Thinking about the political economy of automobility.

Thinking about the Political Economy of Automobility (through the work Dr. Matthew Paterson, 10 years on)

The idea of a dromocracy is integral to a description of contemporary society in the context of the modern political economy – it means “ruled by movement and acceleration” (Paterson, 2007, pp. 5, 8, derived from Paul Virilio’s dromology). In Matthew Paterson’s approach to political economy, cultural politics and environmental politics are defined by movements, all of which are ecologically significant, some of which are habitual, but nevertheless always entwined within global processes: “as a means to access consumption items produced and distributed transnationally; as consumption items (cars) with a high degree of transnational production and global symbolism; and as a potential for national integration into a global economy (transport infrastructure)” (2007, p. 7). This ‘movement’, in abstraction, according to Paterson, is simultaneously three things: the necessary conditions of the reproduction of globalising capitalism; the celebrated terms of the consumers which are symbolically connected to ideological principles such as progress, autonomy, freedom, etc., and; they accelerate the “twin crises” of ecological degradation and global injustice (2007, p. 7).

The edited volume by Walks echoes this sentiment, arguing that the contemporary political economy is dominated by the ‘mobile system’ created by automobility, emphasizing the core ideals of liberalism: “freedom, autonomy, individualism, self-reliance, self-responsibility, and unfettered mobility” (2015b, p 205). These ideas contextualize the specific point that Paterson makes regarding automobiles, particularly from the perspective of the rise of the automobile, which he explains in terms of “…the intertwining of the particular developments of capitalism in the 20th century [and] the production of particular types of individuals attuned to constant mobility” (2007, p. 91). In doing so he argues for a “more adequate account of why cars have become so dominant” (2007, p. 92).

Paterson describes the rise of the automobile in terms of its relationship to economic growth and in terms of the relationship between economic growth and the state. He argues that the growth of automobiles is the result of the decisions that states have made with respect to favouring the car over other forms of transportation. This is due to the nature of the car as a commodity which accelerates economic growth apparently more intensively than other modes of transportation. Paterson describes this capacity of the car in terms of three major characteristics: 1) it stimulates technical innovation by driving improvements in mechanization/assembly, intensified division of labour, and other general measures of efficiency related to production (2007, pp. 93-94); 2) it offers flexible mobility, offering people the opportunity to move around further and more conveniently, both for productive (work or delivery of goods and services) as well as consumption (increasing the number of places a consumer has access to, as well as making tourism more affordable) (2007, p. 96); and 3) it stimulates the economy by drawing on extensive networks of linkages both backwards (drawing upon natural resources production, refinement, and manufacture) and forwards (gas stations, motels, insurance, advertising, construction, etc.) as well as the supply chains relevant to those linkages (2007, pp. 96-97).

This relationship, between automobile industries and economic growth more generally, is echoed in similar political economic approaches, many of which have emphasized oil (Walks, 2015; Wells, 2012; Urry, 2010; Behrends, 2011; Dennis, 2009). The connection between the car industry and economic growth is strong, and there has historically been concern by governments to support the growth of domestic production facilities in order to secure employment, investment, and economic performance (2007, p. 100).

Frammed within a Marxist lens, this relationship is dependent on the state as an entity which is structurally and inevitably compelled to promote capital accumulation, and therefore promotes and protects those industries through which that accumulation is made possible. In this case, as Paterson argues, road building was the principle element of that relationship, although neglect of alternative means of transport, as well as subsidies to the car relative to competitors, were also integral components which ensured the success of automobiles over alternatives (2007, pp. 116-118). Effectively, the relationship between state and automobiles worked to support the dual purpose of reproducing and expanding highly mobile and flexible forms of capital and their own legitimacy.

Paterson also addresses automobiles in terms of “…the intertwining of the particular developments of capitalism in the 20th century [and] the production of particular types of individuals attuned to constant mobility” (2007, p. 91). In doing so he argues for a “more adequate account of why cars have become so dominant” (2007, p. 92). On the latter point, concerning the creation of mobile individuals, Paterson as well as other scholars argue that alongside the production of the car and its promotion by the state, there has been a simultaneous production of type of person – namely one oriented towards the kind movement that cars entail. He argues that cars reproduce an orientation to mobility and flexible movement as a positive social value (2007, p. 121), one which is not at odds with the work of other scholars’ critical commentaries of capitalism which idealizes flexibility, mobility, speed, efficiency, and extreme orientations to individualism and individual freedoms. Essentially, in its role in reproducing the in what has been called the capitalist ethos, the car has simultaneously defined “modern subjectivities as existing principally through movement itself” – i.e. that the modern subject is a mobile subject (2007, p. 121).

This culture of automobility is defined by the connection between cars and ideological elements (particularly in the order of modernity through liberty and dominance) (2007, p. 121, 142). These claims are echoed in several others earlier works concerning the car’s symbolic characteristics, particularly the edited volume, The Motor Car and Popular Culture in the Twentieth Century (Thoms et al., 1998). Paterson makes this claim for a number of reasons: 1) the inherently political issue of movement – the creation of productive bodies through accelerated and controlled movement (i.e. “proscribed, constrained and limited”) (2007, pp. 126-127); 2) that cars “liberated” consumers from the rigid and bureaucratised timetables of trains in the twentieth century, effectively becoming a cultural symbol synonymous with speed as well as “freedom and escape from the constraints of a highly disciplined urban, industrial order” (2007, p. 132); 3) the role of the automobile in the Second World War as an important strategic resource (particularly concerning rearmament and mobilization of forces) and therefore of military strength, ethno-national and individual ideas of dominance (2007, p. 133-135); and, 4) the feedback loop (from superstructure to base) generated by the ‘automobile subject’, the valorization of automobility, produced by popular culture in literature, music, film, and advertisement (2007, p. 142-147).

