The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Paris Traffic Jam-Up

Mar 31, 2014

This article is from the March 21st issue of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

On March 17th, the government decided to put in place a system of restrictions on driving in Paris and 22 of its suburbs. In order to reduce pollution, it was declared illegal for vehicles with even-numbered license plates to drive on certain days, while vehicles with odd-numbered license plates were forbidden from driving on the other days.

The government decided to apply this measure, not used since 1997, after several days of intense pollution in different regions. It certainly felt the need to give the impression of doing something, what with the municipal elections only one week away. Although automobile use is only responsible for 20% of the overall level of pollution, this measure only hurts drivers and not the big polluters like industry and commercial agriculture. But above all, it makes no attack whatsoever on the main causes of pollution, even that which is produced by cars.

These causes are profoundly linked to the way this capitalist society functions. In this society, the question of where workers live and where they work, like everything else, is left up to the blind laws of the market. This has always been a nearly unsolvable problem for workers, since cities from the start of the capitalist era had only slums to offer them, before real-estate speculation drove up the cost of city land and finally drove them into the more distant suburbs.

This phenomenon has taken on yet another form within the last forty years or so. The government, which had built thousands of public housing projects after the terrible postwar housing crisis, dramatically reduced their construction at the end of the 1970's. At the same time that the economic crisis struck, real estate prices skyrocketed in and around the big cities, all due to speculation. Workers were forced to search for housing farther and farther away, which was a financial blessing for suburban real estate developers. At the same time, companies decided where to locate using a logic similarly linked to the laws of the market and determined by speculation.

In the Paris region, for example, the decisions to construct a business center at La Défense, or to close factories like that of Citroën Javel or Renault Billancourt in order to resell the land and shift production to the larger suburbs, take no account of the problem of the great distance between where workers live and where they work. Recently, this distance has grown even greater. This is one of the main reasons for the increase in the use of cars, since public transportation has obviously not been expanded to keep up with these changes.

Confronted with such a situation, the public authorities offer no real solutions. Since they hold the laws of the market and speculation sacred, there is no way within the framework of this system to plan the urbanization process, to control how cities expand, to make them more livable for their inhabitants, and to coordinate the location of workplaces with housing and public transportation. When capitalism imposes its anarchy and its law of the jungle, it asphyxiates this society, both literally and figuratively.