A musing on late capitalism, brought to you by suburban Detroit auto dealerships

Jul 18, 2018 at 10:06 am
A musing on late capitalism, brought to you by suburban Detroit auto dealerships

"Late capitalism" is a phrase that, in its current usage, has become embraced in recent years as "a catchall ... for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class."

Apropos of this, here's a new video series called Suburban Drives Michigan, a 10-episode web series from the Suburban Collection, a group of Michigan automotive dealerships. The series stars Los Angeles-based writer and director Jeffrey Phelps interviewing "interesting people in interesting cars" à la Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but this time in search of an answer to the question: "What drives Michigan?" (Phelps' family lives in Michigan, and wants him to move back.)

Fittingly, the first episode features James Robertson, perhaps better known as the "Walking Man," a Detroit factory worker whose daily commute involved walking 21 miles a day to his factory job in the suburbs. (What drives Michigan? Not public transportation.) Robertson's story went viral after the Free Press reported on it; soon, a Wayne State University student created a crowd-funding page and more than $300,000 in donations poured in. Eventually, Robertson was gifted a brand-new Ford Taurus (and moved out of the apartment of his ex-girlfriend — who was reportedly harassing him for a cut of the money — to a place in Troy).

In the episode, Phelps tools around with Robertson in a brand-new Ford F-150 Raptor past the wide avenues, parking lots, and corporate fast food drive-through chains of suburbia. Robertson explains that the humble Taurus is his favorite car because "they're plain on the outside, but they're durable and strong like me on the inside." (The intercut clip of an 1980s Taurus commercial is a nice touch.)

"Well, it makes me feel like every time I've ever bitched and moaned about my work has been silly," Phelps says.

"You know what, I was hearing a lot of that, too," Robertson says. "I've been getting letters and they're complaining about their commute, but then they hear stories about me and they think, 'If this guy can do it, I can.'"

Aside from asking about Robertson's grueling former commute, Phelps also asks about his love of the Tigers, and what it was like to live in Detroit during the five days of bloodshed and destruction of the 1967 rebellion — perhaps one of the most striking physical manifestations of the pressures of late stage capitalism and corporate disinvestment in the city.

Unintentionally, the clip serves as a concise answer to the question of "What drives Michigan." As Phelps asks in the intro: "Is it the cars? Or is it the people?" Honestly, engrave this episode on a gold disc and send it to outer space so alien races can understand our once-great civilization.

The series' other videos include 20-something YouTube beauty vlogger Katie Betzing driving a Lamborghini and U-M football coach Jim Harbaugh driving a Dodge Demon. You can watch the first episode below.

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