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Between Myth, History, and Foregone Conclusions

George Baca

Over the past four decades, politicians and government ofcials of the so-called advanced industrial countries have scaled back state-sponsored programs in education, healthcare, welfare to the poor, and housing subsidies. In conjunction, international economic organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have imposed fiscal policies upon developing nations, which disadvantage the poor by retrenching public services. These broad level shifts in the global political economy have been legitimized through a planetary newspeak that centers on such buzzwords as globalization positing a new economy, which require flexible and multicultural identities (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2001). In this way, free trade advocates naturalize these political processes with reductive biological models of society that often assume an autonomous individual, as Kapferer discusses in his contribution to this forum (see also Taussig, Rapp, and Heath 2003). Many self-identied leftist anthropologists working in the United States have tried to explain these political changes with the concepts of Fordism and exible accumulation, resulting in ahistorical analyses that conate the political experiences of the United States with diverse European and Asian countries. Moreover, they seek to explain such phenomena as deindustrialization and the growing integration of the global political economy with terms and assumptions based in the mythological discourse of American nationalism, which identies a few decades as the entirety of American history (Di Leonardo 1985). Such analyses sensationalize the current round of reactionary policies by depicting them as either a break, rupture, or retrenchment of the assumed ideals and virtues of the North American version of the welfare state. In this article, I critically evaluate the usefulness of Fordism and exible accumulation in regards to the contemporary context. Specically, I focus on the way that geographer David Harvey (1989, 1996) has used these two concepts to provide a sweeping account of the global political economy during the
Social Analysis, Volume 48, Issue 3, Fall 2004, 169178


George Baca

second half of the twentieth century. Harvey deploys the idea of Fordism in a way that idealizes the postwar politics in advanced capitalist countries and conflates the varied and diverse postwar experiences of Japan, the United States, and various European countries into a singularif not mythiccatchall category of Fordism. Further, I examine a number of inuential anthropologists working in the United States, who uncritically adopt Harveys concept of exibility as if it were an axiom; they apply the term in ways that suspiciously converge with American nationalist discourse and universalize the particularities of the American experience. Accordingly, Harveys thesis has served as an engine for the crystallization of the Fordism idea, having been uncritically adopted in distilled form by many anthropologists, who cite it as the authority on political economy while neglecting the specic local, regional, and national histories in the United States. I argue that the analysis of the contemporary political processes in the United States, during the era of globalization, should be compared and related to the specics of anticommunism and imperialism that shaped its postwar welfare state. A closer look at the historical development of the American welfare state will reveal that the devolution process represents many continuities with so-called Fordism and its concomitant welfare policies. Moreover, the uncritical adoption of Harveys theory of exibility has contributed to many alarming misconceptions about the nature of the political processes in the United States.

Fordism and Flexible Accumulation: A New Axiom

In the late 1980s, Harveys publication of The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (1989) redened debates in the social sciences. He problematized the popularity of postmodern theories and how they celebrated subjectivity, difference, dissonance, and the fall of grand narratives. Moreover, he argued that rather than gaining analytical purchase on the present era of capitalism, many postmodern theories reflected, and were conditioned by, a new phase of capitalism. Harvey, thus, presented the theory of exible accumulation as an analytic framework for understanding, among other things, the relationship between the then current academic fashions and the structure of global capitalism. Accordingly, his sweeping argument forced scholars to rethink the relationship between academic trends and global political economy. Harveys analysis begins with an ideal type of Fordism, which he employs to provide an all-encompassing account of postwar political strategies in diverse European countries, the United States, not to mention Japan. Accordingly, he argues that Fordism emerged when managerial strategies and state powers combined to stabilize capitalism:
The problem of the proper conguration and deployment of state powers was resolved only after 1945. This brought Fordism to maturity as a fully edged and

Legends of Fordism


distinctive regime of accumulation. As such, it then formed the basis for a long postwar boom that stayed broadly intact until 1973. During that period, capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries achieved strong but relatively stable rates of economic growth. Living standards rose, crisis tendencies were contained, mass democracy was preserved and the threat of inter-capitalist wars kept remote. (1989: 129)

