Login *:
Password *:


10-03-2015, 13:40

The Fordist zenith

Social theorists, such as Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell, argued that both Communist and capitalist economic systems constituted varieties of a common "industrial society." Given the bureaucratic logic of industrial organization, liberal intellectuals explained as the Soviet regime began to "thaw" after Stalin’s death, the contending systems might "converge" on a mild sort of planned economy with a developed welfare state. Underpinning this prognosis was a form of industrial structure interwar European business leaders had termed "Fordism," a concept that subsequently migrated into postwar social theory. Fordism envisaged that the mass-production factory was at the heart of the modern economy, an impression reinforced by national industrial mobilization during wartime. As of the 1950s, Fordism entailed deploying mass factory labor at highly mechanized factories that were involved above all with the transformation of steel. For both sides in the Cold War this process seemed crucial, and annual steel tonnage measured relative success. The continuous broad-band rolling mill, developed in the United States, became the iconic component of postwar modernization for German Ruhr firms, the Italian steel industry, and the French Commissariat du plan. Until the later 1960s, Cold War economic rivalry remained a Fordist competition that seemed to turn on winning the hearts and minds of the laboring masses who were yoked to the machines and assembly lines that worked the metal.

Nonetheless, industrial relations still remained adversarial into the 1950s. Employers felt they had to restore a discipline to the factory that had been undermined after 1945; unions believed that employers were trying to reimpose the harsh authority they had enjoyed before the war. Into the mid - to late 1950s employers benefited from a robust supply of factory labor as mechanization and fertilizers massively increased the productivity of the European countryside and workers moved into urban areas - from southern Italy to the country’s north, from French and Dutch farms into the greater urban areas, then from the southern peripheries of Europe into Germany. In France, Italy, and Belgium, employers recovered the power to lay off workers who had been hired during the triumphant days of the anti-Fascist Resistance. Under the impetus of American ideas, and by means of a series of monetary reforms that ended a decade of prevalent inflation and sometimes hyperinflation, employers amended pay schemes by reducing the cost of living increases or indexation that over time leveled wage differentials. They reintroduced piecework and bonuses for production. Trade unions affiliated with the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic Parties largely concurred in this effort because they tended to represent skilled or white-collar workers whose relative wage position had been eroded by inflation and fixed-increment indexation. Communist industrial federations, in contrast, sought to speak for the less-credentialed masses and resisted wage differentiation. But while they retained working-class loyalties, they did not win more general victories.

Elsewhere, there was less resentment. Britain and Scandinavia rewarded their working-class parties with political power or shares in power; in West Germany, employers and workers made common cause in the late 1940s against industrial dismantling for reparations. Moreover, one encompassing trade-union federation, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) spoke for almost all industrial workers. The Communist regimes allowed no scope for independent trade-union action, and relied on state planning mechanisms to impose more demanding "norms" or productivity demands from above. Calculating the norms branch by branch in terms of hourly effort, work time, and wage premiums became a continual activity under the socialist planned economies. But precisely because the norms might provoke resistance if screwed too tight (as they did in East Germany in June 1953 and as Moscow warned East Berlin they would), the Communist regimes often left a lot of room for waste and slack, relying instead on Stakhanovite campaigns of socialist "emulation." Despite implicit negotiations, increasing subsidies, and assured employment, they still faced restive workforces: after East Germany in 1953, labor protests shook Poland in 1956 and again in 1970.

The balance of power in the Western workplaces began to erode in the 1960s as labor markets tightened, and there was upward pressure on wages and renewed working-class militancy. Two decades into the postwar era, the priority ofreconstruction became less urgent, the demand for present rewards more compelling. Dutch workers in 1964 and German unions in 1966 went out on major strikes; French workers briefly joined student protestors in 1968; Italian labor boiled over in its "hot autumn" in 1969. African-American labor pressed for civil rights gains in the cotton South in the mid-1960s. By this time, another great transition in the organization of work was under way. Costly coal mines and steel smelters - initially the shared achievement of reemerging Europe, the vanguard of the Common Market - would enter a period of overproduction and decline; the miners would troop dispiritedly to employment centers and no longer to the pits.

The classic European proletariat was, in effect, dissolving as Europeans groped toward a post-Fordist economy. The peasant of the Third World or the North American Black Panther replaced the industrial worker as the heroic protagonist of revolutionary change. Even as industrial labor seemed to lose its salience for Western economic progress, the lingering disputes over Berlin and East Germany seemed to be settled by Social Democratic “Ostpolitik” and Soviet-American detente at the beginning of the 1970s. The dramatic sites of Cold War rivalry moved to Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. “North-South” struggles subsumed the formerly “East-West” division and helped to reignite radical aspirations in Europe and North America among those not yet safely integrated into the capitalist labor force. These included such diverse groups as the recent migrants from the Italian south to the factories of Turin, the vastly expanded cohort of university students in Europe and Latin America, and the antiwar protesters and the African-American populations of the United States. The result was a decade of destabilization between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, as the volatility in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as well as the racial and student conflict in the Atlantic world, undermined the stalemate earlier achieved in East-West relations.

