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Legends of Fordism

Legends of Fordism

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Published by Jesse Walker

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Published by: Jesse Walker on May 23, 2012
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Between Myth, History, and Foregone Conclusions
George Baca
Over the past four decades, politicians and government officials of the so-calledadvanced industrial countries have scaled back state-sponsored programs ineducation, healthcare, welfare to the poor, and housing subsidies. In conjunc-tion, international economic organizations, such as the International MonetaryFund and the World Bank, have imposed fiscal policies upon developingnations, which disadvantage the poor by retrenching public services. Thesebroad level shifts in the global political economy have been legitimized througha planetary newspeak that centers on such buzzwords as ‘globalization’ posit-ing a ‘new economy,’ which require ‘flexible’ and ‘multicultural identities’(Bourdieu and Wacquant 2001). In this way, free trade advocates naturalizethese political processes with reductive biological models of society that oftenassume an autonomous individual, as Kapferer discusses in his contribution tothis forum (see also Taussig, Rapp, and Heath 2003).Many self-identified leftist anthropologists working in the United States havetried to explain these political changes with the concepts of ‘Fordism’ and ‘flex-ible accumulation,’ resulting in ahistorical analyses that conflate the politicalexperiences of the United States with diverse European and Asian countries.Moreover, they seek to explain such phenomena as deindustrialization and thegrowing integration of the global political economy with terms and assump-tions based in the mythological discourse of American nationalism, which iden-tifies a few decades as the entirety of American history (Di Leonardo 1985).Such analyses sensationalize the current round of reactionary policies bydepicting them as either a ‘break,’ ‘rupture,’ or ‘retrenchment’ of the assumedideals and virtues of the North American version of the welfare state.In this article, I critically evaluate the usefulness of Fordism and flexibleaccumulation in regards to the contemporary context. Specifically, I focus onthe way that geographer David Harvey (1989, 1996) has used these two con-cepts to provide a sweeping account of the global political economy during the
Social Analysis, Volume 48, Issue 3, Fall 2004, 169–178
George Baca
second half of the twentieth century. Harvey deploys the idea of Fordism in away that idealizes the postwar politics in ‘advanced capitalist countries’ andconflates the varied and diverse postwar experiences of Japan, the UnitedStates, and various European countries into a singular—if not mythic—catchallcategory of Fordism. Further, I examine a number of influential anthropologistsworking in the United States, who uncritically adopt Harvey’s concept of flexi-bility as if it were an axiom; they apply the term in ways that suspiciously con-verge with American nationalist discourse and universalize the particularitiesof the American experience. Accordingly, Harvey’s thesis has served as anengine for the crystallization of the Fordism idea, having been uncriticallyadopted in distilled form by many anthropologists, who cite it as the authorityon political economy while neglecting the specific local, regional, and nationalhistories in the United States. I argue that the analysis of the contemporarypolitical processes in the United States, during the ‘era of globalization,’ shouldbe compared and related to the specifics of anticommunism and imperialismthat shaped its postwar welfare state. A closer look at the historical develop-ment of the American welfare state will reveal that the devolution process rep-resents many continuities with so-called Fordism and its concomitant welfarepolicies. Moreover, the uncritical adoption of Harvey’s theory of flexibility hascontributed to many alarming misconceptions about the nature of the politicalprocesses in the United States.
Fordism and Flexible Accumulation: A New Axiom
In the late 1980s, Harvey’s publication of 
The Condition of Postmodernity:An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change
(1989) redefined debates in thesocial sciences. He problematized the popularity of postmodern theories andhow they celebrated subjectivity, difference, dissonance, and the fall of grandnarratives. Moreover, he argued that rather than gaining analytical purchaseon the present era of capitalism, many postmodern theories reflected, andwere conditioned by, a new phase of capitalism. Harvey, thus, presented thetheory of flexible accumulation as an analytic framework for understanding,among other things, the relationship between the then current academic fash-ions and the structure of global capitalism. Accordingly, his sweeping argu-ment forced scholars to rethink the relationship between academic trends andglobal political economy.Harvey’s analysis begins with an ideal type of Fordism, which he employs toprovide an all-encompassing account of postwar political strategies in diverseEuropean countries, the United States, not to mention Japan. Accordingly, heargues that Fordism emerged when managerial strategies and state powerscombined to stabilize capitalism:
The problem of the proper configuration and deployment of state powers wasresolved only after 1945. This brought Fordism to maturity as a fully fledged and
 Legends of Fordism
distinctive regime of accumulation. As such, it then formed the basis for a longpostwar boom that stayed broadly intact until 1973. During that period, capital-ism in the advanced capitalist countries achieved strong but relatively stablerates of economic growth. Living standards rose, crisis tendencies were con-tained, mass democracy was preserved and the threat of inter-capitalist warskept remote. (1989: 129)
Harvey’s model aggregates the experiences of distinct countries—let aloneregions within these countries—into a catchall category of advanced capitalistcountries. Moreover, he uses the ideal of Fordism to capture the essential fea-tures that distinguishes these countries from the ‘developing’ world.It is from this model—which metonymically takes parts of each country’spolitical economy for the whole—that he dramatizes a gradual shift in the globalsystem, which he locates in the “crisis” of 1973. Accordingly, Harvey holds, flex-ible accumulation emerged as a “whole set of processes that undermined theFordist compromise” (1989: 145), as capitalists responded to new global condi-tions by downsizing certain production sites and moving to areas of the worldwith lax worker and environmental protections. Such economic restructuringcoincided with policy changes whereby the national governments cut back thehallmark social programs of the welfare state. These changes in industrial orga-nization and government provision, Harvey argues, were designed to intensifyrates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation, produced flex-ible accumulation as representative of a new moment in the history of capitalism.Thus, for Harvey, flexibility refers to new forms of power over workers, whathe characterizes as “undermining” the Fordist compromise between capital andlabor that developed after World War II. Despite many qualifications about anti-labor practices, militarization, and the imperialism of Fordism, he unwittinglyidealizes the welfare state of Europe and North America by contrasting it withthe “enhanced powers of flexibility and mobility,” which allow employers toexert stronger pressures on labor. He concludes that “[o]rganized labor wasundercut by the reconstruction of foci of flexible accumulation in regions lack-ing previous industrial traditions, and by the importation back into the oldercenters of the regressive norms and practices established in these new areas”(1989: 147). On the one hand, it may be surprising that Harvey should come upwith such a positive conclusion regarding Fordism. On the other hand, it is lesssurprising due to the fact that the upheaval of the 1960s passed him by; he hadfaith in the British state, as he explained candidly in a recent interview:
I was always kind of left leaning, but in the 1960s in Britain, you could be sort of left-leaning, but you didn’t have to be radical in any way, because the Labour Partywas there, and a lot of us had faith in the Labour Party and its transformativecapacities … I went to Baltimore in the wake of the ‘68 uprising, riots, whateveryou want to call them, around the death of Martin Luther King, and I was shockedat the conditions I found there. I was really, really shocked that in the wealthiestcountry in the world, people live in chronic impoverishment. I was really upset. SoI started to participate much more in the political activism around that … Some of 

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