Q&A with Greg Grandin on Fordlandia
What is Fordlandia and why have most of us never heard of it before?
Fordlandia was the name given to the American town and rubber plantation built by Henry Ford in the Brazilian Amazon, on an area of land he had acquired that was about the size of Connecticut. Most biographies of Ford ignore it, perhaps because it is such a strange tale, though I think it in fact captures the essence of Ford, tying together all the many threads of his life.
How did you first find out about Fordlandia? What about this story made you realize you wanted to spend years researching and writing the book?
I kept reading references to Fordlandia in books on the Amazon and always wondered why there wasn’t a full-length history of it. The story is usually mentioned in passing, as an example of hubris or arrogance, but never explored at length. Some while ago, Eduardo Sguiglia, from Argentina, wrote a novel based on Fordlandia. I remember reading somewhere that Sguiglia had set out to do a nonfiction account, but the evocative nature of the tale led him to fictionalize the story. It’s a great novel, but I thought perhaps this was one of those cases where history could be stranger than fiction.
You have visited the overgrown remains of Fordlandia in the lower Amazon twice now. What does it look like today?
It’s beautiful. It takes about a full day to get there by boat from the nearest provincial town, up a broad river where every bend reveals the same green wall of trees. Then finally, after about sixteen or so hours, you turn a corner and there is this enormous water tank rising from the jungle canopy. The houses where the Americans lived seem like they could come from any Midwestern small town, except they are derelict and abandoned save for some pretty scary bats.
The old hospital, designed by the architect Albert Kahn, is fascinating, still filled with metal and glass medical equipment, which in the thirties was state of the art but now seems vaguely menacing—like something out of The Island of Dr. Moreau! The sawmill and powerhouse and other workshops could be from Ford’s lumber operations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and they are still filled with lathes and other industrial tools and even a few rusting Model Ts. And many local Brazilians live in the worker bungalows, built in a kind of Cape Cod traditional style, and keep flower gardens in front—much the way Ford required them to do many years ago. They changed the names of the streets though, from Riverside Avenue, Main Street, and Hillside to more properly Portuguese names.
Beyond the economics of securing a stable proprietary source of rubber for his factories, what were some of the other motives you unearthed about Ford’s massive investments in the Amazon?
“Why?” is the million-dollar question, or in this case, the quarter-billion-dollar question, which is the amount Ford poured into the project, adjusted for inflation. The initial reason was to grow rubber to bypass a proposed British latex cartel. But by the time the project got under way, the economic logic had changed. The price of latex had collapsed. Yet Ford ignored all advice and went forward anyway. And the more the project failed, the more money he plowed into it. My answer to that question was that Ford was less motivated by having control over yet another raw material than he was by a restless dissatisfaction with the way things were going at home.
Ford, the man who unleashed the power of industrial capitalism by perfecting the assembly line, spent most of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle, to tame the forces he set loose and re-create the small-town world his factories had largely destroyed. He tried doing this by founding a number of so-called “village industries” in the United States, small factories powered by hydroelectricity manned by “mechanic-farmers.” But through the Roaring Twenties and then the depressed thirties, Ford found himself frustrated on one front after another, as well as implicated in many of the vices he condemned. He even proposed building a seventy-five-mile long “ribbon city” along the lower Tennessee River (which in fact became the model for the TVA), which would be dedicated to these small-town principles and populated with artisans and craftspeople. When he was denied the opportunity to do that, he turned to the Amazon.
During your visits there you were able to meet a few Brazilians who had worked at Fordlandia during its heyday. What do they have to say about its impact on the Amazon, and how do they remember it today?
Nearly everyone I spoke to who worked for Ford, or had family members who worked for him, recall the company with affection, highlighting its good wages and medical care. And they all say that the reason why Ford closed operations was because his son, Edsel, died, which prevented him from visiting the plantation. Lots of small businesses in the region have taken the name “Ford”—there’s a Ford Barbershop, a Ford Restaurant, and closer to the region’s provincial city, a Ford Brothel.
In your last book, Empire’s Workshop, you wrote extensively about U.S. military intervention in Latin America, yet here you document an ostensibly well-meaning example of U.S. corporate investment in the region. Were you surprised to find few examples of cloak-and-dagger politics or U.S. interventionism tied to Fordlandia?
I like to think of it as a kind of kitschy Heart of Darkness, where instead of unleashing lethal racism, as in the case of the Congo and Kurtz, the enormity of the Amazon provoked a kind of nostalgic homesickness among the Midwesterners Ford sent down to build and run the town, a yearning not so much for a disappearing Amazon but rather for a receding America—which the Ford Motor Company played no small part in dispatching.
Besides being the story of Fordlandia, this book is also a fairly thorough biography of Henry Ford, who as it turns out was a fierce and outspoken pacifist, opposing World War I when this was an unpopular position to take. Why do you think there are fewer antiwar figures among the corporate titans of today?
I think it was a different moment of history, when the organization of society was still very much subject to debate. Prior to World War I many people leaned toward pacifism, and nearly all of the world’s great religions, including heartland Evangelicalism, had strong antimilitarist traditions. What is fascinating about Ford is that he thought intensely about the problems that his industrial method produced, and was committed to proving that you could have capitalism and even expansion without militarism.
