Discover more from I Am My Niche - Rod Fleming
Henry Ford: the inventor of America
Farmer, engineer, visionary and unquestionably a genius, Henry Ford is a giant in US history.
Henry Ford (dates) was a pioneer, an innovator, an inventor and a gifted engineer. He, after all, was the one who first made an automobile car which could be afforded by ordinary people and perhaps more to the point, paid his workers enough to buy them. This was unique. Paradoxically, just as Lenin and his men were attempting – and failing – to create a classless society in Russia, Ford actually succeeded in creating one in the USA.
To understand this, we need to look a little further back in time, to when the United States was conceived as a polity. The Founding Fathers were a peculiar mix of religious Puritans who drew on a line of belief that went back to the Pilgrims, and a robust libertarianism that was forged in the hot fire of the Enlightenment in Europe. What these disparate groups had in common, however, was an absolutely convinced anti-authoritarianism, whether that authority was the Pope, the King, the educated or the wealthy.
Reading the United States’ foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one is forced to ask 'Since there was already this, why did we need Marx?' In fact the Founding Documents of the United States are far more egalitarian and libertarian than anything Marx ever proposed, or his followers carried out. These documents are nothing less than a manifesto for the creation of a one-class society. The rigid class divisions which so distorted European culture – and still do – were abolished in Thomas Jefferson's words 'We hold that all men are created equal.' There has been pedantic dispute about this, with some claiming that Jefferson was actually referring to the autonomy of the States – in which case, why did he not simply say so – and on the other from feminists and their fellow travellers who, lacking any understanding of history, do not appear to understand that 'men' in this context meant 'people'. All the people.
So what was the single class that was to replace the miserable class-based culture of Europe, which remains to this day a millstone round its collective neck? Well the simple answer would be, 'The middle class, of course.' After all, such things as aristocracy were if anything more detested by the colonials than by even the French mob.
That, however, only gets rid of one class. Since the Founding Fathers were themselves middle-class, neither aristocratic nor proletarian, perhaps they might be forgiven for missing the crucial issue of the rural working class, upon whom they depended. The incipient United States was not then industrialised and remained an agrarian economy, so the principal need for workers was on the land itself.
This workforce had historically been provided in two ways: the first was called 'indentured servitude' in which rural poor from Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere were given passage to the colonies, where the cost might be redeemed, on the agreement that they would work for their benefactor for up to seven years. The cost of a passage was £5 Sterling, equivalent to approximately £1200 today; but that was an astronomical sum for an agricultural worker then.
If we take harvest wages...for example, then the earnings of a worker who worked 52 weeks in the year in 1832 would be £30.40.
In other words, a fit man in Britain would need to work for forty years to afford the price of the ticket, and that does not take into account his living costs. This was even more of a problem if he were married. As a result, the offer of 'sail now, pay it off later' was attractive and many took it up.
The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen, and High German people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places, in part from a great distance, say twenty, thirty, or forty hours away, and go on board the newly-arrived ship that has brought and offers for sale passengers from Europe, and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage money, which most of them are still in debt for, When they have come to an agreement, it happens that adult persons bind themselves in writing to serve three, four, five, or six years for the amount due by them, according to their age and strength. But very young people, from ten to fifteen years, must serve till they are twenty-one years old.
After their indentured service, many of the immigrants left to set up on their own, often establishing small farms on the borderlands – and coming into conflict with the natives. Those who remained in service were in the main promoted, overseers, managers, accountants and the like, who became de facto middle-class because of their professional status. Indeed a significant number of established American families began in exactly this way.
Indentured servitude was not slavery, although some have made that claim, perhaps a little disingenuously. It was a contract through which the cost of a passage to the Americas could be repaid. Seven years is not so much to a young person of twenty or so, after all and by-and-large the servants were reasonably treated. While they were tied to their employer by debt, they were not bound materially to him: he did not possess them and they remained free.
The other resource of available labour, however, was actual slavery, plain and simple.
The discussion of slavery itself is not something I propose to go into here but it is important to appreciate a phenomenon that, while not unique to the United States, was essential to it. This is that the traditional roles of the rural working class were not, in the main, carried out by Americans, that is, those who had been born there, but by foreigners, those who had not. Domestic servants, field hands and other menial workers were generally either indentured servants or slaves, even in the North, which was largely slave-owning itself.
