No single commercial product in the history of capitalism
has had a greater effect on the economy and politics than the automobile. No other product has been such a lever to increase
consumption and increase markets in the developed world. It could be argued that the car, more than any other product, was
at the very heart of the 20th century’s economic expansion. In US society, for over a century, the car has been raised on
a cultural pedestal worshipping individuality and defining big business’ vision of freedom. The car hastened the massive sprawl of suburbia and in itself shaped US urban
planning like no other product. Today, in the United States, public
transport plays a distant second fiddle to the car with nine out of ten workers using their cars to travel to work. In people’s
everyday life, the car is now their second biggest household expense, next to housing. The car has reached its zenith.
This brief socialist history of the automobile will attempt
to give some background and context to today’s car-dominated world. It will attempt to explain how the automobile and
the mad chase for profits has shaped the world, and helped in turn lead humanity to its current fork, where one road indisputably
will lead to global destruction.
This history is founded on Marxist materialism, which sets
off from the idea that all social and cultural phenomena under capitalism are shaped by the continuous tug between the bosses
and the working class. While this is not a history of autoworkers, it does attempt to show the role of working people’s
struggles that have continuously been in the background to the birth and rise of the automobile.
One side of the auto industry that does not pervade its own
advertising is the bloody road that brought it here. The industry itself has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of workers
as it arose and found its feet. This suffering was in turn surpassed by a century-long battle over resources to feed the car
its oil; its rubber; its steel and glass. Many millions have been killed in many hundreds of wars and invasions by imperialism,
some more directly connected to the automobile than others. The place of petroleum in the current
war in Iraq is self-evident. But it is not the first or last
war for resources for the automobile. Over a hundred years ago US imperialism
invaded Central America to establish its own rubber plantations for its booming auto industry; its brutality gave
rise to Augusto Sandino, the grandfather of Nicaragua’s
anti-imperialist resistance. This article is dedicated to the thousands
of workers who died fighting for auto unions and those millions who resisted the auto-industrial complex and were crushed
in its wake.
A brief socialist history of the automobile
In 1799 Philippe Lebon registered his invention of a ``gas
powered engine with internal combustion’’ with the new revolutionary government of France. The new
engine would be light, independent and powerful. It would be a hundred years before the steam engine had exhausted itself
and the gas engine replace it. Together with the discovery of new sources of oil and the explosion of industry, particularly
in the US, all the parts were in place for the invention
of the horseless carriage.
During the 1890s the motorised bicycle and the electric car
were eventually sidelined for the more utilitarian and more profitable motor car. The car began its life as a toy for the
wealthy and an object that polarised the classes. It was widely known that Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad baron, had a
100-car garage. In 1906 Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, argued
that ``nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles…they are a picture of
the arrogance of wealth’’. The Horseless Age magazine in 1904 documented widespread stone throwing at autos
in working-class neighbourhoods of New York City.
The first cars were unaffordable to working people. The average
annual income of a worker in 1900 was $450 and the average price of a car was $2000. Along with the price, the common notion
was that horseless carriages were less pleasant and less reliable than the horse. Only 4192 cars were sold in 1900. But within
27 years the number of cars registered in the US ballooned
to over 20 million. More than half of all US families
either owned a new or used automobile.
Rise of the working class and the USA’s
By the end of the 19th century US capitalism
was fighting off a mass movement for unionisation and socialism. American capitalism had won the civil war defeating the slave-owning
class, which, along with wiping out the Native American peoples, enabled capitalism to complete its rule from coast to coast.
The bosses had encouraged millions of immigrants to its shores in part to attempt to undermine rising wages, however this
had not prevented the working class rising up and establishing skilled craft unions throughout many of the United
US manufacturers had begun to see a serious decline in its
rate of profits. Employers had tried to lower wages and speed up production, but that had only provoked more strikes and more
workers joining the new unions. Employers began to conclude that they needed to change the organisation of production to break
the power of the craft unions.
At the turn of the century a massive wave of mergers had
given more control of larger companies to the banks and financiers. The dominance of the banks enabled them to direct change
in the productive process of manufacturing. Frederick Taylor’s ``scientific’’ management methods were increasingly
adopted throughout industry. Centralised planning, detailed time study, division of labour and incentive pay were implemented
in attempts to reverse the decline in capitalism’s rate of profit and at the same time break the power of the skilled
The automobile leapt from the sidelines into the centre of
capitalist life in the first two decades of the 20th century. Increased technological improvements were able to utilise the
internal combustion engine into a producer of energy unlike any previous invention. One gallon of gasoline, transformed through
this engine could produce the equivalent energy of one month of human labour. The oil industry, which had grown through the
widespread use of the oil lamp, had already been developed and was constantly searching for new sources globally. Unlike British,
German and French imperialism, US Imperialism had the advantage of its own domestic oil industry.
