Plenty of space, I concluded with a glance at the approaching headlights in my left mirror. I let the clutch out smoothly and started what felt like a routine merge out of the service area. Scarcely had the car started rolling before the instructor to my right slammed on his brakes while swearing something unrepeatable under his breath.
“You think you’d be able to speed up fast enough so that driver wouldn’t have to slow down at all?” he asked with some annoyance.
“I don’t see why not,” I replied matter of factly.
He whistled with amazement, as if I had assured him I had a rocket engine in reserve under the car.
Thus do nearly twenty years of habits clash with a Spanish driving instructor.
I was beginning to feel, with growing paranoia, that everything I did was under observation. The oddity was that I was sitting behind the wheel of a modest driving school car, instead of in a cell in the Panopticon that Bentham dreamed up and Foucault so painstakingly examined.
But for some complex reasons, there was little I could do but put up with it, if I were going to continue driving at all.
How had I come to this? I have often said that I find the problem with globalisation lying largely with its content rather than just its scale. Whatever the debates we have on FPR about the nuances of that, one striking pattern is how uneven globalisation’s impact on the convenience of daily life has been. Despite the vast web of cross-border interdependence, irresponsible flows of capital, and the like, some things that would seem like common sense in a “globalisation for people” are sorely lacking. My perhaps unPorchly nomadic existence in recent years has made me more conscious of them than I might otherwise be. Why can mobile phones not work on one band everywhere, to take just one mundane example?
But in this instance, globalisation without convenience was driving home in a more substantial way, so to speak. One of my law professor colleagues in Nanjing once told me of a list entitled something like “How International Law Works for You.” One of the supposed conveniences of the twentieth century’s network of treaties and common standards is the international driving permit. In effect, it lets anyone with a driving licence from one of the treaty signatories drive all over the world, at least on a temporary basis.
Working in China, I had to get a Chinese licence a few years ago. China, in all its glorious exceptionalism, never signed the treaty and seems unlikely to do so any time soon. With my American licence expiring imminently, I was facing the stark prospect of not being able to drive anywhere outside China, and perhaps not even being able to qualify to get a usable licence anywhere given my nomadic habits.
This is what put me in the awkward situation of having to get a licence in Spain, as the last resort. The paperwork was easy enough, and I passed the theory test right away. It had some rather abstruse legalese about it, such that I overheard some African immigrants outside the examination hall expressing frustration at having to decipher convoluted Spanish. Spain apparently has the longest highway code in Europe, and it gets transplanted in jesuitical fashion to the test.
Perhaps I was just jesuitical enough to manage theory all right. The road test was quite another matter. Here the torture began, starting when I told the driving school—one has to do all this in a formal way here, not on one’s own—that I would have an hour’s lesson “just to make sure” I wasn’t doing anything that the examiner might notice when I went for the test. “Start driving,” the instructor said, “and it’s fine unless I say anything.” I set off and got thirty seconds down the road and just through the first roundabout, when he turned to me and said reproachfully, “You’d fail doing that, you know.” Apparently changing gear in a roundabout is a capital offence.
A further series of lessons was enough to unnerve anyone about one’s “bad habits.” By the time I got to my first attempt at the road test, I was fully expecting to fail, and promptly did so. A few centimetres over a solid line while changing lanes, going around a corner with the clutch down, and the examiner had marked a big X in the first few minutes.
Back for the second attempt two weeks ago. In the interim, I went through more of what Foucault would no doubt call a typically modern form of relentless discipline, as I circulated through the urban streets of Alicante where they do the test. I was becoming more obsessed by the day. “I know you know how to drive,” the instructor told me. “But that’s not what the test is about.” The couple of teenagers who rode along alternating with me during the long practice sessions thought I would have no problem at all. “No,” he told them. “It’s more difficult for people like him.” Experience was coming up against some platonic ideal. Since their increasingly colourful language suggested they were getting rather obsessed themselves, it probably did little to reassure them.
At the driving school office, they had told me at the outset, “Don’t mention any other licences at the test, because then the examiners will really pick on every gesture.” With few exceptions, no non-European licence is seen as fit to exchange here. The American tests were a farcical giveaway, the instructor mused in conversation. And while he never said so outright, I could tell he thought anyone accustomed to driving in China should probably be banned from the road anywhere else. I suppose my rocketing across one street in the nick of time—a well honed survival tactic for the chaotic roads of the Middle Kingdom—reinforced the impression, or at least browned trousers.
