houses, vehicles and pedestrians, does not exist  here and never will. There are few places to sit and little shade from the blinding Sun.” The  CPM’s fatal obsession with the Nano car is too well known to need further comment. 

Public transport, too, is a site for resistance and revolt. Rosa Parks, the young woman who refused to give up her seat for a white man in a bus in the days of segregation in the US, helped spark off the civil rights movement.

It is essential to make the streets livable, a site for socialization and camaraderie as they have been for hundreds of years. It is necessary to reclaim the streets.


Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority.




1. V.S. Ramachandran and R.L. Gregory, “Perceptual filling in of artificially induced scotomos in human vision”,  Nature, volume 350. (back)

2. “Brazil outrage over Sao Paulo cyclist’s lost arm”, BBC, March 10, 2013. The motorist drove away with the arm after the crash. (back)




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