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Friday, September 26, 2014

Car ownership in America

who owns whom, exactly?
The contemporary world is one
of restless mobilities, radically
morphing physical landscapes,
baroque technologies, new forms of
governance and subjectivity, and
onerous inequalities. The automo-
bile provides vivid insight into all
five phenomena as well as into their
- "The U.S. Car Colossus and
the Production of Inequality,"
by Catherine Lutz, American
Ethnologist, (2014)
AMHERST - In their famous com-
munity study of Muncie, Indiana,
culture during both the Roaring
Twenties and the 1930s depression,
Robert and Hellen Lynd document-
ed the emotional and economic
dependence of Americans on the
automobile. Indeed, in all but three
of the deepest depression years, car
ownership continued to rise. "I'll
go without food before I'll see us go
without the car," one working-class
woman told the Lynds. In good times
and bad, car desire has only intensi-
fied ever since.
Food versus the car highlights
the paradox of our capitalist society
with its incessant need to accumu-
late capital through ever-expanding
transformations of infrastructure
(cell phones, software, big boxes) 1
consumerism, derivatives, outsourc-
ing and other tricks of the trade.
Profitable industries restrain wages
(if possible) while stimulating desire
a contradiction. Restraint and
desire do not mix easily. If wages
are high on one side of this equa-
tion, profits must be regained on the
consumption side by creating new,
higher-priced necessities like auto-
mobiles, Working people often find
that their wage gains are lost at the
point of consumption.
What has this obsession with cars
meant for society and for the
pects for action to prevent climate
For society, Catherine Lutz argues
that automobiles have paradoxically
imposed both mobility and immobil-
ity on everyone. No car means little
or no mobility, rich and poor alike
- but with significantly contrasting
consequences depending on class
status. Driving is not a matter of
discretionary spending. It's a matter
of necessity (like food), even for fam-
ilies using food stamps and driving
sparkling 8UVs. How often has it
been said that "we work in order to
pay for a car, and we pay for a car so
that we can work?"
Owning a car plays a pervasive
role in social status and income
inequality in our culture. So do
the declining real minimum wage,
regressive tax policies, deregulation,
the decline of unions and the global-
ization and financialization of the
economy - but car ownership plays
a special too, particularly as a
form of compUlsory consumption.
It may seem like liberation, but it
is also enslavement.
Lutz elaborates on three reasons
why car ownership contributes to the
financial stress that low-income and
minimum-wage households, espe-
cially, must be burdened with.
First, there is the high initial and
ongoing cost of buying and maintain-
ing a car. Auto pricing is high and
low-income families with poor credit
often resort to predatory interest
loans such as those from JD Byrid-
er, a used car chain often located in
low-income urban areas. On average
low-income families pay more for
insurance and repairs and are often
stuck with high maintenance older
vehicles now more expensive with
removal from the market by pro-
grams like Cash for Clunkers.
Second, car ownership is especial-
ly risky for low-income families. Cars
are increasingly sophisticated tech-
nologically; not subject to do-it-your-
self maintenance. They are subject
to costly crash damage, liabilities,
repossession and job loss should
they be required for work - leading
to cascading difficulties such as loss
of health insurance.
Third, the state regulation of
automobility imposes heavy fees,
fines and taxes on car users - dis-
proportionally on the poor, given the
greater likelihood that they will drive
without insurance, registration or
equipment in regulation shape. They
may be unable to pay parking and
traffic violations.
For the environment, capitalism's
accumulation imperative continually
transforms infrastructures, leads
to new necessities such as cars and
raises the cost of living. Trapped
by this unceasing contradiction
between workers as consumers and
consumers as workers, it is nearly
impossible to stop releasing C02 and
prevent climate change.
The monopoly powers of global
corporations now determine the
balance between household income
and costs - wherein the car is like
a powerful tool forged by a giant
myopic, one-eyed Cyclops. In classi-
cal mythology Cyclopes are Titans,
master craftsmen, that Zeus (read
capital) releases from the dark pit of
Tartarus in order to be provided with
his thunderbolts. Cars are powerful
tools - seemingly enabling limitless
mobility. But they come with dangers
not easily confined again to Tartarus.
Auto dependence now pervades
every aspect of our daily lives.
Change will require titanic political
will, arousing oppositional animos-
ities from those for whom autos
appear more as liberation than
The car Cyclops has forged a class
society in which wealth-divided life
chances have subverted common
action to resolve social and environ-
mental problems - even as acceler-
ating climate change now threatens
increasingly severe droughts, floods,
tornadoes, hurricanes, mass extinc-
tions, loss of biodiversity,
Hon of agriculture, food shortages
and population displacement
Steve R.andall) Larry Ely) Rob
Crowner and Rebecca Fricke are
writers for PVRP (pvrelocal@gmail.
com). PVRP writes this monthly
column to explain why we must
change our collective lifestyle to
avert climate catastrophe.