Saturday, June 9, 2012

Book Review: Fordlandia

...The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

This account of Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazonian rubber plantation also provides some history of the rubber and auto industries as well as the life and work of Henry Ford himself. I enjoyed it, mainly because I thought it was well-written and just plain interesting. Sometimes it’s nice to have a break from philosophical gymnastics and pedantic intellectualism, to just enjoy a story.

Yet the story was not without a point. The author, Greg Grandin, clearly emphasized the impossibility of controlling the negative effects of capitalism and the naivety of technocratic idealism. Henry Ford served as a symbol of the Ideology of Progress, the hope that science and technology can perfect society.

In fact, from a philosophical standpoint, what I found most interesting about the book was the way it illustrated the relationship between capitalism and government (the impulse to rationally control society). Henry Ford embodied these two forces better than anyone else. As such, he serves as a good entry point for an examination of the ways in which these phenomena both mutually reinforce and undercut each other, how they can spring from disparate ideals yet still be manipulated by the same dominant groups.

Common ways of construing the relationship between capitalism and government are simplistic. The two are seen only as opposing forces. Government interferes with capitalism; such interference may be viewed as beneficial, to the extent that one acknowledges any shortcomings of capitalism. To this end, capitalism and government are seen as the province of independent entities, the latter generally of the state.

I have already argued that government originates and extends beyond the state, in contrast to the view that the two are synonymous. On the other hand, it is also overly reductive to assume that capitalism and government work seamlessly together, managed by an elite conspiratorial cabal. A capitalist may be interested in social engineering, but may also come into conflict with the state, transnational organizations, nonprofits, community groups, and other capitalists, any of which may also be interested in the same governmental projects.

Henry Ford was motivated by profit. No doubt. Yet he was also an idealist, who sometimes let his drive for profit take a backseat to his quest for a better society. Unlike the stereotypical capitalist, Ford was interested in conservation, cared about the lifestyle and wellbeing of his employees, and vehemently opposed war. He expended a considerable amount of money developing a "sociology department" (which kept tabs on the habits of his employees) as well as providing quality healthcare, and in some cases (for example, Fordlandia) housing and meals. Ford bought into the promises of the Ideology of Progress - that technology could liberate humans from hard labor and dependence on the whims of nature; that capitalism could effectively regulate the distribution of resources and labor; that wage labor could build moral character and generate prosperity; that modernization could have a "civilizing" effect around the globe. Thus, Henry Ford was compelled to act in certain ways purely due to his belief that people should be healthy, productive, and morally upright. He was interested in people in their own right, and not just as forms of capital.

Yet he also opposed projects of other organizations that were motivated by the same concerns. He fought against state intervention (even when it mimicked his own projects) and despised FDR's New Deal programs. He pioneered the Five Dollar Day (a high wage at the time) and provisioned health care, but he was ruthless in his treatment of unions.

There is, I think, a better way of understanding the complex relationship between capitalism and government. It is true that individual capitalists (and others in positions of dominance) are able to wield disproportionate control over the distrinbution of resources, organization of production, and other aspects of social reality, even if they are only able to do so by virtue of the existing social structure, based as it is on inequality. However, one must not assume that they are all working together, or that there is some master plan. Of course everyone looks after their own self-interest. This necessarily leads capitalists into conflict with each other, because every individual succeeds at the expense of many of the others.

Yet, there are some general conditions which are necessary for the capitalist system to function, and this forms a base of shared interests. The state is one important arena in which shared interests are negotiated and protected. Even here, though, there is not total coordination among the members of the supposed capitalist "class." Many cannot connect all the dots and are unaware of the necessity of these general conditions - possibly because their understanding is distorted by ideology - while some are so concerned with short-term personal gain that the long-term prospects of the system itself are of no consequence to them. It is this fact, more than any other, that accounts for "politics" (as opposed to, say, the harmonious coordination and brainwash-based consent of the world of 1984).

But I must take better account of ideology in this scenario. It is true that ideology derives from and often works to support the system (and in that way furthers capitalist aims). It is also true that it may be strategically employed in a disingenous way. Yet it is not just a "lie" used to brainwash the masses (once again, a la 1984). Ideology fundamentally shapes the consciousness of many, many people from all levels of the social hierarchy. As such, when ideology is embraced by capitalists, it may hinder an awareness of what is really necessary for the system to function, and it may even cause a capitalist to knowingly act contrary to the profit motive. Henry Ford demonstrates both of these cases. For example, he did not realize that his refusal to cooperate with unions would result in dramatically increased worker unrest. It was not until a series of violent episodes and the success of a sit-down strike that he realized the necessity of cooperation as a general condition. And Fordlandia is the ultimate example of ideology before profit. Fordlandia was a drain on Ford's resources, and yet he continued to invest in the operation, with the rationale that it was a "civilizing mission."

Ideology, like profit, represents both shared and conflicting interests among the capitalist class. Most accept the set of ideologies associated with modernity (as these represent a dominant mode of thought overall). At the same time, some may emphasize different aspects over others, or hold different opinions regarding how best to achieve these ideals.

It may be said, given all of the above discussion, that the "forces of dominance" in our world are less individual people, and more the complete assemblage of social artifacts (social structure, physical infrastructure, ideas, discourses, modes of communication etc.) that has accrued throughout the entire human history of production and interaction. We are really, in a sense, slaves to our own creations - and the "our" here includes our ancestors.

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