Poking the frog at Gunther's Garage
By Joe Bageant
If you have the balls to stand up to Gunther Gatlin, and pay in cash, you just might manage to get him to do his job, which is fixing cars. Gunther's Garage is jammed in between an unpainted shotgun shack and a weedy vacant lot on a skanky little side street in Winchester, Virginia. The place is really an illegal junkyard, but slips through the city code masquerading as a garage.
Patronizing Gunther's is not for wallflowers, gays, feminists or Yankees. You do not go there unless you don't mind being insulted. Gunther has a habit of greeting customers with remarks such as: "So what the hell is your problem?" Once he addressed a gay guy as "Twinkles." Sometimes he will just stand there, grease all over his Hawaiian shirt, pulling on his suspenders, and with a poignant pause, ask what a customer thinks is wrong with the vehicle. He listens thoughtfully, eyes toward the ground, then looks up and says, "Well that's the dumbest goddamned thing I ever heard."
Gunther can make you feel like crawling away through the crack under the garage door, or make you feel like popping him in his unshaven jaw.
However, one thing Gunther will not do is cheat or overcharge you. Another thing he will not do is let a vehicle fail state inspection. Just about any vehicle that can be pushed into the garage's oily littered gloom will roll out the other side bearing the great state of Virginia's stamp of road worthiness. As the owner of an ancient rotted out, Toyota truck with bald tires, Gunther's got my business for life.
Beyond all that, Gunther is of a vanishing breed. He's one of those crusty homegrown experts who will expound on everything, from the vicissitudes of the stock market to America as an emerging police state:
"It starts with car exhaust standards, and ends up with me having to pay for anti-terrorist training, so I can get the new license you gotta have now to tow cars. Just in case you hook up to a car with a goddamned bomb in it." I recommend that you not ask him about it because the entire tirade is almost forty minutes long.
Last time I was there, Gunther was reared back in his one-armed swivel chair, behind a desk piled with 7-Eleven sandwich wrappers, rusted obsolete tools and cigarette butts, holding forth on the stock market. Gunther plays the market in a small way, small enough that his broker never returns his calls.
"I'll tell ya what the stock market game is all about."
I didn't remember asking, but I knew I wouldn't get my turn signals fixed unless I listened.
"Used to be that a guy would pick a stock based on the facts. After a while, it got so that people looked around to see what other people's average opinion was, and they bet on that. Nowadays you look around and try to guess what the average opinion of the average opinion is. If you can guess enough other people's guesses about other people's guesses, then you bet on that and you make money. Don't fucking matter if the stock is a dog. The stock market now runs the whole damned economy based on what fools believe other fools believe other fools believe. Run by a bunch of economists who figure that if they make enough fools believe the stock market is OK, then the economy will be OK. What if I ran my business that way? What if all I had to do was make people believe their cars was fixed? I'd go broke."
"You are broke, Gunther."
"That's beside the point."
Studs Terkel once said that writers often portray working folks, such as cab drivers and garage mechanics, as having too much worldly wisdom. Given that advice from a lifelong role model, I have always tried to avoid romanticizing such people for the sake of a good column. Still, there is always the danger of overdoing even the best advice. The fact is that grizzled old tradesmen do get in a good lick now and then. And Gunther gets in more than most, especially about politics and the economy.
Gunther on bailouts and stimulus money: "The stimulus money will work if enough suckers believe it will work. But it'll only work for a while, until we run out of stimulus money. Then somebody's got to print some more and get 'em to believin' again. It's like poking a frog in a frog race for one jump at a time. You ain't gonna ever see the finish line"
Gunther has been a conservative all his life, though not necessarily a Republican. He once liked Ron Paul, so go figure. He admires Kentucky senator Jim Bunning for being against the bailouts, which to Gunther and Bunning, prove "socialism is alive and well in America." He says, "I bombed a bunch of Koreans so I would not have to live under communist socialism," thus proving Studs was right that colorful working mooks are not necessarily the bearers of keen insight. Gunther says, "When it comes to the bailouts, somebody should've eat those losses like I eat mine. And it should've been the shitbags who caused them. The financial big shots with their jacked up crooked schemes. Let them take the hit, instead of spreading it around among the people."
"Well, that's socialism," I said. "It's socialism for the banks in the service of capitalism."
"Gunther, tell me the truth. Do you do you actually know the difference between socialism and capitalism?"
I know damned well Gunther does not, and I figured this was my chance to sneak in one of my educational commie lectures. But he slid out of the question with a "Lemme get back to you in that."