This system depended on two things: the supply of able-bodied workers and to a lesser degree, the supply of land to give the former indentured servants when they finished their contracts. Having large numbers of landless individuals roaming around was far too much of a risk and these were agricultural workers; they knew nothing else. So this fuelled, amongst other things, the expansion of the States into lands formerly held by First Americans. However, although skirmishes were frequent, the real horrors of war only came there later.
There was no real working class
This system effectively meant that the United States did not have a working class, as it would have been understood in Britain. There were indentured servants and slaves, and there were independent freeholders, but the idea of masses of urban poor – the proletariat – escaped America until after the war of 1860.
This war jump-started American industrial production in a way that had not been seen before. Suddenly, America did have a proletariat and it was made up not of indentured servants, but of freed slaves and immigrants, often from non-Anglophone parts of Europe.
This is where Mr Ford came in. He was the very first person to realise, in the United States, that if you paid your workers more than they needed for survival, then you might have two rewards. One was a better standard of worker, who could be relied on to show up every day.
Ford had developed the world's first production line two years beforehand, but he had great difficulty in retaining workers. There was chronic absenteeism and lots of worker turnover. So Ford gambled that higher wages would attract better, more reliable workers.
"It was an absolute, total success," says Bob Kreipke, corporate historian for the Ford Motor Co. "In fact, it was better than anybody had even thought." The benefits were almost immediate. Productivity surged, and Ford doubled its profits in less than two years. Ford himself ended up calling it the best cost-cutting move he ever made.
The other consequence was that they began to spend money. Consumer capitalism had arrived.
Ford also increased wages to expand his market — paying employees enough to buy the cars they made. While that wasn't Ford's main motivation, it was a welcome byproduct, and a game changer, says University of California economist Harley Shaiken.
"What that gave us was an industrial middle class and an economy that was driven by consumer demand," Shaiken says.
Ford's ground-breaking move, of more than doubling pay rates in his factory, was a stroke of genius that had permanent consequences not just for the Ford Motor Company but also for the whole of the USA and ultimately the world. Add to this that Ford's Model T was the very first car that could be purchased by a family man or a small business, and things began to rock. Whether he realised what he was doing or not, Ford completely transformed American capitalism and through that, its society. Now the target market was ordinary people, rather than the extremely wealthy and for it to work, they had to have spare cash to spend; it was imperative. Ford realised that many with a little money to spend were more than equivalent to a few with a lot. That meant the best way for an industrialist capitalist to make money was to turn everyone into a potential customer – by paying them more than they needed for survival. Every economic development in the USA since has been based on this premise.
More importantly, it was possible to think, certainly in the era post WW2, that the Founding Fathers' aspirations had at last been achieved. American workers could buy their own homes; they had cars in the garage, television sets in the lounge. This was all thanks to Ford, because he changed the paradigm. Instead of paying workers as little as possible, it now became paying them as much as the business could afford, because that fed into the cycle of consumer capitalism and ultimately made everyone richer. In a fascinating paradox, the more a capitalist paid his workers, the richer he might become.
It was not all rosy, however. White Americans were quite happy to work in factories and offices for comfortable salaries, but mending the roads and shovelling garbage, maybe not so much. So America, having eschewed actual slavery and indentured service no longer being feasible, in most cases, because of relatively cheap travel, had to import foreign workers to do the jobs nobody else wanted to do. Chinese were imported to build railways and Mexicans to do seasonal work in the fruit-fields. As each wave of new immigrants came in, it took up the jobs nobody else wanted, allowing the previous wave to move one step up the ladder. The promise was always the same: you do this and your children's lives will be better – because they will be middle-class. That is the American way. This would lead to problems in the future, but in the euphoric post-war era, nobody even considered this possibility.
Ford was not only an astute businessman, he was also a visionary. The eldest of six children to a rural family, who had grown up on the family farm at Dearborn in Michigan, he became interested in mechanical engineering while still a boy. Somewhere along the line he was fascinated by efficiency, which became the hallmark of his life's work. He came to believe that the old model of family life, which was based on a clan system, was inefficient. In particular he asked himself, if families were spending every penny they had to feed themselves, how could they have any left over to feed into the consumer capitalist system? How could they buy the products of industry? And if they could not, then how could Capitalism thrive in America?
