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Ford’s Empire

As early as the 1920s Henry Ford’s disastrous attempt to extend his auto empire into the Amazonian jungle foreshadowed the decimation of Detroit today. Historian Greg Grandin relates the story of how Ford created Fordlandia, a rubber-producing company town in the jungle of Brazil with tennis courts, company square dances, and prohibition rules against drinking in accordance with Ford’s own Puritanism. The Brazilian workers rebelled, and the Amazonian ecosystem did the rest. By insisting that his managers plant rubber trees in tight rows for greatest efficiency, like the factory machines in Detroit, Ford created the conditions for a massive insect infestation and blight that fed off rubber. Despite sinking millions of dollars into his jungle paradise, “The ruins of Fordlandia, in fact, look a lot like those in Highland Park,” writes Gran- din.55 Ford’s attempt to create a workers’ utopia was in part a hubristic enterprise, in part a “civilizing mission,” and in part a response to an American culture that spurned his social utopian visions in the service of modern industry. As Grandin observes, “Ford’s frustrations with domestic politics and culture were legion: war, unions, Wall Street, energy monopolies, Jews, modern dance, cow’s milk, the Roosevelts, cigarettes, alcohol, and creeping government intervention.”56 At the same time that Ford was pouring millions into trying to make his rubber plantation work and building the massive River Rouge complex in Dearborn, he was also collecting antiquarian Americana objects and building a model nineteenth-century American town at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn. Greenfield Village offered a self-serving narrative of technological progress ending in the assembly line, but it also created a nostalgic and idealized version of a vanished way of life whose demise Ford himself had helped bring about through automation.

Ford’s spectacular failure in the Amazon did not undermine his overall imperialist success, which exported “Fordism” around the world. By breaking down the assembly process into small, repetitive tasks, parts and goods could be made virtually anywhere, without the need for employers to pay workers enough to buy the products they were ultimately helping to produce. Although Ford had once preached “high wages to create large markets,” capitalist industrialization itself made this impossible to achieve, instead cutting labor costs to maintain an expanding rate of profit. “The result is a race to the bottom,” writes Grandin, “a system of perpetual deindustrialization whereby corporations—including, most dramatically, the Ford Motor Company itself—bow before a global economy that they once mastered, moving manufacturing abroad in order to reduce labor costs just to survive.’^7 It was not just international competition, which came much later, that led the Detroit auto companies to seek colonial labor regimes but also, well before that, the desire to avoid municipal oversight and union strength by seeking cheaper resources and labor.58 But the destructive processes of Ford’s industrial empire are often obscured as one finds streets and buildings named in his honor not only in Detroit, where he founded his company, but also in Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Canada, and other parts of the United States.59

Grandin also connects Detroit’s deindustrialization to neoliberalism in Latin America where a number of multinational corporations, including Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Firestone, and Volkswagen, worked with brutally repressive regimes, helping to support the 1976-backed coup that broke the strong Argentine union movement and paved the way for the assault on unions that began in the United States under Ronald Reagan. These corporations supported the Latin American death squads from the 1960s to the 1980s. Ford, in particular, forged exclusive contracts with the Argentine security forces under the military junta, making the Ford Falcon an emblem of state terror against the thousands of “disappeared,” the political dissidents and trade unionists murdered by the regime. That assault on the unions at home and abroad was part of the larger project of shifting the economic center of gravity in the United States from the industrial Northeast and Midwest to the open- shop South and other countries, hastening the transition to neoliberal globalization.60 The readiness of the auto companies to exploit colonial labor and resources, and their willing alliance with murderous regimes to break strong union movements, has led directly to the ruination of Detroit and the traditional manufacturing centers. In this way the destruction of Detroit was built right into the capitalist project.

 
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