In her May 2014 article in American Ethnologist, “The U.S. Car Colossus and the Production of Inequality,” Catherine Lutz explores how the automobile – ever-present in the U.S. imagination as a symbol of mobility and freedom – is an artifact of modernity that not only reflects but also helps to produce inequality. Americans are beholden, Lutz remarks, to forms of “compulsory consumption” in which the car has become a necessary and increasingly expensive part of individuals’ lives, even as jobs disappear, wages stagnate, and investment into infrastructure and public transport wanes. As an intrinsic part of a contemporary regime of accumulation extending throughout multiple sectors of the economy and government, the car system emerges as a site of anthropological inquiry into U.S. landscapes and anxieties in an age of inequality.
AE editorial intern Deniz Daser talked with Professor Lutz about how she became interested in the car as a research subject; the car as a figurative albatross as well as object of desire; connections between consumption and inequality; how cars can be gendered sites of domesticity, or means of escaping both office and domesticity; how anthropologists can contribute to national conversations on inequality; and the value of anthropological reanimation of phenomena that have been normalized and depoliticized.
Deniz Daser (DD): You define the “car system” as the “complex that includes the quasi-private and embodied technology of the car, governance practices, changed time-space conceptions, and landscapes of affordance to the car” (p. 232). How does that conceptualization illuminate inequality in ways that examining the car as mere mobile object does not?
Catherine Lutz (CL): I think the interesting thing about any artifact like that – an artifact of modernity, especially – is that it is just so seductively compelling as a thing in and of itself. And certainly the notion that the car is just a tool is common, which is an obstacle to thought about the larger social worlds that make the car possible and make it a tool for redistribution much more than a tool for mobility. I’ve learned a lot from some of the more critical scholarship on automobility by people like Mimi Sheller, John Urry and Matthew Paterson, and others, particularly out of the U.K., who have been working on this topic for years. (For example, see Matthew Paterson’s 2007 book, Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy; Mimi Sheller and John Urry’s 2006 article, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” in Environment and Planning 38:207–226; and John Urry’s 2004 article, “The ‘System’ of Automobility, in Theory, Culture and Society 21(4–5):25–39.) I’ve been inspired by them to think about these larger structures of governance; for example, the oil, insurance, and auto company structures that are the root of the car system and how a particular set of technologies came to dominate the landscape through the political process. And that’s true of corporate life in general – consumption has been scaffolded by political processes that are important to emphasize though I think that the shiny object of the car blinds us (laughs) more than maybe Coca-Cola or other products. Actually, fizzy objects might do that, too – each of these objects has its own constructed allure.
DD: You write about how the car system not only reflects socioeconomic inequality but in fact helps to produce the unequal distribution of wealth and exacerbate racial and socio-economic disparities through five automobility-induced pathways to inequality, including the necessary consumption of a high-priced and technologically complicated means of transport (235-237); the state and private capital’s role in dictating access to cars (238); the detrimental health effects of the car industry complex (239); and the ways in which this system accrues wealth to the automobile and tire manufacturers, oil and gas companies, financial interests such as insurance and loan companies, retail outlets, construction companies, tow truck and repossession interests, and so forth. Can you speak to that distributional capacity of the car system?
CL: Ignoring for a moment some of these questions of emotional life and status and respect accrued to individuals through the car, and instead just examining the system purely from a financial standpoint by looking at how money circulates throughout is, I think, really productive. And, again, critics of capitalism have done this in all sorts of ways. And so examining how money flows into households and then flows back out via the car system means analyzing all these different pathways of car purchase, insurance policies, the oil industry, local governance, and the huge amount of outflow from households into state and local coffers through fines, fees, and registration and again, the way in which that is very unequally distributed.
DD: In a sense it’s almost like a transfer of wealth akin to our tax revenue system, for instance.
CL: Yes, absolutely. For example, just this morning there was a news story about Caterpillar, which makes vehicles. They were brought to task for the very common practice of invoicing to a Swiss subsidiary the products that they manufacture in the U.S. and sell overseas. In so doing, they avoid paying U.S. tax of about $800 million a year – close to a billion dollars of taxes a year. So, I point to the massive redistributional effect both through the corporate interface with the tax system and the individual interface with these taxes and fees and so on within the car system. Talking to people--mostly in Providence, Rhode Island--about their experience with this system highlighted what an enormous financial burden the car is in their lives. Their struggle to stay moving affects so deeply their sense of wellbeing. People don’t talk about it this way but it really is a kind of albatross. You must carry the car while the car is carrying you. There is the added issue for many undocumented folks who get up in the morning thinking, “The car is the device by which I may be ensnared and arrested because I’m driving without a driver’s license.”