Fordism: industrial saviour
The emerging automobile industry grew out of the large horse
carriage manufacturers and small auto shops. Henry Ford exploited the latest manufacturing technologies and with massive investment
from the big banks, transformed the plaything of the rich into a mass consumer product. Ford’s massive investment in
machinery created high-speed production aimed at de-skilling the labour involved in production and assembly. Fordism aimed
to destroy the clout of the craft unions: breaking down the productive process to its lowest denominator: to the simplest,
most repetitive tasks. Then, to increase line speed, the industry introduced production-based pay incentives.
Picture Henry Ford
The mass investment into auto produced incredible results.
In 1910, while a car in Europe took 3000 employee-days to produce, a Ford car was being produced in
the US in 70 employee-days. In 1911 the Overland carriage
company produced 20,000 cars. Their paint division employed 200 craftspeople and took two weeks to paint each vehicle. In
1915 with the introduction of spray painting and drying ovens this was reduced to three days per vehicle. The Ford Motor Company
additionally stepped up production and cut costs by streamlining down to a single model. In 1914 it also discontinued all
colours except black. The 1913 introduction of the conveyer belt reduced assembly of the Model T from 12.5 hours per vehicle
to 1.5 hours, and by 1915, the number of skilled workers in the US automobile
industry had fallen from 60% of the workforce to 15%.
One further advantage for US imperialism
was that it had the world’s largest undivided potential market for any new product. In contrast, Europe was divided
by dozens of national tariff walls. More than 100 million people lived within the US at this
time and Ford’s River Rouge plant alone employed more than 100,000 workers. Ford developed and grew the market for the
car by a combination of raising autoworkers’ wages and lowering automobile prices.
In 1913 Ford introduced the $5-a-day wage, when average daily
pay in the US was under $2. In this way the Ford
workforce became a part of the first mass market for cars. Ford also reduced the work-week to five days in his factories in
1926, helping raise his workers’ productivity.
By 1908 the Ford Model T was launched. It sold for $825,
the cheapest car of its time. Ford had reduced costs by reducing his line to one basic affordable model. By 1925 regular price
cuts had eventually brought the price of the Model T down to $260 per car, helping place an automobile outside the home of
every second US family.
Over two decades the automobile had been transformed from
an experimental plaything of the rich to a common, everyday product. The car no longer bore the stigma of being elitist. One
of Ford’s followers was the rising star of German capitalism, Adolf Hitler. Hitler argued ``the motor car instead of
being a class dividing element can be the instrument for uniting different classes, just as it has done in America, thanks
to Mr. Ford’s genius’’. While the $5-a-day wage was not copied in Hitler’s Volkswagen factories, most
of Ford’s authoritarian management methods were. Ford’s US factories
were well known for their severe discipline and instant firings. No-one was allowed to talk on the production line: workers
called it the ``Ford Silence’’. Ford’s fascist-style workplace regime was only broken by the victory of
the United Auto Workers in organising Ford plants in 1941.
The booming ‘20s and the struggle for raw materials
The economic boom of the 1920s was led by the two newest
and biggest consumer objects of 20th century US capitalism:
the single family home and the automobile. The cinema, which replaced the saloon, became the lead advertising agent for the
car. Radio advertising too promoted the new freedom of the road. The monotony and alienation of life in the workplace remained
hidden in all but socialist literature. Capitalism offered increasingly meaningless jobs and an illusion of meaning off the
clock: with the individualised car and picket fence.
The car and the airplane shortened distances, as did the
telephone and the radio. The speed of life outside work increased, mirroring the increased speed at work. Sales promotion
and marketing was born and boomed as capitalism frantically pushed to increase markets and feed its addiction to profits.
In France, the Citroen
Corporation had 5000 travelling salespeople to promote the need for its car in every village and hamlet. Citroen paid for
150,000 road signs to be erected across France, where
they previously hadn’t existed. The company also sold 400,000 toy cars to entice future buyers and beginning the long
association of boys and cars. By 1927 the French automaker was producing 1000 cars a day in its French plants.
