Crisis of Fordism

Mark Rupert

Interpretations of institutional shifts in capitalist industrial countries have used Fordism and crisis as important organizing concepts, but 'Fordism' can have different meanings and supports different kinds of historical interpretations and political positions.

A term which *Antonio Gramsci originally associated with a constellation of cultural and political relations he referred to as 'Americanism', Fordism has more recently been appropriated by scholars associated with more economically-centered *regulation theories. Michel Aglietta (1979) identified Fordism as the regulative principle of a macrosocial *regime of accumulation involving specific forms of capitalist production as well as social consumption norms. Aglietta attributed the *Great Depression to the uneven early development of a regime of intensive accumulation, revolutionizing social productive powers in the US without simultaneously transforming social consumption norms and the real living conditions of the industrial working class. The result, he claimed, was catastrophic economic imbalance as the rapidly growing sector of production goods outpaced the consumption goods sector.

After World War II, Fordism realized capitalism's potential for mass production at the same time that it fostered a rising standard of living for many production workers. Based upon the intensification of labor, Fordism's increasing rate of *exploitation countered (for a time) the tendency toward a *falling rate of profit as capital revolutionized the social forces of production and progressively reduced the proportion of exploitable living labor involved in the production process. At the same time, growing productivity and the cheapening of wage goods meant that the real standard of living of the industrial working class could improve significantly even as exploitation intensified. Increasing levels of social consumption - secured through such institutional mechanisms as *unionization and legalized collective bargaining - in turn promoted a rough balance between the producer goods and consumer goods sectors during Fordism's golden age.

By the late 1960s, Aglietta argued, the engine of intensive accumulation was stalling. The growth of social productivity decelerated markedly after 1966: the Fordist labor process, based upon the extraction of ever greater amounts of *surplus value through the intensification of labor, was reaching its limits. Once this dynamic lost its momentum real wages could not continue to grow, and capital began a massive frontal assault on workers, their unions, and their wages. As Fordist production approached its limits, the danger of capitalist crisis began to reasssert itself: the degenerating regime of intensive accumulation became less able to offset the basic crisis tendencies of capitalism through steadily intensified exploitation, increasing productivity and mass consumption of mass produced commodities.

Aglietta's concepts enjoyed for a time a widespread popularity, spawning regulation theory, influencing a number of important works of scholarship, and setting the tone of much academic discussion of political economy through the 1980s. In recent years, however, Aglietta's claims about Fordism have been subjected to serious critique. Brenner and Glick (1991) argued persuasively that Fordism should not be understood in terms of the institutionalized correspondence of mass production and mass consumption since the pre-Depression years were not a period of extraordinary *underconsumption, nor was consumption historically high relative to total output in the postwar 'golden age' (Brenner and Glick: 84, 93-5).

But Fordism can also be understood in terms of a socio-political regime, a set of institutionalized relationships between the social organization of production on the one hand, and social self-understandings and political organizations on the other. Gramsci was among the first to recognize the potential political and cultural significance of 'an ultra-modern form of production and of working methods --- such as is offered by the most advanced American variety, the industry of Henry Ford' (1971: 280-81). The institutionalization of such a system of production required a combination of force and persuasion: a political regime in which trade unions would be subdued, workers might be offered a higher real standard of living, and the ideological legitimation of this new kind of capitalism would be embodied in cultural practices and social relations extending far beyond the workplace.

In the first half of the twentieth century, craft-based production was being supplanted by mass production in the US, and new relations of power were being constructed and contested in the workplace. Fordism entailed increased mechanization of the labor process and the potential for heightened capitalist control over the pace and intensity of work. Realization of that potential involved bouts of explicit *class struggle. Contesting liberal capitalism's emphasis on private property rights, industrial workers counterposed conceptions of *industrial democracy and collective participation in work life in order to legitimate their new and embattled industrial unions. In the postwar context of Cold War fears, and access to an unprecedented affluence, such challenges were contained within the bounds of a vision of liberal capitalism as the social system best able to secure - on a global scale - individual rights and liberties and a more generalized prosperity. On the basis of union participation in this hegemonic world-vision, the state and capital accepted industrial unions as junior partners in the postwar project of reconstructing a liberal capitalist world order (Rupert, 1995).

In the last decade of the twentieth century this Fordist hegemony is transforming itself. The Cold War is over: anti-communism no longer serves as the crucial ingredient in the ideological cement binding together the postwar historic bloc. The prosperity which US industrial labor had enjoyed as a result of its participation in the hegemonic bloc is evaporating. With the mutation of the postwar historic bloc such that transnational financial and industrial capital are increasingly predominant and industrial labor within the US is no longer a relatively privileged junior partner, socio-political relations and popular ideologies which once seems firmly grounded are now increasingly up for grabs.

In sharp contrast to the hegemonic ideology of Fordism, working Americans increasingly realize that they live in an environment where corporate profits need not correspond to rising standards of living or improved quality of life, and that their ability to exercise any control at all over their economic futures is, under current institutional arrangements, quite limited. Mounting evidence of long-term tendencies toward transnational production, corporate restructuring, subcontracting and outsourcing, plant closings and layoffs, concessionary bargaining and union-busting, declining real wages, widening and deepening poverty, has in recent years been juxtaposed to news of resurgent corporate profits, happy days on Wall Street, and breathtaking inequalities of income and wealth The liberal vision of a transnational order institutionalizing the values of freedom and prosperity - most firmly embedded in popular common sense during the postwar decades - may begin to seem bitterly ironic to growing numbers of Americans. Once solidly hegemonic, the liberal narrative of globalization is now increasingly vulnerable to challenge.

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