What needs to be explained, philosophically, is the large number of car crashes that occurred during the ice storm Seattle experienced last week. One can understand the pedestrians who slipped, slid, and fell onto ice-covered sidewalks. These accidents, which often reduced pedestrians to all fours, were more comical than scary. But the same cannot be said about the cars (4,094 pounds of metal, plastic, and other industrial materials) that lost all control to the pull of gravity. These accidents presented a real danger to the person in and near the spinning machine. Why did reason and many warnings fail to make the needed impression on these drivers? Is our love of cars so overwhelming? Or do cars just make us dumb? 

The answer, I think, is found in the fact that cars, like the market system that dominates our society, are not really about people. They are only about cars.  

To understand this peculiar way of thinking, we must return to a key idea proposed at the end of the 19th century by the Ukrainian neo-Kantian and economist Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky. His book, Industrial Crises in Contemporary England, first published in Russian in 1894, caused a huge scandal after it was published in German in 1901. Though the work introduced the concept (backed by data gathered at the British Museum) of a business cycle (boom, bust, boom again, bust again) to economics (a concept that had a huge impact on theorists on the left, center, and right), it was notorious for concluding, in its attack of Marx's theory of the falling rate profit and under-consumption hypothesis, that capitalism, if properly managed, could grow indefinitely.

He obtained this monstrous conclusion from the second of Marx's reproduction schemes in volume two of Das Capital, an incomplete and messy work edited and published after his death by Friedrich Engels. The first scheme concerns an economy that has no growth (or net investment), "simple reproduction"; the second scheme described a capitalist economy with growth, "expanded reproduction." What Tugan-Baranovsky determined from Marx's expanded model is that capitalism did not need consumers to grow. It could do so on its own by producing machines that did not make consumer goods, but capital ones: machines that make more and more machines in the production sector (or department 1, productive consumption).


If all workers except one disappear and are replaced by machines, then this one single worker will place the whole enormous mass of machinery in motion and with its assistance produce new machines—and the consumption goods of the capitalists. The working class will disappear, which will not in the least disturb the self-expansion process of capital. The capitalists will receive no smaller mass of consumption goods, the entire product of one year will be realized and utilized by the production and consumption of the capitalists in the following year.

This conclusion was almost universally panned by Marxists. The idea that a capitalist economy was not about consumption or even workers but machines (capital investments) was simply monstrous. But these critics got everything wrong, which is why their revolutions and predictions of capitalism's eventual (and even scientific) demise have come to nothing.

Capitalism is not about workers, or consumers. It's about capital, about its replication and expansion. Three hundred years ago, humans established an economic system that, maybe for the first time in history, was not about people. This understanding explains much of the anxiety and dread and fear expressed in sci-fi films like The Matrix and The Terminator. The machines in these future worlds have reached the perfect state of capitalist growth described by Marx and elaborated by Tugan-Baranovsky.   

What did the perspicacious Tugan-Baranovsky not see from his place in time—the turn of the previous century? That the rise of machines would also occur in the market for consumers—department 2. In 1900, there were only 8,000 cars in the United States. Now there are 105 million. Tugan-Baranovsky thought consumer goods were not capital intensive enough to be inhuman or to completely detach themselves from their use value. Bread has to be eaten, bikes are practical, most clothes do not cost much to make or purchase. These and other like items are locked in the human circle, the circle of useful.

The value of a car is found almost entirely in its value—or, put another way, the capital it absorbs. Cars, in short, do not need people, which is why there's a huge push to make them autonomous. Seen in this way, it's not hard to imagine a city with cars that have no drivers or passengers. Empty cars. Machines moving for and with other machines. The car accidents in the ice storm made this future visible in a vivid way. A human would have stayed at home and avoided the dangerous ice, but not a car. Those driving last Friday submitted to the technological will of the machine.