Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gramsci on Americanism and Fordism

Gramsci's discussion of Fordism constitutes one of his rare extended interrogations of hegemony and historic blocs outside of Italy, dealing as it does with impact of US ascendancy and American production methods on post-WWI Europe. There are parts of the analysis, concerning the regulation of the sexual instinct, which seem odd out of context, or perhaps even passe. But, though it would seem to have only conjunctural relevance, dealing with America's move toward a planned economy during the Great Depression, several aspects of the analysis are of enduring significance, not least because of the methodology they imply.

The basis of Gramsci's analysis was that Fordism represented potentially a new industrial-productive historical bloc. As an attempt to rationalise production and resolve the dilemmas of capitalism (particularly its crisis-prone nature) within the constraints of capitalism itself, it potentially represented a 'passive revolution' that would usher in modernization without violent social struggles. Fordism, by rationalising production and subordinating activities extrinsic to direct production, enabled products to be sold more cheaply, and workers to be paid a 'high' wage that enabled them to buy the products that they made. It became the paradigmatic model for the organisation of capitalism for some decades thereafter. Gramsci wanted to know just how much Americanisation was penetrating European production methods, and its associated cultures, and how much it was related to European fascism.

He argued first that Fordism was possible to implement in the US chiefly inasmuch as the US lacked the "vast army of parasites", that is classes with no economic function, the unproductive landed gentry, clerics and middle classes, who still predominated in parts of Europe. These parasites, depending on 'rents' and 'pensions' made available to them because of the continued existence of feudal forms and cultural norms (no family member of a canon could be associated with manual labour, for example), provided the basis for the reactionary form of resistance to 'Americanisation'. The US had benefited from a rationalisation of its demographic composition, the prolonged psycho-physical adaptation of masses of people to urban living, so that it was possible to introduce Fordism without provoking moral, romantic opposition from significant sectors of the population.

In the US, because commerce, trade and transport were 'subaltern' rather than primary forms of economic activity - because, in effect, the entire life of the country was being organised around industrial production - hegemony could begin in the factory, and didn't require much political or ideological mediation. In Europe, the still acuminous weapons of the old order - the appeal to craft rights, for instance - could be wielded against industrialism. Against the Fordist dreams of super-cities, complex, grandiose fantasies of future capitalist development, there was ruralism, the exaltation of artisanal life, idyllic patriarchalism, Catholicism, simplicity and sobriety. Advocates of the latter charged that cities were sterile and unproductive: "there is love but no generation, consumption but no production". Inasmuch as cities had a much lower birth-rate, these critiques were not wholly off the mark - and this fact was itself one of the factors constantly changing the terrain in which proletarian hegemonic struggles were taking place, because lower urban birth-rates tended to result in rural workers being sucked into urban environments to which they were not acculturated, or bringing in workers of different nationalities and 'races'.

Gramsci perceived Fordism as a relatively progressive tendency away from individualism and competition, toward planning and cooperation. The question was whether the working class itself would be able to take over this trend. Corporativismo, he said, existed as a movement, and the conditions existed for technical-economic change on a large scale. However, in Italy, workers were not in a position to either oppose it or take control of it. And because of the persistence of old social forms preserved by Fascism, the tendency would be for corporatism in the form of coordination between monopoly capital and the state to simply shore up the crumbling unproductive elements rather than eliminiate them. Fordism required a certain type of structure, a certain type of (basically liberal) state, and the elimination of the old rentiers.
But under fascism, the rentiers were being protected and proliferated, and more and more machinery was being elaborated to protect the old order. In part, this was necessary because the corporatist trend operated in a situation of mass unemployment. It thus depended on certain protections for the employed to sustain conditions that would collapse if there were free competition.

The relevance of morality, sex, gender and religious coercion comes in here because, as Gramsci writes, the new Fordist order required a particular kind of person. This is why Henry Ford's interrogations into the private lives of workers was so important. Ford wanted to be sure that the worker's private life was compatible with her working life, that she had really found a way of living that allowed her to efficiently reproduce her labour in its normal state every day. Such corporate paternalism was not just tyrannical and intrusive, according to Gramsci, but an attempt to answer a problem from a capitalist perspective that will be relevant to any attempt to create a rational social order. The regulation of the sexual instinct, of reproduction, of gender relations and of one's basic 'animality' is something which Gramsci thinks is necessary and historically progressive - citing the first such regulation when hunter-gatherer societies were replaced by settled agricultural communities. Here, he seems to be influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. Gramsci's argument, though, is that moral and ethical changes which would in the past have been imposed by the despotism of the church and state, have to be undertaken on the initiative of workers themselves, or at least from within the formally 'neutral' terrain of the state. This is the only way to ensure their widespread acceptance and thus their efficacy.

