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