It is to Guy Debord’s credit that he envisaged, as early as the 1950’s, the detrimental impact privatized transportation would have on modern urban life in general. He proposed nothing less than a “revolutionary urbanism” to imagine a life beyond the myopic, yet seductive vision of “two cars per family,” as the American capitalist dream machine conjured it. But Debord was keen enough to understand both the economic importance and the symbolic significance of the private automobile. That is, he understood it not merely as a means of transportation and generator of surplus labor (as “commuting time” to and from work), but also as “the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout the society. The automobile is at the center of this general propaganda, both as supreme good of an alienated life and as essential product of the capitalist market.”
Debord must have sensed the demise of public forms of transportation implied by the proliferation of private automobiles. And with that decline would come a corresponding decline in civic and political life, such that apathetic individualism would reign supreme in the industrializing countries, precisely at a time when the most radical and rapid socio-economic changes in capitalist cities were underway. Moreover, the proliferation of privatized transport would also inaugurate a new, and relatively unprecedented, form of inequality in capitalist societies: a steep hierarchy in forms of mobility and access, where middle and upper class citizens would benefit from increased efficiency and speed in transportation, while lower classes would literally be left in their place.
What form of political intervention might be implied by Debord’s idea of “revolutionary urbanism”? I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I will suggest some lines of thinking that might be useful. For one thing, such an intervention would have to come at the level of urban experience itself, that is, the distribution of intelligibilities and sensibilities in space and time. The proliferation of privatized transport, more than making possible increasingly flexible and spatially decentralized modes of production and exchange, also was productive of new subjectivities and experiences of urban capitalist space and time. It is in this way that the image of “two cars per family” could not just be a “false” ideological illusion, but a redistribution of micro-political experience itself.
I present the debacle of Tata Motors in the Indian state of West Bengal just a few months ago as an example of the complexities involved in intervening in the experiential politics of neoliberal space and time. In January 2008, the Tata Group, one of India’s largest commercial conglomerates, also widely respected for its philanthropic endeavors, dazzled the international automobile industry when it unleashed its design for the new Tata “Nano,” advertising it as the least expensive production car in the world (at roughly $2300). According to Newsweek magazine, the advent of the Nano signaled “a new era in inexpensive personal transportation,” and hailed not only its affordability, but also its very compact size, ideal for city driving in an increasingly traffic-congested world.
But delving a bit deeper into the public discourse surrounding the Nano, one could discern a latent understanding of private transport as a sort of natural entitlement, long denied India’s middle classes, but now within reach. Here is the Indian newspaper The Financial Times: “If ever there were a symbol of India’s ambitions to become a modern nation, it would surely be the Nano, the tiny car with an even tinier price-tag. A triumph of homegrown engineering, the Nano encapsulates the dreams of millions of Indians groping for a shot at urban prosperity.”
But such dreams came to a shattering halt when Tata’s West Bengal car-factory was forced to close down on October 2, after months of protests led by Trinamool Congress Party president Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee was representing approximately 15,000 farmers, peasants and agricultural workers in Singur who felt they had been unfairly displaced and inadequately compensated for their land, close to one thousand acres in total, which the West Bengal government had acquired and allocated to Tata. The car-factory was 90% completed and the Nano itself merely months away from being released on the market when an embattled and frustrated Ratan Tata, chairman of the group, abruptly decided to move the project from West Bengal to some other state, describing the environment as too hostile and violent for the production of the car to ensue.
After this announcement, there was near universal condemnation of Mamata Banerjee for her stringent opposition to the Nano factory in Singur. With all that the Nano represented for the aspiring Indian economy, Banerjee was lividly denounced as a traitor the cause of India’s development. Banerjee’s long standing and personal contempt for West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party was seen as the primary reason for her opposition to the Nano project, and it was widely held that this nihilistic personal vendetta had not only cost West Bengal the Tata project and the thousands of jobs it would have generated, but also irreparably damaged “brand West Bengal” as an investment-friendly state, something the Communist Party had vigorously been trying to push under the leadership of Chief Minister Buddhabed Bhattacharjee. For single-handedly jeopardizing this project for personal gain, Banerjee was unanimously condemned in the nation’s leading newspapers.
Immediately after the West Bengal pullout, several states lined up to compete for the opportunity to house the relocated Nano factory. Eventually, Ratan Tata chose the state of Gujarat, after its Chief Minister Narender Modi quickly made available the requisite land and promised no political hostility or unruly protests. To add insult to injury for the state of West Bengal, Modi, ever the shrewd politician, wrote two letters that were publically circulated. One was for Chief Minister Bhattacharjee and the other was for Mamata Banerjee. Taken together, Modi’s words can be taken as representing a new consensus amongst Indian states regarding their proper roles with regard to India’s economic development. To the CM, Modi described a fundamental difference between Gujarat and West Bengal:
“In Gujarat, we have a consistent industrial policy. Marxists like you had once opposed industrialization. You had resisted entry of computers and now you are talking about industrialization. Neither your party nor the administration is providing whole-hearted support. We have created a land bank and have an industrial map ready. We acquire land in advance through discussions with farmers. This is a continuous process. I admit that your state has much more cultivable land than we have and acquisition is difficult. Therefore, it is important to keep the opposition in the loop and continue discussions throughout the year. We do just that.”
And to Banerjee, he further expounded on this difference: “In Gujarat, opposition parties don't oppose for the sake of opposition. We don't play politics over industrialization. When it comes to development projects we are all together.”
The audacity of Modi in writing these letters was in part possible through the near consensus of public opinion (at least in the dominant press) regarding the Tata debacle in West Bengal. Never was Banerjee given credit for representing farmers who had felt slighted, nor was there any impetus to begin to question the idea of development as something above and beyond “politics,” as something that might indeed be debatable, contestable, and subject to negotiations involving people with different views and perspectives on the costs and benefits of industrialization. Instead, Banerjee was widely seen as doing a great disservice to the state of West Bengal, to the “public good,” and to the overall cause of economic development and industrialization.
This whole episode is demonstrative of the way in which development is understood within dominant discourses in neoliberal India. But my argument is that there is added significance to the Nano venture because it was not only an industrial project and a generator of employment (a boon for any ruling political party), it was itself a living symbol of the mobility made possible through economic liberalization. The Nano symbolized possibility for a middle class that increasingly sees itself as socially mobile in both a vertical sense (upward-class mobility) and in a horizontal sense (across geographic distances at greater speeds and efficiency). Such possibilities, whether actual or imagined for middle class individuals, constitute a new politics of spatial and temporal experience in which political interventions, such as Mamata Banerjee’s above (and in this sense, it does not matter whether her intervention was for personal gain or out of a genuine desire to represent the displaced farmers) are increasingly met with impatience and annoyance, since they seem to speak a different experiential language of space and time, acting like a speed bump in India’s rapidly accelerating economic journey.