From the October 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Given the context of this essay only a minority of readers will have any misconceptions about the content. It was Karl Marx that first defined what we now know of as ‘Commodity Fetishism’. He meant by this the inherent power that a commodity has over its producer in contrast to any rational relationship between mankind and the products of its labour. This occurs because of the alienated nature of production within capitalism where profit is the goal rather than human need. If a profit is not created then production is considered ‘useless’ and thus the labour involved is likewise considered a waste. The commodity has become the master of labour and production itself. Entering the market of exchange for profit the product is divorced from the labour and the people that created it. It becomes ‘fetishised’ in that it appears independent of the producers and confronts them only as an object of consumerism. The need that this commodity serves can be entirely dependent on the need for social status i.e. jewellery, expensive clothing, electronic gizmos and, the one that this essay will focus on – cars.
The automobile has become a ‘paradigm’ of fetishised commodities. In terms of ‘status symbols’ it would be hard to find a better example; from Minis to Rolls Royces they all represent a statement about the owner. Or, more precisely, a statement that the owner wants to socially broadcast. My friends rarely fail to notice any perceived inconsistency between my lifestyle and my ‘principles’ as a socialist. My love of racing cars is one example. For many seasons I was to be found trackside enjoying my favourite sport – Drag Racing. My love of ‘hot rods’, ‘muscle cars’ and dragsters goes back to the summer of 1973 when, as a teenager, I got my first whiff of nitro methane. Since then I have been addicted to power, speed and, let’s be frank, the glamorous aesthetic of racing cars. What follows will not be a defence, but rather an attempted explanation of a sometimes uncomfortable love affair. It will also explain my hatred of Ferraris.
In contrast to the European tradition in motor racing the American experience was generated by working class, or as they say in the US ‘blue collar’ culture. After the end of World War 2 the returning GIs had to fill the vacuum of a return to civilian life with some form of excitement. Many chose, especially on the west coast, motor racing. Given the relatively cheap price of gasoline and production cars they began to modify the chassis and tune the engines to acquire more speed. Races were held on Bonneville salt flats to test these ‘hot rods’. Clubs were formed and illegal street races (drag races) began to take place all over America. Because of the danger to all involved a group called the National Hot Rod Association started to try and organise these races at unused Air Force bases where the runways were perfect for quarter mile side by side racing.
This hot rodding counter culture was soon noticed by the Detroit car manufactures and in an attempt to cash in on this new youth market they started making ‘muscle cars’. Dodge Barracudas, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros were seen on the drag strips every weekend competing for the dollars in the pockets of these new performance consumers. Massive v8 engines were crammed into street legal coupes and saloons and you could drive one of these monsters straight out of the showroom onto the race track with 11 second 100+ mph quarter mile performances. The kids went crazy! Of course it couldn’t last and by the time I was beginning to enjoy the English version of hot-rodding (mid 70s) the hey-day was coming to an end courtesy of rising oil prices.
Drag racing was held in contempt by the ‘motor racing’ establishment in this country. Hill climbers, sports car racers, rally car drivers and, of course, the holy of holies, Formula One looked down from a great height on the lowly working class hotrodders. But this suited my personality perfectly and only served to reinforce my love of the culture. The fact that a mildly tuned Chevy v8 in a mildly modified Chevelle would out-accelerate any Ferrari or even an F1 car gave me immense satisfaction even before I understood it as part of the cultural ‘class war’ in this country.
So I ‘identified’ with the hotrod culture of late 60s to late 70s America. To me any one who could virtually build his own performance car from the chassis up was superior to a rich man who would simply buy his Maserati or Aston Martin from the dealer without any involvement in its production. This was how I rationalised my love of American muscle cars but, of course, there is more to it than that. I like to think that on some level it was a reaction by American youth against consumerism. They took Detroit’s alienated products and humanised them – made them ‘real’ as products of the labour of their class and then of themselves as non-alienated individuals. The car lost its power as a fetishised commodity and became what it really is – a product of social and individual labour.
Unfortunately, or some would say, inevitably corporate America soon subsumed the culture and turned it in to a meaningless symbol of ‘Americana’. TV shows like ‘American Hotrod’ and ‘Wrecks to Riches’ are examples of the corruption of hotrod culture where a rich ‘customer’ walks into the workshop and orders a hotrod like it’s a steak or a Ferrari. The subsequent struggle of the production staff to meet ‘deadlines’ is an archetype of alienated labour creating a fetishised commodity which is the very antithesis of hotrod culture.
Occasionally I still attend drag races but although the performances are truly staggering (4 second quarter miles with 330mph top-end speeds) all the fastest cars have corporate sponsors and I miss the ’Golden Age’ when a guy could turn up with a dragster built in his shed and still have a chance to win. Recently a reaction against the ’big show’, as corporate drag races are now called, has spawned something called ‘Nostalgia Racing’ where engines and bodies/chassis are restricted to 1970s technology making it possible for a low budget racer to be competitive. I enjoy these races but, as the name implies, there’s something reactionary and non-progressive about it all. It seems to be part of the retro culture of post-modernism where sport takes its place alongside music and the other arts as part of the bankrupt capitalist culture of the 21st century. When humanity finally gets around to progressing once more (after the revolution) I wonder if they’ll let me fire up my Chevy occasionally at weekends?