Harveys model aggregates the experiences of distinct countrieslet alone regions within these countriesinto a catchall category of advanced capitalist countries. Moreover, he uses the ideal of Fordism to capture the essential features that distinguishes these countries from the developing world. It is from this modelwhich metonymically takes parts of each countrys political economy for the wholethat he dramatizes a gradual shift in the global system, which he locates in the crisis of 1973. Accordingly, Harvey holds, exible accumulation emerged as a whole set of processes that undermined the Fordist compromise (1989: 145), as capitalists responded to new global conditions by downsizing certain production sites and moving to areas of the world with lax worker and environmental protections. Such economic restructuring coincided with policy changes whereby the national governments cut back the hallmark social programs of the welfare state. These changes in industrial organization and government provision, Harvey argues, were designed to intensify rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation, produced exible accumulation as representative of a new moment in the history of capitalism. Thus, for Harvey, exibility refers to new forms of power over workers, what he characterizes as undermining the Fordist compromise between capital and labor that developed after World War II. Despite many qualications about antilabor practices, militarization, and the imperialism of Fordism, he unwittingly idealizes the welfare state of Europe and North America by contrasting it with the enhanced powers of exibility and mobility, which allow employers to exert stronger pressures on labor. He concludes that [o]rganized labor was undercut by the reconstruction of foci of exible accumulation in regions lacking previous industrial traditions, and by the importation back into the older centers of the regressive norms and practices established in these new areas (1989: 147). On the one hand, it may be surprising that Harvey should come up with such a positive conclusion regarding Fordism. On the other hand, it is less surprising due to the fact that the upheaval of the 1960s passed him by; he had faith in the British state, as he explained candidly in a recent interview:
I was always kind of left leaning, but in the 1960s in Britain, you could be sort of left-leaning, but you didnt have to be radical in any way, because the Labour Party was there, and a lot of us had faith in the Labour Party and its transformative capacities I went to Baltimore in the wake of the 68 uprising, riots, whatever you want to call them, around the death of Martin Luther King, and I was shocked at the conditions I found there. I was really, really shocked that in the wealthiest country in the world, people live in chronic impoverishment. I was really upset. So I started to participate much more in the political activism around that Some of


George Baca

us sat down and read Marx, and I found it a very compelling framework within which I could formulate problems, think through things in terms of my intellectual work. It was also increasingly helpful politically. (Kreisler 2004: 2)

In addition to its idealism, Harveys concept is especially problematic when it confronts empirical examples. In his Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (1996), he writes about an industrial accident in a poor rural town Hamlet, North Carolina. It is puzzling that Harvey draws his empirical example of the dismantling of Fordism from an area of the United States that did not experience the hallmarks of this system of accumulationunionism, largescale industrialization, and the other embodiments of working class power. He sidesteps this crucial point by incidentally mentioning that North Carolina has long had the habit of openly touting low wages, a friendly business climate and right to work legislation which keeps unions at bay as the bait to pull in more and more manufacturing employment (1996: 336). Ignoring this history and reducing it to a mere habit, Harvey moves on to describe a cataclysmic industrial accident, at least by the standards of any advanced industrial country (1996: 335), which occurred at the Imperial Foods chicken-processing plant. He asserts that the labor and health regulations did not meet the standard of any advanced industrial country, because exible accumulation strategies have dismantled many of the forces and institutions of working class power, resulting in this raw capitalism of a particularly exploitative sort (1996: 338). In this way, he misrecognizes a very old form of industrial organizationone that has dened Southern industrial development after the Civil War (Carlton 1982; Carlton and Coclanis 2003; Cobb 1987; Wood 1986). Southern industrialists have long promoted the very labor practices that Harvey calls the new phase of exible accumulation. These historical errors illustrate the way in which the term Fordism reies postwar political processes and gives the welfare state a coherence and solidity that it never attained. By employing the ideal of Fordism as if it were an analytic framework, Harvey has short-circuited important questions about continuities between welfare capitalism and exible accumulation. The limitations of his framework have prevented him from discerning that Fordism existed as an ideological claim, which industrial elites used to rebuild national economies and imperial holdings from the wreckage of World War II. Historical scholarship on the politics of the 1930s and 1940s illustrates how many of the contemporary aspects of the welfare state, and its vaunted compromise, were rooted in the brute strength of militarization (Klausen 1998; Kryder 2000), anticommunism (Dudziak 2000; Plotke 1996), and racist policies (Reed 1999). From the standpoint of historically informed analyses, we can better understand that the postwar welfare state was a complex ensemble of disciplinary strategies that directly led to the very upheaval that Harvey limits to the early 1970s. In this way, he ignores the serious historical question of how each political and economic regimenot just the exible regimereformulates the relationship between individuals and the state.