DD: Your point about the car as figurative albatross relates to your concept of “compulsory consumption.” You argue that theories of inequality should also examine not only what “Americans earn but also … what they must spend” (p. 233). It seems as though within the public discourse we don’t think of consumption when discussing inequality. Why is consumption so key to understanding these social disparities?
CL: Well, I think we focus less on consumption because it’s assumed that the main issue with inequality is wages and measuring what you need to survive through a notion of the basic level of subsistence. We don’t tend to question how people consume differentially. But in a car-dependent mobility system you have to be mobile in a way that is both privatized and extremely expensive and because the entire socio-economic landscape has been set up in ways that absolutely require a car – that really makes it a non-option as much as housing. Additionally, it introduces so many other problems into your life in terms of access to transit or biking – problems of time and safety and so on. Biking can be incredibly unsafe in a car-dominated system. So, the idea that there are other options is false. People just don’t look at that question of how individuals actually live and what choices they really have or do not have.
DD: As a mobile subject of sorts, the car system, as you point out, has produced “the ideological assumption that the car is the preeminent engine of economic growth and well-being” (p. 235). This made me think of the preeminent symbol of economic growth and progress in the U.S. that is, in contrast, the height of immobility - the house. How do these twin figures (i.e. car and home) that loom large in the U.S. imagination figure together in your opinion?
CL: That’s a great question. The way you just set that up made me think of the positive connotation of the notion of “mobility,” or the idea that mobility is a kind of human right. But forced mobility is something else, right? The mobility that the car gives us is something that allows us to close distances that the car system itself has created between home and work scattered across a sprawled out landscapes or between family members who took jobs for which commuting is treated as the worker’s responsibility. I think that the house then becomes the Other to the car. It’s immobile in the sense that it’s not a positive. There’s something domestic and feminized and it then begins to participate in all these other kinds of dualisms of valuation around gender and so on. The house has its own valuations produced independently from the car system, but the automobile can be seen as potentially accentuating that notion.
DD: That’s interesting because they seem to be sites of intimacy of different kinds. There does seem to be, like you said, a gendered domesticity of the house or the home, which makes me wonder how the car is gendered as well.
CL: You can see some of the ways in which the car has become the sort of mobile home. It’s become the living room on wheels and a space that’s highly gendered in its marketing. The woman and her SUV becomes a “mom taxi” and serves as a type of intimate domestic space. And then there are sports cars like the Dodge Charger – such cars are not domestic spaces. Those are ways to escape from both the domestic space and the office cubicle. There is a lot of advertising that suggests that such cars allow you to drive out of a type of confinement of various sorts; i.e. your boss and your wife. And again, how that relates to the production of inequality through notions of gender is really important as well. My article doesn’t address that as much as notions of class and race. I’ve touched upon gender in the book that this article emerges out of (Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, 2010, Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effects on Our Lives).
DD: Ideas of “individual freedom and opportunity” (p. 240) loom large in many notions of American life and the unique ways in which the U.S. has structured its class and racial relations through the political economy of the car system. What sorts of ideological and/or affective ties did you find your interlocutors held towards their automobiles or the idea of automobiles? Were they cognizant of this dependence that the car system created?
CL: For my interlocutors, there is this notion, on the one hand, that these cars are wonderful objects – objects of great desire that people have lived with through television ads that are so formative. I really do think that the power of the advertising industry to tell us stories about who we are and what we want is an under-analyzed aspect of everyday life under contemporary capitalism. But that aside, I think there is also a tremendous power of everyday experience to shape people’s attachments to objects. Scholars who study material culture have shown us the importance of this. So, for many there is the thought, “the car and that notion of mobility save me from stasis, from imprisonment. It elevates my status.” Non-driving people talk about the shame of being a pedestrian – somebody who’s on the side of the road as being almost kicked to the side. There is a lot of that type of sentiment that emerges when people talk. On the other hand, their experience of their reality is that the car is a huge pain in their ass! The contradiction is right on the other side of the coin of what the myth promises. So, there is freedom, yet they’re imprisoned by their car payments or they’re imprisoned in traffic jams and so on. The marketing is very much targeting that and tries to preempt the anxiety and unhappiness that this form of compulsory consumption brings. This is the way in which a highly car-dependent society has come to choke on itself. The marketers have been able to prevent people from making other choices. Well, marketers and politicians. (laughs)
DD: In a 2001 article, Charles Tilly decried the lack of attention anthropology had given inequality (“Introduction: Anthropology Confronts Inequality,” Anthropological Theory 1 (3):299-306). He argues that anthropologists in the “old days” were concerned with issues of inequality, but as he states, “a quick count of 337 titles in the Annual Review of Anthropology from 1984 to 2000, for example, yields a mere 19 articles – less than 6 per cent! – whose titles include variants on the words caste, chiefs, class, ethnicity, gender, hierarchy, inequality, minority, power, race, slavery and/or status, with gender by far the leading mention” (Tilly 2001:299). He holds that anthropology is uniquely positioned to better explain and describe and understand the ways in which people experience inequality. First, do you agree with this critique? And second, if you do, has our discipline changed since then in its approach to social inequality?
