13 June 2011

Glossary: Fordism

In its most narrow usage, Fordism refers to Henry Ford's revelation that he could do better business if he paid his workers enough to buy the products of their labor. Of course, Ford's attempt to make good on the slogan in the 1910s completely failed since very few other capitalists were willing to leave behind the liberal period's method of high profits thru high exploitation. And of course, if capitalists actually did pay their workers the full value of their product, there would be nothing left over for profits, so the slogan really can't work in practice under capitalism.

Still, a system that superficially seemed to realize Ford's vision actually did take hold after World War II in the West and Japan, lasting roughly from 1949 to 1973. The architectonic restructuring of the economy that made this possible only emerged, however, thru the desperate struggle to overcome the impersonal violence of the Great Depression and its personalized (tho mechanized) counterpart of the two World Wars.

Both depression and war were symptomatic of the great collapse of the liberal period's mechanisms of self-reproduction, and only a massive restructuring of the global economy could return capitalism to health. The solution that finally emerged after three decades of tortuous conflict was based on the generalization of economic forms of organization that had been developing for many years: large bureaucratic enterprises, assembly-line mass production, rationalization — ie, deskilling — of the work process (Taylorism), production for a consumer mass market, active but domesticated and bureaucratized labor unions, and robust government regulation. All these threads finally came together under the pressures of mobilization for World War II, as the governments of each of the combatants forced reluctant capitalists and workers alike to accept the new system.

The new kind of capitalism was distinguished by a much more balanced and integrated relation among capital, labor, and the state (not to be mistaken, however, for equality). Labor renounced any demand for control over the production process, capital agreed to provide secure jobs with good wages and benefits, the state oversaw the accord and smoothed out its remaining unevenness thru Keynesian regulation and a solid commitment to social insurance and welfare programs. The new regime was also far more focused on the accumulation of capital within national boundaries than the aggressively expansionary capitalism of the late liberal period.

The forms of culture that emerged emphasized homogeneity and conformity. The economic priorities of rationalization, standardization, and planning bled over into all aspects of life, and a vision of steady material progress took hold, projecting a near-term future in which everyone would fit the basic mold of middle-class consumer and producer. This suited a highly bureaucratized economy and society defined by the alliance of big business, big labor, and big government.
In hindsight this culture appears stultifying and narrowly materialistic, but Fordism also had its attractive aspects. In the liberal period a huge section of the population had lived on the margins, suffering severe exploitation in sweatshop factory jobs or, worse, unable to find any kind of employment. Severe racial, ethnic, and class hatreds had flourished between the small bourgeoisie and the working majority, as well as among workers themselves, who battled each other for the scraps extended by the owners. Now the majority finally had access to a basic standard of material welfare, and the dominant culture embraced them rather than denouncing or simply ignoring them. Significant excluded minorities remained — most obviously, blacks in the US — but Fordism seemed to offer the promise of eventual inclusion, even if a mass movement would be required to secure it.

Moreover, Fordism proved extraordinarily successful as an economic system. On every important economic indicator — rates of growth, of employment, of productivity increase, of poverty reduction, and of profits — it performed better than neoliberalism did (even before the crisis). No wonder the 1950s and 1960s are known as the Golden Age of capitalism, even tho — or perhaps because —  market forces had waned to an unprecedented extent.

The same forces that defined Fordism were operative in the so-called Communist countries and other newly independent nations as well. Here the state and nationalism, of necessity, played much larger roles in both reshaping the economy and the culture, as the accumulated capital and disciplined workforce that the advanced countries enjoyed did not yet exist. As in the West and Japan, bureaucracy displaced market forces in the coordination of the economy, and a homogeneous national culture was promoted to replace the myriad divisions and inequalities of the prewar period. As in the advanced economies, economic performance was remarkable, especially in those countries that took these trends to their extremes: the Soviet Union and China.

Despite its success, Fordism generated forms of opposition that leveled fundamental critiques against it — most visibly, the wave of youth rebellion that swept the globe from 1966 to 1968 — as well as economic dysfunctions that finally precipitated its collapse in the protracted economic crisis of the 1970s. There can be no return to Fordism, but understanding it and its relation to neoliberalism may help us find a way out of the current crisis.

More on Fordism:
The rise and fall of national capital
Contrasts in neoliberal and Fordist temporality
Fordism and neoliberalism expressed through their architecture
Fordism: the global political economy of a passive revolution


  1. It wasn't only minority groups that were excluded from the benefits Fordism extended to white male workers, it was also the majority group: women. In the US women were mostly expected to work in the home once married, and wages paid to white male workers were intended to be adequate for an entire family, ensuring that women would be dedicated to home making and child rearing. This led to truly stultifying gender identities and relations and extreme heteronormativity as well.

    I would imagine that the situation was similar in Western Europe, but given that in many communist countries women did often work, conditions there were certainly different.

  2. I'm not sure I'd talk about the issue of women under Fordism as one of "exclusion". To take the US as an example, white women in general enjoyed many of the same benefits that white men did: improved material standard of living, increased security, a place of affirmation in the culture. And they suffered from many of the same limitations: a narrowing of the acceptable forms of conduct and belief, exclusion from meaningful decisionmaking over the development of society, the necessity of devoting one's energies to work.

    That said, the experience of Fordism was, of course, rigidly differentiated by gender, and men were clearly dominant in the sphere of interpersonal relationships. It's not immediately clear to me why the system worked in this way, tho it does seem to be based in a particular social division of labor and the ontological assignment of women to the sphere of household reproduction. The experience of the Communist countries shows that other configurations were possible. It would be worthwhile trying to work thru the gender issue and its relation to both Fordism and neoliberalism further.

  3. With regard to Chris's comment about exclusion of various identity groups: When exclusion is used to recognize a problem in society, as it certainly was historically, it assumes the postive social norm of inclusion and integration. Integration played an especially important role in the social imaginary of Fordism. I mean more that just the integration of blacks into white only schools, restaurants, etc. or women into the workplace. I mean the integration of the individual, as a cell or cog, into the (national) society, which was understood as a closed and productive totality. (Hence also the language of late Fordist criticism like "dropping out", "community control," or "arresting the machine"[M. Savio] from the left as well as Jane Jacobs' attacks on the uniformity of cities or similar neo-liberal critics from the right.) The work of the Frankfurt School is especially keen in their insights into the dark side of this integration. It is on the basis of this vision of the integrated productive totality, that exclusion becomes a critical category. The problems of society-- poverty in the third world, in Appalachia, in the Delta, in the Ghettos, in the lives of housewives-- were understood to be problems caused by the fact that a particular group as not YET integrated into the benefits of this productive social totality. To take a step further, this vision of a integrated totality from which people are excluded is a historically specific concept. Infact, at its height, it was already being undermined by increasing automation, it was just the "excluded" who were the first to suffer and so the above logic prevailed-- what was seen as a lagging indicator of progress was in fact an early sign of change to come: The fact was that unemployment among African American men was HIGHER in 1965 than it was in 1948.

    Compare this vision of integration to the celebration in our present neo-liberal era of local food economies, of local particularity, of various hybrid particularities of identity and the actual policies and practices that set out to foster this, such as TIFF grants, all-male or all-female charter schools, local cultural associations, farmer's markets etc.

    Essentially, the critical vailance on exclusion speaks to the affirmative vailance on integration.