4: David Gartman’s Auto Opium

This book took a while, mostly because I’m a sucker for Marxist histories of the auto industry.  Something about reading Marxist language makes me feel like I’m cracking a secret code (exciting!)  Also they usually tie up their narratives so neatly, like the end of a Dickens novel (comforting!).  Yes, I’m a huge nerdo.  Anyway.

Gartman argues that automobiles are the opiate of the masses.  He’s not saying that we’re all fools for being tricked into buying cars and staking our identities on them – that’s for the bike activists to claim.  Instead, he’s saying that people who claim cars as a part of their identity are effectively taking a happy pill: they’re focusing on the pleasure they get from owning, driving, maintaining – consuming – a car to distract themselves from their crappy, dissatisfying jobs.

The process by which people’s identity gets shifted from work to car consumption goes something like this.  Back at the turn of the (last) century, as Ford’s assembly-line style manufacturing increased the pace of work and parsed it into smaller and smaller pieces, workers became detached from the final product, and eventually work stopped being the thing that workers staked their identity on.  But when they revolted against this deskilling, Ford was wise: he raised their pay to $5 a day.  Apparently workers were psyched – they could feed their families!  Buy houses!  Buy Model T’s!  Go to movies!  And they stopped complaining about their crappy jobs, because they were being paid well, and being paid well meant they could buy all the things they’d always wanted but couldn’t afford.

They bought cars, which made Ford happy, because more people buying cars meant that he could produce more cars and make more money.

The thing was, the cars the working people could afford in the teens and twenties didn’t look anything like the cars that rich people drove; they looked like they were cobbled together by a bunch of different people (84, to be exact) from a bunch of disparate parts into a big rectangular box – which, of course, they were.  Luxury cars, on the other hand, were still made using craft production, which meant that each car was assembled, fitted, and tuned by a single mechanic.  They were aesthetically pleasing, with organic lines that made them look like a unified whole.

As it turns out, people who spend all day doing menial tasks at an assembly line don’t want to drive around in something that reminds them of how much they hate work when they’re not at work.  Hence, when Alfred Sloan at GM started styling mass-produced cars to have the streamlining and unified design of luxury cars, working people were SUPER psyched.  Finally, they wouldn’t have to drive around in some rattletrap that stank of assembly line, and, even better, someone might mistake them for a richer person than they really were.  Genius!

Sloan and his stylists were geniuses in other ways, too, namely in the invention of planned obsolescence and product hierarchies, both of which were designed to encourage consumers to buy newer or better or more cars than they needed.

The whole styling thing worked to increase consumption of cars because, according to Gartman, people who have dead-end, menial, unproductive, bureaucratic, or otherwise dispiriting jobs increasingly seek the personal satisfaction, pleasure, and self-worth they should be getting at work in the objects they consume.  And they know that buying things isn’t going to make them happy like good productive labor would, but they do it anyway, to ease the pain.  Hence opiate.

It stopped working in the 60s, when people started to catch on that they were working ever harder in ever more degrading work conditions so that they could buy increasingly expensive cars that weren’t actually making them happy. So they revolted, both economically and culturally, and at the end of the 1960s, Fordism was dead.  Unfortunately, consuming to fill a void was not. 

I’m too tired to add much in the way of analysis right now, but I will say that I suspect that the many car enthusiasts in my life do get a lot of pleasure from working on, shopping for, and driving their cars, and that for all I know their cars may well fill a need that jobs don’t.  However, I’ve never thought of them as building cars that represent “‘freedom from the superfluous adjuncts of styling-for-obsolescence'” or working on “humanizing the alienated products of capitalist mass production.” Oh, Marxists.

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