CL: Yes, that’s a great question. Inequality is certainly the issue of the last decade, right? It has increased, and people are incredibly squeezed. These forms of discontent which were not as striking for as many people twenty years ago are now so widespread – a permanent class of unemployed people and incredibly crushing wages and hourly practices of the companies that hire people. Capitalism has changed in ways that have enabled these processes, and scholars have tried to respond to this historical moment. Anthropology, though? Inequality is perhaps not the most common concept in use but of course we’ve been very attuned to that reality on a global, transnational scale as with work on colonialism, humanitarianism, and development, and we’ve been attuned to power and inequality on local scales through work on gender, neoliberalism and democracy, the conditions of labor, homelessness, and so on.
DD: Your mention of this historical moment in which wages have remained stagnant for the middle and working classes and the growing gap in household wealth remind me of how these topics have all become part of the public discourse since the economic crisis, Occupy Wall Street, and so forth. How do you view anthropology and anthropologists’ role in terms of mediating this national conversation, whether through academic or more public scholarship?
CL: I think much of the academic work that is made available to the public is statistical and is based on national-level surveys and analysis of what’s happening. On the other hand, journalists will do personal interest stories with an in-depth, single person follow-through. For example, the New York Times recently had this great series on a homeless family in a shelter in New York. It was a 5-part piece. I think that like high-quality journalism, anthropologists can provide the level of detail that puts a face to the realities of what kind of struggles people are going through as a result of such statistical findings on the national level. That series was really powerful in how it deeply influenced and affected a lot of people. It really took the discussion surrounding homelessness to another level. I would argue that we could be doing the same thing. We can do it in formats that are not ethnographic length or in academic articles, but rather on blogs and the kinds of sites around the web where people can find the stories of people making do and finding ways around living in difficult situations. In such formats I think we can do two things. The first is to tell the story of what inequality looks like and second, illustrate how we are better equipped to understand that because we’ve studied the way people think about the political debate surrounding this issue and what to do about it. We can explain, for instance, why not enough people are not up in arms about the minimum wage. It’s because they believe x, y, and z. It’s because they have a sense of anxiety about this, that, and the other. I think we can address those issues directly instead of continuing to tell the story in the way the economists might tell it, which focuses on why inequality is bad for growth, when in fact people don’t care about that. Some people are instead worrying about whether or not black people are getting more than white people, for instance. Or, economists often assume certain things about what people are able to do on minimum wage. They don’t have the full picture of what it means to try to live on a $7.25 per hour job.
DD: Your research is quite broad in scope. You’ve done research in Micronesia, in the U.S. on topics ranging from emotions to militarization to gender. How did that ethnographic journey bring you to the car system and inequality?
CL: It was actually due to the experience of dealing with the some of the same set of conditions I raise in my article. I was working on the health and safety issue and I only became aware of the inequality aspects of the car system later. But I had a cousin who died in a car crash. I worked on the book I mentioned with my sister; that was the original project. She had a close friend die in a crash as well. She had also lived in New York and moved out to the suburbs and I had been living in the suburbs and moved to a city, so we had contrasting experiences of moving in and out of a car-dependent lifestyle and we both smacked our heads and said “wow, this really structures everyday life in a fundamental way,” so we then moved on to this larger set of problems with the car system.
DD: I always like asking the genealogy of scholars’ theoretical and ethnographic interests. Where you live or an experience you happen to have can make you a bit more sympathetic towards a particular topic. Theoretical interests seem to fall in your lap in that way.