The torments of reeducation behind the wheel gave me pause. Driving involves all aspects of human psychology, as Tom Vanderbilt ably detailed in his book, Traffic. But he paid rather less attention than he might have done to the fact that driving is by its nature a peculiarly modern activity. It is a revealing confluence of law and culture. The habits of mind that modern societies try to instil around it would seem bizarre to anyone tilling the soil a hundred years ago.
For the majority of people, the highway code and the occasional ticket for a minor infraction is the only contact they ever have with the legal system. What this means in practice varies from society to society. One gets a very different level of conscientious obedience to all the rules in, for example, Germany and India. The depravity of soul that makes some Germans come to something less than a full stop at a crossroads might make their Indian counterparts go roaring down the wrong side of the the road altogether. And the threshold of tolerance—whether the police are waiting to pounce or likely to be bribable if not oblivious—varies with it.
Spain has come a long way from the Indian to the German mentality in recent decades. The former has had to be crushed out of people, more or less. The effort started with Franco. James Michener wrote in his book, Iberia, of his experience on a trip to the post office. He made the mistake of sticking the stamp in the wrong place on the envelope. When the clerk refused to accept the letter, he protested that a stamp is a stamp and it was more or less right. There could be no more or less, the clerk replied sternly. First we bend the rules for stamps, then for bigger things, and sooner or later you get chaos.
First Franco, and then European integration, nibbled away at the chaotic flair of Spanish life. That is not to say it does not exist at all. Many a time, while my eyes were darting about in paranoia looking for tricky lane markings, one or another maniac would come zooming past and cut me off, or even go through a red light.
“That’s ticketable,” the instructor remarked more than once.
“That’s just my point,” I replied. “People just don’t drive the way that they do the test.”
“No, but what’s the difference between you and him?” he asked me. “He already has a licence. Pass the test and you move into the other group. Then you can do what you want.”
I raised my eyebrows.
Other times, when seeing the antics of drivers who were more reckless than the average, he would simply exclaim ironically, “¡Viva la Pepa!” It is a rather obscure reference to the nickname of Spain’s first radical constitution in 1812, which more orthodox souls condemned as likely to cause utter chaos and lawlessness. Bending the rules may be chaotic from the standpoint of the highway code, but it can also involve a peculiar sort of skill and still be quite functional, in ways that the purely law-abiding might overlook. I shudder to think what would happen if I deposited a Spanish driving examiner on the roads of a developing country, to test survival skills. Those who drive in the Panopticon are simply unsuited to most of the world’s blacktop.
The odd thing is that in some ways, the more radical the move to modernity, the less such livable chaos a society has. The road test was not about driving skills, for the most part. In that, he was quite right. I never saw any drilling in quick-reaction skills, for example, and someone who passed on the first try almost rear-ended another car the day before. Rather, it was about a kind of obedience, about the sacredness of solid lines and complete stops, and everything from the angle of one’s head to where one’s hands went to how one changed gear.
Small wonder that one would become obsessive rather quickly. When some other students taking the test were standing around beforehand looking like lambs to the slaughter, a couple of them were warning everyone else not to drive forwards out of a parking space even if it looked tempting. It would mean going over the solid white line in front of the car, and someone had just failed in the first ten seconds of his test that way. And be careful how you drive out through the gate into the street. Complete stop before the pavement. Forward slowly, but keep the wheel straight lest it count as driving on the pavement. Stop again when the front wheels hit the road. Turn the wheel, but only halfway, or that is how you end up in the wrong lane with the solid line and you are done for, which is what “they” want you to do. When the rear wheels hit the road, stop again, or it will count as zooming into traffic recklessly. And vary the details at your peril. We all peered at the menacing gate as if it had a sniper lurking.
Now if this were simply a matter of imparting a due respect for the law, it would be easier to understand. One should learn things properly, after all, even if one loosens up a bit later. The sheer terror of obsessive obedience, of having to get everything perfect for twenty minutes or so with a sadistically picky examiner sitting behind you, might serve its purpose. For a society that has modernised so fast, some kind of reeducation might prevent carnage. There would be far fewer deaths on the roads of China and India if their tests were this strict, although there is always the problem of those who compartmentalise well, passing the test then forgetting what they learned.
The fact that there is a certain sadism built into the European tests would not change this consideration. This would simply be the usual psychology of power of a well ensconced civil servant—as the examiners ultimately are. One of my Spanish students in Nanjing told me it took him four tries to pass. The third time, the examiner congratulated him and told him he had passed, and could take the car back to park at the starting point. A minute later, he cut a hair off a solid line and she theatrically tore up the pass sheet in front of him. Word has it the examiners went on strike a couple of years ago, demanding that they not have to tell the outcome directly, because they had been punched too often. Whether the instructors join in the sadism of the examiners or not is an open question. Perhaps years of teaching people to be obsessed causes some of the obsession to rub off. I was struck, though, by the evident glee mine took in keeping everyone in suspense for two hours after the test, and swearing at his paying customers for the ghastly sins they had just committed while failing.