Gunther might be a conservative, but there are a hell of a lot of people on the left who would agree with his opinion that, "Them what cooked up this financial mess should damned well eat it." When Gunther and Republicans members of the petty right pose the financial catastrophe in terms of the people vs. the elite group who caused it (the shitbags), they are using the context of class struggle, whether they choose to use that term or not. So does the Tea Party when it talks about Main Street vs. Wall Street (would that the Tea Partiers were as smart as Gunther.)
The petty right and the bumbling left find themselves unexpectedly meeting one another these days, as they navigate the craters of our bombed out economic landscape. Were it not for the ideological war in progress (it's not a cultural war, no matter what the university pundits say, it's a capitalist state sponsored ideological war), they would probably form a powerful combined populist movement that would scare Washington right out of its silk shorts. Naturally, political strategists on both sides do everything possible to keep the rank and file from discovering the growing overlap of liberal and conservative thinking (or in some cases, nonthinking).
Not many working people on either side still believe that what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, or that very much trickles down from Wall Street to our level. No matter how much money we sweat for, or borrow — or Congress borrows in our name without ever asking us — and throw at Wall Street, the money sticks up there on the fortieth floor. Then it disappears into that bizarro funhouse mirror of the real economy, the virtual economy — euphemistically called banking and investment and the market. Our market system of "investment" is based upon getting in at the right moment, grabbing other people's money, then getting out fast. Which pretty much describes the key elements a bank heist.
Despite the advice of stock brokers everywhere to think long term, be patient and hold on, the goes to the swift. Consequently, milliions of American retirees are still playing bluff poker on eTrade long after the big dogs behind the casino mirrors, the people who can really count cards (because they marked and dealt them), have moved their stakes offshore. As far back as 2000, the big bucks were on the move, away from the fray and sucking more money in their backdraft.
Some people understood at the time that it was a banker rigged game from top to bottom, one that included an elite cadre of players ranging from Wall Street to the Fed, the IMF and the World Bank. Most saw only a few aspects of the global financial growth-bot. But they saw them clearly enough to raise holy hell about it. And were clubbed down in places like Seattle and Miami. When it comes to truth vs. the elite's muscle, there is no contest. In a show of elite muscle, some 3,500 cops were summoned to silence the 2001 Washington D.C. truth tellers. That is one cop for every three protestors at the Anti-capitalist Convergence. Total cost of policing, steel fence and concrete barriers and precautions came to $30 million — or $37,500 per protestor. I had many friends at that protest, and I cannot think of one who would not have stayed home for half that amount.
America's bourgeois birth $ign
To the little guys like Gunther, the collapse looks like the work of i
mmoral men within the system. That is true to a degree. But immorality was institutionalized in America a long time ago., when bourgeois capitalism monopolized not only wealth, but power and prestige in the United States, the only nation it could have happened in at the time. Early America was a clean historical slate. It had never passed through a feudal era or centuries of domination by nobility's power and wealth. No official church monopolized its morals. Born simultaneously with, and suckled on capitalism, America's mercantile bourgeoisie never faced any of the historical forces that created tension or resistance to its aims. Freed from the Old World's historical competition, and blessed with unimaginable natural resources, plus an immense and willing immigrant labor force, the national bourgeoisie grew wealthy and powerful. From its ranks grew new mercantile, industrial and banking elites, and new strata of dominance and power. Today they manifest themselves as the complex corporate-financial complex that owns our national production, employment, legal system and our politicians.
The bourgeoisie could not have produced any other kind of elites, because by its very nature, bourgeois ascendance and success goes to those individuals who most value material wealth. Those of extreme wealth necessarily dominate. And extreme wealth cannot be accumulated by individuals ,except by extracting it from the multitude of other individuals — a little or a lot from each member if the working masses.
By 1870, probably much earlier, when the robber barons emerged, American mercantile industrial capitalism was unstoppable. By 1917 the inherent American capitalism was inextricably bound up in industrial violence on a world scale. Destruction and replacement of materiel on a scale previously inconceivable, industrial strength warfare proved immensely profitable for industrial capitalists.
The industrial warfare of World Wars I and II, and even "the atom bomb," now seem quaint, compared to today's vastly more profitable technological warfare, which, unlike the previous warmaking style, we've come to embrace. Whereas the atomic bomb spawned the largest peace movement in both American and world history, techno-war spawned such things as computer war game market, with its virtual "mass combat role playing," and fantasy war making." We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.