With the rise of the automobile, new sources of raw materials
needed to be discovered and created. Capitalism can never stand still. As Karl Marx wrote in Capital, ``Accumulate!
Accumulate! Accumulate! That is the Moses and the Prophets!`` Capitalism, by its inherent nature, can never stop, but is forced
to continuously create bigger and bigger markets, and more and more consumption. This is all that stands between itself and
an economic slump of overproduction.
Relatively sleepy Brazil was the
exclusive producer of rubber at the end of the 19th century. Rubber trees grew wild, but production was costly, because of
the Amazon’s isolation and scarcity of labour. Waterproofed products, capitalism’s initial use for rubber, was
soon surpassed by rubber’s value as car tyres. Each car demanded 45lbs [20.4 kgs] of rubber, which sold on international
markets for up to £900 per ton. Brazil closely
guarded its rubber monopoly until British imperialism broke into the industry by robbing a shipment of rubber tree seeds.
Britain then raised seedlings in its Ceylon [Sri Lanka] colony
and eventually began mass production of rubber in Malaysia. By the
1910s the Dutch and British colonies were producing hundreds of tons of rubber. In 1913 Malaysian and Indonesian production
first surpassed Brazilian production. Two years later British Imperialism’s plantations doubled Brazilian rubber production
and by 1919 they produced 10-fold more rubber than Brazil. The US recognised
the problem of depending on British colonies for its tyre industry and invaded Central America to develop
its own rubber industry. The US mirrored the brutal
methods of the rubber plantations in Asia, where it was not uncommon for half of all workers
to be dead by the end of the rubber season. US rubber
plantation methods, nearing slavery, provoked one of the first mass rebellions against US imperialism,
as it began its role of stalking the planet for resources.
In the mid 1920s the introduction of the inflatable tyre
increased average tyre mileage from 8000 miles to 15,000 miles. The price of rubber then soon collapsed. Rubber, which peaked
at £900 per ton in 1910, fell to £20 per ton by the 1930s.
In 1928 the owners of the world’s three biggest oil
companies, Anglo-Persian Oil (later to become British Petroleum), Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil, sat down and worked
out a deal to share out the world’s oil wealth between them. The Red Line Agreement signed a year later would help avert
the suffering of a new world war to re-divide oil resources. Nonetheless, the working classes and poor of the oil-producing
countries continued to die in poverty, alongside billions of barrels of black gold.
`Our big job is to hasten obsolescence’
The automobile helped lead the charge of the unprecedented
boom of the 1920s. During this period the car market became saturated, and along with the growing sales of used cars, profits
for the industry were falling. A shift in the industry was necessary and General Motors (GM) began to challenge Ford’s
single model production.
As early as 1923 GM began selling cars with a similar basic
frame, but with different bodies. In the boom of the 1920s GM designers argued that car sales had crossed a new threshold
moving from the need for ``better quality to better looking’’. Here begins the divergence of the car from its
simple utilitarian role into the realm of being an expression of social mobility and wealth. Here begins the massive diversification
of models and the road that eventually leads to annual model changes. Capitalism loves all things new and seeks to see all
things old thrown away. This moment is the beginning of the massive diversity of models of US cars and
all that went with it.
With every model change comes the need for auto plants to
produce new dies and reset presses. By the early 1940s GM alone was spending up to $35 million a year on model changes. While
costly, routine model changes were beneficial to the narrow interests of the biggest automakers. GM, Ford and Chrysler drove
out the remaining small producers who could not keep up with the massive investment required to change models frequently.
This emergence of style or appearance as a competitive factor may have been initially stumbled upon, but it soon became a
fundamental requirement in the industry. General Motors’ top designer during this period, Harley Earl, argued that ``our
big job is to hasten obsolescence’’. He further argued that given the average new car ownership span in 1935 was
five years and in 1955 it was reduced to two years, that ``when it is one year we will have the perfect score’’.
The Great Depression saw all auto companies radically cut
back on spending and production. From a high of 5.6 million cars sold in 1929 auto sales collapsed by 75% to 1.4 million vehicles
in 1932. Luxury vehicle sales fared worse: peaking in 1929 at 150,000 sold, sales then continued to fall through the 1930s.
The rich understood the shift in consciousness of the period and that ostentatious displays of wealth could cost them their
lives. By 1937 annual sales of luxury cars had slumped to 10,000.
