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A new history charts the global legacy of Fordist mass production, tracing its appeal to political formations on both the left and the right.
Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order
Stefan J. Link
Princeton University Press, $39.95 (cloth)
The utopian ideal of globalization has imploded over the past decade. Rising demand in Western countries for greater state control over the economy reflects a range of grievances, from a chronic shortage of well-compensated work to a sense of national decline. In the United States, the dearth of domestic supply chains exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened alarm over the acute infrastructural weaknesses decades of outsourced production have created. Post-industrial society, rather than an advanced stage of shared affluence, is not only more unequal but fundamentally insecure. Rich but increasingly oligarchic countries are experiencing what we might call, following scholars of democratization, a dramatic “de-consolidation” of development.
As the promises of globalization have imploded, political forces in many rich countries—on both left and right—are converging on the imperative to use industrial policy.
To reverse this decline, political forces on both the left and the right are converging on the imperative to use industrial policy—the strategic process by which governments, either through state support of industrialists or state-owned enterprises, build up and diversify domestic manufacturing. On the left, the Green New Deal represents a futuristic and ecologically sustainable industrial policy, one that undergirds a strong public sector, progressive distribution, a job guarantee, and efforts to correct historical injustices. On the right, policy ideas are more muddled due to the powerful grip of free market ideology, yet a vocal “communitarian” cohort across Europe and the United States is pivoting toward heterodox economics. “Globalism,” in the view of these populists, has eroded the economic sovereignty of nation-states, shrinking historically key sectors and unleashing new forms of anomie. Industrial policy thus looks to be an instrument for reaffirming national sovereignty and restoring the social bonds that producer-oriented economies ostensibly foster. While only the left addresses the climate crisis, both visions are concerned with the social value economic activity generates, in contrast to neoliberalism’s justification of unimpeded self-interest.
In their search for an alternative to neoliberal globalization, these competing visions reflect the enduring power of Fordism, the industrial system that launched mass production in the early twentieth century and shaped many of our expectations of modern life. Henry Ford would likely find his relevance to the current crisis of globalization a testament to his “producerist” philosophy. But as historian Stefan J. Link writes in his new book, Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order, Ford’s peculiar ideals “projected a political (and moral) economy that hardly anticipated the American consumer modernity that emerged after 1945.” Link gives a fresh analysis of an overlooked dimension of interwar history, tracing the singular influence of Ford’s innovations and ideas upon the final, cataclysmic stages of twentieth-century industrialization. Forging Global Fordism allows us to better explore the relationship between industrialism, political ideology, and global competition, while also shedding important light on our tumultuous present moment.
In their search for an alternative to neoliberal globalization, competing new visions reflect the enduring power of Fordism—the industrial system that launched mass production in the early twentieth century.
One of the key insights of Link’s book is that Fordism was as much a theory of social organization as a scientific system of productivity, and it was highly malleable within different political and economic contexts. To explore the varieties of Fordist experience, Link employs the framework of the developmental state—the stage of state history in which governments, seeking modernization, a more integrated domestic market, and faster economic growth, typically pursue capital formation and reinvestment in strategic industries that are shielded from global competition.
Situating the global spread of Fordism within Europe’s struggle to “catch up” to U.S. industrialization after World War I and prepare for the next conflict, Link shows how Fordist America, as well as Ford’s philosophy, animated what he terms European “postliberals” on the left and the right in their ambitions for autarky and dominion over “great spaces.” In doing so, Link explains how the “isolationist” 1930s set the course for modern globalization. “Rather than interrupt,” Link argues, “depression and war actually accelerated and intensified the global spread of Fordism,” due to the industrial policies of activist states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In their respective quests for machine tools, automotive material, and expert knowledge of mass production techniques—all of which informed the construction of “dual-use” factories—delegations from each country sought and obtained technology transfers from Ford’s famed River Rouge plant in Detroit throughout the 1930s. At the seeming apex of isolationism in the twentieth century, the Ford Motor Company provided critical blueprints and other forms of assistance that could be harnessed in equal measure for economic development and total war.
• • •
How did Ford become this seemingly improbable node in the industrial strategies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union? “To gain the forefront of industrial modernity,” Link writes, “all insurgents” against a faltering liberal international system “first had to turn for guidance to the most advanced nation. . . . Interim technological dependency on the United States—such was the wager of autarky—would be the price of long-term economic independence.”
Fordism was as much a theory of social organization as a scientific system of productivity. Link shows it was highly malleable in different political and economics contexts.
