Volume 6, Issue 1: Spring 2010

Special Issue: Motorcycle--Beschleunigung und Rebellion?

 

Marx and McQueen: Racing against Communism in Fordist America

Leerom Medovoi

What does Karl Marx have to do with Steve McQueen?  Or to put the question in the context that concerns this essay, how might Marx clarify the postwar American obsession with motorcycles and speeding cars that McQueen embodied?  This is a question that might be approached in two distinct ways.  One would take Marx as the question’s subject: how, as a thinker, does Marx help us to understand the postwar culture of speed? The other takes Marx as the question’s object:  how did Marx’s historical legacy in the twentieth century lead us to McQueen? We will find the answer to both of these questions in an unlikely place: the American suburb.

 

On the one hand, the 1950s are aptly known as the so-called “golden age of capitalism,” a unique moment in the history of an economic system whose relations of power remain most poignantly theorized by Marx.  On the other hand, Marx also matters because Soviet communism claimed a line of descent from both his theories (instantiating the communist society he predicted) and his praxis (an outgrowth of his political activity as a communist).  Using Marx in a dialectical fashion, as both a thinker and a shorthand for communism’s historical impact, I will suggest that popular icons of youthful speed like Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, or Jack Kerouac, appealed so strongly in the postwar decades because they served as an antidote to anxious Cold War conceptions of America’s suburbs, which (as we shall see) many condemned as a crypto-communistic space of stasis, conformity, and subjection.  Or, to put this even more simply, speed was American capitalism’s fetishistic answer to its own fear that it might be outstripped by communism.

 

Fordism, the new regime of capital accumulation that reached its zenith in the postwar years, was built on the direct material foundations of the American suburbs.  The postwar system of mass production was tightly articulated to the mass consumption that suburbia exemplified and idealized.[1]  Fueled by the G.I. bill and by President Dwight Eisenhower’s plans for a new highway system, the suburban order spread through the mass production of new housing tracts on a scale never before seen in the United States.  Indeed, the statistics suggest that this was the single largest “migration” in the nation’s history.  More people moved from the cities to the suburbs during the Fifties and Sixties, for example, than had immigrated to the United States in the preceding seven decades.

 

The suburban home itself, however, was just the beginning of the specifically postwar consumer regime.  Suburban homes differed greatly from urban apartments, which were physically proximate to food markets, laundromats, or the labor of a servant class, and where space was at a premium.  Major new consumer goods came to replace these urban conveniences.  The new suburban home required the purchase of expensive, heavy appliances to help manage suburban distance: refrigerators, laundry machines, vacuums.  But most important of these was the automobile, which became the heart of the new industrial regime.  To link the suburbs to urban cores and to one another, a system of expressways and beltways was constructed.  In the great postwar Sunbelt cities, these highways came to replace the urban system of public transportation altogether.

 

It is no coincidence, therefore, that this new regime of accumulation—this special new form of capitalism—came to be named after the automobile.  It was Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist who first called this type of capitalism “Fordism” because its very possibility depended on the idea of industrial workers earning enough to be able to purchase (on credit plans at least) the automobiles that they built.  Owing to the growth in real wages that resulted from the New Deal and the labor movements of the Thirties and Forties, but owing also to the realization of earlier capitalists that mass production required a mass of buyers, and that a way of life tied to such production was a core need for industrial capitalism, postwar workers who moved to the suburbs could purchase the cars, homes, and goods, including even the new services that would help fuel the subsequent expansion of white-collar labor.[2]

 

The automobile leads us to the most interesting paradox of the suburbs.  As I noted earlier, Marx is relevant to the Fifties, not only because he helps us to analyze the structure of postwar American capitalism, but also because there was an actually existing communist world that claimed to be the direct embodiment of the post-revolutionary communist society that he predicted. The Cold War, above all else, was organized rhetorically around a global rivalry between capitalism and Soviet-style communism over their respective claims to be the most productive and liberatory of economic and political systems.  It is often forgotten that, during the Fifties and Sixties, the Soviet economy was also growing rapidly, faster in fact than the U.S. economy.  Just as there was an arms race in these years, and soon, too, a space race, so too there was also an economic growth race, and a contest over which economic system would provide people with the greatest benefits and, ultimately, the greatest freedom.  The suburbs served as America’s “Exhibit A” for the affluence created by capitalism, perhaps most famously when Vice President Nixon went to the Soviet Union and engaged Nikita Khrushchev in the so-called kitchen debates, wherein he argued that the well-equipped kitchen of the typical American suburban home demonstrated better than anything else capitalism’s superiority to communism.