Legends of Fordism


Ideals of Fordism: The Forgone Conclusions of Flexibility

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, Harveys theory is helpful to the degree that it forces anthropologists to relate ethnography and local history to national and global political economic forces. In some respects, one may compare Harveys inuence on anthropological theory and methodology to that wrought by Wallersteins world-system approach of the 1970s. The manner in which anthropologists have received Harveys concept of exibility, however, exposes a telling difference. During the 1970s, anthropologists critically adapted Wallerstein as local and regional experts tested his theory; this critical reception is exemplified by Mintzs (1977) classic review of Wallersteins The Modern World-System (1976). Mintz praised Wallersteins synthesis of European military and economic expansion, the integration of diverse economic zones throughout the world into a single system of trade, and the growth of the European national state into a systematic theory. However, Mintz also pointed out that advances in Wallersteins synthesis would require criticisms from regional specialists, and specialists in particular historical periods, who will be able to use their detailed knowledge to test and improveor disprovethe sweeping and lucid conceptual devices the author is developing (1977: 253). By subjecting this theory to analyses of empirical evidence from the Caribbean, Mintz exposed inaccuracies in that Wallerstein collapsed the Caribbean and Latin America, along with most of the non-European world, into the category periphery. Notwithstanding, Mintz found the postulation of world system salutary because it forced anthropologist to raise their eyes from the particulars of local history. But equally salutary is the constant revisiting of events on the ground, so that the architecture of the world system can be laid bare (1977: 255). Two decades later, anthropologists have become more reluctant to rene critically the sweeping theories of globalization and exibility than they were when encountering the world system and dependency theories of the 1970s. Instead, many anthropologists have adopted Harveys concept of exibility, failing to test its premises empirically. Thus, his claim that a new phase of capitalism materialized in the 1970s has been accepted at face value.1 Anthropologist Aihwa Ongs well-received Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (1999) illustrates this tendency. She embraces the thesis of exible accumulation as if it were an axiom, stating: In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey identies exibility as the modus operandi of late capitalism. He distinguishes contemporary systems of prot making, production, distribution, and consumption as a break from earlier, Fordist model of centralized mass assembly production in which workers were the mass consumers of their products (1999: 3). Following this law-like pronouncement, Ong is free to describe the experiences of upper class Chinese immigrants, living in Northern California, as embodiments of new forms of citizenship. In this way, deductive explanation substitutes for historical specicity:


George Baca

In the era of globalization, individuals as well as governments develop a exible notion of citizenship and sovereignty as strategies to accumulate capital and power. Flexible citizenship refers to the cultural logics of capitalist accumulation, travel, and displacement that induce subjects to respond uidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions. In their quest to accumulate capital and social prestige in the global arena, subjects emphasize, and are regulated by, practices favoring exibility, mobility, and repositioning in relation to markets, governments, and cultural regimes. (1999: 6)

Accordingly, Ongs analysis fetishizes novelty by insisting that the experiences of her informants represent new cultural logics of a new age of globalization, which in turn she proclaims to be the outcome of new strategies of exible accumulation, before nally concluding: New strategies of exible accumulation have promoted a exible attitude toward citizenship Transnational mobility and maneuvers mean there is a new mode of constructing identity, as well as new modes of subjectication that cut across political borders (1999: 1718, emphasis added). Consequently, Ongs fascination with newness precludes a historical understanding of this contemporary matrix of citizenship, capital accumulation, and global migration. When concepts of globalization, such as that promoted by Ong, fail to relate change to continuity they celebrate what Trouillot has called newness in ways that silence much of world history (2003: 47). Drawing on Mintz (1998), Trouillot argues that recognizing earlier global ows need not result in the contention that nothing has changed. On the contrary: [B]y helping us screen out that which passes for new and may actually be quite old, the reference to a massive empirical record of ve centuries highlights the more profound changes of our present. Having discovered the silencing of the past on a world scale, we are better poised to discover the production of silences about our present (ibid.: 4748).

Devolution and the Increasing Power of State Regulation

Ong is joined by other anthropologists working in the United States who have adopted Harveys theory of exibility. Theories of exible accumulation and globalization are very popular in intellectual circles, in part, because they resonate powerfully with the experience of many academics who have watched their governments permit deindustrialization and cutbacks in social services. Thus, the ideal of exibility captures important aspects of the dynamic changes that have reorganized urban environments in the industrial northeast region. This period of change, since the early 1970s, has coincided with anthropologys growing interest in the study of the United States. Over the past decade, anthropologists working in U.S. cities have produced an exciting corpus of ethnographic data on poverty, power, and welfare reform (Goode and Maskovsky 2001; Kingsher 2002; Morgen and Maskovsky 2003; Susser 1996). Their analyses have debunked mainstream policy paradigms responsible for pathologizing