Just as dominations necessitate subordinations, the inevitable corollary of the domination of movement within a political economy is the subordination of certain subjectivities to that movement. Walks, for example, argues that while the automobile has expanded social mobility (for those who can afford it), it has also meant a significant “refashioning of the very space within which it travels” (Walks, 2015a, p. 5). The demands of automobilized travel are increases to flow, efficiency, and speed that significantly reduce the viability of competing modes of travel, and shape contemporary urban spaces and the places around them (2015a, p. 5- 6). It is these places, rather than the automobile itself that “coerces people into intense flexibility” (Urry in Walks, 2015, p. 6). In doing so, it makes the principle of flexible mobility not an exception to modern working bodies, but a necessity. In the process, it often makes the automobile an object of “compulsory consumption” (Soron in Walks, 2015, p. 7). In this sense, the automobile is no longer a messiah, offering liberation from the confines of rigid industrial capitalism, but as Urry puts it, an “iron cage of modernity, motorized, moving, and domestic” (Urry in Walks, 2015a, p. 6).

Whether the automobile is a liberator, or a subjugator is ostensibly a product of some intersection of social class, ethnicity, political viewpoint, and motivations behind “getting somewhere”: geographies of automobilized societies tend to disadvantage the economic lower class in particular through a number of factors, including cost, and pollution. For example, vehicle travel increases with income, and the relationship between income and automobility may be reflexive (i.e. unemployed individuals may not have a car if they are unemployed, but may need a car to secure employment) (Martin, 2015, p. 29). Lower income households are also disproportionately subjected to the harmful by-products and pollutants generated within an automobile society (2015, p. 31). In addition to fundamentally reshaping social geographies, the dromocracy has resulted in creating political animals. In the material conditions of automobile existence, a kind of citizen is created in terms of its alignment with automobility (in the context of Paterson’s work, the degree to which the political subject is a ‘mobile subject’) (2007, p. 166). Paterson, for example, shows how those who were motivated to take up social activity against the building of roads in the U.K. were intimately connected to performative identities at odds with mobile subjectivities (2007, p. 180).

In Paterson’s example, protestors against particular “problems” regarding automobility effectively mobilize their own subjectivities as a shared and collectivist orientation in resistance, through which opposing car-dominated societies is a simultaneous attempt at opposing the subjectivity of automobility itself (2007, pp. 181, 184). Similarly, in the lead-up to and aftermath of Paterson’s example (the 1997 UK ‘Swampy fever’ issue), many of the principal signifiers used in the 1997 UK general election political affiliation measures defined voters in terms of their cars (2007, p. 185). Political mythologies used in Blair’s campaign surrounding class and the ownership of specific makes and models of automobiles permeated the popular culture of the time, although in no case was it the first time that the affiliation between car and car owner were politically meaningful (2007, pp. 185-187). Paterson’s examples attempt to illustrate the connections between consumption as signification of membership in society and as ones’ orientation within that society.

In his expositions, Paterson also argues that it also signifies how “certain consumptive patterns are privileged in political discourse” (2007. p. 188). Car ownership reflects a political “middle”, which simultaneously legitimizes and normalizes car ownership, but also its affiliated social, economic, and ecological inevitabilities (2007, p. 189). When put into practice contradictions emerge: these politically normalized and legitimized practices make it difficult for political policies to then address and deal with the issues created by them (2007, p. 189). In a similar position, Walks (2015b) argues that regimes of automobility persist because of the strong support provided by significant proportions of the population complicit in producing “auto hegemony” (2015b, p. 199). The creation of the post-war suburb, as Walks puts it, means the creation of the suburban politics: “associated with support for fiscally and socially conservative Republican politicians” (2015b, p. 200). Since 1979, rising populations and levels of representation in suburbs has meant that politicians increasingly target their platforms towards suburban voters (2015b, p. 204). In many cases, it has been automobile ownership rather than homeownership that has superseded as a variable predicting conservative political bias in Canada and the U.K. (2015b, pp. 208-209).


The main takeaways of such a long and drawn out discussion is this: automobiles and their infrastructure are integral to society’s form and function, including their flows of people, of objects, of commodities and capital. But these physical flows are just surface elements, intrinsically serving as both the means and the substance of even more elusive invisible flows: of social practices, cultural beliefs and values, and political ideology.

The automobile remains the defining feature of the dromocracy and serves as its icon: it embodies and manifests the flexible, mobile, durable, individual,  and rapid nature of our economy both literally and as cultural metaphor. As we look to the future, we have to remain critical of what metaphors new forms of transportation might inspire and inscribe upon our existing cultural scripts and schema, through the reconstruction of our environments and the reconstruction of our very experience of moving through it. In the advent of Autonomous Vehicles,  I am inclined to think that as the physical manifestation of the car changes, the role it plays (economically, socially, culturally) will change with it, for better or worse – a political economy of autonomobility, no doubt.




Paterson, M. (2007). Automobile Politics. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

Urry, A. E. (2010). Mobile Lives. New York: Routledge

Walks, A. (2015a). Driving the Vote. In A. W. (Ed.), The Urban Political Economy and Ecology of Automobility (pp. 199-220). New York: Routledge.

Walks, A. (2015b). Driving Cities. In A. W. (Ed.), The Urban Political Economy and Ecology of Automobility (pp. 3-20). New York: Routledge.

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