The Decline and Fall

Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age By Emma Rothschild, Vintage, New York. $1.95

IN HIS CLASH with General Motors, Ralph Nader was only half jokingly dubbed "crusader." The automobile is not a commodity; it is the sacrament of a religion. It is in this context that groups such as the AAA argue against the Center for Auto Safety with what approaches religious fervor.

Conspiracy theories are a natural offshoot of such an approach. If there is a problem, it must be caused deliberately by a malicious enemy. To Nader, auto manufacturers conspire to produce unsafe cars; to Bernard Nossiter, they conspire to plan obsolescence; to the AAA, consumerists conspire to deprive motorists the joy of open road travel; to General Motors, a conspiracy of youth and the underprivileged are responsible for the famous Lords town difficulties. Finally a book has been written about the automakers which transcends conspiracy. Emma Roths child's history of the American automobile industry is levelheaded and objective.

The auto industry is suddenly overwhelmed with problems: consumer dissatisfaction, labor revolts, foreign competition, and an inability to make profits grow. These problems, according to Rothschild, "are based in historical change, and may be compared to the troubles of other industries in other times...most particularly to those of the railroads and textile mills in late-Victorian Britain. The fate of these businesses show a similar pattern: innovation, excitement, inflow of capital, rapid growth, market saturation, demand creation, decreasing productivity and return on capital, a fixation on policies of the past." She might add: subsequent resentment among workers and consumers, competition from abroad, desperate searches for new markets, failure to meet domestic challenges, and eventual collapse. Roths child points out that Detroit's stand on any of a number of today's issues is merely a repeat performance of the show which snuffed out previous "indestructible" industries.

For example, the argument that the Japanese can undercut the American producers with cheap labor is a disturbing echo of the British textile merchants' complaint about the "imitative" Germans. (In both cases modern and productive equipment actually made the difference.) As the British rail and textile industries matured, they searched into the past for the reasons for their success. Instead of recognizing their former readiness to innovate and courage to take risks, they picked up on antiquated management policies and clung to them desperately. The result, of course, was to hasten collapse. The same thing is happening in the auto industry today.

Although the automakers are repeating mistakes of earlier industries, they have also invented new and original problems for themselves through their philosophy of maximizing production and sales. Henry Ford's obsession with increasing worker productivity evolved into a belief in the right of management to treat their workers as machines. Roths child points out that auto firms still try to increase worker output by applying Taylorist techniques (which include the impersonal time-motion studies) to industrial work. The results are non-wage-related strikes, absenteeism, and sabotage--all counter-productive.

The consumer's loss of faith in the American automobile industry is to some degree the result of Alfred Sloan's theory of salesmanship; "make money, not cars." The former head of General Motors discovered that he could make money by transforming cars from transportation vehicles into emotional symbols. Solan added diversity to the showroom, psychological lures to the sales pitch, status to the concept of auto travel, and price to the price tag. The public is only now beginning to realize how it has been cheated psychologically. This memory will not fade quickly.

According to Roths child, dying industries, like dying stars, flare out before shrinking into lifeless lumps. American auto manufacturers are now investing abroad and exporting in an attempt to saturate the world market. This effort has been only partially successful, for American firms are losing international ground to newer, more dynamic companies like Nissan and Volkswagen. As American automakers explore abroad, they ignore their domestic obligations: urban small-car designs are pigeon-holed and monstrous recreational vehicles are forced forward; mass transit is suppressed while car use becomes more expensive and unpleasant; pollution control is ignored until the government threatens fines or hints factory shutdowns.

AMERICAN SOCIETY KEEPS breathing life into the auto industry through subsidies (such as the gasoline tax, which is used to build more high-ways) and through discounting social externalities (such as the damage automotive pollution causes). Rothschild feels that terminal sickness and death are the only long term prospects for the industry, and that Americans must prepare themselves for a future free of the automotive burden. "American arrangements for the end of auto domination will require social and economic adjustments, like other adjustments in world history, adjustments of peculiar force which yet remain a continuing point of national change...."

Although Paradise Lost is informative and concise, it is by no means comprehensive. Rothschild often begins potentially fruitful trains of thought only to leave them unresolved. For example, she discusses the way automotive philosophy developed the industry, and how the philosophy became distasteful to the American people, but she fails to explain how it altered American life. No one yet has seriously examined the effects of the automobile and automotive philosophy on American life: the rendering of culturally unique areas into drab everytowns; the massive postwar suburbanization and its neurosis-inspiring effect on the American character; the twisted notion of independence which comes from being able to travel wherever and whenever one wants, as all destinations become the same; the commodity fetishism and emotional confusion which auto ads have promoted. If she wanted Paradise Lost to be more than another industrial history book, Rothschild should have addressed these kinds of issues; if she had given them even fleeting consideration the book would have been much more interesting.

Paradise Lost's second major flaw is Rothschild's writing style. While the book is often intelligible, barrages of jumbled sentences and creative grammar make the reader question her very analytical ability. ("From the mid 1910s, sustained by national machine fever, the auto investment boom swerved higher and higher.") Unfortunately, she is not alone in this regard. Nader's reports are notoriously unreadable, and many of today's most valuable contributions to the field of corporate responsibility are disguised in language which can only be intended to impress the reader by confusing him. It is more than annoying that some of the most important ideas of our time must be deciphered and reconstructed, for an idea is only as powerful as its ability to be understood.