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Fordism, a specific stage of economic development in the 20th century. Fordism is a term widely used to describe (1) the system of mass production that was pioneered in the early 20th century by the Ford Motor Company or (2) the typical postwar mode of economic growth and its associated political and social order in advanced capitalism.
From origins to crisis
Henry Ford helped popularize the first meaning in the 1920s, and Fordism came to signify modernity in general. For example, writing in prison in the interwar period, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci discussed the economic, political, and social obstacles to the transfer of Americanism and Fordism to continental Europe and highlighted its potential transformative power when controlled by workers rather than conservative forces. Gramsci’s comments inspired research on postwar Fordism and its crisis.
In its second meaning, Fordism has been analyzed along four dimensions. First, as an industrial paradigm, it involves mass production of standardized goods on a moving assembly line using dedicated machinery and semiskilled labour. Second, as a national accumulation (or growth) regime, it involves a virtuous cycle of mass production and mass consumption. Third, as a mode of regulation, Fordism comprises (1) an institutionalized compromise between organized labour and big business whereby workers accept management prerogatives in return for rising wages, (2) monopolistic competition between large firms based on cost-plus pricing and advertising, (3) centralized financial capital, deficit finance, and credit-based mass consumption, (4) state intervention to secure full employment and establish a welfare state, and (5) the embedding of national economies in a liberal international economic order. Fourth, as a form of social life, Fordism is characterized by mass media, mass transport, and mass politics.
The Fordist mode of growth became dominant in advanced capitalism during postwar reconstruction and is often credited with facilitating the long postwar boom. During the 1970s, however, its underlying crisis tendencies became more evident. The growth potential of mass production was gradually exhausted, and there was intensified working-class resistance to its alienating working conditions; the market for mass consumer durables became saturated; a declining profit rate coincided with stagflation; a fiscal crisis developed; internationalization made state economic management less effective; clients began to reject standardized, bureaucratic treatment in the welfare state; and American economic dominance and political hegemony were threatened by European and East Asian expansion. These phenomena prompted a wide-ranging search for solutions to the crisis of Fordism, either by restoring its typical growth dynamics to produce a neo-Fordist regime or by developing a new post-Fordist accumulation regime and mode of regulation.
The term post-Fordism is used to describe both a relatively durable form of economic organization that happened to emerge after Fordism and a new form of economic organization that actually resolves the crisis tendencies of Fordism. In neither case does the term as such have any real positive content. This is why some theorists propose substantive alternatives such as Toyotism, Fujitsuism, Sonyism, and Gatesism or, again, informational capitalism, the knowledge-based economy, and the network economy. Social scientists adopted three main approaches to identifying the post-Fordist regime: (1) a focus on the transformative role of new technologies and practices regarding material and immaterial production, especially new information and communication technologies and their role in facilitating a new, more flexible, networked global economy; (2) a focus on the leading economic sectors that enable a transition from mass industrial production to postindustrial production; and (3) a focus on how major crisis tendencies of Fordism are resolved through the consolidation of a new and stable series of economic and extra-economic institutions and forms of governance that facilitate the rise and consolidation of profitable new processes, products, and markets. However, even decades after the crisis of Fordism emerged in the mid-1970s, debates continue about whether a stable post-Fordist order has emerged and, indeed, whether Fordist stability was a parenthesis in an otherwise disorderly, crisis-prone capitalist system.
Robotic welding at an automobile plant.
Those who believe that a stable post-Fordism has already emerged or, at least, is feasible see its key features as: (1) flexible production based on flexible machines or systems and a flexible workforce; (2) a stable mode of growth based on flexible production, economies of scope, rising incomes for skilled workers and the service class, increased demand among the better-off for differentiated goods and services, increased profits based on permanent innovation and the full utilization of flexible capacity, reinvestment in more flexible production equipment and techniques and new sets of products, and so on; (3) growing economic polarization between multiskilled workers and the unskilled, together with a decline in national or industrial collective bargaining; (4) the rise of flexible, lean, and networked firms that focus on their core competences, build strategic alliances, and outsource many other activities; (5) the dominance of hypermobile, rootless, private bank credit and forms of cybercash that circulate internationally; (6) the subordination of government finance to international money and currency markets; (7) a shift from postwar welfare states (as described by John Maynard Keynes) to political regimes that are more concerned with international competitiveness and innovation, with full employability as opposed to jobs for life, and with more flexible, market-friendly forms of economic and social governance; and (8) increasing concern with governing local, regional, supranational, and even global economies.
These features of post-Fordism are unevenly developed, and there are important continuities with Fordist conditions even in the advanced capitalist economies. Post-Fordism can also assume different forms in different contexts. And although some commentators believe that post-Fordism will prove stable, others argue that capitalism’s inherent contradictions mean that it is no more likely to prove stable than Fordism before it.