 

The difficulty with Nixon’s argument, however, is that there was something culturally unconvincing about its implicit assumption that the greater material wealth of American capitalism was equivalent to offering its citizens greater freedom and happiness.  Consider, for example, a Ford Motors advertisement from 1956 featuring a suburban mother speaking to viewers from her kitchen.

 

Fordstill

  Figure 1: Still from Ford Motors “2 Ford Family” TV Advertisement, 1956

 

She explains that, despite the material advantages of her large home and well-equipped kitchen, she used to be unhappy precisely because, whenever her husband left for the day, she found herself trapped at home: lonely, stuck, and with no way to see friends or go somewhere to amuse herself.   In short, despite the wealth of material consumption that the suburban home embodies, it proved to be a trap for the women, and also for the children and youth, who remained stuck within it.  The solution, of course, was to buy a second Ford.  Once her family does so, our speaker finds the happiness that she seeks.  But it is striking that it is not the home, but the car that makes this possible.[3]

 

One interesting interpretation of this ad is that the unhappiness associated with being stuck in the suburban home strongly evoked precisely the features of Soviet communism that Cold War America claimed to reject.  It was a trap for the individual, a space of subjection to the static mentality identified with the “mass.”  Even more precisely, the suburban home seemed to mirror the collectivist anonymity by which anti-communists envisioned the Soviet Union as a false modernity.  Both the Russians and the suburbs touted their modern freedom, yet both appeared instead to rob their citizens of any genuine access to such freedom.  These sentiments emerged paradoxically out of very the mass production system that had made postwar suburbia possible.  Because it mass-produced a comparable bundle of commodities for most Americans, Fordism appeared to homogenize the postwar way of life; people appeared to be left with little choice but to live exactly like everyone else, and in considerable isolation to boot. Indeed, to live in the suburbs was to subject oneself to a standardizing but alienating consumer culture that resembled nothing less than the unfreedom of subjection to the Russian communist state.  The famous sociologist of the Fifties, William Whyte, wrote that middle class suburbanites exchanged many cynical jokes about suburbia, including one where it was called “a Russia, only with money” (280).

 

Ironically then, when politicians and advertisers equated the freedom to consume with political freedom, they relied upon a series of binary terms meant to promote suburban Fordist capitalism as superior to Soviet “mass” society.  The irony of these binaries—stasis vs. speed, entrapment vs. mobility, unhappiness vs. happiness, subjection vs. freedom, and for that matter female vs. male—is that tended to boomerang back as a critique of suburbia. When American Fordism was viewed from the viewpoint of the domicile, what began as an economic growth race to see which economic system could offer the most human freedom began to look like a case of similarly coerced conformity.  One could, however, view American Fordism, not from the viewpoint of the home, but instead through the alternative core commodity, the automobile, which represented itself above all as the materialization of speed.[4] 

 

The automobile, as I have already noted, was the transportation device that had made the suburbs possible.  Tract homes could not have been built without a system of private transportation to get people in and out of them.  But as the Ford commercial cited above suggests, the automobile was also imagined as a certain kind of solution to suburban stasis.  This can be understood at a rather literal level, whereby the automobile simply lets one escape the home.  This woman, already a victim of the housewifely depression that, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan would later call “the problem that has no name,” imagines that at least with a second car she could leave to visit a friend or, better yet, fulfill her suburban destiny and go shopping.[5]

 

But the automobile also expressed a more metaphorical solution.  The word “automobile,” after all, express the idea of self-mobility, of being able to move oneself, which suggests it as a technology counter to stasis.  To drive a car is to annihilate space through time, to move from one location to another at speeds that would seem unimaginable to anyone living prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike the suburban home, then, the car offers a metaphor for the dynamism of capital itself, which as Marx taught us, circulates ever faster, reorganizing the world in its image, turning all that is solid into air, and, through its creative destruction, functions as a progressive historical force.  Whereas the suburban home and the family within it evoke the idea of remaining stationary, the automobile expressed the dynamic side of capitalism crucial to escaping the “communistic” side of suburbia.[6]

 

HotRodGangposterDuring the 1950s, nobody was more strongly associated with the “freedom” and dynamism of the postwar automobile than youth.  Middle-class teenagers began to drive en masse for the first time.  More than that, over the course of the decade a special consumer culture for youth coalesced around the automobile.  When teenagers, themselves escaping suburban homes, went out for dates, they found privacy by driving sometimes to the new drive-in movie theaters, sometimes to diners, or sometimes “lovers’ lanes” where they could kiss or more.  But the point is that, in texts ranging from Chuck Berry’s song “Maybelline” to Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, to the many drag racing teen movies of the Fifties, the car became understood as the source and symbol of youthful independence.  The fact that teenagers drove entirely to enjoy their disposable leisure time gave their use of cars an association with freedom that their parents, who used cars out of necessity, to go to work or to go shopping, did not share.

