It’s hard to imagine any kind of real world society in which some segment of the population, usually a very small one, does not occupy a privileged position. It may be a family, a tribe, an aristocracy, a priesthood, the ranking military or the wealthy enjoying their elevated positions while assuring everyone else this is how it should be, that their rightful position is at the top. But rarely is that effort entirely successful; there will always be those who question such arrangements. Still, most times the majority seem reconciled to the presence of privileged groups, although some will raise the alarm when they perceive serious abuses and blatantly unfair advantages. It may take the form of exemption from or special protections in the law, the amassing of widely disproportionate shares of the wealth, an ostentatiousness truly offensive or a deliberate distancing from the rest of society.
A look around the world today reveals a certain restiveness within many societies, a willingness to speak out against privileged groups and their behavior. Often it originates not from the lower orders but from people whose incomes are rising and who have begun to gain social traction. Even as they benefit, their opposition to advantages enjoyed by others intensifies. This has been given public expression of late in nations as different as the United States, Israel, Russia, China, Brazil, South Korea, Syria, Myanmar, Tunisia and many others. There’s every reason to believe this wave of resentment will continue to spread.
Curiously one form that it takes relates to the automobile. Remember when cars first hit the roads at the dawn of the 20th Century, they were purchased almost exclusively by the wealthy, who then often relied on liveried chauffeurs to get about. The general public was not pleased because as one critic back then noted, the car was no more than a “play toy for the amusement of a few millionaires.” Another asked, “Did you see anything so outrageous as these motors? Automobiles are such insolent advertisements of wealth!” Meanwhile, a writer in the Atlantic Monthly wondered why ninety per cent of the people should “be put upon their everlasting guard against a luxurious pastime in which they cannot participate?” The situation sure did change once Henry Ford started mass producing cars and ordinary Americans fell head over heels for them. Resentment did not disappear, though more often it involved envy of the wealthy and privileged for tooling around in Jaguars, Bentleys, Lamborghines, Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc. Tinted windows, when they first appeared, probably produced similar complaints because they screened out an ever curious public “entitled” to view all vehicle occupants.
It’s been outside the U.S. where auto resentment has become a frequent expression of the growing unease with the privileged elements of Society. The Chinese are rapidly awakening to the reality that while wealth has grown rapidly a disproportionate share has flowed into the hands of its business and political elites. Chinese roadways are notoriously lawless. Still it was considered an outrage when news of the incident circulated widely after the son of a high-level police official hit two people with his car, killing one; then brazenly drove off, but not before shouting to eyewitnesses who his father was. Other such instances of irresponsible behavior behind the wheel by officials or by family members have made the public extremely sensitive to the arrogant attitudes among China’s powerful. Much the same occurs regularly in Moscow where auto ownership has soared while traffic stays snarled most of the day. Still, when someone of importance needs to get around, everyone is moved off to the side so that this special vehicle can pass by unhindered. This phenomenon, coupled with corrupt police shaking down motorists, has produced widespread anger and fueled ongoing protests against the establishment. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, earlier last year, the son of that nation’s richest man smashed his father’s $1.3million Mercedes into a bicyclist, killing the man instantly. Now Brazil happens to be one of those places where new wealth has accumulated in dramatic fashion. Still, the country ranks among the most unequal of nations. No wonder then that the death of this one lower-class individual created a national furor and sparked a debate as one report put it “over wealth, influence and traffic deaths.”
So, you see, the automobile, a universal symbol of mobility, speed and modernity serves also as a proxy for inequality, glaring displays of privilege and of the arrogance of the wealthy.