Sunday, August 11, 2013

An Exclusive Form of Travel: How Cars Drive Inequality

Counter Punch (Weekend Edition)
Yves Engler
August 9 - 11, 2013.
In a car, one could remain separate from perceived social inferiors while in transit. Down the Asphalt Path’s Clay McShane writes about the elite’s disdain for public transit riders: “Trolleys were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. It was impossible for middle-class riders to isolate themselves from fellow riders whom they perceived as social inferiors. Distancing themselves from blacks, immigrants, blue collar workers, and, in general those stereotyped as the ‘great unwashed,’ was often precisely why the middle classes had moved to the [streetcar] suburbs.”

The car has made it possible to live far from the poor (or anyone else without an automobile). In one of the most extreme examples of modern day segregation, people barricade themselves into gated communities. Across the U.S., especially in the car-dominated Southwest, millions of affluent families have retreated into these exclusive and exclusionary residences.

If we want a more egalitarian society we must reverse geographical segregation and build communities and cities where people can get around without the private automobile.
Read the rest here.
Comment: It never ceases to amaze me how capitalism is able to sell the car as a symbol and means of freedom.  For me this realization has not been an easy one to arrive at given a lifelong immersion in these manufactured values.

Yves Engler correctly points to the manner in which cars create social, class and I would add cultural distance.  In this sense the car drives segregation and inequality.

So much of what is produced as work is about supporting cars: From the raw materials used to the manner in which the landscape is carved and reshaped for its use

And when the infrastructure collapses under the inevitable failing promise of capitalism, the state is perceived as failing or at the very least, politically inadequate.  Then, the remedy is to re-stimulate the thinking or naturalized impulse to make more goods including cars because more stuff equates with freedom.

This is the paradox of capitalized society.  Freedom is equated with ownership and the car is right up there with with owning land and a house.

But just how free is freedom when debt is the persistent character of ownership?

In the delusional, many South Africans who want to create the social and class mobility imperatives of capitalism will plunk down huge amounts of money that even rival and surpass the price of a house.

It is not uncommon to see relatively new vehicles parked next to dilapidated houses even in the poorest of areas.

So great is the emphasis on car ownership that there is an unmistakable social tension displayed when people arrive or depart from social gatherings.

To be seen to be upwardly mobile in post-apartheid South Africa is very much a function of car ownership.

And not just any car as I have come to realize.

Just last night I happened to flip onto a local automotive TV channel where three white male journalists were discussing the merits of a convertible two-door Jaguar that costs R1.4 million rand (approximately US $140k).

At one point they were talking about the car appealing to men but also career women and I thought that the jest of their argument meant that women who wanted to be free like powerful men were being told to be like rich men.

Obviously cars and the support industries that surround them drive patriarchy too.

In early 2002 while living in the US I achieved a milestone in my personal redefinition of freedom when I paid off the last remaining recurring debt I had.  It had taken a concerted effort on my part over a decade to pay off credit cards and student and car loans that consumed the bulk of my earnings.

During this time I had to teach myself to resist adding more stuff to the stuff I already had.  A simple personal dictum emerged from this time: If you can't pay cash for it you can't afford it.

It was not until my second year back in South Africa - around 2007 - that the pressure to conform to attitudes about car ownership and having new stuff started to wear on my consciousness.

I have continued to resist creating new debt.  But it is not easy and not an achievable reality for everyone.  Freedom from debt in capitalized societies is definitely a matter of privilege.

Predatory lending is literally killing the working class in South Africa as they struggle to buy and pay for the stuff they cannot afford.  It is not a unique story even in the belly of the beast where most working Americans are but a paycheck or two from being destitute.

This thin line between having and not having is prominently illustrated by car ownership.

Too many people work to pay off cars over and over again yet the promise of freedom remains elusive.

For those who do not own cars the message is very clear: If you want to escape your socio-economic and geographic prisons you must be willing to trade a large part of your working life to support the capitalized imperatives of car ownership.

And as this cycle replicates the system persists in destroying lives and the very environment we depend on for life.



Kimberly said...

This is so true, I see this all the time in the States.

Where I work they offer a lease program to employees, so I listen to coworkers all the time talk about the next great car they are going to lease. Mind you if they were to lease or out right buy these same cars on their own, they wouldn't be able to afford it and yet they still spend $250 to $350 a month. Status is everything.

I have a love/hate relationsip with cars. Recently having to deal with buying a car, I drooled over all the ones I couldn't afford and in the end realized my true desire was to have something that ran well and would last at least another 5 years. So I got a great car for $4000 and it is perfect. The radio likes to pick it's own station to play or track on a cd for that matter, the passager window slips and the a/c doesn't work. I still love it with all it's issues.


Ridwan said...

Hola Kimster:

I cracked up thinking of your stereo picking its own stations in PDX. There is not much of a choice is there? :0)

And the AC? I thought they were going to fix that for you.

Nonetheless, I hear you on cars. I wish there was a way to go back to the days of walking, bicycles, and mass transport (clean electric streetcars used to run in Joburg during the apartheid years).

I spent some time thinking about how South Africa could change it course from a car centered state. It is going to be hard to change that developmental track since the auto industry is huge here.

At the personal level I know folks who spend between R12000 to R15000 a month on a car! That is roughly $1200 to $1500 a month on installments.

Gas and insurance comes next.

It is mind boggling and all on a depreciating asset.

Status is important to folks.

A few months ago someone passed an unkind comment that came to our ears through the community grapevine.

Apparently someone commented that my stay in the US for almost three decades could not have amounted to much if all I can afford today is an old jalopy.

I felt the sting but not for too long.

Cars and capitalized lifestyles just don't mean that much to me.

There is more to life than just stuff,