As I stood on the oily gravel in front of Gunther's Garage, I thought of the defense satellites whizzing overhead. And how somewhere over the Middle East, killer drones are being operated remotely by Americans in Nevada bunkers, as virtual and as removed from the blood and fire as any computer game. Both the real and the virtual warfare flourish, both fed on virtual money of the banking elites. If real money — money not based upon endless future debt in an imaginary world of unlimited growth and perpetual war — were required, neither would exist.
For now though, the capitalist growth-bot will march on unimpeded by the greater mass of Americans. Until it crashes. It is very hard to imagine capitalism being brought down by the uncomplaining masses below, who draw sustenance from it and offer their sons and daughters to its wars without complaint.
On the other hand, the inevitability of its collapse from within, due to its utter unsustainability, is heartening in a grim way. Billions will suffer. It seems the faceless laboring masses never make even a small gain, even an inadvertent one, without immense suffering. And even when they do, any advantage they gain is financialised in the virtual economy by the elites, and loaned back to them at compound interest, then tranched for more virtual profits, and on and on and on. Such is the architecture of our sickness.
Money for nuthin'
Defenders of capitalism claim that there can be no real economy, no real material value created by the real people on Main Street, without the financing of Wall Street's virtual economy. Allegedly, they are so intertwined as to be the same thing, which they are, and that no other way of doings things is possible, which is patently untrue. The storyline goes that without virtual economy financing from Wall Street, without the ever-expanding debt that drives the quest for limitless growth, the world would end. So strong is this hallucination that capitalist theoreticians such as Guy Sorman say, "even in this time of financial crisis, the global benefits of the new financial markets have surpassed their costs."
What the fuck globe are ya living on Guy? Have you looked around lately? The global financial crash, which continues to cause world wide misery, is a benefit? As my webmaster Ken Smith says of big picture economists, "Climate is what they write about, but weather is what we get."
The Nobel Prize winning economist also declares, "Market mechanisms are so efficient that they can manage threats to long-term development, such as the exhaustion of natural resources, far better than states can. If global warming does become a real problem, for example, price mechanisms or a carbon tax pollution [making the right to pollute sellable for profit] would easily encourage a more efficient use of energy [only the rich and corporations will be able to afford energy]. But then, I'm not too surprised at Sorman's remarks. Economists have jobs only by serving the economic regime in power as court eunuchs.
For all the Marxist economists there are in the world, you will not find a single one working on Wall Street or in Washington. If there were, Americans would better understand that the economy is not so much one big cohesive glob of real economy and virtual economy, one big glob of inseparable goods and financial services as a single value, as our economists would have us believe.
Goods and services have at least two values. The first is their use value, the value of a commodity or service in real on-the-ground terms, such as useful value of a tool, or shelter or food, or worth as a service, such as transport. The second is their transactional value: how much money banking and "investment" can make controlling the money involved in the transactions surrounding those goods or services, or financing the creation of new ones through loans, marketing and institutionalized capital control.
The consequences, even in creating unneeded services and products for the sheer sake of growth, even pointless are enormously profitable. For example, water, is bottled at a cost of a few cents and sold for a buck. Much of it is just bottled water from a municipal source. The consumer has already paid for such water twice, once in taxes and again as a utility bill, but nevertheless buys bottled at a little over 10,000 times the municipal cost. Of course not all of that difference is profit. Some of it goes into petroleum based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, boosting the oil industry and contributing one third of our national waste stream. Bottle production and bottle recycling both pollute our water supply, helping push us to that day we will all eventually be forced to buy bottled water. Until then, our commodity fetishism will suffice; we can buy "Boulder Water," bottled tap water from Boulder, Colorado, at 11,000 times the cost of the tap water, because, well, it's from Boulder. The glories of commodity capitalist productivity!
There is no arguing that there is no greater method of creating economic growth than capitalism. Even Marx had no qualm with that. But growth is like crack cocaine for bankers and economists, both of which see the world purely in terms if wealth accumulation and production. For we who do the producing (or once did the producing back when workers were still considered a necessary evil)the truth is that American capitalism is like a wine press. It squeezes the masses for the money representing their productivity, in a process other
wise known as the virtual economy. A few people in the virtual economy become multi-millionaires. The rest of us pay the freight financially, socially and ecologically.
It will get worse. Consider Obama's ramped up mountaintop removal program for coal energy. Corporate coal and Wall Street bankers are overjoyed at the prospect of adding to the 143 already-leveled mountains and their attending toxic water zones. The frog of capitalism will be poked in a big way for another jump.
