Why Won’t Ralph Nader Take on Capitalism?

Ralph Nader, for whom I proudly voted in both 1996 and 2000, has been trying to get people to protest Big Oil and Wall Street. Our problem, he would have us conclude, is the price, not the supply of oil.

I’m sorry, but that’s demagogic, misleading balderdash. The price of oil is but a symptom of the real problem, which is the intractable addiction of our corporate capitalist overclass to peddling automobiles. Corporate capitalism means autos-über-alles, which means we will remain chained to increasingly expensive petroleum, the supply of which has recently passed its peak.

It saddens me to see Nader failing to live up to what is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times.  Just when we need his help in trying to open U.S. transportation policy to democratic scrutiny and control, he chooses instead to imply that, if we’d just picket a few bad apples, everything would return to the cheap-gas good old days.

Of course, this failure has deep roots in Nader’s work.  Take the case of Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that launched him to his well-deserved fame.

The book starts with Nader spotting a telling contradiction:

For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people….Unlike aviation, marine, or rail transportation, the highway system can inflict tremendous casualties and property damage without in the least affecting the viability of the system. Plane crashes, for example, jeopardize the attraction of flying for potential passengers and therefore strike at the heart of the air transport economy….The situation is different on the roads.

Something quite deep must keep cars from being scandalized, right?. After all, Nader observes, if one is objective about it, “[t]he automobile tragedy is one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body.”

And at the outset of Unsafe, Nader seems poised to name and explain that deep something:

A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.

What could “the power of economic interests” be other than corporate capitalism?

Yet, despite these bold opening statements, Unsafe at Any Speed never came close to connecting the required dots. After his introduction, Nader proceeded to present 298 pages of very detailed evidence that car-making corporations most definitely do not put human safety first in designing and selling their products. But, despite his own seeming recognition of the need to do so, nowhere in Unsafe does Nader relate the scandalous engineering decisions he documents to the ordinary business motives and imperatives of corporate investors.  “Capitalism,” “class,” “investment,” “investors,” “profit,” “rich,” “wealthy” – none of these words appeared in the book’s index, and none were major conceptual elements of Nader’s renowned exposé.

Without a coherent explanation of corporate capitalism, however, Nader’s book, despite its shocking revelations, yielded a rather picayune understanding of both the depth of “the automobile tragedy” and the politics of its possible remedies.

Consider, for instance the way Nader finished this sentence:

“[T]he public has never been supplied the information nor offered the quality of competition to enable it to make effective demands through the marketplace and through government for…”

For…what? Nader did not call for a safe, non-polluting, and efficient transportation system. Instead, here’s all Nader put after that momentous “for”:

a safe, non-polluting and efficient automobile that can be produced economically.

Thus, the man who called autos-über-alles “one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body” ended up limiting himself to asking for better cars!

But could any conceivable autos-über-alles system ever really be “safe, non-polluting, and efficient”? Are better cars or cheaper gas really enough to solve our mounting problems? Can anybody really understand “why the automobile has remained the only transportation vehicle to escape being called to meaningful public account” and why “America is addicted to oil” without understanding the capitalist interests and imperatives involved? I think not.

Ralph, with all due respect, it’s high time to move your thinking into the twenty-first century. We

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12 years ago

yeah, i thought he had moved ahead. during his last campaign he had begun to speak about the car as a “prison” that isolates people from one another and stifles civic arousal. while i admit that he occasionally does slip into these demagogic fits, he’s still the best damn presidential candidate that we have…

12 years ago

I too proudly voted for Nader in 1996. But in 2000, I must offer to you a confession: after agonized thought, I finally decided to hold my nose and vote for Al Gore. I regretted it almost immediately and ever since. The next day after election day, the maps showed all the states either red or blue except for Oregon and Florida, which were gray pending the vote counts. But nobody cared about Oregon, since it had too few electoral votes to affect the national outcome no matter whether it eventually went red or blue. How humiliating (Michael remembers this,… Read more »

Michael Dawson
12 years ago

My mantra in 2000 was “one item.” If Gore had promised to deliver one single thing off Nader’s platform (notice how Dembots never run as carriers of platforms), I was all too ready to switch to him. He didn’t of course, choosing instead to flip us all the bird.

This year, I’m going Cynthia McKinney, if she gets the Green nomination.

Obama has already thrown my vote away, despite the fact I voted for him in the primary a month ago.

Have you seen Obama’s “foreign policy team,” also just announced? Paint peeling monsters, one and all.

12 years ago

Are we ever sure of who we vote into office that once they get there they will totally f things up! I am voting for Obama one is that i cannot stomach the thought of a reublican ass -hole in office. check out the Obama’s web page! Two he never voted for the war in Iraq. As far as the whole oil thing he is for looking at alternatives rather then dependence on foregin oil well duh! but we are in for a more than bumpy ride and all of us no matter who you vote for are going to… Read more »

Michael Dawson
12 years ago

Obama did indeed vote for the war, many times, via funding votes. And do you really think he’d have voted “No” if he’d been a Senator in 2003? I don’t.

Check out his post-primary suck-up to AIPAC and his bus-toss of his campaign quasi-position on NAFTA.

12 years ago

I really think that he would have voted NO before becoming Senator! One of the main reasons why i will vote for him is that he has based his campaign on bringing people together and not to base our decisons on fear. We have been fed fear based reasoning since 9/11 and within that mindset has left us The American People vulnerable to brainwashing ( or head games) we simple do not believe it can be better it has led us to be complacent in our government, and issues that concern our daily lives it has led us to buy… Read more »


[…] he’s on Counterpunch offering his always over-rated strategic counsel to the embattled UAW, which looks like it is going to waste much or all of its […]

Dr. Brian
Dr. Brian
8 years ago

Nader isnt against capitalism. He is against big business and crony capitalism in favor of small and local businesses. Also he is against what he calls “corporate socialism”.
“Small Business Owners Are the True Capitalists” – Nader

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