Tag Archives: capitalism

Ways we live now: the Volkswagen scandal and modern capitalsm

With so many crazy things going on these days, who even remembers the Great Volkswagen Scandal of 2015? That’s the one where they caught VW faking pollution performance in its diesel engines– and not just messing with the paperwork, either. VW actually installed a whole extra system in eleven million of its cars, allowing them to detect when they were in the shop for state emissions tests. While hooked up to the inspection machines, the cars ran in low pollution mode and met government standards; once back on the road, they went back to standard performance– which meant sending out forty-times as much pollution as in fake-out mode.

It’s not exactly in the spirit of blogging to bring up a months-old scandal– but I keep thinking about the VW case, because it says so much about how crazy contemporary capitalism has become. Also, about the craziness of our responses to contemporary capitalism.

As a partial list of what’s so crazy about the case, consider the following:

1) The scale of the operation. It’s a big deal to invent a cheat system and install it in eleven million cars. VW has fallen back on the “it was a few bad apples/rogue executives” defense we hear so often these days, but that’s pretty implausible. An operation like this required research and development, changes to assembly lines, major expenditures, all going on over several years.

2) The Germany thing. Being known for quality manufacturing is a very, very big deal to Germany. Of course the “made in Germany” brand is an economic tool, which helps the country sell its goods worldwide and charge premium prices for them, but it’s also part of the larger German psychology, really a nation-wide brand name. The idea is, Germans do things right, they don’t take short-cuts, their products deserve your trust. It’s the mindset that allows German politicians to lecture Greeks, Italians, and others about being lazy, slovenly tax evaders who can’t generate trade surpluses.

So you might think an iconic German company would hesitate to put all that at risk; even if companies occasionally did so, you’d think, the German authorities themselves would be extra vigilant about misbehavior that threatened the national brand. Apparently not.

3) The objective. Since I’m not a car guy, my handle on the technicalities is weak. But as I understand it, the cars worked just fine in low-pollution mode, they just performed better when spewing (lots) more pollutants– more pep, more power, more responsiveness, better fuel economy. In other words, VW was ready for crime if that’s what it took to make its customers marginally happier.

4) The stakes. Of course, the costs included more than just violating various countries’ laws. There’s also the real-life impact of all that extra pollution– premature deaths (about sixty in the US, so the researchers guess, and many more in Europe, where diesels are more popular), and of course contributing to the destruction of the planet. Think of it as human sacrifice on the altars of high performance and customer satisfaction.

5) Professors to the rescue. The story only came to light because complete outsiders looked into the case. A group of professor/researchers at West Virginia University bought a handful of the cars and did their own tests, out on the open road– only after they published their findings did the relevant regulatory agencies get involved, and only after that did VW itself take steps. (Steps which are still dragging along, by the way– VW still hasn’t replaced or refitted the engines.)

So among other things, the VW Scandal is a lesson about the benefits of tenure and the other protections the American research university provides its researchers. Thousands of people within VW and thousands more outside must have known what was going on, but there were zero whistle-blowers on this one– not surprisingly, when you think about what happens to most corporate whistle-blowers. Nowadays, the universities are the last refuge for this kind of free-range, trouble-making, profit-threatening research. Most everywhere else, raising this kind of question means losing your job.

Now, there’s a tendency to think about cases like this in terms of corporate psychology and ethics. You’ve probably seen stories like this one, which asks what all those people were thinking– how could they have signed off on the VW program, given its immoral elements?  Or if you haven’t seen VW-relevant stories, you’ve seen them about other corporate ethical disasters, like our recent banking scandals. Which is fine, I’m all for moral improvement, but I think that misses the real message of the Great VW Scandal.

Instead, the real message is just how completely capitalist calculation now trumps other possible ways of thinking– like, say, worrying about right and wrong, or about humanity’s survival, or your country’s reputation, or even the long-term health of the corporation itself. It all pretty much follows the Karl Marx script. Capitalism works as total Darwinian war, meaning that all options are on the table, escalation is always possible, and in the long run there are no safety zones. And of course, Marx would have been pleased to hear the rumors that other car companies have been doing the same thing. He’d say, that’s just how capitalism works.