But here he tends to contradict himself. He is sympathetic to feminism in one instance, resistant to sexual moralising. The next, he sees sexual openness in America as bourgeois libertinism, supports 'the family' and sees feminism as a 'deviation'. He makes some heavy weather of the idea that American workers largely backed the Volstead Act (Prohibition) - which is a hostage to fortune as it is both not wholly true and omits the impact of Christianity (rather than industrial rationalism) in galvanising support for the Act. In fact, Ford himself was very keen on preventing his workforce from being influenced by the growing sensualisation of culture, and eager to advance Prohibition and moral rectitude, which was one of the reasons for his attempt to build a little enclave of Fordist America in Brazil, known as Fordlandia. He also blames its downfall on the upper classes, whom he says is the only social group with sufficient money and leisure time to pursue drinking and free love. In light of some of his earlier writings, for example on socialist education, it's fair to say that Gramsci had a small-c socially conservative aspect to his outlook, which conflicted with his small-l liberalism, and undermined his critique of the bourgeois state and the Catholic church. He is, to his credit, critical of Trotsky's idea of militarising labour, but he also has an exaggerated worry about 'totalitarian' hypocrisy, in the sense that he believes that moral hypocrisy is principally a sin of moralising authorities under class societies, but could become general and thus only manageable through coercion in a classless society. That is to say, he worries that people will express formal adherence to sumptuary and sexual norms, but will not live them, or will consistently violate them. This seems to me to be an unanswerable fear, which isn't susceptible to disproof and can only be met with constant surveillance. There are other difficulties too. For example, Gramsci overstates the degree of rationalisation of America's demographic structure, thus missing the central role played by the petit-bourgeoisie in the reproduction of Fordist Americana. There's also no explicit approach to the issue of racism, antisemitism and anticommunism in the production of Fordist paternalism. The brutal anti-unionism of Fordist managers is discussed only in passing, in terms of the way in which horizontal solidarity between free trade unions is turned into vertical, factory-based solidarity.

Still, what is important here is how Gramsci approaches Fordism and its triumphs and challenges from manifold directions, attempting to assess every important, resonant aspect, as he sees it, of the 'historical bloc' that it comprised. He looks at the impact of wages, literacy, gender and sexual morality on reproduction, industry, political hegemony and left-wing political formation. Ideology, morality and culture are seen not as passive reflections of a dynamic economic base, but rather as formative, organising and shaping the economic base, allowing or inhibiting the process of rationalisation (or otherwise). Again, geographic variations and uneven development play a key role here, determining the pace of development and the morphology of the political terrain.

Fordism's decline has been exaggerated by theorists of post-industrial capitalism. Manufacturing and industrial capitalism retains a centrality to global production, even as its spatial dimensions and distribution have been radically altered. But let's say for the sake of argument that we operate in a post-Fordist historical bloc - that is a capitalism in which hegemony flows from the financial markets rather than the factories, and in which the whole of national and international life is increasingly organised around the model of speculation and debt. Using Gramsci's conceptual syntax, we could begin to theorise how its different aspects - wages and debt, cultural and spatial homogenisation (with specific regional configurations), sexual morality, gender and race, commodification, productive and distributive 'anarchy', etc., fit together. It would provide a productive way of dealing with socialist strategy on issues such as imperialism, sexism, 'culture wars' and immigration which don't lapse into a sterile 'politicist'/'economist' dichotomy - the sort of binary that results in the argument from a number of ex-New Leftists such as Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky that there's been too much emphasis on culture wars and not enough on 'class', as if class is a pristine category that is prior to and not lived through and composed by race, gender, culture, etc. As if neoliberal accumulation patterns don't (re)produce classes with particular cultural, sexual and regional dimensions that need to be central to left-wing composition. For my own purposes, it can help explain something about the strange, some time morbid and deadlocked, and apparently contradictory array of ideological and political forces in Britain. In particular an appraisal of neoliberalism as an historical bloc can help grasp the doomed, declining constellation of forces behind Tory England, their deep hatred for Cameron, their resentment of European infringements on the sovereign nation-state fetish, their abortive attempt to stop EU migration, and their thus far failed (but far from finished) attempt to mobilise a broad coalition behind the idea of containing Islam, supporting the troops, and preventing the dilution of 'Britishness'.