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The Collapse of America's Imperial Car Industry

Touring the American empire's ruins from Detroit to the Amazon.

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Errand into the Wilderness

It would be easy to read the story of Fordlandia as a parable of arrogance. With a surety of purpose and incuriosity about the world that seem all too familiar, Ford deliberately rejected expert advice and set out to turn the Amazon into the Midwest of his imagination. The more the project failed on its own terms — that is, to grow rubber — the more Ford company officials defended it as a civilizational mission; think of it as a kind of distant preview of the ever expanding set of justifications for why the U.S. invaded Iraq six years ago. Yet Fordlandia cuts deeper into the marrow of the American experience than that.

Over 50 years ago, the Harvard historian Perry Miller gave a famous lecture which he titled "Errand into the Wilderness." In it, he tried to explain why English Puritans lit out for the New World to begin with, as opposed to, say, going to Holland. They went, Miller suggested, not just to escape the corruptions of the Church of England but to complete the Protestant reformation of Christendom that had stalled in Europe.

The Puritans did not flee to the New World, Miller said, but rather sought to give the faithful back in England a "working model" of a purer community. Put another way, central from the beginning to American expansion was "deep disquietude," a feeling that "something had gone wrong" at home. With the Massachusetts Bay Colony just a few decades old, a dissatisfied Cotton Mather began to learn Spanish, thinking that a better "New Jerusalem" could be raised in Mexico.

The founding of Fordlandia was driven by a similar restlessness, a chafing sense, even in the good times, the best of times, that "something had gone wrong" in America. When Ford embarked on his Amazon adventure, he had already spent the greater part of two decades, and a large part of his enormous fortune, trying to reform American society. His frustrations and discontents with domestic politics and culture were legion. War, unions, Wall Street, energy monopolies, Jews, modern dance, cow's milk, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, cigarettes, and alcohol were among his many targets and complaints. Yet churning beneath all these imagined annoyances was the fact that the force of industrial capitalism he had helped unleash was undermining the world he hoped to restore.

Ford preached with a pastor's confidence his one true idea: ever increasing productivity combined with ever increasing pay would both relieve human drudgery and create prosperous working-class communities, with corporate profits dependent on the continual expansion of consumer demand. "High wages," as Ford put it, to create "large markets." By the late 1920s, Fordism — as this idea came to be called — was synonymous with Americanism, envied the world over for having apparently humanized industrial capitalism.

But Fordism contained within itself the seeds of its own undoing: the breaking down of the assembly process into smaller and smaller tasks, combined with rapid advances in transportation and communication, made it easier for manufacturers to break out of the dependent relationship established by Ford between high wages and large markets. Goods could be made in one place and sold somewhere else, removing the incentive employers had to pay workers enough to buy the products they made.

In Rome, the ruins came after the empire fell. In the United States, the destruction of Detroit happened even as the country was rising to new heights as a superpower.

Ford sensed this unraveling early on and responded to it, trying at least to slow it in ever more eccentric ways. He established throughout Michigan a series of decentralized "village-industries" designed to balance farm and factory work and rescue small-town America. Yet his pastoral communes were no match for the raw power of the changes he had played such a large part in engendering. So he turned to the Amazon to raise his City on a Hill, or in this case a city in a tropical river valley, pulling together all the many strains of his utopianism in one last, desperate bid for success.

Nearly a century ago, the journalist Walter Lippmann remarked that Henry Ford's drive to make the world anew represented a common strain of "primitive Americanism," reinforced by a confidence born of unparalleled achievement. He then followed with a question meant to be sarcastic but which was, in fact, all too prophetic: "Why shouldn't success in Detroit assure success in front of Baghdad?" We know the ruination that befell Detroit. Whither Baghdad? Whither America?

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and author of a number of books, most recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009).

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