Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy By Shane Hamilton

January 15, 2009

Trucking Country offers a finely crafted mix of cultural identity, regional tradition, economic history, legislative politics, political argument and policy transformation. Shane Hamilton uses the history and contemporary development of the trucking industry in the US to reveal the social, economic and political dynamics that were instrumental in shifting the industry away from the heavy regulation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) towards deregulation, fragmentation and free-market competition. The study takes the reader through the rough, unregulated country of the 1920s, whose abuses and discord would lead, during the New Deal era, to the introduction of tighter regulation in the name of modern organisational techniques and national economies of scale. This not only ushered in a new regulatory infrastructure but also boosted the power and position of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, as the union developed a symbiotic relationship with the central logic of federal regulation.

Within this particular interlocking directorate, there existed a limited but very significant element of exceptionalism and dissent. In the Congressional debates on the Motor Carrier Act of 1935, the farming lobbies insisted that their members should be exempt from the new regulatory structure on trucking because of their need to be able to transport their own agricultural, horticultural and livestock goods to their points of sale. In order to secure passage of the Act, the federal Administration had to concede that the transport of all agricultural products that were not "manufactured" would be exempt whether they were carried by farmers themselves or by private carriers. This exclusion from ICC regulation was fuelled by rural sensitivities over the prospect of another monopolistic imposition to match that of the railroads. In this case, the progressive elements of the New Deal, which sought industrial order and operational efficiency in the cause of industrial stability, were trumped by the populist impulses of rural interests that had come to regard trucks as a way around the existing transport combines.

As part of his analysis, Hamilton uses this administrative and legal exemption as a signifier for what is depicted as a form of cultural exemption. The private owner-operator trucker becomes the tangible symbol of an almost-lost age of heroic individualism in which manly virtue is combined with a healthy disdain for big institutions in the shape of the federal ICC, regulation enforcement agencies and the restrictive practices of the Teamsters. The ethos of difference and resistance is reinforced and celebrated in the rise of a popular culture surrounding the independent spirit of the masculine and loner figure of the self-dependent trucker. The trucker congenitally joined to his truck became the emblematic feature of a vast network of cultural reference points - including trucker movies, trucker radio, trucker-to-trucker communications, trucker cafes and a branch of country music known as "trucking country".

This enhanced sense of the noble outsider developed into a full-blooded dissenter posture on the part of the private truckers, never more so than in the 1970s when truckers became increasingly squeezed by Opec-induced fuel rises, their own corporate contractors intent upon obtaining the lowest possible freight rates, and the constant burden of federal and state taxes and regulations. In addition to a series of direct-action protests, the truckers were to a growing extent drawn to the cultivation of populist narratives and to the repudiation of monopolies and state interests. The ICC was accused of sanctioning freight monopolies and promoting union privileges. In a period of chronic stagflation, the precedent of the agricultural sector was used as a model for the proposed total deregulation of the trucking industry. In 1980, the Motor Carrier Act finally released the industry from the regulatory structures of the New Deal's once-optimistic liberalism.

In reaching the culmination of his account, Hamilton claims that the independent truckers and their Congressional allies were instrumental in clearing the way for the wider movement of deregulation from the 1980s onwards - paving the "way for low-wage, low-price capitalism that would define the final decades of the 20th-century US political economy". Hamilton's treatise is a measured and persuasive analysis that underlines the influence of what he terms a process of "Southernisation" in the subculture of what became the highly suggestive model of the trucking privateer.

His exposition could have been further strengthened, first, by looking more closely at the extent to which the patina of these recovered memories of a past America were constructed for political effect; secondly, by examining how this account fits into the broad historiography of the New Deal's positive state rationale; and finally, by locating the truckers' apparent conflation of libertarianism and populism within the complex cross-currents of American reformism. Nevertheless, for the pace and road-holding properties of Hamilton's account, it is difficult to imagine Trucking Country being overhauled.

Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy

By Shane Hamilton. Princeton University Press. 344pp, £17.95. ISBN 9780691135823. Published 8 October 2008

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