CL: And then history happens, right? What also fell into my lap was the newspaper every day and the Occupy movement that came to Providence and that people were actually saying, “there’s something really wrong here and we have to do something about it!” There is something empowering to think about the idea that something very basic can be so deeply rethought. The Occupy movement has reenergized a lot of people in critical scholarship – not just on the inequality issue but also pushing scholars to think bigger or to focus on work that will really contribute to this political project which is so energized and energizing. Obviously, there are people like David Graeber and others who have been working both ends of this thing, in the park and the square, and in the journals. They have been models of how to do that.
DD: Indeed, the challenge to inequality has been a dominant theme in the public discourse. Here you write so captivatingly about this automotive industrial complex that we really get a full sense of its expansive and all-encompassing nature. So much so that it seems difficult to fathom a societal shift away from it. Do you see structural shifts occurring and if so, do you think they are helping to dismantle inequality or further entrench it? Who is challenging this system in significant ways?
CL: I think the fundamental challenge needs to focus attention on how capital has captured the political system. Though this phenomenon has always been there, the ways in which it has gotten worse and exacerbated the struggles for people to survive deserve attention. The car system has long been the leading edge of it. Unlike housing, it is the main consumer product that is clearly expendable. There is an alternative way to live that is visible in other societies and in the past where the mobility of everything – including labor – can be rethought in terms of sustainable lifeways that people push for together. That’s not just about the car industry but also sustainable agriculture, for instance, or new urbanist approaches to rethinking city design. I don’t think there will be a separate anti-car movement. There is, however, the biking community, parts of which have very much been a political movement with a broad vision. At the end of the article I list some of the ways in which people have addressed it more directly but that bigger question of counter-capitalism or alternatives to capitalism is an area I need to read and think more about. I know there are so many creative people thinking through these issues and trying to come up with solutions. And, again, the climate change part of this is significant. The car has wrought a huge part of climate change – all those extractive industries and the use of the automobile itself. When global warming leads to societal collapse, one of the first structures to collapse may be the car system because it’s going to be something without which we can still maintain a survivable level of existence in the Anthropocene. But I want to emphasize that people can take some heart that understanding is possible on some of these issues that until now have been quite normalized, such as the car system. As anthropologists, we always dig away at the normalized and the depoliticized and attempt to reanimate it. At times we can feel crushed by the idea that we don’t actually seem to do anything. But it is possible to rethink the moment that we’re in and contribute in significant ways.
DD: Methodologically, your study was also interesting because you were able to draw upon broader national data as well as ethnographic data from Providence and other sites throughout the U.S.
CL: Yes, this was a group effort. My sister and I, as well as some students who have been working with me, have been interviewing people from a variety of places around the country and going to places like Detroit where some of these issues of marketing are so important to understand. So, this has been a collaborative project.
DD: Do you think that this may be a good model for future work, especially in a society as large as the U.S.? It seems as though your analysis of the car system probably holds true whether or not you’re in Rhode Island or California or Kansas.
CL: A number of years ago I started working on U.S. bases overseas. I had written something in the (AAA’s) anthropology newsletter arguing, “We have 700+ bases around the world at this point. As anthropologists we are in a very privileged position to be able to really get a sense of the whole elephant because we are in all of these sites and while the bases may be behind fences and seem invisible, we very much have the ability to do something very collaborative, very comprehensive, very global. I didn’t get any responses. Nobody took me up on it. (laughs)
DD: Oh no!
CL: Obviously, some people have taken up the issue and there are a lot of younger scholars working on this in various places, studying the bases issue. But, I mean the idea of doing it in a coordinated and consciously comparative way hasn’t happened yet.
DD: Do you think that’s an issue in our discipline, particularly cultural anthropology?
CL: Absolutely. We do our dissertations alone. We publish alone. We die alone. (laughs) There’s an individualism to academia, in the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology. We’re about the worst in some ways now. The sociologists are off working more collaboratively these days.
DD: Do you think this goes back to our roots as in the beginning days of anthropology and the notion of the lone anthropologist transported to some area that is not normally traversed by Western scholars?
CL: Yes, the explorer concept – this masculine individualism persists, even if many of us are now women. There remains this idea that what you are doing is something that requires heroic individualism. I’m waiting for two grad students to go out arm-in-arm and say “We are writing a joint dissertation, dammit. We are going to be the first ones and just try and stop us!” Of course, the difficulty there is not just that there’s this cultural assumption that it cannot happen but because the job market requires your individual brain to be set on a scale at the end of your graduate work and weighed and measured. Oh, the big brain gets the job! The natural sciences seem to have figured out how to hire people and move them on through that whole process without worrying about the fact that they worked with ten people on this article or 15 people on that article.