Cotten Seiler. Republic of Drivers. A Cultural History of Automobility in America. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Seiler argues that driving is such an important part of American culture that nondriver are not full citizens. Movement was central to Americans long before the automobile and was even the reason many immigrants were drawn to the United States. But the shifts to mass production and other-directed character types required new forms of individualism based on consumption. Driving an automobile gave a feeling of individual autonomy even while it reinforced capitalism and bureaucratic governance, which surreptitiously constrained that autonomy. The irony is that automobility have kept us and the large-scale corporate capitalism going by tricking Americans to believe in a fiction of freedom and a ruse if individualism.


Between 1895 and 1929, Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s principles of scientific management created knotty problems for traditional ideas about the autonomy of white men’s work. Nothing, Seiler argues, reinforced the idea of autonomous mastery and control more than the automobile, which American popular culture celebrated as a fosterer of self-control. But the chimera of independence offered by automobiles was more than offset by the opportunities that automobility created for increased surveillance, regulation, and control by the state. In short, it was a sort of Marxian false consciousness.

Using Foucault’s theory of subjectivity, Seiler argues that driving has helped fashion, or forge, modern subjects of ‘liberal capitalist hegemony’ which may perform freedom, but do so under a disciplinary framework of control which they come to expect and accommodate. As motorists were “taking in the view” of the open road during the 1920s and 1930s, they were themselves being surveyed. Motorists participated in regimentation, policing, and surveillance, ‘connected to the nation-state and corporate capitalism, whether through registration of cars and drivers or their indemnification through insurance. Thanks to electronic traffic counters developed in the 1950s, Big businesses could visualize traffic itself as trade and try to exert greater control over its flow. This drove speculation of commercial development and subdivisions as businesses bought and leased cheap land for billboards (which drivers see and thus perform unpaid wage work by merely looking out the window) laying the groundwork for the commercial strips and sprawl.


Most tangibly, African Americans, for instance, could only become full citizens by becoming drivers and Seiler reproduces the covers of Travelguide and the Negro Traveler’s Green Book which aimed to allow Black Americans to travel without incident across a racist country. Their experience exposed glaring inconsistencies within the rhetorical emphasis of “freedom” that dominated the era of automobility.