Communist Cars and Commodity Fetishism
“A commodity appears at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867)
“See the USA in your Chevrolet
America is asking you to call
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America’s the greatest land of all.”
Theme song of the Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1957 – 1962)
The Top Gear clips bring up an important question: Why were Communist countries unable to manufacture a decent car? Consumers face a unique historical moment in 2010. Free market capitalism is taking a heavy drubbing from the Great Depression, yet Communism has also failed. Both economic systems, along with their fanatical adherents, believe each to have messianic qualities. The Classless Society or the Invisible Hand will save humanity! (And the troops will be home by Christmas.)
Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson and James May have a grand time driving the cars of Communist regimes, calling each other “decadent capitalists” and yukking it up. While Clarkson and May have their yobtastic good time, the historical and cultural ramifications of such an exercise need not go unexamined. The Soviet Union, while their cars were rather terrible, were the first in space, excelled at military weapons development, and had a hand in beating the Wehrmacht to a pulp. At the end of World War 2, they, along with the United States, ascended to the position of superpower. During the same time, the United States excelled in engineering and science. The halcyon days of the Fifties brought with it prosperity and stability (provided you were white, suburban, and Protestant). Communist regimes built the Trabant, an automobile that spawned a thousand jokes. The United States built the Mustang. In 1964 it was marketed as the “secretary’s car,” because of its affordability.
When comparing economic systems, one should not neglect the “fear factor.” In soviet regimes, criticism and dissent were quashed while corruption and the black market thrived. Solzenitsyn’s novel The First Circle examines the lives of inmates in a scientific laboratory that is also a prison. Posh by gulag standards, the fear and repression posed a challenge to the scientists used to working in an environment of free inquiry. By the same token, the Great Recession has spawned its own culture of fear. Employees fear getting fired and job seekers fear the inability to get hired if they “speak up” or espouse unpopular ideas. While there is little fear of getting sent to Gitmo or some other government black site, the fear has created an atmosphere where innovation, invention, and honesty remain rare commodities.
The forces of demand created the impetus for American car companies to produce affordable, reliable, stylish vehicles. When they became too big to fail, outsourced labor, and fell back on Nativist excuses for shoddy craftsmanship, the US government bailed them out. Buying a Japanese car (made in a non-union factory somewhere in the South) is not un-American. Buying a Honda simply proves the market phenomenon of cash flowing to the commodities with the best value. Honda at least has a Formula 1 team. Conversely, American cars are made in Mexico. (While technically true — Mexico is part of North America, thus making the cars “American”, QED — workers in the United States face a giant sucking sound.) The very term “Buy American” (at least when applied to complex commodities like automobiles) falsely renders a complicated socioeconomic and highly politicized set of processes into a black-and-white choice. In both cases, the American consumers loses.
In this age of authoritarian capitalism ascendant (see: China), it is worth noting who makes the best commodities and why. Affordability and reliability are key. Other important factors include performance, styling, and marketing. GM and Ford still worship at the Altar of High Horsepower. Oil will not last forever. Building cars that appeal to the average consumer, yet perform better than a golf cart, will represent a quantum leap in engineering every bit as monumental as the Bugatti Veyron.