Henry Ford and the Forgetting Machines
I doubt that the founder — I mean Henry Ford — ever read Alexis de Tocqueville, or any other writer who might be mistaken for a historian — but he surely understood that Frenchman’s strictures about individualism and its potential for organizing humans into the greatest productive force ever assembled on this Earth. And Ford’s achievement was based on a clearly articulated theory. “History is more or less bunk,” the auto-maker said to a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1916. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” 1
A history reinvented each day is no history at all, of course, at least not in the usual sense, with all it implies about the narrative chain of cause and effect that binds the present inextricably to the past. And that belief in necessary cause and effect is precisely what Henry Ford is calling “bunk.” We want to live in a kind of perpetually self-renewing now, which residency would have come as no surprise to Tocqueville and what he thought democracy had in store for us: “Thus not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries …” 2 That forever present condition of the individual is precisely what Henry Ford depended on to create a modern industrial work force — not people enmeshed in tradition or each other’s affairs, least of all union affairs, but individuals unfettered from the past, whom machine-made prosperity would turn into believers in Ford’s evangel. What he built, then, both the cars and the factories that produced them, might be thought of as forgetting machines — industrial works that became so successful as to make Ford’s point about the “bunk” of history seem self-evident. 3
As is often noted, Ford’s genius lay not in great acts of invention — unlike his hero Thomas Edison. Ford’s genius was for putting together things that others had thought of. And by the time he began work on the moving assembly line in 1913, the ground in this country, literally, had been well prepared for his insights. The history of America — which was written by those who arrived here, rather than the native peoples or people brought forcibly here, who mostly couldn’t write and whose records, like their history, were destroyed — that history is a history like Ford’s. It’s a centuries-long exposition of mapping and re-mapping, as if the land the newcomers confronted were a blank slate, endlessly renewable, for the purposes of drafting whatever propositions seemed best at the time. And whatever got in the way was reduced to bunk, with the city — our kind of city — being both the ideal and justification for all the forgetting on which this vast project depended.
Where “nothing” existed before, then, we were free to plan as we saw fit, getting it right this time, in a way that the old world, mired in history and tradition, could never do. Our cities came into being first as designs — as contracts with some higher ideal that entitled us to do whatever it took. Thus liberated from history, these urban idealizations had embedded within them their own inevitable undoing. Nothing real can ever live up to ideal standards of perfection, so that all our cities in a sense have been cities/not — forgetting machines always already sabotaged by history. But that would come later.
With each new map of forgetting came the exhilaration and freedom of Henry Ford’s “bunk.” The plans of colonizers would vary, with French, Spanish, Dutch and British models each having their distinctive features. But one crucial element is common to all these national-colonial projects, and that is the erasure of any existing history that might otherwise need to be accommodated. The mandate of a higher purpose — whether God or king or profit — rendered invisible the claims of natives and their ways of organizing themselves, including the great city plans of Mesoamerica. And so the settlements that resulted are each a “city on a hill,” to use a phrase from the gospel of Matthew, applied famously by John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered while he and his fellow colonists were sailing to the new world in 1630. Winthrop was a puritan, intent on creating a model that would become an example for the purification of the old world, specifically the English church. “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,” he wrote, “when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us…” 4
This designer project would carry us forward across the continent, through war and strife to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and beyond. In each iteration, the supposed superiority of the design entitles the designers to certain unalienable rights to make bunk out of other people’s history (as well as their own), with results both disastrous and sublime, from the genocidal elimination of native peoples and the enslavement of others to the creation of a republic that remains a city upon a hill, albeit one of frequently conflicted purpose. But a “beacon” nevertheless.
