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'Fordlandia' by Greg Grandin

The fascinating story of Henry Ford's venture to build an American utopia in the Brazilian rain forest.

June 24, 2009|Tim Rutten

From the moment restive medieval scribes began to jot their own thoughts and feelings into the spaces alongside the texts and chronicles they'd been assigned to copy, much that's most fascinating about Western history has seemed, at first, simply marginalia.

Historian Greg Grandin has taken what heretofore seemed just such a marginal event -- Henry Ford's failed attempt to establish a gigantic agricultural industrial complex in the heart of Brazil's Amazon Basin -- and turned it into a fascinating historical narrative that illuminates the auto industry's contemporary crisis, the problems of globalization and the contradictions of contemporary consumerism. For all of that, this is not, however, history freighted with political pedantry. Grandin is one of a blessedly expanding group of gifted American historians who assume that whatever moral the story of the past may yield, it must be a story well told.

"Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City" is precisely that -- a genuinely readable history recounted with a novelist's sense of pace and an eye for character. It's a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves and engrossingly enjoyable.

In 1927, Ford was America's richest man and (in most "respectable" circles) one of its most admired. He was also in a protean sense our first industrial celebrity, forerunner of figures like David Packard, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, who would be celebrated for organizing transforming technologies. The assembly line obviously was Ford's greatest innovation and the affordable personal auto its great transforming product, but his ambitions hardly stopped there.

'A relentless system'

Social reformers who visited Ford's first auto plants were horrified by what they saw. The British journalist Julian Street called the Model T assembly line in Highland Park "a relentless system" producing "terrible efficiency. . . . Like a river and its tributaries." Ford saw other problems -- high absenteeism and worker turnover. Later that year, Grandin writes, "Ford made an announcement that sent seismic shocks across the globe. . . . [T]he Ford Motor Company would pay an incentive wage of $5 for an eight-hour day, nearly double the average industrial standard. The Wall Street Journal charged Henry Ford with class treason, with 'economic blunders if not crimes.' Yet his absentee and turnover rate plummeted and Ford was jolted into the ranks of the world's most admired men, 'an international symbol of the new industrialism.' "

Ford followed up the raise with a system of educational, health and other benefits and set up a vast network of spies and home visitors to ensure the new wages were spent on "a wholesome life" rather than on "gambling, drinking or whoring." Workers were prodded into spending on houses, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and, of course, Ford cars. The mogul and the cadre of farsighted executives around him "understood that high wages and decent benefits would do more than create a dependable and thus more productive workforce; they would also stabilize and stimulate demand for industrial products by turning workers into consumers."

Thus was born "Fordism," which many at the time embraced as a kind of "third way" between unrestrained capitalism and Marxism. Ford and his astonishingly -- indeed, tragically -- contradictory character stand at the center of "Fordlandia." Grandin has, in essence, given us a bracing new angle on this strange man's biography. He was a lifelong admirer of Emerson, firm in the "Transcendentalists' belief in human perfectibility," yet he instinctively distrusted every individual's choice but his own -- and more so, as the years went on. He was a pacifist and opponent of capital punishment who ultimately unleashed brutal thugs to terrorize his own workers. He so loathed the farm life of his boyhood that he thought cow's milk should be replaced by soy and wool by linen, but went around founding utopian communities that mixed farming and industry. He was a bitter, vulgar, lifelong anti-Semite.

Ford was, in other words, perhaps that greatest example of a peculiarly American type in which the line between crank and genius is so ephemeral as to be all but invisible. Grandin has said he was drawn to the story of Fordlandia because it "captures the essence of Ford, tying together all the many threads of his life."

By the late 1920s, Ford was feeling many kinds of pressure: Socially, America was closing in on him. The long boom was tottering toward the abyss of 1929; his various social experiments were increasingly rejected, including a plan that in many respects anticipated the Tennessee Valley Authority; at the same time, an Anglo-Dutch attempt to monopolize the production of rubber in Southeast Asia seemed to directly threaten Ford Motor's future.

Rubber plantations

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