Latin America: Fordlandia – The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

The past ten years in Latin America have witnessed a major shift to the left in both the halls of government power and society. Since the turn of the century, ten different Latin American nations elected leaders who campaigned on platforms to end destructive neo-liberal economic policies, resist US imperialism, provide more opportunities and freedoms for a majority of the population through socialistic economic policies, and work for justice through investigations into human rights violations committed during dictatorships. From Honduras to Argentina, and Chile to Venezuela, to varying degrees, presidents followed through on their campaign trail promises, transforming the continent’s political landscape and challenging Washington.

At the same time, the George W. Bush administration became known for largely the opposite of these policies and values. Some of his notable stances included justifying war in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, cracking down on civil liberties and pushing forward on free trade agreements and neoliberal policies around the world. The contrast between Bush and the presidents of Latin America was stark, and resulted in a flurry of newspaper articles and books seeking to explain Bush’s imperial designs, the leftist trend in Latin America and the dynamics of US-Latin American relations.

Fordlandia

In Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, published in 2009, Grandin focuses on the fascinating and hubristic adventure Ford sets out on in the Brazilian Amazon. Ford’s interest in the region began because he needed rubber to make tires and hoses for his cars, but the industry was monopolized by European producers working in Asia. After investigating the matter, he decided to try and grow his own rubber in the Amazon. He bought up a large area of land in the Amazon in 1927 about the size of Connecticut and established Fordlandia, a town with a rubber plantation, logging operations, a movie theatre, a golf course, tennis courts, US-style homes, fire hydrants and sidewalks. Ford also outlawed drinking, as in his US factory towns, made gardening mandatory and had weekly town dances organized.

At the height of his political and financial powers, Ford attempted to replicate his version of American, small town values and assembly line techniques in the heart of a South American jungle. Grandin’s exhaustive work sheds light on the prospects of the American dream, imperial hubris and the nature of capitalism. He writes that it was Ford’s intention to use Fordlandia as “an example of his particular American dream, of how Ford-style capitalism — high wages, humane benefits and moral improvement — could bring prosperity to a benighted land.”

Ford’s Amazon experiment cost him millions, and became known as a complete failure both in its functionality as a factory town, and its ability to produce rubber: blight, the forces of nature and a lack of expertise – Ford refused to hire a rubber-growing expert – contributed to the collapse of the rubber crops.

But it wasn’t Ford’s failure to hire botanists and rubber experts that led to Fordlandia’s demise. Ford’s ultimate arrogance, writes Grandin toward the end of his book, is not that he “thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.” This belief manifested itself in number of emblematic ways.

Ford exported not just his vision, but the actual nuts and bolts of what he believed were the most effective components of an efficient workplace. Once a water tower was built in Fordlandia, his office called for a whistle to be attached to it. The whistle, which could be heard for miles around, was set according to the work day schedule. The first whistle of the morning was blasted when the jungle was often still covered in mist. By the time the second whistle sounded, “the morning sounds of the forest would give way to the noise of waking families, women grinding manioc, and the chatter, first subdued and then playful, of assembling men…. Time cards were punched, ignitions turned, instructions given, and the workday commenced.”

Many of the workers who arrived at Fordlandia weren’t accustomed to such structured work patterns – or avoided such structure in other jobs. It was no surprise then, that when workers organized a riot that was finally sparked in the cafeteria, the clocks were some of the first items destroyed. The clock, in this case, symbolized the assembly-line mentality that dehumanized the labor of workers in a repetitive fashion.

As Fordlandia offers a critique and explanation of the powers of capitalism, its publication – like that of Empire’s Workshop – was timely. It coincided, in 2009, with the US economic crisis and the collapse of various sectors of the US auto industry. By focusing on Ford and his unusual jungle experiment, Fordlandia exposes the philosophy, promise and peril behind much of American capitalism. Not only is it an impressive work of history, it is a fascinating and entertaining book that is hard to put down. With Grandin’s exceptional story-telling skills and nuanced analysis of imperialism and capitalism, Fordlandia and Empire’s Workshop untangle the some of the complicated webs that bind North and South America together.

Benjamin Dangl

Reviewed: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009)

Benjamin Dangl is the author of the new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, 2010), and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.

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