Shopping for change

It once was that what was good for General Motors was good for America (that is, as long as the union had any kind of leverage with them). But now that GM’s own mismanagement and the shoddy health-insurance situation in America has given the company the opportunity to put the screws to the union, that may no longer be true in the shared prosperity sense. And when GM idiotically yoked their future to gas-guzzling, unsafe, enviironmentally destructive SUV behemoths while Toyota was working out hybrid technology, what they were trying to do was definitely not good for America. In the 1990s, as SUV production and sales boomed, we had a taste of the American way a la GM: legions of tank-driving family folk congesting shopping center parking lots, reducing road visibility and making every automobile collision a death blow to those chumps who haven’t armored up with an Escalade or a Hummer. And that’s just the trivial transportation aspect of things; our dependence on foreign oil supplies is severly worsened by the negligent atitude fostered and fomented by GM’s sales practices. (Yes, destructive wastefulness has been a status signifier since the days of the potlatch, and automakers hardly invented such a mind-set, the attitude that one’s power is equal to one’s ability to waste what others need. But one of the chief laudable aspects of capitalism is how it can make it imperative to replace such waste with rationalized efficiency, which when pointed in the right direction can alter social behavior for the good of the species.)

So when GM president Robert Lutz to say, “Toyota scored a major coup with hybrids even though they didn’t have a business case,” he’s looking for some kind of excuse to justify GM’s reckless, ignorant course. Rather than use their size to force positive social change (the way California sometimes does through its size and influence with certain legislation), GM hoped to maximize its own profit while wedding Americans to a wasteful way of life, which many consumers are feeling the pain of now that gas costs around $3 a gallon (as it probably should). In GM’s mind, Toyota should have failed with hybrids, because their cars didn’t make sense from the standpoint of maximum greed, in both the companies and the consumers. They don’t save either group money, all they do is cut down on the burning of gasoline. The masterminds at GM underestimated the consumer’s wish to not only save money but to make an environmental impact (regardless how small and insignificant that may be). GM totally missed the chance to exploit vanity environmentalism, in which one congratulates oneself for making painless “sacrifices” for the good of the world. GM prefered to try to reinforce another kind of vanity that comes more naturally perhaps to humans, the me-first selfishness that the SUV epitomizes. That GM would seek to promote a American society populated with that kind of person (“choads” in my high-school argot) is why its demise should be celebrated (presuming they can restructure to keep people employed). Toyota, by providing an avenue that could channel vanity environmentalism, has allowed a consensus to build and a critical mass to be reached to the point where Lutz must now admit that “If you have hybrids you are okay, and if you don’t, you’re not.” Toyota built a product that could aggregate and coordinate the various vain sensibilities of individuals, people with no real interest in social organization for change, to make that change come about. The paradigm of automaking has shifted decisively toward something less wasteful and destructive because enough consumers bought one kind of car over another.

Did those consumers make a difference? Does this prove that one can “shop for change”? That shopping can consitute political action, in fact is the primary vehicle of political expression in a consumer society? So the device for recording and expressing the public will is not a voting machine, but a garden variety of products brought to market: Priuses, iPods, ETFs, Interrest-only loans. But what if Toyota rejected the hybrid because it didn’t make business sense? Then there would have been no product through which to record the collective social desire for this particular change. What happens to that desire then? Does it dissipate and disappear?