You write about how Henry Ford pioneered the system of high-wage industrial labor in the United States—in fact he raised wages for his factory workers during the Great Depression. What were some of the contradictions or darker aspects of Fordism that you dug up in your research?
In a way, the explanation for Fordlandia can be found at the intersection of Ford’s unparalleled economic success—the Model T, the River Rouge, the Model A, all those things that made him one of the richest men in history—and constant political frustration. Starting with his bid to keep the United States out of World War I, all of Ford’s many schemes to reform America failed. By the early twenties, even the famed liberalism of his Five Dollar Day had given way to the brutality of Harry Bennett, who terrorized Ford workers. As a result, Ford’s early optimistic modernism increasingly turned darker, veering ever more toward his infamous anti-Semitism and a broad cultural critique of what was wrong with the world. He began to believe that America’s—and the world’s—best future resided in returning to small-town virtues of the kind he hoped to create in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.
It seems as if the American auto industry may be on its last legs, and many blame the arrogance of the owners and managers of the Big Three. Does the experience of Fordlandia foreshadow this at all?
Fordlandia does speak to a different moment when industrial production was imagined as an integrated system, in which high wages not only ensured worker loyalty but enlarged markets—symbolized in Ford’s famous idea to pay workers enough to be able to buy the products they made. But it also documents the beginning of the transition away from that model, when the move overseas would begin to erode the link between wages and markets.
Despite the fact that wages at Fordlandia were higher than anything else in the region, retaining employees was a huge challenge, with turnover as high as 300 percent in the early years. Why was this?
There was nothing to buy! Consumerism is a key element of early Fordism; again, paying workers enough money in order to be able to buy the products they produce, which served as an incentive to keep up with the pace of the assembly line. In the Amazon, though, there was little reason why workers would agree to submit, as one person in the story put it, to the “365-day machine.” So Ford opened shoe stores, ice-cream parlors, and other places where employees of Fordlandia could spend their wages.
Conditions at the Fordlandia settlement became so untenable that a riot erupted in 1930 among the entire workforce, with workers chanting “Kill all the Americans.” What were the underlying causes of the riot?
Being forced to eat brown rice and whole wheat bread, which Ford insisted on as part of a healthy diet, was bad enough. But when a manager from Dearborn’s River Rouge plant arrived with the idea of doing away with table service and having workers line up cafeteria-style—in effect implementing a Ford-style assembly line—simmering resentments came to a head. The deeper cause of this and other riots, knife fights, and strikes at the plantation were related to trying to force industrial regimentation on a population long accustomed to setting their own work rhythm.
Yet despite these conditions, you write that “Henry Ford’s vision of an Emersonian arcadia rising from the jungle canopy, though preposterous, now seems relatively benign.” What do you mean by that?
Many of Ford’s “utopian ideas”—from his Five Dollar Day to square dancing—were directed at trying to find a balance between community and industry. He also had a strong conservationist streak, pioneering what now would be considered sustainable logging techniques in his northern Michigan lumber mills, techniques which he tried to apply in the Amazon. Even if to us some of his ideas seem harebrained, underlying them was at least an honest grappling with the human and natural costs of industrial capitalism. Today in the Amazon there is a much more savage capitalism—mostly in monoculture plantation production but also in logging and timbering—that destroys the forest and human communities alike, which accounts for the widespread nostalgia that many in the region have for Ford. Ford loved soybeans—he spent millions and millions of dollars on trying to find industrial uses for soy oil and soy meal, believing that increasing demand for the bean would help revive struggling farm communities. But today in the Amazon, the fast extension of soy plantations not only has led to widespread deforestation but has literally wiped hundreds of villages and towns off the face of the map.
Why did Fordlandia ultimately fail?
There were two great waves of failure at Fordlandia. The first was social: Ford’s attempt to raise an American town and impose his brand of Puritanism on Brazilian workers, for example, or enforcing prohibition led to a series of revolts and riots. Rather than Our Town, the early years of Fordlandia seemed more like Deadwood, with brothels, gambling halls, and bars set up around its periphery. After a while the company managed to establish control, but then nature rebelled: by ignoring expert advice and planting rubber trees close together—as a way of replicating industrial mass production in the jungle—Ford effectively created an enormous incubator, as bugs and fungi reproduced like wildfire to repeatedly lay waste to the plantation.
What, if any, are the modern-day parallels to this failed American utopian adventure in the Amazon?
I would hope the book nurtures some skepticism of the kind of technological utopianism that underwrites much of America’s self-understanding, the blind faith that endless growth and expansion can be promoted, and that whatever social or ethical problems that arise as a result of that expansion could be solved by new technology. Likewise, I would hope the story of Fordlandia illustrates that debates over foreign policy often have as much to do with domestic issues as with whatever issue is actually being debated. Ford’s obsession with raising America in the Amazon had almost nothing to do with the Amazon itself. And not unlike the recent debacle in Iraq, the more Fordlandia failed on its own terms—that is, to grow rubber—the more the project was justified in idealistic ones, as a civilizing mission.