In this connection, Henry Ford was merely extending the great design project that brought us here. He applied to individual life the kinds of forgetting technologies that have informed our national agenda. He literally retooled the city upon a hill for a new kind of mobility. The cars he built, and the roads created to serve them, radically remapped the cities that had existed before, as if exposing some heretofore unrecognized design fault, which revealed as bunk — or city/not — the claims of old ways of living and moving through the world. And to do his work and to buy his cars, Ford required a new kind of redesigned individual. This, perhaps, is his greatest insight. “Henry Ford had once been an ordinary automobile manufacturer,” E.L. Doctorow writes in Ragtime, where he imagines Ford’s feelings as he watches the first Model Ts rolling off the assembly line:
Now he experienced an ecstasy more intense than that vouchsafed to any American before him, not excepting Thomas Jefferson. He had caused a machine to replicate itself endlessly. … Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture — not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts. 5
Ford was a master designer of forgetting machines. The cars allowed owners to forget their place in the old order of things, and to value mobility for its own sake — a mobility that the “five-dollar day” now made available to Ford’s workers, who had become “themselves interchangeable parts.”
Ford’s labor force was monitored for acceptable behavior, both inside and outside the factory, with prompts provided by a manual that laid out the terms of eligibility for employment and participation in the profit-sharing plan that was the basis of the five-dollar day. The title of the Ford manual clearly indicates the project at hand: Helpful Hints and Advice to Employes [sic] to Help Them Grasp the Opportunities Which Are Presented to Them by the Ford Profit-Sharing Plan. The scope of Ford’s oversight, through the agency of the “sociological department,” was comprehensive, extending from job performance to domestic arrangements, and addressing such topics as banking, home economy, insurance, education, mastery of English and use of a toothbrush. The proposal was couched in blandly paternalistic terms:
The Ford Motor Company hopes through its profit-sharing plan, to help uplift humanity, and make better men of its employes [sic]; raise their moral standard through better surroundings, and foster habits of thrift, to provide against sickness or any misfortunes that may befall them or their families. … Almost every country on the globe is represented among the army of workers in the Ford Plant, there being no less than 53 distinct types of nationalities among its employes [sic]. The task of acquainting and getting each employe [sic] imbued with the idea and spirit of the Company in this work is therefore a large and slow one. 6
Whatever the various “distinct types of nationalities” before, each man now became an interchangeable, standardized product, empowered by Ford to make something of himself. And the proof of that design lay in the results — a level of prosperity once unimaginable to those willing to submit, although the price of submission, day to day, could be extreme. “‘It’s worse than the army, I tell ye — ye’re badgered and victimized all the time. … A man checks ’is brains and ’is freedom at the door when he goes to work at Ford’s.’” 7 Thus the testimony of two workers talking to Edmund Wilson when he visited the Ford plant in 1932. As their statements make clear, the forgetting involved was always more virtual than real, at least in the lives of individual humans, but there could be no disputing the larger results produced by the forgetting machines and the Fordism they brought forth on a national scale. The kind of city that results and the life it imposes on those now trapped inside it are another matter.
Borderama, the Tailfin, and the Return of the Repressed
I remember as a little boy an advertising campaign created by Chrysler Corporation for their 1957 model lines. “Suddenly, it’s 1960!” the ads breathlessly proclaimed. My dad managed a car dealership, so I came naturally by my interest in things automotive. But it was more than that. This proposition had immediate relevance to Americans’ situation generally, it seemed to me. It was the same year the Soviets launched Sputnik; we were trying to get ourselves into the future — first. Just imagine: a consumer purchase could provide the precise time travel we were struggling to achieve, offering a three-year jump on the next guy. Not surprisingly, the ads, like the cars, were a huge success. And also examples of a self-demolishing potential built into our cities and the economic system that supports them — the potential referred to by the economist Joseph Schumpeter as “creative destruction”:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation — if I may use that biological term — that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. 8
So, Amazon drives the neighborhood book store out of business, just as the iPod renders your Walkman obsolete; and similarly, extrapolating from Schumpeter, the tailfins on the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere — “the only car that dares to break the time barrier” — made the body style of your serviceable ’49 Ford seem embarrassingly old-fashioned. As J. Bradford DeLong points out, commenting on Schumpeter’s theory, capitalism is consequently and inherently unstable; it is always producing winners and losers on both small and large scale, together with disproportionate inequalities in wealth; and it is these inequalities that are incompatible with democracy:
Capitalism … inevitably generates these mammoth inequalities through creative destruction. The combinations of market economies and political democracies that we see today in the richest countries in the world were, Schumpeter thought, unlikely to be stable. No country that wanted to see rapid economic growth could afford to remain a political democracy for long. 9
Schumpeter described, in the economic sphere, the tendency toward instability and self-destruction analogous to what Tocqueville saw, in the political sphere, as the tendency of individualist democracy; again, “Individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtues; but in the long term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally be absorbed in selfishness.” 10 Play this out historically, and what you end up with is the city/not of Detroit, a place that only looks like a city, but that has exhausted all remnants of civic virtue, just as it has been reduced economically to rustication.