Detroit was the locus of America’s advancement, and thus “an antagonistic development competition” arose across the globe from the race to acquire its technology, engineering know-how, and organizational methods. Among the region’s firms, the Ford Motor Company was especially receptive to teams from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; Ford’s own views may have aligned with the nationalist right, but business opportunities mixed with pride in the company’s reputation and state of the art facilities. Contracts with each country were complemented by a consultative, instructional approach, making Ford a target of reconnaissance beyond what the company might have intended. As Link details, several Ford workers—many of whom were European immigrants—migrated to Russia and Germany, and in some cases, particularly in the Nazi state, ascended to important positions within the war bureaucracy.
Ford’s pivotal role in the diffusion of technology stemmed from his distinction within U.S. industry. Ford was rightly regarded as a pioneer of mass production, which had generated unprecedented consumption in the U.S. economy while raising industry wages. Unlike Taylorist management, with its taxing fixation on individual employee performance, Fordism, Link explains, had “devised a system that turned lack of skill into a productive resource” that not only generated jobs but inculcated a collective sense of discipline within factory workers. Mass production, with its optimized flow methods that integrated repetitive, segmented tasks with scientific floor plans and automated machines, was not merely an achievement of Ford’s ingenuity. It manifested an economic philosophy that took on a special power for European postliberals seeking to emulate U.S. development precisely in order to undermine U.S. dominance.
At the center of Ford’s philosophy, according to Link, were particular, complementary notions of social progress and moral improvement with roots in Midwestern populism. Ford’s various press statements and publications during the 1910s and 1920s articulated a clear concept of social justice. Announcing the five-dollar day in 1914, his company stated that, “Social justice begins at home. We want those who have helped us to produce this great institution and are helping to maintain it, to share our prosperity.” Link notes that Ford tied this benefit to strict standards of personal conduct, and even for a time maintained an invasive “Sociological Department” to surveil workers. But this dynamic between rewards and responsibilities also reflected Ford’s view that the modern firm was a microcosm of society.
As an economic philosophy, Fordism took on a special power for European states seeking to emulate U.S. development precisely in order to undermine U.S. dominance.
The “emphasis on justice, economic cooperation, and the cultivation of virtues,” Link writes, strongly “reasserted labor-republican notions of the nineteenth century,” including “the moral economy of the Knights of Labor” which “sought not to overcome capitalism through class struggle but to harness corporate organization and financial accumulation for the benefit of the laboring producers.” Visionary leadership, in Ford’s mind, inspired a synergistic relationship with labor, as exemplified by the core technicians whose creativity enhanced the scale and tempo of production. While it was incumbent upon workers to internalize discipline, the firm was obligated to envelop them within a communitarian culture, one that would recognize individual progress through interesting, advanced work, but would, above all, define the firm’s value on the basis of collective achievement.
• • •
Ford’s ideals thus corresponded, Link explains, to the German right’s fixation on the supposedly organic “reciprocity” between volk and leadership that was required of industrial progress. As a model of leadership and social organization, Fordism resonated deeply with postliberals seeking to mold capitalism and the masses toward a unifying political economy. As formulated by German rightwing theorists of the Weimar period, Fordism embodied Dienst: “an ethos by which individuals cheerfully submitted to a larger purpose or directed their energies to the presumed benefit of the Volk.” Refracted through a lens that exalted racial-national struggle, Fordism augmented early Nazi claims that National Socialism represented a true “socialism of leadership” (in the words of the economist Friedrich von Gottl-Ottlilienfeld) and purposive “anti-capitalism,” as opposed to Marxism’s subversion of social order.
As a model of leadership and social organization, Fordism resonated deeply with a German right seeking to mold capitalism and the masses toward a unifying political economy.
Crucially, Ford’s conception of social justice also deepened the postliberal right’s moral distinction between “productive” enterprises that rooted communities and the corrupting influence of global finance. Ford contrasted his motives to reinvest in production with the shareholder capitalism that shaped other firms, including Ford’s chief rival General Motors. According to Link, Ford believed his accomplishments “demonstrated that industry, released from the yoke of financial capital, could channel productivity increases into lower prices and higher wages.” Producers that constantly refined economies of scale thus had a social function that served the masses that distinguished them from other forms of enterprise, and entanglement with financiers would only undermine their “wealth-generating efficiency.”
