Fordism describes modern economic and social systems based on industrialized, standardized mass production and mass consumption. The concept is named for Henry Ford. It is used in social, economic, and management theory about production, working conditions, consumption, and related phenomena, especially regarding the 20th century.
Fordism is "the eponymous manufacturing system designed to spew out standardized, low-cost goods and afford its workers decent enough wages to buy them." It has also been described as "a model of economic expansion and technological progress based on mass production: the manufacture of standardized products in huge volumes using special purpose machinery and unskilled labor." Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle could be applied to any kind of manufacturing process. Major success stemmed from three major principles:
- The standardization of the product (nothing is handmade, but everything is made through machines and molds by unskilled workers)
- The employment of assembly lines, which use special-purpose tools and/or equipment to allow unskilled workers to contribute to the finished product
- Workers are paid higher "living" wages so that they can afford to purchase the products they make
The principles, coupled with a technological revolution during Henry Ford's time, allowed for his revolutionary form of labor to flourish. His assembly line was revolutionary but in no way original. His most original contribution to the modern world was breaking down complex tasks into simpler ones, with the help of specialised tools. Simpler tasks created interchangeable parts that could be used the same every time. That allowed for a very adaptable flexibility, creating an assembly line that could change its constituent components to meet the needs of the product being assembled. In reality, the assembly line had already been around before Ford although not in quite the same effectiveness as he would create. His real accomplishment was recognizing the potential by breaking it all down into its components, only to build it back up again in a more effective and productive combination, thereby producing an optimum method for the real world.
The major advantages of such a change was that it cut down on the manpower necessary for the factory to operate, and it deskilled the labour itself, cutting down on costs of production. There are four levels of Fordism, as described by Bob Jessop.
The Ford Motor Company was one of several hundred small automobile manufacturers that emerged between 1890 and 1910. After five years of producing automobiles, Ford introduced the Model T, which was simple and light but sturdy enough to drive on the country's primitive roads. The mass production of this automobile lowered its unit price, making it affordable for the average consumer. Furthermore, Ford substantially increased his workers' wages to combat rampant absenteeism and employee turnover, which approached 400% annually, which had the byproduct of giving them the means to become customers. That led to massive consumption. In fact, the Model T surpassed all expectations because it attained a peak of 60% of the automobile output within the United States.
The production system that Ford exemplified involved synchronization, precision, and specialization within a company.
Ford and his senior managers did not use the word "Fordism" themselves to describe their motivations or worldview, which they did not consider an "ism". However, many contemporaries framed their worldview as one and applied the name Fordism to it.
The term gained prominence when was used by Antonio Gramsci in 1934 in his essay "Americanism and Fordism" in his Prison Notebooks. Since then, it has been used by a number of writers on economics and society, mainly but not exclusively in the Marxist tradition.
According to historian Charles S. Maier, Fordism proper was preceded in Europe by Taylorism, a technique of labor discipline and workplace organization, based upon supposedly-scientific studies of human efficiency and incentive systems. It attracted European intellectuals, especially in Germany and Italy, from the fin de siècle to World War I.
After 1918, however, the goal of Taylorist labor efficiency thought in Europe moved to "Fordism," the reorganization of the entire productive process by the moving assembly line, standardization, and the mass market. The grand appeal of Fordism in Europe was that it promised to sweep away all the archaic residues of precapitalist society, by subordinating the economy, society, and even the human personality to the strict criteria of technical rationality. The Great Depression blurred the utopian vision of American technocracy, but World War II and its aftermath revived the ideal.
Later, under the inspiration of Gramsci, Marxists picked up the Fordism concept in the 1930s and developed Post-Fordism in the 1970s. Antonio and Bonanno (2000) trace the development of Fordism and subsequent economic stages, from globalization to neoliberal globalization, during the 20th century, and emphasized America's role in globalization. "Fordism," for Gramsci, meant routine, intensified labor to promote production. Antonio and Bonanno argue that Fordism peaked in the post-World War II decades of American dominance and mass consumerism but collapsed from political and cultural attacks on the people in the 1970s.
