Category Archives: bureaucracy

162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.


But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

69: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering

In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust uses a wide variety of primary materials to understand the cultural implications of the Civil War.  Working from correspondence between soldiers and their families and friends; poetry and writings by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, and others; and the voices of the legions of relief workers, coffin manufacturers, government bureaucrats, and other support staff, Faust shows new processes of dying and killing, along with new ways of making sense of these processes, helped shift the nation from a relatively unstructured agrarian federation to a modern, centralized, bureaucratic, industrial state.

The Civil War produced some 620,000 dead, which made death not just one of many features of the war but the defining element of it.  The sheer mass of bodies, generated by the combination of old styles of warfare with new, technologically-enhanced ways of killing, created huge logistical issues.  Soldiers died in new and gruesome ways, which made identification difficult; but even if they didn’t, there was still the problem of mitigating bodily decay while trying to identify thousands of bodies and return them to their families.  These new problems generated new social and technological systems: refrigerated coffins, new embalming practices, streamlined accounting methods, and new bureaucratic systems to oversee the sheer volume of bodies needing to be processed.  Dealing with death thus helped businesses and the nation develop more modern systems for mass production and distribution.

New ways of dying also upset the Victorian cultural practices of “The Good Death,” where the dying get familial comfort and spiritual peace before their death, so that family and friends can be assured of their spiritual fulfillment.  Americans thought that death was properly in the home, and read sacred meaning into burials of their loved ones.  The Civil War made this cluster of practices extremely difficult to maintain, and many of the modern technological developments and bureaucratic processes that developed to deal with death during the Civil War were shaped by the cultural need for The Good Death.  However, while families eager for accounts of their loved one’s last moments sought out soldiers who had survived, and businesses and the government devised systems to identify and return bodies home for proper burial, many soldiers died anonymously and were buried in unmarked graves.  Even though the Union created a special agency for finding all Union soldiers and returning them to the North, decomposition (and acts of Southern resentment) destroyed bodies beyond all recognition.  In this new world of mass anonymity in death, the meaning of death became less about an individual’s duty to God and more about his duty to the country.  Abe Lincoln sanctified this new kind of “national sacrifice” in the Gettysburg Address.

By examining the “work of death” from multiple angles, including technological, cultural, economic, and political, Faust argues that the Civil War was a turning point in American history – because it prevented Southern secession and ended slavery, of course, but also because death during the Civil War helped usher in a new modern state.