Just finished Fordlandia, an unbelievable history of a settlement created by Henry Ford in the Brazilian Amazon. The author, Greg Grandin, tells the story of how Ford decided it would be a good idea to create a model city in Brazil that would provide him with ample supply of rubber for his auto tires and parts. In the end, Ford lost on both accounts–the city was hardly a model and it never produced enough rubber to make the effort worthwhile.
My last post on Crash Course was pretty hard on the unions. Turnabout is fair play. Fordlandia presents a Henry Ford that allowed his Michigan plants to devolve into mini-societies where bosses tortured and killed (literally) employees. Known in a good light for the five dollar a day wage campaign, much of the largely hidden story of how Ford let workers be treated is told in Grandin’s book. The old saying, “you get the union you deserve,” is relevant here. Troubled by how things were developing in his older factories, Ford turned to model city efforts where he could remake his factories and the societies around him. “Starting from scratch” allowed him to avoid any responsibility for creating the conditions that troubled him.
So, like so many other men who think they can conquer anything, Ford financed and built a settlement in Brazil along the Tapajos River. The settlement would clear rainforest, grow Hevea (rubber) and export it back to the U.S. Ford sent a litany of his best managers to the area and all of them failed. If you’ve read one of these stories, you know the basics. Ford managers ignored local cultures, didn’t consult experts, paid no attention to warnings, and tried to impose an Americanized lifestyle on a people that had lived a very different life. After riots by workers, unusual climate conditions, and bad seeds, it was the caterpillars and leaf blight that ended up dooming the effort. After more than 12 years!!! This company (that we just bailed out) spent what must be equivalent to hundreds of millions today to build a city in the middle of the Amazon. There are lots of ways to cut the lessons in this book. And there are obvious parallels to recent and not-so-recent American foreign policy.
But what am I left with? Just this: Ford was a dangerous man. Grandin describes in detail Ford’s ties to Nazis, his anti-Semitic beliefs, his hatred of FDRs policies, and his willingness to experiment with the lives of other men. That last one is perhaps the creepiest. His little effort in Brazil was ultimately a challenge to determine whether the people he believed were unsocialized could be “tamed.” He paid little attention to the details of the rubber planting, but took great interest in whether the workers had social activities, gardens, and other amenities straight out of Leave it to Beaver. Ford was certainly odd. He could barely read. Consequently, he was disdainful of books (reading was like a “dope-habit,” he said). He hated cows(!) and preached the gospel of soy. Yes, soy. Grandin doesn’t describe it, but I bet Ford had really, really long fingernails.
Fordlandia isn’t the title just because it is the name of the town Ford envisioned. It’s also the name of the bizzarro world Ford was living in. Ford believed his own press. He created a car, an invention that changed our fate as nation, and it seems that for the rest of his life he was determined to try his hand at changing a society’s fate again. If only he had spent his time trying to create the “flux capacitor!” Instead, he experimented with others’ lives as if they were machines. At his core, Henry Ford believed he was a God-like manager.