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Review: Greg Grandin's 'Fordlandia' a story of Henry Ford's unconventional business beliefs

Henry Ford once bestrode the Western world like a colossus, a wizard mechanic whose major invention was not only the car that bore his name but the industrial system that made it all work. It was his genius to see everything whole: that workers, if you paid them enough, were also consumers; and that a factory could be a planet unto itself — raw materials in here, Model T's out there.

There was a catch, of course. If River Rouge, the gigantic Ford plant, was best seen as a single machine, then it was possible to see the men inside it as mere cogs, which could be speeded up at whim. Fordism, as Greg Grandin points out, was closely related to Taylorism, the so-called science of time management.

Ford was also, not to put too fine a point upon it, a nut, a crank, a man of profound hatreds and a growing distaste for the modern world he helped create. He was a pacifist and a war profiteer, a billionaire who longed for the simple life, a kind of libertarian and a kind of feudal lord.

He loved dancing, fighting, McGuffey Readers, soybeans and traditional American values as he saw them. He hated Jews, bankers, unions, alcohol, experts of all stripes — and cows. If he hadn't been the richest man on earth he would have been a joke.

In the context of everything he had, was and did, Ford's decision to create a vast rubber plantation in the Amazon jungle was a blip so small that one recent biographer, Steven Watts in The People's Tycoon (2005), devoted more than 600 pages to the man and his works without ever mentioning Fordlandia, the "Forgotten Jungle City."

Grandin, however, sees the Fordlandia project as a sort of Michigan in miniature.

Model towns? "I'm against that sort of thing," said Ford.

"But throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, as his village industry projects became less a realistic remedy for the dislocations of boom-and-bust capitalism and more a symptom of his intensifying obsessions, he did exactly 'that sort of thing,' " writes Grandin, "in the Upper Peninsula with his logging camps, in Dearborn with Greenfield Village, and in the Amazon with Fordlandia.''

The project made no economic sense, the price of rubber from the Far East having fallen to acceptable levels by the time Ford's men steamed up the Amazon and its Tapajós tributary to Fordlandia's rickety dock. But Grandin astutely suggests that Ford, having been stalled on a grandiose (and brilliant) plan to tame the Tennessee River, ridiculed for his beliefs (which included an unchanging line of cars) and excoriated for his anti-Semitism, saw the Amazon as a refuge, someplace he could do things his way, untrammeled by politicians and Wall Street. Well, it was his money, wasn't it?

Fordlandia, 2.5 million acres of slightly populated rain forest, was created with the same indifference to nature, human and otherwise, that led him to set up dance halls in the Michigan woods and turn his industrial empire over in large part to an unprincipled thug whom Ford found amusing.

Among the people he did not find amusing was his son, Edsel — too artsy, educated, weak for old Henry, even if he had made the boy company president. When Edsel built a headquarters for the accounting department without consulting his father, Henry tore it down and abolished the accounting department.

At Fordlandia, no experts were consulted. "Ford . . . disdained specialization and expertise," writes Grandin. That meant none of Ford's men knew anything about building in the jungle or living in the jungle; the buildings he caused to be thrown up were Midwestern style, as wholly unsuited to the climate as Ford's notions about hygiene and morals were to the Amazonians.

Nor did they know how to plant rubber trees or where to plant them. Had they known, they would not have bothered: South American leaf blight was the reason the industry had grown in Indonesia and Malaysia (using seeds stolen from wild Brazilian trees) and not in Brazil.

And the funny thing is, Ford didn't seem to care. Having decreed that the rubber plantation would exist, he never visited it, and it is unclear from Grandin's efforts whether the orders from Dearborn originated with the boss or with one of those to whom he increasingly handed off the running of his empire.

Grandin suggests that the tale he has told is the story of capitalism run amok. It is, and that's interesting. But as I read it, his tale is also one of stupidity and blundering by powerful men who valued loyalty above competence. And that, it seems to me, is a story with peculiar relevance to America in the 21st century.

David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books, 416 pages, $27.50

Review: Greg Grandin's 'Fordlandia' a story of Henry Ford's unconventional business beliefs 07/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 2:08pm]
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