This 1973 essay on how cars have taken over our cities remains as relevant as ever
by André Gorz
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 democratized. 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 democratize 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, democratization 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)? Doesn’t it lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation spots. The monstrousness of this demagogic nonsense is immediately apparent, and yet even the left doesn’t disdain resorting to it. Why is the car treated like a sacred cow? Why, unlike other “privative” goods, isn’t it recognized as an antisocial luxury? The answer should be sought in the following two aspects of driving:
From Le Sauvage September-October 1973. Translator not known.
André Gorz was a philosopher, journalist, and writer. He was known as one of the first ecosocialists and political ecologists.