The end result will be more energy (I was going to say "of the dirtiest kind," but the administration is pouring the juice to nuclear energy too), that will continue to be squandered in driving our wasteful toxic lifestyle. One that doesn't even seem to be making us very happy, but nevertheless drives autonomous capitalism's virtual economy. So "The Administration" (a spooky faceless matrix-like term, when you really thing about it), welds government policy onto coal and nuclear power, and every single aspect of the virtual economy, from financing to insurance and marketing, makes big money — securing an even firmer grip on the nation's everyday life than it already has. If that does not scare you, then you deserve the sci-fi horror you are about to get, compliments of the virtual economy. But the rest of us do not.
Meanwhile, the "real" economy as most of us experience it, is stretched out dead as a day old codfish down there on Main Street. And all Obama or any other politician stewed in the super-capitalist ethos can do is pump money into the banks, and then beg the bankers to come out of their gilded lairs and trickle on the corpse. That's the problem with capitalism — capitalists.
When it comes to the choice of capitalism vs. socialism, I do believe it's over in America. Time to choose came and went a long time ago. And we chose a system that, essentially promised something for nothing. Making money off money. As Dire Straits put it, "Money for nothing and your chicks for free." Now we find ourselves flattened again, begging the financial elites to come piss in our ear one more time. As if they could hear us from their Manhattan townhouses, vacation homes in Provence or their yachts off Martinique.
Pretending the thrill ain't gone
What would happen if America had leadership that stood up and coolly, intelligently described the economic and ecological peril we face, both of which are completely interrelated. What would happen if a president told the people, "What we have been doing has obviously not been working [they'd sure as hell agree on that], so we are going to have to remake America to save it, and it's going to mean real sacrifice." And what if he could do so without capitalist forces sending out ideological swiftboats to blow him out of the water, or launching hate campaigns against him, branding him as an evil fascist eco-socialist, or whatever.
I dare say the number of Americans who would respond, be willing to sacrifice and meet a challenge issued by cohesive, focused leadership, might surprise us. They might well do it, if for no other reason than that Americans are the most authority worshiping people on earth, outside of North Korea. The reasons why we will never hear a president or a cooperative congress say those things are manifold more than the reasons to believe that we will one day hear it.
Maybe next time — even though there can be no next time in the usual sense, because the rip-off is in and it is total — we will choose better. The planet and the resource base that creates all wealth is pretty much shot, or soon will be. Over six billion people, otherwise known as the masses — though we are not allowed to use that commie term in America — are closing in to finish off what is left.
America and the industrialized world as we have known it are unrecoverable. Some of us find a certain kind of regrettable justice in that. There will be no recovery, but there will be numerous manufactured illusions of recovery. As Gunther says, we will poke the frog for one jump at a time. Deny the obvious limits of the earth's sustenance, dry hump the ghost of a sick and unjust prosperity and pretend the thrill ain't gone.
What little will remain of sustenance on the planet will have to be distributed by the state, simply to prevent riots and warlordism; but not until the nations have finished warring against one another for resources. What kind of state we end up with between now and species extinction, will be determined by the quality of our own character, the courage and moral stamina of the people.
Turn off your computer, go outside, and look around you. Everything looks normal, doesn't it? Because everyone's average opinion of everyone else's average opinion is that things will somehow work out. We've placed out bets, and then gone about business as usual, safe in the belief that sooner or later there will be a recovery, a return to things as they were. Most Americans assume that, yes, everything will be OK.
Which is exactly why it will not.
Anyway, I'm sitting down here in Mexico thinking about how the inspection sticker on my old red truck ran out back in February. Why I should be worrying about that when I have half a bottle of tequila and a pile of limes in the refrigerator, is beyond me. Once a fearful child of the empire's many rules, always one, I suppose. In about a month, I'll have to go back to the States to do my income taxes. While I'm there I will sneak the truck across town and get Gunther to slap a sticker in the poor beast, bald tires and all. And Gunther, sure as hell will insult me. And I will get off cheap once again, in the empire that insults me more than Gunther ever will.
A note to the middle class "Marxist scholars" who spend their time finger fucking themselves over theory: Yes, I've oversimplified here. However, I am not writing a thesis, or holding forth at Starbuck's. I'm just talking to fellow Americans as citizens and friends. You know, those people who work for a living because they do not have a trust fund from grandpa.