Thursday, October 09, 2008


Corpulent ex-Stalinist right-wing smugonaut David Aaronovitch opined in the Times a couple of days ago that the Left has no answer to the current crisis other than to return to capitalism as it existed around 1980, before Reagan and Thatcher did their work. As if to confirm this thesis, as well as reading Keynes, I've just finished Henry Ford's My Life and Work - obviously, along with the General Theory, one of the definitive theoretical works of this largely defunct mode of production and organisation (and in the Year of Our Ford 100, no less), although I was reading it for the purposes of the PhD that I'm supposed to be writing instead of this, rather than for its appropriateness to the current conjuncture. It's an interesting reminder, in case one needs reminding, that capitalism as it existed before 1980 was indeed capitalism, and not (as Thatcher, for one, seemed to think) Socialism.

Ford is not an easy man to read. His obnoxious self-righteousness and Gradgrindian factography frequently make the reader want to throw the book out of the window at the traffic jam on Woolwich Rd that is essentially his fault. Nonetheless, one persists. Basically, in this book, in amongst tedious and self-aggrandising reminisce, Ford proposes a new kind of capitalism. A system where speculation is almost entirely eliminated ('euthanasia of the rentier' no doubt), where production is for 'need' and 'service' rather than profit - as he repeatedly states, Ford factories work on producing more for less profit, as opposed to less for more profit; a capitalism without competition, where ruthlessly efficient monopoly industries eliminate the need for a tangle of competing purveyors of the same product; a system where hierarchy is abolished as much as possible, where wages are always high; and most stunningly to the reader of AF 100, a capitalism where an abundance of competing products with in-built obsolescence is replaced (or preceded) by 'any colour as long as it's black', and an apparently everlasting product in the form of the Model T.

The capitalism we know is so unlike this that one could get carried away here. A capitalism without in-built obsolescence sounds incredible in a context where rice is often more difficult to obtain than DVD players. Yet the place where the promise of Fordism begins to sound nightmarish is, in fact, in the exact place that Gramsci, in his Americanism and Fordism, thought it was most progressive - in its treatment of the worker. Doubtless, Gramsci was correct to find it an improvement on working conditions BF, with the promised elimination of hard physical labour and drudgery, replacing it with work where one can think about something other than the work; but this ignores one unavoidable fact - for Ford, equality is 'unnatural' (this technocrat is very keen on invoking 'nature'), and repetitive, monotonous labour is not just scientifically useful, it is something virtuous, and more to the point, all the labourer is good for. Only the agitators make the worker want something more than tightening a lathe in the same fashion day in day out. The worker left to his own devices would prefer standing in the same position, performing the same action, and any notion that he should run his own affairs is anathema to the new capitalism.

The mysticism at the heart of this rationalised capitalism is obvious when this belief in natural inequality is combined with another creed which tends to involve invocation of nature myths: Anti-Semitism. Although My Life and Work never reaches the depths of the Protocols-like The International Jew, it is made clear here too that for Ford, as for Hitler, Finance Capital = Jewish Capital. Speculation, rather than something intrinsic to capitalism, is considered to be something carried by a (literally) alien body into the productivist system. Even given this dangerous bullshit, the most pernicious thing about Ford's proposal for a new capitalism has to be the grotesque, obsessive cult of work. He gleefully points out that his factories will employ blind men, cripples, and that 'a child of three' could perform most of the tasks. The idea that automation - for which, hopefully, a saner society in the future will have Ford partly to thank - could eliminate work rather than add to it is ridiculed. Work, work, work is the most important thing here. Although Ford strips all thought, all autonomous activity, all creativity out of work, it remains the alpha and omega of his system. 'The day's work is a great thing - a very great thing!'


Blogger ben said...

this lot have some good stuff, in a similar vein, on ford/ism.

12:00 am  
Blogger Laurie said...

This is a brilliant blog, Owen - I've learnt a great deal from trawling through its innumerable pages over the past few weeks. You certainly have a wonderful understanding of the twentieth century. As an unreconstructed socialist living in Australia, much of what I think about the abandonment of the promise of social/democratic/libertarian constructions of my society (the Whitlam to Keating years) gels with your analysis of Britain. Whereto from here?

Thanks - I'll keep tuning in.

4:49 am  
Blogger roger said...

I find the aaronovitchs of the world highly amusing, with the idea that returning to the most successful economic period in history is "all" the left suggests.

Really, we've had a hundred years of different policy suggestions about the right mix of the public and private sector, we've tried out various matches, and all we are going to continue to do is about combinations. In the last thirty years the neo-classical conservative approach has been to claim that the state's previous triumphs in providing structural supports in things like education, healthcare and retirement could be taken over by the private sector - in fact much of the current crisis has to do with the "complement" between social insurance and tax deducted investment schemes, flooding the financial sector with capital that it used, predictably, not to allocate investment efficiently, but to dream up auto-erotic schemes of self enrichment, like the 553 trillion dollars worth of hedge funds that are going to be shedding hundreds of trillions of dollars over the next year. This idea - so sparkling "new" - was tried not in the 1980s, but in 1720 - with the south sea bubble and John Law's system.

There are a limited number of systematic policy paradigms to chose from in economics. To pretend that the left has to come up with something completely "new" is sad tripe, but aaronovitch deals in tripe that he pulls out of his ass, to the distress of his readers (so painful!), so what can you expect?

8:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Large "S" said....

Of course, the lesson that the last 100 years of economic experimentation seems to imply is that NO economic systems work.

All economic theories become progressively more orthodox until the moment of disaster.

11:23 pm  
Anonymous cosmpolitanscum said...

Don't be such a work-shy fop Hatherley. I imagine that the workers at Toyota's plant at Burnaston in Derbyshire would probably go along with the maxim 'The day's work is a great thing - a very great thing!' I'm sure Ford is a beastly anti-semite and a dreary read but he's also an industrialist. If this slogan had been daubed over a Mayakovsky poster you would love it.

3:17 pm  
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11:43 pm  

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