And for all the supposed impersonality of the highway code, half of what we learned going painstakingly around the streets of Alicante was not the sort of context-free rules we think of as quintessentially modern. Instead, it was the peculiarities of specific streets and specific roundabouts and specific intersections. This roundabout is different from every other one, for example, because you cannot see the arrow that forces you to go where you do not want to until it is too late. “They” like that. Or that intersection is tricky, because even though you can see the oncoming traffic through the chain fence, the examiner will count it as reckless because it officially obstructs your visibility. Or they used to take people along this street because it had a surprising sign at the last turn, then the municipal government removed it and that took all the fun away. Aside from upping the terror quotient and giving the examiners leeway to meet their quota of passes and failures, it was far from obvious to me that what one learned with such practice would be useful driving anywhere else. It seemed more akin to “the Knowledge,” the fearsome test on every street in London, and how best to get there, that aspiring taxi drivers spend three years or so memorising.
Building respect for the law aside, and indulging sadism aside, there is also the oddity of a peculiarly modern solution to what are ultimately timeless challenges. Driving is surrounded by laws and permeated with the presence of the modern state. How obedient drivers are is a fine indicator of what the would-be centralisers call “state capacity.” But it is also shaped, far more than any examiner with a copy of the highway code might appreciate, by culture and, dare I say, by virtue.
For all the rule-bending by drivers in Spain, it is mild compared to the brutal chaos that I see in China several months of each year. I do not doubt that this is in large part due to the laxity of the Chinese police. Most drivers throw out the window whatever they memorise, rote fashion, as soon as they pass the written test there. I have seen trucks going along with huge stones falling off the back, and motorbikes with wriggling babies on the handlebars.
But even among the world’s unruly drivers, there is a meaningful diversity in how they behave. For in the end, driving is the ultimate activity involving high-stakes interaction with strangers in public spaces. How we conduct ourselves there, with a couple of tonnes of steel moving at high speed, says something about how we are likely to acquit ourselves in modern society more generally, when the security of the familiar and the context-bound breaks down. Here culture, or what is left of what version of it, matters. The same Spanish drivers who cut through solid lines with abandon when the Guardia Civil are not looking also politely let motorists crawl in from the side in a traffic jam, one by one, even though they are not obliged to do so. The same is generally true, in a more chaotic way, of how Peruvian and Yemeni drivers behave. In China, on the other hand, the roads are far more Darwinian and the lack of consideration for other motorists is often astounding.
All this amounts to is that lack of regard for the rules does not have to mean wholesale lack of regard for strangers in other cars. I suspect that the brutality of Chinese roads comes partly from the rapid shift to urban anonymity, but more fundamentally from the obliteration of many traditional norms during the Maoist assault. Whatever the vast shift of people from countryside to city and the resulting anonymity, in Spain or Peru or elsewhere, when it happens gradually and without the state’s obliteration of tradition, more of a certain spirit of decency remains intact.
Will the Chinese state eventually have to crush its drivers into paranoid good behaviour? Probably. But much of the making of blasé bad behaviour comes from what that same state, and those like it, did earlier. The most likely cars to cut me off in the road in Spain are those with Romanian number plates, unsurprisingly. It did not surprise me either to read in Vanderbilt’s book the statistic that two thirds of Europe’s road deaths happen in Russia. Top-heavy modernisation produces, at least much of the time, not the imaginarily civilised modern subject at which it aims, but rather a new barbarian who must then be tamed through discipline. What does not come naturally, or from decent habituation grounded in tradition, must come instead from the Panopticon. And it will be forever imperfect, because it has little to sustain it when one is not in view of a police car or in a radar zone or conscious of being sued. What sticks better is the same self-conception that makes one hold a door open or make room for someone getting on a bus or help someone pick up a dropped parcel in the street. And that is a self-conception that the Leviathan can never inculcate.
In the end, ten days ago, I finally passed on the second try and got my licence a few days later. I wish I could say that the whole experience made me a better driver, in the sense of being more likely to get from point A to point B with myself and others in one piece. That might be a stretch. Indeed, if I did everything I was told, I would probably be dead within the first few minutes of getting back to Nanjing in May.
But some obsessions might linger. Whatever I do, I’m not going over that line….