Those who talk of American cultural imperialism in the contemporary world should consider Fordlandia, the subject of the book of the same name by historian Greg Grandin (H.B. Fenn). It tells the story of Henry Ford’s 1927 purchase—for the purpose of growing rubber for tires—of a piece of Brazilian jungle twice the size of Delaware. He nonetheless tried to run it like it was Michigan, complete with Prohibition, golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands and time clocks. The settlement, which was finally turned over to the Brazilian government in 1945, naturally refused to become a floating fragment of Midwestern Puritanism, and flourished for a while as a wild tropical boomtown not at all congenial to its creator-god. The story, in a gifted writer’s hands, is an epic cultural clash, now almost entirely forgotten.
On the surface the fight was complex enough: triumphant Protestant-work-ethic capitalists vs what they saw as lazy, undependable, Native Catholics. The car magnate could only impose his time-clock view of the world for so long in the lush confines of one of the world’s most complex eco-systems, but the memory of his efforts is by no means bitter among the remaining inhabitants. The Ford Corp. gave out prizes for the best home gardens, and houses there still have them. It also built a hospital and—consistent with Henry Ford’s bedrock belief that a well-rewarded workforce created markets for products, paid high wages. No wonder that one Fordlandia resident told a reporter in 1993, a half century later, that “it would be nice if the company would come back.” Today, for paltry pay, Brazilians in nearby Manaus put together products like Sony TVs and Harley-Davidson motorcycles whose components were made elsewhere: instead of America being reproduced in the Amazon, America has outsourced there. In Grandin’s conclusion, this is not progress.
The deeper battle, though, was—in effect—Ford against his own achievements. The man whose factory system broke the industrial process down to its smallest, most reproducable elements, whose mass production led to mass consumption, also broke the small-town American culture and economy he spent the rest of his life trying to recapture. Capitalism and social conservatism often travel together even though they are fundamentally and inevitably at odds—as a destroyer of traditional social order, industrial capitalism has never been equaled. Ford’s real arrogance, Grandin writes, was not “that he thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.”