Cars, Nationalism, and Economic Decline

Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Book:

“This was the day General Motors came to the end of the road. I once asked a Sudanese politician to name the thing that in his eyes proved a nation was a nation. He didn’t hesitate: ‘The ability to make cars.’ Britain was a nation because it made Jaguars. Germany was a nation because of Volkswagen. America ran the world because of General Motors. Italy made Fiats and France made Peugeots, Japan made Toyotas, and even the Russians, struggling along the highway towards modernity, had the easily underestimated Lada. Was making cars once an indicator of national self-sufficiency? Is it still?”

Despite the internationalization of automobile manufacturing, O’Hagan points out that the public, as citizens and drivers, connect the welfare of their nation with the welfare of thier nation’s cars.  There is even a personal emotion of nationalism we feel when driving:

Behind all this stands the culture of driving and the fact of traffic. We love driving and we hate it, we praise it and we slate it, but our relationship with cars is a lively element in our relationship with ourselves and other people. The downturn in the industry chills us, but mainly because – and we don’t feel this way about pharmaceuticals or petrochemicals – it makes us imagine we might have to stop being who we are. I speak as a fairly late convert to the life-enlarging potential of cars: for 36 years I was happy to go around the country on buses and trains, taking the Tube to any destination I ever wanted or needed to visit, to work and to cinemas, on dates and on expeditions, without ever feeling at a loss. When I took taxis it was just another form of being in the hands of others. It meant listening to speeches I found actively aggressive and paying over the odds for the privilege. Then I began taking driving lessons and the world suddenly opened up to me in a way I now depend on. The first long drive I took after I passed my test was a kind of baptism: I put down the windows and let all life’s unreasonable demarcations fly behind the car, enjoying the illusion that I now had a friend who cared for my freedom.


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