 

Figure 2: Movie Poster for Hot Rod Gang

 

One may recall that Marx wrote that communism liberated humanity from the realm of material necessity.  The contradiction of capitalism was that it created the means for its own dissolution, particularly at the level of necessary labor time.  By vastly reducing the amount of time needed to perform necessary work, capitalism ensured that we could produce enough to allow all to become fishermen and scholars. To be sure, this is not how American capitalism worked in practice.  In most cases, it made people work harder than ever. On a least a symbolic level, however, the leisure time of the teenager represented the freedom that was more generally denied to adults. The extreme version of this liberated teenager in the car, of course, was the rebellious teenager motoring in a dragster or on a motorcycle, someone who, by rejecting in principle a life of work, necessity, and drudgery, showed himself willing to race faster than anyone else toward his version of human freedom.

 

Steve McQueen’s stardom rests in his role in celebrating the mobile youth as an icon of political freedom, and more specifically in instantiating the relationship of the suburbs, anti-communism, and teenage speed.  I will elaborate on these significations by taking a close look at McQueen’s best known film role in the Fifties in The Blob.  Released in 1958, The Blob was a generically hybrid film. On the one hand, it was clearly what Hollywood came to call a teenpic, a low-budget movie about teenagers and made for a teenage audience.  Arriving at a time when big budget “A” movies were becoming less financially successful, the teenpic’s low cost and high return literally saved the industry once it realized in the mid-fifties that a fortune was to be made by catering to youth.[7] However, The Blob is not only a teenpic.  It is also a horror film, about the attack of a monstrous, amorphous creature.  Even more precisely, it is one of a popular cycle of postwar extraterrestrial invasion films that includes Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Attack! and numerous others. BlobPoster

 

Figure 3: Movie Poster of The Blob marketing it as a horror film

 

As we are reminded by the opening sentence of Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto—“a spectre is haunting Europe” (Tucker 473)—horror is the traditional genre for expressing fear of communism. It is a truism that these postwar horror films reflected the red scare, expressing deep fears about the nation’s security and preparedness for attack.  Many of these films seem to be most concerned with the complacency of Americans, who don’t take seriously the threat that the invader poses to their way of life until it is almost too late.[8]

 

The Blob works in this mode.  It is surely no coincidence that the color of this monster is a deep red.  It descends from the sky in a meteor that breaks open when it strikes the ground, not unlike a missile concealing a secret weapon.  Most important, the Blob is the nemesis of the clearly defined, autonomous individual.  It has no shape and no subjectivity.  Indeed, like communism in the most paranoid version of the Red Scare, whomever it touches also loses shape and subjectivity, being assimilated into its great undefined mass.  The Blob is a metaphor and a reductio ad absurdum of communist mass society as a corroder of personal human freedom.

 

McQueen

 

Figure 4: Steve McQueen in a motorcycle action shot

 

What makes the film interesting, of course, is whom it pits against the Blob, who in other words is prepared to save the day and defend the nation against such a danger.  The Blob was actually Steve McQueen’s first starring role, at the time when he was still a minor movie star of Hollywood teenpics. The Blob’s success catapulted him to fame, and opened the door for him to become known as the “king of cool” in Hollywood.  During the 1960s, of course, McQueen would become associated with the counterculture and the anti-war movement.  At this latter point, McQueen would become a kind of movie star rival and counterpart to Paul Newman, whose image he shared.  But McQueen’s special appeal, what made him “cool,” was that he was a passionate motorcycle and drag car racer.  Part of the McQueen legend claimed that he had supported himself in his earliest acting years by competing in local races.  He would later go on to star in one of the most famous of all motorcycle documentaries, On Any Sunday.[9]  

In the 1950s such behavior was, of course, borderline juvenile delinquency.  But delinquency was appealing because it served to counter the image of conformity associated with suburban life.  To race like McQueen was to gain accolades for taking risks, ignoring social opinions, and insisting on speed over stasis, ensuring that one moved forward, as McQueen did when he cashed out his race winnings to become a successful Hollywood player.

 

In The Blob, Steve McQueen plays a version of himself, Steve, one of a group of local teenagers who likes to drive around his suburban town, racing cars, taking risks and playing practical jokes that anger his elders.  But there is an important advantage to this.  It’s precisely because Steve is away at a local lovers’ lane with a new girl, Jane, that he sees the meteor fall.  From the start, the teenagers who see the landing investigate it.  Discovering a barely conscious old man on the road who has already been attacked, Steve and Jane drive him, with a rather small Blob clinging to his arm, to the town doctor for treatment.

