I am the founding Executive Director of The Automotive Free Clinic. The AFC is a free and low cost automotive repair shop in Prattville, Alabama, a small town outside of Montgomery, that was designed on the principles of mutual aid and Marx’s labor theory of value. We were founded in March of 2020 as a pandemic relief project and over the past 15 months, we have repaired, maintained, or inspected approximately 100 vehicles. We have also conducted weekly popular education meetings studying Marxism including Capital I, II, and III, the Grundrisse, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, the Wretched of the Earth, and Society of the Spectacle. The popular education meetings were both for study and to provide support to our working class members during a very difficult time. Our organization is made up of exclusively white workers, we call ourselves “rednecks,” and we practice reparations by donating about 10% of our revenue to a Black-led organization in Birmingham, Alabama.
Marx’s labor theory of value argues that within the capitalist mode of production, value is created by commodity-producing laborers and is the governing principle of capital. Laborers who do not produce a commodity do not technically produce value within this mode of production. Laborers who produce a commodity are often defined as skilled, have more autonomy on the shop floor, and are, at least in some circles, believed to be the historical actor for socialist transformation. Much of what has gone on in socialist history has revolved around trying to find ways for these laborers to gain more power and to gain a larger share of the value that they create. However, what we believe has been missed is a transformation of the value relation itself. Unfortunately the value relation is often seen as a de facto universal instead of a product of capitalist social relations.
In order to transform the capitalist system, the value relation itself must be transformed into a different kind of relation, possibly producing a completely different type of commodity, a socialist commodity.
Let’s look at what types of labor are not value producing. Home healthcare, childcare, customer service, even automotive repair are not value producing. Simply, reproductive labor is excluded from socially necessary labor time or value. To me, this seems backwards, logically, as much of capitalism is. On its most basic level, reproduction is primary in any labor relation. No laborer can exist without first being birthed. Thus, since only people with uteruses can give birth, capitalist social relations are foundationally misogynist since it values secondary labor (production) over primary labor (reproduction).
So how do we change the value relation to primarily or at least equally value reproduction? At The AFC, we #redefinework, by combining productive and reproductive processes into the value that our organization creates. Traditional automotive repair shops have customers and an antagonistic relationship is set up between customers and the shop. Automotive technicians are paid by the job and are therefore incentivized to recommend as many repairs as possible on vehicles that come into the shop. Service writers are also paid by commission so they are incentivized to sell as many repairs as possible. The repairs recommended are often a mix of safety (necessary), defective (needed), maintenance (needed, but not necessary), and marginally defective (likely unneeded). With the overall lack of knowledge of automotive technology and the complexity of modern vehicles, customers are often at a loss as to how to proceed. This creates a high level of distrust in automotive repair shops. It’s in the business model of the industry. The value relation produced by the automotive repair industry harms both technicians and customers.
The AFC does not have customers. We have community members. We provide parts to community members at commercial cost, which saves about 45% on mark-up, and labor is donation-based, pay-what-you-can even if it’s nothing. We keep the doors open with donations from the community and support from sympathetic institutions. The entire community works to keep the vehicles of disadvantaged community members on the road, and this is life-saving in a state with a dearth of public transportation options.
It is a socialist business model that produces a different kind of value relation. Relationships with community members and care for each other, in addition to repairing the vehicle, are valued over trying to bleed as much money out of customers as possible. The AFC produces a commodity that is valued both for its productive and reproductive aspect. It’s a dialectical synthesis and it’s better for community members and for the technicians themselves.
Technicians often get burnt out and by 40 their body is usually failing because of the grueling pace of repairing vehicles. Many move away from repair and into service writer positions. At The AFC, technicians are not paid by the job (we’re all volunteer at this point) so there is no pressure to repair the vehicle quickly. This cuts down on mistakes, wear and tear on technician’s bodies, and leads to more job satisfaction among technicians. Technicians can also take more pride in their work because it’s about serving the people around them.
In order to change the nature of the value relation and thus the commodity, we have #redefinedwork as something done to serve the community instead of to make profit. As we have said over and over, we want the automotive repair industry to become like the fire department, respected working class people who can be counted on to serve the community.
Zac Henson, PhD, Automotive Service Excellence certified automotive technician