It was historically fitting that by the end of the 1960s the hearts and minds of peasants in the Third World seemed to emerge as the most dramatic ideological battleground of the Cold War. The years of Cold War antagonism coincided not just with the zenith of Fordism, but also with the final stage in the long agonizing global transformation of rural life. Just as Communism and capitalism represented different principles for ownership and control of the industrial economy, so they proposed rival policies for transforming the world’s farmers and peasants. This transition managed to frustrate each system but in different ways. Socialist prescriptions for collectivization tended to keep farmers inefficient and a source of chronic shortages more than plenty. Only opening new “virgin land” or importing grain from the West overcame their own deficiencies. Capitalist agriculture, on the other hand, with its mechanization and consolidation of holdings, made farmers so efficient that their family incomes had to be maintained by subsidy, while their surpluses were sold to the East or to less-developed countries whose subsistence agriculture was yielding to monoculture exports.46

Looking ahead a decade and more, though, we can see that the intractable difficulties of global agricultural transition and even the dramatic resurgence of peasant revolution did not spell defeat for either side in the Cold War. Rather, the transition out of Fordism proved ultimately disabling for state socialism, even as a revived market capitalism rode out the difficulties. Stalin’s successors had sought to loosen the yoke of a system that had become increasingly paranoid and repressive. They were prepared to envisage an effort to accommodate market forces in the 1960s - half-hearted compromises with planning known as Libermannism or khozraschet (autonomous firm accounting) in the Soviet Union, identified with Ota Sik in Czechoslovakia, and introduced by Walter Ulbricht’s New Economic System in East Germany. East German and Soviet planners became interested in cybernetics - both as an area to which technology might be applied and as an approach to social planning in general. In practice, however, the reforms of the 1960s ran into difficulty as the freedom to set prices or retain profits created shortages in other sectors. Moreover, they were ultimately discredited in Leonid Brezhnev’s eyes by the infectious political reforms that soon thereafter swept over Czechoslovakia.

Yet without market-based reforms - above all without the freedom to redeploy labor from older Fordist to post-Fordist employment - the state socialist economies were doomed to lag. Layoffs and, in effect, enterprise closures were excluded under socialism, which ultimately contributed to its undoing. What its major analyst has called the soft-budget constraint - never really facing a bottom line - always deferred facing up to inefficiency, redundancy, and waste and, ironically, produced constant scarcity.47 Until the mid-1970s, both social "partners" in Western Europe also tended to accept the policy imperative of assuring reasonably full employment. It was part of the postwar social contract that had secured a quarter-century of economic growth. Still, there were reality checks on economic behavior under capitalism that did not exist under socialism - preeminently a functioning price system and the presence of the market with its continuing transformative dynamic, its constant rewarding of innovation, and its unremitting constraint on a mass of employees who might otherwise believe they should continually seek a greater share of national income.

So the Cold War, which began in an age when coal and steel were the base of industrial power, continued into an era when these underlying elements - and the industrial structures based on them - no longer seemed crucial for progress. It began preoccupied by East-West issues, but concluded with problems we shorthand as North-South. (In fact, the North-South aspect was never absent from the Cold War, for stabilizing East-West tensions required reshuffling North-South exchanges and power as well.) These changes did not spell the end of American economic preponderance. The United States would extricate itself from Vietnam; accept counterrevolutionary regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean; reorganize its overextended financial leadership around a flexible dollar still necessary as an international means of exchange; and eventually by the 1980s roll back many of the remaining elements of nonmarket regulation that had emerged out of World War II. As in the 1950s, Washington would do so in a partnership with a weaker Britain, whose ideological and occasional military support still remained legitimating.

Even as these transformations took place, postindustrial society undermined the emphasis on labor and production that had characterized what the Italian sociologist Aris Accornero has written would be remembered as the century of work.48 New lifestyles, the expansion of consumption, new migrants: all dissolved this once heroic austerity. Even the shiny kitchen appliances Nixon had brandished a decade before were no longer enough - all the more since they came burdened by gender typologies that a new generation sought to transcend. The Cold War began in black and white, but ended in color. We cannot finally comprehend its totality unless we see it within the context of that halfcentury advent of mass prosperity based originally on a mass-production industry, but destined to fragment into a kaleidoscopic society shaped by migrations, job evolution, ideological reassessment, and insecurity.49