 

As they are leaving the doctor—who has asked them to search the site of the accident for evidence of the parasite’s origins—we first encounter Steve’s other friends, who tease him and insist that he race against them because he is the “king” of the local racing, the town’s champion of speed. BlobStill

 

  Figure 5: Still from The Blob. Steve is crowned “king.”

 

To call a teen rebel a “king” in Fifties youth culture was a testament to his autonomy or even to his auto-mobility.  Steve’s status as a champion of speed is so impressive that he can even race in reverse, and he challenges the other boys (to their dismay) to compete backwards.

 

At this point, unfortunately, the plot is also going in reverse.  Instead of moving forward to the place where the meteor fell—what he should be doing if he is to learn what the town desperately needs to know—Steve here gets derailed into a bit of fun.  The problem with the teen rebel, as Fifties youth films often presented him, is that the may be speeding in the wrong direction because he may not understand what is at stake, particularly in narratives that suggest a threat to national security.

 

Calling him a “king” has another meaning.  Literally speaking, a king is the sovereign ruler, the person whose will is always enacted and who serves as the model on which the modern sovereign liberal subject was based.  Another important “king” in Fifties youth culture, for example, was Elvis, the “king of rock ’n’ roll,” a similar cultural figure. Elvis was king because he was the biggest star of his day, but he was also king because he played what he wanted and didn’t alter his style in response to mass social pressure.[10]  As a sovereign self, Steve is someone who will do what he thinks he should, rather than what the townspeople want or expect of him.  For this reason, Steve will find the courage to force a town with literal tolerance for their young people to take the threat of the Blob seriously.

 

The problem, paradoxically, is that the adults keep thinking that all the strange signs of the Blob’s attacks are simply a practical joke perpetrated by rebellious kids.  When Steve leads the police back to the doctor’s home, where the Blob has already killed the old man, the doctor, and the nurse, they find nothing.  Another practical joke, more derision of adult authority—what else could Steve possibly be up to?  One of the police officers even wants to jail the teenagers.  Having fought in World War Two, this officer thinks the teenagers are trying to provoke him out of a lack of respect for his patriotism.  He also resents the fact that his wife’s car nearly collided with an automobile driven by one of the boys.  What we will learn, of course, is that this officer is dead wrong.  Without any help from the police, let alone the military, these kids are themselves at war with the Blob in defense of their town and, ultimately, their country.

 

The police send Steve and Jane home to their parents, but the film’s climax is reached when the two of them sneak out of the house to find the Blob.  When they discover it, at last, in a supermarket, the teenagers set off the town’s air-raid and fire alarms, literally the signal for a military attack.  The entire town empties from their homes to see what is going on, and just as the police are about to lock Steve and his friends up for one too many pranks, the Blob is discovered in a movie theater (reflexively enough) at a midnight horror movie screening for teenagers.  Ultimately, Steve realizes that only cold will stop the Blob, and after nearly being killed by it, the police and the teenagers work together to freeze the monster using CO2 fire extinguishers.  In the final scene, a military plan drops the Blob somewhere in the arctic where, frozen, it can no longer harm anyone.

 

What this film suggests above all is that the rebellious speed of youth is the saving grace of the country.  In his well known study, Speed and Politics, Paul Virilio argued against Marx, suggesting that the modern fetishization of speed is a function, not of capital accumulation, but rather of a logic of war and technological militarization.  This argument certainly finds some purchase in this interpretation of The Blob, which has construed it as a displaced war film.  After all, only because the boys are fast, take risks, and are willing to disobey their elders—in other words that they are mobile and quick-reacting warriors—can they can wage a successful battle against a deadly enemy.  Virilio’s approach would thus anchor The Blob even more firmly in the logic of the military-industrial complex of the Cold War.  However, Virilio’s ontology of war fails to acknowledge how the Cold War itself could not have been fought without the Fordist mode of production to “motor” it at the level of production.  The widest narrative frame of The Blob ultimately concerns the critique of a way of life, not the ends of war.  What the struggle against the Blob by Steve and his friends inadvertently demonstrates is that the town they live in is too slow, too cautious, too complacent, and even too obedient.  It is caught in a kind of feeble stasis dissatisfying even in its own terms, just like the kitchen in the Ford Motors advertisement.  And like the “necessary” second car, war against the Blob brings about a solution to this problem by revealing the value of a new kind of mobility the populace eventually accepts.  Vulnerability to the communistic threat of the invader, in other words, is a kind of narrative ruse that justifies a transformative shift in the cultural norms of Fordism.  The teenagers, in this sense, guarantee that American suburban capitalism will maintain a dynamic element, something that the Cold War is then employed to justify. Their fast cars serve as an antidote, finally, to the false modernity of the homes and supermarkets, those other emblems of postwar capitalism.   The race against communism ensures that the Fordist mode of production will build these fast cars and the motorcycles ridden by Steve McQueen, and not merely become equated with the suburban trap.  Ironically, as we see in Steve McQueen’s subsequent biography, this Fordist desire for the rebel’s dynamism would have unintended consequences, leading to the more substantive social and cultural rebellions of the Sixties that are themselves the dialectical outcome of the internal contradictions of this phase in the history of capitalism.  If the Cold War maneuvers of Fordism demanded speed and revolt, it is no surprise that they led to movements for social change.  Hence, while the binaries discussed earlier seem to work in a static opposition to one another—whether as a critique of Soviet communism or an internal critique of the failings of suburbia—a more sophisticated approach would be to reckon with the dialectical motion of these binaries. Speed and stasis are not only co-implicated in the new physical, social, and political structures of Fifties suburbia, but they thereby also generate the historical development of social opposition to those structures.

