Friday, July 13, 2018

Greg Grandin - Fordlandia


In the 1920s Henry Ford decided to build a city in the Amazon. He was not the sort of person who was shy of self-promotion so he named it after himself. The purpose was to ensure a safe, cheap supply of rubber for Ford's car factories in North America, but Ford's real dream was the transformation of a section of the Amazon into a recreation of a highly stylised small town America. Doing this required a few things. Firstly it needed an enormous amount of money, something that the Ford corporation had in vast quantities. Secondly it needed land that could be transformed into rubber plantations and urban areas and, most importantly, it needed a large number of people who would work for Ford.

Ford famously built his empire by paying workers much more than the competitors. In theory they were paid enough to be able to purchase the cars they made. But Ford also made sure that his workforce conformed to a very strict set of standards. Alcohol was frowned upon, and often forbidden. Trade unions were strictly banned and Ford's hired thugs were prepared to use the utmost violence to prevent any hint of workers organising. Inspectors were sent to workers' homes to quiz the family on propreity and behaviour, even their sex life came under examination. While Ford liked to argue that he was the epitome of the good capitalist, at home and in the workplace he strictly controlled his workers' labour.

Ford has gone down in history for a number of things. He is credited with the transformation of factory work. Everything that could be done to improve efficiency was done. Today workers in call centres have their toilet breaks timed. In Ford's factory's workers had every movement calculated and analysed. The pay might have been good, but the relentless hard work meant turnover was high. Ford took his beliefs to all the logical, and illogical, extremes. According to Grandin he once sacked 700 orthodox Christians for taking a day off to celebrate a holiday. He believed that cow's milk was unhealthy and forced soy milk and food made from soy substitutes on his guests. Gardin writes, and  quotes one contemporary journalist, Walter Lippmann:
The industrialist's conviction that he could make the world conform to his will was founded on a faith that success in economic matters should, by extension allow capitalists to try their hands "with equal success" at "every other occupation." "Mr. Ord is neither a crank nor a freak," Lippmann insisted, but "merely the logical exponent of American prejudices about wealth and success." 
Importing this to the Amazon was fraught with peril. The rubber trade had brought capitalism to the rain-forest. But Ford brought it on an enormous scale. The heart of this book is the story of the consequent clash. Nature and people had to be shaped in Ford's image, and both resisted!

Firstly the people. Many of those that Ford's employees wanted to work for them in the Amazon had little or no experience of working to the regimes that Ford wanted. Some had no experience (or need) for money and wanted goods in kind - Ford refused to allow this, and so the workers refused to work for him. Others didn't want to work continuously, just enough to earn some money before returning to their own land. Still others wanted to bring their whole families with them. A year or so into the project, when Fordlandia was beginning to work, a huge riot destroyed nearly the whole complex. The trigger was management's insistence that workers had to queue in a canteen for food, rather than being served by waiters, behind this though was intense anger at the regime, the strict clocking in and out, and so on. One of the notable pictures in the book is of a clocking machine destroyed by the rioters.

Secondly nature. Like so many capitalists before and after Ford believed that he could simply force nature to do what he wanted. There's a famous quote from Fredrich Engels where he warns, "Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us..." This was very much true in the Amazon. The stripping of the land required far more work and money than Ford expected and, because he ignored local advice and refused to hire experts, his operations were repeatedly beset by problems. In particular, he and his managers, did not understand that rubber plantations cannot work in South America because of the native pests and diseases. This is why Henry Wickham had to steak Brazilian rubber seeds for plantations in Asia which were free from these threats. Ford's plantations repeatedly failed, costing millions. As Grandin explains, "The Ford Motor Company, with the endorsement of a well respected pathologist with experience on three continents, had in effect created an incubator" for disease.

