A collectivist society would never have adopted Fordism. So it is a curious thing that Fordism coincided with the ‘New Deal’, a period of unrivalled growth and low unemployment, generous government benefits, and strong labour union power, which taken together constituted — you guessed it — a collectivist society.
Alienation and the revolution of the automobile
Marx, and later the existentialist philosophers, theorised that workers became alienated from their works under capitalism because they were produced for others, and were instruments of profit and revenue for the sustenance of life in a commodity-exchange economy. It was with the advent of the Fordist production line that this alienation had taken on its most distinct and vivid character.
It begs the question: What was produced on those production lines? Were they really just cars?
They were nominally speaking replacements for the horse-and-cart. But Ford conjured up a very effective way of polluting the planet, from one combustion engine to the next, completely transforming the environment. Aside from the fact that a car takes you from point A to point B, they also revolutionised the world, introducing the modern conception of the city.
In this way it is not just a machine but the embodiment of an idea: the car is predicated on the assumption you would own a conveyance that could get only you from point A to point B, without ever asking anybody else for permission, or depend on a centralised public transport system, or a timetable that would sanction as much.
This alerts us to the fact that even though we understood the functioning of the car and how to make it (Ford pioneered the decomposition of complex products into simpler parts), we could never grasp the effect it would have on society. Merely stepping into the car serves to indicate you approve of it, irrespective of its attendant implications. That’s alienation. We could build a car, and understand it, yet never know it. Indeed, it would eventually come to rule us, implicitly or otherwise. Now-a-days the revolution has matured so greatly that cars are now, far from being the functional facilities they used to be, parts of the modern psyche, intricately weaved into our sexual reality (as instruments of courtship), objectified as fantasies of power.
When you build something like a car, then, there are presuppositions built into it. When it was exported to Soviet Russia, for example, the bureaucrats couldn’t just get to take the car and leave the political implications behind. The car therefore undermined the centralised dictatorship, and brought with it an inevitable embrace of decentralised autonomy.
What is Fordism?
Henry Ford, perhaps more than any other person, intuited the division of labour to its logical end, its highest philosophical reality:
Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.
It is a mystery, then, that Fordism, with a vision so pure and generous, came to define the height of industrial capitalism. This leads us to ask: What exactly is Fordism? It is best to explain what Fordism is by setting it off against the system that preceded it, the handloom and handicraft system. You can see in the image below the handloom and handicraft system involved very intricate capital equipment and handwork which involved great complexity. As a result the products were complex as well, therefore more difficult to repair, for example. In these conditions labour and union power were very high, because of the pre-entry closed shop system where employers could only hire labour union members. If somebody secured employment, they also were required to remain a member of the union. Under Fordism a compromise was reached and this closed shop system was terminated and eventually made illegal in America in 1947.
In Fordism the products became much simpler, embracing ‘scientific management’ associated with Taylorism. In this situation if a car needed some repairs it was very easy to just secure a spare piece from the after-market and attach it back on. However post-Fordism would undermine even this little generosity remaining by making products less durable, creating some parts in such a way that replacing them is difficult, or even just blocking access altogether (Leaked Apple memo sparks fears over crackdown on device repairs).
I have created a table below that summarises the differences. Some of these are open to opinion and in some special cases the opposite is true, but I think on the whole these descriptions hold
|Labour power||Government involvement||Distribution of income||Labour conditions||Level of skills||Quality of goods||Complexity of products||Stability of consumption|
As Harvey observes Post-Fordism centred on flexible accumulation has produced ‘greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organisational innovation’ (p. 147). He brings up again his idea of time-space compression which alludes to a kind of transcendence from time as the progression denominated in ticking of clocks or steps of shoes across space, as it were, toward a reality of time and space that are accelerated, iterating upward and abstractly toward a hyper- and cyber- reality. He agrees with Susan Strange and observes ‘satellite communication and declining transport costs have made it increasingly possible to spread those decisions immediately over an ever wider and variegated space’ (p. 147).
Post-Fordism and the NYC cab industry
If we are looking to critically analyse Harvey’s analysis I would point out that he, as it seems to me, assumes that post-Fordism is anti-labour and anti-simplicity (as when he says ‘economies of scope have beaten out economies of scale’ p. 155) and that Fordism is pro-labour and pro-scalability. While Harvey makes a point of comparing various systems of society (for example cooperative and patriarchal systems), I would suggest that in some ways the Pre-Fordist, Fordist and Post-Fordist categories as he defines them overlap in ways he does not anticipate. For example Fordism can be considered anti-labour as it strips workers of their skills (a regression from the handicraft system), and approximates a situation elegantly described by Adam Smith
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
We can see that in the NYC taxi industry these dividing lines are not so clear-cut as Harvey makes them out to be. In some ways running your own sub-contractor business is a complex task, keeps the mind churning, and so prevents this fall into stupidity and ignorance, but is also anti-labour as it transfers the risk to the taxi driver.
We can also see that Bell’s notion of ‘organisational complexity’ is borne out in the taxi industry as the parts (or sub-contractors) of the system take care of the complexity, yet ‘the aggregate patterns could be charted as neatly as the geometer triangulates the height and the horizon’ (p. 33).
Here we see that the degree of government involvement is low as I have indicated in the table but this makes it much more powerful. Biju Mathew quotes from Mohammed Awan who says ‘Yes, it is possible to transfer this permit to somebody else but it is difficult, and the city will not acknowledge it as a sale’ (p. 54). In this way the taxi industry typifies very closely a Kafka/Orwellian-like situation.
We can see that the post-Fordist system therefore possesses this counter-intuitive double-perspective nature. The medallion is just a piece of sheet-metal but controls the lives of taxi drivers, and the system is de-centralised with sub-contractors but is run in a way that is perversely centralised as the government controls the supply of medallions. This squares nicely with Bell’s remarks about the parts and the aggregate.
But connected with his genealogical analysis of physics, econometrics and mathematics, we might assume that there should be natural laws or forces that account for why the equilibrium has settled on this situation of simultaneous freedom and suffering. I think the best explanation is that the taxi drivers have been made very dependent on the system, and the benefits it brings them are just high enough for them not to abandon the industry altogether, at least not before another potential taxi driver comes along, naive and unaware of the spiral trap they are about to fall into.
Daniel Bell (1973) The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, New York: Basic Books, Inc., Introduction, pp 14 – 33.
David Harvey (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Conditions of Cultural Change, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Chapter 9, pp 141 – 172.
Biju Mathew (2005) Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City, New York: The New Press, Prologue, Chapters 2, 3, pp 1 – 10, 39 – 82.