Fordism was thus especially appealing to National Socialists in search of a political economy that could extinguish Marxism and social democracy but arouse communitarian sentiments toward a project of national renewal linking industrial modernization with racial purification. It combined the “moral” and “economic” arguments used to further legitimate Nazi ideology. During the 1920s, Ford’s critique of finance capitalism in My Life and Work—his most popular book, discerningly ghostwritten by the journalist Samuel Crowther and published in 1922—“rationalized” the blatant anti-Semitism he expressed in other publications. Industrial progress, and the moral improvement ascribed to it, was juxtaposed with the rent-seeking of which he and European nationalists accused Jews. Postliberals of the Weimar right took notice, and their contempt for the war debts that were enervating domestic production fueled anti-Semitic discourses that seeded the German public’s growing association of Jews with economic insecurity and Germany’s post-Versailles “subjugation.” Alleging economic difficulties were the fault of a Jewish conspiracy, the Nazi party and its allies luridly differentiated a predatory, “foreign” capitalism from industrialism in proper service to the nation.
Ford’s own conception of social justice deepened the postliberal right’s moral distinction between “productive” enterprises that rooted communities and the corrupting influence of global finance.
Beyond its uses for propaganda, Fordism was critical to Nazi industrial policy once Hitler secured his dictatorship in spring 1933. In Germany the Depression manifested most acutely as a “Great Balance-of-Payments Crisis”—the burden of large U.S. loans and the absence of a resilient domestic market were amplifying Germany’s structural weaknesses. Link explains that for the early Nazi regime, the question of how to reinvigorate stagnant industry was the same that had beleaguered the Weimar Republic. Germany faced a declining share of export markets precisely because U.S. firms, particularly those of Detroit, were becoming globally dominant. The prospect of surrendering to U.S. dominance in automobiles was tantamount to permanent subordination in the global economy, threatening underdevelopment.
In a rich analysis of the regime’s various strategies to coerce industry, Link shows that by embedding Fordist mass production within a “steered market economy,” the Nazi state accelerated industrial growth, stimulated employment, and recovered badly needed foreign exchange. Hitler’s regime converted a “makeshift system of trade management and capital controls” into a strategy that “fortified export promotion,” “elbowed industry into developing import substitutes,” “systematically privilege[d] strategic sectors,” and diverted “resources from consumption to rearmament.” It also entailed a stealth manipulation of U.S.-owned multinationals that affixed them to the state’s burgeoning military-industrial complex. The state wielded tariffs against U.S. imports while imposing capital controls that forced Americans to reinvest in Germany and increasingly substitute German materials for U.S. exports. Oddly, Ford initially held out when it came to plant expansion, but by the start of World War II his company’s German division “was responsible for almost one-fifth of German truck production.”
By embedding Fordist mass production within a “steered market economy,” the Nazi state accelerated industrial growth, stimulated employment, and recovered badly needed foreign exchange.
Fordism thus underpinned Hitler’s grand strategy of acquiring Lebensraum. In Hitler’s vision, Link writes, “mass production had a precise double role: it was necessary to create and sustain the armaments complex that would allow the conquest and control of territory in which industry would supply a vast contiguous market with a standard of living to match America’s.” The obsession with control over a vast geopolitical space, inspired in part by America’s genocidal pursuit of continental dominion in the nineteenth century, reflected Hitler’s fervid security concerns. In the prospective postliberal world order, a Germanized Europe would be “self-sufficient” through a combination of advanced industry and the supply, through frontiersmen and slave labor, of essential raw materials and foodstuffs from Eurasia. Intellectuals aligned with National Socialism, such as the journalist Ferdinand Fried and the jurist Carl Schmitt, would elaborate upon this reconfiguration of world order, envisioning a future where landmass imperia would largely supplant the commerce of liberal internationalism and naval-based colonialism.
• • •
In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, the challenge of adapting a still largely agrarian society to Fordism was far more formidable than what Nazi Germany faced. The Great Depression had compounded the problems of industrialization: the price for grain exports—the Soviet Union’s main commodity—was falling at the same time that the state determined it was necessary to speed up the purchase of U.S. equipment As in Germany, the fascination with Fordist America had percolated Soviet thought during the 1920s. It was so influential, Link writes, that a “common trope in the NEP [New Economic Policy] ideological arsenal”—Vladimir Lenin’s economic proposal of 1921—“held that socialism equaled Soviet revolution plus American technology.” But the implementation of Fordism was not just a matter of acquiring the materials and techniques of mass production, pressing as that was. It also constantly entailed ideological pivots and smoothing. The imperative to convert largely unskilled masses, with little exposure to industrial machinery, into disciplined workers required expert management to accelerate development.
Soviet policy, for its part, attempted to distill Fordism to its scientific mechanisms, laying a foundation that would enable the country to obtain “economic independence” from the capitalist international system.