Today Ford's plans seem unbelievable. He wanted to strip bare a massive area of the rain-forest and build a huge plantation, serviced by a town modelled on his vision of small-town America. Building an electric plant and a dock is one thing, but cinemas, bandstands and an 18 hole golf course seem utterly bizarre. But behind this, as Grandin explains, was Ford's own vision of society. He believed that men like him could transform the world into a system that would provide peace and prosperity through the control of workers and nature. Ford's pride and arrogance failed. Fordlandia was a disaster and as it declined, the aged Ford retreated further and further into his own artificial world populated with antiques and fake town life.

Ford, it should be emphasised, was not some benevolent eccentric. He was a ruthless capitalist, who drove his workers hard and held some extremely offensive views - particularly his Antisemitism, though his racism also affected his (and his company's) attitudes to the Brazilians. His attempts to shape people and nature where of course celebrated by Hitler's Nazis, a group that Ford famously courted.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Engels wrote about capitalism's globalising vision:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
With Fordlandia, Henry Ford literally wanted to create the Amazonian world into the very image of an imagined America. At the same time he wanted to entrap the people into his factories and transform nature into something that could readily guarantee his profits. The story of his failure is brilliantly told by Greg Grandin, and I highly recommend this well-written, gripping history.

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Sunday, July 01, 2018

Richard Fortey - Survivors: The Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind

When I was much younger, sometime in the 1970s, I had a picture book of animals and rather fascinatingly to me it had a drawing of a living fossil, the Coelacanth fish. I was captivated by the idea that animals that had been alive in the distant past were still alive today. Around the same time I also watched that terrible film The Land that Time Forgot but I don't think I ever believed that there was anywhere were dinosaurs continued to exist.

The Coelacanth jumped into my mind as soon as I saw Richard Fortey's book. Many years later I was still fascinated by the idea that animals could survive into contemporary times. While this is not a history of evolution Fortey does tell the story in a roughly linear way, and so we begin with very early animals and plants to understand how some examples of these remain alive today.

The first thing to point out is that Fortey never uses the term "living fossil". As he explains, no living thing remains still, a species is in a continuous process of evolution, but with some we can see something very similar to their historical ancestors. Sometimes this is because an organisms "niche" the "place where it fits in, earns a living, reproduces" remains constant and so little change takes place. Quite a few of the organisms in this book are like that, particularly bacteria and so on. Others may have evolved elsewhere but found in radically different environments today. Cacti, Fortey points out "are now specialists for life in arid conditions in the Americas, but did they originate in damp forests in Gondwana?"

Coelacanth
Despite my youthful enthusiasm for the Coelacanth, I was particularly fascinated by the examples of lifeforms that are close to those that existed very early on in Earth's evolutionary history. Of these the Stromatolites must be the most amazing example in this book. They look like "flat-topped cushions and low pillars, or even giant mushrooms expanding upwards like plush stools".  They are built up by tiny organisms, year after year, and so are not a single organism, but a "whole ecology". Usually such microscopic organisms would be eaten away, but in the special conditions where they are found today, a warm shoreline in Australia, would be consumers are absent. Fossil stromatolites have been found from as far back as the Archean era, up to 3.5 billion years ago. They are found in many different places around today's globe (Fortey recounts finding them in Spitsbergen as an undergraduate) and must have been very common. Seeing pictures of them today gives us a tiny insight into what life was like very early on in its evolutionary career.

As with Fortey's other writings this is highly personalised. His career has taken him to many places to
Stromatolites
see many things and this helps make his books highly readable. Unfortunately this book's illustrations are reproduced very badly - in black and white, on paper - and much of the detail is lost. Luckily the internet allows readers to quickly find more useful examples.

Fortey ends the book with a discussion of how these creatures in their niches or Time Havens, face the pressures of environmental change. He points out though, that even if catastrophic climate change wipes out the vast majority of living things on Earth, small bacteria will still be there and that "the wheel of life will have turned full circle". It's a great book that gives an unusual insight into evolutionary history.

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Fortey - Trilobite!
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