 

When we think about Karl Marx in the context I have offered, in his relation to a move like The Blob, he seems to stand on both sides of our screen.  On the one hand, Marx is inside The Blob as that which the monster caricatures. The rich idea that human alienation and the exploitation of human labor could be overcome appears—within the mirror of Cold War culture—as a shapeless mass that devours the human form.  But, on the other hand, Marx also belongs outside the film.  It is Marx, after all, who enables us to perform this reading.  It is his account of the dynamism of capital, its progressive self-image, and even its fear of a communist alternative, that allows us to understand why youth became such an important cultural force in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies.  The encounter between Marx, McQueen, and postwar American capitalism is itself a dialectical problem.  When interpreted with care, McQueen speeding down the road on his motorcycle embodies not so much a vision of freedom as a figure for the problematics of Cold War capitalist freedom.  The irony-laced relations between the various realms of human freedom—political, economic, cultural—grow out of the tendency under capitalism to align freedom with only the first, privileged term in the speed-stasis binary.  For it is speed, after all, that justifies the dynamics of capital accumulation.

 

Notes

 

[1] For a series of rich accounts of postwar Fordism, see the collected essays in Margolin and Schor.

[2] See the opening chapter of my book, Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity (1-52) for a discussion of Fordist capitalism and suburbia.

[3] This anonymous advertisement by Ford Motors can be accessed on Youtube.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7t9YlMxWoE.  Accessed 12/28/2009.

[4] I make a similar argument about the dualistic attitude toward the suburbs in relationship to the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the chapter “Transcommodification: Rock ’n’ Roll and the Suburban CounterImaginary” in Rebels (91-134).

[5] See Friedan 15-32.

[6] Kristin Ross makes a similar argument about the signification of the car in the context of French Fordism in her remarkable book, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.  In her view the automobilization of postwar France is itself a kind of Americanization that mimicked the ambivalent cultural motifs of American Fordism.

[7] See Doherty for a detailed history of the teenpic genre. 

[8] As Doherty notes, there was a whole subgenre of “horror teenpics,” so this hybrid genre was not unusual (142-178).  Peter Biskind’s chapter “Pods and Blobs” develops this general anti-communist account of the postwar science fiction/horror film, although (his chapter title notwithstanding) he does not have much to say about The Blob in particular.

[9] All biographical information about McQueen is obtained from a biography by Marshal Terrill.  Needless to say, this biography indulges in a celebration of the very star image that I’m interested in critically analyzing.  But the biographical information is thoroughly covered. 

[10] See Medovoi 167-214.

 

Works Cited

 

The Blob. Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.  Paramount Pictures, 1958

 

Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. NY: Henry Holt, 1983.

 

Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s.  NY: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

 

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique.  NY: Norton, 1957.

 

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Directed by Don Siegel.  Allied Artists, 1956.

 

Margolin, Stephen and Juliet Schor, eds. The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience. NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.

 

Medovoi, Leerom. Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

 

On Any Sunday. Directed by Bruce Brown.  Brown Solor, 1971.

 

Terrill, Marshal. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel.  NY: Donald Fine, 1993.

 

Tucker, Robert, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader.  NY: Norton, 1978.

 

Ross, Kristin.  Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture.  Boston: MIT Press, 1997.

 

Virilio, Paul. Speed and Politics. NY: Semiotexte, 2007.

 

Whyte, William. The Organization Man. Philadelphia PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

 

 

 

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