The Streetcar Conspiracy

I’m finishing my rereading of Dark Ages America, and I won’t lie to you all: it’s depressing as hell to think about the inevitable continued decline and fall of North American (I’m including Canadians in this mess, too) civilization due to rampant individualism and corporate consumerism.

America’s car culture is such a core piece of the puzzle, and it started much earlier than people, including myself, realize. During the Great Depression, cars were cheap enough that people were driving to the nearest federal government office to collect their food dole. The New Deal included vast sums spent on streets and roads. In 1926, a Model T could be purchased for $260 ($4,450 in 2023 USD), and used cars would have been even more affordable.

I was reminded of the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, just as the author, Morris Berman, brought it up. Wikipedia’s description of the corporate conspiracy makes it sound as if the story was blown out of proportion by “conspiracy theorists”, even though the companies involved were in fact conspiring to monopolize and rig markets in public transportation of all kinds.

Given what Berman wrote about the American public craving the individual “freedom” that these large companies and their PR departments were selling them (Berman references William Leach’s excellent history, Land of Desire, which I highly recommend), I think the only part of the streetcar conspiracy that’s been exaggerated in the retelling is the wishful thinking that Americans themselves weren’t collectively choosing private automobiles over streetcars and other mass transit. The problem isn’t entirely with the corporations, nor with the consumers, but with the sick interaction between the two.

This is the case with many of our crises, e.g. it’s guns and the people shooting them that kill people. Without access to guns, we wouldn’t have mass shooters, but without the alienation and anomie that leads someone to become a mass shooter, the gun by itself wouldn’t have been dangerous. We can’t let either party off the hook by blaming the other factor exclusively. Until people realize this, they’ll just be shouting slogans across the aisle at their political “enemies”.

The streetcars were replaced with private cars and with buses because that was what was maximally profitable to the greedy corporations wanting to return the most money to their shareholders, while the public willingly went along with the plan when they could have demanded government intervention to protect and operate public transit for the good of the community, as it is in other countries.

In fact, the public repeatedly voted for government spending on public roads and against public spending on mass transit, including in Los Angeles, throughout the 20th century. Besides the “freedom” of being able to travel inside a private bubble, there was also the concern that trolleys and other public transit enabled people of lower socioeconomic status and who weren’t white to interact with the “white flight” crowd, who appreciated things like exclusionary covenants. To this day, I hear people complain about light rail because it brings “homeless people” to their neighborhood.

We can’t collectively shirk moral responsibility for our bad choices by blaming them on the corporations enabling our collective pursuit of empty distractions. Perhaps we can blame the weak morals of the people who choose to work for those companies and take paychecks in exchange for taking away the public’s free will by limiting their ability to do anything but respond to demands and interruptions. Deleting my Twitter account has really opened my eyes as to how much I was avoiding living my own life by plugging into an artificial hive mind.

Rather than seeing TikTok as uniquely evil, as many politicians and others are claiming, I see TikTok as being exceptionally well-designed to give its users exactly the mind-numbing continuous distraction that a society such as ours leads people to pursue, in the lack of other options. It’s not that there aren’t other options for entertainment, but we’ve collectively abandoned them.

Who’s likely to spontaneously think about going to the park and throwing a Frisbee around, or just going for a walk to clear one’s head and think about the world? Or practicing a musical instrument, or reading a book? No, everything must be mediated by devices, behind which are corporate agendas.

It’s not that TikTok is uniquely evil, or that its users have become uniquely zombified, but rather that this unhealthy technological feedback loop, where we must live our lives mediated through devices, is manifested uniquely powerfully in the interaction between TikTok’s algorithm and the population, especially in North America, where we, and the corporations, collectively chose numbness.




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