Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Challenging the Car and Capitalism

Dissident Voice
Yves Engler
April 30, 2013.
There are numerous ways in which the private automobile promotes right wing politics. As the most expensive form of land transportation, monthly car and insurance payments keep indebted fingers to the grindstone. In 1932 the father of market research, Charles Coolidge Parlin, explained that purchasing cars through consumer financing encouraged a “better attitude” from labor and that “the automobile furnished one of the greatest incentives to industry and sobriety labor ever had.” A June 2006 New York Times magazine cover story on debt discussed the 1919 launch of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), speculating that “acceptance” implied the borrower was a member of a responsible community. The Times explained, “indebtedness could discipline workers, keeping them at routinized jobs in factories and offices, graying but harnessed, meeting payments regularly. Good consumers would be good producers.”

In addition to chaining would-be political actors to their jobs with debt, behind the wheel of their private mobile spaces drivers are far less likely to mix and mingle than pedestrians. By isolating drivers from fellow human beings, driving engenders hostility and mistrust. Pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders are forced into a greater awareness of their environment and as a result are more likely to concern themselves with its well-being.

Read the rest here.
Comment: This is an interesting article and an argument that needs greater elaboration.  The presupposition of creating a more politicized community - and a progressive one at that - is elaborated in Marx's conceptualization of alienation in capitalist societies.

In keeping with Marx's prediction that alienation would in effect cauterize workers from meaningful representation and presence, Yves Engler has added a more modern and novel twist in tying alienation to right-wing politics.  I am not sure but I think he would include most liberal positions that support the effect of societal cauterization into the broad category of right-wing politics.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of alienation.  Particularly its socio-psychological presence in the manner in which we describe or define meaning in life.  For this reason, my admiration for Taoism and Existentialism - which are critiques of alienation - is evident almost everywhere here and in my academic work.

When I read this article it reminded me how freedom is often conflated with movement - particularly movement inside of a car.

In the early eighties I was enrolled in an undergraduate sociology course at Towson University in Baltimore and the instructor wanted us to think of the ways in which modernization influenced our identity.  He required us to put a scrapbook of sorts together that illustrated the relationship between consumer goods and identity markers.

I dedicated my scrapbook to the relationship between cars and the notion of freedom.  It was not an original thought for me - there are of course no original thoughts.  Rather, I was provoked by an advertisement on television and in the print media for the then upstart Hyundai that was trying to make its way into the American car market.

It was obvious that the odds at the time were stacked against Hyundai but they gave it a 'freshman' shot anyway by appealing to young college age buyers who needed wheels on the cheap.

Hyundai's advertisement campaign showed young fun-loving men and women driving their cars with big attractive smiles and seemingly not a worry in the world.  The caption below the advertisement proclaimed: "Freedom is calling you!"

What kind of freedom is calling I wondered.  In capital terms anyone driving a sub-par car like a Hyundai in the 80s would not have been seen to be having fun or to be really free.

Hyundai's early entry into the US market failed miserably and it is telling that their resurgence of late is tied to upscaling their brand to appeal to more than just fun and the ability to move around.  Basic wheels may allow movement but it does not provide the much sought after exhibition of prestige - or class mobility - that an upscaled brand (read European-like) offers in capitalized societies.

The latter aspect is in particular a marker of arrival and, in effect, construed to be an illustration of degrees of freedom.

As a young undergraduate I was more concerned with the audacity of tying freedom to a car.  Though I recognized the manipulation of the advertisement I did not fully appreciate the wider implications: one must "live and learn", not so?

Now in the era since Mandela freed white people in South Africa I have come to value a conversation my late father and I had that teased out elements of political freedom and the capitalized reality of a car-centered post-apartheid nation-state.

My pops mentioned in passing one Kimberley day that among the greatest beneficiaries of the negotiated settlement of apartheid are car manufacturers - particularly Audi, BMW, Mercedes and VW.

These German corporations were invested in apartheid and even through the era of sanctions they found novel and immoral ways to grow their operations.  After 1994 the 'new' black government afforded them even greater protection from competition (and recrimination) by luring them via capital incentives to expand their manufacturing presence. 

Given that these manufacturers carry the brand prestige of being German/European their desirability was raised as a standard of achievement and class mobility.  And, in so doing, the character of freedom in the post-era was in large part prescribed.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that to be someone in South Africa today you must be behind the wheel of a car that is esteemed in capitalized terms or otherwise you are only marginally free.

My dad saw this in the early days of 1996.  He recognized that if black class mobility was to be demonstrated it would have to incorporate the markers of white class mobility and status.  And what better way to demonstrate class mobility than by conflating freedom with prestigious cars?

The ironic reality of the post-era is that black class mobility is primarily invested in depreciating assets likes cars.  I know of too may 'up-and-coming' black movers who rent their homes/apartments but drive cars that require mortgage-like repayments each month.

I guess my question still stands; what kind of freedom is calling?

In the post-era it is not unusual to find folks who spend in excess of 75% of their income on debt repayments - a major part of which is allocated to car ownership (no wonder the banks are doing so well too).

It is a vicious lie this capitalized freedom.  One that has crippled the very quality of what freedom could and should mean.

In these terms it was capitalism that was freed at the end of apartheid.

What Marx did not delve into was the socio-psychological hold that capitalized goods have on the aspirations and/or ambitions of just about everyone.  The world is unfair is the generalization but play the game and not the players - in other words, get yourself on the track to capitalized freedom (I am free because I exist to consume).

And to do so we are condemned to live in unbalanced societies driven by debt and accumulation.  More stuff equals more happiness and even if it does not it still means you doing better than your neighbor or the poor person you pass on your way to work where you toil your life away to pay for your delusional mobility.

It is indeed a false consciousness that was lyrically described on a bumper sticker I saw in Baltimore around the time I graduated from Towson University (1986).  Capturing the existential emptiness of capitalized life it simply and prognostically said:
"I owe I owe and its off to work I go."

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