Hall of Shame: The Automobile

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It would take an intentional effort to invent a mode of getting around town that is more wasteful and expensive than the personal auto.  Corporate capitalism, of course, is quite literally addicted to cars’ ongoing reign over life in the United States, for the self-same reason: their lusciously profitable wastefulness, fragility, expense, and marketability. This undiscussed institutional addiction promises genuine (and not happy) history-ending consequences, barring radical democratic rebellion in the next decade or two by still somnolent ordinary Americans — rebellion that will have to far, far transcend this kind of self-congratulating ostrich behavior:

a common conclusion...

Presently, I am completing a book on this core crisis within our culture, which is the reality I call “the consumer trap” and James Howard Kunstler calls “the long emergency.” (Note: These are one and the same disasters.) My book is forthcoming in about a year from Monthly Review Press, and will be titled Automobiles Ueber Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States. Stay tuned here for more tidbits from that effort.

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Inequality Among “Consumers”

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“Consumer” is a rotten word, a naked, vision-stunting bias parading as a basic, natural term of modern democratic life.  Whenever you hear yourself being called a “consumer,” you should reach for your gun.

Contrary to both mainstream dogma and received cultural-leftist/neo-Marcusian canon, access to commodities has never been anything like equal in the United States.  In fact, in this epoch of escalating income and wealth polarity, the newest statistics show that inequality among U.S. “consumers” is now at an all-time high.

Bradley Johnson of Advertising Age magazine’s “American Demographics” column reports:

Spending patterns vary from rich to poor.  The government’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey shows spending by the top fifth of households (pretax income of $85,147-plus) rose 8.1% in 2005 vs. 2004.  That’s a bigger percentage boost than for any other income group.

The top fifth collected 50.4% of pretax income and accounted for a record 39% of consumer spending in 2005, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those affluent households outspent the bottom three quintiles combined. Spending disparities have grown: The bottom fifth (pretax income below $17,579) did just 8.2% of 2005’s consumer spending, a record low.  (Advertising Age, January 15, 2007, p. 29)

As Johnson also notes, “[t]he affluent account for massive shares of spending in key categories.”  In the service of publicizing this reality and helping MR folks rethink “consumption,” I decided to calculate some of the key ratios.  The numbers signify the average spending of the richest 20 percent of U.S. households as a percentage of the averages among the poorest 20 percent and the middle 20 percent, respectively, in various “consumer” areas, all for the year 2005.

Housing: the richest quintile spends 3.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.1 times as much as the middle

New Vehicles: the richest quintile spends 19.2 times [not a typo!] as much as the poorest; 3.4 times as much as the middle

Dining Out: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Life Insurance, Social Security and Pensions: the richest quintile spends 28.8 times [not a typo] as much as the poorest; 3.9 times as much as the middle

Education: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as poorest; 5.7 times [not a typo] as much as the middle

Reading Material: the richest spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

Apparel: the richest quintile spends 4.3 times as much as the poorest; 2.4 times as much as the middle

Alcohol: the richest quintile spends 4.6 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Overall “Consumer” Spending: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

As you might guess, there is only one exception to this pattern: tobacco.  In that area, the richest quintile spent only 107% of what the poorest quintile spent, and only 74% of what the middle quintile spent.

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Marketing and Market Totalitarianism

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For ordinary people in our proto-democratic age, life has three sectors: 1) employment/work, 2) personal life/free time, and 3) politics/the state.

Together, the first two comprise what scholars call “civil society.” In a democracy, free time is actually free, and nourishes independent citizenship, which then in turn governs both state and economy.

As we all know, the antithesis of democracy is totalitarianism, which Merriam-Webster defines thus:

Main Entry: 1to·tal·i·tar·i·an
Pronunciation: (")tO-"ta-l&-'ter-E-&n
Function: adjective
Etymology: Italian totalitario, from totalità totality
1 a : of or relating to centralized control by an autocratic leader or hierarchy : AUTHORITARIAN, DICTATORIAL; especially : DESPOTIC b : of or relating to a political regime based on subordination of the individual to the state and strict control of all aspects of the life and productive capacity of the nation especially by coercive measures (as censorship and terrorism)
2 a : advocating or characteristic of totalitarianism b : completely regulated by the state especially as an aid to national mobilization in an emergency c : exercising autocratic powers : tending toward monopoly

So, here’s the quiz question: Why is subordination to the state part of this definition?