In 1928 the Ford Motor Company had 128,000 workers on its
payroll, by August 1931 only 37,000 workers still had jobs and most of them worked only three days per week. Ford’s
$5-a-day wage had risen in the 1920s to $8 and $9 a day. The depression buried the high wage policy. In 1931 wages were cut
by 20%. Some male employees were reduced to 10c an-hour and some women labourers’ wages were cut to 4 cents an hour
in Ford plants.
In 1942 private auto production stopped altogether as the
auto industry turned production into building war machines for US government contracts. War has always been good for business
and especially for the ``auto-industrial complex’’. As far back as the outset of the US civil
war oil was selling for 49c per barrel, but by the end of the World War II a barrel of oil was fetching $8. At the start of
the Iraq war oil was $30 a barrel and has now risen to $110
a barrel. Similarly in World War I GM shares rocketed from 78c to $7.50. After World War II, as victor on the Western Front
and in the Pacific, the US emerged as the dominant force for global
capitalism. Its prestige and power was a crown shared with big auto, which set about building cars for the returning troops.
Post-war public spending for the car
The post-war revolutionary wave that swept the world was
also seen in the US. The war’s hardships led to pent
up anger and hope that exploded in the US workplace.
The strike wave of 1946 was the widest industrial conflict in US history.
More than 116 million person-days were lost in strike actions, more than four times the previous record of 1937. The strike
issues were primarily for a shorter work-week, higher pay and to resist the loss of relative control over workplaces that
were granted during wartime. The bosses conceded on the first two demands, adding also concessions for private insurance to
undermine the global movement for nationalised healthcare. As for aspects of workplace control, once again, capitalism offered
instead the myth of power and freedom of consumerism. Americans were offered the open road and a full tank of gas.
The US government,
together with its close partners at the top of all the major industries began to take steps in shaping post-war USA more tightly
in the interests of profit. Major support was given to promote private family home ownership in part through mortgage guarantees
for returning troops. The federal government also subsidised the massive development of the suburbs. Between 1945 and 1960
some 30 million Americans moved to the suburbs, the growth of which was a huge boon to the auto industry.
Where the railroads were built through private investment,
the automobile roads were built for free though federal, state and local governments. Public and not auto industry money paid
for the massive network of highways that were built and the roads were widened. Further billions in public money came in 1956
with the Interstate Highway Act providing a mass of freeways for automobiles across all states. The bill passed under the
outrageous pretext that the US needed a freeway
network in case of a possible invasion from the USSR.
No other industry in US history
was so enormously subsidised as the auto industry. US governments, federal and local, essentially built the superstructure
for the expansion of the car. The car became inseparable from almost every function of US life as
a direct consequence of its partnership with the US political
The `Auto-industrial complex’ conspiracy to destroy
The booming post-war period saw the massive rise and peak
of what US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy called the ``automobile-industrial complex’’ –- the car, oil, steel,
glass, rubber, highway construction, trucking and real estate industries connected to urban sprawl. One consequence of this
vested interest in cars was the systematic smashing of public transport operations. General Motors, Standard Oil of California
(Chevron), Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tires formed National City Lines, as a part of an organised campaign to buy up
and destroy electric rail systems operating in US towns and cities. After buses replaced trams and trains, then the bus systems
too were often wound down.
A National City Lines trolley bus
By the early 1950s the auto industry faced a crisis of falling
unit demand, as most families now owned a car. At the same time working people’s discretionary spending was rising.
Given these factors, the Big Three (GM, Ford and Crysler) moved to increase each car’s size and array of new gadgets,
and at the same time increase the frequency of the introduction of new models.
Between 1946 and 1959 the cheapest Chevrolet sedan grew 13
inches [33 cms] in length, 7 inches [17.8 cms] in width and was over 400 lbs [181 kgs] heavier. The Ford Edsel, launched in
1957, was an incredible 18 feet [5.5 metres] long. Horsepower for the average model in 1946 was around 110, by 1956 it was
grown to 180. Exhaust emissions, fuel efficiency and vehicle safety were placed a distant second to the need to continuously
By 1950 the Big Three offered their customers 243 different
new car models. During this period new model changes were brought forward from three years per model to two years. With a
major body change costing upwards of $200 million, by 1955 the Big Three controlled 94% of the entire US market.
They were no longer under any pressure to reduce prices and in the decade of the 1950s prices rose an unprecedented 36% to
an average car price of $1822.