Maybe it’s time to take the old guy a little more seriously.



Sex, money, and art: the culture news from Paris

A regular feature of French life is the blockbuster art exhibit, a temporary show at one of the big museums with lots of works by a particular artist or about a particular theme. France takes its cultural heritage very, very seriously– in some ways it defines the country’s national identity–, and people make big efforts to visit these shows. So they tend to be uncomfortable mob scenes, and culture-snob comedy often ensues– you can find yourself at a dinner party earnestly discussing some seventeenth-century painter you’d never heard of a few weeks earlier. But despite the crowds and the comedy, these shows can be fantastically powerful, and some of the memories are still with me decades later.

Which makes it interesting that this year’s first blockbuster– opening tomorrow at the Orsay Museum– is called “Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910,” and the museum describes it as “the first major show on the subject of prostitution.” Certainly it’s an appropriate subject for a big art exhibit. All the nineteenth century’s heavyweight painters portrayed prostitution over and over, and so did the big writers.

So in the culture history sense the Paris show is no surprise. But it is a surprise in terms of the “why here, why now?” questions, because in recent years sex-for-money has been a culture flashpoint in France, evoking heavy-duty anger. Some weeks ago, I described the example of the economist/politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As long as he was thought to be just an over-aggressive playboy seducer, Strauss-Kahn enjoyed support from both his family and the public; once it turned out he’d been consorting with prostitutes, they dumped him. Legislation to criminalize buying sex has gained serious traction in the French legislature, though for now it’s legal; prostitution itself is also legal, but anyone connected to prostitutes risks big trouble– husbands can be arrested for pimping just because they benefit from their wives’ earnings, even if they have nothing else to do with their wives’ activities.

That was decidedly not the world of the great artists who loom so large in France’s cultural patrimony. Until 1946 brothels were legal there, and artists experienced them first-hand. Anyone who knows Degas only for his dreamy ballerina pictures should check out his ultra-realistic brothel pictures; the elegant aesthete Marcel Proust even includes a male brothel in Remembrance of Things Past. And it’s not just that they experienced and depicted these scenes– as various scholars have pointed out, they also made realistic prostitution scenes central to their art. That applies to a whole series of the works that created our modern aesthetic outlook– Manet’s “Olympia,” Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” pretty much everything written by Baudelaire. (For a wonderful discussion of all this, take a look at T.J. Clark’s Painting of Modern Life.)

So what we seem to have is this: the cultural monuments that have shaped our own world and constituted France’s present-day identity were created by men who frequented prostitutes and thought a lot about them. They’ve made us moderns what we are– yet our era increasingly looks on their preoccupations as distasteful.

Does this count as a cultural contradiction? You could say no, in the sense that every culture great has their embarrassing sides, which later generations have to excuse, ignore, explain, or work around; often it’s some combination of all four. Think of Shakespeare’s anti-semitism, Mozart’s sexism, Jefferson and Twain’s racism– in cases like those, we try to separate out what’s valuable from what’s disturbing, and we historicize, by treating the disturbing parts as reflections of a past that we’ve outgrown. We evaluate Shakespeare and the rest by the standards of their times, and avoid judging them by our own.

But that way of thinking doesn’t really work in the art-meets-prostitution case, because if you take prostitution out of pictures like Olympia, there’s not much left. It’s not only the subject matter that vanishes, either– in these works prostitution poses the intellectual problems the painting asks us to think about. As T. J. Clark explains, pictures like these meditate on the encounters among money, desire, and power. They don’t gives us algorithms for sorting these out, but they do insist we join the meditation process. Especially, they make us think about the limits of buying– does it stop before we get to sex and love, or is that for sale too?

So here’s an uncomfortable hypothesis: maybe we’re less comfortable thinking about these questions nowadays than they were back in 1910, because all of us are so much more entangled with money systems. Maybe we’re more desperate to draw bright lines demarcating what money can’t buy, just because we worry more that those lines are actually dim and fuzzy.

As I say, an uncomfortable and complicated hypothesis– I’ll try to pursue it in a second post.