car lots as battlefields, or fair versus market

There are various degrees of hell on earth. One of them, hell-lite, is surely going shopping for a used car. We got an in your face sample of that yesterday from a used car dealership in Inglewood, run on traditional lines: the sleazy boss, the oppressed, near retirement age salesman, the attempt to pump your expressed desire (we'd like a cheap vehicle, please) into their desire (and this nearly new SUV can be yours for 18,000 dollars, cutting the price 30 percent!). And now for the part of the story that I'm not so comfortable with - as I know that those car lots are really parts of a popular culture of haggling that goes back to pre-capitalist days, and intellectually I find them interesting - but then we went to CarMax. Carmax is wonderful, I must say, for the simple reason that they sell cars as though they were commodities no different from aspirin or breakfast cereal, instead of horses being traded between nomadic tribes. So you go in, you say what you want, they show you what is on offer, you go out to see it, and that is that. 21st century, quoi! So, happily, we are replacing our car. Unhappily, the poor Greek salesman with the dyed hair in Inglewood is not getting a commission. We owe him a karmic debt.

There’s more to say about our little adventure from the Marxist point of view.  In the eighteenth century, the physiocrats and economists, as they were newly named, campaigned against the older form of market society centered on the fair – against which they proposed the market. In the fair, the exchanges were defined not simply by barter or the exchange of money for products, but by other social forces as well – tests of masculinity, alliance makinng, sexual adventure, and various non-economic pleasures. A simple way of speaking about this is to say that the products in the fair weren’t fully commoditized. In the ideal market, the products were. Transactions came down to the calculus between the utility of the consumer and the utility of the seller. In a sense, the objects were stripped of everything alien to their exchange nature.
Marx, of course, saw this logic as a social force  that would eventually sweep away all remnants of the older market society – the pre-capitalist society. As it happens, the pre-capitalist world is still all around us, even in the most capitalist of countries. Commodification meets its limits in the very nature of the nexus upon which it depends – that is, in the irresistable sociability that attends all human encouters.
Car sales in the US are strongly fair-like. Updike was shrewd, in his four Rabbit novels, to move his protagonist from a factory figure to a car salesman. Rabbit’s idea of the car lot as a place of seduction and masculine competition plugs into every car lot I’ve ever gone to. A. finds it almost unbearable, the simultaneous brazen pressure to buy and the pressure to prove one’s manhood – as she said about one of the guys we dealt with, he practically pulled down his pants and showed us his big balls. In this forum, the customer who is best adapted to haggle, to negotiate, must know about cars and must exhibit that knowledge in its ideolect. The car lot is a place for victory and defeat, not a market for economically rational transactions.

This is where Carmax is so brilliant and, from a certain perspective, so oppressive. Here, the whole culture of sociability and masculinity assembled around automobiles is calmly tossed into the garbage. There are no negotiations here, there’s no haggling, there are no victories. Just as when I buy an aspirin at the grocery store, a transaction that requires minimum knowledge of chemistry on my part and on the part of the clerk who checks me out, at CarMax, the fair like aspects of the transaction have been minimized. Interestingly, the decorations, size and layout of the place denies this simple, inhuman fact – the car lot looks much more utilitarian, with its assembled jam of cars. As the fair is condemned to death, its emblems are stolen and employed to disguise the death.