The above video is simply called ‘Indian traffic’, and was presumably filmed by a tourist from a hotel window. It has ten million views. In it we see rickshaws, trucks, cars, buses, cyclists, motorbikes with up to three passengers, and pedestrians all engaged in a seemingly hazardous but actually innocuous dance. Pretty much everyone at some point looks as though they’re about to crash into another vehicle. It looks like total chaos but, despite the apparent absence of traffic signals, actually runs smoothly. The traffic seems to self-regulate; the experience of watching it has a nicely zen-like quality.
To be fair, it is only two minutes. I’m sure whichever city it is has its fair share of traffic accidents*. I mentioned the video the other day in a conversation with a Dutch friend visiting Rome. At a slightly similar intersection we were traversing he said that he tells his kids (of whom he has several) always to look into the eyes of drivers when crossing the road, to create that human connection. I responded that I often do the same.
Perhaps its by studying how traffic interacts in less ‘developed’ countries that has led some European cities to experiment with reducing the amount of traffic signage. Doing so seems to force people to engage with one another in a less abstracted and therefore more humane manner. It was actually a Dutch engineer, Hans Monderman, who developed the notion of “naked streets”. He argued that “traffic was safest when road users were “self-policing” and streets were cleared of controlling clutter. His innovations, now adopted in some 400 towns across Europe, have led to dramatic falls in accidents”. So said Simon Jenkins when writing about the topic in The Guardian. Jenkins, who has long played the role of the newspaper’s neoliberal provocateur, went on to argue (with typical sarcasm) that:
The white line down the middle of the road is a metaphor of the age. It is the guiding hand of a benign government. Its abolition hints at a loss of control, a lurch from authority towards personal responsibility, even towards anarchy. Mankind cannot tolerate too much naked tarmac. No sensible person could want more confusion and uncertainty in life. We need the firm paintbrush of a caring minister.
I don’t know if I’d read Jenkins’ article at the time, but the conversation with my Dutch friend also seemed to lead naturally on to talk of other forms of regulation. If traffic (a word we also use for trade in all its forms) is best left unregulated, what about other forms of social and economic interaction? Does the video of traffic in India support a laissez-faire view of the world?
Well, while of course there are no actual car crashes in the youtube clip, there are less visible hazards. The fact that traffic accidents have an immediate and visible impact makes them dissimilar from other consequences of other forms of human interaction which may be less remote in time and space and thus much more difficult to disentangle, or even (often consciously) hidden, but not for that any less real or damaging. However, it does make it much more difficult to apportion responsibility. An obvious example is Climate Change (how many of those Indian drivers are now proud possessors of “carbon neutral” Volkswagens?), but its by no means the only one. To quote the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:
It can be shown, for example, that problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?
If we’re looking for the causes of the current rise of far-right parties around the world, ignoring the financial crisis of 2008 would be like tying to enjoy a pleasant hotel breakfast while a woolly mammoth careens around the room shitting all over the toast racks and trays of scrambled eggs. It’s unlikely that Donald Trump has seen ‘Inside Job‘, the excellent documentary which explains succinctly how financial deregulation, and particularly its impact on the housing market, created the catastrophe which has in turn, like a multiple pile-up seen in horrifying slow-motion, done possibly fatal damage to our economies, societies and democratic institutions. As it happens, the President* apparently prefers to watch movies like ‘The Fast and the Furious’ by fast-forwarding to the…car crash scenes.
His total and blissful ignorance of the subject, combined with his evident wish to destroy all traces of the Obama years, is leading him to try to overturn the regulatory legislation put in place in 2010 (too little and too late, but still) to try to clear up the worst of the mess and stop such a disaster taking place again. Now, Trump is unaware that such things as consequences exist, partly because, for him, they don’t and never have. For me, that raises a very interesting question. There’s been lots of speculation as to whether or not the Mango Mussolini knows how to read, or use a computer, or speak English, but I’m starting to wonder, given that he’s been chauffeur-driven since the moment he was born: does Donald Trump even know how to drive? I mean, I don’t, but then a) I live in Rome, so even if I learnt I’d be dead within ten minutes and b) I’m not the one pretending to be US President.
*Apparently it’s New Delhi, where there are loads of accidents. Still, on with the argument.