Legends of Fordism


the poor; the ethnographic evidence generated by these studies illuminates the manner in which political power legitimizes the increasing numbers of poor people in the United States. Judith Goode and Jeff Maskovskys edited volume, The New Poverty Studies: The Ethnography of Power, Politics, and Impoverished People in the United States, showcases this rich ethnography and represents the contributions such eld research can make to rene the historical specicity of a general paradigm. In addition to rich ethnography, these studies have attempted to relate ethnographic accounts to broader arrangements of power by focusing on the 1996 welfare reform: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Consequently, many of these anthropologists have contextualized their analyses of poverty within the globalization paradigm in order to theorize connections between welfare state restructuring, economic restructuring, and global economic shifts (Morgen and Maskovsky 2001: 317). Like Ong, they draw on Harveys concept of exible accumulation, as if it provides the theoretical link between ethnography and welfare reform. Accordingly, Morgen and Maskovsky argue that welfare reform embodies class warfare, what they call aspects of the post-Fordist strategy of exible capital accumulation (ibid.: 321). This approach, therefore, contrasts the present anti-poverty policies to an ideal of welfare. As a consequence, the authors accept the federal states self-presentation that welfare was a well-intentioned program designed to eliminate poverty, and hence unwittingly present a rosy picture of welfare and deemphasize how welfare policies were intended to regulate the poor more so than they were to regulate capital (see Piven and Cloward 1971). As a consequence of these authors failure to analyze the anti-poverty policies in terms of power, they produce a view of the scaling back of welfare as devolution (Goode and Maskovsky 2001), which becomes, in turn, a metaphor that dramatizes the manner in which the federal government has scaled down the welfare state. As Bourdieu (2003) has argued, the state projects that created compulsory education, public health policies, social security, and poor relief, were first and foremost strategies for regulating the working class. Moreover, recent curtailments in state funding for these projects also mark continuity with regard to their regulatory intent. Instead of seeing devolution as a fundamental aspect of state power (Diamond 1951; Corrigan and Sayer 1985) that reveals critical aspects of the continuities in the expansion of power as regulatory mechanisms, the authors see what they term devolution as if it were a specific characteristic of the post-Fordist state, which depoliticizes the welfare state and further misrecognizes the production and transformation of state power as regulatory mechanisms for the distribution of resources. This formulation poses two fundamental problems First, it takes provision of welfare as the key characteristic of the state; and, second, in the use of devolution as a metaphor for this betrayal, it promotes the view that devolving power to state and local authorities is a contradiction to the welfare state, and, therefore, as an attribute that can been taken as a key characteristic of the post-Fordist state.


George Baca

Harveys idea of Fordism misconceives of the state by viewing it as an empirical given; by assuming that the curtailment of social policies previously promoted by the state as a regulatory mechanism, the state can be represented as withering and weakening. Goode and Maskovsky are thus left with a presentation of the federal state that reproduces the ideological version of state agencies, as an empirically singular, coherent, project rooted in popular sovereignty. In contrast, sociologist Abrams suggests that the state is better seen as an ideological project when he notes: The state, in sum, is a bid to elicit support for or tolerance of the insupportable and intolerable by presenting them as something other than themselves, namely, legitimate, disinterested domination (1988: 76). Therefore, devolution of federal power has a much wider relevance than can be revealed by analyses that concentrate merely on the cut backs in the federal budget. Rather than seek to understand how these changes have reworked the relationship between the state and its subject population, Goode and Maskovsky join Harveys chorus as they charge industry with abrogating the Fordist contract with labor by downsizing rms and relocating manufacturing offshore. In this way, they present the view that this shift began a political and ideological assault on unions, civil rights, on environmental and other regulations, and on the Keynesian policies that had previously sought to regulate the economy with public investment (Goode and Maskovsky 2001: 5). To conclude, I argue that the political and ideological assault on the unions began with the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts, and that the assault on Civil Rights was contained within the implementation of policies by federal laws in a way that demobilized black progressive politics (see Reed 1999). Moreover, Keynesian policies sought simultaneously to regulate the poor, working people, and capital, such that the now much lamented passing of the welfare state, was a system of regulatory mechanisms that produced an immense consolidation of power and wealth in the U.S. As we lament the passing of the welfare state, we must recognize that the production of theory and the method for analysis and understanding of the subtleties of continuity and novelty in transformations of globalization cannot be achieved by circling around the exible post of an idealized Fordist compromise.

I thank my new colleague at Goucher College, Nelly Lahoud, for a trenchant and charitable reading of an early draft. In addition, Jason Antrosio, Pamela Ballinger, Robert Beachy, Victor Braitberg, Bruce Kapferer, Sidney W. Mintz, Boris Nikolov, Janet Shope, and Brackette F. Williams gave me valuable advice on very short notice. Despite my criticism of David Harvey, I wish to note my gratitude to him, as much of this critique derives from the many valuable lessons I learned from his classes as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. I alone am responsible for any remaining errors.

Legends of Fordism


1. For critical treatments of Harveys concept of exibility, see Amin (1994).

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