Moral Ideology II: Henry Ford, An American Totalitarian, Research Time, 19/06/2014

Continued from previous. A key feature of totalitarian politics is the horizontal enforcement of social control, when your friends, neighbours, co-workers, and family members serve the same function as the police. You can be denounced from anywhere, corrected by anyone. And because enforcement of a moral ideology can come from people in any aspect of your life, it opens up every aspect of your life for scrutiny. Morality is universal, so it should inform all your activity. The greatest sin for a moral person, after all, is hypocrisy.

These passages from The Prison Notebooks find Gramsci discussing the terror of total control rather than horizontal enforcement. I suppose the real horror-show for the latter wouldn’t come until the Cold War, when the secret police would blossom as an institution around the world. 

Until then, we have Antonio Gramsci describing the framework of total social control, particularly how some management techniques developed in the capitalist enterprises and political movements of the 1920s and 30s practice it. A disclaimer first. I do not intend to compare the people I am about to discuss to the Soviet and eastern European secret police institutions. That would be terrifying, even though these people have well-known historical reputations as America’s greatest jackasses. But one can identify the same phenomenon occurring differently in varying political and historical contexts. This is what political philosophy is all about, tracking the commonalities and divergences in human arrangements. 

Gramsci himself was a radical anti-capitalist, and much of his life was taken up with political activism whose goal was bringing about a communist revolution across Europe. Yet the fascist police institutions that ultimately killed him came to define the political movement in which he played such a major philosophical role. With that said . . . 

Henry Ford, forerunner of surveillance in
American private enterprise.
No model displays totalitarianism in private enterprise better than Henry Ford and the business philosophy, appropriately called Fordism, that regimented workers’ activity in the production process more than had ever become necessary. We all learned about the basic idea of Ford’s production model in grade school: concentrate the entire manufacturing process in a single massive plant, arrange the construction of goods on an assembly line where workers would perform a single basic task only. Gramsci correctly and obviously analyses this manufacturing system as making human workers into mechanisms. 

The Fordist model of production makes its workers into elements of the factory itself in ways that would not be acceptable today. Ford and his company’s agents even attempted to police the activities of workers off the job, controlling every aspect of their lives, surveilling them to make sure the only places they ever visited were their homes and the factory. The mechanistic man was to have no respite from surveillance and discipline. Workers would devote themselves to their roles in the machine, because they would be trained to embrace them. 

This is another way in which, without saying their names, Gramsci engages with the contemporaneous political philosophies of Filippo Marinetti and Ernst Jünger. Their ideas emerged in the wake of the destruction of the First World War, a post-humanist philosophy that made mechanized technology the future of humanity, whose ethical goal was purging humanity of empathy, and purging human society of nature and organic existence. This era’s philosophy of Futurism was a vision of the Machine-Man.

At the time, Ford’s control of every aspect of their workers’ lives was interpreted largely as an expression of the puritanism whose most obvious voice was prohibition. But Gramsci sees an economic motivation. Puritan activists like the radical temperance movement, whose greatest success was the nationwide prohibition of alcohol across the United States, were themselves largely motivated by Christian values of extreme moral purity. But the prohibition of alcohol is remarkably useful law for hyper-controlling businesses like Ford.

Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, capturing the essence of
the drive to make machines of men.
Workers, even at the relatively high pay scales of Ford’s plants in the context of a society with no minimum wage, were still relatively poor compared to the upper classes of the American economy. During prohibition, it was largely only these wealthy patricians who could afford black market alcohol. Working people could not gain access to any substances or activities to help them relax. 

An entirely temperate working class could never be free from discipline, and having discipline constantly enforced by the police and corporate moral guardians of your employer would eventually wear down those constraints, and workers in the Fordist system would genuinely become machines. To Be Continued . . . 

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