Ford was not alone in seeing this. It had been observed in Britain too, where factory and mill owners built model towns like New Lanark and many others. One thing these all had in common was that they were designed for a single family unit: a man, his wife and their children. Ford's approach was similar: give them enough to house themselves, in one-family units. Thus was born the nuclear family as we know it today; the same man who gave us affordable motor-cars, also gave us the modern Western way of life, one in which everyone can aspire to middle-class status, but which is always sustained by an invisible underclass, the immigrants and others who do the work nobody else would.
Patriarchal vs matriarchal systems
The crucial difference between the older clan system of family and the nuclear system is that the former is resolutely matriarchal while the latter is patriarchal. The clan group is formed around women, with the most senior grandmothers being in charge. Men deal with the outside world, women with the domestic hierarchy. This model can still be seen in operation in many parts of southern Europe, across Asia and Latin America and elsewhere. The nuclear family shifts the focus away from mothers as the hub of the system, with men as semi-detached, onto men as the centre of the household. They became the sun around which the planets of the family would orbit.
This model was known in Rome but crucially, only in wealthy and aristocratic families. Indeed it seems to have a peculiar affinity with the middle class as a construct, whereas in working classes, or lower social strata if you prefer, it is almost absent. This might have to do with an economic advantage, that it is cheaper to house and feed people communally than individually.
Henry Ford, however, was not really interested in the models of yesteryear, which which he would have been intimately familiar. Like many in that era, he was fascinated by the new, the modern and wanted to reject the traditional. He wanted everyone to have their own homes and (most important) their own cars; and he did everything he could to enable that, to the point that some modern historians claim that he 'created the American middle class.'
What Ford foresaw was a world much like that seen by European modernists, but unlike them, still fixated on Marxist notions of centralised control and collectivism, Ford saw the future as being one of separate, independent and successful individuals, each working to realise their dream – the American Dream: a home, a car, kids in school. That was why he resisted his son's push to introduce the Model A Ford – he saw it as pandering to an excessive taste for luxury. There was always a good dash of Presbyterian thrift in Ford, as well as the farmer's practicality and he couldn't for the life of himself see why people would rather spend money on a Model A than the practical Model T, just because it looked cute. After all, where would one put the hay bales?
Ford's industrial method revolutionised America. In many ways he was as cataclysmic and as catalysing as Lenin. He literally changed the world, by changing, in this case, how the world worked. Like the Communists, he wanted efficiency in all things and that went from the days his workers spent assembling cars to how they lived, how they spent their weekends and how they took their pleasures. The old system, with its matriarchal basis and its networks that operated through motherhood and sisterhood, were not efficient enough. He wanted things done the way men did them – efficiently.
Henry Ford was assisted in his push towards this new American Dream by events that happened at the time he was born and which certainly affected him in his childhood. Two of his uncles served in the war of 1860, with one being killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. We can be sure that the war and the events that followed affected Ford deeply, just as they did all Americans. The country had been ripped apart and all that was comfortable, all that was reliable, all that had been permanent, was destroyed in four years of vicious warfare; we often forget now that more Americans died in that war than all those who died in the country's other wars, before or since.
The horror of Civil War convinced many Americans that the old ways had failed. They were not reliable. They were not efficient. The country as a whole began to look forward, rather than back, to innovation rather than tradition. The conquest of he West, or rather, the dispossession of those who already lived there, was a part of that and if it was vicious, it was because of the lingering brutalisation of the War, which still abides in American culture. Those who were not quite like 'us' could be treated as being of less value. This fed into the ugly, ongoing tradition of American race politics, where the colour of a person's skin counts for far more than his ability, or his goodness.
The cult of the new became supreme and in time, people would stop repairing things; they just threw them away and bought new. The disposable society came into being, where nothing had any lasting value and the old was always to be disdained. Even the underclasses upon which the country depended were ephemeral; Scots, Irish, Italians, Germans, Chinese and many others all took their turn, rising through the generations and leaving the dirty work to whomever was next to come in. Underlying all this was the cult of the new: the old had to be done away with, whether that was in how factories made goods or in how people lived.
Henry Ford was not a saint. He had many flaws. Personally he could be intransigent and irascible. He was strongly anti-Semitic. He was implacably opposed to involvement in World Wars One and Two. On the other hand, without his creativity and vision, the USA could not have become the power that it has. It could not have both fought Germany and defeated Japan. It could not have put men on the moon. And, though feminists might carp about his 'patriarchal attitudes' without his revolutionising both the workplace and the home, there would have been no feminism at all.
For better or worse, we all live with his legacy.