The answer, of course, is that this unnecessary qualification distracts attention from the other possible source of totalitarian control — namely, the “private” economy.

And that is exactly what we now have in the United States — market totalitarianism, a political-economic regime based on subordination of the individual to the big business class and its strict control of all aspects of life.Bentham's Sketch

The state? Everybody who pays attention has long since known that the Money Power owns American governments.

Work? No need to even comment on that topic.

But what about “free time?”

Corporate marketing, the trillion-plus-dollars-a-year juggernaut of managerial manipulation, is the main vehicle by which our overclass dominates “free time” here in the United States. And this domination is far subtler and deeper — and far less recognized — than state-totalitarian methods, horrific as they are, have ever been.

In truth, thanks in no small part to big business marketing, market totalitarianism in the United States is both real and much more effective than state totalitarianism could ever hope to be. Where state despots are all thumbs, big business marketing is a thousand dextrous hands. What’s more, because the system’s single purpose — maximum further profit for the already rich — is pursued by genuinely competing institutions rather than a central Politburo, and because the henchmen of these institutions aim to control the practical circumstances and private communications of civil society rather than public rules, market totalitarianism has enjoyed far greater “deniability” than its more famous, state-centered cousins ever did.

The true bottom line? Unless wesoon wake up to this reality, we (and the world we still dominate) are just as screwed, albeit more slowly, subtly, and (sometimes, somewhat) more pleasurably, as recent history’s other boot-crushed masses.

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Marketing and the Thoughtless Society

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If I were asked to choose the word that best describes the quality of daily life in corporate capitalist America, that word would be “thoughtless.” Ordinary people here aren’t often really consciously hostile to one another — just as they aren’t often conscious of real political and historical facts. Instead, they are simply heedless of anybody and anything that doesn’t reside or resonate within their bubbleworlds of home, car, workplace, and cell phone PIM.

The lion’s share of the blame for this rests not with ordinary people, but with corporate capitalism. This socio-economic order performs its function of further enriching the already rich by the constant growth of marketing and commodification. As this process unfolds, corporate media and messages, all of which are anchored in profit-making, increasingly crowd out non-commercial activities. As a result, the stuff of salesmanship — flattery, encouragement of navel-gazing and the acquisitive attitude, fear of a “mean world” beyond the supposed safety of packaged entertainments — increasingly erodes the social-psychological basis for thoughtfulness.

Sometimes, this crowding out is literally physical. Take the ongoing decline of automotive turn-signaling. This safety device (within our insanely unsafe corporate capitalist/autos-first transportation regime) is losing ground not just to continuing marketing-induced cognitive and ethical impairment, but to the cellular telephone itself, which, despite its peddlers’ denials, is now part and parcel of driving for growing numbers of ordinary Americans. The task of holding a steering wheel and a cellular phone simply leaves no hand free to flick the turn blinker.

Raymond Williams called this whole crucial process of decline “mobile privatization,” and knew it stemmed from the normal operation of modern capitalism. Alas, thoughtlessness is not just a core symptom of mobile privatization, but it serves as a very effective vaccine against criticism of it and resistance to it. It takes thoughtfulness to care about thoughtlessness!

Funny, isn’t it? In this supposedly “religious” society, institutional normalcy is killing the very basis of all but the pettiest, most selfish, least ethically relevant kinds of caring.

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The Reach of Political Marketing

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The marketing attitude — surreptitiously probe for and exploit their weakness, and screw their genuine needs and desires — saturates the fabric of our politics. One of the vectors of a major advance in this market-totalitarian trend was/is Mr. Slick Willie Klinton, a man with a corporate pusher’s hole-for-a-soul.

As President, the Man From Smoke hugged and smiled and talked soft in all the right places, all in order to achieve the right’s dream agenda: kill single-payer health insurance, further crush the welfare state, and undermine the independent counsel laws (that didn’t have any later costs, did it?). All this happened only via the constant help of focus group-running devils like James Carville.

A good book review on this disgusting fraudmeister.

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