During the initial stages of this transformation, engineers who had trained during the late Tsarist period formed a substrata of tenuous factory leadership, subject both to threats and to penalties from party elites and antagonism from workers who rejected a hierarchy that cut against their notions of self-management. Soviet policymakers were determined to eradicate vestiges of craftsmanship and other forms of “backwardness” impeding the adoption of modern industrial organization, but they needed to maintain the loyalty of the workers. The overarching ideological premise of Soviet industrial policy, Link summarizes, was that “if capitalism was an anarchic system of jealous partitions, cross-purposes, and collective blindness, Soviet socialism would be a system of total and harmonic coordination,” and yet its implementation of Fordism fell far from that ideal.
Soviet policy, according to the party leadership, would distill Fordism to its scientific mechanisms, laying a foundation that would enable the country to obtain “economic independence” from the capitalist international system. This vision was consistent with Stalin’s pronouncement that socialism would be achieved first in one country. Beginning with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, radical modernizers dominated Soviet industrial policy, leading to a punishing pursuit of Western technology transfers that resulted in horrific famine. Link insightfully argues that the decision to ramp up agricultural collectivization was not a tragic scheme born of ideological militancy and bureaucratic folly but instead a calculated risk to squeeze as much as grain export as possible out of the peasant population to pay for the machinery needed to build and bring online plants such as the Gorky Automobile Plant (GAZ). Like Hitler, Stalin understood the centrality of national auto works in a future war. National security, however it was framed, took precedence over the welfare of the Soviet—and especially Ukrainian—countryside.
Beginning with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, radical modernizers dominated Soviet industrial policy, leading to a punishing pursuit of Western technology transfers.
For all the coercive strategies employed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Link meticulously notes that the assimilation of Fordism in both countries was incomplete through the beginning of World War II until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Soviet Union, in particular, had contended with a “hybrid industrial system” prone to frequent machine-based stoppages and enormous turnover. Continuing in the vein of the party-manipulated factory conflicts of the NEP era, the tendency of individual laborers to demonstrate “grassroots worker initiative” often further disrupted the mastery of flow methods. What ultimately ignited more rapid industrialization were the unprecedented demands of conducting total war.
Industrial policy in both countries thus took another radical turn. In Germany, Link writes, “high-profile production engineers, whose American credentials lent them authority vis-a-vis both the ministries and the firms, connected the state apparatus to the sphere of economic execution in the factories.” The rampant use of forced labor, which accounted for one third of the Nazi war economy, disposed of “reciprocity,” instead activating the most brutal and extreme authoritarian possibilities latent in Fordism. “Only where coercion and control was complete and the threat of violence was ever present could the assembly line achieve its disciplinary strength,” Link concludes.
By World War II, the simultaneous mobilization of the army to the battlefield and displaced peasants into the factories hastened the full implementation of a command economy in accord with Fordist methods.
The dramatic output of the Soviet Union after 1941, then, was all the more remarkable given the ferocity of Nazi military power. Despite the immense hardship and piecemeal progress of the 1930s, Link underscores that the Soviets had in fact laid the groundwork for the wartime conversion of facilities and production methods. “For the remainder of the war,” he writes, “the Soviet Union decisively outmatched Germany in the war of the factories in every weapons category except ships and submarines.” In a war of national survival, the simultaneous mobilization of the army to the battlefield and displaced peasants into the factories hastened the full implementation of a command economy in accord with Fordist methods. The range of armaments were restricted in favor of a relentless output of key weaponry that could wring maximum raw efficiency out of an unskilled, malnourished workforce. On this score, Link notes that although “the Soviet Union had less steel at its disposal than all the other belligerents, it built more tanks and aircraft per available unit of steel than all the other belligerents combined.” The book vividly captures how this rapid transformation of Soviet industry repelled Hitler’s exterminatory quest for Lebensraum.
• • •
While the world depicted in Forging Global Fordism seems at first blush far removed from our own, the book makes a convincing case that in all its various guises, it was Fordism—perhaps more than any other system of social organization—that shaped our present, and now deeply uncertain, world order. Reflecting on the postwar recovery in Western Europe, Link addresses a deeply unsettling legacy of National Socialist industrial policy: Volkswagen and other German automakers had been primed for mass production through the various forms of support and compulsion Hitler’s regime administered. Their energies no longer siphoned into a war economy, Fordist consumption in the American sense could finally take off in a democratic West Germany allied with the United States. Rather than consider the industrial strategies of the Nazi state in isolation—and therefore as merely reflecting the choices of a mercurial and fanatical chain of command—Link perceptively suggests that “historians might look to the many other authoritarian, activist, and development-oriented states of the twentieth century” for substantive comparison.
Taken together, these historical insights suggest that the resurgence of rightwing populism today may reflect a final, belated crisis of Fordism.