Advances in technology and the end of the Cold War ushered in a new "neoliberal" phase of globalization in the 1990s. Antonio and Bonanno further suggest that negative elements of Fordism, such as economic inequality, remained, allowing related cultural and environmental troubles, which inhibited America's pursuit of democracy to surface.
Historian Thomas Hughes has detailed how the Soviet Union, in the 1920s and the 1930s, enthusiastically embraced Fordism and Taylorism by importing American experts in both fields as well as American engineering firms to build parts of its new industrial infrastructure. The concepts of the Five-Year Plan and the centrally-planned economy can be traced directly to the influence of Taylorism on Soviet thinking. Hughes quotes Joseph Stalin:
"American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles; which continues on a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable.... The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism.":251
Hughes describes how, as the Soviet Union developed and grew in power, both the Soviets and the Americans chose to ignore or deny the contribution of American ideas and expertise. The Soviets did so because they wished to portray themselves as creators of their own destiny and not indebted to their rivals. Americans did so because they did not wish to acknowledge, during the Cold War, their part in creating a powerful rival.
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In Regulation theory, it is a "regime of accumulation" or a macroeconomic pattern of growth, developed in the US and diffused in various forms to Western Europe after 1945. It consisted of domestic mass production with a range of institutions and policies supporting mass consumption, including stabilizing economic policies and Keynesian demand management that generated national demand and social stability; it also included a class compromise or social contract entailing family-supporting wages, job stability and internal labor markets leading broadly shared prosperity: rising incomes were linked to national productivity from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. At the level of the labor process Fordism is Taylorist and as a national mode of regulation Fordism is Keynesianism.
The social-scientific concept of "Fordism" was introduced by the French regulation school, sometimes known as regulation theory, which is a Marxist-influenced strand of political economy. According to the regulation school, capitalist production paradigms are born from the crisis of the previous paradigm; a newborn paradigm is also bound to fall into crisis sooner or later. The crisis of Fordism became apparent to Marxists in late 1960s.
Marxist regulation theory talks of Regimes of Capital Accumulation (ROA) and Modes of Regulation (MOR). ROAs are periods of relatively settled economic growth and profit across a nation or global region. Such regimes eventually become exhausted, falling into crisis, and are torn down as capitalism seeks to remake itself and return to a period of profit. Such periods of capital accumulation are "underpinned," or stabilised, by MOR. A plethora of laws, institutions, social mores, customs and hegemonies both national and international work together to create the environment for long-run capitalist profit.
Fordism is a tag used to characterise the post-1945 long boom experienced by western nations. It is typified by a cycle of mass production and mass consumption, the production of standardized (most often) consumer items to be sold in (typically) protected domestic markets, and the use of Keynesian economic policies. While the standard pattern is postwar America, national variations of this standard norm are well known. Regulation theory talks of National Modes of Growth to denote different varieties of Fordism across western economies.
Fordism as an ROA broke down, dependent on national experiences, somewhere between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s. Western economies experienced slow or nil economic growth, rising inflation and growing unemployment, much of this as a result of the 1973 oil shock.
The period after Fordism has been termed Post-Fordist and Neo-Fordist. The former implies that global capitalism has made a clean break from Fordism, including overcoming its inconsistencies, but the latter implies that elements of the Fordist ROA continued to exist. The Regulation School preferred the term After-Fordism (or the French Après-Fordisme) to denote that what comes after Fordism was or is not clear.
In Post-Fordist economies:
- New information technologies are important.
- Products are marketed to niche markets rather than in mass consumption patterns based on social class.
- Service industries predominate over manufacturing.
- The workforce is feminized.
- Financial markets are globalized.
A religion based on the worship of Henry Ford is a central feature of the technocracy in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where the principles of mass production are applied to the generation of people as well as to industry.
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