But cities are always being torn down and built up, from ancient times to today, and in all parts of the world. What makes our American cities exceptional, and perhaps none more exceptionally representative than Detroit, is the historical mandate we have granted ourselves. We are in pursuit of a design, with the city (upon a hill) being only a means to an end rather than an end in itself, so that our cities, more than any others, are subject to a kind of intentional undoing that sets us apart. “[T]here is something fleeting about the American city,” as Witold Rybczynski says,
as if it were a temporary venue for diversion, a place to find entertaining novelty, at least for a time, before settling down elsewhere. … The permanence of residence that was and is the stable foundation of European cities has always been absent in America, and accommodation to this transience has had an effect on the way that cities evolve and are altered. … Sometimes the past is impatiently discarded, sometimes it’s resurrected, sometimes it’s ignored, but throughout the making and unmaking of cities, there is evidence of a constant striving to correct and improve, of an attempt finally to get it right. 11
Our kind of city — deprived of any virtuous, public sphere, and subject to the ongoing disruptions imposed by a capitalist economy — is inherently a city/ not, with some places — the so-called cities that work — merely being better at disguising their true nature than Detroit, which is the most unabashed of American sites.
The city as a whole, then, can be seen as a gigantic forgetting machine, the purpose of which is to make people forget that they ever needed it in the first place; residents find the city useful, even necessary for a time, “before settling down elsewhere,” as Rybczynski says. It is not where we live any more, at least not the majority; the old central city hasn’t been a destination for almost 40 years, having lost out to suburbia by the 1970 census, the culmination of a seemingly inevitable convergence of forces. Henry Ford built the cars and the consumers to drive them, and the federal government paved the highways and created the Federal Housing Administration, all of which are informed by the same design principle, which is the built-in obsolescence of the city.
So the downtown department store buys suburban land and develops the first shopping center, with money financed by the largest bank in town. The city votes to tear up the old trolley tracks in the name of modernization. Downtown firms realize the problem clients have with parking and relocate to the edge city. Factories need to modernize and expand, the old vertical structures no longer being practical, so they too move out. Levittown beckons, and people follow. And it all happens in the name of a superior design, in the same way the tailfin taught people to think themselves into the future, to “break the time barrier,” and discover the undesirability of the old model. Pretty soon, the evidence is clear, proving we were right to take off, as the city tax base shrinks and the schools decline in quality; the downtown department store gets shabbier and shabbier and finally closes, with only the suburban incarnations surviving; and the old neighborhood turns out to be a place where nice people don’t think of living any more.
We’re still seeking that city upon a hill, in other words, it’s just not located where it used to be, so that perhaps the most distinctive feature of American city-making is the border between city and not-city. The uncanny representations of Detroit are no accident. Things that might otherwise seem unthinkable — the wholesale abandonment of urban wealth and the abandonment of people trapped inside the city exposed to unprecedented poverty and violence and all the ills of a systematic and vicious racism — these are made to appear spectacularly inevitable here, and also irrelevant just because they are here. Detroit is a site both to confront our problems and also to get over them. Not a real place, but an ongoing borderama that marks the boundary between real and not-real, things with consequences and those that will have no consequences. In that space, we are allowed to forget — opportunely — the spectacularly repressed truth that the way the rest of us live is the way we choose to live, and that the cost of our individual happiness is one we are willing to impose upon others. In the city/ not, anything goes, and everything can be seen no matter how frightening because none of it seems to matter. If it did, wouldn’t somebody have done something about this national disgrace?