Nativism, Universalism and Capitalism: Ambivalent Combinations

Michael Blim

The story was buried on page 24 of The Financial Times: “US Carmakers Step Up Russian Drive.” Ford and General Motors are the leading car sellers in the new Russia.

20071016wp_cars_500Inwardly, I rejoiced. Maybe American carmakers, via foreign markets at least, can survive. While losing billions at home, they are making money in practically every other market where they compete in the world. Toyota, in other words, maybe number one, but abroad General Motors is its equal, and Ford is not far behind.

I checked myself. Whence the rejoicing? Though nominally American firms, they are multinationals. They are letting go tens of thousands of American workers, and cutting production in the states while expanding production abroad using foreign workers and managers. Their stocks are held by persons, funds and trusts from around the world. Their managements are tied to their firms and not to the nation. They still have an interest in recapturing the American market from transplanted foreign producers, but as opportunities change, what one could call their “loyalties” are in practice are shifting.

Why am I still a booster? Take Ford. Its founder, the first Henry Ford, was perhaps a genius and revolutionized factory production around the world. Lenin, for instance, was a great believer in the Ford’s theories of production. Until the Japanese introduced group tasking, absolute quality control on its factory floors, and just-in-time inventory supply in the sixties, Ford’s assembly line model reigned worldwide. Practitioners sought only to improve its efficiency. Nothing before the Japanese – not unions, strikes, and liberal-social democratic governments – could stop the industrial Leviathan unleashed by Ford.

Screenhunter_2Yet Ford, genius or no, was a disreputable character. He was a vicious anti-Semite. He personally published a newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, whose attacks on Jews were circulated worldwide, particularly in prewar Germany, according to Robert Lacey in Ford: The Men and the Machine (Ballantine Books, 1986). He reprinted millions of copies of the fraudulent Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a pamphlet apparently authored by the Tsar’s secret police that claimed to reveal a secret Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christianity and take over the world. Textual analysis of Mein Kampf suggests that Hitler may have used Ford’s anti-Semitic articles in its drafting. Ford’s bid for national power via a presidential run foundered, as his incapacity in public speaking eventually did him in.

Ford was the last major automaker to recognize unions and agree to labor contracts. His close assistant Harry Bennett consorted with the Mafia, buying them off with money and food concessions at Ford plants. Mafia thugs were employed to squash the union movement. In the famous “Battle of the Overpass,” Walter Reuther and scores of union activists were brutally beaten by Mafia soldiers employed by Ford through Bennett. The beatings of union organizers and sympathizers in Ford’s plants continued for two years. In Bennett’s view, unionists were conspiracy-making Jews, “war mongers and mongrelds (sic).” For Ford, Bennett played both sides. He was in frequent contact with J. Edgar Hoover, who in their correspondence regarding combating unionism wrote: “Dear Harry: I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your fine cooperation.” (Lacey, 391)

So this was in part the Ford for whom I rooted. This is the heritage of his family who still controls the company and of his firm. And herein lies the dilemma of at least the part of the American left of which I am a member. Solidarity with American workers requires compromises. As the union compromises, so must we, for the jobs of tens of thousands of workers, their families and their futures that are at stake. Even the firm’s economic gains in Russia, though made without American labor, are helping the firm avoid bankruptcy.

What if Ford were to fail? A Toyota or another foreign producer would doubtless pick up the pieces, cutting out of the firm’s carcass yet more domestic jobs and more household livelihoods. And Toyota does just fine in America without union representation for its workers, though the union has fought hard for it.

Vietnam_factory_workersYet solidarity with workers worldwide, from weavers in India to carmakers in Brazil is crucial too. If the world is to emerge as a fairer place, their struggles are our struggles. Their victories advance justice worldwide.

Hence the ambivalence. One can surely support both workers at home and abroad. But the paramount interests of multinationals and national champions from other lands finally force a Hobson’s choice. At each juncture in the growth of the world economy, there are choices, largely controlled by the multinational firms. The development of international union solidarity is developing slowly, evens as the multinationals like Ford race ahead. Big capital says: choose bread for one which means no bread for the other.

American politicians, when it is convenient, stoke the fires of nativism, as they can pick up votes from groups ranging from unionists and protectionist liberals to conservatives and America-firsters. One must never under-estimate the self-interested demagoguery of a corrupted and frankly ignorant American political class.

Even as my rationality enables this column, the ambivalence stimulated by the FT story reveals in me a problem I have yet to solve. I don’t suppose I am alone.

Universalism may seem a thin gruel on this cold day. But it is a premise I live with as I along with so many embark on a search for solutions.