It is worth recalling that the rise of different activist states in the 1930s all had a common focus on public works and infrastructure. This structural feature fed back into the international race to grow economies of scale that centered on the innovations, supply chains, and value-added inputs of national auto industries. Once we step back from Link’s close reading of the factors that established Fordism in the central antagonists of World War II, we can more fully observe the developmental state in all its various incarnations, from liberal democratic to totalitarian. Its successes have depended not just on the implementation of Fordism, but on the particular ways the state oversees the Fordist relationship between industry and labor.
That contingency helps put the ascent and subsequent post-industrial underdevelopment of the United States in historical, comparative perspective. Among the activist states of the twentieth century the most successful was Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it benefited significantly from the fact that Fordism had already matured in the United States. Because America maintained its edge in technology and industrial capacity, the shift to a war economy enabled it to outgun Nazi Germany while sparing Americans the levels of sacrifice that the Nazi, Soviet, and other war economies inflicted on their populations. Fordist manufacturing, in turn, became inextricable from conceits about the American Century; for decades it defined U.S. growth and the postwar idea that growth would ensure shared prosperity. Although Ford himself was virulently anti-union, a more assertive regulatory state that supported union rights molded, rather than blotted out, his producer populism.
The paradox of the Fordist era for Western countries is that it symbolizes the historic conversion of oppressive factory work into an unequalled period of shared prosperity and economic democracy.
In retrospect, the historic labor-capital compromise of the postwar era transformed the “cooperation” that Ford extolled into technocratic, state-mediated industrial relations. When that system was abandoned, most abruptly in the United States, in pursuit of a flexible, high-tech “knowledge” economy, industrial policy was subject to the new political taboo against strong government. In turn, industrial policy became the domain of China—now the world’s largest car manufacturer—and a few other late twentieth-century developmental states, while the much heralded new American economy became concentrated in a handful of globalized U.S. cities, barely reaching de-industrialized regions.
The international and domestic political tensions this policy regime has produced give the lie to the midcentury promise of permanent, self-sustaining, and inclusive economic growth. In a tacit negation of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, Link concludes that “the type of development competition that spread Fordism . . . will continue to be with us, shaping a global economic order that is ever contested, never finished.” One might add that elites who ignore signs of underdevelopment in democratic societies overestimate the durability of institutions and norms in the absence of a collective stake in where the economic future lies.
Taken together, these historical insights suggest that the resurgence of rightwing populism today may reflect a final, belated crisis of Fordism. It thus poses a distinct philosophical and policy dilemma. The paradox of the Fordist era for Western countries is that it symbolizes the historic conversion of oppressive factory work into an unequalled period of shared prosperity and economic democracy. On the one hand, the manufacturing jobs of the past were hardly what we think of as good jobs today, and many disappeared through automation rather than trade deals. On the other hand, the zenith of manufacturing correlated with high rates of unionization, a stronger public sector, and levels of taxation that encouraged reinvestment.
An important inference to be drawn from Link’s book is that we must resist a too simple embrace of its industrial policy, for it can easily ramify in ideologically unfavorable directions.
In some quarters the left has developed a tendency toward nostalgia for this period of more broadly shared prosperity. An important inference to be drawn from Link’s book is that we must resist a too simple embrace of its industrial policy, for it can easily ramify in ideologically unfavorable directions. For the communitarian right—not so far removed ideologically from the postliberals of the interwar period—the Fordist era represents not social democracy but the cultural cohesion and natalist values that paternalistic corporations once encouraged. As much as most conservatives have assailed the welfare state, it is conceivable that some will embrace industrial policy—and thus some version of a steered economy—in response to the cumulative pressures of underdevelopment and a more unstable phase in global affairs.
History warns that this particular turn toward dirigisme can quickly cohere with illiberal and belligerent visions of national renewal. To militate against this outcome, progressives will have to redouble efforts to frame the Green New Deal as the surest way to create millions of new, decent jobs that revitalize the economy. By invoking U.S. mobilization during World War II, and the cooperation upon which victory depended, any left committed to an egalitarian future must ultimately reconcile the traces of Henry Ford’s world in the new one being born.
… our world is in crisis. Our new series, Rethinking Political Economy, asks how we can build a new one. In essays such as this one, we explore alternatives to forty years of neoliberalism—reorienting public discussion away from a narrowly individualistic picture of society toward a vision of the common good. We propose new ways to think about the relationship between equality and democracy, paths to racially inclusive prosperity, the proper role of government in the economy, loosening the grip of economic power, and reviving investment in public goods—including decarbonizing the economy. Contributions from readers like you help keep our website free for everyone. If you support Boston Review’s belief in the power of collective reasoning, please consider joining us as a contributing reader. Make your tax-deductible contribution today.
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